Sunday, 22 December 2013

Georgian Absences

Banking, insurance, sugar, rum :  in many respects the long eighteenth century owes all
its economic and cultural history to the profits and products of transatlantic slavery. 
For an excellent analysis of the shortcomings of the current exhibition Georgians Revealed at the British Library ,
see  reviews by Miranda Kaufman

and Norma Clarke in the TLS 20 December 2013 [link follows]

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Morris vs. Rossetti

'They Never Throve Together' said Burne-Jones about  William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti

for my account of their friendship and rivalry, see:

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Edmonia Lewis in London


While preparing a course on women artists, I’ve recently discovered that Edmonia Lewis, the Black American sculptor of mixed African and Ojibwe descent, spent her last years in London.    No one seems to know why she came to Britain or whom she knew here.  Born in New York in 1844, she had a difficult youth until enrolled at Oberlin College Ohio during the US Civil War.  She studied art and was funded to travel to Rome, where she flourished as a sculptor, mainly with dramatic marble figures.  Some, like Forever Free  and Hagar reference her African-American heritage, others like Indian Combat and Minehaha reference her Native American roots (Longfellow’s Hiawatha being based on Ojibwe tales)  Some were portrait busts, the Death of Cleopatra a full-length reclining figure, which went to the centennial exhibition in Philadelphia and was then lost and damaged before being rescued.  Her last recorded work was an Adoration of the Magi (1883).  It’s not yet known when she relocated to London but in 1901 the Census shows her residence as 37 Store Street, Bloomsbury (age 59; birthplace 'India'!; occupation 'artist / modeller', so she was still working in clay) and  at the time of her death in 1907 she was living in Blythe Road west London.  She was buried in St Mary’s the Catholic part of Kensal Rise cemetery.  Does anyone know any more about her time in Britain?


Lizzie Siddal : Her Play

It’s bad enough when dramatisations cast actors in fictional roles who look completely different from one’s mental conception of the character, but  ‘true story’ dramas can have the complication of real life likenesses working against audiences’ visual knowledge – a fact especially true of the main players in the popular Pre-Raphaelite sitcom, which sometimes seems endlessly rehearsed.  So heartfelt compliments to the casting director and cast of the new play at the Arcola Theatre, for their vivification of the chief characters, who vividly resemble the originals and convincingly portray them.  Although Rossetti is rather taller than in life, and Annie Miller too petite, Holman Hunt, John Ruskin (with a smug, half-fixed smile) and jaunty, confident John Millais are acutely rendered and all convey a highly plausible animation, while Emma West the actor playing Lizzie Siddal, with the pearlescent skin that often goes with copper hair,  could be her double.

The playwright Jeremy Green has taken on board recent scholarship on Siddal’s artistic aspirations to give her an active role in the PRB circle.  He resisted the temptation that often makes Rossetti’s charismatic personality dominate the drama, and remarkably has drawn Gabriel as the sexually reluctant partner in the relationship (as I have always thought) albeit without quite explaining this.  The first half of the evening is high-spirited and upbeat, successfully conveying the PRBs’ youthful optimism – I particularly liked how each young man declared himself a genius – and deftly navigates the shoals of period misrepresentation.   I should confess to an offstage ‘appearance’ as a Mrs Marsh, whose grizzling twins have required nearly all the shopkeeper’s supply of laudanum, but an irritating anachronism to show it being glugged directly from the bottle.  
The true pitfall of this type of drama is the perceived need to stick to historical fact, which tends to fill the scenes with narrative, unneeded by those who don’t know the story and annoying to those who do. In Siddal’s case the great obstacle is her now too-familiar death from an overdose while suffering from post-natal depression – a truly sad and pathetic end to her young life, but one that does not contain high-tension drama.   I wished Jeremy Green had departed more vigorously from historical fact, not perhaps to ignore her death but maybe show it differently, less inevitably, less pathetically.  Or to leave the audience guessing as to whether or how far Gabriel was responsible for that fatal dose – a subject on which opinion can still be forceful.

So, a somewhat too faithful re-telling that leaves scope for further episodes in the romance.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Black Bloomsbury

THE Slade School of Art in University College London was from the start renowned for its training in expressive figure drawing and painting.  Currently in the UCL art museum [aka print room] is a small exhibition curated by Gemma Romain that plucks from oblivion a diversity of students and models. who studied or worked at UCL in the inter-war period.  The painting by Ivy MacKusick on the easel [left] is a good example of the works : an unnamed model, whose life story before and after posing for students can only be guessed at; an artist of evident talent named Ivy MacKusick whose post-Slade life and work remain unknown, as do her vital dates ; and a canvas intended only as a study in handling paint that is the sole evidence of their encounter and their lives.  But UCL should be rather ashamed of the display space, which is crowded with tall cabinets and has very limited wall space, which is moreover lit by unscreened windows - all making for unsatisfactory viewing.  A shame, because the material is varied and fragmentary, suggesting further avenues of research.    See also here for one postgraduate response.

