Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Review: Beasts or Best Friends

How on earth do you follow Mucha?  The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth managed to pull off possibly the best exhibition I've seen in ages this summer, showing the breathtakingly beautiful art nouveau works of Alphonse Mucha, so what on earth could they do to follow that? Well, last weekend I visited their answer, Beasts or Best Friends? Animals in Art...

A Lion's Head (1878) Heywood Hardy
The gallery has managed to bring together a collection of paintings that feature animals, each one a gem of animal portraiture.  They range from mighty lions to garden birds and also includes some striking pieces of sculpture, lent by a private collector.  Posterboy of the exhibition is Heywood Hardy's impressive lion who stares at you as you approach the exhibition.  He is at once both beautiful and a little terrifying, which is not a bad mindset to take into the exhibition as a whole.

Birds and Hare Percy Robert Craft
This is not a collection of little girls cuddling puppies (although there is one of those); on the contrary this is nature red in tooth and claw.  The tragically beautiful Birds and Hare is a good example of this, the injured hare viewing the gathering crows who are eyeing him hungrily.

Steer Roping: Leaving the Chute (1924) Charles Walter Simpson
One of the artists I took away from the exhibition is Charles Walter Simpson, responsible for the all-American painting above that was actually painted at the First International Rodeo or Cowboy Championships at Wembley Stadium.  Who knew such a thing existed? Well, in this country it did not exist for very long as Parliament passed a law in 1934 making it illegal to rope an untrained animal.  Still, for a mad moment in the roaring 20s, the wild West came to London and Simpson caught the energy on canvas.

The Punt Gunner (1924) Charles Walter Simpson
Another of Simpson's works, The Punt Gunner, is striking because of its sheer size.  At practically two metres square, the ducks in flight are almost abstract in their beauty. It is like a golden piece of Japanese painting with the morning sun shimmering off the water.

Corfe Castle in the Beauteous Isle of Purbeck (1940) Isabel Florrie Saul
I enjoy seeing pieces of figurative art from the mid-20th century and so I loved seeing Isabel Florrie Saul's mock-Tudor extravaganza of tempera which has so much detail and a lovely local landscape.  Other images of humans with animals include this one...

The Beggar (1886) Henry Gillard Glindoni
Along with images of animals in their natural habitats, there are also interesting pictures of animals, anthropomorphised or depicting human emotions.  The Beggar shows the shamed mongrel being looked down on by the haughty pug.  I do like a haughty pug.

Tick-Tick (1881) Briton Riviere
Talking of pugs, here is a confused one, looking at a ticking pocket watch.  Riviere produced some of the most sentimental yet interesting animal pictures of the nineteenth century and declared 'You can never paint a dog unless you are fond of it', which I think is a lovely notion.

The Birth of Venus (1933) George Spencer Watson
'O Ye Whales And All That Move On The Waters Bless Ye The Lord'
(1899) Edward Arthur Fellowes Prynne
Among the pictures are some of the most strange and interesting paintings you'll see anywhere.  Watson's Birth of Venus, coupled with Bernard Sleigh's The Pleiades are a riot of light and colour.  A sight you will not want to miss is the Prynne frame of five paintings, my favourite of which is the fishy one. Incidentally you can buy a rather splendid window transfer of the above image from their gift shop, along with some other ones, including Venus Veriticorda. Anyway, on with the review...

The Bird Table Charles Walter Simpson
The great thing about this exhibition is that animals, like people, are endlessly interesting and marvellously accessible.  From lions to robins, all these paintings and the wonderful deco sculptures give life and story to the animals.  Often that story touches on our involvement with our animal neighbours, our response to the wild and exotic or the familiar and domestic.  The Victorians did a great line in anthropomorphising animals, letting them express human emotions for us but mostly on show here is how animals are appreciated in art from around 1850 to 1950.  Each of these pictures is a gem and the whole exhibition is a great idea, simple and something you can respond to.  A great family exhibition, and something for all animal lovers this Winter.

Beasts or Best Friends: Animals in Art is on until March 2016 and look here for more information.


  1. Kirsty, I haven't been able to get to the Russell Cotes this summer, and it appears that I have missed out so far...hmph!
    By the way, do you live in Bournemouth by any chance?

  2. I sometimes feel like I do, the amount of time I spend there! No, I am close enough to visit but not rich enough to stay!

  3. No, Rackham is not in this one, but there is some Walter Crane. The Russell-Cotes has no Rackham and this exhibition has been drawn almost entirely from their own collection, showing some wonderful pieces that don't get out as much as they would like, if you know what I mean. It's great to see a museum making the most of its collection.

    1. Another great illustrator of the early to mid 20th century was Lawson Wood. His chimpanzees were absolutely brilliant. If you are not familiar with him here is a link:


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx