Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Modern Scottish Women 1885-1965

Norah Nielson Gray, Military Hospital Abbaye de Royamour, 1918
The blurb describes this exhibition as 'revelatory, fascinating, inspiring',  but I was most struck by the speed with which one forgot that this - paintings and sculptures - was all 'work by women', and simply absorbed it visually as one compelling artwork after another.   Stylistically they display their relation to the art movements of  the decades spanned by the selection, and to some degree the subjects also reflect historical events, notably the two European wars.   But they are also most strikingly individual.

Mary Cameron, Les jouers, Edinburgh Museum

Overall the impression is of  compositional strength, vibrant and confident colour, cogent lines, persuasive forms. And variety of subject and handling that makes the viewing experience so rewarding.    According to curator Alice Strang,   
Edinburgh-trained Mary Cameron, nicknamed Bloody Mary, fell in love with Spain and at the turn of the century produced frank and uncompromising paintings of bullfights. One in particular was so gory it was used as a postcard in anti-bullfighting propaganda in France and Germany.  "The press, when they reviewed Mary Cameron’s work, always had to stress her femininity, almost to make up for the pretty brutal paintings. She was having none of it, saying, ‘Hang on a minute, look at my paint-splattered hands, Painting is hard work, you have to roll up your sleeves, it is manual labour’,

Dorothy Johnstone, Life class, 1923, Edinburgh Museum

The majority of images are figurative, as was most British art of the period,   But works by       and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham - one of the better-known painters here - have that essential abstraction of shape and hue where perception precedes interpretation.

Wilhelmina  Barns-Graham, Glacier Chasm, 1951, BarnsGraham Trust

Doris Zinkeisen, Belsen April 1945, IWM

 Several are extremely powerful, but others are quite joyous.  Including Agnes Miller Parker's crowd scenes The Horse Fair and the Round Pond - where the vertiginous view is anchored by the ball towards which the circling mutts converge, with its colour matching that of the main figure.    
Agnes Miller Parker, Round Pond, 1930

On at Edinburgh's Museum of Modern Art till 26 June 2016 and even if like me you have always liked this era's art, certainly vaux le detour for a revelation and delight.

Anne Redpath, Indian Rug /Red Slippers, c1942, NGS  

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Embroidered Minds - William Morris and Neurology

updated link to Embroidered Minds website

VERY SADLY, Leslie Forbes, prime mover in this project, died early July 2016 following a major epileptic seizure.  At this date  the Embroidered Minds project consisted of one site-specific exhibition and the publication of Part One of the one part of the accompanying novel.  Plans are being made to continue and complete the project as Leslie intended.

It's difficult to summarise the Embroidered Minds project except to quote the authors in saying it's a collaboration of artists, writers, medics and scholars, weaving a part-factual, part-imagined fantasy around and across the connections between Jenny Morris and her family, and Victorian neurologist William Gowers.  The connecting thread is the neurological condition of epilepsy, which Jenny suffered and Gowers investigated and treated. 

Jenny  is the least-written about of the now-famous Morris family, who lived with the always famous Morris firm in Queen Square, where the site is now occupied by the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

In its initial installation at 23 Queen Square, Embroidered Minds is an installation created by artists Julia Dwyer, Caroline Isgar, Sue Ridge and Andrew Thomas, with texts by novelist Leslie Forbes and medical input from Renata Whurr and Marjorie Lorch.   On this occasion, it is site-specific, but the elements are flexible and portable to any number of other locations just as its contents are open to interpretations and responses.  In another form, it will be a four-part novel linked to the displays

The aim is to investigate the relevance today of a 'conspiracy of silence' that surrounded Jenny Morris's condition and still partly shrouds pubic understanding.  Though it should not be separated from the ideas, the artworks are beautiful in their own right also and the whole assemblage is absorbing.

ON 23 January 2016  @ 2.15 pm  Leslie Forbes, Sue Ridge and myself  are elaborating - not to say embroidering - on the subject   in a presentation entitled 'Sex, Drugs and Epilepsy in the Morris Family'  at the William Morris Society,  26 Upper Mall, Hammersmith.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Facing Britain's Imperial Past

Manchester City Galleries 

I once worked with a colleague from the same post-war generation as myself who said that his school (I think as late as the early 1960s) continued to mark ‘Empire Day' – an event of which I had barely heard and was astonished it might still be celebrated.  Because the dissolution of the self-styled ‘British Empire’ with the independence of India and Pakistan, followed by the swift transformation of other colonies into supposed equal members of the rebranded ‘Commonwealth’ was always presented as a jolly good idea rather than with any sense of lost glory, failure or defeat.  Subsequently, if not generally ignored and essentially forgotten, Empire became a realm of embarrassment and shame, as the once-renowned military adventures were rediscovered as aggressive adjuncts to conquest, exploitation, oppression.  So one would not have expected, in the last part of the 20th century, to see any exhibition unequivocally devoted to the subject, and not least because most of the directly associated art – fanciful battle paintings, tear-jerking scenes of suffering (European)  women and children, heroic equestrian statuary – is poor in quality as well as ideologically. Stubbs’ painting of a cheetah being an exception.

