Over the lifetime of Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays I have been to more exhibitions than I can count. I began to delete the really old posts and then got all nostalgic, so am gathering them all here instead. Multiple visits to museums are made so much easier by being a member, take a look at my guide of London Museum Membership and also my carefully researched guide to London Museum Cafes.
London Exhibitions Autumn 2015
DEBORAH, DUCHESS of DEVONSHIRE: Auction at Sotheby’s
Elvis, chickens, books and diamonds; an eclectic mix that reflects the wide ranging enthusiasms of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire. She was the youngest of the endlessly fascinating Mitford sisters and seems to have known almost everybody who was interesting in the twentieth century. She left the contents of her final home to her family, they have taken their pick and now the remainder is up for sale at Sotheby’s.
Estimates start at £10 and rise to ten of thousands of pounds. Look in any provincial auction house and you will see bone china dinner services, chairs in need of reupholstering and stashes of jewellery on offer. This sale is no exception but oozes glamour in away that I have never found in Dorking. These antlers were used as coat rack.
Pictures of dogs, silvered seashells, slabs of Blue John all jostle with signed first editions. If I could choose just one of these books it would ‘At Lady Molly’s’ by Anthony Powell (estimate £300). Hens are everywhere; wooden ones, China ones, painted ones and books about them. Large quantities of Elvis memorabilia is on offer, the Duchess was so enamoured of the King that she made two pilgrimages to Graceland.
Anyone can wander in off Bond Street into Sotheby’s to view the elegant re-creation of interiors of the Old Vicarage at Edensor or indeed attend the auction. The glimpse into the private life of a woman who seemed to know everybody that was interesting is fascinating. If I were to wave a bidding paddle it would be for lot 185, a collection of plates that look like cabbages.
PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN: MONET TO MATISSE at the Royal Academy of Arts
I am a Plantsman’s daughter. I am also an Artist’s daughter. Plants and paintings have always been there in the fabric of my life. Judging by the swirling crowds on both occasions that I have visited PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN, I am not alone in liking paintings of gardens. Flower gardens were the preserve of the wealthy until the end of the nineteenth century until growing numbers of the middle class began to have more leisure time to spend in the gardens of their suburban houses, gardens that didn’t need to be given over to the growing vegetables. Plant-hunters brought back many new showy blooms, such as dahlias, fueling a passion for plants.
Impressionist gardens kick the exhibition off and, as you would expect with Monet in the title, in the first room my attention was drawn by a Monet. We see a lady dressed in white standing admiring a tree in blossom surrounded by a sea of red flowers. The sun glows through her parasol. I like to think that just round the corner is a shady arbor where, in about five minutes’ time, she will sit and spend the afternoon drinking lemonade whilst reading a novel. Such reveries are encouraged by the gallery seating which consists of rather fine garden benches.
Growing affluence combined with the increased leisure time fueled a boom in all things horticultural. Nurseries sprang up, gardening manuals and magazines started to be published, seed catalogues occupied long winter evening fueling dreams of summer, . The central gallery of the exhibition is devoted to seed catalogues and the like, all cunningly displayed in rather lovely cold frames. Back to the paintings and we meet Louis Comfort Tiffany, he of the stained glass, who is depicted painting in a garden. Mr Tiffany must have done alright for himself as he is dressed in a white suit, oblivious to the perils of paint and grass besmirching his lovely suit.
Mention Monet and gardens to most people and they will think of waterlilies. Monet spent his last years painting in his garden at Giverny, his eyes misted with cataracts, but the shimmering water and luminous lilies drew him back to his easel time after time. Fittingly the last two galleries are devoted to Monet and Giverny with the showstopper saved for last. The Agapanthus triptych usually resides torn asunder in Kansas, Cleveland and St Louis, this exhibition reunites the constituent parts. As you stand in the middle of its curve it is easy to imagine yourself on the Japanese bridge looking down at the pool’s surface. It is a bit of shock to leave the bridge and find yourself tempted by a lily pond glasses cases, complete with matching lens cloth, for £10 in the gift shop.
THE FABRIC OF INDIA at the V&A
The Fabric of India is my kind of an exhibition. History, fabric and art. Sometimes when you really, really look forward to something, the reality can prove to be a bit disappointing. Not so this time. From the moment you walk in and are greeted by an enormous seventeenth century Mughal floor covering acting as a background to a pair of stunningly modern saris, you know that you are in for a treat.
Raw materials and techniques kick off the exhibition. India has it all: vast cotton fields, thousands of silk moths and bales of yak wool; add to that golden thread, iridescent beetle wings and an incredibly skilled workforce and you have all the ingredients you need for a world beating fabric industry. My own favourite from this section deployed those beetles – sewn onto a strip of muslin they make a glittering, beautiful border: I long to make myself a gown trimmed with deep flounces of it.
Once upon a time a man was strolling along a New York street and noticed a heap of fabulous fabric thrown out on the pavement. Seventeen metres long and a couple high it was too much for him to carry so he arranged for a clutch of friends and a van to collect the cloth. Jerome Burns is an art appraiser and recognised the wall hanging as an important piece of work so offered it to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Rosemary Crill was the lady from the V&A who accepted the cloth and now she is co-curator of this exhibition. If I owned such a wall hanging, it would fit nicely in our playroom, but then I wouldn’t be so careless as to chuck it out.
