Sunday, 21 August 2016

Mentor to William Morris

As is well known, William Morris began training with architect George Edmund Street in Oxford in 1855, where he met Philip Webb.  Morris’s time in Street’s office  was short – in less than a year he changed  direction in favour of painting and then in 1858 he published his first book of poetry.   But during his time with Street, Morris imbibed the  Gothick Revival passion that  Street held to be superior to all others, and the correct model for his own time, not only for churches but also public buildings, as he would demonstrate with London’s Law Courts in the 1870s.    

Among other writings on architectural principles, in 1855 Street had published a book of architectural and travel notes chronicling a tour of northern Italy, which Morris no doubt read and absorbed.  Following Pugin and Ruskin, Street was already a believer in Northern Gothic or ‘pointed’ principles.  ‘As in the pointed arch we have not only the most beautiful, but at the same time the most convenient feature in construction which has ever been, or which, I firmly believe, ever can be invented, we should not be true artists if we neglected to use it,’ he wrote.  The work of Italian Renaissance architects showed ‘the same falseness of construction, and heaviness, coarseness, and bad grotesqueness of ornamentation … together with the same contempt of simplicity, repose and delicacy which we are so accustomed to connect with them.’

As a result, even when medieval, many buildings described in Street’s book failed to meet ‘true’ Gothic standards, almost as if they were exam candidates. Some passed the test, others were found wanting. This was not chauvinism, for the great cathedrals of northern France and Germany were deemed as excellent as Lincoln, Canterbury and the like,  but it was distinctly partisan, and above all romantic, as is clear in Street’s closing paragraphs:

The principle which artists now have mainly to contend for is that of TRUTH; forgotten, trodden under foot, despised, if not hated for ages, this must be their watchword.’  Whether architects, sculptors or painters, ‘let them remember how all-important a return to first principles and truth in the delineation of nature and natural forms is, if they are ever to create a school of art by which they may be remembered in another age.
    Finally, I wish that all artists would remember the one great fact which separates by so wide  a gap the architects, sculptors and painters of the best days of the Middle Ages from us now – their earnestness and their thorough self-sacrifice in the pursuit of art, and in the exaltation of their faith.  They were men who had a faith, and hearts earnestly bent on the propagation of that faith; and were it not for this, their work would never have had the life, vigour, and freshness which even now they so remarkably retain.  Why should we not be equally remembered three centuries hence? Have we less to contend for, less faith to exhibit, or less self-sacrifice to offer than they, because we live in later days?  Or is it true that the temper of men is so much changed, and that the vocation of art has changed with it?  I believe not.
This chimed with Morris’s youthful idealism, even if he had already  cast off a good deal of Street’s religious faith.  And it certainly coloured his own response to medieval buildings when he came to defend them against restoration in the 1870s. 

In like manner, Street’s critical assessment of Italian architecture surely fed into Morris’s prejudice, no doubt later augmented in reaction to Janey’s predilection for the land and the language during her infatuation with Rossetti.  When obliged to escort his family home from Italy, Morris developed a severe attack of gout, which prevented him from sightseeing, and no doubt soured his mood also.

As a coda to his Italian survey, Street wrote positively of the use of brickwork and polychrome, two features seldom seen or admired in Britain.  'It has been by far too much the fashion of late years to look upon brick as a very inferior material, fit only to be covered with compo, and never fit to be used in church building, or indeed in any buildings of any architectural pretension’, he declared.  In the Netherlands, south--west France, Northern Germany, large tracts  of Spain and throughout northern Italy, however, brick was ‘everywhere and most fearlessly used.’  And as a result of his observations, Street hoped that ‘the ignorant prejudice which made many good people regard stone as a sort of sacred material, and red brick as one fit only for the commonest and meanest purposes, is fast wearing out, and that what now mainly remains to be done is to shew how it may most effectively be used, not only in external, but also in internal works.’