Artist and Empire: facing Britain’s Imperial Past at Tate Britain is thus an interesting post-imperial project, ranging far and wide geographically and stretching from the 16th to 21st century.  Its aim, to quote the brief guide, is to ‘illustrate the complicated histories embodied by objects, inviting us to consider how their status and meaning change over time. In reflecting imperial narratives and post-colonial re-evaluation, it foregrounds the peoples, dramas and tragedies of Empire and their resonance in art today’.  Note the careful absence of any celebration in that final sentence – Empire is not (yet?) the source of any joy or commendation.  

The display is too heterogenous to summarize,  and I am personally less interested, visually or conceptually, in imagined scenes of bloodthirsty events masquerading as heroic defeats (Rorkes’ Drift, General Gordon etc)  for which artists usually had to seek out Zulu performers to portray savage ‘fuzzywuzzies’.  The most interesting aspect of Artists and Empire is the endeavour to create a dialogue between domestic British representations of Empire and responses to it from India, Africa and the Americas, representing the coloniser in their own art forms, including sculpture and textiles.  One would like to see this exchange expanded, for the present exhibition is largely drawn from British collections, limiting the range of depictions, many objects being trophies or curios that imperialists obtained overseas.  A selection with a Southeast Asian focus is however scheduled for Singapore in late 2016.

Singh Twins / Museum of London 
Notable too is the extent to which, if most (white) Britons have airbrushed Empire from their historical sense, so that it has become as fantastic as the world of Arthur and Merlin, artists of Indian, African and Caribbean heritage remain highly conscious of the colonial legacy.   Here, the Singh Twins' intricate painting EnTWINed answers Eastward Ho and Home Again, mid-Victorian portrayals of troops sent from Liverpool to quell the Indian insurrection (though sadly the pictures are widely separated in this show, so their dialogue, including that with the triumphal picture of Britannia spearing the Bengal tiger, also on display, is not immediately visible).   
Hew Locke /Hales Gallery
Donald Locke’s unsettling Trophies of Empire stands near his son Hew’s image of the statue of Bristol slaver Edward Colston draped with glittering yet tawdry ornaments, from the Restoration series. 

PS    this message just received from BBC Arts Desk.  If the senders [anonymous to me] mean  what they say in the 'personal note', they should be kept to their promise....

ARTSNIGHT: Kwasi Kwarteng
WATCH HERE FROM 28 November: 
Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng is the guest curator of this episode of Artsnight. The author of the book 'Ghosts of Empire', Kwasi looks at how the British Empire impacted on art, architecture and literature. He meets one of Australia's greatest living novelists - Peter Carey - to discuss the writer's obsession with early colonial life, as well as exploring Tate Britain's Artist and Empire exhibition. Comedian Shazia Mirza discusses why fabric and clothing is so vital to the story of the Indian sub-continent. And we meet the sculptor Fowokan, who found a way of reconnecting with his ancestral African past through his work.
On a personal note I'd also like to add that our team in BBC Arts is a small group of people who are really trying to change the nature of Arts programming at the BBC and with this episode of ARTSNIGHT we wanted to produce and provoke a broader and more diverse discussion about the cultural legacy of the British Empire (at least broader and more diverse than you usually find on TV...). I hope we've made at least a small change to the way this subject is discussed.
I would also highly recommend another episode of ARTSNIGHT to the people on your mailing list, which is the one we made with George The Poet for 30 October. He is a young British-African spoken word poet who used his episode to explore the nature of "black culture", including an interview with Paul Gilroy - that seems like it could be pertinent to the themes explored in 'No Colour Bar'. By the time you send the email out tomorrow, I'm afraid that there will only be one more day left to watch it on BBC iPlayer (!).
ARTSNIGHT: George The Poet 

In this episode of Artsnight, George the Poet explores the meaning of black culture in four spoken word chapters. Racheal Ofori opens up some black female stereotypes, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell look back at the beginnings of dub poetry, Professor Paul Gilroy explains some of the history of black diasporas, and Akala likens rap to the works of Shakespeare. George the Poet asks - what is black culture?

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Marie Stillman at Delaware

photo Jan Marsh

Just a few installation shots to show how splendidly the Delaware Art Museum team have presented Poetry in Beauty and given Marie Stillman a great showcase.  it looks and is absolutely wonderful -  and invites us to new levels of analysis and evaluation. 

photo Jan Marsh
photo Jan Marsh

photo Jan Marsh

photo Jan Marsh

There is also a clip from BBC USA,  but it may not connect:

Friday, 30 October 2015

Botanist Birch Freeman

A very brief post on an interesting Victorian whom I just heard about from Advolly Richmond, who has researched his role in botany and plant cultivation

Thomas Birch Freeman, born in Twyford Hants 1809, began his career as a gardener at Orwell Park near Ipswich until dismissed for  turning Wesleyan, but he trained in horticulture at Kew Gardens and was also ordained as a Methodist minister - one of those of African ancestry that the churches believed were less likely to succumb to tropical diseases. He settled in what is now  Ghana where he established schools and agricultural schemes, travelling the region as both a missionary and a botanical collector.   When the coffee crop in Ceylon fell victim to disease, he was instrumental in introducing the Liberian coffee species there, first sending 400 seeds to Kew.  He left the Methodists, only to return later and died at his home in Accra in 1891.  His portrait by Marshall Claxton was presumably engraved for missionary purposes, and his religious activities were well-documented; according to Advolly this quite over-shadowed his equally indeed more significant role as a botanist in the heyday of heroic Victorian plant-collecting..

