Friday, 19 October 2018

Black is the new Black

Portraits by Simon Frederick

Portraits by Simon Frederick

29 September 2018 - 27 January 2019
National Portrait Gallery London
 Room 33, Floor 1
Black is the New Black brings together exceptional figures from the world of politics, business, culture, religion and science to celebrate black British achievement today. Artist and director Simon Frederick photographed sitters ranging from Naomi Campbell, Sir Trevor McDonald and Thandie Newton to musician Jazzie B of Soul II Soul and footballer Les Ferdinand, to recognise the profound impact of black individuals on British culture. The portraits were made as part of Frederick’s acclaimed BBC Two documentary series of 2016 on black culture in modern Britain. This display celebrates their acquisition as the largest group of portraits of Afro-Caribbean sitters into the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Black Tudors at NPG

On 18 October at the National Portrait Gallery in London  Dr. Miranda Kaufmann tells the intriguing tales of three Africans living in Tudor England – a diver employed by Henry VIII to recover guns from the wreck of the Mary Rose, a Moroccan woman baptized in Elizabethan London and a porter who whipped a fellow servant at their master's Gloucestershire manor house. Their stories shed light on key questions: how did they come to England? What were their lives like? How were they treated by the church and the law?
Tickets from NPG website
Miranda Kaufmann is author of Black Tudors, published by Oneworld in 2017 and shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2018.  She is also author of the entry for trumpeter John Blanke (fl.1507-1512) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Pre-Raphaelite Women re-viewed

as my book on the Legend of Elizabeth Siddal demonstrates, I've long been a fan of interpretations and re-imaginings of Pre-Raphaelite (hi)stories,
and here is the latest version with a large cast list of women as you've seldom seen them before.
PRE-RAPHAELITE GIRL GANG by Kirsty Stonell Walker of the Kissed Mouth BlogSpot contains capsule accounts of 50 individuals,  chronologically from Julia Cameron to Noel Laura Nisbet, alphabetically from Anna Blunden to Maria Zambaco, and arguably (even if Pre-Raphaelite is now an extremely baggy denotation) including Anna Lea Merritt and Lillie Langtry. 
You can test your knowledge by naming those in the re-visioned thumbnails above by Kingsley Nebechi, although only 30 are included in this sheet, no doubt owing to space issues - all 50 have comparable images within the book, together with 4 pages of text and images.  Graphic reinterpretations like this are a new[ish] departure, to add to the fictions and dramas and historical accounts.
I miss seeing Cathy Madox Brown and Becky Solomon, and you can probably add further candidates for the next collection.   I will add links to ordering the book as soon as 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Dido Belle and Lady Elisabeth

The Fake or Fortune programme also investigated this most wonderful double portrait from Scone castle showing the Earl of Mansfield's great-nieces Dido and Elizabeth, in the grounds of Kenwood House, where they lived, giving each almost equal pictorial importance despite the social gulf between the daughter of an enslaved mother and an aristocratic one. 
This alone would make it astonishing, but the whole lively presentation of the two sitters is notable. 
As James Mulraine wrote way back in 2014
"It is a remarkable painting. The staging implies that the two girls have been surprised by the arrival of a visitor, the viewer. Lady Elizabeth Murray composes herself according to etiquette, reading, or pretending to read, but from her smile and Dido’s barely-suppressed grin it’s clear they’ve been laughing just that moment before. More importantly, Dido has leapt to her feet, but Lady Elizabeth’s touch on her arm restrains her, as if she is saying she can sit down again. Dido is dressed in a turban like a black attendant in a painting, but they seem more like sisters."

That idea/illusion surely marked a breach in etiquette that must have been endorsed by the Murrays, and presumably also by Mansfield, who paid for the portrait.
F or F did a good job in locating the £200 payment in Mansfield's accounts, although I am surprised that this had not been done earlier, as it's the obvious source. Furthermore, the payment identified the artist as David Martin (1737-1797), pupil and colleague of Allan Ramsay, the foremost Scottish portraitist.
There seems to be some ongoing debate about this identification, but it is eminently defensible.

