horizontal rule


Roger is addicted to art galleries so we're very lucky to live near London which has some of the best collections in the World.

His favourite genre is portraiture, especially nineteenth and twentieth century stuff - but all art is welcome.  He has fairly catholic tastes - most modern art gets a cursory glance, while pre-war portraits - especially Klimt, De Lempicka and Modigliani get significantly more - sometimes hours - of attention.

Roger has even tried his hand at painting - mainly copying other peoples stuff. Most of it gets whitewashed so the canvas can be used again, but some of it gets hung at home.  If you're patient enough to wait for the download there is a link to some samples of his own work at the top of the page.

There is also a link to some older gallery visit reports for the really sad reader who wants to know what Roger saw years ago !  But here - immediately below - are REPORTS OF WHAT HAS ROGER SEEN RECENTLY....


horizontal rule

The Pallant House Gallery Chichester     September 2020


                  Some of Freedmans lithographs                                                                  Blakes "Babe Rainbow"

Only my third outing to an art gallery in this plague year and as the "second wave" of Coronavirus seems both inevitable and imminent, it may well be my last ! Barnett Freedman was one of the most prolific Commercial Artists of the mid twentieth century yet surprisingly he has not had a major UK exhibition since his death in 1958.  So I was excited to get a ticket timed for ten o'clock to visit his first exhibition in over fifty years at The Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. I had booked an early slot, partly to avoid crowds, and partly because I wanted to travel on later to meet up with a friend for lunch near Bognor Regis. I was a little confused finding the address when I arrived - it seems that almost every street in mid-Chichester is has the word Pallant in its name!  East Pallant Street, West Pallant Street, North Pallant Street or just plain Pallant Street - but it's quite a compact little town and I soon found the right address. In fact I was five minutes early - first in the queue. The gallery is based around an old Queen Anne town house, with a modern art gallery (1980s) built to the left side and behind the property, and a nice little restaurant with open air seating in a walled garden on the righthand side. I made my way up to the Freedman exhibition, which was hosted in four or five rooms, laid out to show examples of his early works at The Royal College of Art; and some of his commercial heritage creating posters and signage for London Underground and Green Line buses during the 1930s and 1940s; Probably his best known output was for book covers and book illustrations for classical publications (Walter De La Mare, Edward Lear, Leo Tolstoy etc) and there was a room dedicated to those. Another room held examples of some of his fine compositions, together with working drawings for some of the characters - and there was also a gallery with examples of his war artist output - both around factories in Britain and in France following D-Day. Finally was a room with some general examples of his lithographs - some of which were familiar as wall decorations from Lyons Corner House restaurants. There were also a couple of examples of some of Freedman's lithograph stones - where the design was scratched with fine hatchings onto huge and incredibly smooth flat stones; one for each colour. These stones were then used to print onto paper.  I then moved on to view the other main exhibition in the gallery, which was some of their own collection of "Pop Art" works; the Pallant House Gallery has one of the largest Pop Art collection in Britain, Among these were a couple of originals of Pater Blake's works - notably his Beatles Montage (not a very good likeness I'm afraid) and his iconic "Babe Rainbow" - the subject of thousands of print copies in the sixties. I then moved on to try to visit the old Pallant House - but it has very narrow corridors and small rooms - so with "social distancing" and mandatory mask wearing, there was no space to "overtake", leaving the chain of visitors restricted to the speed of the slowest art lover! About six visitors ahead of me was an art lover who wanted to spend a good three or four minutes in front of every picture - so after seeing through the door of the second of the ground floor rooms I begged claustrophobia and backed out to explore the Gallery's coffee shop in the walled garden. 


horizontal rule

The Russell Cotes Museum, Bournemouth      February 2020

Midsummer by Albert Moore

Fran and I have a huge affinity for Bournemouth - it is where we met more than fifty years ago in the summer of 1968. We also love Victorian art, so whenever we visit we try to get some time to wander around the Russell Cotes Museum and Art Gallery high up on the East Cliff adjoining the Royal Bath Hotel. Having planned a long weekend in the town this February, we spent a lot of Saturday afternoon browsing the collection. Unfortunately some of the key treasures - particularly Rosetti's Venus Verticordia and most of the early twentieth century deco art was away on loan to a museum in Japan! Never mind, we have seen it before, and I hope we shall see it all again; and there are plenty of other works still to see in the remaining collection. The old house has been restored to as near as they can make it to the state it was in when the Russell-Cotes family handed the collection to the local Council in 1919. This has involved clever detective work, including recreating wallpaper from scraps found stuck behind light switches! The recent removal of some screens and heavy curtain hangings as part of the restoration work has revealed ceiling paintings, which had been forgotten about because they were not obvious in the previous gloom. There are many famous paintings in the art collection - which was avant garde and "modern" at the time it was collected - and features some amazing large scale Victorian biblical and allegorical scenes. There is also a stunning collection of statues and busts of the late Victorian era, and a lot of original furniture. The Russell-Cotes' travelled a lot and the collection also includes a lot of oriental art and near Eastern art. They even have a fountain in the centre of the hall based on the Arabic "wind tower" which Lord Leighton had built in his London house.  A bit fanciful compared to genuine Arabic wind towers but beautiful and very relaxing (I saw one of the last surviving genuine wind towers in Doha in the early nineteen seventies - a functional cooling device for a house). There is also a room dedicated - like a shrine - to Sir Henry Irving, the famous Victorian actor - who was a close friend of the family. It even includes the actors death mask; a habit we no longer pursue in the UK quite as avidly as the Victorians did; perhaps because we have photography!
A fascinating collection - well worth the visit.