here a daguerreotype photo of Freeman, presumably in late 1840s,  from the National Media Museum Bradford

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Janey & Gabriel by Simon Schama

Jane Morris (nee Burden)
In The Face of Britain, art historian and journalist Simon Schama explores the history of British portraiture, and unveils the secrets of some of the nation’s best loved works of art. In this extract, Schama tells the story of Jane Morris (nee Burden), and the artists infatuated by her.
It was not the wandering armadillos, the kangaroos, the intermittently braying jackass, the Brahma bull (acquired because its huge eyes reminded Gabriel of Her), the two wombats, the cawing raven, the tunnelling woodchuck which laid waste to the lupins of riverside Chelsea, or the perpetually escaping raccoon which infuriated the neighbours on Cheyne Walk. No, the straw that broke the camel’s back (and there was talk that Rossetti might be getting one of those, too) were the bloody peacocks: shrieking and carrying on whenever they pleased as if there were murder or something indecent happening at number 16; which, for all the neighbours knew, was probably the case. They were God’s little joke, the peacocks, so iridescently beauti- ful that they had to be equipped with a sound like a Wapping fishwife at throwing-out time. Naturally, their screaming only endeared them still more to Rossetti, who was a bit ofa strutter himself. The wombats were his babies. When one snuggled its damp snout into John Ruskin’s waistcoat while he affected not to notice, continuing to talk of how they must remake universal brotherhood, Gabriel thought he was in heaven, or at least Eden. When one of them died in September 1869 he drew a comic image of himself weeping by an urn.
Into this Noahide backyard in July 1865, taking care not to tread on the dormice or the slithering salamander, stepped the tall figure of Jane Morris in her flowing gown. She had come to be photographed by the camera of John Robert Parsons, though it was Rossetti who was directing exactly how this was to be done, which was emphatically not in the style of bridal pictures but as high Romantic art. A marquee of the kind erected for the many parties at Tudor House had been put up in the garden. There was a Japanese screen, a wicker armchair and a couch on which Jane might lie, especially when her chronically trou- blesome back pained her. She was wearing the loose-fitting, uncorseted, long silken dress of the kind she wore when she sat to Rossetti’s paintings, often made by herself. The heavy waves of dark hair were parted in the middle and fell all the way to her thick brows, while the summarily brushed locks rose rather than rested on the nape of her neck as if touched by sensual electricity. Rossetti made sure that Par- sons caught her in profile, showing off to most dramatic effect her strong nose and unsmiling Cupid’s bow mouth, the upper lip full and arched. That day in high summer 1865 Jane Morris was the most mag- nificent of all the animals in his collection. It was just as well he had the perfect pretext constantly to stare at her; adjust her hair and her dress with the brush of his fingers.
Rossetti had first set eyes on Jane Burden in Oxford eight years before, in 1857. He had already made a name for himself as poet and painter; the loudest and most uncontained of the group that had, since 1848, called itself the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The son of an Ital- ian political refugee who taught the language at King’s College London, Rossetti showed enough early talent to be enrolled at the Royal Academy drawing schools, but its academic discipline left him cold. In the chronicle of their dawning it was an encounter with the hauntingly awkward engravings of the late-Gothic frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli which convinced Rossetti, as well as his friends William Hol- man Hunt and John Everett Millais, that what they characterized as the glossy ‘self-parading’ polish of High Renaissance painting had eclipsed an innocent devotion to the truths of nature (their professed god). This over-varnished inauthenticity lived on, they thought, in the vulgarities of Victorian paintings and in the arid classicism embalmed in the teachings of the Academy’s first president, ‘Sir Sloshua’ Reyn- olds; the butt of their ridicule. In its place the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to recover through purity of colour, unaffected- ness of design and truth to nature what had been long lost. Giotto and Gozzoli would live again in the London of the horse-trams. Ruskin, who himself believed that the Renaissance had ruined truth and beauty, loved their flamboyant passion and wrote in support.
In 1857 they accepted a commission to paint murals for the Oxford Union chamber. Rossetti’s choice of subject was Malory’s Morte d’Arthur: almost as much a holy scripture for the Brotherhood as the Bible or the painter’s namesake Dante. Rossetti himself was most inter- ested in painting the tragic passion of Lancelot for the Queen; the moment, in fact, when he was discovered in her chamber. At the theatre with Ned Burne-Jones, he saw the young woman who had to be his Guinevere. Jane Burden was seventeen, the daughter of a stable- groom, poor and uneducated; in other words, exactly how Rossetti – and most of the Brotherhood – liked their ‘stunners’: beautiful in their obliviousness to the pretensions of the middle class; soft wax waiting to be moulded by the apostles of the Natural.
It didn’t always go according to plan. Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti’s first great passion, for many years chafed at being model and educational project. Storms, increasingly violent, broke over them. The opiate laud- anum quieted her torn-up lungs and her distress, but living together becamea mutual torment. In 1857 Lizzie had gone north, so Rossetti was free to project the heat of his Arthurian fantasies on dark Jane. While he frolicked and raved, she remained quietly enigmatic, which provoked him further. But there was competition from the younger, bearded enthusiast William Morris – wealthy enough from the family copper mines to be aspiring poet, painter, designer and, eventually, socialist. As an undergraduate he and Burne-Jones had fallen for the gospel preached by Augustus Welby Pugin, Carlyle and Ruskin, which imagined the Perpendicular England of the thirteenth century as a lost time of Christian community and beauty. If industrial England was to be saved from the brutality of the machine age, the spirit and practice of its craft had to return.
This was lute and sackbut to Rossetti’s ears. From 1856, Morris and Burne-Jones shared lodgings in Red Lion Square in London, where Morris made his first designs for the house-beautiful – furniture, wall- paper, tapestries – with Burne-Jones specializing in the stained glass of which he would stay a graceful master. Morris looked at Jane Burden and saw the person who was destined to share this remade medieval- ism. She looked at his big, generous, whiskery-frisky self and saw protection, a future. They were married in 1859. Algernon Swinburne wrote, ‘the idea of marrying her is insane. To kiss her feet is the utmost man should think of doing.’