This sounds like the challenge taken up by Webb, designing Red House for Morris, all in fearless red brick, including internal arches, window surrounds and fireplaces.

Street remained a friend to Morris and Webb, and one would love to know if he ever passed an opinion on his proteges’ building in Bexley.


Sunday, 14 August 2016

Foundlings and Finds

Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition for the Foundling Museum in Coram Fields by inviting [and presumably paying, thanks to the Arts Council and other donors] sixty fellow artists to contribute a work of modest size loosely on the theme of ‘found’, and distributing the objects and videos through the rooms of the Museum, which are decorated and furnished to evoke the eighteenth century Foundling Hospital on the site, which was supported by several contemporary artists including William Hogarth.

Alison Wilding Cellar Frog 
Most artists are magpies, it seems, amassing studios full of found objects that may or may not relate to art works. So some of the contributors have unearthed such finds, like a collection of dirty playing cards picked up in streets over many years, or bottle tops from more recent gutters.  Others have submitted old pieces.  Others have made or displayed new/old objects, bought from flea markets.  Some have created wholly new works.  Alison Wilding shows the petrified corpse of a flattened frog found in her cellar, 

Anthony Gormley, Iron Baby
The result is an eclectic mix held together only by the theme and the fact that most are small  – which must have been quite hard for some contributors, accustomed to working on an outsize scale.  Many are necessarily solipsistic: ‘my’ objet trouvé from the beach, this reminds me of my grandmother, I made this a long time ago, etc.  For once, Anthony Gormley has not offered an ‘everyman’ version of his own body, but a touching cast of one of his own babies, aged six weeks, apparently asleep on the cold floor of an empty side room, as if somehow forgotten.

Elsewhere there is an uncomfortable, unspoken equivalence between the long-ago children who were ‘given’ to Captain Coram’s charity by mothers who could not support them, and discarded pieces of flotsam haphazardly found in the street or seashore.   Despite the title, the Hospital infants were not ‘found’ like Mike Nelson’s battered roadsign or Ron Arad’s string of unredeemed pawn tickets.  In some respects, there is too much rubbish on view.

Foundling tokens
Nonetheless, there are resonances even in these bits of detritus.  The roadsign is to a now-abandoned village, the pawn tickets are for never-claimed items, most frequently wedding rings. And the majority share a loss of identity that mirrors the anonymity of the foundlings who, once admitted, were re-baptised with new names, to recover their own only if their mothers came to reclaim them.  To this end each infant was identified by a maternal token, many surviving in the Museum’s collection, poignant mementoes of children who never knew their parentage.

The most eloquent art works reflect this anonymity and erasure, like Parker’s own contribution, an unfinished painting attributed to Alfred Munnings, of two well-off girls who lack features, maybe because the parents refused to pay the requested fee?  Or had not the means to support such an expensive portrait, in a symbolic echo of the foundlings' mothers.   This is also an 'orphan' work in art historical terms - a painting that has lost all identity, as there is no proof it is by Munnings, and like their faces the sitters' names will never be known,
Attributed to Sir Alfred Munnings

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Christina Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne

At the end of July, a team of Swinburnian scholars organised a two-day conference at St John’s College Cambridge to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Algernon Swinburne’s notoriously pagan and pan-sexual Poems & Ballads, which shocked and thrilled  Victorian readers in equal measure, thanks to blasphemy and indecency.

It prompted me to offer a paper, remembering my research into Christina Rossetti’s life and work, when I realised that Poems & Ballads was published in the same season as her second volume The Prince’s Progress, whose reception was quite overshadowed if not wholly eclipsed by Swinburne’s collection.

The text of that paper is now  here 

I had  forgottten how the personal and poetic relationship between the two poets is a lot more interesting than might be supposed.  As the conference showed, those who study Swinburne generally ignore Rossetti, no doubt consigning her work to the Tennysonian/devotional camp.  But as contributors to the emergence of Aestheticism in literature and art, they repay attention.