horizontal rule

The British Museum, London      January 2020

 On Wednesday we visited The British Museum to see this show of historical objects relating to the stories of the Hellenic wars, and specifically to the stories of Troy - a city which stood near the Dardanelles in modern day Turkey. The show itself was interesting, but was disappointingly presented. It seems to be currently trendy to have lots of unutilised dimly lit space; with the exhibits themselves all crowded together so that only one or two people at a time can actually see them. The show also suffered from trendy labelling; with display labels at ground level and lit from behind - so they were in shadow if you, or anyone else, stood in front of them. However, the stories of these Bronze Age wars are fascinating. The actual events of some three thousand years ago are poorly evidenced and were handed down by word of mouth for half a millennium until Homer documented them in The Illiad and The Odyssey. On top of that the actual site of ancient Troy was not actually discovered or excavated until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But the basic tenets of the story, the names of the protagonists and the ruse of the Wooden Horse are still recalled some one hundred and fifty generations later - that has to be some sort of immortality. The basic story in which Trojan prince Paris abducts Helen from Mycenae. Helen - the most beautiful woman in the World, was the wife of Spartan king Menelaus, and her abduction triggers a war in which the Greeks lay siege to Troy in revenge. The ensuing decade of war ends only when Odysseus comes up with the ruse of a gigantic wooden horse, filled with soldiers, which the Trojans foolishly drag inside their city only to be massacred by night. Even that isn't the end of the story - there are the subsequent adventures of Odysseus while en route home; and the story of the murder of Menelaus's father, Agamemnon, by his Queen, Clytemnestra in revenge for him for making a human sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to ensure success in the Trojan war. The exhibition displays artefacts from the Greek, Roman, Medieval and modern times - displaying different versions and different facets of the stories. There is also a section of pottery and finds from the excavations of Troy and Mycenae, although no direct evidence has been found for the stories there was certainly a sporadic war between the ancient Greeks and the Hittites, and versions of the stories occur in both Western (Greek/Roman) context and in the Hittite (Persia/Afghanistan) context. A fascinating exhibition.

Achilles - The British Museum


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art, London      July 2019

It was the hottest London day on record - 38 degrees in the shade; when we visited The Royal Academy of Art. Perhaps because of the heat the Town was fairly quiet, and the Royal Academy was ominously so. We had gone to see this years Summer Exhibition and were surprised to find that the two other exhibitions at the RA were actually "closed because of the extreme weather conditions". However The Summer Exhibition was still open. We arrived at half past two, and although we had timed tickets for three o'clock, the staff ushered us straight in because there were hardly any other visitors. With the exception of 2018, I have attended every Summer Exhibition since 1985; and avoidance of last years show was a reflection of my opinion that they have been getting steadily more weird. Perhaps an attempt to shock the public? Added to which, more recently there has been a move to allow different academicians to lay out each room as if that display were a work of art itself. Each room now wastes space with a large panel describing why each "hang" is so clever - but I think that merely reinforces the unctuous pretentions of these "artists". Add to that the fact that for the last decade or so I have been finding that I actually dislike a growing proportion (in the order of ninety percent) of the "art" chosen to be displayed; and that there has been a decreasing amount of work which I find I actually like or would buy; suggests that I am becoming old and crusty and conservative. I have in fact attended every exhibition of any sort at the RA from 1985 through to 2015 - but was beginning to find some of those were also out of touch with my perceptions, so I have been more selective in recent years. Last year I decided not to bother visiting the Summer Exhibition at all. But this year, because we happened to be "in Town" for other reasons, Fran and I thought that we would give it one more try, just in case it had got better.  Sadly it hadn't.  There were a couple of old friends on display - the likes of Ken Howard - but in the main I was easily able to walk through without anything much catching my eye. I'm now seriously considering ceasing my membership of Friends of the RA - I don't see any evidence that they are teaching or supporting either draughtsmanship or composition; the whole emphasis seems to be on shock value.

picture right:  The 2019 Summer Exhibition


horizontal rule

Lord Leighton's House, West Kensington, London      July 2019

The Blue Plaque

Lord Leighton's House lies in Holland Park Road, a quiet backstreet in West Kensington. Unfortunately the annexed Perrin Gallery is closed pending a refurbishment programme - probably for another two or three years; but Lord Leighton's house is an excellent small museum and art gallery. Most of the contents were sold off after his death and the house was bomb damaged during World War 2, so it is largely refurbished - but still captures the splendour it must have exuded in the late eighteen hundreds when it was the focus of artistic development in the Victorian Renaissance era - in fact Queen Victoria herself visited for dinner. There are a lot of works by Leighton and some by his friend Millais on display, plus many handwritten letters and documents on display (Alfred Lord Leighton was the administrative head of the Royal Academy of Arts). His impressive studio occupies most of the upper floor, but for me the highlights were the Narcissus Room with it's bronze of Narcissus and it's gold plated ceiling; and the Arabic wind tower room, with its indoor fountain, seventeenth century Arabic tiling and Egyptian seraglio grille work overlooking it from the first floor.  A small exhibition - but a quality one, well worth the ten minute walk from High Street Kensington - and free to Art Club members


