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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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… 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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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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There are more than a thousand works by the Georgian satirical cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson (1758 – 1827) in the Royal Collection. The Prince of Wales (later George IV) bought most of these, not as a connoisseur (which he was), but rather in a vain attempt to reduce the circulation – among the aristocracy at any rate, for he always bought the best examples. Queen Victoria, by contrast, adored them. We’d like to think that her reputation as a dour moralist has by now been well and truly scotched.

Rowlandson, like his exact contemporary James Gillray, was a Londoner. As an artist he was formally trained. He was a bon viveur, a prankster. Any money he had, he spent. He sometimes lived in damp and dismal accommodation. But free spirit that he was, he knew he could draw his way out of trouble when he needed to, and he did. His work wasn’t as angry as Gillray’s nor as moralising as Hogarth’s before him. One senses it was a bit cleverer than theirs; that ideas came to him more easily and simply flew off his pen as they did.

A new show at the Queen’s Gallery features around a hundred examples of Rowlandson’s works from the collection. They clearly demonstrate the scope and facility of his mind and pen. His talent as a caricaturist is demonstrated in this Hogarthian set of “types”.

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His more overtly political works take direct pot-shots at Royalty and the leading politicians and celebrities of the day (Pitt the Younger, Fox, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire etc.)

A whale swept up the Thames was making the news, detracting from the Duke of York's failings. Here he beseeches the creature to stick around.

A whale which had been beached at Gravesend was making the news, detracting from the Duke of York’s failings. Here he beseeches the creature to stick around.

The nation was fascinated by the French Revolution toward the end of a century of frequent conflict with France. Here are two examples of the same cartoon –  The Contrast – demonstrating how English Liberty was far superior to its French equivalent, very much grist to the mill. Overtly propagandistic, the uncoloured version was priced at only 3d, encouraging the widest possible distribution. Very much a you-never-had-it-so-good sentiment. This work also appeared recently at the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library.
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After Trafalgar, there was a possibility that Nelson’s body would be transferred to another ship to be transported home, but the sailors of the Victory were having none of it. No real axe to grind, this patriotic and sentimental print makes the point. Nelson’s body was conveyed in a barrel of brandy of course, but hey.

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It would another half century before cartoons like this appeared in newspapers and magazines. They were distributed individually from print shops at prices ranging typically from one to eight shillings. Collectors tended to mount them in volumes to be handed around on social occasions. Buyers and those who couldn’t afford to collect would eagerly browse the latest examples in print shop windows. The back wall of the exhibition has a selection displayed in this way to give you a sense of the print shop window. I works rather well.
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And here is a rare and interesting survival: a screen decorated with cut-outs from the leading satirical prints. The wealthy could afford both to collect prints and to cut them up.

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These examples can but give you a tiny taste of the show, for this is a substantial and important exhibition, a must for anyone interested in the late-Georgian satire boom, the likes of which were not seen again until the early 1960s.

High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson, runs at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
from Friday, 13 November 2015 to Sunday, 14 February 2016. Entrance is £10.00

Note. Included in your ticket is another quite exquisite exhibition running in the gallery over the same period: Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer.

All images courtesy Royal Collection Trust. Photos: Mike Paterson.

 

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At least two leading illustrators of Punch magazine in the mid-20th Century were warriors of World War I. Kenneth Bird (“Fougasse”) was seriously wounded in Gallipoli and went on to be the first cartoonist to edit Punch. And EH Shepard, OBE, MC (1879 – 1976), who saw extraordinary action in three theatres on the Western Front before serving in Italy.

Most of us know EH Shepard as the illustrator who gave us the Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet we all know so well, not to mention Ratty, Toad et al in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. After the war and for over 30 years afterwards, he provided cartoons and illustrations for Punch and other popular publications.

But during the war itself, during those long boring lulls between short outbreaks of terror, blood and death that soldiers know so well, he produced hundreds of sketches in pencil and ink as well as watercolours.

Shepard was born in London in 1879. In 1915, he signed up at a relatively advanced age of 35. He joined 105 battery Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), with whom he remained for the whole confict. Extraordinarily, he saw action at the Somme, Arras and Ypres (Passchendaele), virtually unscathed. In fact, he unwittingly gained a reputation for being lucky to the extent that superstitious comrades began to stick close to him. This is all the more extraordinary given that he did spells as a forward observation officer (FOO) whose survival time typically was measured at under an hour. This was in stark contrast to his brother who was killed quickly and early in the Somme campaign. At the war’s end 105 battery was fighting in Italy. By this time Shepard had been promoted to major.

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The Testing of a Patriot, 1915. Reproduced with permission of Punch Ltd.

To commemorate the centenary of EH Shepard’s joining the Great War, the House of Illustration has an exhibition of his wartime output. Amazingly, through much of the campaign he continued to do commercial work, particularly for Punch. And it’s hard to know what to think when he got a letter on the front via his wife, from his agent urging him to maintain his output! The show features a lot of correspondence, mainly between husband and wife, which reminds us of the staggeringly efficient postal service to and from the troops and also reminds us how close was the Western Front to London geographically.

No.2 Gun in Action, September 1917 © EH Shepard + IWM.

No.2 Gun in Action, September 1917 © EH Shepard + IWM.

