Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A New Beatrice

A rather lovely and hitherto unseen oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is being sold at Christie's London tomorrow 31 May. [The colours are warmer and brighter than in the photo.] Signed & dated 1869, it's one of the earliest of the subject figures featuring Janey Morris, here as Beatrice from Dante's Vita Nuova. The text top left is DGR's translation of  Dante's sonnet praising the influence of Beatrice's gentle virtue on all who beheld her:

My lady looks so gentle and so pure
When yielding salutation by the way,
That the tongue trembles and has nought to say
And the eyes, which fain would see, may not endure.
She is so pleasant in the eyes of men
That through the sight the inmost heart doth gain
A sweetness which needs proof to know it by:
And from between her lips there seems to move
A soothing spirit that is full of love... 

Though it was evidently produced for sale, and must have sold soon after completion, it is not listed in any subsequent catalogue of DGR's works, and as yet there's no documentary record of its first lucky owner.  The theme and composition recur in variant forms -  including  a watercolour with the same poem and composition but a blue dress, and the green-on-green Day Dream, with Janey perched improbably in a sycamore tree.  But it's a remarkable re-discovery and a delicately-rendered addition to the sequence of paintings based on Janey. 

sold for : £2.169m 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Women Artists and the Isle of Wight

When I was invited to visit the Isle of Wight and give a talk, I thought of a new version of 'Not Just a Pretty Face', identifying those women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle who were artists instead of or as well as being models.    Then I recalled that Anna Howitt and Barbara Leigh Smith had a sketching trip to the Island - curiously, in mid-winter - and that Barbara's parents were buried there.  So by the time the venue for the event was fixed as Dimbola Lodge, home of  Julia Margaret Cameron (whom Pamela Gerrish Nunn and I included in our Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists exhibition) it was clear there was more of specific interest to investigate. And  I've found some new avenues to explore.  Notably the artistic relationship between Cameron and Marie Spartali, who sat to Cameron for subject pictures [ Hypatia, Mnemosyne etc]  as well as portrait photos.  These, and the artists' relationship, deserve more attention than they've received, given their popularity in reproduction.  
Why these subjects, and why Marie Spartali as model?  Well,  her family had a second home on the Island, where Marie spent a great deal of time; but how well did they know the Camerons?    Some of Marie's first, and some of her last, exhibited works were of Isle of Wight landscapes, although this aspect of her extensive oeuvre has been relatively ignored in favour of the better-known (insofar as her work is known) Italianate and more obviously 'Pre-Raphaelite' figures and compositions.  There is a task here, in locating and identifying these works and in establishing more about the Spartalis' long association with Rylstone.  I hope the audience at Dimbola on Saturday will be able to assist!  

Friday, 18 May 2012

QUEEN Art & Image

At the weekend Will Self (whom I often unconsciously contract toWilf) had a rant about the Jubilee exhibition at the NPG:

The curators of this exhibition – and their hired art-critical yea-sayer, Paul Moorhouse – want you to believe that these images from six decades of the Queen's reign perform the astonishing feat of reconciling the hieratic with the hip; that the Queen and her image-makers have been engaged in a subtle equivocation between the regal demands of distance and the democratic ones of intimacy, and that these superb pictures enshrine that successThe truth is that the pictures are almost insufferably dull. If you're a monarchist you'd be better off staying at home, painting a Union flag on your living room wall and watching it dry than venturing out to see this tat. And the principal reason why the images are so banal and uninteresting is because, gasp, nobody – least of all the artists and photographers who confected them – knows the sitter at all well. At least, on one analysis that would seem to be the case: the Queen is an enigma wrapped tightly inside an ermine-trimmed robe.

Oddly for a cultural commentator, Self failed to comprehend that this is exactly the perspective adopted by  Moorhouse (the curator not some secondary hired hand).  It's a display of public images - including the informal and unauthorised - not any sort of penetrating or supposedly intimate portraiture, of a figure - not quite a person - whose face has been around and everywhere ever since we were all conscious. Think Queen Victoria, from girlhood to old age.  So it makes one address the images and their constructions.

Probably the least familiar and most attractive is an actual construction by Hew Locke, made from trinkets and tinsel and referencing both the gaudy jewels of royal portraits and those decorating santeria shrines.  In the photo it looks rather horrible but close to it is delicious.

Locke says "My feelings about the Royal Family are ambivalent. I am simply fascinated by the institution and its relationship to the press and public. My political position is neither republican nor monarchist."  And of his work in general, "It is essentially about Power – who had it, who has it and who desires it".