Not in the display, but in the UCL Art Collection, are some of the remarkable portrait sketches drawn by Prof. Henry Tonks, widely credited with giving Slade students like MacKusick their rigorous training in observational depiction.  During WWI, Tonks  worked with pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, in efforts to record and repair facial injuries, Tonks bringing all his draughtsman skill to render what we'd call disfigurement in an aesthetic rather than medical/surgical manner.
Here [right] is Nigerian-born Pte.J.Williams in 1917 before treatment for the loss of half the lower jaw.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Janey Morris @ NPG and PS

well, alas, not quite literally. Even though she did believe in reincarnation, she is unlikely to have been re-born in recognisable  form just as she approaches the centenary of her death in January 1914.
This is to announce a display of drawings and photographs in the National Portrait Gallery's collection, depicting Jane, her husband and daughters, her friends and lovers - and four previously unshown images of Janey in rather funereal aspect, taken by Emery Walker at Kelmscott Manor in 1898  - funereal because it was the occasion when William Morris;' gravestone was installed in the churchyard and because despite the month of  May, it was bitterly cold and wet, the house unheated and the roads too muddy for walking

The display in Room 28  opens on 12 November and runs till 12 March 2014.  It includes two rarely-seen self-portraits by Rossetti, a fine drawing of Rosalind Howard by her husband, and several photos from Jane's own collection, including two of the self-regarding cad Wilfrid Blunt, which came from the estate of her daughter May, via May's executor who, when tasked with the disposal of what was effectively the Morris family archive, presented literary manuscripts and correspondence to the British Library, most drawings and sketches to the British Museum, jewellery and some art works to the V&A  and a mass of portrait photographs to the NPG.  
Link here  

and see here


Friday, 25 October 2013

The Black Gardener at Lambeth

The Black Gardener

Recently, the Garden Museum, located in the old church next to Lambeth Palace, has acquired a very striking painting by Harold Gilman, depicting a tall man wearing work clothes of  white shirt and  dark grey trousers, standing with a garden spade and some garden pots.  It dates from 1905 and looks as if it meant to represent a gardener, even though the figure is shown barefoot and in a blank, apparently interior space. 

It’s a fine picture. The confident, relaxed drawing conveys a relaxed, self-possessed individual and the restricted palette of whites, browns and grey/blacks is both strong and quite beautiful. 
With his weight on one leg and the other knee bent, he stands in a classic /neo-classical pose derived from antique sculpture, and with the spade to help the pose he resembles numerous art school studies -of the draped male figure.   So there are suggestions that the individual portrayed was a model rather than a gardener,  that the terracotta pots are decorative accessories, and that the picture was painted in the studio, far from any presumed garden.  A real gardener, it is argued, would wear boots - not least because it's otherwise impossible to dig with a  spade.

Certainly the shadows - that cast on the wall behind the figure and the mysterious one to the left - indicate that this is an interior space.   But my eye was drawn to the date of 1905 and the fact that around this time, Gilman was visiting his wife's family in Chicago.   His in-laws were wealthy machine-tool manufacturers, whom Gilman is said to have found uncongenial.  I wonder if, obliged to make a relatively extended visit, he sought to carry on with his art and looked around for potential subjects?   His in-laws are likely to have employed African-American staff as maids, cooks, gardeners, and it seems plausible that Gilman asked this man to pose for him, perhaps attracted by the colour-scheme afforded by brown skin, white shirt and dark trousers as well as his dignified demeanour.

The sitter took off his boots because - in this scenario - the designated studio space was indoors, but the artist imported his spade and pots as attributes - precisely to show his model's true occupation.  so possibly he was a gardener - but not a Briton, as has been assumed.  It would be nice to know.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Monty Python Lives!

if you loved the pseudo-Victorian animated designs that punctuated the Python sketches you should like the miscellany of spoofy revivalism in the current Victoriana exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery, which responds to the steampunk fashion for dressing up in corsets and top hats (all the better if worn together).   The day I visited,  Guildhall Yard was enlivened by a bustle-clad woman and a guy in circus-strongman garb, bending metal bars.
Curator Sonia Solicari admits that it's hard to define ‘Victoriana’ and ‘Neo-Victorian’ as a contemporary aesthetic. 'This is not a coherent movement to which artists subscribe – there is no manifesto. Each work has been included for its ability to reimagine the 19th century, rather than recreate it.'   So the selection is eclectic not to say jokey.  Each exhibit has something to do with today's notions about the nineteenth century: stuffed foxes backing a stuffed velvet armchair; mechanical moths fluttering round a flickering light-bulb; flounces on a low-cut dress mimicked by octopus tentacles for hair and eyes on an Ingres-style portrait.  But beyond the jokes?
Altogether, amid a god deal of avowed kitsch, some dialogue between the pieces exists, notably with narrative-based works like Paula Rego's well-known images of Jane Eyre and Yinka Shonibare's photo sequence based on the Picture of Dorian Gray, with the artist in the eponymous role.  William Morris fans may like to ponder on Ligia Bouton's diptych featuring WM as superhero pulverising Owen Jones - a rather doubtful premise but exquisitely drawn (and on view last year at Danson House, nearby Red House).
[in respect of Ligia Bouton, it is interesting the number of contemporary artists from David Mabb through Grayson Perry to Jeremy Deller and maybe more, who respond to WM in relation both to his design work and his political arguments.  Not many other long-dead Victorians provoke that response...]