He may have been right. Those who fell for Jane could not help doing things for her as a way of fully possessing her, or at least inhabiting a life with her; and the more they did, the more enigmatic she became: floating about in the long gowns which pleased them; wincing occasionally when her treacherous back hurt; arranging herself decoratively on the couch. The way she carried herself, unencumbered by hoops and stays, the dresses flowing with her limbs along with the intense gaze coming from the grey eyes, mesmerized everyone. It was the liv- ing Janey who was the work of art. Morris flung himself into creating their model house: designed and built at Bexleyheath, ten miles into Kent from London. It would, he thought, be an easy commute to Red Lion Square, where the ‘Firm’, including Rossetti and Burne-Jones, had established themselves to design and make – using artisanal techniques – their perfect decor for house and home.
Love was not wholly absent, even though, much later, Jane said she had never really loved her husband. Two girls were born. Morris wanted the Red House to become itself an ideal community, but the commute was taking four hours a day and Burne-Jones grimaced at the thought of leaving London for good. They sold up and moved to Queen Square. Morris might have rented out the Red House so that one day he could return, but was too saddened by the uprooting to face ever seeing it again. In London they saw more of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who made little secret of how he felt about Jane.
By the time of the photographs in the garden of Tudor House, Ros- setti had been a widower for three years. He had finally married Lizzie, only for her to suffer a stillbirth, which led to a mental collapse. All that helped was laudanum. In 1862 she took enough to kill herself. Horrified and distracted with guilt, Rossetti threw the manuscript copy of his most recent poems into her coffin to be buried with Lizzie. He would come to regret the extravagant gesture. In 1869 he decided to have the coffin opened to retrieve the poems. To those aghast at this literary exhumation, he claimed Lizzie herself would have ‘approved of my doing this. Art was the only thing for which she felt seriously. Had it been possible to her I should have found the book on my pillow the night she was buried; and could she have opened the grave no other hand would have been needed.’
It wasn’t money which made Rossetti perform this act of selfish desecration. He was making plenty: two thousand pounds in one year, more than enough for him to take Tudor House in a Chelsea which was not yet smart. He stuffed it with beautiful things and with a mass of antiques and porcelain acquired while trawling the stalls of Ham- mersmith and Leicester Square. Chinoiserie abounded. Some rooms were packed with mirrors; others with Delft tiles and brass chande- liers. Pictures banged into each other on the crowded walls. It was madhouse and funhouse. Whistler and Swinburne were close by. Fanny Cornforth, voluptuous, golden-haired, deliciously dirty- mouthed, moved in as model and warm company in the big oak four-poster hung with heavy green velvet. Let the dull neighbours be scandalized; who cared? Rossetti was painting a succession of women, some of them models he charmed into sitting when he encountered them in the street, like the gorgeous Alexa Wilding. Poetry would fall from his lips; his dark eyes locked on to theirs and he laughed like Mephistopheles. It was hard to say no. He painted these women in hotly sensual colours, crowding the picture space so completely that their bewitching faces and generous bodies were pressed to the greedy gaze of the beholder. There was drapery, greenery, pierced fruit, peaches and pomegranates; flowers which were shedding petals and tight buds beginning to open. With every tiny, curling, scarlet tongue of a honeysuckle blossom, Dante Rossetti perfected these visual seduc- tions and called them poetry, art, the enchantment of the senses. Despite all the doctoral theses, it’s essentially Victorian soft porn, but the most beautiful soft porn that has ever been realized in paint.
Janey, as everyone now called her, was different: dark where they were golden-haired; silent while they were raucous and gigglesome; gracefully elongated while they were roundly buxom. Morris was not an idiot. But he was also principled in his conviction that true marriages should never be bound by constraints. So he put up with Rossetti’s many visits and let Janey go and sit fora series of drawings, each one the mark of deep, unshakeable adoration; love letters in soft black chalk.
In the garden that afternoon in high summer 1865, Janey stood, lay down, sat, leaned forward; all with the identical expression of inwardly resigned, cow-eyed secret sorrow that aroused Rossetti so intensely. Off and on went the lens cap of John Robert Parsons; off and on. Gabriel took the photographs and drawings as studies for a great paint- ing he would make of her in the lustrous blue silk dress she had made, probably at his suggestion. It would take him three more years to finish and, even then, with good reason, he was not wholly satisfied with it, knowing that he had worked her face in particular until it looked oddly cosmetic and waxen, with none of the graceful looseness of his drawings. But whatever its shortcomings, The Blue Silk Dress served as a kind of notice that, if her person was not Rossetti’s, her picture was. He knew what an impression she made on visitors like Henry James, who described her as a:
figure cut out of a missal . . . an apparition of fearful and wonder- ful intensity . . . a tall lean woman in a long dress of some dead purple stuff, guiltless of hoops (or of anything else, I should say), a maze of crisp black hair heaped in great wavy projections on each of her temples . . . a thin pale face, great thick black oblique brows joined in the middle . . . a long neck without any collar . . . in fine complete.
And now he, Rossetti, was the maker and keeper of this vision, and he was shameless enough to say this in a Latin inscription painted on the top of The Blue Silk Dress. Making a disingenuous nod to her mar- riage, it declared Jane ‘famous for her poet husband; most famous for her face; finally let her be famous for my picture’.
However impassive the mask Jane showed to the rest of the world, Rossetti knew she was not indifferent; so did the increasingly tormented Morris. She came to Cheyne Walk, sittings or not. She and Rossetti shared complaints: her back; his eyesight, which had started to give him trouble; headaches, of course, on both sides; heartaches evidently, too. Partings, even for a few days, became painful. And not- withstanding the Blue Dress picture, try as he might, the painter-poet still could not contrive a picture remotely adequate to the fierce acute- ness of his gaze and the force of his desire. In January 1870 he wrote as much to her:
Dearest Janey
. . . the sight of you going down the dark steps to the cab all alone has plagued me ever since – you looked so lonely. I hope you got home safe & well. Now everything will be dark for me till I can see you again. It puts me in a rage to think that I should have been so knocked up all yesterday as to be such dreadfully dull company. Why should it happen when you were here? . . .
