Sunday, 28 February 2016

Marie Spartali preview peek

POETRY in BEAUTY will be at the Watts Gallery, Compton from  Tuesday 1 March till Sunday 5 June.  Here are a couple of advance views, looking a bit dim as the lighting was not yet in place.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Neglected or Forgotten

As a trailer for POETRY IN BEAUTY opening at the Watts Gallery on 1 March, I have been invited to give a lecture on the programme of the Arts & Crafts Movement in Surrey, which takes place on Thursday 25 February 7.30 at the Watts Gallery.  

This will be an introduction to the women artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, among whom Marie Spartali Stillman is perhaps the most significant.  It will cover other neglected or forgotten artists, including Joanna Boyce Wells, Rosa Brett, Rebecca Solomon, Lucy Madox Brown, Evelyn de Morgan – all of whom made serious contributions to the art of their time.  

They also represent a whole tranche of aspiring women whose ambitions were never fulfilled and whose names remain obscure.  For  contrary to popular myths of a raunchily macho movement, women were active in Pre-Raphaelitism from the beginning, as artists and craftswomen as well as models; and in general the PRBs were surprisingly welcoming, though not what we’d call egalitarian.    
Strikingly, one artist who has received a good deal of attention but whose work was barely known at the time is Elizabeth Siddal, who is today more famous than all the others.   Her tragic life-story adds to the fascination, of course, but equally intriguing is the as-yet uncovered tale of how she transformed herself from a dressmaker-cum-model into an artist of intense, na├»ve watercolours that continue to attract critical notice.

For more details of this lecture and others in the spring and summer programme  contact

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The End of Empire

TATE BRITAIN’s current exhibition Artists and Empire has an arresting, if melancholy, complement just upstairs in the long Duveen Gallery,  which is an awkward grand space for viewing any art that is not sculptural.   

Susan Phillipsz’s installation is a soundscape in the otherwise empty halls – a sequence of echoing notes that resonate gently through the air as background until one listens, drawn in by the insistent, sombre sounds even without knowing what they represent. 

According to the blurb War Damaged Musical Instruments features fourteen recordings made on British & German brass and wind instruments damaged in conflicts over the past two centuries.  Though the sequence is so fragmented that only aural glimpses are heard, it is based on the notes of the Last Post, now used a final farewell in British military funerals.  Hence the melancholy.  
Video images of the battered bugles,  horns and saxophone illustrate the recording process,  and though it’s not self-evident that  the instruments had to be war-damaged, the fact adds poignancy to the project.
Which was actually conceived as a contribution to the World War One commemoration that began in 2014, and as Tate points out, has a special relation to the site, part of which was then a military hospital (and was conveniently adjacent to the hospital for officers only, now occupied by Chelsea  College of Art.)

However, the fading notes sounding through the deserted galleries also reverberate fittingly with the memorials to the British Empire on the floor below, calling to mind the many deaths that short-lived enterprise was responsible for – mainly among those who resisted imperial aggression,  but  among the imperialist soldiery too.

The Last Post also seems to symbolize the death of Empire,  both as a politico-economic endeavour and as an idea that has now virtually vanished from British consciousness but has still-vivid traces of its impact on the colonized world.   As illustrated in the triptych Lay back, keep quiet and think of what made Britain so great, by Sonia Boyce, which is in Artists & Empire.

Sonia Boyce /Arts Council

Helen Muspratt Photographer

UPDATE   June 2017

 New exhibition of work by Helen Muspratt from 1920s to 1940s,focussing on her links with Dorset,  currently at Durlstone Castle country Park, Swanage.  Featuring portraits of PAul Nash, Eileen Agar, Hilda & Mary Spencer Watson, not forgetting the now-anonymous young Welshman seen with his violin busking in Swanage during the Great Depression.

For more on Helen Muspratt,  see Joanna Moorhead in Independent  here [though the headline a bit misleading I think]

Dorothy Hodgkin 1937 / Estate of Helen Muspratt 

Hilda & Mary Spencer Watson 1932
Estate of Helen Muspratt
 Born into an army family in India in 1907, Helen Muspratt was a lifelong communist, a member of the Cambridge intellectual milieu of the 1930s, and a working mother at a time when such a role was unusual for women of her class. She was also a pioneering photographer, creating an extraordinary body of work in many different styles and genres. 