Friday, 11 October 2013

Simon Heffer

 Here is the opening of my review for the Independent of Simon Heffer’s book High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain

On the scales at 1.2kg or 2lb12oz in Victorian money, this hefty tome conforms physically to its contents.  Not for it the fashionable  Victorianist world of steampunk,  nor that of playful Victoriana as currently on show at the Guildhall Art Gallery.  High Minds is worthy, serious, solid stuff; in a word, weighty.
While high thinking often induces low spirits, however, Simon Heffer’s account is not heavy going, but offers fairly easy reading, covering a great deal in short sections.   Concise accounts of Chartism, Tractarianism, denominational wranglings over education bills, civil service reform, Disraeli’s hypocrisy, women’s colleges;   potted biographies of Thomas Arnold, Clough, Froude, Caroline Norton, Fitzjames Stephen, Thomas  Barnardo, Angela Burdett Coutts and more;  blow-by-blow narratives of  the Albert Memorial (in a chapter entitled ‘The Heroic Mind’ although the energetic Consort and Sirs Henry Cole and George Gilbert Scott were hardly great men in the Carlylean sense) and  the 1867 Reform Act, described by Gladstone as a national ‘leap in the dark’ and by Carlyle as a suicidal plunge over Niagara into anarchy

And here is the ending

So, a selective, metropolitan, political and largely masculine history, Whiggishly endorsing the view of constant improvement.  Overall an accurate version, since these groups dominated the polity, though not a sufficient one for later analysts.  Moreover, the disinterestedness on which Victorian commentators prided themselves is no longer taken at face-value.  By the final page, one has the indistinct impression that Heffer wishes to be the Macaulay de nos jours – chronicling a period whose values he admires to promote a pattern for the present.

Why do ‘the Victorians’ retain such a reputation today? Is it the residual red globe effect?  when briefly between the ascendancies of France and the United States, Britain held such power in the world?    Is it nostalgia for supposedly lost ‘greatness’?  Can such a long-gone era still shape national identity?  Who do we think we are?  One wishes Heffer would  go beyond summaries, since to argue through such questions is one main pleasure of writing and reading history.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Magi to Miss LaLa

advance notice of upcoming talk  


From the Magi to Miss LaLa

Individuals of African Ancestry in Western Art

Jan Marsh

29 October 2013, 1.00-1.45

Lunchtime Talk, Sainsbury Wing Lecture Theatre, National Gallery

Admission free


Figures portrayed in Western art- whether mythical or historical – are predominantly fair-skinned.  Yet people of African ancestry have lived in Europe for centuries and appear in paintings.  This talk looks at depictions of Black figures in art from the Renaissance to the Modern period, inquiring into their roles as artists’ models and portrait sitters.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Moore vs Bacon?

Almost by its nature, sculpture in bronze or stone has to sit, stand or lie in a grounded space, whereas painted figures can fly or float in their flat plane; hence, I suppose, Francis Bacon's use of visual grids and plinths anchoring his writhing figures in an architectural illusion that powerfully conveys a physical entity, such as Henry Moore's reclining or standing forms possess intrinsically.

Some critics have seen this as a contest  - which is top dog or best in the modern British art show - which speaks eloquently of current attitudes to art - inherited, it is true, from the Renaissance ranking of painters and sculptors into  a pantheon of good, better, best.   But visual interest is more important than grading, and the Moore-Bacon [must be a better pun there] exhibition at the Ashmolean delivers this by judicious juxtaposition of pictures and sculptures that 'speak' or rather gesture to each other in a fairly spacious space.  It is partly the common deployment of truncated, amputated, barely recognisable human bodies, often contorted, angry and mobile in Bacon's oils,  static and impassive in Moore's bronzes.  Alongside these the learned curators have hung some of the museum's great master muscle studies by Michelangelo, of comparably partial limbs and torsos, thereby paying compliments to Bacon and Moore.

Not all are mutilated figures - there is a stimulating mix of forms, shapes, colour and patination. Another good thing about the exhibition is that there is neither too much nor too little - enough to satisfy eye and mind, not overstuff either.


Monday, 9 September 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 10

Neatly raked beds are an unknown quantity in Tuscany.  The gardener digs the ground, turns over the clods of earth, more or less big, and leaves them so!   Now unraked beds I will not have, any more than I will have weeds in beds, or in gravel walks, or suckers of roses left to destroy the roots of the plants.  It seems ridiculous to mention such elementary things as these, but I have been a good many years driving them into people’s heads.  I always say to the gardener, you may, or may not, have success in growing good plants, but neatness and order in the garden are my first requisites, and these it is within your power to achieve.  And the smaller the garden is, the greater the necessity for having it in a decent and orderly state.
The great feature of my small garden is the wonderful beauty of its setting.  If the views on the park side to the east and south are fine, those on our garden side to the west and north, are indescribably beautiful.  As I have before mentioned, owing to the slight fall of the ground, there is no indication that the wall that bounds it gives on to the high road.  On the other side of this road is a large olive yard, with here and there a tree of faintest green, interspersed among the grey olives. This olive plantation is backed by a belt of cypress trees forming a curve, and seeming at last to touch the lower slopes of Monte Morello, the great weather-gauge of the district.  Beyond these cypresses, to the northwest, are noble plantings of stone-pines, almost giving one the sensation of Rome, and here and there a friendly, weather-stained roof peeps out from among the woods, for this is a thriving, populous countryside, the very garden-land of Tuscany.

