Sunday, 21 September 2014

Neo-classical Nubian Athlete

Among the classical and neo-classical sculpture acquired by soap manufacturer Lord Leverhulme and now installed in his memorial art gallery in Port Sunlight is a fine black marble figure with dreadlocks entitled 'Nubian Athlete'.  Apart from the fact that it is believed to be of Italian origin and carved in the 17th or 18th centuries, nothing much is known about the statue, but it's one of several Black figures in the Lever Art Gallery.  A bit more about it here
 Liverpool  Museums
As you may imagine, one of my pleasures is seeking and finding such figures wherever they may be, because long ago I was surprised to realise that Black figures did feature in Victorian art = it's obvious now, of course, but then = and now I seldom leave a museum or stately home without discovering some.  

So for the record, at Port Sunlight, the Nubian athlete has two small ceramic companions, a muscular fellow Nubian in William Etty's ridiculous painting of Cleopatra on her barge, and at least one allegorical female symbolising peace and plenty in an antique tapestry.  But maybe there are others?  

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Rampant Butterfly and Peacock

Thanks to the Whistler Society  [Homepage - The Whistler Society] I went to see the current exhibition at the Bluecoat in Liverpool-  part of the Biennial-  which is worth a visit both for its intelligent selection and understanding of the artist and for its wonderful construction by Olivia de Monceau of a full-size replica in oils, gold leaf, canvas, leather and wood of Harmony in Blue & Gold : the Peacock Room,  one wall in Frederick Leyland’s London mansion.

Leyland was a Liverpool shipowner, so the quarrel between artist and patron makes an apt focus for the presentation, which placed Whistler as a forerunner of the modern artist whose outrageous publicity-seeking is part and parcel of their reputation.  He was certainly one of the first to curate his own solo shows, paying especial attention to the yellow and grey decoration and design of the rooms as well as the hang, and accessories to match.  His emblem being a butterfly derived from ‘JMW’, with a scorpion-sting in its tail, for his exhibition in 1883 he wrote of himself as Butterfly Rampant and claimed to have ordered ‘ a lot of little butterflies made in yellow satin and velvet with their little sting in silver wire which will be worn as badges by the women. Amazers!’

The story of Whistler’s intervention in the Peacock Room is told here [ A Closer Look - James McNeill Whistler - Peacock Room ].  Whistler having boldly re-painted the  elaborate woodwork in colours he deemed necessary to set off the centrepiece, his own painting of Christine Spartali as La Princesse du Pays de Porcelaine, Leyland declined to pay the full amount demanded. 

In retaliation Whistler painted himself and Leyland as a pair of strutting peacocks, one with his own silver quiff, the other rampant  and resplendent with Leyland’s reptilian aspect, and scattered on the ground the coins of the dispute.  

It’s a stunning image, for which all Whistler’s arrogance can be forgiven, especially since Leyland by all accounts was an unpleasant fellow and ruthless businessman, despite his love of art and music.  The exhibition also includes a replica of Whistler’s depiction of Leyland as a peacock with vicious claws on the piano keys, in The Gold Scab : Eruption in Filthy Lucre.
Fine Art Museum San Francisco

The Bluecoat/Biennial is on until the end of October, after which it appears that de Monceau’s magnificent construction will be dismantled, which is a pity as it deserves to be widely seen, and preferably not in a concrete box like those which form the Bluecoat’s contemporary exhibition spaces.  I wonder if it might be re-built at Speke Hall, Leyland’s country house on the outskirts of Liverpool, now owned by the National Trust?  It’d certainly be an attraction.

PS Colm Toibin will be at the Bluecoat at lunchtime on 7 October, responding to the Whistler exhibition. Free tickets here :  

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Laus Veneris

The Society of Antiquaries is holding a fund-raising auction to raise money for Kelmscott Manor on 25 September.    It contains 100 lots ranging from tea-trays to trout fishing by way of objects and visits, and advance absentee bids are invited (though not, I think, phone bids on the night).   A couple of noteworthy items include a copy of May Morris’s embroidery handbook Decorative Needlework, with the author-designed cover. LOT 62

And most exciting of all, a sample of calligraphy, attributed to Burne-Jones but very much in William Morris’s own manner, as an illuminated title Laus Veneris as if for a manuscript of Swinburne’s poem, and almost exactly as depicted on the music stand in Burne-Jones’s great painting. LOT 85

This appears to have come from Kelmscott originally, having been owned by the mother of artist Edward Scott-Snell  who was a tenant of the Manor during WW2 and acquired things at the sale in 1939.  It passed to her grandson Joscelyn Godwin, professor at Colgate University, Hamilton, US.   Being an exquisite and hitherto unpublished item so closely linked to the painting, it deserves wider circulation and research. 

All information about the auction and other lots here:

UPDATE :  1 OCT 2014  the event raised nearly £40 000 for the Manor  - a good start to what's going to be an extremely expensive programme.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Black Chronicles II

John Xiniwe and Albert Jonas, London Stereoscopic Co., 1891, Getty Archives

this evening to Rivington Place for the opening of Black Chronicles II, the second part of The Missing Chapter curated by Autograph ABP through trawls in public and private archives.  And once again showing the Black presence in Britain was visible throughout  the later 19th century, chiefly via photographs.  Scope for further research:  the names of the lads posing with a camera indicate they were from Southern Africa and the other photos show them with the Africa Choir in London - but who set up this pose and for what purpose?

Alicamousa, probably 1880s, courtesy Michael Graham Stewart 

Alicamousa was the circus name of John Humphreys from St Vincent - some more information on him and other lion tamers on Jeff Green's inexhaustible website :

Family Group, 1870s, courtesy Paul Frecker

But who were these five?  Presumably living close enough to City Rd to pose in John Hart's studio.

For pdf details of Black Chronicles II , link:

the exhibition is dedicated to the memory of