The show also features other ephemera such as diaries, the artist’s watercolour palatte, bits of uniform etc. But mainly it’s all about the illustration. While most of it was created to amuse – both on the front and in the pages of Punch – some of the illustrations were created for strategic purposes, so we have beautiful wide landscapes with grid markings, for example.

Some of the early Punch work features propagandistic anti-German stereotyping, mostly very funny if taken in context (and possibly even if not). We have examples of caricatures of fellow soldiers, Gunner Jackson refereeing a football match is perfectly done in its simplicity, you feel you know him well. The final room features work by Shepard in the decades after the conflict. He didn’t dwell on it much – proper heroes tend not to – but he was always available to do illustrations for programmes or menus relating to reunions, some of which are featured.

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‘The accusing finger” (with apologies to Gunner Jackson) From the EH Shepard Archive, University of Surrey.

This is a wonderful exhibition which reinforces that which we already know: that EH Shepard was a massively talented illustrator who effortlessly produced work to raise the spirits of those in the most stressful circumstances imaginable, work which shines just as brightly a hundred years on.

EH Shepard: An Illustrator’s War runs until 24 January 2016.

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2016 will be the 400th anniversary of Claes Jansz Visscher’s panoramic engraving of London. Pre-fire, it gives us one of the best ideas of what London looked like in medieval times and through the Tudor era. Incredibly, it’s almost certain that the Dutchman never actually visited our city. He was very experienced in this art form and it’s thought he used secondary sources.

1280px-London_panorama,_1616cGo here for a detailed rendition of the Visscher panorama.

To celebrate the anniversary, illustrator Robin Reynolds has been painstakingly recreating the panorama for 2016. In pen on paper, it’s the same size as its illustrious predecessor, taken from the same viewpoint in Southwark and including the same distortion and visual tricks that Visscher employed.

Last week we had a work-in-progress preview of Robin’s version. I’d say it’s about two thirds done. It is simply gorgeous and will be utterly sensational when finished. There’s a very nice explanatory video from earlier in the project on YouTube. We’ll keep you up-to-date with further developments.

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Robin Reynolds

Robin Reynolds

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There is no question in my unbiased mind that our bridges on the Thames are the most interesting from an engineering point of view as well as being the most photogenic, and with magnificent variety. If you agree with me, you’ll love this new free exhibition at Museum of London, Docklands.

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Joseph Farrington, drawing; ink; wash-View of London Bridge from the South West, 1789. Museum of London.

For centuries, central London had but one bridge which joined Southwark to the City. Our next crossing point upriver was miles upstream in Surrey at Kingston. Then Westminster Bridge came into being in 1750 and the City – not to be outdone – threw up Blackfriars Bridge in 1766. From then on, there has been no stopping us. Not only do we add extra crossing points frequently to this day (with the Garden Bridge in the immediate pipeline), we seem to like bashing down, extending, widening and rebuilding existing ones. Hence our oldest surviving bridge is the exquisite stone crossing at Richmond from 1780. All the others are relatively much newer.

Apart from a large oil of Waterloo Bridge and a few panoramic items, most pieces in this exhibition are quite small, and some very small indeed. There are photographs, oils, etchings, watercolours, pen n ink, engravings. Highlights include a depiction of Blackfriars Bridge under construction by Piranesi, who never actually visited London, but had met the bridge’s designer, Robert Mylne; an ancient 1840s photograph – the oldest in the museum’s collection – of Old Hungerford Bridge, by William Henry Fox Talbot. There is a gorgeous canvas of Waterloo Bridge (1821) by Charles Deane – the viewpoint is from Lambeth and it features watermen, Thames barges and lighters in the foreground. Old Waterloo Bridge features a lot in this show; I was quite taken by the 1930s demolition photographs by Albert Linney, cited by some as vandalism by Herbert Morrison and leading to the dull but worthy bridge we know today, largely constructed by women during World War Two.

My favourites, though are featured in this post, two series of images: four river views in pen and watercolour by Joseph Farringdon from 1789/90; and three etchings by James McNiell Whistler from around 1860.

The Museum’s Estuary show last year featured at least three or four fascinating film installations. Bridge has just the one – by an artist who featured in Estuary: William Raban. This film, Beating the Bridges from 1998, takes us on a boat journey downstream through Westminster, the City and down the estuary. His filmaker’s eye shows us detail most of us miss; much of the trip’s soundtrack is provided by an in-shot jazz drummer on the boat. So it’s a work with a twinkle in its eye.

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Billingsgate. Whistler, James Abbott McNeill -1859-print /etching published 1871. Museum of London.

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Old Hungerford Bridge. Whistler, James Abbott McNeill-1861. Museum of London.

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 Old Westminster Bridge. James Abbott McNeill Whistler,1859. print; etching and dry point. Museum of London.

This is a wonderful show which you must see. I bet most of you reading this have not been to Museum of London Docklands yet. Until early last year, I was in the same shameful position. Regardless of this lovely exhibition, everyone should visit the superb institution on its own merits. A short walk from Canary Wharf or West India Quay on the DLR, it’s really easy to get to. And free.

Bridge at Museum of London, Docklands runs until 2 November 2014.

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London Historians’ Thames bridges album on Flickr.

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