Looking to the southwest, away beyond the cypress belt, the wonderful green plain through which the Arno winds its slow way to the Pisan coast, shines and shimmers, never the same in any two hours of the day.  In some lights you see it as pale green grass, in others it somehow has the effect of being itself the sea; it is bounded by a ridge of pale blue Apennines, and, in the far distance, the Carrara peaks tower in their grand isolation, veiled in mist during the greater part of the day, but beautifully clear and distinct at sunset, when a pearly tint is over the whole landscape.
A view like this redeems what would otherwise be a rather commonplace patch of ground of the suburban order, and transforms it into a kind of entrance porch to the great temple of Nature lying beyond.  And, sometimes, lying in the deck-chair in the fresh cool air of an Italian summer morning, and watching the lights and shadows  come and go over all this wonderful beauty, one asks oneself : “Was there any use in making a garden at all?”

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 9

 The Tuscan nomenclature is very pretty .  Oleanders are “mazzi di San Giuseppe”, so called because they are generally in flowers by that saint’s day in June; Guelder roses are known as “Pallone di Maggio”; syringe is called “Pazienza”; and balsams are “bei uomini di Parigi”.  There is a little white annual, of which I do not remember the English name, but it is here called “mughetti di Parigi”, i.e. French lilies of the valley, and the white snowberry is “Job’s tears.” Rhus Catrinus is called “nebbia” (cloud).

Till I lived in Tuscany I never realized how very essential air is to plants.  Looking back to my English gardening days, I don’t seem to remember ever having heard success or failure so much attributed to this matter of air, both as to quality and quantity, as it is here. Tuscans are most critical as to the quality of air; you constantly hear the expression aria fine. i.e. rare, fine, as we should say.   As I get older myself, I am sensible of being much more dependent on air, in fact I sometimes think the feeling of want of air to breathe amounts to a disease. We are rarely indoors without our windows open all the twenty-four hours, but that amount does not satisfy my necessities, and I am conscious all the time of the wish to be in the open air, and I constantly hear the same thing of the plants.  Carnations in particular will simply not thrive, except at a certain elevation.  I was one day in a Florence nursery, belonging to a gardener whose specialty is raising creepers of all sorts, and seeing some very fine carnations, I said to him, “S., did you grow these?”
“Oh dear no, Signora, I could not grow them down here; a contadino from up above brings them to me every week.”

The regulation plan in Tuscany for pots of carnations (they are always grown in pots, never in the ground, and treated as annuals) is on the top of a wall.  Two years ago, Eugenio pointed out to me that our only chance with these, was to keep them during the summer and autumn months on the northwest side of the garden, but that the wall there being rounded, was useless as a shelf for the pots.  Accordingly, I had iron stanchions driven in, so as to support a moveable wooden staging, capable of taking sixty pots along the top of the wall; and this year the plants look thriving enough, though far inferior to those of some of my friends who live in higher and more breezy situations.
Pecorino is the standard manure for these in Tuscany.  It is sheeps’ droppings brought down from the mountains, and administered as liquid manure every second or third day, before the flowering season.  This year there has been a disease among the carnations, and many growers have lost their entire stock of young plants. They never propagate them here by layers as we do, but either by cuttings or from seed.  The cuttings are taken off from the old plants in early spring, and grown on till June, when they should be nice, strong, well-established young plants, ready to be put in their big flowering pots, four or five to a pot.  They begin to flower in October, and if you are fortunate enough to have sunny and sheltered situation for them, you may count on flowers all through the winter.  But at their best, carnations grown in Tuscany can never compare with those from Nice, or Genoa, or Venice – thee last are superb. Coffee grounds are an excellent stimulant for carnations.  An artist friend of mine at Venice, who was a very successful raiser of them, told me he attributed their fine flowering to the share they had of his morning cup of coffee!  I always enjoin the men who sweep our chimneys to save the small quantity of soot afforded by the wood fires, and give it to the gardener; but it is very difficult to persuade a Tuscan gardener that soot is a desirable adjunct to carnation comfort.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Wordsworth's Barberry Tree

Did William Wordsworth write the poem called The Barberry Tree about a wild berberis tossing and dancing in the wind, like the more famous daffodils?  This question has been equally tossed about in the half-century since the text, ascribed to him by Charles Elton, was first discovered, and though critics remain divided and uncertain, the piece has been included in the official oeuvre.  Now Christie Arno has found a second manuscript version, also transcribed by Elton, with significant differences, as if a draft in progress had been rejected. Her account of the discovery, and full text, are in the TLS, here

Whereas the previous view of the poem was that it dated from WW’s early years at Dove Cottage, Christie demonstrates how closely the Barberry Tree accords with the landscape and life in Somerset in 1798-9, when the Wordsworths rented Alfoxden House, close to the Coleridges at Nether Stowey.

This was the reason for my visit earlier this year, a little later than the barberry usually flowers, but certainly in full accord with the fields and lanes and cider orchards described in the poem, and above all with the strong winds blowing over the Quantock hills, where we found what seemed the descendants of the withered hawthorn, muddy pond and mound described in The Thorn, a contemporary work.  And we met a large group of wild mares and foals, the Quantock ponies that WW did not write about.