Lord Leighton's studio                                        Lord Leighton's House

horizontal rule


The National Portrait Gallery, London      May 2019

above: Albert & Victoria
right: Charles Waterton with his cats head

The Hunt for The Cheshire Cat is a telephone text driven treasure hunt across central London - and we participated it one on Saturday 11th May. Luckily for us it started at our favourite Art Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, so we arrived three quarters of an hour early so that we could enjoy a bit of a browse through the collection.  A fairly unstructured visit, we started at the late twentieth century and modern collection on the second floor mezzanine. Lots of contemporary portraits including a classic of Darcy Bussell and one of Elton John. The latter turned out to be useful because later that day the picture figured as one of the clues on our treasure hunt, so I was able to locate it very quickly.
We then descended to the first floor and the Victorian section - where I had to pause beside one of my favourite statues: Queen Victoria - diminutive as in real life - looking up adoringly at Prince Albert. I don't know why I like this statue so much. I understand that it is actually quite "twee" - but I like it.
To start the treasure hunt we met with our friends Mike & Shirley in the basement cafe, but luckily one of the early clues returned us to the Gallery, with a hunt for the Cheshire Cat in room 19 on the third floor. The solution was in a portrait of Charles Waterton, an nineteenth century taxidermist portrayed by Charles Willson Peale - which featured the stuffed head of a cat! The answer to our clue. The next clue took us down to the contemporary collection and Elton John. I was getting quite excited by the prospect of playing a treasure hunt through an art gallery when sadly the next clue took us out of the building - so it was a very brief visit to The National Portrait Gallery - but an interesting one.



horizontal rule


I OBJECT : Ian Hislop's search for dissent
The British Museum, London      January 2019

Wall Art - fake Museum piece - by Banksy

Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye Magazine and a regular TV guest on programmes such as Have I Got News For You. His mission in life is to entertain by undermining - and exposing the stupidities of - the "establishment", in all it's forms. He is the current "master of dissent" in the UK. The British Museum have asked him to curate this exhibition of dissent over the centuries. Each of the exhibits has a message of dissent and the objects themselves range through time from ancient Rome to the modern day. Some messages were overt. The exhibition opens with Roman carvings depicting Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in compromising and demeaning sexual positions. This was an establishment move to disenfranchise the rule of previous generations, and is an exact parallel of today's "fake news".  There are also examples of seventeenth century cartoons depicting the hedonistic orgies of the Prince Regent - these were not all published and some of those displayed are the only copies because those in power paid huge bribes to newspapers in order to suppress them. Then there are more subtle forms of dissent. There are colonial banknotes designed with patterns withinin the backgrounds which secretly spell derogatory words like "SCUM" or "SEX"; and some which are cleverly overprinted with rubber stamps. A particularly clever instance of overprinting is the addition of a tiny grim reaper figure which blended into the Greek Euro note during the recent economic woes in Greece. The exhibition also featured a huge carved wooden relief from East Africa which is another form of hidden dissent. Designed to be sold to colonial masters, it shows natives and European missionaries and governors riding bicycles - but in the bicycle baskets are local carved gods making phallic gestures toward the colonial rulers. A local protest which the British almost certainly did not notice or read into the narrative. Then there are totally secret dissents, which would have incensed oppressive regimes if they had been recognised. These include secret messages in what appear to be supportive works. Some are codified, some are double entendre and some are obsequiously supportive - so that the cognoscenti can recognise them as cynical. These include posters "supportive" of African dictators; cynically supportive Chinese posters and a Russian poster in support of promoting abstention from alcohol - supportive of a genuine campaign to reduce vodka alcoholism, but allegedly endorsed by President Gorbachev - who was a very heavy drinker.  Finally there were the just plain "fun" types of dissent, an Egyptian graffiti scribble found in the rubble of a tomb, showing a person bending over and being screwed by another person behind, with a legend warning workers to look out behind them! Best of all in this class is a neat example of dissent at the expense of the British Museum itself. Not only does it mock the pomposity of the whole process of collecting and exhibiting old artefacts, but it suggests that you can stick any old thing in a museum and people won't notice for days. Very funny, except I don't think the British Museum were amused when the artist Banksy placed his "Wall Art" in their collection in 2005 with a realistic looking label proclaiming "This finely preserved example of primitive art dates from the Post-Catatonic era and is thought to depict early man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds. The artist responsible is known to have created a substantial body of work across the South East of England under the moniker Banksymus Maximus but little else is known about him. Most art of this type has unfortunately not survived. The majority is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls." Embarrassingly the Museum did not notice the addition to their collection for three whole days, until they were alerted by a posting on Banksy's own website. A fun little exhibition.

horizontal rule


I AM ASHURBANIPAL : king of the world, king of Assyria
The British Museum, London      January2019

Ashurbanipal killing a lion.
Although he is portrayed as powerful and wearing a sword,
he also has a writing pen in his belt.