Museums, reading and sewing are my top three things but a very close fourth is maps. So a fine Kashmir shawl with a map woven into it was always going to be a winner with me. It was given to Queen Victoria and I like to think of her sitting in Osbourne House swathed in the shawl whilst examining the map of Srinagar. Sadly it was never worn. Life in Cultural Wednesday Towers would be very different if I could spend my days sat in a room adorned with applique elephants, wrapped in a map pashmina and reading books.
CELTS: ART AND IDENTITY at the British Museum
I am East Anglian and proud of it and have always believed the Celts are completely different as they come from the opposite part of the country to me. Turns out I’m wrong and that I may well be every bit as Celtic as my Cornish friends. The term Celt was first used by the Greeks to mean anybody that didn’t share their Mediterranean culture and later the Romans adopted the term. Celts were never a tribe just a collection of peoples who didn’t toe the dominant culture of the time.
All those swirly lines that are an integral part of Celtic Art in popular imagination have their roots in the stylised depictions of birds and animals that the ancient Celts saw around them. Early in the exhibition we see an exquisite flesh hook, that would have been used for extracting hunks of meat from cooking cauldrons, adorned with a string of swans. Quite how the flesh hook would have worked stumps me but as an object of beauty it is stunning.
Back to East Anglia …… in 1948 a farmer was blamelessly ploughing his north Norfolk field when he struck gold. Further investigations have revealed many stashes of Celtic jewellery in the Snettisham area dating back to 150-50BC, some are mangled fragments and others magnificent torcs. Six cases of treasure are on display at the British Museum. We East Anglian Celts plainly liked our bling, indeed it was with extreme reluctance that I left a rather fine reproduction necklace behind in the shop for somebody else to buy.
Back to the swirly lines ….. as the Celts embraced Christianity they deployed their distinctive decoration onto copies of the Bible. The St Chad Gospel is on display: the fine and intricate pattern must have taken the monk who drew them many, many hours. These gospels were made between about 700AD and 1000AD. They have been in Lichfield Cathedral and are still used today in some services. The early Victorian era saw a Celtic revival with the resurgence of both nationalist feelings and the desire for swirly lines and the exhibition ends with a Celtic football shirt to bring things bang up to date.
London Summer Exhibitions 2015
LADYBIRD BY DESIGN at the House of Illustration
Ladybird books, the stuff of my childhood and the subject of an exhibition at the House of Illustration.
Learning to read and learning to live were Ladybird’s strong points. Peter and Jane were the stars of these books. Peter would do manly things such as help his Father clean the car, whilst Jane would assist her stay-at-home Mother with domestic tasks and they all lived happily together with Pat the dog. Quite how we grew up to be go-getting career girls and metrosexual urbanites is anybody’s guess. The physical books were appealingly child-sized. Priced at two shillings and sixpence they were beyond my pocket money but just right for kindly Aunts to buy for birthdays.
Once released from Mother’s apron strings the imprint had several instructive series to widen our horizons. History and Achievements includes a magnificent introduction to nuclear power. One person of my acquaintance read ‘Understanding Maps’ and decided there and then that he wanted to make maps for a living. This exhibition offers a wonderful trip down memory lane for grown-ups of a certain age. The children that I bought with me were frankly bemused by the Hobbies book that suggested making a caterpillar out of cotton reels.
AUDREY HEPBURN at the National Portrait Gallery
Audrey Hepburn is very popular. Don’t even think about turning up on spec to see this exhibition because you will, like me, find that other more organised people have got the tickets. Audrey Hepburn, film star, is an image that most of us are familiar with: this exhibition has many of those but we start with pictures of her as part of the chorus line in the West End and as a Marshall & Snelgrove mannequin. That early training as a dancer and model stood her in good stead in the years to come.
In my mind, I am slender, gamine and have effortless chic. Reality reveals me to be a little more elephantine than Audrey. That doesn’t stop me gazing at the black and white image of our heroine dressed in black slacks, a v-neck jersey and funnel neck top and wondering where I can buy the garments. Surely if I were to wear such things, I would look a little less elephantine. The photo was taken in 1955 but the clothes would not look out of place today.
Givenchy is the designer most associated with Miss Hepburn. Sabrina was the first film he dressed her for in 1954. Seven more films, with the staples of her off screen wardrobe, followed. One picture in the exhibition has her dressed in white 1960’s space chic, idly toying with a pair of sunglasses (clothes by Givenchy and glasses by Oliver Goldsmith). Even dressed in a cloth helmet she looks good, but there are some fashions best left in the 60’s.
CARSTEN HÖLLER: DECISION at the Hayward Gallery
Carsten Höller’s latest exhibition is all about choices. Our first was which door to go through. One son went with me and the other with a friend. I expected to glimpse left and see them both as soon as were through the door. Wrong! We were plunged into a stainless steel tunnel and when we went round the corner we were in complete and utter darkness. At this point I felt very, very guilty about sending two boys to face this alone. The two of us emerged at the other end of our tunnel to two very cheerful boys. They had solved the problem of being plunged into a dark maze by turning on the assistive light on their phones.
Once out of the tunnel we were confronted by what looked like a large astrolabe topped with mushrooms. Now the boys had to decide which way to push and once the matter was settled, they set off in a clockwise direction causing the mushrooms to fly around our heads. Next up was a large puddle of pills, one more pill pings down from the roof at regular intervals causing some of the pile to ping and leap about.
