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.