Other, independent research by Etienne Daly conjecturally identified Dido's turban with  one presented to her father Sir John Lindsay, who as well as his naval career in the Atlantic and Caribbean, was posted to India in 1769.   He is said to have received from the ruler of Arcot Amir ul Hind, Walla Jaha  a dress of gold brocade, an inscribed ring and a turban, the last of which may be  the jewelled turban that Dido is shown wearing, with an additional black ostrich feather to put it at the forefront of European fashion. 

As it happens,  Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray are not the only eighteenth century portrait sitters to have been thus depicted as a pair.   But these two are clearly mistress and maid, although the latter also wears a black ostrich feather and has laid her hand familiarly on her companion's shoulder.   Is there any information on this painting?

May Morris to be seen in Edinburgh

two bits of May Morris news.
 POEM by Sarah Doyle
       I’m the life picked out in needlework, embroidered,
       a chain-stitch away from parents whose artistry was
       remarkable. I am the satin-stitch of dusky grapes, a
       woman with fingers that spun silvery vines, wrought
       always in a green that winter cannot wither. This I
       was, and am, and more. I am a tangle of strawberries,
       though this seed did not fall far from its trees. I am
       none and all of these. I am fastened, coiled in skeins
       of inheritance, soft as heather, the trellis of violets
       you could almost smell. I am speckling feathers that
       seemed to take flight, birds fledged of frame, calling
       to my herringbone soul, a fly-stitch song. I am all that I
       think and sew, all that I made and did not make. And
       So the silk is cut, and I am where the threads break.
Published in Pre-Raphaelite Review  Spring 2018

@PoetSarahDoyle:   'The May Morris quotes were painted onto the walls at the William Morris exhibition, and I found those two lines really inspiring! She’s a fascinating and important figure.'.

'May Morris Art and Life' will be re-shown, in slightly different iteration, at the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, in autumn 2019.  In due course the information will be posted here

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Tudor tomb effigies

Recently, when doing other things, I've fortuitously visited several churches with memorable memorials, making it seem I'm a bit fixated on death.  But that how life is.
The latest was St Briavels in the Forest of Dean, where are these effigies to William (died 1573) and his wife Mariana (born Catchmay) reclining on their elbows almost as if woken fully clothed from the marital bed.

William's left hand holds a bible or prayerbook, probably signifying the protestant faith, and his left hand rests on a now-damaged skull.  Their four children, including one still swaddled who presumably died while a baby, are represented on the tomb side.   

That's about all the information the memorial (and church) offer so I don't know who they were, except that both Warrens and more notably Catchmays were local gentry, and one may assume the memorial was erected by a surviving child.   Most striking are the strong sculptural lines of their robes with deeply incised folds and the expressive facial features,  William appropriately sombre, Marian with a curious half-smile.
Equally striking are the traces of colour on the stone, showing that William's gown and pillow were originally painted black, and Marian's lips and cheeks were rouged.  This, together with the skull and elbow poses, is similar to the female effigies in Hatfield that I saw back in July.  
So I'm now on a hunt for more painted  Tudors and Jacobeans.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Aboliitonist painting by Emma Soyer

Features on BBC1 Fake or Fortune tonight
It really wasn't difficult to identify the artist as she signed and dated the work on the elder girl's sash, and E Jones is readily found as the future wife of Alexis Soyer.
And it is very obviously an anti-slavery image [ the plastic palm trees are a giveaway, together with the Bible that enslaved people were prevented from reading, according to indignant campaigners]
It's a shame however that the programme did not search Abolitionist literature to see whether the painting was reproduced anywhere as an engraving, it carrying such an eloquent message.  it looks tailor-made for use by the movement.
It's also notable that it was painted in 1831 - the year  that ended with the great Jamaican slave revolt led by Samuel Sharpe,  when expectations of emancipation had been dashed.   This was the political context of an otherwise supremely sentimental picture.
Some Abolitionists in Britain and missionaries in the Caribbean had been predicting that William IV would end enslavement, and the work stoppage when this did not happen was countered by violence that killed hundreds of Black Jamaicans.   Only the election of the Reform parliament brought  anti-slavery legislation in Britain, initially in 1833, finally in 1838.
Another unexplored aspect of Emma Soyer's painting is its unrecorded history. It was not exhibited or sold in her lifetime, but , as 'Two Negro Children with a Book' passed in 1859 after her husband's death to one of his creditors.   Possibly the debts were paid off by Soyer's surviving brothers in France, which is where the canvas was when inherited by the present owner.
Emma Jones Soyer (1813-1842)  was a precociously successful and prolific artist
This stipple engraving is copied from a self-portrait showing herself at the easel.  The loose ringlets appear to date the likeness to around 1840.  She died  during pregnancy.


