Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Ruskin as Educator

Mad governess or wise instructor?

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Sesame & Lilies, the texts on education and gender that have done almost as much as his unconsummated marriage to damage John Ruskin’s reputation today.  It is also 45 years, give or take a few months, since the appearance of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, which explosively began the attack from which Ruskin’s name has hardly yet recovered [I was sorry to hear the familiar assault uncritically repeated in Amanda Vickery’s recent TV series on the struggle for female suffrage]

The anniversary is the occasion for a scholarly conference in Cambridge, organised by the university there that, having begun life as Cambridge College of Art, in 2005 re-named itself Anglia Ruskin in recognition of the fact that he gave the college’s inaugural lecture in 1858.

According to the blurb, ‘Ruskin’s work is just as important today as in his own time.  He was voted one of the top ‘green campaigners of all time’ by the Guardian in 2006; he was a powerful voice in promoting women’s education, while believing passionately in ‘separate spheres’; he worked tirelessly to promote the education of the working class; he was an artist, and influential art critic and author of a brilliant example of Victorian life-writing, Praeterita.

The fun parts include a special viewing of Ruskin’s watercolours in the Fitzwilliam Museum; and a foyer performance of a comedy called Ruskin’s Women – Effie, Rosey-Posy, Joanie and who else? – by Ros Connelly, whose recent plays include  suffragette dramas about Emily Wilding Davison and Lady Constance Lytton. 

In fact, RUSKIN’S WOMEN was not about actual women but a witty unpicking  of [some] of his writings on the subject as a dialogue between a sculpted Noah and a caryatid.   Performers in the photos:   Barry Evans, Ben Kidder, Henry Lay, Isabel Rees, Kirsty Harris, Flaviana Cruz and Lydia Cato.

It complemented the academic papers, which were lively and full of humour – I’ve seldom laughed so much at a scholarly conference – and included a couple of songs composed by Ruskin as well as all manner of erudite expositions of rarely-visited texts.   So it was all fun.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Magi by Pieter Breughel the younger

Paintings by the Breughels are interesting in relation to depictions of the Magi, being rather different to Italian versions, and this newly-located work by PB younger is additionally intriguing because of the way the Holy Family are pictorially marginalised and the majority of the space is allocated to Northern peasants going about their daily business on a very snowy January day - notwithstanding the presence in their midst of two richly-laden beasts that look like mules crossed with camels, at the end of a train headed by three kings well-wrapped against the cold.    
The first two kings are already kneeling to the  almost invisible Christ Child while Balthazar, wearing a thick fur coat, strides forward bearing his gift, which looks more like pearls than myrrh.  His attendant, in heavy woollen cape and hat follows.  These two are distinctly dark-skinned, so we know the artist is conveying the message about the Wise Men representing Europe, Asia and Africa.  

But as with most of the other figures,  their features are not distinctly personalised.  None of the peasants are paying them much attention, as if Africans were everyday visitors to a Flemish village in mid-winter.   Perhaps the two guys in scarlet hose carrying halberds are some kind of official guard or escort?  There are more soldiers to the right, one of whom is heading purposefully towards cooking pots on a fire in a peasant's hut
The veiled figure in dark hat and cape walking in the procession is rather mysterious - any clues as to his identity or occupation?

Auction estimate either side of half a million euros.  Details and great close-ups  here

Sunday, 15 March 2015

More Spitalfields Nippers

Or rather, a public presentation of Horace Warner’s remarkable photographs of children in  Whitechapel in 1901 by the Gentle Author at the National Portrait Gallery at 7.00 pm on  Thursday 2 April.   More info and booking  here

and here one of the pictures – a Nipper in her best bib inspecting  a drawing by Edward Burne-Jones of Maria Zambaco (or her lookalike – many of EBJ’s careful studies have Zambaco’s features):

The Whitechapel Art Gallery was originally a development from the fine art exhibitions of works loaned by contemporary artists organised by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett of Toynbee Hall.  Rev Samuel enjoyed discoursing to those visiting the exhibitions on the high spiritual messages in pictures by G.F.Watts, Frederic Leighton, Burne-Jones etc.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Marie Spartali 3


We are getting towards the end of writing and editing the catalogue for the forthcoming exhibition opening at Delaware Art Museum in November.    There will be a total of 41 pictures by Marie, plus 8 works showing images of her by other artists, and some decorative items, including embroidered slippers and japanesy designs for room screens.  A good number of the exhibits have not been seen in public for the last century or more; others have been briefly glimpsed since the 1980s in auction rooms and exhibitions, so maybe half altogether have never been available for sustained attention.