Virtual reality headsets had us walking through dark snowy forests, we walked through an avenue of conflicting video screens and decided against joining the queue to don upside down glasses. Right at the top of the exhibition, we faced one last choice. Left or right spiral? Each spiral is a tunnel that sharply drops down the exterior wall of the Hayward. Isomeric Slides is the proper title for these stainless steel helter-skelters. The swift descent is the most fun that I have had all summer. If you are in London before 6 September 2015, drop all your other plans and head for the Southbank.
BP PORTRAIT AWARD 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery
Audrey Hepburn is very popular. If you plan to visit the National Portrait Gallery to see the eponymous exhibition then make sure you book tickets. I didn’t and so headed off to see the BP Portrait Award display instead. Every year for the past 36 years anybody over the age of 18 can enter this competition designed to encourage the art of portraiture.
Walking through the galleries of the National Portrait Gallery is either like a stroll through a history book or, in the more contemporary galleries, like flicking through Hello magazine. This exhibition is neither because the people depicted are by and large not famous. Young, old, naked and clothed they are all here. Some are so pin point accurate that you need to look very carefully to see that they are not photographs. Others have swirls of paint and blotches to augment the sitter.
If you disagree with the judges, you can vote for own favourite and at the end of the exhibition the people’s favourite will be unveiled. My vote has gone to Hamish and Sophie Forsyth by Nancy Fletcher. This double portrait is two pictures in one frame; he sits in a room with warm fancy wallpaper surrounded by his furled black umbrella, cricket bat and cabbages. She graces an altogether cooler and more ordered room surrounded by pictures of her children and piles of books.
SHOES: PLEASURE AND PAIN at the V&A
Not all tall girls have big feet but this one does. For me the “pleasure” of shoes is simply finding ones long enough and the “pain” is all too often having to settle for dowdy ones. Retailers plainly think that my feet are too far down for me to notice what adorns them. Shoes Pleasure and Pain at the V&A, explores the Pleasure of beauty and the pain of suffering for that beauty. Fittingly enough, the first case contains a glass slipper ready to transform anybody dainty enough to wear it. For those whom money is no object, all manner of rare leathers, silks and jewels have can be used to signal your wealth to onlookers.
High heels to lift sixteenth century skirts above muddy streets, shoes with toes so curled up that it would be impossible to walk. Marilyn Monroe’s and Kylie Minogue’s shoes are both on display, and for such a tiny woman, Kylie’s shoes look quite large. Chinese Lotus shoes, so small that they would fit a baby, to fit feet rendered useless by binding. Christian Louboutin red heels wink at you here and over there is a pair of thigh-high Stella McCartney boots made from synthetic suede. Men get a look in too: fancy stitched cowboy boots and my particular favourite, this gold-patterned pair dating back to 1925.
One section of the exhibition is devoted to shoes collectors. One solitary shoe belonging to Imelda Marcos has an entire case devoted to it. In response to criticism of the number of shoes she owned she claimed not to own 3,000 pairs but merely 1,060. One man collects three-stripe Adidas trainers and travels all over the world to track down rare specimens; another had an extensive collection of women’s shoes but kept them all in boxes and never wore them. All shoes, whether bespoke or mass produced, will spend some time on a last and the final display case contains a collection of the lasts of the rich and famous.
On my feet for this exhibition, a pair coral suede shoes with clunky silver heels, made by Clarks, one of the few high street retailers to sell routinely offer size 9 shoes and sponsor of this exhibition.
MAGNA CARTA at the Society of Antiquaries
Have you ever wondered what lurks inside the buildings that line the Royal Academy courtyard? Five learned societies have their homes in Burlington House; the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Every time I visit I try to work out which of the people in the courtyard are scientists or antiquarians. Imagine my joy when I spotted a sign outside the Society of Antiquaries proclaiming that there was a Magna Carta exhibition inside and, what’s more, it was free.
Three copies of Magna Carta are on view, the Society has never done this before. First of all we see a copy made from a discarded draft of the original. This ended up at Peterborough Abbey where it stayed until the Dissolution of the Monasteries when it passed into the ownership of the Cecil family. In 1778, Brownlow Cecil, 9th Earl of Exeter gave it to the Society. Nearby you can see minutes made at the time that thank his Lordship for a ‘curious and valuable present’. The survival of a draft of the final document has provided valuable insight into the negotiating process that led to the final document.
Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope almost as soon as the sealing wax was dry. By 1225 King Henry III (son of John) issued Magna Carta again along with the Charter of Forest which covered Royal Forests. Peter des Roches was Bishop of Winchester and a key advisor to Henry III; he founded the Halesowen Abbey and that is where the scroll stayed until the Dissolution of Monasteries (sound familiar?). Also on display is the Hart Book of Statues which is a fourteenth century copy of the 1225 document and shows that it was now an accepted and important piece of legislation. Nearby are copies of the first printed edition of Magna Carta, hot off the presses in 1508, and the first printed translation dating from 1534. If you’re heading to the Royal Academy this summer take time to turn left and see some amazing documents.
SUMMER EXHIBITION 2015 at THE ROYAL ACADEMY
Every summer for the past 247 years any member of the public able to wield a brush has been able to submit their work for consideration for display at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition alongside the work of the best artists of the day. Within my memory, the Summer Exhibition has followed a familiar path, loved by the public, loathed by the critics and walls so densely packed with pictures that is hard to discern the colour of the walls. This year all that has changed. Change is apparent before you even enter the galleries as the grand staircase has been given a coat of many colours by Jim Lambie.