The mainstream special exhibition at The British Museum in January was of Assyrian artefacts specifically mapping the reign of Ashurbanipal, the first really successful emperor in history. Of course, two and a half thousand years ago the bronze age was morphing into the iron age and the key part of the World from a civilization point of view was "the fertile crescent". The swathe of territory running up from the Nile in Egypt, through what is now Israel and the Lebanon, across the top of Iraq and down the twin valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The crescent was made up of several groups of peoples, the main ones being the Egyptians, the Medes, and the Assyrians. Kings had many wives and concubines and many children and Royal succession was rarely as straightforward as falling to the first born. Succession was mainly bloody, fratricidal, and sometimes patricidal; with the most ruthless individual taking over the monarchy. Ashurbanipal was an exception to this rule. He was not the toughest, but he was a scholar and may have been the cleverest! He made his home at Nineveh - modern day Mosul. The British Museum has collected Assyrian bits and pieces since the mid 1850s, including most of the surviving tablets from the Royal Library at Nineveh.  These were "preserved" because the library burned down, which "fired" the clay tablets, thus preserving them; but the job of re-assembling and translating the thousands of tablets and fragments of tablets has taken over one hundred and fifty years! Although the removal of these treasures to London was essentially colonial theft, the recent destruction of some eighty percent of Iraq's historical monuments and museums by ISIS / Daeth means that at least this important archive was preserved.
Ashurbanipal was responsible for the expansion and amalgamation of the Assyrian Empire, mainly by proxy. He didn't actually lead armies himself, he employed others to do that; but he was a scholar and he did document all the events. He also set up a communications network of Royal Roads so that information and trade was enabled. He had a policy of relocating defeated peoples (often willingly) to central areas of the defeated country - where he could monitor dissent, but also where those peoples could prosper in the new trades which were becoming established throughout the bronze age. The outer areas of countries were populated by immigrants from Assyria. This had the effect of stabilising borders and laying the foundations for integrating clans and tribes between Countries. Ashurbanipal was a scholar, although in order to cement his power he is depicted in the texts, in statues and on wall decorations, as a powerful leader of men. This was part of the necessary propaganda to reinforce the image - what we would today refer to as "fake news". The Assyrian empire reached its peak under Ashurbanipal's rule, but faded fairly quickly after his death. The exhibition is an amazing collection of items, all very beautiful, and all telling the story of this one mans rule from 668 BC until 627 BC.

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art, London      November 2018

An Easter island statue

The mainstream exhibition at The Royal Academy of Art in November 2018 was about the Art of Oceania - that collection of thousands of island dotted across the Pacific ocean, which was relatively undiscovered by Westerners until the early eighteenth century.  This exhibition pulled together many artefacts which had been acquired (both by way of trade and looting) in the early seventeen hundreds with more recent art works which have been developed specifically for trade with Westerners, and some which have developed as a result of exposure to Western influences.  The opening gallery contains war canoes and navigation charts - all beautifully decorated. There are many different peoples forming the various island groups, but they all seemed to relish decoration and ritual - even in the way they fought wars. The navigation charts were fascinating - matrices of sticks and cowrie shells tied together in intricate patterns - which represent islands, sea currents and prevailing wind patterns. The carvings on the boats and oars were intricate and densely packed onto every possible surface; on the whole they had an aggressive air, but were beautiful none the less.  The next few galleries contained ritual head dresses, clubs, and shields.  While the various works were distinct to each island grouping, the general feel was maritime - cowrie shells, wood and fibre were the main components. There was a series of displays of religious artefacts - masks and head dresses, but with a general theme of being scary. There was even an old friend in the exhibition - the "London" Easter Island Statue. This used to sit in the Museum of Mankind when it was housed in the Burlington Gardens side of the Royal Academy buildings, and moved to The British Museum some twenty years or more ago. Here it was back in Burlington House. The influence of Westerners was displayed in the final galleries, with pennants incorporating crosses - indicating that the natives had learned the "power" of symbols like flags, and were absorbing the teachings of the Christian missionaries into their own version of Christianity. There were also the first drawings on paper - a technique taught by Captain Cooks crew. Previously the indigenous peoples did not have paper - only tree bark. There were also carvings of white men and women - done for the "tourist trade" in the nineteenth century. A memorable feature of this gallery was a long "feasting trough" - carved like a crocodile.  The Main Gallery was dedicated to a cinematic panorama of an island scene in the early seventeenth century, with life size figures of red coated British sailors and indigenous men and women interacting as the scene pans around a view of an island coastline. In one scene Captain Cook is killed while trying to trade, In another some soldiers are whipping a native slave, in the background The Endeavour floats in the blue Pacific. A fascinating diorama but (call me cynical) I couldn't relate it to art. The final rooms held displays of twentieth century art from the area.  Overall this was a very interesting exhibition, but was slightly frustrated by two factors. The first is that the labelling was on a grey background and lighting was low - making the text very difficult to read. The second is that the new audio guide equipment is evidently really good at suppressing other sounds, because people with headphones were standing mindlessly in the way of normal visitors, evidently unable to hear what else was going on around them - and some were standing right in front of labels, listening intently - the guide was so interesting that they were oblivious to the fact that they were stopping others from reading the labelling.

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art, London      November 2018

