Friday, 5 February 2016

Review:The Romantic Thread in British Art

A complaint I often hear about museums is that so much of their collection is never seen, hidden away in stores, never to see the light of day.  Whilst that is not entirely fair for all the museums I know, it is true that a great wealth of material is held which due to space and resources possibly doesn't get to be seen as often as it deserves.  That's why I love it when a museum does an exhibition drawn from their own collections, especially when it is down as beautifully as Southampton Art Gallery's latest show The Romantic Thread in British Art...

Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore in Squally Weather (1802) J M W Turner
The exhibition encompasses art from the 18th century right up to modern times and follows the idea of Romanticism through successive art movements and individual artists.  It explores exactly what it is that draws us back and how the concept finds expression in different time periods and in the hands of different artists.  Nature is a strong part of this, and it is no coincidence that Romanticism grew just as the world became mechanised.  In our most 'unnatural' of times it seems we reach out to the land and sky to comfort us, but also to strike us with awe.

Sedak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812) John Martin
 If it is awe you are after then the sight of the tiny man at the mercy of the hellish volcanic landscape is about as brutal as it gets.  The majesty of nature and its sheer terrifying scale is so well illustrated in Martin's piece. Like Turner's painting, there is feeling that nature holds power far greater than any factory or machine that humans can think of, and is of a scale that we can barely comprehend.

The Pastorals of Virgil William Blake
Saying that, there are some exquisite wood-engravings by William Blake on display.  Tiny in size, each shows an aspect of the rural ideal of tending sheep, growing crops, working in the fields, all to illustrate Virgil's poems about Arcadia.

Romeo and Juliet (1884) Frank Dicksee
Obviously one of the main reasons I was there was to see the Victorian art and I was not disappointed. If you know anything about Southampton Art Gallery, you'll know about the Perseus Room which houses Burne-Jones' wonderful pictures of the story of Perseus, his battle with Medusa and the rescue of Andromeda.  It is a room I have to be dragged out of whenever we visit.  Anyway, Southampton also have other famous pieces of Victorian art in their collection, including this one of Romeo and Juliet.  The Victorians took Romanticism rather more literally than their Georgian counterparts and the strong themes of love and sentiment shine through.

Afterglow in Egypt (1861) William Holman Hunt
Holman Hunt's Afterglow in Egypt is absolutely stunning in real life and so if you see the exhibition for one reason, this is a pretty good reason. The Pre-Raphaelite use of nature and fantasy in their works includes pieces like Afterglow where it could almost be seen as a recording of fact, a real place, a real person, but the level of detail and the perfection of the beautiful birds, the abundant harvest and the gorgeous young woman all suggest a dreaming for a place not like our own, a simpler way of life, a lost beauty.  Those are some impressively fat exotic pigeons.

Launcelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail (c.1890) Edward Burne-Jones
Tennyson's Arthurian poetry was entirely at odds with a period that prided itself on materialism and industrialisation. By embracing the chivalric, romantic vision of a mythical past, the Pre-Raphaelite followers continued the counter-culture well into the 20th century.  Burne-Jones is quoted in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition as having said a painting was 'a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, that will never be...' and that yearning for an impossible perfection can clearly be seen in the Pre-Raphaelite's works.

Haytime in the Cotswolds (1939) James Bateman
I was once at a gig where the people in front of us were only there to see Toyah and once she had done her stuff they got up and left, but I'm sure you aren't the sort of people to leave after the Pre-Raphaelites.  In the following 20th century rooms there are some utterly delightful works including this gorgeous canvas by James Bateman.  Painted as we headed into the Second World War, it shows a peaceful farm in the Cotswolds where the hay is still mowed with a scythe and a horse brings the crops home. Very soon the world would turn to Land Girls digging for victory, but in this moment the peace and quiet is not disturbed by anything more than a scythe through grass or the sound of hooves.  The 20th century romantic thread struck me as one of quietness which could in no way be applied to the 18th century root with its crashing waves and volcanic landscape.

Michelham Yews III (1950) Paul Drury
The works on show go right up to 2016 but I'll finish with this one as I was struck how much it reminded me of William Blake.  Paul Drury's father was the sculptor Alfred Drury, and his pastoral etchings such as this one were inspired by Samuel Palmer's rural idylls.  There is something slightly threatening and fairy-tale-ish about the path through the yew trees, but again a quiet danger rather than the obvious threat of nature.  The vague constriction of the trees, the hint of jaws in the log on the left all make you suspect that nature is a force to be reckoned with, whether it is struggling to control your fishing boat in a stormy sea or walking through a wood on a semi-illuminated path.  Romanticism holds nature as a thing of wonder and mystery, and there is a terrible beauty that has to be acknowledged, if only for our own safety, but also for the nourishment of our souls.