Vibrant glowing colour greets you once you’ve made your way past the shop and into the show. Turquoise green walls surround you, glance left and magenta pink walls beckon and to the right, sky blue. Above your head hangs a multi-coloured mobile filtering down multi-hued light. The paintings and sculpture are pretty good too. Somehow, painting the normally white walls has induced a warm feeling of joy.
Red dots abound at the Summer Exhibition. Most works are for sale and the prices are shown prominently in the catalogue. This year, to add to the fun, most works are available to view online and all you have to do is click to buy. Mr CW is currently more than a little worried that my credit card finger is hovering over a rather tempting John Duffin print. Also very lovely is a head of Buddha made of wire coat hangers by David Mach RA that could be yours for £29,500.
London Exhibitions Spring 2015
WHAT IS LUXURY? at the V&A
Two days after I was knocked off my bike, sustaining a broken collar bone and extensive bruising, luxury would be the ability to type with both hands. Strangely that isn’t one of the options put forward by the V&A. Extraordinary, non-essential or exclusive items are the suggestions put forward. Stuff that takes time, expertise or simply very expensive materials to make.
One of the first things you see is a church vestment adorned with a froth of handmade lace. The basic ingredients of lace – cotton thread, parchment pattern, pins and scissors – are not expensive: it is the hours of labour it takes to transform thread into trimming that generates “luxury”. Right next door is an ecclesiastical crown, all precious metals, rare stones and once again exquisite workmanship.
Military tailoring in the form of a Royal Lancers Mess uniform, all stiff brocade and fine stitching, made in Savile Row is on display. It is beautiful, but does imply that you need a private income to be an officer in the Royal Lancers. The object that I covet most here is called Bubble Bath. Nora Fok spent hours knitting fine nylon thread around marbles and then joined all the husks together to make a necklace. It is my birthday at the weekend, just in case Mr CW is reading this.
PAINTING PARADISE: THE ART OF THE GARDEN at the Queen’s Gallery Spring 2015
Gardens and paintings, two things that I love; so a combination of the two is bound to be a winner. Painting Paradise starts with an exquisite sixteenth century Persian miniature entitled Seven Couples in a Garden. The picture shows lovebirds ensconced in a garden complete with an octagonal pool and nightingales serenading them from the boughs of a plane tree. From there we leap to Henry VIII and what is important is not the people but the garden of Whitehall Palace glimpsed in the background, it is the first time that an English garden was depicted in art. Next door to Henry and his garden is a copy of the first known gardening manual and I like to think of him sitting down of an evening flicking through its pages seeking inspiration.
Fabergé made eggs, we all know that. It turns out that he also created flowers using enamel, precious stones and metal. If I could have taken one thing home with me it would be his cornflower and oats, the Queen has quite a collection of Fabergé blooms so I am sure that she wouldn’t miss one of them.
One wall of the gallery tells the story of neighbourly one-upmanship and a Royal disposition for garden design on a grand scale. In one painting we see a magnificent water feature at Bushy Park being shown by its owner Lord Halifax to his neighbour, the future George II. Next door is an image of the mile long canal, lined with a double avenue of lime trees constructed on the orders of Charles II at Hampton Court. Barely 40 years later we see Hampton Court has a new wing, a maze, several miles of small box lined beds and the canal is much reduced in size.
The Queen’s Gallery has three exhibitions a year that draw heavily on the Royal Collections. I’ve never seen the rooms packed which is a shame: the same, however, cannot be said of the shop. Even though coachloads of tourists descend for the chance to buy classy royal souvenirs, it’s a pity that more of them don’t venture in to see the pictures.
DEFINING BEAUTY at the British Museum
Male nudes and lots of them, that’s what you get at the British Museum’s latest exhibition. The blurb before you get to see any Greek Gods tells you that whilst the men are in the main unclothed, women get to be dressed. That having been said, the first thing that greets you as you walk in is a female bottom belonging to Aphrodite: as goddess of lurve she is allowed to get naked. Not only is she naked, she is also a copy; getting on for two thousand years old maybe but a copy none the less. The Romans were so impressed with Greek statues that if they couldn’t get hold of the real deal then they just had them copied. This Aphrodite is such a good copy that she is part of the Royal Collection.
Standing just next to Aphrodite is an enormous bronze statue of Apoxyomenos or the Scraper, so called because it depicts an athlete scraping his body free of oil and dust after a spot of sport. This bronze was found in the sea off Croatia in 1996 covered in sponges and other sea creatures. When I first looked up at him I thought ‘Gosh his lips look red’, so polished I my glasses and looked again and then read the information board. His lips really are reddish, the bronze has been overlaid with copper to make his lips and nipples look more realistic.
Once you’ve dragged yourself away from Aphrodite and Apoxyomenos you are greeted by a magnificent discus thrower. Once again he is a Roman copy of a Greek original but you can see what prompted the Romans to copy him. You almost feel that you have to duck just in case the discus gets loosed toward you. These Greek chaps had muscles that put Poldark to shame and they are all expertly depicted in bronze and marble. The first room of Defining Beauty is worth the price of admission alone. The entire exhibition is beautifully lit with statues framed in dramatic pools of light. Greek vases, some of the Parthenon carvings and the statue that provided Michelangelo with inspiration for the Sistine chapel are among the 150 objects on display. When you have done with Defining Beauty, then you can go into the wider museum and see more in the permanent collection.