Monday, 27 August 2018

William Morris in the East End

check out this really good posting from the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life, tracing WM's political occasions in London's then working class EastEnd


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Flaxman in Cookham

Village churches are an recurrent source of unexpectedness.  Hard on the scary sculpted cadaver in Hatfield, here is John Flaxman's consoling memorial to a gentleman who died suddenly, presumably from a stroke or cardiac arrest,  while on the river Thames by his home in Cookham.

Enchantingly, Sir Isaac is shown wearing coat and breeches, as he must have died, reclining in a punt, gently lapped by river waves.  He is held in a pieta pose by the Angel of Death, with encircling draperies to soften the Georgian garments,  while a sturdy local ferryman punts the barque to a 'better state' across the Stygian waters to the afterlife or to oblivion.   A nice blend of classical and Christian notions cast in Regency mode and rendered with perfect pictorial balance and exquisite relief by Flaxman's magisterial line.  The widow's epigraph is pretty fine, too.

The churchyard outside is where Spencer famously set his scene of the Christian Resurrection.   Graves today still await Day of Reckoning/Opening, but on a quiet sunny day it would seem a shame to disturb them. 
I wonder what Spencer made of Flaxman's punt?   though possibly he seldom went inside the parish church as I think his family were Dissenters.   In the Cookham Museum is Spencer's last and unfinished painting of Christ preaching at the Regatta, with locals and holiday-makers in rows of punts.   Christ and bearded, barefoot  disciples all in Dissenting grey, sitting in basket chairs in the wide flat punt that was the horse-ferry when Spencer was young.  It's not clear what the sermon - apparently to children and villagers not holiday-makers - was about, but presumably one or other of the Parables would fit the occasion...

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Eastbury Manor

This rather overlooked NT property is worth an excursion, and not hard to each via District Line or Overground.  Like Red House it was surrounded in 1920s by suburban housing so the situation isn't alluring,  although birds and walks are not far away at Rainham Marshes.

The building is a more-or-less intact Elizabethan mansion built in brick for a merchant on land that formerly belonged to Barking Abbey.  H-plan with one surviving of two roof towers from which the merchant [one surmises] could watch for his and others' ships heading for home. Many Tudor chimneys, more than hearths, apparently to impress.   One surviving staircase tower with ancient oak treads.   

 Plus some surviving 17th century mural fragments in Italianate style.  Best of all, the long east side attic floor, with great roof timbers.  Done on the self-assembly basis, parts having carpenters' marks to show which beam fitted where..

A simple tea-room and courtyard garden.  

Sunday, 12 August 2018

De Morgans and Morrises

The links between the Morris family and Evelyn and William de Morgan are well documented.  May Morris recalled the youthful pleasure of watching the unpacking of a de Morgan firing to see the shining colour of glazes and lustres fresh from the kiln, and the child-delighting riddles and puns that the two Williams exchanged.   During the 1890s and 1900s William’s sister Mary de Morgan was a frequent visitor at Kelmscott Manor and Kelmscott House, sharing Jane’s committment to embroidery.  Evelyn was a more silent member of the friendship, but is of course known for her portrayal of Janey in The Hour Glass.

Evelyn’s chalk portrait of Jenny was purchased by Mary Annie Sloane at the Kelmscott Manor sale after May’s death.  But what happened to her dramatic chalk study of Luna, in gold paint on dark paper?  It was also in the Kelmscott collection, having presumably been given by Evelyn to Jane sometime after the oil version was exhibited in 1886.
The crescent moon in darkness, personified as a sleeping figure enmeshed in ropes that suggest loose entanglement rather than bondage, exemplifies Evelyn’s symbolic iconography of the human soul in  thrall to materialism before the dawn of spiritual enlightenment.  The Spiritualist movement in the late-Victorian era, to which both de Morgans (and William’s parents) subscribed,  held, or hoped, that the individual soul survived death to progress to further development.   The majority of Evelyn’s paintings express such belief in various pictorial forms.