Sunday, 25 August 2013

Slavery and the British Country House

The wealth that built the grand country houses in the 18th century coincided with Britain’s economic expansion through global trade and exploitation, notably in India, North America and the Caribbean.  How much of that links surviving houses to Caribbean slavery is explored in the new book published by English Heritage, often the accidental inheritor, on behalf of the state, of properties like Brodsworth Hall, Kenwood House, Bolsover Castle, Marble Hill, Northington Grange.   Evidence of direct links is difficult to track and tricky to interpret or quantify  and the assembled essays sometimes read like fascinating footnotes and suggestive sidebars, with entangled histories of transfers, re-building, finance.  Other houses investigated include Danson House, Dyrham Park, Piercefield, a clutch of once-rural retreats near Liverpool, several estates in Bristol, Somerset and Gloucestershire, and Osborne House (Victoria & Albert’s seaside home, with few links to the Caribbean in fabric or contents, but plenty to India).  One misses the striking example of Harewood House, bought and built by the Lascelles with cash from slave trading, plantations and loans to other planters, but this has been well-covered elsewhere.

Many connections are so hedged with (proper scholarly) qualifications regarding tenuous links between houses, owners, heirs, income, construction dates, lost fortunes, demolition, that one has a curious sense of historical concealment, as if slave trading and slave owning were always obscured.  Seldom is anything as clear as the investments in the Compagnie des Indes and the South Sea Company that funded the building of Marble Hill; and even that is partly speculative.  In 1710 Christopher Codrington of Dodington House left two plantations on Barbados to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to maintain a theological school, with the result that in 1837 the Archbishop of Canterbury and other churchmen received £9000 and £13000 respectively in ‘compensation’ for the emancipation of their enslaved workforce.  Successive owners of Northington Grange, Henry Drummond and Alexander Baring had fingers in lots of pies and government business, so even while dependent on slavery-related investments the latter could truly deny, in a parliamentary debate, that he was not ‘a West India proprietor’, and argue as it were disinterestedly, that abolitionist accounts were ‘essentially false’.

If one remembers that most early banking and insurance in Britain developed in relation to slaving and sugar production, the complexities connecting British families and their dwellings to exploitation of Africans and other peoples around the world are not surprising, even if sometimes challenging to unravel.   Usefully, for a book priced at £50.00, EH offer a downloaded text – minus maps and illustrations – for free, at   


Monday, 19 August 2013

Murals at Red House

These two views above show before and after the startling revelations under paper and panelling in the drawing room at Red House -- the startlingly bright and crisp patterning above and beneath Burne-Jones's Sir Degravant narrative episodes.  The Qui bien aime tard oublie design, all surely done by Morris himself,  extends under the dado right round the end [south] wall from window to door while the repeating scatter of roses on dark green fills the roof gable either side of the loft door.  It's the  decoration Morris conceived and created for his  first big project, and foreshadows so much else.  Revealing the full extent also optically enlarges the Degravant panels, previously cramped between battens holding the protective glass, to give them their  correct proportion in relation to wall and room.
The sloping ceiling was also patterned - fragments have been uncovered to date, and if one imagines the now-white-painted woodwork in its original hues - ox blood, maybe also decorated - then the original scheme grows even more splendid, in the manner of Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch.  William Burges was in fact an early visitor to Red House, and presumably absorbed the effect of Morris's whole decorative intention, to  be more professionally but not more excitingly copied.   below a photo of the uncovering in progress which gives a slightly better view than the before-and-after shots.  But none quite conveys the visual thrill of entering the room to see the designs in real view.
The National Trust has devoted more media attention to the interesting and intriguing but less impressive wall paintings in the bedroom alongside the drawing room -largely because they are figurative, albeit in a sorry state.   Almost equally exciting however because drawn from the medieval Golden Legend, with quotations running below the figures, and the Golden Legend was one of Morris's key sourcebooks, to which he and Burne-Jones returned for what proved their final project.  The Golden Legend inspired the Kelmscott Press, and was one of the first texts to be printed there.
From left to right the Red House mural shows Adam & Eve, with serpent; Noah cradling a model ark, Rachel looking sad, and Jacob with a foot on his ladder. 
Although the figures seem painted in a na├»ve almost childlike manner, the concept is in fact sophisticated, for the frieze is drawn to represent a fabric hanging in folds, like a curtain or unstretched tapestry, so that some figures are half-unseen and the whole unevenly visible.  Morris was surely responsible for subject and design, but the authorship of the figures is debated and conjectural.  Ideas currently invoke early widow designs:  a similar Noah by Madox Brown is in Troutbeck church, while Adam & Eve resemble a Rossetti stained glass design.  For sentiment's sake Rachel is allocated to Elizabeth Siddal, since one of her few surviving letters refers to painting a figure on a wall at Red House; as yet Jacob has no firm contenders.  A better image and some rather garbled copy here:
At a stroke, the interior of Red House has become 100% more interesting, in relation to its architectural design, visual impact and daily experience; in respect of its inspiration for the Firm and Morris's future design career; and in regard to our understanding of Morris's lifelong creative impulses and energies.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 8