The Romantic Thread in British Art runs from today until 4th June 2016 and for further information see Southampton City Council pages.  There is a catalogue to accompany the exhibition, available from the gallery shop for £12.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Love to Lose Your Head Over...

You know you are a proper historian when you are Prit-Sticking down a big picture of Henry VII to a roll of paper while trying to explain Martin Luther to a ten year old.  Yes, it's Tudor Term at school and I have spent the last couple of weeks saying 'Yes, another wife!' and 'No, really, he chopped her head off!' and 'What's the difference between Catholics and Protestants? Oh Rats...' Mercifully, there have been some rather lovely Victorian pictures for a bit of light relief and eye-candy to help me illustrate some of the people involved...

Head of a Tudor Girl Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
The Victorians loved to reinterpret the past through art, and often their historical painting very vividly brought to life past personalities in a way that only a bonk-fest costume drama can manage these days. They also loved the pattern and splendour of fabrics of different eras, such as the jewelled hood this little Tudor girl is wearing in the picture above. Pearls and jewels sparkle around her square neckline and her sleeves are capped with fur as she clutches a small dianthus, denoting love of a mother, or possibly sorrow at a death (or maybe a combination of both, looking at the slightly sorrowful expression on her face).

'With All Their Banners Bravely Spread' (1878) John Gilbert
The great, gouty love-god of the Tudor period is of course Henry VIII and I was a little dubious as to what the Victorian attitude to him would be.  After all, he wasn't exactly morally untouchable and there was quite a bit of head-removal and Pope-bothering going on.  I shouldn't have worried though because to the Victorian artist, Henry VIII meant two things: one massive battle (which he wasn't present at, ironically) and loads of romance.  The Battle of Flodden Field in 1513, pictured above, gave the artists an opportunity to show horses, armour, lovely colourful standards and a bit of a scrap. The pathos of a dead Scottish king (the last monarch to die in battle) must have played into the hands of the Victorians who loved all things tartan. Walter Scott rhapsodised about it in Marmion, making it a sure-fire winner for the public.

The Battle of Flodden Field (1878-1883) Edward Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones gouache study for a low-relief plaque in Naworth Castle reminds me of Uccello's The Hunt in the Forest, but also has strangely Futurist foreshadowing at the same time.  I am struck by all those lines, banners, spears and bodies and the horses bravely charging on into the inhuman madness of war. However, I think if Scott hadn't bothered to mention it, the Victorians might not have found it of interest.  To be fair, if you asked anyone today what they thought of when you say the name 'Henry VIII' they probably would say 'wives'...

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon before Papal Legates, 1529
 (1910) Frank O Salisbury
To be fair, the bit they seem to have loved was the love triangle between Henry, Catherine and Anne Boleyn.  On Catherine's side we have scenes like this, from the mural at Parliament, where Catherine pleads with her errant husband whilst the cardinals look on.  Henry blamed his son-less state on the fact that he had married his brother's wife (Biblically frowned on) and fancied trying his luck on Anne Boleyn.  Catherine was having none of it. 

Catherine of Aragon (1866) William Bromley
Poor old Catherine, endlessly followed around by chaps in red.  The one on the right is Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and his friend (who has embarrassingly turned up tot he party in the same frock) is the Papal Legate, Cardinal Campeggio, and as always Catherine is telling them to talk to the hand.
Queen Catherine and the Cardinals (1870) John Gilbert
To be fair, the Cardinals are fairly obvious in their red so she can spot them easily.  Gilbert shows her giving the Cardinals what-for, much in keeping with what a strong woman she was, which is often lost in her portrayal of the inconvenient wife in the Henry/Anne love story.  Talking of which...

Henry VIII First Interview with Anne Boleyn (1835) Daniel Maclise
Of course, poor Catherine's struggles with her marital dilemma is only a side issue when it comes to the main event in Tudor romantic history.  I'm not sure exactly what it is about the affair between Anne Boleyn and Henry, but of all his wives, she is the one people remember and claim they are the reincarnation of.  Come on, no-one ever claims they are the reincarnation of Anne of Cleves. Or whoever Joan Sims was in Carry On Henry (source of most of my Tudor knowledge up to this point).  Anyway, Henry VIII is not depicted in these paintings as some desperate son-seeker, rather your average massive monarch who has been hit by cupid's arrow (Lord knows he makes a big enough target)...