Spring had sprung on the day that I visited Defining Beauty and so I chose not to sit inside for my coffee and lunch stops. There are two vintage Citroën vans outside the British Museum that serve coffee, but sadly no cake. For lunch I wandered off down toward Shaftesbury Avenue and bought a falafel wrap from a stall in Earlham Street and ate it sitting on base of the Seven Dials.
MAGNA CARTA: LAW, LIBERTY, LEGACY at the British Library
Magna Carta, arguably the world’s most famous document. Being a shallow soul I’ve always imagined it to be a bit bling. You know the kind of thing: illuminated initial letters, maybe a few heraldic beasts dotted around for good effect and all topped off with a large seal. Only four copies of the 1215 Magna Carta still exist and two are on display at the British Library at the end of a comprehensive and excellent exhibition.
Laws didn’t start with Magna Carta and one of the first things that you see here is the Law-code of King Cnut. 1,000 years ago Archbishop Wulfstan of York drafted the code for Cnut, it is written in Old English and begins ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice supressed’. Unfortunately King John was not quite so diligent in promoting justice. Matthew Paris was a Benedictine monk and in his history branded John a tyrant. We learn that the Magna Carta was not signed but rather sealed and a rather fine example of John’s seal is on display.
Ten weeks after Magna Carta was signed, Pope Innocent issued a papal bull declaring it to be illegal but it continued to be a touchstone for future generations of radicals wanting fairer government. Later, Thomas Jefferson was strongly influenced by its ideals when drafting the United States’ Bill of Rights. Medieval documents are not the only things on display the junior CWs were particularly taken with the Horrible Histories Magna Carta rap. If you are unable to get down to the Euston Road, the British Library have set up a brand new Magna Carta website with animations narrated by Terry Jones.
Right at the end of the exhibition you come face to face with two of the four surviving originals. Bling is very much not in evidence. The Canterbury Magna Carta looks like (and here I write from experience) the early part of a Year 1 pirate map homework where the paper has been prepared but the map yet to be drawn. In 1731 it was involved in a fire and then in 1836 a restorer decided to soak it and then set about it with a rolling pin to attach a backing sheet. Barely any writing is visible. No bling except King John’s seal but still iconic. The London copy, also on display has words but no seal. Chief Justice Lord Bingham wrote ‘the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it said’. He was right and might have added that appearance isn’t everything.
ALEXANDER McQUEEN: SAVAGE BEAUTY at the V&A
Wow! I was expecting frocks, maybe even unwearable frocks along with shoes that defy gravity. I was not expecting an emotional rollercoaster, that’s not usually on the agenda for a display of expensive clothes. I’m still at a loss as to why I found Savage Beauty so moving, maybe it was the way that the transition from one room to another sometimes involved entering a dark tunnel. Maybe it was the music which was especially designed by John Gosling who worked with Alexander McQueen on his catwalk shows. Maybe it was the way that each room was completely different to the next. Maybe it was the fact that I wanted so many of the clothes.
Each room has a completely different feel. You begin with a stark space filled with mannequins clad in outfits that are informed by his early career in Saville Row. Next you are into a space entitled Romantic Gothic where the frocks are encased in a gilded cage. From there you are plunged into a dark bone-lined corridor to emerge into what feels like a cave. Next you are into a wooden-panelled Scottish baronial castle which contains the dress that I would like most in my wardrobe. Its white silk with a fitted bodice decorated with ruby red Swarovski crystals and knee length tulle skirt.
Deciding where to look and what to look at is your first task in the double height room entitled Cabinet of Curiosities. In the centre twirls a mannequin in a frock beneath a video showing the catwalk show where it was first seen. The walls are filled with boxes containing hats, dresses, shoes, more video displays and rather wonderfully a shell top made of mussel shells.
Alexander McQueen often came to the V&A in search of inspiration, so it is fitting that this retrospective is hosted at the museum.
INVENTING IMPRESSIONISM at the National Gallery
Monet’s lily pond, Degas’s dancers, Renoir’s girls are among the most familiar and popular images around. Millions of mouse mats and mugs are adorned with them. Yet time was that these images were revolutionary and laughed at by the Art Establishment. Paul Durand-Ruel was the man whose money and tenacity ensured that the Impressionists were not ignored and forgotten. He started conventionally enough, entering the family art-dealing business but his fancy was taken a group of artists who took their easels and paints outside and depicted what they saw.
Durand-Ruel not only bought and sold Impressionist paintings, he hung them on the walls of his home. The first room of the exhibition is devoted to recreating the feel of his home with family portraits and an amazing door painted by Monet. To add to the feeling of being in a nineteenth century salon, two armchairs are positioned in the middle of the room. Opinion seemed divided on these when I had attended; one woman tripped over them and muttered dark things, whilst two others sat down and proceeded to chat. From his home we follow him to London, where he and several artists seeking refuge from the Franco-Prussian war met each other. Among the scenes of London and her suburbs are a fine depiction of St Paul’s seen from the Surrey bank, barges bob around on the near shore in stark contrast to the opposite bank.
