Wednesday, 18 May 2011

'Gillespie and I' & The Glasgow Boys

As I'm currently reading - and thoroughly enjoying - Jane Harris's new book 'Gillespie and I', I thought it might be fun to look up the artists she mentions. While Ned Gillespie, the artist at the centre of the story, is invented, the context is real. Glasgow in the late 1880s was the scene of an artistic revolution, as a loosely-affiliated group of young artists - later known as the Glasgow Boys - sought to portray the world they knew in new and exciting ways.
Earlier this year the Royal Academy in London held an exhibition of their work - the first major London show in forty years. It drew attention to their experiments in technique, particularly painting outside, rather than in a studio, and to their choice of subject matter, which tended to be urban and everyday.

John Lavery, Queen Victoria at the Glasgow International Exhibition 1888
In the book, narrator Harriet Baxter urges Gillespie to paint the crowds at the International Exhibition (1888), but Gillespie is doubtful, commenting that 'nobody wants to buy paintings of the city. They'd far rather hang haystacks and cottar's gardens on their walls.'

EA, Walton, Joseph Crawhall
Hardly has he finished speaking when they spy an artist who is out sketching the crowds. 'It's Lavery - confound him!' Gillespie cries...

Born in Ireland and trained in Glasgow, Sir John Lavery enjoyed a long and illustrious career which was kick-started by his victory in a competition to paint a portrait of Queen Victoria for the 1888 International Exhibition. In the book, Gillespie competes against him but - fortunately for art historians everywhere - comes second.

Joseph Crawhall, The Pigeon
Another artist who gets a mention is Joseph Crawhall, who has the misfortune to be caricatured in a local newspaper; he is 'depicted as a scrawny scarecrow, dour of countenance and sat upon by numerous pigeons and crows'.

WM MacGregor, Vegetable Stall 1884
Gillespie himself recommends 'Guthrie and MacGregor'. The former's painting 'Hard At It' shows an artist at work on the shore at Cockburnspath in Berwickshire - the village where Gillespie yearns to live.

James Guthrie, Hard At It, 1883

This Green and Pleasant Land: Art on BBC4

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr & Mrs Andrews 1750
Four hundred years of art history in ninety minutes? If something sounds too good to be true then it usually is, and BBC4's latest art programme was a bit of a dog's dinner. Sorry, 'eclectic' is the word I was looking for, but I was put in mind of dogs and their dinners by a strange and wonderful segment of the show in which a countryman with a lurcher and a box of ferrets went rabbit hunting. The dog sniffs out the bunny, the countryman sends in the ferret, and the rabbit emerges to find its neck swiftly broken. With this chap around, 'Watership Down' would have been about three hundred pages shorter.

John Constable, Chain Pier, Brighton 1826-7
What on earth, you may wonder, has this to do with the history of landscape painting? Hang on... No, I can't remember, but the ferrets were amazing - the personification of cute, furry death. The countryman was good too, pointing out that landowners in the early 19th century owned not just the land but everything on it - berries, mushrooms, rabbits, even the twigs on the ground. He sounded as if this was not only a grave injustice, but one that still resonates today.

Back to the show, which began with informative sections on Rubens, Claude, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. There was a lovely part in which Ralph Steadman satirized Rubens' 1620 painting, 'Landscape with St George and the Dragon'; he was one of several contemporary artists featured in the show and in general their views and visions were illuminating.

Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts 1852
After Turner we had William Holman Hunt and an art historian who assured us that Victorians were neither repressed nor uncreative, but that their period represented a British visual Renaissance. It was unfortunate that Hunt's sheep on a coastal hillside came immediately after a succession of glorious, imaginative, uplifting late watercolours by Turner.

As if to confirm the deadly effect of Victorian values and aspirations on our visual culture, the show lost its way at this point. We had Will Self - who has rescued many a documentary - talking about Hampstead Garden Suburb for reasons that aren't immediately clear, and we had Peter York extolling the virtues of the dreadful Atkinson Grimshaw (was this ironic or populist?)... Why include this stuff and not mention Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, or JM Whistler, or... The list is long.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Going Home at Dusk 1882
Hooray for Paul Nash, who came in just before the last to remind us that British landscape painting has a long, venerable and continuing history. With 'Landscape of the Vernal Equinox' and 'The Battle of Britain' (the latter discussed thoughtfully by film-maker Nic Roeg, who also gave some insightful remarks on Constable's work in Brighton), Nash represented single-handedly the tradition of mystical-poetic landscape painting (William Blake, Samuel Palmer and onward to Sutherland, Piper, Ravilious, Inshaw...).