How nice it would be if I could feel sure I had painted you once for all so as to let the world know what you were; but every new thing I do from you is a disappointment, and it is only at some odd moment when I cannot set about it that I see by a flash the way it ought to be done. Such are all my efforts. If I had had you always with me through life it would somehow have got accomplished. For the last two years I have felt distinctly the clearing away of the chilling numbness that surrounded me in the utter want of you; but since then other obstacles have kept steadily on the increase, and it comes too late.
Your most affectionate Gabriel
Did those ‘obstacles’ include the inconvenient husband? Rossetti was painting stories of unhappy unions: La Pia de’ Tolomei featured Jane as the wife unjustly accused and locked in a tower in the Tuscan Maremma, where she died of poison; in Mariana she is depicted as the character in Measure for Measure betrothed to and abandoned by the sanctimonious sexual hypocrite Angelo.
Yet, however distressed Morris was by the obviousness of Rossetti’s infatuation, he never thought of bringing things to a crisis and forbid- ding him her company, since he knew that would further alienate his wife. An alternative was to disappear himself, and this he did in the summer of 1871, all the way to Iceland, where he set about translating Njál’s Saga. There seemed no bottom to William Morris’s put-upon good nature. Before he departed for the landscape of treeless black lava beds and geysers, he and Rossetti went in search of a country house to rent for this and, perhaps, succeeding summers. They found what they were looking for in a miraculously unspoiled Elizabethan manor house at Kelmscott, near the headwaters of the Thames on the Oxfordshire–Gloucestershire border. Rossetti described it as an earthly paradise, and so it was and still is. There were seventeenth-century tapestries in situ; a walled garden; a parliament of rooks (also still there); an outdoor privy for three (convenient, in the circumstances); and no close neighbours peering in to confirm the scandalous gossip. Rossetti brought two of the antique Chinese lacquer cabinets he had been collecting and collared the perfect north-facing studio space, where he installed his bed. Morris’s unoccupied bedroom adjoined his and, beyond it, Janey’s room. On the ground floor there wasa modest dining room and a living room with a hearth of Dutch tiles installed by Janey and supplied by the Firm.
We will never know for sure whether, once the little Morris daugh- ters were asleep, Janey or Gabriel walked through William’s room, separating them, and joined their bodies. Whatever happened or didn’t happen, Rossetti was content, playing with the girls, making lovely sketches of them, walking together down to the willow-hung river; writing his sonnets in a sun-dazed trance of love. Some of them are so heavy with sexual pleasure that it is difficult to believe Rossetti was writing from wishfulness.
Even such their path, whose bodies lean unto Each other’s visible sweetness amorously, –
Whose passionate hearts lean by Love’s high decree
Together on his heart for ever true,
As the cloud-foaming firmamental blue Rests on the blue line of a foamless sea.
When summer ended, so did the idyll. Morris came back from Ice- land loaded with runic gifts for the girls. Now, at night, the missing husband and father lay literally between Gabriel and Janey’s rooms. The House of Life, the sequence of sonnets Rossetti had written as a hymn to their passion, was ridiculed by one particularly vicious critic, who sneered at him as the founder of the ‘fleshly School of poetry’; work that was indecent when it was not ridiculous. Rossetti took it badly, had a paranoid breakdown, reached for the chloral hydrate, was taken to Scotland to avoid commitment to a lunatic asylum. There, devoted friends did what they could to restore his sanity and calm. In London, in the garden of Tudor House, the animals were behaving badly. The young kangaroo had eaten its mother; the raven had bitten off the head of Jessie the owl; the armadillos were falling prey to prussic acid laid on as bait for them in the next-door garden; and a deerhound had torn another dog to pieces. Probably none of the beasts was being adequately cared for. His friends saw the menagerie as an amusement for Rossetti, who, whatever the neglect, expected the animals to per- form entertainingly for guests. He tried coming back to Kelmscott, but the summer of 1871 was never to be recaptured. He mooched and brooded, and alternated between chloral hydrate for his insomnia and whisky to cut its bitter taste. The drug put him down and the booze woke him up. By 1874 it had become unendurable. Rossetti marched out from Kelmscott, never to return, leaving behind the Chinese lac- quer cabinets, which are still there. Two years later Jane decided she would see him no more. In her absence, stricken by the loss, Rosetti found release for his desperation in the form of a succession of great, strange paintings.
His creative imagination returned to Italy, the land of his ancestry, and to Michelangelo in particular; the old mannerist Michelangelo whose figures stare and brood, turn their elongated limbs about the pictured space. There was something about Jane’s face, almost androgy- nous, that put Rossetti in mind of Michelangelo’s prisoners struggling to get loose from their bed of stone. He painted her in entrapment: the many Proserpines doomed to imprisonment in Hades after nibbling a single pomegranate seed, the fruit painted by Rossetti with tormented vividness, the gem-like seeds lying in their split casing. The paintings were accompanied always by sonnets spelling out her mournful pre- dicament, the daylight of the earth remote in the background. Then there was Janey lost in a daydream halfway up an entangling tree, her book forgotten, a wilted honeysuckle bloom in her lap. In Astarte Syri- aca, Aphrodite’s archaic predecessor, she is turned frontally to the beholder, eyes bigger, mouth fuller than ever, the green gown much closer than usual to the lines of her breasts and thighs, as though Ros- setti was painting to remember; at once more physically present and more remote than ever.
In the last years, the alternation between chloral hydrate and whisky became extreme. Rossetti’s kidneys were half destroyed and he was in a lot of pain. By the end of the 1870s he could barely walk. Tudor House was in disarray; the back-garden zoo emptied; friends sighed when they felt they should go and see him. There were days when he lay in bed staring at the blue vases filled to the brim with peacock feathers. In the summer of their delight he had painted Janey in a for- mat small enough to fit a particular ‘beautiful old frame I have’. Her head is tilted on the long swan neck; the eyes are impossibly large, the lips impossibly full; behind her are the silvery stream, a gentle swelling hill and the gables of the house: Rossetti’s house of life. Rossetti sold it, but Jane had a good copy made. Morris’s daughter May inherited the care of Kelmscott and kept it there; you can see still see it in Janey’s bedroom, where every day she would be confronted by the look of her own inconsolable wistfulness.
the-face-of-britain-hi-res-coverExtract taken from The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama (Viking).
The Face of Britain is on BBC iPlayer now. Visit Simon Schama’s Face of Britain at the National Portrait Gallery from 16th September 2015- 4th January 2016