When I spoke at the beginning of this very prosaic chapter, of the necessity of getting rid of all your English knowledge of gardening matters, I meant that times and seasons being so absolutely different in the two countries, the routine of garden work differs in toto.  Thus, for some years I held to the English practice of striking chrysanthemum cuttings in the late autumn, and having the plants in their flowering pots and staked by July, as one would at home.  The result was that they were weedy, drawn-up things long before the first of November, by which date one expects to have them in flower.  Now, partly from inability to do much in the garden, I leave them entirely to Eugenio, who has had the sense to profit by his friendship with a very good grower of these, and the results are much more satisfactory.  The cuttings are taken much later;  in January or even early in February, they are shifted on, just as they would be at home; but in June they are cut back absolutely to the earth, one or two brown twigs sticking up out of each pot; and anyone looking at the rows of some two hundred or three hundred apparently empty pots, would be puzzled to know what they were supposed to contain.  But a little foliage soon begins to appear, in the end of July they are  moved into their flowering pots, and by the end of August present a most flourishing appearance.
They are one of the flowers that best repay cultivation here, but Italians detest them for two reasons.  The first is, that, as a nurseryman said to me one day, “when you have re-potted your camellias and azaleas and plants of that class, you may leave them alone, only for the watering.  But with these (the chrysanthemums), you must be after them all the time”.  This is quite true.  The other reason is, that they are called the “flowers of the dead,” coming into bloom as they do, just at Ognissanti, the first of November, when every available bud and blossom is requisitioned for funeral wreaths to be carried to the cemeteries.  On a fine first of November, and for many succeeding days, the roads leading to the cemeteries are one moving mass of flower-laden people.  The poorest people manage to have their little offering, if it is only a small bunch of flowers; and all along the roads, booths and tables are stationed, with wreaths piled up on them to tempt the passers-by.  I remember once when I was buying some plants from a neighbouring gardener and asked if I could have some particularly fine pot plants that were not for sale: “No, signora!” said the old man, “I can’t give you those; they are for my old master’s grave, and I am going to place them on it at Ognissanti.”   The master had been dead for many years, but the gardener was most faithful in his attachment to his memory.  The feelings is so general that I am always nervous about the safety of our chrysanthemums during that week, and like, if possible, to get them into their quarters in the court-yard, rather than leave them down in the garden, perilously near the low wall that separates us from the highroad.

Ognissanti is, to my mind, a beautiful festa, and one that I always miss much if I am in England then, where there may, or may not be, a dull church service, but where there is none of the outward demonstration of feeling that links us on with those who have gone before.  The weather is often very fine then, and though Ognissanti  used to be the date fixed by immemorable custom for  getting all the big lemon plants and other tender things into their winter quarters, it is often possible to defer this for a week or fortnight later.  In our own case, with our very inadequate provision for winter shelter, I am always glad to keep the plants out as long as possible, and to get them out in spring as early as may be.

There is considerable rivalry now-a-days among the Anglo-Italian gardening folk in the matter of chrysanthemum growing.  Last year I was absent in England for eight months, not returning till the spring, and so missed my own small show, but I heard it was very creditable to Eugenio, who takes a deep interest in these plants, and whom I suspect of harbouring the idea of exhibiting in the near future.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 7

I regret to say we found he had taken with him a  watch belonging to one of the servants, and had lef an accumulation of debts a the village near us, and, what I did not know till later, had abstracted a sum of money entrusted to him to hand to my wood-merchant.  I had been suddenly called to Rome, to friends who were in great trouble, and having written to the wood-merchant to call for the money due to him, did not wish him to have a fruitless journey, and had left it for him with the gardener.  On my return I should, of course, have asked for the receipt, but I was so worn out with grief and fatigue, that I had to go to bed for some days, and entirely forgot the matter.  That was quit the most curious and unpleasant experience of the kind that I have ever had, and when I betook myself to the residence of the German baron, and informed Angiolino’s sponsor of what had occurred, he at first flatly declined to believe my tale of woe.  One quite understands the reluctance felt by people of all ranks and classes in Tuscany ever to recommend, for, as they say, if they do so, the object “disgraces” them.  Great pity was felt for this young man’s father and family, who were most honest, hard-working people.
I was thus left, just at the beginning of the busy spring season, to find another gardener, - visitors in the house, and others in prospect.  The youth whom Angiolino had imported was some years younger than he, and had had very little experience of garden work, having been only employed as a general “help” in a  florist’s establishment; but he seemed to me of a good disposition, and honest and industrious.  So I thought I would give him a trial.  To this day I have never been able to decide whether his having been brought to my house as he was, was a “plant” between him and Angiolino or not; on the whole, I incline to think that it was.  It would be quite in the Tuscan order of things that Angiolino should have disclosed his plans to his friend, and said, “You come and help me for a month, and I will show you all the ways and the dodges, and then, if you please the Signora, perhaps she’ll give you a trial, and after that, you must look to yourself.”   They are a most intricate people, in spite of a certain child-like simplicity of demeanour which, however, is on the surface only.