Paul Nash, The Battle of Britain 1941

And then there was David Hockney, who stole the show with his iPhone drawings. You don't need a glass of water, the great man pointed out. There's no mess. You can draw a sunset at 6am and send it to twenty people by 7. You do need an iPhone (other brands also available), but nobody seemed interested in making that point.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

This Green and Pleasant Land: Pylon Field

I'm looking forward to BBC4's programme on Tuesday about landscape painting in our 'green and pleasant land'. One of the intriguing aspects of the subject is the way artists over the centuries have focused on particular places and types of landscape. Post-war there was a lot of opposition to electricity pylons (as there is today to wind turbines), but there's something compelling about the characters gathered together in this pylon field.

Pylons as far as the eye can see...

Presumably each of these structures has a specific function relating to the mysterious doings of the National Grid, but they also resemble a strange family group...

Functional beauty...

The rooks have adopted this one, and in wet weather cattle shelter underneath. A sign warns anyone thinking of climbing this rustic Eiffel Tower to 'treat the whole thing as live'.

I wonder whether the engineers who built and arranged these pylons had any sense of their potential as figures in the landscape... It would be nice to think that they did. There are certainly plenty of people who appreciate the strange beauty of pylons these days: go here to find out more...

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Enjoying Leonardo in Peace

La Belle Ferroniere - sure to attract a crowd
In an effort to combat 'gallery rage' caused by over-crowding at major exhibitions, the National Gallery has decided to reduce visitor numbers for its exhibition of work by Leonardo da Vinci, which starts in November...

Whistlejacket by Stubbs
The National Gallery is more than an art collection: it is the modern equivalent of a medieval monastery, a place of constancy (and relative calm) at the heart of London. I've been visiting since my mother took me as a child and - bar the odd alteration like the addition of the Sainsbury Wing - the place is always the same. Walk through a certain set of doors and there is Stubbs' 'Whistlejacket', leaping against that strange opalescent background. Turn a corner and there are Gainsborough's daughters, still vainly pursuing that butterfly.

An excellent guide is still '100 Details from Pictures at the National Gallery', which was assembled by then-director Kenneth Clark in 1938, a year before the gallery was stripped and its treasures sent off to a Welsh quarry for safe-keeping.

Erasmus - note inky fingers
No doubt everyone has their favourite pictures and their favourite routes through the building. My tastes have changed slightly over the years but when I jotted down some highlights after a recent visit they were mostly familiar: Cranach's Venus, a Christ of El Greco, Degas' women rather than Renoir's, Duccio's Virgin... Increasingly I find the giant, boldly coloured paintings of the high Renaissance too intense. Give me Holbein's Erasmus and his inky fingers.

My absolute favourite picture is currently hidden away behind a gilded altarpiece, in a dim room which you could easily mistake for a cupboard. It's a drawing, not a painting, and it isn't even finished. The other day I sat and stared at it for some time in the soothing dim light without being disturbed by a single soul.

The Burlington House Cartoon
The cartoon of 'The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist' (aka The Burlington House Cartoon) is assumed to be a study for a painting, made by Leonardo da Vinci at the very end of the 15th century. No painting survives, but this study is a work of great beauty. Where some historic artworks seem overly stylised - examples from the pages of an art history book - the sketch is simple and fresh. The marks made by the artist on the paper are clearly visible; we can see how the image was conjured from nothing with charcoal and chalk, and we can wonder at the dexterity of the artist's hand and at the sensitivity of his vision.

You can visit the Virgin and St Anne tomorrow. You don't need a ticket and there won't be a crowd.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Richter's Skater: Paintings Lost and Found

Found: Gerhard Richter, 'Eisläuferin' (Skater) - detail
Why should the discovery of a lost painting be so exciting? I've been a fan of Gerhard Richter's figurative paintings ever since I bought a Sonic Youth record with his candle on the cover twenty-five years ago, but I'd never heard of his 'Eisläuferin' (Skater) until this morning. I suppose the fact that the picture is potentially worth £3 million makes this newsworthy, but there's something compelling about stories of paintings lost and found.

Lost: Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Special No.21' 1916
I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when Georgia O'Keeffe's painting 'Special No.21' was stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts. By all accounts someone simply walked in and pocketed the picture, which isn't very big, and it was gone. At the time I was selling art at a local gallery, so I was used to the constant coming and going of artworks, but this was different. Here was a painting that had been part of the public realm - a shared pleasure - and someone had taken it from US.