Three Girls - Schiele

It has been ages since I visited The Royal Academy of Art. In fact this is the first year since 1984 that I have not made a pilgrimage to The Summer Exhibition - the abstinence being a vote of no confidence in Grayson Perry, this years curator.  However, this week was the preview of a classic exhibition of the works of two of my favourite secessionist artists, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  The exhibition opens to the public next week. The exhibition was specifically about their drawings and about the way Klimt developed his various styles - but specifically his style of primarily defining "edges" of things/people; although he countered this simplicity with amazing draughtsmanship and composition; and the way Schiele had followed his older master, copying his style.  Both artists clearly had very fast drawing techniques, and while Klimt's sketches were principally studies for grander works, Schiele appears to have worked primarily for the sake of his art. Both men found beauty in the realism of imperfect bodies - and the foundation of their movement - Secessionism - was very much about rebellion from the established "nice" art of the era, and the shock of startlingly realistic - and sometimes quite erotic - realism. Klimt was adept at a very broad portfolio of styles, and made his living as an excellent draughtsman and portraitist. However, his Secessionist works were very anti-establishment and many of his later products - particularly the Ode To Joy Frieze - shocked his critics and were generally shunned by the public. His "redeeming" factor was his popularity as a society portrait painter. This exhibition has examples of some of Klimt's iterative attempts to capture the realism and emotional sense of models for some of the Ode to Joy Frieze, and for his "arts" series - particularly Medicine, which featured a very tormented and erotically portrayed woman. Schiele on the other hand, did not apply his undoubted skill to satisfying a paying public, and focussed mainly on sketches of erotically posed women and men (in fact some of them were downright pornographically posed) which were superbly crafted, excellently composed and observed, but totally inappropriate for making a living as a jobbing artist.  Some of his techniques were very avant garde for the day - he also focussed on "outlines" and "edges" - but his drawings were brilliantly observed and beautifully composed. I was particularly impressed with series of line drawings which he had outlined in white gouache - a technique which really transformed and lifted the drawings. Both men died in 1918, both victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic of that year. This was an excellent exhibition and I hope I will get an opportunity to visit it again while it is in London

horizontal rule

An "Art Fund" Tour      April 2018

Harris Manchester College Chapel

We arrived in Oxford via the Redbridge Park and Ride and met up with other members of The Art Fund in the cafe in the crypt of St Mary The Virgin in Radcliffe Square. This crypt is called Congregation House, and was the room in which the very first University Office in Oxford was established in 1320 - quite an historic cup of coffee.  Once assembled, our guide led us to Harris Manchester College to partake in a lecture about the coloured glass and stained glass windows of the Unitarian Chapel there - the last, and probably most mature, works of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in the late 1890's. Afterwards we all traipsed through Oxford to The Kings Arms pub, where we had a private room booked for lunch. Then we moved on through the tiny back alleys passing The Turf pub (close to where Jane Burden - Mrs William Morris - was born in 1839). On the way we paused to take in the gates of Exeter College (where Burne-Jones and Morris met - and which JRR Tolkien also attended) and a quick visit to the church of St Michael at The North Gate - where Jane and William Morris eventually married, before reaching The Oxford Union. A very private building which we were privileged to be allowed to enter. The Library at The Oxford Union was built around the 1840s and has ten high panels around the ceiling which were used by the early Pre-Raphaelites to depict the story of King Arthur. These ten paintings were by a collection of artists led by Rossetti, and included the first known examples of paintings by the then very young William Morris and Edward Jones (yet to acquire his style of "Burne-Jones"). The contrast between these fairly naive paintings and the classical pre-raf works generated at Harris Manchester College after forty years of experience was stark.  I did manage a couple of innocent photographs of the Library before we were informed that there was strictly no photography allowed! The assistant librarian delivered a very interesting lecture on the history of the Union and the individual panels in the ceiling.

The Library at The Oxford Union


horizontal rule


The Royal Academy of Art,  London     April 2018

Triple portrait of Charles 1st

Sadly this was a fairly rushed visit squeezed in between some business meetings in London, but necessary because I had been delinquent and left things too late; the exhibition was scheduled to end in just a few days time!   So I was unable to give Charles 1st : King and Collector the time or consideration which it undoubtedly deserved.  Charles 1st (1600-1649) was the first English Monarch to create a really stunning art collection, and the last English Monarch to be executed. During his career as Duke of York, then Prince of Wales, and then King; he amassed - and commissioned - a great collection of art works. As well as great artists of the past, such as Titian, Mantegna, Holbein and Dürer, he commissioned works by Van Dyk and Rubens.  After his execution in 1649 England had a brief period of being a "Commonwealth" under the rule of Oliver Cromwell before the throne was restored to Charles II in 1660. During this period of "commonwealth" the Crown Jewels and the main parts of Charles 1sts Royal Collection were sold off and scattered across Europe; this exhibition is a gallant attempt some three hundred and fifty years later to reassemble as much of that lost art collection as possible into a single exhibition.  The range of artworks on display was amazing, much of it on loan personally from our current Queen. There were some amazing Roman busts and statues dating from the 2nd century - but (apart from the odd chipped nose) looking as fresh as if the had been carved yesterday. I fell in love with Faustina The Younger who - even one thousand eight hundred and fifty seven years later her bust is so realistic and she was truly beautiful.  While I did enjoy the masonry works, the main thrust of the collection was oil on canvas. As well as the classics which Charles had acquired during his travels to Spain as a young man, there were a number of contemporary portraits of King Charles and of his wife Henrietta Maria.  All of the paintings were in remarkably well preserved condition, bright and clean, and the portraits of courtiers appeared to pull no punches about beauty - they were fascinating faces - and very "modern" in their looks, despite the clothing styles. There were also a number of "allegories", designed to stimulate philosophical debate and to prompt conversation - and in some cases the cheeky exposure of nipples was no doubt to titillate as the soft porn of their day.  A fascinating collection, I wish I had visited earlier and had more time to explore and absorb it.