“Which picture would you like to take home?” is a game I like to play in galleries. Inventing Impressionism makes the game very hard because so many of the paintings plead to be the one. Look one way and you see a sequence of Poplar’s painted by Monet, each one subtly different, over there are Degas’s dancers with an elderly on looker asleep on a chair and round the corner Manet vies for attention. Degas won, not his dancers but rather elegant racehorses most of which are stalking around but one skits around unwilling to enter the fray.
RUBENS AND HIS LEGACY: VAN DYCK TO CEZANNE at the RA Spring 2015
Voluptuous nudes and rather fine ceilings are what spring into my mind when Rubens is mentioned. In fact he was a breaker of artistic moulds and his influence still holds sway today according to the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Royal Academy. Sometimes the theme of Rubens’ legacy is a little strained. In the first room it is not the work of Rubens that greets you but Constable, a less fleshy painter it is hard to imagine, but it turns out that both men painted rainbows as did lots of other men. We are asked to believe that somehow all were influenced by Rubens rather than by the beauty of the rainbows.
I like to come away from any cultural jaunt with at least one new interesting fact. This time the fact was revealed by the painting of Pan and Syrinx. It will come as no surprise to learn that the fleshy nudes are the work of Rubens but the highly detailed background was painted by his friend Jan Breughel the Elder. I’m sure that learned tomes have been written on this friendship but it was news to me and the painting a glorious marriage of precise plants and overflowing flesh.
Six themes are deployed to display the influence that Rubens had on those that followed him. Violence is led by a splendid work entitled ‘Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt’, everything seems to be in motion; men wrestle with lions, horses rear and at the centre of it all a tiger seems to be attacking a rider. Only a poor dead leopard doesn’t move. It’s not clear who is winning in the struggle, certainly the tiger looks to have the better of his victim.
There are very few paintings by our hero in the exhibition. If you have time and would like to luxuriate in one of his masterpieces, then after you have finished at the Royal Academy pop down to Whitehall and the Banqueting House. Here you can recline on beanbags whilst taking in the only Rubens ceiling painting to remain in situ.
SARGENT: PORTRAITS OF ARTISTS AND FRIENDS at the NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Confession time: I love John Singer Sargent and have done since my late teens. If I could choose one artist to have been friends with it would be JSS. A postcard of his portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw gazed down on my student desk. He was friends with Henry James and Edith Wharton, my teenage literary crushes. Now the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition not of his formal commissioned portraits but those of his friends, if he is my friend then obviously these people will be too.
To begin with a shock, the man that I assumed was American was in fact born in Florence and mainly raised in Europe albeit to American parents. The first friends that we meet are Sargent’s first employers, patrons and their children. Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron were the children of the playwright Édouard Pailleron. The pair are dressed in black and white and the boy appears slightly blurred as if in motion whilst the girl stares out at us in almost photographic perfection.
As success came to Sargent so did the widening of his social circle. Look in one direction and a melancholy Auguste Rodin gazes at you, in another and Claude Monet, cleverly bracketed by two portraits that have backgrounds that echo the lily ponds at Giverny, stares back at you.
Our hero then moves to Britain spending time in London and the Cotswolds. He depicted his friends as they took picnics, ate dinner and celebrated family birthdays. It’s just like seeing the postings of a group of glamourous acquaintances on Facebook. Tucked away in a corner are two portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson he looks as if he is about to spring into movement and far more like the bohemian author of “Travels with a Donkey” than the staid man I imagine wrote “Treasure Island.
In my other life, where John Singer Sargent is one of my best friends we go on lovely sunlit picnics with him and my other talented friends. We sit on river banks, shaded by parasols, eating, painting, writing, reading or just chatting. Luckily for me my hero was equally taken with the vision and painted a picture that exactly matches my fantasy. Maybe I need to buy a postcard of “Group with Parasols” to look down on my current desk.
London Exhibitions Autumn 2014
CONSTABLE: THE MAKING OF A MASTER at the V&A
The Hay Wain, Flatford Mill and Salisbury Cathedral: we all know Constable. Reproductions of his most famous works pop up everywhere, even Banksy has produced a version of The Hay Wain. Dedham Vale, the lovely patch of Suffolk just below Ipswich, derives a large part of its living by being Constable Country. But it isn’t the well-known blockbuster paintings that open this exhibition, rather a selection of paintings by the likes of Rubens and Claude side by side with copies that Constable made with varying degrees of success. When not copying the works of great artists, Constable was outside making studies of clouds or inside sketching them in order to perfect his technique and we see many oil cloud sketches.
After all the copies and clouds you enter rooms filled with the really famous Constable pictures. I have seen countless reproductions of these over the years but when confronted with them in the flesh you really do see the texture and lightness. There are two versions of The Hay Wain on display; a six-foot wide oil sketch that dances with colour and vibrancy together with the far more polished and staid final, famous version.
Finally you come to a room dominated by what looks to be a life-size photograph of a tree trunk but is in fact a painting; photorealism before the photo was invented. So arresting is this image that Lucien Freud took inspiration from it. Constable, who drew inspiration and instruction from the great painters before him, in turn inspired great artists that followed.
HENRI MATISSE: THE CUT-OUTS at Tate Modern
My Boys were given a ‘do-it-yourself’ Matisse snail kit for their first birthday. It came complete with paper, scissors and glue. They were a little too young to wield the scissors but we spent a happy hour with paper and glue, ending up with a result that looked nothing like Matisse. Now Tate Modern has queues around the block clamouring to see Matisse’s efforts.