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (1903) William Powell Frith
It is unsurprising that the Victorians were interested in Anne Boleyn. In 1876, during renovations of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, her body was found and subsequently reburied, and her ghost was seen gliding around at the Tower of London (I didn't realise about that aspect of Victorian Tudor interest until I read The Arrow Chest). The romance and fatal break-up is both heart-swelling and heart-wrenching and marvellously melodramatic.  One minute he's changing the whole nature of religious life in the country for you, the next, he's lopping your head off.  Such is love...
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (1865) David Wilkie Wynfield
Still, I suppose proper love stories in royalty were a bit of a rarity, and the love affair between Henry and Anne sort of mirrored that between Victoria and Albert.  Both couples just fell in love with no thought to how politically it would benefit them.  Well, that's the story anyway.  Certainly in Henry's case it was rather inconvenient to be in love with another woman who wasn't the widow of your dead brother and your current wife, especially in hindsight, without a male heir to justify the whole business. Still, those sweet, heady days of early courtly love, the wooing, the gifts, the flirtatious glances and fluctuating weight and facial hair.  Sigh.

The Arrest of Anne Boleyn at Greenwich (1872) David Wilkie Wynfield
Then it all goes wrong and people get arrested and accused of all sorts of stuff. I find the images of Anne Boleyn filled with righteous fear and anger very similar to her predecessor, which possibly is the point and does rather fall into the 'what comes around, goes around' category.  However, with Anne the stakes were higher and it wasn't just divorce that was on the cards; because variety is the spice of life, it was something rather more choppy...

Anne Boleyn on the Queen's Stairs (1871) Edward Matthew Ward
There are interesting similarities in the way Victorian artists portrayed doomed queens, from Lady Jane Grey to Mary Queen of Scots and here we have Anne, pausing for a fainty breather on her way into the Tower and imprisonment and eventual chopping. There is no need to ask how Ward sees Anne, as she glows in her innocence surrounded by accusers and rubber-neckers.  She is a martyr, Love's own sacrifice and she holds the power to stir pity and empathy in her plight. Is her pause up the stairs meant to reflect Christ off to Calvary? The boat is casting off again and she will not be leaving.

Poster from German film Anna Boleyn (1920)
It is interesting in Victorian art to see the changes between how Henry is portrayed in his romance with Anne.  Sometimes he is the iconic, huge monarch slinging chicken legs over his shoulder, but often he is the young, handsome hero, lithe and manly.  Interestingly we seem to have moved away from the bearded older man (as played by Emil Jannings in the above film, but also see Keith Michell, Charles Laughton and James Robertson Justice in their portrayals.  Considering now that it is obligatory to have some naked business in our costume dramas, King Henry has stopped being gouty and started being gorgeous, with Eric Bana, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Damien Lewis all shedding the weight and upping the sexiness. As I have discussed in reference to cultural depictions of Rossetti, we obviously can't cope with a man who is both older, fatter and yet still devastatingly attractive to women.

Probably not a real poster for the Underground.  Probably.
Much in the same way as people in loving stable relationships vicariously live the other side of the coin through Jeremy Kyle, the Victorian public took to the Tumultuous Tudors safe in the belief that none of those sorts of shenanigans were about to go on with Good Queen Vickie. It strikes me that the Victorians loved to be emotional tourists in all the things they disapproved of, and they also found romance in tragedy. No wonder they grasped hold of Anne Boleyn, first immortalised for the nineteenth century public in the Gaetano Donizetti opera 'Anna Bolena' of 1830, and wouldn't let her go.  She remained a sympathetic figure, almost exclusively because of her death, yet modern portrayals of her have her as more scheming, more calculating.  For the Victorians, she was as innocent as Queen Catherine before her, both defeated by their love for a monarch who was ruled too much by his heart.

Well, maybe not his heart. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Man in High Collars

There is a distinct difference between Mr Walker and myself in matters of musical taste and more specifically the way we load up an MP3.  Mr Walker is an album person who will download an entire album irrespective of whether or not he likes all of the tracks whereas I am more a single song sort of person who flits hither and thither between artists, putting on only songs I really like.  The reason for divulging this trivia is that I can be a bit like that with art too.  Whilst I obviously love Rossetti and his work, I have a lot of time for some of the lurid, insane beauty of the works of Frank Cadogan Cowper...

Saint Francis of Assisi and the Heavenly Melody
Often called 'the last Pre-Raphaelite', Cowper lived into the second half of the 20th century to the point that his art is still in UK copyright.  You will certainly be familiar with many of the images that I will be using in the post because his work is often featured in discussion about the Pre-Raphaelites which is incredible if you think he was still alive at the centenary of the formation of the Brotherhood. So who was Frank Cadogan Cowper?