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Shrubbery

Though hemmed in with streets, housing and a Victorian church built right over its carriage drive, the Spartalis' home in Clapham survives amid the late-nineteenth century surroundings as a substantial echo of the many Georgian mansions that once faced the Common.  

Even more magnificently, the grand interior entrance hall, columns, marble floor, staircase and lantern roof have survived the conversion of the house into sixteen spacious apartments, and have been splendidly maintained, or restored.  The effect is something like it must have been when Marie lived there with her parents, sister and brothers, and a large team of servants, accommodated on the attic level.

A big thankyou to the young residents who invited me in to admire the entrance hall on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

And here, just around the corner, is the house that Marie and William Stillman first inhabited after their marriage.  Not small, except in relation to the Shrubbery.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Italy 1430s

There is an interesting incidental remark by Lorenzo Valla, Italian scholar writing in the 1430s, where in a critical rejoinder to recently published theories on the supposed hierarchy of colour symbolism, Valla says

In my opinion, Ethiopians are more beautiful than Indians, for the very reason that they are blacker
[Et mea sententia Aethiopes Indis pulchriores, eo ipso quod nigriores sunt]

Leaving aside his opinion,  and the issue of pure versus mixed colour values, this sentence, dropped in an example or analogy, seems to indicate [a] that ‘Ethiopian’ was in general, or at least learned use, as a term for Africans, or possibly anyone with a very dark skin; and [b] that both ‘Africans’ and ‘Indians’ were sufficiently familiar in Italy for Valla to assume his contemporaries would instantly understand his point.  

Born in Rome around 1407, Valla had a rather peripatetic career owing to his critical opinions on papal power and in the mid-1440s left Italy first for Barcelona and then for Naples, before  being welcomed back to Rome and appointed apostolic secretary by a new pope.  So Valla could have been familiar with ‘Ethiopians’ in Spain or Italy.  But equally interesting is the fact that Valla’s patron during his wandering years was Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples, who as well as being a fairly aggressive ruler was a patron of the arts and a keen classicist, also had active diplomatic relations with the kingdom of Ethiopia.    According to Wikipedia, in 1428 Yeshaq I, ruler of Ethiopia, sent two envoys to Alfonso proposing an alliance against the Muslim forces, to be sealed by the marriage of Pedro, youngest prince of Aragon, to Yeshaq’s daughter – and requesting that neapolitan artisans be sent to Ethiopia as part of this deal.  The thirteen craftsmen despatched by Alfonso perished en route; several years later Alfonso wrote offering the new emperor Zara Yaqob another team of craftsmen if their safe arrival could be guaranteed, but, says Wikipedia, this letter probably never reached Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was of course a Christian realm in Africa that the Western church was well aware of – and the relationship with Alfonso V may indicate that Valla, who may have met Yeshaq's ambassadors,  meant ‘Ethiopians’ literally, not as shorthand for Africans.   