Monday, 14 May 2012

MONMOUTH Mark Steel & Manor Houses

One might think that the city has more variety but the country can offer comparable diversity (culturally speaking).  So a weekend begins with Mark Steel's performance at Monmouth's theatre with its antique music-hall-cum-cinema charm and and uncomfortable seats.
Being no connoisseur of stand-up, I was impressed by the length of the solo gig - nearly 90 mins each set plus interval and encore - and interested in the premiss.  Which is Steels's tour of minor, mostly unmemorable provincial towns, each duly studied with insult and affection.  Photos form the tour backdrop - Monmouth represented by a shot of the fortified medieval bridge flanked by a public toilet. Additional downbeat quotes from local guidebooks - one comparing the Skirrid to the Matterhorn - and allusion to the unauthenicated Nelson memorabilia in the town museum.  All interspersed with low-key jokes against soft targets - Ryanair, Tesco, online banking and the Coalition.  Despite effing, all rather over-amiable, but certainly progressive rather than reactionary, albeit in low-key manner.

Succeeded by a springtime walk in saturated fields alongside the river Trothy when, defeated by a washed-away footpath, barbed wire  and cows, calves with BULL, we came onto an old road leading to Treowen manor house, an immensely tall Jacobean pile dominating the landscape from afar.   The photo does not record the astonishing rear elevation,  with  three-and-a-half high floors under four dark-red sandstone gables. A wedding reception was in train on the yew-hedged terrace looking steeply down to a lake  - one of those  chance discoveries  made memorable by no previous knowledge of its existence.

Then the next day a stiffer walk up from the Wye to High Glanau, a manorhouse by courtesy, being in fact the country residence of Artsand Crafts architect H. Avery Tipping. built on an umpromisingly precipitous  site plunging westward towards Raglan.  A garden only for the young and agile - the woodland walk like two  full underground escalator flights
The gabled, slate-hung house modest and pleasing, if uninspired,  in the dream model  for wealthy urbanites, with terraced gardens lovingly restored, complete with kitchen-garden and gardeners' bothy with shining old-style  handtools.

We are all still entranced by the appeal of Edwardian / National Trust country house style. I ought to add some of Mark Steel's images of blighted suburbs, town centres and carparks and ask why  these are not made aesthetically attractive.  But I can't find those to copy.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Holy Family in the Garden of Eden

Titian’s Flight into Egypt, on loan from the Hermitage to the National Gallery, is a very beguiling picture.  The Holy Family walk gravely across the canvas, Joseph in the rear, Mary and Jesus asleep on the donkey,  which is led by a boy who must be a wingless angel, carrying their belongings.  Behind and before them is an Arcadian landscape of woodland with distant mountains and a field populated by a group of small, lazing shepherds, a clutch of sheep, a bull and in the foreground a deer, crow and fox.
At first sight it looks as if the Holy Family have mistaken their destination and are heading not for  Egypt but Paradise – the pastoral section of the scene being an invocation of the Garden of Eden before the explusion.  Or maybe the subject was changed mid-way, with the Holy Family inexplicably taking the place of sorrowing Adam and Eve. Or is the contrast carefully planned for a purpose no longer apparent? 

A companion picture hanging alongside, the assassination of St Peter Martyr by Giovanni Bellini  shows a comparable scene – two friars being knifed by thuggish soldiers in tin hats, in front of oblivious albeit symbolic  woodcutters felling trees while peasants tend sheep and cattle. But this disjunction is not so very puzzling.
Whether intentional or inept, Titian's improbable juxtaposition and na├»ve composition are to modern eyes very appealing, evoking the surprise that would have greeted the naturalism in early Renaissance painting, from viewers accustomed (as we are too) to over-conventional renderings of sacred scenes.  Proportions and placings may be awry, but one's imagination responds. Perhaps the holiness of the Family makes  everywhere they tread Elysian.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Latest from William Morris Gallery

Short update on WMG re-building following site visit this week: 
the stripping out and refurbishing of the main historic house is virtually complete (including unplanned but very valuable re-roofing) and the fit-out is beginning .  Right now the new-decorated rooms are empty and offer a wonderful feeling of space which will sadly but inevitably go when the exhibits pile in.

Two most significant improvements  -  the lift

and the basement store

pix thanks to Brangwyn Trustee Lynn Hulse
The Gallery will re-open at the end of July, even if the cafe is not quite completed.  Expect a transformation.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Flying Dutchman

I'm an ignoramus and won't attempt a serious critique but the current ENO production of The Flying Dutchman was musically thrilling and gripping through its non-stop 2h20 performance. With its combination of Demon Lover and accursed hero doomed to wander throughout eternity it's undiluted high Romanticism and I guess benefits from being played full-heartedly without much post-modern tricksiness. Traditionalists will doubtless resist the introduction of Senta when young, silently absorbing the fantasy of saving a villain's soul, not to mention a sailors' orgy with costumes and activities that interfere with the music.  But the orchestral dynamic and clarity drive through triumphantly, with an emotional coldness that sharpens the impact.