Faustina the younger
AD 161


horizontal rule

Compton, near Guildford     March 2018

GF Watts Studios

The GF Watts Studios are a part of Limnerlease House at Compton, near Guildford. The whole house was the home of George Frederick Watts - the prolific Victorian artists - and his wife Mary Fraser Tytler, who survived him by almost thirty five years, and was herself a leading figure in both the Suffragette Movement and in the Arts and Crafts movement. We had visited the permanent exhibition at the Watts Gallery and the nearby Watts Memorial Chapel often before, but had never visited the studios.  The whole of Limnerlease house had been acquired by Watts at the end of the nineteenth century, but after his wife's death in 1938 it had subsequently been split into three separate dwellings. These have now all been re-acquired by the Watts Foundation and are in process of being restored to their Victorian look and feel. So far the studios at the Western end of the house have been fully restored and are open to the public. The centre section is empty and is scheduled for restoration next, while the Eastern section has been acquired by the trust, but is rented out as accommodation to provide some income until such time as adequate funding for renovation can be found. The studio section is well presented, with a video room, a "museum" section with touch and feel" examples of how the arts and crafts brickwork and internal gesso work were created by Mary Watts and "the villagers" of Compton.  Finally, there is Watt's own studio, with several examples of his work, sets of brushes and paints, his palette, his skullcap and a load of reference books. His most amazing studio tool was his picture lift - an adjustable "easel" which could be used to raise of lower his huge (fifteen foot tall) canvases up and down through a slot in the floor so that he could work at eye level. The studio also had a side "window" the height of the room to allow the huge canvases to be transferred to and from the studio and whatever transport was to take them away. Within the studio there are volunteers who are avid Watts fans who can tell interesting stories about the man himself and the objects in his studio. This is a truly amazing exhibition which we really enjoyed. We also noted that there is a temporary exhibition of pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Watts Gallery - but unfortunately it was too late to visit that as well, so we must make time for another visit before the exhibition finishes in June.


horizontal rule

Venice     March 2018

Peggy Guggenheim Collection
by the Grand Canal

The Peggy Guggenheim collection of twentieth century art is supposedly one of the finest in the World, sited in an old palace on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice it would be amazing just for its architecture!  Modern art is not really my favourite, and I am sceptical of "celebrity" artists like Klee, Mondrian, and Pollock - especially where their work becomes formulaic. However this collection also had some amazing Magritte, Chagall and Modigliani so I enjoyed it overall.  There was also an exhibition of Marino Marinis work - not one of my favourite sculptors - but in this case the exhibition juxtaposed his various works with the original classic which had inspired him - so I was treated to ancient Chinese horse, a superb Malliol nude and some Etruscan sculptures.  Where the museum fronts onto the Grand Canal there is a small landing, and on it they had exhibited one of Marinis weirder sculptures - a man with an enormous erection sitting astride a horse with no ears!  It certainly drew a lot of attention - mainly for the stylised penis rather than for any artistic merit (which cynical old me couldn't find...)  A very well set out museum in an awesomely beautiful setting - I wouldn't mind visiting that one again.

Inside - pleased to find another Modigliani!

horizontal rule

The Tate Modern, London      February 2018

Entrance to the Modigliani Exhibition

18th FebruaryAmedeo Modigliani is one of my favourite artists. Not only because he was a very good artist, but also because his painting "Female Nude" in the Courtauld Institute of Art was the first painting I learned to really appreciate. In those days the Courtauld was based in Woburn Square Garden, only a few hundred yards from my then office in Euston. I used to take my sandwiches and sit in front of the painting just looking at it for half an hour or more at a time; admiring the subtle line structure through the composition and the dynamic brush strokes - a classic crossover between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Indeed, that very painting was in this Tate exhibition, on loan from the Courtauld. A painting, of his muse Jeanne Hebuterne, was also one of the first "proper" paintings which I tried to copy; so "Modi's" work is close to my heart.
We arrived a little early for our timed tickets to the Modigliani Exhibition, so we perused the twentieth century artists areas first, finding lots which puzzled and raised the question "but is it art?" - and some which was really beautiful, including old friends like Degas's Little Dancer aged 14 and Monet's Waterlilies.  Modi's exhibition was in ten distinct sections (eleven if you count the opening room, which had just one self portrait in it). It moved more or less chronologically from his early career in Paris - including a lovely old film of Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century. There was a section on his sculpting period; and rooms dedicated to his associations and influences by and to other artists of the time; his "modern nudes" period ; the period of the first World War, when he painted in the South of France ; and finally his post war time in Montmartre and his final drawings and portraits. There was also a Virtual Reality experience of a reconstruction of his studio - but it had a massive queue and was only a reconstruction, so we gave that a miss. I love his work and had seen many of the exhibits before, but was pleased to personally meet some which I had only ever seen in books before, and there were an exciting handful that I had never seen before at all. A great exhibition.