Jane Morris apparently had similar ideas, although actual documentation is so far sparse.  In 1897  she wrote that she hoped that animals would be treated with less cruelty than was common, adding ‘for myself, I have long believed in the transmigration of souls, and consequently have regarded all living creatures with reverence.’    We don’t know when or why Janey adopted this belief in reincarnation, borrowed by Victorian Theosophy from Hindu and Buddhist thought, but it made for a link of sympathy with the De Morgans.   They believed in the soul’s evolution after death, though not, I think, in its transmigration into other bodies, including animals and insects.
One would like to know more about Janey’s belief system, as well as the fate of Evelyn’s gilded moon..

Sunday, 5 August 2018

May Morris & Ada Culmer

Those wishing to know more about Jenny Morris may be interested in  the correspondence from  May Morris to Ada Culmer [above, far right] who acted as Jenny's carer/companion, which is in the library of Duke University, North Carolina 

Friday, 13 July 2018

Burne-Jones in Hatfield

Maybe more accurately ‘after Burne-Jones’  for this is a window to his designs in Hatfield parish church, adjacent to the Cecils’ mansion Hatfield House. 
The four-figure group of Martyrs was installed in 1894, commemorating the widow of Charles Drage, a London physician buried in the churchyard.  It thus post-dates Morris's active involvement in the Firm's commissions.  And if his refusal to install new glass in old churches had not of itself  denied Hatfield this window, one feels his political convictions would have blocked any dealings with a church so closely linked to the imperial prime minister Lord Salisbury.


On the opposite wall is an angelic trio, who represent Suffering and Charity flanking the Sun of Righteousness, which was a post-WWI memorial to three Cecil scions.   These splendid figures were the work of Christopher Whall.


Though Burne-Jones had no such political qualms about mixing with Tories, it is unlikely that  he visited Hatfield.  If he had, with his liking for 'bogie' images, he might have been delighted by two older tombs with memento mori motifs:  one with the recumbent effigy of the first Earl supported by four sturdy Virtues - Justice on right in photo - and suspended over a tremendous marble skeleton:

and another with two wonderful Jacobean women from the Brocket family reclining uncomfortably together, over a skull. 

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

RA History show

in the spacious Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy
which when I visited were virtually deserted compared to crowds in main exhibition
is a selection of pieces shown during the 250 year history of  the RA
first at Somerset House, then in National Gallery and since 1868 at Burlington House.
It's a interesting survey-cum-mix, with no patchwork jumbling of objects, and does a reasonable job of chronicling change in pictorial taste over the centuries, with the type of 'correct' chronological display that is so out of fashion right now.
Here: Turner / Constable / Millais / Minton / Emin / Kitaj
many more [but not too many] on view.

 Kitaj's Assassination of the Killer-Critic,   has this detail lower left



Tuesday, 26 June 2018

RA comedy show

One can't help feeling  that both contributors and selectors [led by Grayson P] have been having  a good laugh creating this year's Royal Academy summer exhibition.  The sherbet yellow room is a sort of satire on the traditional jumble of  disparate large and small serious and comical works, with surely more of the last category than usual.   With such a hodge-podge, it's really hard to see what one is looking at, and the eye swiftly tires of the juxtaposed disparity.  Or quickly re-adjusts to a kind of five-second jump-cut viewing, as with videos and television.  
 And there are lots of objects plainly made to make one laugh out loud.  Which may be one of the main functions of contemporary art  - Perry's own is often in this vein.

Joana Vasconcelos' opening piece says it all, in a way - as well as being too overbearing to  contain in one shot....
I did like this exhibit, made I think from flattened bottle-caps:

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Shonibare in Rome

The Invisible Man is a new piece by Yinka Shonibare, installed in the Barbarini Corsini National Gallery in Rome, as part of a project to create 'a dialogue between the work of old masters and contemporary artists on the theme of the portrait and the self-portrait', entitled Eco e Narcisso.