Frank Cadogan Cowper (1932) Bassano Ltd
Frank Cadogan Cowper was born 16 October 1877 in Wicken, Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather, Edward Cadogan, was the rector. His father, Frank Cowper, was the author of sailing books, both fact and fiction, and seemed to be away from home a fair amount, possibly in a boat (yet still managed to have six children) and doesn't appear on many census records after getting married.  Recorded as the 'head' of the household in the 1891 census onwards was Edith Eliza Cowper, mother to Frank and a novelist in her own right...

Sailing Tours by Frank Cowper
Edith Eliza (E E) Cowper, author of gripping stories for girls!
In one account of her early life it was stated that Frank Cadogan Cowper was raised Plymouth Brethren but I have not been able to find anything to back this up unfortunately.  What is certain is that young Frank was born into a fairly affluent household, to which he was the eldest of the six children born over eleven years.  He was sent to Cranleigh school, before heading for London and St John's Wood Art School followed by the school of the Royal Academy.  He exhibited at the RA for the first time in 1899 but made it big in 1901 with this picture...

An Aristocrat Answering the Summons to Execution, Paris 1791 (1901)
Although I find Cowper's work fascinating generally, I think he does two things very well: pattern and dogs.  The little dog in this picture is beautifully captured, but I adore the striped lining to the doomed aristo's coat.  There is a certain amount of bloody-minded bravado in that fop's manner that could be applied to Cowper, and his insistence in not bending to fashion, as we will see.

St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the 'Shining White Garment' (1905)
By the time Cowper started exhibiting, all but one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were dead and their style and subject were only carried on by a few followers.  Cowper chose to echo both Rossetti and Millais with his work, notably in St Agnes, which bares interesting comparisions with Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini!, of which Cowper also produced a copy (left).

I also list Millais as an influence because of the dogs that appear in some of Cowper's paintings.  I wonder if Cowper was a fan of Millais' Isabella  because some of the smooth coated, elegant hounds that crop up in paintings such as Mariana in the South bring me straight back to Millais' dogs...

Mariana in the South (1906)
The 'Pre-Raphaelite score' of Mariana in the South is quite high as it features a fish-eye mirror, Tennyson, a possible nod to Kate Bunce's Melody or maybe Rossetti's musical muses, the richly patterned interior and fabrics of William Morris' La Belle Iseult which also has a sleeping hound, and so on and so on.  When I get five minutes I'll invent Pre-Raphaelite top trumps, I promise. Another influence on Cowper was the American painter and Pre-Raphaelite sympathizer, Edwin Austin Abbey, with whom Cowper spent 6 months in his Gloucestershire home, Morgan Hall in Fairford...

The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1900) Edwin Austin Abbey
Abbey believed that black, white and red were the colours of truly great artists and it is interesting to speculate on whether that influenced Cowper's colour palate, but it is easy to see that whether or not Abbey played a great part in shaping Cowper's artistic vision, the two had a great deal in common with their subjects and style. However, even Abbey can't compete with the overblown bonkersness of something like Cowper's 1907 epic How the Devil, Disguised as a Vagrant Troupadour, Having been Entertained by some Charitable Nuns, Sang to them a Song of Love...

How the Devil... (1907)
The stained glass windows in the background are from Fairford church and the picture is a reworking of a  student picture of a Minstrel that Cowper showed at a St John's Wood Art School show.  An early sketch of the picture was so praised by the painter Onslow Ford that Cowper spent the next 15 years working it into a painting that demands even greater attention. Although he had been elected to Associateship of the Royal Water Colour Society in 1904, his election to ARA in 1907 was seen as a response to just how popular this picture was.  It was reported in the newspapers how crowds would stand before it in Gallery IV of the exhibition and it was very nearly the Chantry purchase of the year.  It was bought by Sir Joseph Beecham and sold on his death for 1,450 guineas (compared to The Beguiling of Merlin by Burne-Jones sold at the same sale for 2,600 guineas).

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI (1908-14)
 Cowper finally got his Chantry purchase in 1914, with a picture that was described in the press as an 'Academy Sensation'. He travelled to the Vatican to paint the room from life and copy the faces of the cardinals from portraits. The scene depicts a friar kissing Lucretia's shoe while two noblemen hold back her dress.  There's a monkey, some sort of pheasant and so much red that it makes your eyes hurt.

Erasmus and Thomas More Visit the Children of Henry VII at Greenwich (1910)
In 1910, Cowper took part in the mural scheme for the Houses of Parliament, along with other Pre-Raphaelite-ish Edwardians such as Byam Shaw. The little boy striking a manly pose in white tights is Henry VIII. The patterning of the clothing seems to be a repeated motif for Cowper and a rather easy way for the viewer to spot one of his works...