Her experimental photography using techniques such as solarisation and multiple exposure was contemporary with the innovations of Man Ray and Lee Miller. 

Her political convictions led to important documentary records of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and  desperate unemployment in the Welsh Valleys.  

Soviet Farmworkers 1937 / Estate of Helen Muspratt

Unemployed miners scavenging coal / Estate of Helen Muspratt

Paul Nash  / Helen Muspratt
Tess Mayor / Helen Muspratt
In partnership with Lettice Ramsey she made portraits of many notable figures in the fields of science and culture, becoming one of the most eminent portrait photographers of the twentieth century.  

Critical to her work was a preoccupation with the face – her attention to the ‘shape and angle’ of the head lies at the root of all her pictures.

Helen's daughter Jessica Sutcliffe is an architect specialising in historic buildings. Following Helen’s death in 2001, she became increasingly aware of her mother’s importance in the history of twentieth century photography.  She says: 'Both Helen’s work and the story of her life are of considerable interest and many have suggested that a book should be produced combining the two. As her daughter and owner of the archive, it has fallen to me to carry out this task.’  

Face: Shape and Angle,  the handsome book from Manchester University Press, reveals the full range of Helen Muspratt's aesthetic and historic achievements, containing hundreds of striking and compassionate pictures, and a revealing biography, exploring her life, work, politics and family life.

 Face: Shape and Angle  details here

In addition to the book, there is an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester - the first of many displaying Helen Muspratt's work.  
Pallant House exhibition  details here

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Ira Aldridge on Stage

RED VELVET, the play based on the career of Ira Aldridge, first staged at the Tricycle, is on again for a few weeks at the Garrick Theatre in London.  Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, the leading role is played by her husband Adrian Lester.   Book-ended by scenes set in Poland at the time of Aldridge’s death there in 1867, its central section dramatizes his success as Othello at Covent Garden in 1833, when he briefly took over from the famous Edmund Kean, before being frozen out of the two London prestige theatres (the only houses permitted to stage Shakespeare’s plays).  Thereafter Aldridge built his reputation touring the rest of Britain and extended it magnificently throughout Europe, notably in Prussia, Russia and Poland.

Red Velvet very effectively presents the huge challenge Aldridge’s talent posed both theatrically and socially – the former through what seemed at the time such amazing naturalism that audiences verily believed his Othello was strangling Desdemona, the latter through race prejudices that saw African heritage individuals only as slaves and servants (it was a moment of tension, 1833 being the start-date of emancipation in British colonies).  There is an audible gasp on stage and in the audience when Aldridge first touches white actress Ellen Tree.   One beautifully choreographed scene is the handkerchief dialogue between Desdemona and Othello, played in full neo-classical gestural style, blending stagey attitudes with intense emotion to convey the radical effect Aldridge had on his audiences.  

photo Tristram Kenton

Also included, briefly, is the perspective of a (fictional) serving maid from the Caribbean, whose role is realistically mostly silent.  After the performance she asks Aldridge, ‘why you kill your wife on the back of such careless talk?  Marryin’ into that worl’s a mistake… mo’ often than not people mostly have two face, don’t you think?’

As Othello, so Aldridge.  After triumph, downfall.    Despite success, Covent Garden’s reluctant acceptance of a black leading actor is swiftly terminated by the ugly reviews which mocked Aldridge’s performance, facial features and pronunciation, and the general outrage that ‘Covent Garden have brought out a genuine nigger to act Othello’ when ‘an African is ‘no more qualified to personate Othello’ than a fat man to act Falstaff on the basis of girth alone.  Audiences were enthusiastic, but Aldridge’s career on the main stages of London was thwarted.

A drama can only cover some parts of a true life.  Red Velvet is thankfully very true to history, as well as to present-day issues in showbiz.  But I was sorry that it presents Aldridge’s life overall as a tragedy, ending with his premature death in the role of deposed, old, insane King Lear.   The play might have concluded with one of the royal presentations in Germany, Austria, Imperial Russia, where audiences acclaimed what London denied itself for so long.