Saturday 26 November 2016

Dolly has a Secret...

When I was recently over in Germany with family, my lovely sister-in-law and I had a film night (which then carried on the next morning).  Unwittingly, our film night/morning had two themes.  The first theme was 'films our husbands are too cowardly to see' and the second was 'sodding scary doll films'.  Our films of choice were The Boy...

Oh deary me...

And Annabelle...

For goodness sake...
Now, I always liked dolls, but both films make you reconsider your life choices about having them in the house. As it's me, I got to thinking about art (and making sure the doors were locked)...

So much hair...
The Victorians loved dolls.  Massive china ones, little baby ones, painted faces and rolling eyes, the fancier the better. An icon of childhood, little girls were pictured with mini versions of themselves, or idealised adults in miniature, all stiff and smart and static. When you start looking, these little china 'mini-me's are everywhere...

Young Girl and her Doll Kate Perugini
You'll be unsurprised to learn that a great number of doll pictures involve a little girl wearing lovely clothes and looking cute.  Kate Perugini (wife of Charles Collins, then Charles Perugini, and daughter of Dickens) gives us a very well dressed little lady in one of those puffed-up mop caps you see in paintings of rich people's children, such as Millais' Cherry Ripe. That in turn is referencing Penelope Boothby by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a portrait of an adorable, ill-fated poppet.  Lewis Carroll took photographs of Xie Kitchen dressed as a rather disturbingly Lolita-ish version of Miss Boothby, which is more about the perils of attempting to dress a pubescent young woman as a little girl rather than a reflection of Carroll's taste.  Let's move on...

Alice in Wonderland (1879) George Dunlop Leslie
Here we go, this is much less dodgy ground.  I really like this painting, something about the poses of the the mother and child and the stripey sofa - it's a very satisfying image.  A mother reads Alice in Wonderland to her daughter (back to Carroll again), or is the little girl called Alice and she is in a sort of wonderland as her mother reads to her.  I hadn't really spent much time considering the doll - does it represent Alice falling down the rabbit hole?  It looks very much like the little girl, so is it a play on Alice being smaller and bigger?

Annabel and her Toys (1912) Harrington Mann
Harrington Mann seems to have done quite a number of paintings of girls and their toys, which is a weird thing to specialize in but we all have to make a living.  The disarray of playthings around her feet might signify the riches Annabel's family enjoys, or the opportunities on offer because of her position in life.  More likely it's about the fact that no matter what surrounds her, Annabel's only opportunity is to become a mother, have a little Annabel of her own.  I suspect the doll is wearing a christening gown (which are unfeasibly long and impractical) - maybe it is Annabel's own gown?  The mother in me does want to shout 'look at the state of your room' when looking at this painting...

The Tea Party Agnes E Walker
Moving on from an accessory in portraits, dolls often appear as part of a tableau.  Here we have a little girl holding a tea party.  The dolls on the chair seem a bit rambunctious but I like to think this painting could be titled 'It's not a party until the tiny horse arrives'.  The staging of the dolls up high, then down to the girl, then down to tiny horse, draws the eye nicely down the canvas but also sets up a sort of hierarchy.  The girl seems to be playing maid to the dolls. If the dolls don't get their tea on time there will be hell to pay, thinks Tiny Horse.

Girl in Blue Dressing her Doll James Crayer
Again, an image of a girl playing maid or mother to her doll, this time dressing her up.  She has abandoned her book, just seen peeking out from that icy blue skirt, so that she can play, hinting that girls and reading just don't go together.  Everyone knows that reading overheats the female brain and what we should really be doing is practicing for motherhood.  Or something.  Anyway, I like to think that it is a comment on parenting books, which are by and large a waste of time and money.  Until I write one, which will be marvellous and probably entitled 'I've forgotten how to sleep lying down'.  Actually, that is the least filthy and honest of the titles I have in mind, some of the others refer to stitches, sneezing, hand mirrors, crying in Waitrose and 32 hours of labour.  Let's move on.

Girl Making Clothes for a Doll Philippe Francois Sauvage
There is an interesting contrast between the china doll and her new clothes and the girl in her slightly more rustic surroundings.  Everything and everyone is neat and tidy but the dressing of the doll in her bespoke wardrobe is definitely aspirational, as if the girl is living vicariously through her doll. This is not a little girl in a nice household looking at a reflection of herself, this is a girl making do and being creative.  My grandmother used to make clothes for my Sindy which were the height of 60s and 70s fashion.  My Sindy doll used to go about dressed up like Margo from The Good Life.  Marvellous.

Playing with Dolls Mary Louise Gow
This is somewhat posher, but I'm not sure I like how needy the doll in the pink is.  Is this a comment on favourites, a mother showing favouritism to one child over another?  Little Miss Blue Bonnet is getting all the attention, and she is almost literally a reflection of her owner.  There is no bonnet for Miss Pink.  Oh deary me.

