Monday, 27 June 2011

David Inshaw, Alfred Wallis, Bloomsbury: 'Hidden Paintings' on the BBC

Curtis Dowling: are these worth £60k or nothing?
 Last night's 'Hidden Paintings' was an intriguing phenomenon - a series shown not in the same place at different times but at the same time but in different places. If that doesn't make sense, have a look here, and all will be clear...

Although each part was only broadcast in its particular region we now have, thanks to the BBC's iPlayer, seven days to watch the whole series. I've only managed a few so far, but have been treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of Charleston Farmhouse, a fascinating essay on fame with respect to David Inshaw and a Fake-or-Fortune quest featuring two paintings by Alfred Wallis - or should that be 'Alfred Wallis'? You'll have to watch to find out...

David Inshaw, Window, 1969
What the programmes have in common is less the 'hidden paintings' of the title than the impression - that I was left with at any rate - of artists and artworks bobbing about on the sea of fashion, either riding high on a wavetop or plunged into a trough. Fashion is cruel, inconstant and unpredictable. David Inshaw, for example, must have been thrilled to learn that he would be featured in the series - only to discover, as soon as filming began, that his painting 'Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers' had been taken off the wall at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Bristol after being on show more or less constantly for decades.

A curator at the museum pointed out that the painting had been taken down to make way for a newer acquisition. This is fair enough, and no doubt pleased both the artist concerned and his or her fans, but presumably there was choice involved. A decision was taken to remove this painting and leave that one, to hang this new artist but not this one. In the case of the City Museum and Art Gallery the phenomenal success of the 2009 Banksy takeover has perhaps influenced curatorial thinking, and it would be hard to think of two more different artists than Inshaw and Banksy.

When I was at school my experience of The Winter's Tale - a play with a preposterous plot and wooden characters - was enlivened by the Inshaw painting on the cover of the Arden paperback. His is a very particular vision - of strong, beautiful women and trees with dense foliage, of Silbury Hill and lightning and crows. I happen to think Inshaw is a very fine painter and a victim - presently - of the art world's continuing love affair with The New. In a few years' time he'll be rediscovered, as Piper, Nash and Ravilious are being rediscovered at the moment, and people will think it extraordinary that his paintings have languished in storage so long...

Charleston Farmhouse
On which subject, a highlight of the Hidden Paintings programme on the Bloomsbury group was the sight of volunteers preparing Charleston Farmhouse for the public after the winter closure. As people pulled bags off decorated jugs and whisked away curtains of plastic to reveal paintings, the bizarre decorated world of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and co came gaudily to life. The presenter - rather admirably, I thought - revealed the equally colourful love life of the group in a similar series of unmaskings, and the shots of Bewick Church were fantastic.

It may be quite hard to recall actual paintings by Grant and Bell, but in applying paint to just about everything in their house they gave their reputations immunity from changing curatorial fashions. This rather reinforces the point I made in the last post - and which Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen also made in relation to Devizes Museum - that artists are best served by small institutions which adopt them. I used to visit Kettle's Yard in Cambridge years ago, to have a look at Alfred Wallis and others.

Charleston: garden deco
Wallis's story was also about changing fortunes, as we learned how popular an artist has to be to attract the attention of forgers... It was also about different kinds of expertise and different kinds of knowledge, giving us the fascinating scenario of two well respected experts each absolutely sure that the two pictures shown to them were, or were not, by Alfred Wallis. In the end scientific analysis had the last say, but why would someone bother spending a fortune on a study of paint? Because an original Wallis is a valuable commodity just now - though whether it will be in twenty, or fifty years' time is anyone's guess.


  1. Hi James,
    Can only speak as I found and the London one quite honestly left me speechless re the inept photography of the showpiece painting from the NPG. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the BBC to film a painting without blinding reflections. Or to lift another up so that Mr Singh wasn't grovelling on the floor and the painting filmed from a strange angle.
    Golly, it did make me angry that an otherwise excellent programme was so sloppily filmed. I do hope those of us without ¡players get to see the rest of the programmes though.

  2. I'll have to watch it... The programmes I've seen so far have been well made, if sometimes a bit odd. At one point in the Charleston programme the presenter gasped when she unwrapped Duncan Grant's glasses!

  3. Good job I subscribe to your blog: I had no idea these programmes existed! Will fire up iplayer later.

    A shame that Inshaw is no longer on display. It's such a haunting picture that I can still see it hanging there. They should pile up the crockery to make space for more paintings.

  4. Anonymous29 June, 2011

    The one with curtis dowling in was terrific, see this guy live and he is almost the derran brown of art and antiques how he is not primetime tv yet amazes me - but confirms the silliness off the people who THINK they know what and who we want to watch on tv John Exeter