As it happens, there are portraits of two of Yeshaq's successors in the Uffizi, Florence, painted about a century after Valla's remark (the Uffizi works are careful, almost contempoary copies).  One is Lebna Dengel [aka Dawit II] who in 1520,  according to Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares, was

 'a young man, not very black.  His complexion might be chestnut or bay, not very dark in colour: he is very much a man of breeding, of middling stature; they said he was twenty-three years of age and he looks that.  His face is round, the eyes large, the nose high in the middle and his beard is beginning to grow. In presence and state he fully looks like the great lord that he is.'

described on the panel:  ATANADI ∙ DINGHIL ∙ MAGNUS ∙ ABYSSINORUM ∙ REX/ VVLGO ∙ PRETEIANES APELLATUS ∙ 1532 [Atanadi Dinghil the Great King of the Abyssinians/ Called Preteianes by the People 1532

It is not clear where the likeness of Lebna Dengal was drawn from; Paolo Giovio, who commissioned the whole series of famous men to which this work belongs, is known to have written all over Europe and the near East soliciting portraits, so it is possible it is based on a drawing, though it looks as if confected in accordance with contemporary portraiture with some reference to Alvares' description.  The second Uffizi work labelled as an Ethiopian emperor is that of Alchitrof, which seems more or less completely fictive, even if the physiognomy depicted is recognisably 'African'.  it would be interesting to discover who the original artist and patron thought the sitter to represent, and what the empty frame  he holds was intended to signify. 


Friday, 11 September 2015

Black Chronicles II / 2

The collection of photographic images depicting sitters of African ancestry in Britain in the Victorian era that is one part of the ABP Autograph project is now on view at the  Emanuel Cooper Gallery attached to the Hutchins Center, Harvard University in Cambridge MA.
The shot above shows two young South Africans who travelled to the UK with the African Choir in the 1890s.   The choir was photographed by the London Stereoscopic Co., and it looks as if these two may have been so intrigued by the whole process that the photographer used their curiosity to pose them trying out his job.   Their names were John Xiniwe and Albert Jonas, which suggests they hailed from the Transkei and Cape respectively.

Many of the Black Chronicles images, drawn from the Hulton/Getty archive,  are visually arresting, not least when they are enlarged to sizes impossible in the 19th century, with no loss of detail or quality, so good were the originals.  The exhibition runs until  11 December and then transfers to Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta. I look forward to seeing how the installation looks and compares with its appearance at INIVA in London last year  - see earlier post 12 months ago.

For more information  see also
Autograph ABP is an ongoing research, events  and exhibition project - more here 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Vanley Burke @ IKON

Photographer VANLEY BURKE has for years created a visual chronicle of experience in Birmingham since the mid-60s.   He has also collected items of political, personal and decorative interest and is a dedicated archivist of objects relating to Black people in Britain, from china tea cups to slave shackles, piles of  magazines and postcards to coats, hats and shoes. 

For the past two months, the entire contents of his apartment in north-east Birmingham have been re-displayed in the Ikon Gallery, providing a vivid sense of being 'At Home with Vanley Burke', in sitting room, work room, kitchen, bedroom.   Every object is a story - engaging, polemical, nostalgic, fortuitous, musical, angry, comical.  Visually and spatially it is literally fascinating, every eye-ful yielding different juxtapositions - with vinyl playing on the ear as well.

Burke's words provide the intellectual and historical context:
"I am informed by my desire to capture people's experience ... History always has a starting point, but we, the African-Caribbean community, didn't trust the history that was written ... we needed to start documenting and writing our own history, so I collected material that reflects us .... It was all about the process of migration and settlement .  I was conscious that while you're doing that you don't have time to record your own history or see what's happening around you. My role as artist was to observe and document thee things ... I'm also interested in mass-produced objects  - the paraphernalia that was used visually to describe black people: figurines, masks, golliwogs. Although they were not owned by us at the time, they are still part of our narrative.  It's about the process of collecting objects which are pregnant with the history of the people who have used them.  A black experience, but largely a working-class experience as well." 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Marie Spartali Flower Painting.

As well as beguiling landscapes, flower painting was another genre that Marie Spartali successfully pursued throughout her career, images which contrast with the delicacy of much of her work by being, in the words of a contemporary, ‘forcible and decisive’ – terms that are seldom applied either to her work or to flower painting in general.

As more or less the lowest genre of art, flower painting has been consistently disregarded and dismissed, except when it appears in seventeenth century Dutch examples, or in works by Van Gogh.  But down the centuries flowers have been among the most popular of subjects and certainly one that appealed to women artists who had less access to travel, to professional models, fully equipped studios or wealthy patrons.

