(Interlude): Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace – exhibition

With many apologies, our “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” research is very slightly delayed and will now ‘go live’ on Sunday 6th December.

However, in the meantime, I thought you might be interested in the exhibition that has just opened at The Queens Gallery: “Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace” which I have to say is an absolute delight, especially after the year we’ve all had!

Photograph by author: Canaletto paintings displayed in “Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace” (3rd December 2020)

As the Press Release notes, the paintings in this exhibition are usually in the the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace and so only on view (to the common viewer) during the summer opening of the State Rooms where they are displayed one above the other, filling the walls. Here, in The Queens Gallery, the sixty five paintings are all at regular height, meaning one can get up ‘close and personal’ to them – and what a wonderful experience it is.

Just look at this “Self-portrait” by Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Dated 1623, it was presented to Charles I by way of the artist introducing himself to the king “as a gentleman and a courtier”:

Photographs by author

I have to say I became slightly besotted by this: the artist’s eyes have an element of intense scrutiny to them, as if nothing could ever be hidden to his sight, yet they are seemingly sympathetic, even kindly. The “info” on the gallery wall refers to students subsequently studying Rubens’ flesh tones to see how he made the features “so solid, tactile and vivacious”. However, I was more fascinated by the contrast between the perfection of the face (the delicately smooth pink and white, the fine flicks of the beard; those lips), and the roughness of the background painting just behind him where the paint is ‘raw’ in colour and texture, the canvas (almost) exposed. ‘I’m not only a gentleman and a courtier’, Rubens tells Charles (perhaps), ‘but an alchemist, a magician: I can ‘make flesh’ out of these raw materials’. It’s actually very exciting.

Two paintings that really jumped out, given our recent discussions of the Norwich School of Painters and the influence of the Dutch masters upon them, were, firstly,

David Teniers the Younger’s “Fishermen on the Sea Shore” [c. 1623]:

Photograph by author

which has that dramatic contrast of colour and chiaroscuro in the figures of the foreground in comparison with the grey blues and ochres of the background – an effect explored by Joseph Stannard in his sea coast pictures. Paintings such as these would also influence the early Newlyn School artists later in the century. Secondly, you remember those extraordinary still-life paintings by Emily Stannard and her niece Eloise Harriet Stannard, well they had drawn their inspiration and standards from paintings such as:

Gerrit Dou: The Grocer’s Shop [1672]

Photograph by author

which is only a few inches square and yet a gem of delight, it overflows with detail and bustle.

There are so many paintings and each of us will be drawn to different ones for different reasons. To see Johannes Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” (early 1660s) is, for example, a truly heart-stopping moment.

And, on the wet, drizzly and cold day of my visit, I definitely needed colour…

Photograph by author

“The Libyan Sybil” (1651) by the Italian Baroque painter known as Guercino. The combination of the pink and orange in direct contrast to the blues is heavenly, and the whole rhythm of the drapes, shoulder, arm, book and hand render an enormous sense of radiant calm, most suitable for one of the prophetesses of the ancient world who foresaw the coming of Christ.

Rather more dramatic in subject matter:

“Judith with the Head of Holofernes” by Cristofano Allori (1615)

Photograph by author

It’s said that whilst the painting is based on the classic story in which, to save her city, Judith beheads Holofernes, the leader of invading troops, it is also the autobiographical story of one of Allori’s love affairs – and that it is he who is represented as beheaded by his mistress masquerading as Judith! In turn, however, if you can avoid the head being thrust towards us, just look at that velvet mossy green, the shimmering silk pink and the embroidered yellow-gold – simply exquisite!

It really is a gorgeous, satisfying and stimulating exhibition, a jewellery box of delights! There is more information on The Queen’s Gallery website (including a couple of upcoming online events that look very interesting). The exhibition runs until January 2022, and I really would recommend popping in – all the Gallery Assistants are so brilliantly warm and welcoming and the paintings, well: balm to the soul!

