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As a great admirer of Wyndham Lewis’s art, I was delighted to see his portrait of TS Eliot at the Royal Academy of Arts, on loan all the way from Durban, South Africa.

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It is part of the 250th anniversary of the Academy’s Summer Exhibition, a retrospective being held concurrently with this year’s show: The Great Spectacle.

This painting caused great controversy when the Academy rejected it for the 1938 Summer Exhibition. Many of Lewis’s peers were incensed, including Augustus John, who resigned his membership of the R.A. over the issue. His resignation letter is also on display.
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Eliot liked the portrait, but a possible reason the work was rejected was that both artist and sitter had a somewhat jaundiced view of the Academy. There are some choice quotes here.

I’ve only mentioned Wyndham Lewis once before on this blog and then only in passing in a piece about David Bowie’s personal collection. Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957) was a Canadian-born artist and intellectual, active in the first half of the 20th Century. He served with distinction in WW1 as an artillery officer. Before the conflict he had been a member of the Camden Town Group and was active in the Vorticist movement (who expounded a sort of hybrid of Cubist and Futurist styles), being a contributor to its magazine, BLAST. Lewis was a combative critic of the intellectual Left in the 20s and 30s. In the early 1930s, like many at the time, he became admirer of Hitler, a position which had completely reversed by 1936. For the last years of his life from the early 1950s he was completely blind.

But back to the show. The Great Spectacle is indeed great and an most certainly an excellent spectacle. In the spirit of the Wyndam Lewis controversy, there is an amusing picture by Alfred Munnings (1878 – 1959, surely the best painter of horses ever) which takes the piss out of admirers of modern art.

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The inclusion of this picture is significant in that Munnings, as outgoing President of the Academy, in 1949 famously made a drunken speech attacking modern art and its practitioners. Fortunately for us, it was recorded, but the Academy must have been rightly horrified.

So two of our best painters of the 20th Century attacking the Academy from opposite directions. They couldn’t win, really. But all credit to them for showing us their story, warts and all, through this superbly curated show, necessarily chronological, but paying close attention to genre. All the British greats are there, famous and obscure, men and women: some of your favourites are bound to be there.


The Summer Exhibition 2018 itself is a joy. I hadn’t been for over 25 years, but from my dim recollection of the previous occasion compared with 2018, I’m sure that this year’s show is superior in every way. Brighter, more variety, more imagination, talent. Many pieces are political, many quirky, lots are funny and indeed, some are all three. I particularly enjoyed the humorous homages of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl, but there is so much more to savour.

A big anniversary year for the Royal Academy, and they’ve played a blinder.

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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

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London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

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Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

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South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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… is what I might have called this superb exhibition.

This coming Monday is the anniversary of the execution of Charles I in 1649 on a scaffold outside his beloved Banqueting House, the ceiling of which he commissioned Rubens to decorate with a paean to his father, James I, strongly emphasising the divine right of kings. One of Rubens’s preparatory sketches for this work is featured at the new exhibition at the Royal Academy: Charles I: King and Collector. It opens on Saturday and runs until 15 April.

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Apart from literature and to a lesser extent architecture and fashion, England lagged horribly behind Europe when it came to the visual arts, in the case of Italy by over a century. We were bumpkins. Sure, we had an appreciation for a fine portrait and used some of Europe’s top practitioners to produce that genre, but that was pretty much it. Owing to the English Reformation, religious art never took off, in fact most had been ravaged. As to myth and allegory, beloved by Renaissance princes across the continent… here we had tumbleweed.

Charles set out to change all that. Having been exposed to the collection of Philip IV of Spain on a visit in 1623 the then Prince of Wales was hooked. The Spanish king gave him century-old portrait of his ancestor the Emperor Charles V by Titian – a spectacular gift. This painting features in the exhibition, next to the famous Velázquez portrait of Philip. Charles immediately became a serious collector, determined to have a collection the equal of any European prince. Among his many acquisitions he scooped up almost the entire collection of the once mighty Gonzaga family of Mantua, notably the output of Andrea Mantegna, here represented by all nine monumental paintings of the Triumphs of Caesar from Hampton Court Palace.

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Andrea Mantegna (1430 – 1506). The Triumph of Caesar, Vase Bearers.