Other works range from Caravaggio to Giulio Paolini, from Raphael to Richard Serra, from Bernini to Yan Pei Ming, from Piero di Cosimo to Kiki Smith, from Luigi Ontani to Pietro da Cortona.    The Invisible Man has been acquired for the MAXXI collection [Museo delle Arte de XXI secolo - geddit?] located in the via Guido Reni.  

If not exact to the theme, it's very apt to the moment, because even though the figure is clad in sort-of 18th century costume, he's plainly a homeless, anonymous migrant.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Burne-Jones's mosaic in Rome

Chiesa di San Paolo entro le mura (St. Paul's Within the Walls) is a Protestant church designed by  George Edmund Street and built  in 1873-1880. It was the first non-Catholic church built in Rome after Papal jurisdiction was reduced to the Vatican in 1870, and ministered to the growing community of American residents and visitors to the city.
The red-and-white exterior, in travertine and red brick, looks out of place in late-Baroque Rome, but reflects northern Italian Gothic architecture of which Street had made a special study. It also pays respects to the tower of Santa Maria Maggiore, nearby.
The internal mosaics are by Edward Burne-Jones, whose compositional skills, colour sense and theological sensitivity enabled him to create designs perfectly in keeping with the mosaic means as well as his own well-crafted aesthetic. 
The top pic is from the church's website, the one below taken on site and oddly bleached by the light.  It is a very impressive effect, but also restrained.   Similarly, the apsidal scheme offers homage to that by Jacapo Torriti in Sta Maria Maggiore, but without that scheme's full-on Catholic veneration of the Virgin, which Protestants do not endorse. 
Instead, EBJ's iconography includes the Annunciation set in a desert landscape.  Below this a Tree of Life with Adam and Eve and children, which is also a Crucifixion.  Then Christ Enthroned in the Heavenly Jerusalem and on the main register The Earthly Paradise or The Church Militant, with massed ranks of pious women and men and a phalanx of high-stepping horses. 
One senses that EBJ had fun designing all this, ignoring St Paul's preaching and epistles.

IN FACT as Scott Buckle has shown from a surviving study of the white horse, the horses and sundry other details including heads of saints and martyrs, were drawn by Thomas Rooke, who had a hand in or finished various pieces by EBJ.  Presumably the components of the  scheme were in EBJ's design, and Rooke was practised in emulating the style; so to whom should the ensemble be credited?

Friday, 8 June 2018

Ignatius Sancho on stage

Currently playing at Wilton's Music Hall in Wapping is the solo show by Patterson Joseph narrating the life of Ignatius Sancho, one of the best-known African citizens of London in the 18th century, who became a composer, campaigner and shopkeeper, and was probably the first man of colour to vote in a parliamentary election, when the franchise depended on property ownership. 
Born on a Spanish slave ship around 1729 and taken to Britain in 1731, he worked for three sisters in Greenwich and then for the Duke of Montagu before opening a grocery store in Westminster.  He married a Caribbean woman and had several children, and died in 1780.
Sancho's story is known from his own writings, his correspondence with Laurence Sterne being published in 1782, and from his letters to the press  and involvement in the nascent anti-slavery movement.  His appearance is known from the portrait by Thomas Gainsborough

which Patterson Joseph recreates on stage, apart from the hair - it's not clear from the portrait whether Sancho's is fashionably long or a black Georgian-style wig,  but he's clearly presented as a Georgian-style gentleman. 
From his years as a footman and valet, through his time as a tradesman, friendship with Sterne and casting his vote for Charles James Fox, Joseph's is a witty account of Sancho, following the historical sources but including dramatic animadversions, and a tour de force in terms of theatrical event. 

Here is a review by Chris Omaweng

and here are details of the current performances :

One episode in the show evokes Sancho's music, which includes fashionable dance minuets, reels and songs.  More about his compositions here:

Wilton's Music Hall is a resurrected building that has lately been preserved in all its decay.  As a theatre it was designed for comedians and popular song-and-dance acts and just about works for Joseph's energetic Sancho monologue, but places most of the audience rather far from performer.  However, its historical quality certainly adds to the theme of  forgotten stories.

I'm wondering if some enterprising actors are thinking of dramatising the life of Francis Barber?   There should be some good scenes to write set in Samuel Johnson's house, especially when Barber entertained his fellow Black Londoners there