Saturday, 16 May 2015

From White Horses to the shores of Tahiti

Dipping into Barbara Euphan Todd's "South Country Secrets" led me by strange association of memories from the Vale of the White Horse at Uffington to Kew Gardens and on to Tahiti.  Her narrative mentions the discovery of nine hundred old swords from the Battle of Culloden and its aftermath being used as railings round the young trees at the Botanic Gardens of Kew.    The expert who spotted them under their regulation green paint in the early 1900s persuaded the government to let him take them away and replace them with new fencing at his own cost.  

Was it the green ironwork which subconsciously called to mind the Botanic Garden's unique Marianne North gallery ?  This Victorian artist travelled around the globe through the 1870s, recording tropical plants and their habitats in vivid oil paintings, to be displayed in a specially designed gallery. 

The Marianne North Gallery, Kew
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Interior, Marianne North Gallery
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Orchids of Tropical Asia,  Marianne North
Nepenthes Northiana, Borneo, c. 1876
Marianne North, © Royal Botanic Gardens 

The impact of six hundred glowing paintings covering every wall, transports you to another world, and conjured up strange memories of the green lushness of far away Tahiti.  And it was in Tahiti that I discovered Gauguin's work (albeit in facsimile)  in the green shade of the Paul Gauguin Museum.   

Cascade at Tji Boddas, Java c. 1876
Marianne North © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Fatata te Miti ( by the sea)  Paul Gauguin 1892
© National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Bathers  Paul Gauguin
© Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Sunday, 10 May 2015

White Horse Hill, Berkshire

I am looking forward to a visit to the Eric Ravilious exhibition (curated by James Russell at the Dulwich Gallery), which includes some of his watercolours of chalk hill figures.   Meanwhile I pulled out my copy of this 1947 Puffin with its view of the Uffington White Horse, which I was taken to see as a child.

The specially commissioned cover design for Puffin Story Books is by William Grimond, who was one of the artists chosen for Kenneth Clark's wartime project, "Recording Britain"* .  It's possible that he visited the author Barbara Euphan Todd (creator of Worzel Gummidge) at Blewbury, nearby.

Eric Ravilious was taught by  Paul Nash, who took this photo on the Berkshire hillside in 1937:

The White Horse, Uffington   Paul Nash   1937
© Estate of Paul Nash/Tate Gallery London

and here is Ravilious's atmospheric watercolour of the Uffington white horse disappearing over the hilltop,  painted in 1939, also in the Tate Gallery collection (but currently away on loan).

The Vale of the White Horse Eric Ravilious 1939
©  Tate Gallery London

* the collection given by the Pilgrim Trust to the V&A.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Golden summers at Bucklebury

Gorse on Bucklebury Common  Edward Wilkins Waite RBA
©  Reading Museum

Best wishes to HRH Princess Charlotte

Friday, 1 May 2015

At the V&A: idyllic landscapes

Everywhere you are in the V&A, you can see wonderful paintings, from Corots to Constables, and on ceilings, china, chintzes and chair backs.   Here are just two of my favourites.

Fresco from the Painted Dining Room, Drakelow Hall     Paul Sandby 1793
© Victoria & Albert Museum

This fresco painting shows Dolbadarn Castle* and Lake Llyn Padarn in Snowdonia.  Sandby had published a series of aquatints of the newly fashionable romantic scenery of N. Wales in 1776, but this rustic landscape beyond its picket fence was painted 17 years later for Sir Nigel Gresley's dining room at Drakelow Hall in Derbyshire.
Every wall was painted with a landscape behind a green trellis to suggest dining in a garden room 'al fresco'.  Even the fireplace was set with stones and shells as if the entrance to a grotto.  The house was demolished in 1934 and only this one wall survives.   It is tucked away in the Fashion Gallery at the V &A Museum, with only a few 1930s photos to show the room's full picturesque conception. You can console yourself by enjoying the actual fashionable dress of the 1790s around you, as if on the way to dine with Sir Nigel.

Wall from the dining room at Drakelow Hall  Paul Sandby 1793
© Victoria & Albert Museum
*Turner's magnificent painting of Dolbadarn is in the Museum of Wales collection.

A century later, this Pre-Raphaelite painting also has classical antecedents.