Naturally, Anthony Van Dyke looms large. The famous triple portrait, a guide for Bernini to fashion the king’s portrait bust; the two monumental equestrian portraits, so powerful; the artist’s self-portrait, glancing over his shoulder, anxiously it seems. All are here.

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Anthony Van Dyk (1599 – 1641). Charles I in Three Positions.

Then there are here assembled many dozens more of the king’s fancies by the leading European painters – mainly contemporary but going back 150 years – Correggio, Bronzino, Bassano, Tintoretto, Vernonese, Holbein, Durer. Galleries – notably El Prado and the Louvre, but many others – have joined the Royal Collection to bring together the best assemblage of Charles’s collection since that cold, fateful January day in 1649.

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Titian (1490 -1586). The Supper at Emmaus.

Virtually all artistic talent at Charles’s disposal was foreign, apart from Londoner William Dobson, here represented by a marvellous portrait of Charles II when prince of Wales. I always look out for Dobson, the first great English painter, who died in poverty an alcoholic, aged just 36.

For the historian, what happened next is fascinating. As we know, virtually the entire collection was sold off over the next three years or so by the commonwealth: it needed money, not fripperies. Thanks to the catalogue of the first Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, Abraham van der Doort, we know where all these pieces were kept down to the very room. Mostly it was the now long-lost Palace of Whitehall, but also Hampton Court Palace, the Queen’s House, Denmark House etc. We also know what each piece fetched at the various commonwealth sales. Each label in the exhibition carries this information. Hence we see, for example, that a piece by Correggio featuring Venus, Mercury and Cupid fetched £800, whereas another – hung here next to it – of Mars, Venus and Cupid by Veronese commanded just £11! Poor old Veronese. A religious painting from the Circle of Raphael also fetched £800 whereas a gorgeous picture by Titian – many times bigger – could only draw £150. These were substantial amounts of money at that time, of course, but the interest lies, I think, in the relative perceived merits of art at the time, by artist and no doubt also by subject.

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Correggio (1489 -1534). Venus with Mercury and Cupid.

After the Restoration, Charles II had to build from scratch the Royal Collection, including the crown jewels. How he did this is featured in a companion exhibition to this one: Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen’s Gallery.  Do go to both. They are sumptuous and wonderfully curated.


This exhibition and RA250 is supported by BNY Mellon.

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Relatively unflattering, yet Nelson's favourite, portrait of Emma.

Relatively unflattering – yet Nelson’s favourite – portrait of Emma.

The Emma Hamilton story has taken many twists and turns since her own day. Her reputation was widely traduced during her lifetime. Worse was to come during the Victorian era when our national heroes had to be seen and remembered as flawless paragons: Emma was further dismissed as one who lured a helpless Nelson to her bed. Matters improved in the 20th Century when she was represented more sympathetically by Vivien Leigh (1940) and Glenda Jackson (1973). The discovery and attendant research of many private letters about ten years ago shone more light. But still, as far as she is known at all, Emma remains simply Nelson’s mistress.

Her memory deserves better and I believe a new exhibition in Greenwich does her proper justice.

To start life as a poor girl from Cheshire and end up married to the leading connoisseur of the age and rubbing shoulders with European royalty was a massive achievement. Yes, good looks were essential to take her along that road. But equally, it took intelligence, determination and hard work to secure her place at William Hamilton’s side in 1790s Naples. This she did by educating herself in everything and more that a well-born woman would know in the spheres of language, art, science, music.  If it weren’t for the mores and the snobbery of the age, the Nelson and post-Nelson years for her would surely have been less tragic.

Yet while she did so well and achieved so much in her extraordinary life, to any observer Emma Hamilton’s story is also a heartbreaking one. Having moved to London as a teenager and based in notorious Covent Garden, Emma worked in domestic service for local families and leading thespians. Her beauty ensured additional work as an artists’ model. But falling pregnant to a typical Georgian swell with the almost comical toff name of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, she then fell under the wing and into the bed of Charles Greville. Although she saw her daughter occasionally, the girl was taken care of by others, and they led separate lives. Later on, when Greville himself sought and advantageous marriage, he virtually sold Emma on to his uncle, the aging Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples. Emma had no idea the Greville would not be following. She was distraught. Nonetheless, she knuckled down and made a singular success of her new situation.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) tells this story brilliantly. And fairly. Comprising a wonderful mix of objects, the exhibition is nonetheless dominated by portraiture, most of which is from the NMM’s own collection (it has the second largest portrait collection after the National Portrait Gallery itself). Emma was captured by many painters, illustrators and cartoonists great and small. Most prolific among these was George Romney whose portraits are the most accomplished simply because he knew her the best and was clearly smitten. She was also still young. But Joshua Reynolds had a go, as did Thomas Lawrence – not one of his best but interesting to see for comparison. Rowlandson and Gilray had their fun with her, notably the latter, who was uncompromisingly vicious. But funny, to be fair.

