Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Straight Outta Compton Verney

Look at them paws! View courtesy Capability Brown
If you've never been to Compton Verney, the art museum housed in a Georgian mansion near Stratford on Avon, then you should go. It is the kind of place that haunts you, a grand old house on a human scale, with beautiful grounds and a fascinating art collection. I came away with the feeling that I'd spent most of the day wandering the interior of a (mostly) benevolent dream.

The first house on the site was built in the 15th century by Richard Verney, a knight. Various extensions and alterations followed, culminating in a major redesign in the modish Classical style, circa 1715, making the present house a contemporary of Blenheim Palace down the road - but much easier to take in if your home is a terraced house in Bristol! Stunning it may be, but it's the kind of place you can imagine being inhabited by actual people rather than giants.

This being said, there must have been some serious money around in the later 18th century, when two of the period's biggest names, Robert Adam and Capability Brown, were hired to remodel the house and lay out the grounds. The effect of the landscaping in particular is theatrical, in that you walk up one side of a long, narrow pond, glimpsing the house only occasionally through the trees, then cross the pond on a bridge that offers the first proper view. By the time you actually reach the building you've seen it in glimpses, at a distance and up close, all from different angles.

Lucus Cranach the Elder, Venus and Cupid, c1525 (photo copyright Compton Verney)
Having driven all the way across the open expanse of the Cotswolds I found the interior slightly bewildering and immensely stimulating - a warren of staircases, corridors and rooms - though this was I think exacerbated by the staging of the current Shakespeare exhibition with its uneven wooden flooring and paintings lit in unusual ways and surrounded by deep shadows. These rooms were all enclosed, but then came another with wide windows looking out over the parkland. The contrast between dark and light, enclosure and space was startling.

Pierre-Jacques Volaire, Vesuvius Erupting at Night, C18 (photo copyright Compton Verney)
Like many country houses, Compton Verney enjoyed prosperity until the latter part of the 19th century, when an agricultural recession (a product of globalisation and cheap imports - plus ca change) cut estate revenues. In the early 20th century, then, increasingly heavy death duties added a crushing burden. The house was sold out of the family, and eventually requisitioned by the military during World War II, before being more or less abandoned for almost fifty years. It was the enterprising former Littlewoods chairman Peter Moores who began restoration work at Compton Verney in 1993, and in 1998 it opened as an art museum.

Queen Elizabeth I, British School, c1590 (photo copyright Compton Verney)
The unusual collection is worth seeing irrespective of the exhibition schedule, with an array of paintings from Naples 1600-1800, then late medieval art - notably paintings by Cranach - from northern Europe, and a fairly small but marvellous group of British portraits. These are on the ground floor, then come the exhibition spaces and rooms showing a world class collection of ancient Chinese artefacts, and then a mezzanine and attic that house Compton Verney's folk art collection.

Folk art!
This, the largest collection of its kind in Britain, is as mixed a bag as you'd imagine, given the limitless nature of 'folk art'. There are painted signs and carved symbols for shops and businesses, hunting decoys, bird scarers in the form of toy soldiers with spinning arms, hand-made chairs, and numerous amateur or naive paintings of boxers, shops, dentists at work, etc, etc, etc. Personally, I love the curiosities best - the oversized top hat that must have advertised a shop, a giant padlock, a carved weathervane in the shape of a hand.

Village Fete, British School, c1790 (photo copyright Compton Verney)

Girl with Cherries, British School, c1820 (photo Compton Verney)
Such things were admired and collected by Ravilious, Bawden, Angus et al, and the connection between folk art and professional 20th century artists and designers is made explicit in the Marx-Lambert Collection, which occupies one end of the attic. Alongside examples of Enid Marx's design work are ceramics and other folk art objects collected by Marx and her friend Margaret Lambert, with whom she wrote 'English Popular Art'. First published soon after the war, it is in print today, while the subject of folk art continues to inspire contemporary artists like Jeremy Deller.

Alarming carved wooden pig's head
Pop Art?

You could argue, I suppose, that folk art itself was a phenomenon that evolved out of the tastes and collecting habits of 20th century artists and designers. Like Picasso or Klee, or any number of European artists, they were looking outside the mainstream for inspiration, delighting in strange objects and naive paintings as things of originality in an increasingly uniform world. This is certainly the case with Ravilious in his book 'High Street', which is a compendium of oddities, and it's interesting then to look at the visual echoes of folk art that you see in pop art. I can imagine that Joe Tilson, for one, would have enjoyed carving some of those lovely old shop symbols...

Find out more about Compton Verney here.

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