The Mill    Edward Coley Burne-Jones 1881
© Victoria & Albert Museum

 I know little about this painting and almost don't want to know more so that it retains its mystery; it has a sense of Piranesi's ambiguous buildings and Wilkie Collins' elusive "woman in white".  
The sitters were the three elegant, glamorous cousins, Aglaia Ionides Coronio, Maria Zambaco and Marie Spartali. They were society beauties, art patrons, models and artists themselves, known as 'the three Graces'.   Maria Zambaco had a tempestuous affair with Burne-Jones and is the subject of several of his best-known paintings.   The Mill took Burne-Jones a decade to finish, and for me, its strange mood is summed up in his own words about his art:

 "I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light that ever shone- in a land noone can define or remember, only can desire - and the forms divinely beautiful."

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Ravaged faces - " the portraiture of loss"

We think of Rembrandt as the master painter of old age, of faces no longer young and fresh, and here are three artists who show the ravages of time, of war injuries, and of disease, in memorable portraits:  Antonio Rossellino, Victor Willing and Henry Tonks.

Antonio Rossellino's sculpted portrait of  Dr Giovanni Chellini shows the beauty and dignity of old age.   The gauntness is partly due to the process of taking a life mask for the sculptor to work from, as the subject lies prone on his back and his head is swaddled with cloth and has breathing tubes in his nostrils for the pouring of the plaster. (Cennino Cennini advises that for important sitters the plaster is mixed with tepid rose water, rather than water from the well or river: see "Il Libro dell'Arte".)  Dr Chellini was about 77 or 78 at the time,  and the young Rossellino conveys the delicate papery thinness of an old person's skin in this solid marble bust, as well as Dr Chellini's commanding presence.

Dr. Giovanni di Antonio Chellini da San Miniato   Antonio Rossellino, 1456
© V&A Museum 

"In his preaching of 'Truth to Nature' [Henry] Tonks managed to convey a moral quality, a conviction that Beauty was somehow incidental, a side product of the pursuit of Truth; that it would be a reward unexpectedly discovered in the most unpromising material, provided that we followed certain disciplines and were faithful to our experience."  Helen Lessore, pupil at the Slade, in the 1920s.

Self portrait at 70  Victor Willing
© the artist's estate   Pallant House Gallery
Victor Willing was a pupil at the Slade in the 1950s, where he met his wife, Paula Rego.  This ironically-titled self portrait was one of his last paintings,  as he died from  multiple sclerosis in 1988, aged sixty.  

Henry Tonks himself left a career as a surgeon to be an artist. He was a formidable and uncompromising teacher at the Slade School of Art, (UCL)  from 1892  until he retired in 1930.
He served as a medical orderly during WWI and as war artist at Harold Gillies' pioneering plastic surgery unit at Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup.  Here he recorded the shattered faces of Gillies'  servicemen patients in a series of unflinching pastel portraits.

To see these painfully personal, silent images, visit the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Square, London, or google "Henry Tonks", where you can read Dr. Biernoff's excellent essay.
see Dr Susannah Biernoff, Birkbeck College London, "The Portraiture of Loss", in Ampersand Magazine 2010/11 (

Advanced Dressing station in France 1918    Henry Tonks
© Imperial War Museum London

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Celebrating Shakespeare's Birthday

Johann Zoffany painted David Garrick and his wife many times.  Garrick built a Palladian-style Temple to his hero Shakespeare on the banks of the Thames at his Hampton villa, where he entertained friends.  The Temple now contains a replica of Roubiliac's full size statue of Shakespeare which Garrick commissioned for his Temple, and may still be visited today.  This painting looks rather like a stage scene than the real life Hampton, and Garrick was a master of illusion himself (the classical columns fronting his Hampton villa are not marble, but painted wood like the Drury Lane stage scenery). 

David Garrick (1717-1779) by Johann Zoffany 
© Richmond upon Thames Borough Art Collection

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Easter at Cookham

Christ Washing Peter's Feet  Stanley Spencer  1922 (John Ch. 13)
© Tullie House Museum, Carlisle

 The  Victorian balloon-backed dining chairs in this painting are from Spencer's home at Fernlea, Cookham, and the neighbours in the painting below are his sister Annie and their cousin next door.

Neighbours  Stanley Spencer 1936 
 Stanley Spencer Gallery, © estate of Stanley Spencer

 With best wishes for Easter to you all.