One of the most interesting aspects of the search for exhibits and the accompanying research into them is the revelation that Spartali Stillman, hitherto mainly known as a Pre-Raphaelite successor in the British context, is that her career was as much if not more successful in the United States, where she exhibited consistently from the 1870s onwards.  In her catalogue essay Margaretta Frederick explores the artistic networks in New York and New England that Marie was engaged with, initially through her husband but soon very much on her own account.  Henry James was an early admirer of her work, commenting on this picture:

The interest resides partly in the peculiar beauty of the model, and partly, chiefly even, in the remarkable, the almost touching, good faith of the work. The type of face and the treatment suggest the English pre-Raphaelite school, but in so far as the artist is a pre-Raphaelite, she is evidently a sincere and, as we may say, a natural one. There is a vast amount of work in the picture, little of which is easy and some of which is even awkward, but its patience, its refinement, its deep pictorial sentiment, give the whole production a singular intensity. . . . We have seen things of late which had more skill and cleverness, but we have seen nothing which, for reasons of its own, has been more pleasing. There is something in Mrs. Stillman’s picture which makes a certain sort of skill seem rather inexpensive, and renders cleverness vulgar; an aroma, a hidden significance, a loveliness.

A more fulsome American critic was James Jackson Jarves, who was however less specific in his observation and so effusive as to be therefore less effective:

The paintings of Mrs. Stillman are romances in color. Her color sense is so strong that it overpowers every other artistic feature, and she breathes, thinks, and works under its absolute dictation. For it all other points in picture composition are sacrificed or made wholly subservient. It is an effect of temperament, and modified only by a picturesque poetical sentiment which finds its native expression in heart-warm tints and glowing combinations and contrasts. These two forces beget a kind of troubadour and medieval literature in color, pastoral lyrics, and whatever breathes innocence, culture, transparent, stainless emotions and character, happiness unconscious of evil and strong in its might of virtue, rejoicing in nature’s deepest greens, ethereal blues of perfect skies and unbroken sunshine, bright flowers of paradisiac hues, harmonizing with rival colors, of richest, graceful costumes amid limpid fountains and emeraldine waters, their silent music stealing over the senses so irresistibly that we feel Ponce de Leon’s search for the fabled fountain of youth has at last been successful and the spectator has entered the veritable Garden of the Hesperides and become one of the guileless, beautiful dwellers therein. Perpetual youth, beauty, gay romance, and serious passion undefiled become tangible realities to a receptive mind, able to comprehend that art has a loftier mission than to imitate nature, and is never so great as when using its own creative, intuitive powers to make a world of its own, apart from the natural, everyday world.

As often happens with pioneering exhibitions that aim to showcase unfamiliar or overlook artists’ work, re-discoveries keep cropping up.  We think the guillotine is now down on exhibits, but as there remain quite a number of untraced pieces that were shown and even reproduced hen exhibited for example at the Grosvenor Gallery, one can never tell;  if one or other most-sought-after picture were suddenly to surface, I at least would be keen to add it to the exhibition.  It is only by actual sight of Spartali Stillman’s work that its range and qualities can be fairly assessed.

So, if anyone knows of a hitherto unlocated picture, please let us know.