This boy, Eugenio, has now been nearly four years    with me, and has developed into a very fair gardener.  Like other people, he has his good and bad points, but, on the whole, the former preponderate. I have so far found him absolutely honest and straight in money matters, extremely industrious and hard-working, of a most obliging disposition, and, what is to me of supreme importance, he is very devoted to our pets.
His weak point is a certain tendency to shelter himself from unpleasant consequences by telling lies.  I make the same rule in the garden, that we  have always done indoors, in regard to accidents and breakages; viz., that if these are at once frankly confessed, reproof will be of the mildest description; but, that if I am left to discover these and kindred misfortunes, things will be made decidedly unpleasant for the culprit.  It is very difficult to induce the Tuscan mind to live up to this standard of frankness, and on several occasions, Eugenio’s deficiencies in the art of speaking the truth have brought him into dire disgrace.  The rule that if I discover any special plants dying or dead, he is obliged to replace them (with reasonable limits) has proved most salutary.  On two occasions during his incumbency I have been obliged to call in the assistance of parental authority, and a most decent-looking old contadino has appeared on the scene, with the happiest results.  On the last of these occasions I was detailing his iniquities with some warmth, when the old man nodded his head gently, and said “Dear Signora, leave the boy to me.  His mother and I will have a little conversation when he comes home next Sunday, and you will see he will be all right.” I could not help wondering if these arguments would be enforced with any applications of a weightier description.

The boy is the youngest of a large family, and has never done his military service, according to the rule that, when three brothers have serves, the fourth is exempt, as is also the only son of a widow.  Privately, I have a sneaking affection for Eugenio, who though only a kind of grown-up child, has really profited by his opportunities in a way that does credit to his intelligence, and who takes a great pride in his small domain.  For myself, I never go into any garden, private or public, large or small, without learning something; it may be only a negative something of what is to be avoided, but more generally there is a leaf of good to be taken out of your neighbour’s book.  But this is an attitude of spirit not understood by the average Tuscan peasant, who is either so conceited that he fancies all he does is perfection, or too unobservant to bestow any thoughts on other people’s ways.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Ira Aldridge and Baron Nagell's Running Footman

Last year a hitherto unknown version of the portrait of Ira Aldridge by James Northcote now in Manchester Art Gallery (which is on the front cover of BLACK VICTORIANS) was acquired on long loan by the National Portrait Gallery where after conservation it has gone on display in the room featuring literary and theatrical figures from the early 19th century.  Taking as it were a normal position in the contemporary pantheon.

It shows Aldridge half-length in a  white satin stage costume, presumably in the character of Othello, the part he played to acclaim in London and Manchester in 1826 and 1827, and thereafter all over Europe until his death in Lodz in 1867, if not on stage then almost.

Coincidentally the Tate has recently acquired a fine pastel portrait by Ozias Humphry, which after extensive research has been identified with 'Crayon Picture no.4 The Black Running Footman of the Baron Nagel 3/4 length' listed in a manuscript catalogue of Humphry's collection, and originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1795.
Baron van Nagell van Ampsen was Dutch ambassador to London from 1788, which helps the identification through the tricolour of the sitter's cap and costume, like the Netherlands' national flag. 

A contemporary reference to Nagell at the Court of St James recorded that he made ' a splendid appearance with his footmen in scarlet and silver and a gay page or running footman was vastly well received'.  Running footmen were messengers in the days before texting and telephoning, like bike couriers today, between wealthy households, offices, parliament and coffee houses. The Tate is hoping to find the sitter's name from Nagell's correspondence. 

As Tate points out, this is a notable addition to the collection, which otherwise only includes two copies of Reynolds' study of a young man thought to be Francis Barber,  John Downman's pencil drawing of Thomas Williams, a Liverpool seaman, and John Simpson's head study for his full-length painting The Captive Slave. 

I have always wondered if Simpson's subject was painted from Ira Aldridge - an obvious and apparently willing sitter at this date - and I'm delighted that Tate has both currently put the work on display probably for the first time and also added the conjectural identification.  The facial features look decidedly similar.



Rose Macaulay and biographical ghost-hunting

“I think this is what a biography is meant to be: a folding-in of all the ingredients, the living, the loving, the writing, to make a rich pudding. Oh dear.’
So writes Sarah LeFanu in her biographer’s journal Dreaming of Rose, which chronicles her researches, writing and rewriting of her book on Rose Macaulay’s life, which involved travels to the Macaulay homes in Wales, Cambridgeshire and the Ligurian coast as well as foot-stepping Rose to Herrick’s Devon village for They Were Defeated and her trip to the Black Sea for The Towers of Trebizond.  She also goes to Ireland, where Rose’s long-term secret lover had been a popular priest before leaving the church for marriage and fatherhood.

There’s something of Macaulay’s own clear-eyed rejection of romance and glamour in LeFanu’s wry observational style, as well as a touch of her subject’s abjection, as when both authors deprecate their own books or (silently) envy others’ success. Above all it’s a beguiling mix of literary pudding, detective scholarship mingling with daily life and paid work, current reading and personal memories such as when she and a friend sneaked from Cheltenham Ladies College to Brian Jones’s funeral, hiding their uniforms in a hedge behind the public lavatories.
There’s local tragedy too, in the suicides of a neighbour and his son, and snatches of friendship with other writers, intermingled with radio broadcasting and creative writing for visually-impaired students.  The narrative thread, almost invisibly woven in, covers long hours in libraries, copying ancient letters and microfilmed newspapers, obtaining inter-library loans and talking or failing to talk to those who knew Rose Macaulay.  Oh, and dreams, of course – of Ivy Compton Burnett, ‘hair sculpted as ever like an over-turned chamber pot … a silent but powerful presence’; and of being handed a book by RM in bookshop with a title like Veruca of which Sarah  had never heard, its pages stuffed with edibles like olives, so that even wearing gloves as she turned the pages her fingers were smeary with oil.