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Remembrance Day, 2020: Women Artists of WWII

It’s been a huge honour that these last couple of years I have been asked to research, write and discuss themes related to art and war on behalf of the Mayor’s Charity here in Southend.

However, with our communal life made impossible by the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to keep everyone safe, the Charity itself has been suspended for 2020. Furthermore, public Remembrance Day and Armistice Day ceremonies have been severely restricted if not curtailed.

Southend Cenotaph

Yet, remember we must, one way or another.

Here I have posted some of the slides from our 2019 Mayor’s Charity Memorial Talk showing a range of paintings and drawing made by women artists working on the Home Front. Some of the artists you might find familiar, others not; certainly their art is an extraordinary insight into a time and place we, for the most part now, can only imagine.

This is only a small selection, but I hope they might inspire you to research these artists further. The best place to start is the Imperial War Museum website or via artuk.org

In the meantime, stay safe and take care. I believe there’s to be a two-minute silence ‘on the doorsteps’ of the nation.

And remember: “we’ll meet again… some sunny day!”

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“The Poringland Oak” by Norwich School artist John Crome

In memory of our dear friend Norma.

An inspiration to many for her dedication to the local community, lifelong education and her love of art.

The Poringland Oak c.1818-20 John Crome 1768-1821 Purchased 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02674

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The Romantics Return: William Blake on the BBC

So absolutely glorious to hear the two versions of “Jerusalem” at the Proms last evening – not only Hubert Parry’s traditional version, but Errolyn Warren’s delicious re-visioning “Jerusalem – our clouded hills” in which she

has added a blues feeling and African rhythm.

Subtitled ‘our clouded hills’, her piece is dedicated to the Windrush generation and encourages a communion of Commonwealth nations…

(the BBC Last Night of the Proms 2020 is available on i-player for the next month).

It made me turn to the Blake Archive to look up Blake’s designs for Jerusalem created between 1804-1820, including this dramatic title page:

Jerusalem – The Emanation of the Giant Albion (Yale Centre for British Art).

With more detail on the website, the Tate summarises the complex poem:

In Jerusalem, Albion (England) is infected with a ‘soul disease’ and her ‘mountains run with blood’ as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars. Religion exists only to help monarchy and clergy exploit the lower classes. Greed and war have obscured the true message of religion. However, if Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem, the story goes, then all humanity will once again be bound together with love.

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And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

Intriguingly, “Jerusalem” – the song we all know, with its music written by Hubert Parry and its orchestration by Edward Elgar – is actually from Blake’s poem “Milton” in which he recalls the possibility that Jesus had once travelled to England (Glastonbury) with Joseph of Arimathea.

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

If so, and the dark satanic mills of Blake’s contemporary world – with its Enlightenment science and industrial rationalism – were obscuring the spiritual knowledge and perceptive vision that Heaven was once here, then

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

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It’s that ‘Mental Fight’ that is so important here – the power of art, poetry, the creative imagination – and takes us to Simon Schama’s new series The Romantics and Us in which (in part one, “Passions of the People”) William Blake also makes a significant appearance as “one of the founding fathers of Romanticism”.

Living in a “city growing fat with the profits of Empire” where everyday he saw the extremes of wealth and destitution, Blake was, in Schama’s (really quite emotional tone) “always reaching for that bit of Heaven as he sees everybody as potentially wonderful. That’s his adorable thing… that’s how he sees the world even in the middle of… filthy, cruel, ferocious meat-grinder London.”

I’d highly recommend watching it as Testament brings home the relevance of Blake today and Simon Schama marks the passions of William Blake, Eugene Gericault, Mary Wollstonecraft and others and the impact they’ve had on our subsequent histories.

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Have we, in 2020, entered a new Romantic Age?

Orc – a vigorous youth, surrounded by the fires of revolutionary passion – symbolises the spirit of rebellion and the love of freedom [Tate].

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