The Tȇte-a-Tȇte Tea George Bernard O'Neill
Sometimes it seems that a doll can stand in for a friend when there are none others available.  Maybe it's something about their inability to argue that makes them perfect companions, and their inability to talk makes them great to confide in and gossip with. This little girl is telling dolly all about what she saw the girl at number 38 doing last Thursday afternoon.  Scandalous.

The Secret Emily Crawford
Whatever the girl in pink is confiding to her friend will be all over the nursery before supper.  The doll is just waiting until the girls have to go to tea before spreading the gossip. There's a cuddly badger on the shelf who is really judgmental.

Hearts of Oak (1875) James Clarke Hook
Outside the confines of the nursery, the doll's life becomes a little more precarious.  No-one has noticed that the skittle-like doll has been thrown from its little truck.  It must be hard work being an ominous portent and as we are by the sea, near some little boats, I wonder if the father is a fisherman who might not be coming back from his next trip.  Never mind, Mummy will just carve them a new daddy, apparently.  

Repairing the Doll (1867) Alexander Burr
I suppose it is inevitable that dolls get broken.  We have a spate of running repairs on various things in our house, but mercifully stuffed animals (Lily's favourite) can be easily stitched back together. China, wood and other breakable materials must have made solid toys but when they broke it was a skilled job to make them right. 

The Broken Doll (1895) Pedro de Vega Munoz
Broken dolls call for elderly gentlemen to fix them.  In both the pictures above, the doll has been taken to Granddad (or Dad, life was hard back then) for repair.  Grandfather would have been a skilled man, able to make and mend a wooden doll.  In the second picture you get the idea that the doll is a little bit of brightness in the dark house, with her little pink dress.  In a way she is like the leggy pot plant by the window, something that serves no purpose other than provide some pleasure which seems in short supply.

The Old Doll Pierre Oliver Cooman
This is possibly the most horrific painting I've seen for a while.  It took me a while to notice the little hammer in the girl's hand.  The pair are sitting on animal skins possibly hinting at the vicious nature they are suppressing.  Something tells me that dolly's lost leg was not an accident and they are not mending her - look at the way that the child on the left is holding her arm.  It looks like the doll is being restrained and tortured.  Lawks, I'm not sure I'd want that on my wall.

In the Morning Room (1905) William Rothenstein
In conclusion, the more you look, the less innocent dolls look.  They are a reflection of our nature, for better or worse.  They show us to be caring, industrious, vain and cruel.  Girls cradle them, dress them and worry over them when they are injured.  Through their treatment of their dolls they show their willingness and fitness to be mothers, their ability to care for others, often at the expense of their own position and comfort.  In light of this, the two girls pulling the doll apart are either monsters or critics of the patriarchal oppression that forces them into such narrow roles.  Or something.  Anyway, if we are to look on the bright side, the doll stands for the limitless capacity for love which is not learnt but innate.  Often the male counterpart is dressed for battle, like our little native american brave above, or holding toy soldiers.  It would be tempting to speculate the the male and female character is thus summed up as creation and destruction, life and death, war and peace.  Therefore, returning to the films I watched, when we imagine a doll to be malicious, what does that say about our parenting skills? I dread to think...
Kate Matilda Bentley Fred Brown
On that note, can I suggest you read 'The Dressmaker's Doll' by Agatha Christie, a perfect reflection on the nature of dolls and our relationship with them.  Plus, it's damn scary too and Annabelle rips it off something rotten.  Oh, and out of the two films I saw The Boy is eminently the better and the doll is not quite as disturbing. 

Not quite....

Monday 21 November 2016

Review: Meeting Modernism

It won't come as a massive surprise to you that I'm not a big fan of modern art.  Sorry, that should be Modern Art, with nice big capital letters, because when you hear people talk about Modern Art it tends to consist of Modern Art is great, Victorian Art is rubbish.  Now, you and I both know that the truth is a mixture of both, for example there are some appalling pieces of Victorian art as well as being some pieces of sublime beauty.  Likewise, therefore I am rather partial to twentieth century figurative art, which is why I was most happy to learn the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth were doing an exhibition of their twentieth century art collection...

Poster for the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery (1922)
Whilst primarily a gallery of gorgeous nineteenth century art, the Russell-Cotes has always had room for some very special works of 'modern' art.  Usually kept in the Morning Room, these, and many others, have been moved into the main exhibition gallery and are a group of joyful, beautiful exuberance. They are part of the collection brought in by the first curators after the death of the founders Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes in the 1920s.  There are landscapes, War Art and Golden Age pieces that capture the romance of interwar years.

Spray (1920-30) Harold Sandys Williamson
I have a particular weakness for Golden Age: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, Enid Blyton, bobbed hair and Pennies from Heaven.  It's all marvellously glamorous and a number of the art works in this exhibition reflect this wonderful aesthetic.

The Bather (c.1930) Thomas Martine Ronaldson
There is something particularly fitting in seeing these seaside images of health and vitality in a gallery that overlooks the ocean, and they are a collection of sparkly pearly skin and turquoise sea.  It's enough to make you want to strip off and leap into the Solent.  Okay, maybe not in November...