Catalogue details:
Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman is made possible, in part, with a gift from the Delaware Art Museum Docents in memory of Evelyn Tietze, a Museum Docent for more than 30 years. Additional support is provided by grants from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.
Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman / edited by Margaretta S. Frederick and Jan Marsh. Published in conjunction with an exhibition held at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Del. Nov. 7, 2015 – Jan. 31, 2016 and at the Watts Gallery, Compton, Guildford, UK (Feb-May 2016).
ISBN 978-0-9960676-1-4
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Stillman, Marie Spartali, 1844-1927
Published by Delaware Art Museum. Distributed by Antique Collectors’ Club.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Philip Webb 2015 @ SPAB

More on Philip Webb centenary at Red House & Standen  here

lifted in toto from SPAB website

The best man I ever knew’William Morris
Philip Webb (12 January 1831 – 17 April 1915) is often referred to as the ‘Father of Arts and Crafts Architecture’ yet his name is not as familiar as many others connected with the influential movement. In 1877, with William Morris, he was the co-founder of SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings). In 2015 Britain’s longest established heritage body will mark the centenary of his death with the re-launch of a major award for architectural students judged by an expert panel led by Webb enthusiast Kevin McCloud.

The Philip Webb Award 2015 will focus on Standen in West Sussex, Webb’s great country house built for the Beale family. SPAB is delighted to be working with the National Trust to offer students the opportunity to follow in Webb’s footsteps and devise a sympathetic and imaginative scheme for Standen’s courtyard and barn. The competition will be the centrepiece of a range of events and activities organised by SPAB (with other organisations and individuals) throughout the coming year to increase awareness of Webb’s important legacy.

Philip Speakman Webb was born in Oxford. As a young man he was articled to firms of builder-architects in Wolverhampton and Reading. He moved to London where he eventually became a junior assistant to architect George Edmund Street. In 1856, while working for Street, he met William Morris. The two were to become close friends and collaborators, a relationship embodied by Morris’ influential home, Red House, at Bexleyheath southeast London designed by Webb as his first independent commission.
The country house was to become Webb’s favoured niche and Standen (near East Grinstead) is a perfect surviving example of his skill and distinctive style.

Webb and Morris were key figures in the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements of the late 19th century.  Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were partners in their interior decorating and furnishing business.  Inspired by the skilled workmanship of earlier generations and alarmed by Victorian zeal for the conjectural ‘restoration’ of ancient buildings which often obliterated all traces of the past, Webb and Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.
With Morris, Webb wrote the SPAB Manifesto, one of the key documents in the history of building conservation. Its central call:
To put Protection in the place of Restoration. To stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands.” 
…an eloquent appeal for conservation rather than intrusive restoration, continues to underpin the Society’s work and approach in the 21st century.

Webb attended over 700 SPAB Committee meetings as well as undertaking numerous site visits. Today the Society is the proud guardian of much of his correspondence and design work. Many events arranged to celebrate Philip Webb in 2015 will draw on SPAB’s fascinating and unique archive.

In 1901 Philip Webb retired to the country and ceased practising. However, he continued to be an influence on the "school of rational builders" surrounding  SPAB stalwart William Lethaby, and Ernest Gimson and his community of architect-craftsmen based at Sapperton in Gloucestershire.

SPAB’s Philip Webb Centenary Programme for 2015
A series of events and activities throughout 2015 to mark the centenary of the death of architect Philip Webb, co-founder of the SPAB and a highly significant, though sometimes under-appreciated, figure in the history of conservation. Events confirmed to date include:
January – December 2015   Online Exhibition
A virtual exhibition, updated month by month, exploring Webb’s life and work, including items from collections at the SPAB, National Trust, William Morris Gallery and Emery Walker House, some not usually on show to the public. The exhibition goes live on 12 January to mark the date of Webb’s birth in 1831. To view, go to
March 2015                            SPAB Spring Lecture Series:
‘So great a man that no one has heard of him’  (William Lethaby)
A series of lectures celebrating Philip Webb drawing on new research and discoveries at Red House and in the SPAB’s archive. All lectures 6.15pm for 6.30pm at St Botolph’s Hall, Bishopsgate, London    (SPAB members £8/£28 for all four; non-members £9/£32 for all four. Ticket includes wine reception.)
5 March           Introducing Philip Webb                                              Peter Burman (SPAB Guardian)
12 March         Philip Webb, William Morris and Red House        Tessa Wild (National Trust)
19 March         Webb through his letters                                              John Aplin (author)
25 March         Webb’s enduring influence                                          Michael Drury (architect)
More information and booking:

These photos below of Arisaig House, near Mallaig.  Webb also designed the nearby village hall which by contrast looks just like a barn