What started out as a technique to help Matisse plan the layout of his paintings developed into fully fledged works of art in their own right. Initially Matisse went to great lengths to keep his technique secret but he reached a turning point with the publication of a book of his work ‘Jazz’. We see both the original cut out models, or “maquettes”, and the finished book printed using the stencil method. Originally it was intended that the work would illustrate poems but the flowing handwritten notes made by the artist proved to be so arresting that they were used instead. I don’t understand a word that they say but they are very beautiful.
One of the most familiar images in the exhibition is the Blue Nudes. Unlike all the other works in the exhibition which are essentially collages, the Blue Nudes are cut from one piece of blue painted paper. Blue Nude IV was the last to be completed but the first to be started; you can see small charcoal marks and jagged edges where the shape went wrong. By contrast the others are flowing, cut with confidence, once the plan was clear.
Remembering the happy hour of glue and scissors ten years ago I returned home determined to have a go myself. Son Number Two declined the opportunity but Son Number One and I whiled away an hour and produced our own interpretation of Acanthus.
London Exhibitions Spring 2014
FOLK ART at Tate Britain
“What is Folk Art?” I hear you cry and not only you but also the curators of the Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain. Almost every explanatory panel makes a plaintive argument for it as a proper subject for an exhibition at the Tate, every other paragraph in the audio guide seems to pose the question. They should have more confidence: Folk Art is a stunning exhibition that deserves to be as popular as Matisse is at Tate Modern. Folk Art is “stuff” that is made by talented crafts people; discuss.
A bright yellow wall arrayed with outsized trade symbols is the first sight that greets you. The familiar three balls of the pawn broker (some time back a friend asked what the origin of the sign was but it is only now am I able to answer, that it stem from the devise appearing in the coats of arms of the Medici’s, the Italian Banking family), a self-explanatory padlock for Locksmiths and more puzzlingly a bear; this is for barbers and alludes to the fact that bear grease was used as a hair pomade. These symbols would have dominated city streets in the time before most people could read, advertising goods and services to shoppers.
Folk Art is the stuff that you see around you; discuss. Old signs from the time when sign writers really did write signs. Pub signs from when they were painted and not mass produced. Turn your back on the on the trade signs and you are greeted with a wall hung with such signs. One wonderful example shows the four ‘Alls’; All Govern shows the Queen, All Pray – a priest, All Fight – a soldier and All Pay – John Bull.
Folk art is the work of untrained artists; discuss. Turning anti clockwise the next wall takes the sea and the sun as its theme. Two dimensional paintings and embroideries of ships mainly rendered by the men who sailed in them are topped with carved wooden suns. In the middle are map samplers stitched by the women who remained at home. At the far end of the wall are paintings of ships that look remarkably similar to all the others but these are the work of Alfred Wallis and are part of the Tate collection. Wallis was a fisherman who lived in St Ives and once ‘discovered’ by Ben Nicolson and Christopher Wood, his work became much sought after. Looking at his work and that of the other unknown fishermen you have to wonder if every port held an artist waiting to be discovered.
Folk art changes with the times; discuss. An enormous straw man dominates one corner of the exhibition. Straw men have been around for centuries. This one represents King Alfred and is not ancient, it was made for an Oxford Ball in 1961 by a roof thatcher. He had not made a straw man before but deployed the techniques of his craft to make the striking figure. Folk art is womens work; discuss. Scattered around the exhibition are pin cushions and quilts mainly (but not exclusively) made by women. One room is devoted to the work of Mary Linwood, in her time she was famous for her intricately worked needlepaintings that depicted Old Master and British Paintings. During her lifetime she was not permitted to join the Royal Academy as her work was not seen as art. When she died in the 1845 her work was treated as a mere curiosity.
My Mother is extremely arty-crafty. Corn Dollies, Hardanger embroidery, patchwork, needlepoint and many others have, at one time or another filled my Parent’s house and my Mother’s attention. I too have dabbled but alas have inherited her enthusiasm but not her skill. Fine art is all well and good but what adorns my own house is Folk Art, I’ve always felt that maybe I should be smarter or trendier. Maybe the answer to “What is Folk Art?” is that its what the stuff that real people make, buy and have in their homes.
SUMMER EXHIBITION June 2014 at the RA
We are told that the RA’s annual Summer Exhibition heralds the start of the British Summer Season. Maybe, for a select few. Without a doubt it the world’s largest open submission exhibition with weekend daubers exhibited in the same halls as the country’s finest working artists. 12,000 works of art were put forward for the hanging committee’s perusal; only one tenth made it to the walls. Serious critics love to sneer but every year the Summer Exhibition pulls in vast crowds of people, not only eager to see but also to buy.
In general I leave gallery guidebooks in the gift shop, preferring to make my own mind up and read the blurb by the works of art. The Summer Exhibition is the exception to that rule, I splash out £3 for the List of Works in which the name, title and (most importantly) price is listed. Armed with this you can look up works that you like and decide if you want to expend the necessary cash (prices this year range from £60 to ‘refer to sales desk’) or are happy to leave it behind. Alternatively you can look at the wackier works and marvel that anyone would pay anything for them.