As flowers droop, fade and drop their petals very swiftly, flower painting requires a special set of skills which often go unremarked.  In the 1860s Marie Spartali’s father bought at least one still life from Henri Fantin Latour which is now in the Metropolitan Museum.  Showing lilac blossom and white stocks in a black vase, alongside apples and pears – an unseasonable combination – this rather stiff piece may have inspired Marie when in the mid-1870s she sent several flower pieces for exhibition, in the UK and US.  They included a group of chrysanthemums and hellebore; pairings of roses and lilac, roses and lilies, roses and honeysuckle; and two wild flower subjects, ranunculae (either celandine or buttercups)  and kingcups with blackthorn.

All are apparently untraced;   the flower paintings that are known and thus available for exhibition at Delaware Art Museum seem to date from much later in Marie’s career.  As they remain in family possession they may have been done for her own satisfaction rather than for sale, a guess that is supported by the fact that several are undated.   We have chosen subjects reflecting spring, summer and autumn, and they add a vigorous, colourful dimension to her oeuvre.


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Marie Spartali and the Etruscans

As well as revealing Marie Spartali’s serious and successful exhibiting career in the United States, research for the forthcoming Poetry in Beauty exhibition at Delaware Art Museum (see post for 14 March) has discovered her very fine, atmospheric landscape painting.
Monte Luce from Perugia; private collection 
Hitherto known chiefly for ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ female figures, embowered in flowers and foliage, this aspect of her art, pursued throughout her life, deserves greater scrutiny.  Her earlier landscapes tended to depict scenes and location on the Isle of Wight where the Spartalis had a summer residence (now the barely-altered Rylestone Manor hotel).  Later, after she moved to Florence and then Rome, Italian landscapes naturally featured.  The 1890s saw a strong and striking development linked to Marie’s acquaintance with the group of artists now known as ‘the Etruscans’, which was headed by Giovanni (Nino) Costa and also attracted several British and American painters, including Frederick Leighton and Edith Murch Corbet.   
These artists, many of whom exhibited with Costa’s  In Arte Libertas shows from 1886 to 1900, remain understudied although not wholly neglected.  Rather than the familiar warm sun of  the South, their art  favoured a cooler light, typically that of early spring and early morning, wide horizontal views and gentle, often unremarkable vistas.
Spartali spent at least one memorable season alongside Costa while staying in Perugia, guest of fellow artist Lemmo Rossi-Scotti.  Costa’s habit, which Marie doubtless copied, was to rise and dawn and paint out of doors till mid-morning, resuming in late afternoon until dusk, partly perhaps to escape the mid-day heat but also in pursuit of evanescent atmospheric effects.  There were day-long excursions too, mixed in with appropriate reading from Italian sources, notably those relating to St Francis of Assisi, just 25 km from Perugia.  
Lago di Nemi; private collection
 Back in Rome, Spartali visited the famous Lake Nemi, once sacred to Diana or Artemis, depicting it in soft, pearlescent tones, and also sketched with Costa by the ancient Ponte Nomentana.   These are among the most delicate and evocative of her landscapes.  Other favoured scenes included light-filled woodland in spring, with slender trees vouchsafing a distant view of hill or hill-top town.   Often, but not always, she added figures to the landscape.  These provide scale and human interest, which was maybe chosen to appeal to buyers, for Spartali was always a professional artist with an eye to exhibition and sales.  Several of the scenes suggest however that her main pictorial interest lay in the skies, and the desire to capture their subtle atmospheric effects at different times of day.
Ponte Nomentana; Morgan Library & Museum NY

Monday, 13 July 2015

Keir Hardie by Sylvia Pankhurst

by Sir Leslie Ward for Vanity Fair, 1906
Another Socialist hero was the Labour leader Keir Hardie, the centenary of whose death this year might prompt reflection on the party’s fortunes.  It was Hardie who led the first substantial contingent of Labour MPs in the early 1900s and who helped change both the image - from top hat to cloth cap - and the content of British politics.

“From now until November the National Portrait Gallery presents a selection of portraits of the first leader of the Labour Party in Parliament, James Keir Hardie (1856-1915), to mark the centenary of his death on 26 September 2015. During his comparatively short fifty-nine years Hardie was a miner, a trade unionist, a journalist, an editor, a Member of Parliament and an anti-war campaigner. A key figure in the creation of the Labour Party as a political force, Hardie helped to radically alter the political landscape of Britain. Unique in his ability to speak directly to and for the industrial working-class in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, he was committed to ethical socialism, to the political independence of Labour and to women’s suffrage."

The NPG possesses two portraits of Hardie by Sylvia Pankhurst, Socialist, Suffragist and artist. Drawn in the final years of his life, they sadly record a prematurely aged figure, but  Pankhurst’s words testify to the significance of his life’s work.  On his death she described him as 'the greatest human being of our time' and in offering her larger image to the NPG she wrote that his place in history was important. 'I am conscious that this is only a sketch and was purely a preliminary study to assist me to do a painting.  I should not have ventured to offer it to the the National Portrait Gallery save for the fact that I believe you have no other portrait of Keir Hardie.  I think it does give an idea of the kind of man Keir Hardie was'.

On 3 September, Melissa Benn (whose late mother Caroline Benn wrote Hardie's biography) will be in conversation with Keir Starmer MP, in the NPG lecture theatre.