I expect most biographers are familiar with these vivid dreams invaded by one’s subject in incomprehensible guises. I also often used to dream of writing the perfect paragraph that conveyed exactly what I wished to convey,  and even repeating it in the dream so it would be remembered…. I began a similar journal when writing about Christina Rossetti, only to find life and research so uncannily full of coincidence and correspondence that I desisted for fear of what might happen. 
LeFanu writes wittily and economically of writing as wrestling; of searching for a non-chronological opening only to eventually settle on ‘Emilie Rose Macaulay was born on…’; of the ethics of telling other people’s stories irrespective of what they wished to conceal; and of completion, when finishing a book is more like divorce than like sending a child on its first day at school, least of all like giving birth. Endless niggling details backward and forwards, letters of supplication over quotations and illustrations – ‘a hundred tiny ties to the book I want to cast off’.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Definitely Worth Watching

-    the new BBC4 three-part series on the History of Art Collecting in Britain, which started last week with the Earl & Countess of Arundel in 16th century and continues tonight with the more familiar C18 Grand Tourists.  It has a rather silly title 'Bought with Love : the Secret History of British Art Collections', given that the motivation was aesthetic, and Charles I's purchases were hardly secret, but it's so rare to see scholarly information intelligently presented to a mass audience.  Specialist commentators  have rightly described the first programme as enjoyable, informative and well shot; in fact their comments also pay the programme makers the compliment of correcting incidental inaccuracies (a wrong portrait ID) and adding qualifications that are probably hard to include in sixty minutes. So hats off to producer Franny Moyle and colleagues.  Hopefully the series will re-air outside the summer holiday season.
Immediately following that, BBC2 tonight has 'Who are you Calling an African Artist?' featuring Ibrahim El-Salahi and Meshac Gaba, whose work is at Tate Modern. 
In today's international art world, national or ancestral origins are only one form of identity, though often foregrounded  - think Sonia Boyce or Yinka Shonibare - and here is critic Jonathan Jones's trailer for the topic: 'In the case of 82-year-old El-Salahi, his is a tale of reconciling modernism as well as his own heritage.  But why is his work, along with Africa's wider art tradition, so often ignored in the west?  It's a  question tackled by Gaba, whose Museum of Contemporary African Art is an idea for an institution that doesn't yet exist.'

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Laura Knight's People

Largely because her work was untouched by any European avant-gardes, or maybe because she was the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in modern times, but at a time when the RA approached a nadir of esteem, Laura Knight has generally been patronisingly dismissed by critics, in rather similar terms to those used to sideline L.S.Lowry and other unrepentantly figurative artists.  In recent years  Knight's forceful drawing and muscular compositions have received some critical revaluation, the latest example being a selection of portraiture at the NPG, starting with the well-known Self-Portrait of the artist in black hat and long red cardi painting the back view of a female nude, colourfully subverting the hackneyed motif of ‘artist and [sexually available] model’ of age-old familiarity, and also brilliantly referencing the shapely bum of Velasquez's 'Rokeby Venus', and the here explicit act of painting. Knight depicts herself, because otherwise the view of a model imaged in a mirror would implicitly be by a male artist - neatly self-assertive, as she seems to have been temperamentally.

As she put it: 'An ebullient vitality made me want to paint the whole world, and say how glorious it was to be young and strong and able to splash with paint on canvas.'   Perhaps as a result, Knight’s vigorous brushwork verges on bravura, clumsiness the occasional price of direct attack. One sometimes wishes she had followed a more Expressionist mode, but in fact her rendering of women and men at work - in factory, backstage, in aircraft - benefit from their manifest realism. 

Highlights of the exhibition include sitters from two marginalised communities – those of Travellers, whom Knight called Gipsies, and African-Americans, whom she called Negroes or ‘darkies’. 

Tate N05330 © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS

First encountering Romany travellers at race meetings, Knight set up a mobile studio in the back of a spacious vintage Rolls Royce (!)  and got to know the family of matriarch Lilo Smith.   Of Lilo's son Gilderoy, she  later wrote: 'one wet day, at Iver, Bucks, in the camp there near the railway, [he] posed for me in a little lean-to tent - just a corner in shelter, crowded by a big double bed where an old gipsy and his wife slept. I painted it in 3 or 4 hours'.
The curator's account is here 
Knight's African-American sitters – female – were portrayed with greater suavity.


© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA
Accompanying her husband Harold, commissioned to paint leading [male] medics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the late 1920s, Knight sought out the shadow side of that divided city, finding sitters among the nurses – apparently to her surprise. 'The babies of American darkies are among the most beautiful things in the world,' she wrote. ‘In fact, to the artist there is a whole world of beauty which ought to be explored in negro life in America.'
One of the most stunning results is a portrait of Pearl Johnson, a long-serving hospital nurse and campaigner against segregation, who took Knight to lectures and concerts devoted to this  phase of the Civil Rights movement.   It would be good to know more about Johnson. 
© The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS
Of course, Gypsy and Black models frequently feature in early C20 British paintings, but seldom as named portrait sitters.

And a postscript, from Knight's later phase as a conventional portraitist, a little-known depiction of Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, ambassador to the USSR, USA and UK, Nehru's sister and Indira Gandhi's aunt, a portrait  probably unfinished owing to the sitter's travels, and now in the RA Collection.