One might argue that the same happens when a less enlightened collector buys a painting at auction and then squirrels it away for their own personal enjoyment (or, worse, stores it in the hope that it will appreciate in value).

Found: Munch, 'The Scream'
The FBI may have wished that O'Keeffe was still alive, as she herself tracked down three paintings stolen from Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery in the 1940s. It took her thirty years, but in 1975 she spotted them at the Princeton Gallery of Fine Arts and sued successfully for their return. When a painting is stolen there is always a chance that it will be recovered, as happened most famously with 'Mona Lisa'. Two versions of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' have been seized from museums, and both have been recovered.

Gerhard Richter, 'Eisläuferin' (Skater) early 60s
In the case of Richter's 'Skater', it was believed for years that the painting had been destroyed, leaving the world with only a black and white reproduction, so this discovery is more akin to a return from the dead. Every artist's catalogue has some gaps like this, where pictures have been destroyed or have simply vanished. I posted last year about Churchill's refusal to send the National Gallery's collection to Canada during World War II, and an incident later in the war confirmed that he had made the right decision.

Lost: Eric Ravilious, 'Light Vessel & Duty Boat' 1940
In August 1942 a merchant vessel carrying works of art from Britain to South America was sunk by a U-boat. In all, 96 paintings were lost, including three by Paul Nash, and one each by Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and John Piper. They are unlikely to reappear.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Tirzah Garwood, Eric Ravilious, Tirzah Ravilious

Tirzah Ravilious, The Old Soldier, 1940
It's been an exciting weekend for fans of Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Ravilious (nee Garwood), with a double-page spread on the former in the Review section of Saturday's Guardian followed by a display of the latter's work on the Antiques Roadshow (17-18 mins in). I hope people will be encouraged by all this publicity to visit the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, where you can see work by both artists.

If Eric was neglected by the art world in the decades after his death, Tirzah was doubly so, and she remains a little-known figure. Accounts of her husband's life tend to portray her as 'the wife', faithful in spite of his infidelities, and rather dull - the sensible woman who prefered not to swim naked in the River Pant with her husband and various Bardfield visitors. For excitement (we imagine, from this reading) he ran off to the Sussex Downs with Helen Binyon, and at her side produced some of his most memorable watercolours.

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939
This interpretation does Tirzah a great disservice, since she was not only a woman of great courage and resolve - in 1942 she underwent an emergency mastectomy for breast cancer only months before her husband's death left her almost penniless and with three young children - but also a tremendous personality. Skinny-dipping may not have been her thing but she embraced all the uncertainties and trials of the artistic life, accepting financial insecurity and accommodation that was at times unfit for habitation. A generous friend, she could when necessary write a scalding letter.

Having embarked on her own career as a wood engraver in the late 1920s she gave this up to raise her children, at the same time supporting Eric in his work. The extent of her influence may never be known but in one important instance - the well-known painting 'Train Landscape' - she worked on the picture itself, pasting a white horse over the Wilmington Giant. Earlier she had been, in the most straightforward sense, her husband's muse, and her figure appeared repeatedly in the murals he painted at Morley College... They shared many interests - in mechanical toys and old-fashioned shops, and in the landscape of the Sussex Downs.

Tirzah Ravilious, landscape, 1944
I've been lucky enough to see quite a few of Tirzah's oil paintings and 3D collages of houses and shops, but I'd never seen the painting of the South Downs shown on the Roadshow until last night. I was immediately reminded of the fact that Eric tried to paint in oils but didn't get on with the medium. Tirzah evidently did, producing this witty landscape (apologies for poor repro) with its downland hills and toy train - a cousin to the train in Eric's painting 'The Westbury Horse'.

I enjoyed the presenter's remark that she had 'taken her husband's view of landscape' and altered it, evidently unaware that this was both condescending and inaccurate. Tirzah had already demonstrated in her wood engravings (which she made under her maiden name), that she was her own woman, following creative impulses that were quite different from her husband's and using her own techniques too. This oil painting - I haven't found out yet what it's called - is all her own, but alludes in its subject matter to her late husband's fascination for trains in landscape.

Anne Ullmann, the couple's daughter, has been unstinting in her efforts to win proper recognition for their work, and she has been working for some time on an edition of her mother's diaries. Judging by the extracts published in the Fleece Press editions of Eric's letters, they should make entertaining and occasionally eye-opening reading. In the meantime, I recommend Olive Cook's excellent essay on Tirzah's life and work, and this survey of her wood engravings.