Tate Modern

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy, London      August 2017

Matisse's odalisque style

5th August :  This was the opening day of this fantastic exhibition in the Sackler Gallery at The Royal Academy of Art. Henri Matisse was famed for his use of colour and patterning, and this style reflected his life and his studio. As well as examples of his art works, there were several "props" from his studio on display which feature in several of his paintings; including his famous chocolate pots, the shell chair, the octagonal chair, the incense burner, and some of the Arabic hangings. There are many examples of his line drawings, stark and simplistic; and the pin-board and paper cut outs he used for positioning the "objects" in some of his spatial compositions.  There were also parts of his collection of African and oriental tribal masks on display which figured in a lot of his mid-career art works - some of which were also in the exhibition. Matisse also created quite a few sculptures, many inspired by oriental "erotic" prints! There were examples together with the original source material which show how he changed the focus on sexuality in the original material to emphasise the pattern and balance of the images.  Among the paintings I found a couple of "old friends" including the rather stylised painting he did of his thirteen year old daughter Margeurite (photo right) and which he had given as a gift to his mate Picasso, and which we saw at The Picasso House in Paris two years ago. My favourite genre of Matisse is his "odalisque" style of the early part of the twentieth century and there were several examples of fine drawings as well as paintings. These paintings feature mainly pattern and position of textures - the humans in them are just another object in the pattern. As well as some of the textiles and props on display were some photographs of his studio with some of the models, including the lovely "Zita" who features in several of his better known paintings. Overall this was an excellent exhibition, and I hope I may get the chance to have a second visit before it closes

My favourite Henri Matisse quotation: "There are always flowers for those who want to see them."


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy, London      August 2017

5th August :  I nearly didn't get to the Summer Exhibition this year - having been sorely disappointed last year by the pretentious attempts to shock, the inclusion of what even I (broad minded old hippy) deemed pornographic and the almost total absence of any mainstream art. This year I made it only because I wanted to see the Matisse Exhibition upstairs, and the Summer Exhibition wasn't due to close for another fortnight. I am faintly pleased that I did make it, because, although most of the exhibition shows a sad lack of draughtsmanship ability and a recurring theme of almost juvenile attempts to continually  shock, there were a few nice works hidden among the other stuff. Sadly the RA are still allowing the senior Academicians to "hang" specific rooms - resulting in very weird layouts. You wouldn't let a bus driver design a bus, would you?  Among the better works were some Ken Howard oils, although they did give the impression that he had "dashed them off" rather than working them carefully like his earlier works.  Eileen Cooper is still exhibiting some interesting stuff but I was disappointed not to see any Anita Klein lino cuts this year - perhaps she is too "mainstream" for this exhibition?   The silliest work of the lot was a live show - a black canvas which a fat blindfolded man in a pinstriped suit was very slowly poking and caressing. I'm pleased to be a member because if I'd had to pay to see this exhibition I would have been sorely upset.

picture right: 2017 Summer Exhibition

Saving graces:  The Matisse Exhibition upstairs, and the damned fine new restaurant (not cheap) in the Keepers House.

horizontal rule

Paris      May 2017

Degas - The Little Dancer

6th May :   As part of a long weekend in Paris with Fran, Jacky and Colin, we visited the Musee D'Orsay - a pilgrimage I have to make every five years or so! The others left me on my own to wander, arranging to meet me several hours later in one of the restaurants. I started at the "top" (fifth floor) with "The Impressionists". This is undoubtedly one of the best and most comprehensive collections of impressionist art in the World; rivalled only by an equally amazing collection in the Orangerie, which lies just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the River Seine. I spent the best part of an hour in this section - revelling in the amazing collection of familiar works. I find that however much I see these works reproduced in books and whatever read about them and the techniques used to create them - it still takes my breath away to see the originals. Eventually I tore myself away and descended to the "middle" floor (second floor), where I focused initially on the Art Nouveau exhibit, which is another favourite of mine. As well as some classic examples of works from the era, they have a whole room with organic panelling appearing to grow out and into the furniture. A real reminder of the driving force of wonder at natural history, and particularly of evolutionary theory, which was developing at that time. On the Southern side of the middle floor were more classic works from the nineteenth century.  Descending to the lower floor (the ground floor) I wandered the sculpture court in the middle of the building before checking through the galleries of "Symbolism" and the vaguely theological works; another area of amazing craftsmanship from an era when the World was still being explored - scenes of camel trains and Arabic motifs, elephants and imagery depict what would have been exciting and exotic parts of planet - much less accessible, and significantly more mystical, in those days before mass air travel. Across on the Southern side of the museum I explored the works of Van Goch, Picasso and Gaugin, before returning to the top of the building and losing myself in the Impressionists again!
An amazing collection - I was not only late for my rendezvous with my friends, but I was so distracted and transported by the amazing wealth of art that I waited for them at the wrong restaurant and they had to come and find me!


horizontal rule

Compton      April 2017

Anna in the Watts Memorial Chapel

17th April  :   We had visitors on Easter Monday - Sue and Anna from Oregon - and they had no knowledge of George Frederick Watts, so we took them to Compton.  GF Watts was one of the most amazing artists of the Victorian era - a friend of Leighton, Tennyson and Rossetti; he contributed to a wide range of arts - primarily known for "symbolism" - the expression of human nature through art.  His very early works showed influences of Turner; but he was inventive and eventually he embraced all the significant changes of the Victorian era, and his final paintings in 1904 were reminiscent of Picassos then current works - verging on "modern art".  He was also an accomplished sculptor and made a good living by being one of the best society portrait artists in London during his era.  He was also keen on young ladies - marrying the famous actress Ellen Terry when she was only sixteen, and later marrying Mary Tytler - a well respected Scottish "Arts and Crafts" artist. He also seems to have enjoyed getting his housemaid to pose naked for him. Although he initially lived in London's art commune around Holland Park, close to his friend Frederic Lord Leighton; once he had married Mary they moved out to Compton, near Guildford. He maintained his London residence, but was only there for a few months each summer - spending most of the rest of his life at Compton. The art gallery which he built has a magnificent collection of his paintings and sculptures and also sports an excellent gift shop and cafe/restaurant.  After we had inspected the current exhibitions we walked the few hundred yards along the road to the local cemetery where we visited the Watts Memorial Chapel. This red brick "arts and crafts" building was erected by Mary Watts in 1896. She marshalled the forces of some seventy local villagers to help fire bricks, build the chapel and decorate the interior. Externally the chapel has red bricks, many of which are embossed with knot patterns and art nouveau style saints and angels.  Inside the chapel is a riot of colour with a crossover feel between secessionist styles and art nouveau.  I cannot enter without going "Wow!" and was pleased to see that Sue and Anna both did the same. Finally we walked a little further into the cemetery to see Watts final resting place - he died in 1904 - before returning to the gift shop and investing in various books.