The conference was full of new scholarship and insights into Swinburne's work and influence - as the
programme indicates     There is also a case display at Cambridge University Library outlined here, though it would be good if the display items were listed, as only those with access to CUL can actually see the display for themselves. It's notable for an open copy of the Saturday Review in which John Morley violently and lengthily attacked Poems & Ballads for its 'mixed vileness and childishness' - ironic when Morley later changed into one of Swinburne's greatest admirers. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Winifred Knights

Copyright the Estate of Winifred Knights 
If you've ever wondered about the artist of the compelling painting The Deluge [of which the above is a compositional study]  then the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is the place to go - before 18 September.  As well as the actual Deluge, it contains several more large-scale works - not many, as Knights's production was not prolific, perhaps because so carefully considered and prepared, but a very rewarding number that absorb one's attention.

UCL Art Museum London
They include this image, described as  Village Scene with Millhands, as if it belonged with Lowry. as indicted by the associated studies and captions, the setting is based on buildings at or near on the Herts'-Essex border, where, all along the rivers Lea and Stort there were grain mills and breweries supplying London's beer; and while some of the figures do represent villagers, most were drawn from Knights' acquaintance, with herself just behind the woman with the red jacket.  For Knights shared with Stanley Spencer - also trained at the Slade - the device of including contemporary yet timeless figures and groups without socio-historical realism.   Place and people are incidental to picture-making, even though landscape, buildings and figures are firmly positioned and delineated.
Copyright Estate of Winifred Knights

Homage to Piero della Francesca infuses the painting of La Santissima Trinita,  According to the exhibition, this has a narrative behind it, which is however irrelevant to the strange and wondrous image of Italian women resting beside a lake of sorts, with the dry hills of central Italy in the distance.  In this image, the colours are not wholly true, but one can glimpse the glow that marks the reclining figures in a dream-like landscape.  It's a miraculous piece, even more commanding than The Deluge through its stasis.

So a relatively small and extremely satisfying display.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Triangular Northants

Two very different but both eccentric and  detour-worthy buildings in Northamptonshire - which seems on the face it  a most normal central, English, unremarkable  county.  One is in Northampton itself, in an unremarkable early 19th century urban terrace of tall narrow houses.  78 Derngate has in fact a tardis-like interior, once decorated by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in most outlandish designs for the time - 1916-17 - and now restored or rather recreated *  to match the  original.
Hard to say what the most startling  -  the black-painted hall room opening from the street, stencilled with a forest of triangles and geometric trees
or the guest bedroom  with walls and beds covered in striped fabric whose design anticipates Bridget Riley's moving patterns.
Bernard Shaw, when a guest, promised his hostess that he slept with his eyes shut so would not be unnerved by the eccentric décor.
In conservation terms, the whole project is perhaps excusable.  Only a  few original features survive, including a large bath and a silvered window-pane for Sir to shave by, plus some built-in furniture and fragments of CRM's decoration.  For most of the past century the building was put to uses unconnected with Mackintosh's patrons the Bassett-Lowkes, so there was little to preserve in decorative terms, although the full-on quality of the reconstruction is rather like an architectural themepark.  and one exits into the everyday street feeling a bit weird.
* more here on the recreation

Next stop an even more remarkably unrestored building now over four centuries old, the Triangular Lodge near Rushton, built in 1593-5 by Sir Thomas Tresham.  Literally so, for Tresham designed as  well as paid for the construction, as an embodied device signifying  the 3 that both began his name (tres) and symbolized the Trinity (Donne's 'three-personed God') in the Christian tradition.
Tresham was certainly eccentric, converting to Catholicism in 1580 when to do so involved fines, imprisonment and loss of civil liberties.   The Lodge however was not created as a clandestine chapel, although its symbolism was no doubt camouflaged by its being built on a large rabbit warren, ostensibly as the warrener's bothy.
It is literally covered in triangles and trefoils and trios

plus wonderfully-carved symbols - this I believe is the hand of God coming from the Sun to bless the Earth.