Emma as la Penserosa by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1792. © The Abercorn Heirloom Settlement Trustees

Emma as la Penserosa by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1792. © The Abercorn Heirloom Settlement Trustees

Dido in despair by James Gilray. The departing fleet in the background. © National Maritime Museum

Dido in despair by James Gilray. The departing fleet in the background. © National Maritime Museum

It is the Romney portraits which dominate the first half of the show and probably what one takes away. It is good that this show raises his profile, deservedly so. To what extent his Emmas are idealised is difficult to say. Certainly she was a huge celebrity model in her time, in the modern sense, pretty much. This, combined with her obsessive self-improvement, puts one in mind of Marilyn Monroe. Their fame and vulnerable position at society’s top table strike one as eerily similar.

 

The postergirl image of this exhibition. Emma as Circe by George Romney c.1782 © Tate.

The poster girl image of this exhibition. Emma as Circe by George Romney c.1782 © Tate.

The exhibition includes many other personal objects such as tea sets, frocks, jewellery, Nelson’s hair and dress coat. These are interesting, but it’s the sizeable collection of letters between our leading players in Emma’s life which give weight and balance to the whole and make it truly personal. There are also great examples of books which give a good flavour of the times. I was pleased to see copies by moralistic Georgian do-gooders Jonas Hanway (“the most boring man in London” (!)) and Mrs Trimmer.

This show succeeds on many levels. First, it gives a very balanced assessment of Emma Hamilton’s life. Although titled Seduction and Celebrity (you have to catch the punters’ eye), it nonetheless emphasises her achievement, and that is most important. It sets her place properly in the historical and social context of women’s place in late Georgian society, reminding us of the essential weakness of their position and their lot.

But if I were to describe it in a word, I would say: lavish! Beautifully designed, lit and presented. Looking back at NMM shows of recent years such as Royal River (2012) and Pepys, (2015) this is something NMM does particularly well. This Emma Hamilton show is easily the equal of those superb exhibitions.

Highly recommended.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity runs at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 17 April 2017. Tickets are £12.60 (adults, concessions apply).

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dsc05907dSetting aside not being much cop at punching other people’s dads and Tin Machinery, David Bowie was a great success at virtually everything to which he turned his hand. This is especially true of collecting art, his main private passion.

Bowie’s collection goes up for auction at Sotheby’s next week on 10 and 11 November. Over 350 pieces, comprising drawings, paintings, sculpture, pottery, furniture, installations. Virtually all forms of art are represented, but mainly 20th Century British stuff which forms the backbone of the collection. There are plenty of other forms too, for example contemporary African art. Much floor space is taken up by furniture and installations which are simply fun items: playful purchases. So, a highly eclectic group as you may expect, but the whole thing has a unity which tells you a lot about the late owner, mainly that he had a great eye and exquisite taste.

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The roll call of artists represented here – and in numbers – is striking. A partial list, here goes: Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Wyndham Lewis, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Bomberg, John Bellany. At least a dozen exquisite drawings by Eric Gill. And hey, there’s even a Tintoretto. Dozens more.

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 - 1957)

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957)

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 - 1957)

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957)

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The absolutely rock-bottom estimate for the most obscure tiny thing starts at £1,500, but the bulk of these items are expected to fetch £20,000 and more. Much more. It’s not often I curse my lack of wealth.

The auction over, the great man’s beloved collection will be cast to the four winds, so I urge you to try and get around to Sotheby’s the early part of next week. You will see wonderful modern art for free that would easily cost £15 and more in a conventional gallery exhibition. Sensational.

www.sothebys.com

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Exhibition at the Museum of London 23 July 2016 – 17 Apr 2017.