Te aho te rangi wharepu (1907) Charles Frederick Goldie
There are also some lovely references to the Russell-Cotes' passions including a set of paintings of the indigenous people of New Zealand, a country beloved by Merton and Annie. I have always liked seeing the Russell-Cotes' collection of Goldie's Maori men and women as they have such a solemn dignity and they are extremely moving pieces of art.

Boy and Goat Joseph Hermon Cawthra

St Francis of Assisi (1930s) Winifred Leveritt
There are pieces of sculpture included, some tradition like the little boy and the goat, some more stylised, like St Francis of Assisi by Winifred Leveritt. This shows the tension inherent in the show - at what point did Victorian style lose its grip on public taste?  What replaced it?

At the Well of Samaria (1935) Joseph Southall
For some, taste didn't change.  As late as the Second World War, artists more traditionally thought of as Victorian or early Edwardian were producing works in a similar vein.  However, something like Southall's stiff tempera medievalism fits nicely with Eric Gill's overly sensual Biblical studies, very modern in rendering.  Seeing them together it gives a more honest narrative of the evolution of artistic taste.  The idea that Victorian notions of style and subject stopped with the death of the old queen becomes nonsense when faced with someone like Southall or even Frank Cadogan Cowper, merrily sticking to their guns in the middle of the twentieth century.

Near  Worbarrow Bay, Dorset (1930) Philip Leslie Moffatt Ward
There is plenty of local colour in the exhibition, such as this jolly landscape which could easily be titled 'Five Go Mad in Dorset' and make you long for some ginger beer and an intrigue about smuggling.

Miss Chaseley on the Undercliff (1927) Maxwell Armfield
Finally, special mention has to be made to one of my favourite modern paintings in the Russell-Cotes collection.  I love Miss Chaseley on the Undercliff because of the amount of questions it raises: She is 'Miss' Chaseley, yet wears a wedding ring.  The flappers coming down the path seem calm and yet in the tiny pond to the right the boat is being tossed around in a storm.  She wears what seems to be Edwardian dress, yet it is 1927.  I have many outrageous theories about Miss Chaseley (who was Armfield's landlady when he was boarding in Bournemouth) and will happily share them with anyone who fancies a bit of speculation but they revolve around a naval death...

Self Portrait (1941) William D Dring
The exhibition is on until next April and is a lovely way to brighten the Winter months, so get yourself over to Bournemouth.  Further information can be found here.

Sunday 6 November 2016

At the Heart of the Souls

This autumn I was asked to curate a small exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth.  As some of you will know, the Russell-Cotes were given a collection of drawings by the Duchess of Rutland, Violet Manners, and I had been helping with some research, so when I was asked if I could think of a subject for an exhibition, I immediately asked if I could choose some of the absolutely beautiful drawings.  Any excuse to see Harry Cust...

Henry Cust (1861-1917) 
Oh Harry, I really need a big picture of you in my office to cheer me up when things get gloomy.  Anyway, apparently you can't have just one picture and call it an exhibition, so I picked another seven and they are now displayed in the Morning Room at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery on the East Cliff overlooking the sea.

Violet Manners' self portrait
When Colonel Charles Lindsay noticed his 5 years old daughter, Violet, was a promising artist, he approached Burne-Jones to ask for drawing lessons.  Burne-Jones recommended that the child be made to draw her own reflection over and over until she improved as that was all the teaching she needed.  Either he couldn't be bothered with a precocious child or he was a genius, but Burne-Jones was right and the portraits Violet produced of her friends and family are utterly beautiful gems of detail and expression.  Not only that but her friends turned out to be some of the most important people of the later Victorian period...

Princess Henry of Battenberg (Princess Beatrice) (1857-1944)
From Prime Ministers, actresses, scandalous novelists and princesses, there are more than merely Lords and Ladies on show here.  I had many happy hours scouring the newspapers of the time finding gossip and intrigue about broken engagements and rigorous beauty regimes as well as political highs and lows of the people who moved in Violet's social circle.
The Hon. Neil Primrose (1882-1917)
I was touched by stories of loss, as many of Violet's social circle lost children in the First World War. Cherubic Neil Primrose is one of the young men who went to the First World War never to return, and the images of Kipling and Asquith show fathers who encouraged their sons to go only to be devastated by the inevitable result.

Amelia Rives (Princess Troubetzkoy) (1863-1945)
The Russell-Cotes have a lovely bit of history with the work of Violet Manners; she held a show there in the 1930s and they bought one of the images in their quite large collection from the artist then.  The rest come from a donation in the 1970s together with a lovely letter of authenticity from Diana Cooper, daughter of the artist and someone whose photograph is in the dictionary under 'Bright Young Thing'.  When I grow up I want to be as glam as Diana Cooper and send missives to people from my house in France.

The Earl of Oxford and Asquith (Herbert Asquith PM) (1852-1928)
If you want to read more about the people I have featured, I have written an article for the ArtUK website filled with scandal and delights.  If you fancy popping down to Bournemouth to see my exhibition, it's on from now until April 2017, alongside their Meeting Modernism exhibition which I'll review later in the week.