A record number of Members have been elected to the Royal Academy this year and the first room you come to is devoted to these artists. The centre of the room is occupied by a mannequin balancing a pile of cakes on his back: my companion told me that this represented the world’s economy. Propped up against one wall is a vast canvas containing a transcript of an ‘Interview of David Nott by Eddie Mair’ on Radio 4’s PM programme. David Nott is a doctor who spends his holidays plying his trade in the world’s trouble spots, Syria being one of the latest and the subject of this interview. The story he has to tell was shocking when heard on the wireless but even more so when emblazoned in an art gallery.
Every year there is an Architecture room and it is always one of my favourites. It abounds with models of buildings that have either just been built or are about to be, as well as pictures of new structures. This year a model of the new buildings at the London School of Economics jostles for attention with the temporary Coco-Cola pavilion that stood in the ground of the Olympic Park.
I love the Summer Exhibition. Not everything that hangs on the walls is to my taste, but then when do you ever go into a gallery and love everything that you see? I like the incredible variety, I like the humour of the hanging committee (does anyone else imagine them considering their deliberations with little black caps on their heads?) and most of all I like that nearly everything has a price tag enabling me to play the imaginary game of would I buy that and if I did where would I put it?
BANKSY: The Unauthorized Retrospective – Curated by Steve Lazarides at Sotheby’s
Some say that he isn’t one man, but a collective, others that he used to be a butcher and you can find folk that claim he is a former public schoolboy from Bristol. Whoever or whatever Banksy is, he is certainly successful. His stencilled, spray-painted works are among the most recognised and liked of any artist working today. Now he has made the move from grimy backstreets to the hallowed walls of Sotheby’s.
Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s agent, has curated the first unauthorised (has there been an authorised one that I missed) retrospective exhibition of his work and it is on show at the Sotheby’s S|2 gallery. Anyone can walk in off St George Street and take a look at the 70 or so works. If you have a spare £4,000 – £500,000 to spare you even buy one. The atmosphere in Sotheby’s is usually one of moneyed calm, not so at the Banksy unofficial retrospective: people take photos of the art work and each other and chatter.
Many of the works on show have never been seen in public before. Some comment on the illegal nature of Banksy’s early graffiti, such as ‘Avon and Somerset Constabulary’ spray painted onto canvas at a time when the police were hunting for Banksy. Andy Warhol is nodded to with multiple screen-prints of Kate Moss and portraits of Tesco Value Soup cans.
VIKINGS LIFE AND LEGEND at British Museum
The Vikings are here! The British Museum has chosen to christen its brand new Sainsbury galleries with an exhibition that aims to change our perception of Vikings from gruesome warriors to international empire builders and awesome sailors. Myths are debunked: Vikings did not wear horned helmets just regular head shaped ones and they were kind, dutiful parents who fashioned toy boats out of wood for their children. Indeed the first things we see are model boats.
Boats were big in the Viking world, their heartland consisted of: Denmark, mainly islands; Sweden, lots more islands and a heavily wooded and mountainous hinterland and Norway, long and indented coastline with an impenetrable hinterland, boats were their main form of transport. Once they’d explored their own lands they set off across the sea to our own shores, down rivers into modern Russia, through the Caspian Sea to modern Uzbekistan and into the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The big showstopper is the remains of the biggest Viking ship ever found, Roskilde 6 would have been 37 metres long and been powered by 40 pairs of oars (rather than the 25 as was usual). She was found in 1997 during building work for the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde along with 8 other smaller vessels. It’s thought that she was made in Southern Norway around 1025AD and might have been made for King Cnut the Great.
It wasn’t all rape and pillage, the Vikings settled in many of the places that their boats took them to and set up sophisticated trade networks. Jewellery was made using Amber and Jet from Northern Europe as well as Rock Crystal and Carnelian from the East. Metal bracelets and necklaces were often made in standard weights that could be used as currency. There is the most enormous rope like gold necklace on display that weighs 2kg; whoever wore it would have needed to be strong. The Vale of York hoard, discovered in 2007 is on display for the first time. It consists of 617 coins and various bits of silver all contained in a silver cup, amazingly most of the coins are Islamic showing the vast reach of the Viking trade network.
TREASURES OF THE ROYAL COURTS at the V&A
Diplomatic gifts exchanged between the Tudor and Stuart courts and their counterpart in Muscovy (as Russia was then known) are the focus of this exhibition. We do see some such gifts including magnificent silverware, but most of the 150 objects on display reveal the pomp and chivalry at the heart of the Tudor and Stuart courts.
You are welcomed to the collection by a series of magnificent man-sized heraldic beasts, known as the Dacre Beasts. The first of these is a dolphin, plainly carved by a man who had never seen a dolphin in his life, and along with his cohorts a ram, a bull and a griffin stood in the great hall of Naworth Castle, seat of the Dacre family for 400 years. All who entered the hall would be left in no doubt about the power and wealth of the family.
Following through on the heraldry and chivalry theme next we encounter several suits of armour accompanied by a rather wonderful book full of armour designs. You can just imagine the a Tudor knight sitting down and selecting his designs much as a modern day knight would go to his tailor in Saville Row.
Next up are an amazing selection of miniatures and fabulous jewels. Some are so intricate that with the naked eye one looks like an amazing ship wrought in gold wire and pearls, studied under a magnifying glass it becomes clear that the ship is crewed by tiny beautifully detailed golden sailors. The level of skill required to such a thing, even today would be mind boggling.