There are pyramids and crockets and finials and inscriptions too from the Vulgate and Mass.  
While perhaps not as freakish in its own time as it appears today, it must have been  always unique.  And well-built, amazingly preserved - conserved one assumes since it came into the care of the Ministry of  Works - aka English Heritage / Historic England etc etc - with no need of re-making.
  In many ways the most  bizarre feature is its triangular structure, with three faces - such an unfamiliar aspect that in an unsettling experience one walks round almost seeking the fourth side only to return to where one started without finding it. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016


David LaChapelle Re-Birth of Venus
 I NEARLY MISSED  the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A owing to the publicity and reviews concentrating on its promised ‘re-imaginings’  such as this fearful example.  And so the second mistake was to allocate it only a short time in busy day.  Thus, when I finally reached its true Botticellian section, I was triply angry with the curators who had insisted we waste half our time with Warholian and worse vulgarities from the twentieth century, plus a large roomful of Victorian hommages, before encountering the real thing, in all its wondrousness.
Botticelli Virgin & Child with two Angels Vienna

From darker, sexed up spaces filled with versions, allusions and pastiches of Primavera and the Birth of Venus one passes to a white room packed with original and studio works – though alas neither of the two famous picture (that was always too much to hope for) – in a welcoming atmosphere of pictorial purity  and grace.   The large selection of religious works, many in tondo form, express a  devotional sincerity that emphasises the spiritual beginnings of European art, while the male portraits  convey the confident laddishness of young Florentine men, all swagger and style.

Botticelli, said to be Smeralda Baldinelli, V&A 
Although very Botticellian, the profile female heads seem less visually interesting - and two here are categorised as 'ideal portraits' - perhaps because they lack the direct, arresting gaze. One that does engage the viewer is that now known as a portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli, looking from a loggia window and wearing a red silk gown under and over-garment of finest gauze.  It was bought in 1867 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, via Charles Howell, as an undoubted Botticelli, which is now agreed,and played its part in the Victorian revaluation of the artist.   Ss did the emergence of the Mystic Nativity in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century.    Burne-Jones owned a workshop version of the Coronation of the Virgin, now in the Metropolitan Museum, and it is clear how influential Botticelli's spirit and style were on the later artist, represented here by Luna and Evening.

Botticelli, Pallas & the Centaur, Uffizi
The star picture is that entitled Pallas & the Centaur, with a somewhat abashed centaur having his hair pulled by a goddess of some sort, draped in olive leaves and bearing a most tremendous axe. The possibly neo-platonic allegory is still uncoded.  Typically sinuous rhythms of limbs hair and drapery are held by vertical and horizontal rocks, pole and landscape, in sober hues offset by whites, gold and the thin scarlet strap of the centaur's quiver.   It's mysterious, beautiful and quite compelling.

In retrospect  I fully understand the curators' decision to mount the exhibition in reverse order.   Had it started more conventionally with the originals, the later tributes would have seemed merely honest failures, while the recent 're-imaginings' would have aroused derisive and sometime disgusted laughter.   It all has an air of Golden, Silver and worse than Leaden Ages.


Friday, 3 June 2016

Black Faces at Kelmscott [2]