DSC04194cIt’s known of course as the Great Fire of London. So great in fact that more generally it is simply called the Great Fire. It raged for four days from 2 to 5 September 1666, destroying most of the Square Mile and a substantial area immediately west of the city wall. This being the disaster’s 350th anniversary, it is being commemorated with sundry events in many ways and places. Nobody is better equipped to deal with this than Museum of London with its vast collection of contemporary objects.

The overall design of the show is immersive and atmospheric, that is to say dark and quite noisy, but not intrusively so. This makes complete sense. The fire started at night and virtually all known paintings of it are nightscapes (at least three of which are on display). The first section is narrow and claustrophobic to give you the feel of the medieval London streedscape: it works.

Thereafter the the spaces open out to accommodate more object displays which take us chronologically through the before, during and after phases of the Fire.

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The technical stuff shows us just how pathetic was 17C fire-fighting equipment. Most risible of all were the squirts, a couple of which are on display. A beautifully-restored fire engine – also hopelessly inefficient – is one of the centrepieces of the exhibition.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

A very large proportion of the objects feature the everyday – tiles, bricks, household objects. These quite obviously resonate the most and where the museum has a huge supply, not least via years of archaeology through MOLA and its predecessors.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

There’s lots of interactivity that will prove popular with children (of all ages!). Microscopes to view in detail carbonised articles; pushbutton x-ray reveals of encrusted household objects such as locks, keys, knives; interactive computer game of saving buildings with a choice of methods – firehooks, gunpowder etc.

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane. Museum id BPL95[119] This image may be used free of charge to promote and review the Museum of London Exhibition 'Fire Fire' 2016-17. All other uses must be cleared with the Museum of London picture library

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane.

In addition, of course, there is no shortage of the paperwork: documents, diagrams, plans, panoramas, books. These could be an exhibition in their own right. And almost especially for me: old pub signs! Five of them!

The Monkey and Apple.

The Monkey and Apple.

The final phase of the exhibition shines a light on the aftermath and ramifications of the tragedy. For me and for many historians I suspect, this is the most absorbing part of the show because it reveals a clear break from many things medieval. It tells us of how Robert Hooke and his team along with voluntary Fire Judges decided who owned what;  how the leading thinkers of the day – Wren, Evelyn and others – came up with new plans for London (none was implemented: London had to get back into business asap); the birth of insurance; modern building regulations.

The Fire Judges' table.

The Fire Judges’ table.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you'd attach the badge to the front of your building.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you’d attach the badge to the front of your building.

One of Wren's drawings for the new St Paul's.

One of Wren’s drawings for the new St Paul’s.

Given the subject matter and the inventory at the museum’s disposal for a show such as this, the task would seem an embarrassment of riches for any curator. But in a way, this actually makes the task more challenging. Meriel Jeater and her team have surpassed that challenge to plan, design, assemble and deliver a wonderfully balanced and evocative exhibition of one of London’s greatest calamities. Do go.


Fire! Fire! runs at the Museum of London from tomorrow until 17 April 2017.
Tickets from £8 adults (when booked online).
More information and booking. 

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DSC03489_200David Bowie. We’re still smarting, are we not?

Our greatest rock star and the coolest Englishman who ever lived.

Yesterday I popped into this very temporary exhibition, in Heddon Street exactly opposite the Ziggy Stardust plaque. It features a selection of previously unseen portraits by three of Bowie’s favourite snappers: Chalkie Davies, Tony McGee and Denis O’Regan. It runs until Sunday.

David Bowie: Fame Fashion Photography.

Pic: Denis O'Regan, 1978

Pic: Denis O’Regan, 1978

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All the pieces are wonderful: how could they not be? But I particularly like the more informal contact sheet-style series and the informal ones rather than official photoshoot types. But how can you tell? Was Bowie always “on”, or was he simply so cool, so photogenic that it was simply impossible to take a bad picture?

If, like me, you are a bit of a fan, this wonderful show is bitter-sweet. It touches you.

There is a lovely catalogue which you can buy via donation (minimum £5, please) and all the pieces on display (and a few others) are for sale via silent auction. Bid range at time of writing £500 – £3,500. All proceeds to Cancer Research UK.

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