Four Queens Find Lancelot Sleeping (skirt!)
La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1926) (entire frock!)

Rapunzel (1900) (massive sleeve!)
Vanity (1919) (everything really!)
Also, he revisits subjects and titles, such as Vanity which he painted in both 1919 and in 1907...

Vanity (1907)
He also reused not only bold patterns, but memorable garments, such as this 'knotted' dress, possibly a reference to Burne-Jones' Sidonia Von Bork 1560 (and/or joint source material Portrait of a Woman (1531) by Giuilio Romano, possibly also used for the film Sleepy Hollow), which crops up again in Venetian Ladies Listening to the Serenade...

Venetian Ladies Listening to the Serenade
His adherence to Pre-Raphaelite sentiment and practices remained and can be seen in paintings such as Hamlet where he insisted on having a grave dug much to the alarm of his neighbours, in order to paint from nature.  In other paintings he seems to have lifted details from the Brotherhood and made them his own, such as the dove in Beata Beatrix becomes The Blue Bird and Millais' sheep from Christ in the House of his Parents peek over the hurdles behind Our Lady of the Fruits of the Earth.

Hamlet, the Churchyard Scene (1902)

The Blue Bird (1918)

Our Lady of the Fruits of the Earth (1917)
With the fall of fashion for Pre-Raphaelite pictures, Cowper became known as a portrait painter.  In his obituary in The Times they were judged as being 'confused' and the writer admitted 'it is difficult to speak with enthusiasm', even though his ability to paint was never in doubt.  Despite becoming an RA in 1934 on the death of George Spencer Watson he was reported as a portrait painter and not a fashionable one at that. The parade of debs in pink that filled a great part of his output from 1920 onwards are the stuff of greetings cards and are charming but certainly seem to lack the fire and colour palate of his previous works. In one rather harsh review of the RA exhibition in 1929 they were described as 'Cadogan Cowper's simpering ladies'...

Violet Miriam Clay, Lady Vernon (1920)

Elizabeth Witts (1954)
Occasionally he goes full-Rossetti and a massively patterned background takes over, which I think is why his obituary described his aims in these pictures as sometimes 'confused'...

Portrait of Lady Ledgard (1925)
Let's be honest, she just got in the way of him painting massive, stylised poppies.

Still, among these faintly awful portraits of posh flappers and post-war debs are still some canvases which defy explanation.  One of these, and possibly my husband's least favourite picture (because it gives him the creeps) is this gem from 1940...

The Fortune Teller, 'Beware of a Dark Lady' (1940)
 From the mutant ivy to the alarming fashion this is a giant 'what-were-you-thinking?' of a picture.  When it was given to the Russell-Cotes in 1950, the museum confidently proclaimed that it would likely 'prove one of the most popular in our permanent collection' and that it was proclaimed picture of the year at the RA in 1940.  Well, there was a war on.  For all it's faults, it is a humorous picture with our happy blonde heroine not noticing how shifty her friend is.  Again, note the use of bold fabric is brought in on the gypsy's skirt. I am campaigning at home to have this one back out on display as something as mad as this deserves to be seen again and I'll keep you informed of my progress...

Anyway, Cowper's twilight years were marked for me by one very special painting which had been a favourite of mine for a while before I realised it was by Cowper...

The Ugly Ducking (1950)
By 1950, Cowper had moved to live in the Cotswolds, possibly because of the time he had spent with Abbey almost half a century beforehand.  He spotted a beautiful young woman behind the make-up counter in Boots and asked to paint her.  The Ugly Duckling was the result and what lifts it for me is the cheery smile of the sitter and the humour of the title.  I was delighted to read that the sitter, Valerie Tarantolo, now in her seventies and still very glam, had been reunited with her portrait at Cheltenham Art Gallery, where it is a much-loved painting (you can read her story here).

Valerie (at 16) and Valerie (a few years later)
Cowper died 17 November 1958 at his home in Cirencester and is buried at the Chesterton Cemetery in the town. On his gravestone is carved 'Verily, Verily I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life' (from John 6:47).  He might not be the first painter you think of, and his out-of-time Pre-Raphaelite blasts are often overwhelming and a tad peculiar, but one thing is for sure, enough of his work is so memorable that he is unlikely to be forgotten.

Frank Cadogan Cowper's grave in section 24 of Chesterton Cemetery

Detail of stone
The reason this post is called 'The Man in High Collars' is from his obituary which read 'There was little of the traditional artist in Cowper's appearance, and he is said to have worn the highest collars than any other man in the country'. Well, there you go then....