A pair of old, quite dark-looking pictures showing a cityscape bustling with townsfolk, has hung at Kelmscott Manor since the early 1870s, when Rossetti shared the house with Jane & William Morris.  They are intriguing, not least because among the scores of figures going about their business in a colonnaded street, there are a dozen or so servants and urchins of evident African ancestry.
The street has been identified as the Rua Nova dos Mercadores in Lisbon, Portugal, in the late 1500s; and the painting style as Northern or Netherlandish.  The two panels were originally  one horizontal urban view that was later cut in two, presumably for ease of transport, each half being nearly a metre wide.
Portugal in the sixteenth century was a foremost trading nation in regard to Africa and Asia, thanks to its ships and navigators, and Lisbon was the entrepot for luxury goods – lacquers, porcelain, ivories, carved crystal, silks, gemstones, goldware, tropical timber and exotic animals as well as the precious spices from the East Indies.   The painting even includes a turkey from the New World, making the Rua Nova a microcosm of what would become the global market in goods and commodities.   So it’s no surprise that Africans – who at this date are likely to have been African-born  –  are shown there, in the city streets.  Like all the figures, they are generically portrayed, distinguished by their faces and hands and clothing from the many black-clad merchants (few, if any, white women are visible, since the everyday street was a male space).
The pictures, together with a third similar townscape, which includes a mounted African merchant, are the starting-point in The Global City On the Streets of Renaissance Lisbon  edited by Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Kate J P. Lowe and published by Paul Holberton with support from the Gulbenkian Foundation. This remarkable and informative book ranges across the non-European people and objects that were to be encountered in the Rua Nova,  exploring the African presence also in contemporary documents.  
It includes an account of how the panels reached their present home, through Rossetti, who purchased them in 1866 from the backroom of a print dealer in the City of London, at a time when he was buying up antiques and curiosities for his house in Cheyne Walk.  On a cold Easter weekend, he wrote to his fellow-artist George Boyce:
"I called on you to see if you would come on with me  to a printseller’s in Bunhill Row, who has a very remarkable picture that I am in treaty for & went to look at again.  It interests me very much & I should like you to go & look at it if you are rambling that way.  It is in the back parlour of the printshop which is a interesting old shop at a corner near the Old Street end of Bunhill Row.  He will show it you if you ask to see it.  It is a large landscape with about 120 figures of the school of Velasquez – not by the great V. himself  I must needs feel pretty sure, though it is so fine it almost might be;  but I abundance of interest as to subject & in grandeur of landscape, nothing could well be more delightful.  I have made an offer which is under consideration, so don’t be too enthusiastic to the owner lest he should price his goods higher."
The dealer is now identified as George Love.  It is not known what price was paid, but within six weeks Rossetti had invited Burne-Jones to see ‘the undoubted and stupendous Velasquez’ installed at Cheyne Walk. Possibly as soon as summer 1871 it (probably in two halves) was taken to Kelmscott, where Rossetti and Janey were furnishing and decorating the newly-leased Manor, and where it would have seemed suitable for a part-sixteenth-century house.  It remained there after Rossetti left Kelmscott in 1874, thereby escaping the sale of the Cheyne Walk contents after his death, and is still in situ, although until recently its subject was as unknown as its artist.

The Global City conjectures that Rossetti was alerted to the picture in Love’s shop by Seymour Haden, printmaker and brother-in-law of James Whistler, both being in Rossetti’s social circle. Anne Anderson has suggested the tip off came from ‘the eponymous dodgy dealer’ Charles Howell, with whom Rossetti was on even friendlier terms in 1866.  No intermediary is actually required: Rossetti regularly haunted antique dealers in search of ancient furniture, paintings and especially Chinese pots.   But Howell is an intriguing idea, because he was Anglo-Portuguese and notorious not only for dubious dealings but also for unexplained travels or absences from London.   He was also a sharp connoisseur with what William Rossetti described as ‘quick and accurate discernment of the merits of works of art and decoration of many kinds, along with extensive practical knowledge of their market value’. It is possible that on a trip to his mother’s family in Lisbon, Howell obtained the Rua Nova painting and used Love’s shop to sell it on  - not as an anonymous Netherlandish work but as an unknown yet ‘undoubted’ Velasquez.  Just plausible, anyway as, even allowing for three centuries’ traffic, it is hard to guess how or when the picture might have travelled from Portugal to Britain.
The Rua Nova paintings can be seen on the website of  the Society of Antiquaries