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art    April 2017

American Gothic : Grant Wood

11th April  :   We visited The Sackler Gallery at The Royal Academy of Art to see this major exhibition of North American (United States) art which was produced during the great depression of the thirties. This was the era of "the great American dream" - which sadly failed to deliver for most citizens - which commenced immediately after the major shock of the Great Wall Street Crash in October 1929. This was an environment in which small farmsteads were being "industrialised" (not unlike the situation in Russia described in the Revolution Exhibition - see below), banks were foreclosing mortgages because they had run out of money and people were finding work harder to obtain. Partly triggered by some adverse El Nino and El Nina effects, and exacerbated by industrial extraction of water resources - but mainly driven by over exploitation - the Country suffered major crop failures and the creation of "dustbowls". This mechanisation and failure of agriculture was the "push", while Industrialisation of manufacture was the "pull", in driving a major population shift from Countryside to Town - with subsequent urban squalor for the unemployed and poor. Another potent factor influencing this environment was political polarisation and fear as the World became more "nationalistic" and right wing in opinion - particularly epitomised by the rise of the Nazi Party in both Europe and America - and by the outbreak of war in Spain. This rapid social change and the associated economic and political anxiety triggered some iconic art in the U.S.A. - the subject of this exhibition.
There are a group of paintings cherishing the memory of "the good old days" by depicting the wholesome expanses of small farmsteads and recorded by artists like Grant Wood, Marvin Cone and Thomas Hart Benton. These were contrasted by Alexander Hogue's great work Erosion 2 - Mother Earth Laid Bare - a dust bowl scene with an abandoned farm shack and a rusting plough set in a scenery of bare dusty earth, some of which appears to take the form of the naked prone female figure of "Mother Earth".  The high point of the exhibition is without a doubt Grant Woods American Gothic (see left) which shows a grim faced farmer and his equally dour daughter dressed in colonial farmers clothing poised outside a clapboard building. The pair seem to reflect the anxiety of small American farmers in the face of the looming and inevitable change to their business. The building still exists in the town of Eldon, Iowa; and the models were Grants sister and his dentist. The painting is on it's first tour outside America, having been displayed at the Orangerie in Paris prior to this exhibition in London. 
Other paintings in the exhibition focused on urbanisation, with crowded street scenes depicting crowds and poverty from painters such as Reginald Marsh (In Fourteenth Street). In order to restore employment the US Government embarked on a scheme of conscription - which remains the backbone of US economy today. This is captured in Paul Cadmus's painting, The Fleets In!, which depicts drunken sailors with prostitutes. This is a well crafted piece of art, but was made even more famous mainly by the US Navy demanding that it be banned from public exhibition. It was then confiscated by Roosevelt, triggering enormous public indignation at censorship and giving the painting a much greater fame than it merits purely from its workmanship
. The attempts to industrialise entertainment are reflected in Edward Hoppers famous and iconic New York Movie showing that loneliness can exist even in a crowded place; and another one from Reginald Marsh showing the less civilised development of soft pornography films in Twenty Cent Movie. We are also given a view of such ventures as "dance marathons" are recorded in Philip Ever goods Dance Marathon - reflecting that some parts of society were so poor that they could themselves be exploited as entertainment for small prize rewards.  There is another great Hopper painting on show, Gas - a scene of a small gas station on a highway.   reflecting the social change in 1930s America. By way of apology, his classic painting Nighthawks is not in this exhibition because it wasn't painted until 1942.  Another part of the exhibition focuses on the social anxiety and fear created by the rise of the Nazi movement, with some very Dali-esque displays of the horrors of war and militarism. Finally, there are some very moving - and quite disturbing - paintings reflecting the social divide between black and white in the USA. I found Joe Jones' painting, American Justice to be particularly moving. It is a naive style of art showing a dead black woman, naked from the waist up, lying in the foreground, beside her a bloodhound is howling and a noose hangs from an overhanging tree branch.  In the middle distance is a group of eight hooded Klu Klux Klan members and in the background a house is on fire.


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art    April 2017

The Farm Supervisor

11th April  :   We visited The Royal Academy of Art to see the major exhibition of Russian Art from the era of the Revolution. The early stuff is very exciting, When the Bolsheviks precipitated revolution in 1917 they were vastly outnumbered by Tsarists and "art" was used as a form of propaganda - exalting the power of the people and the suppression of capitalism - typically depicted as businessmen wearing black suits and top hats - a bit like the caricature on the Monopoly Board Game.  The art form was frequently quite "blocky" and poster-like - this is because to be effective as a medium for enticing social change it needed to be relatively easily reproduced. The form was exciting with lots of movement and powerful imagery - particularly of the strong peasant worker - no longer "downtrodden" and now aspiring to industrialisation and reform.  As well as painted art, the exhibition included a lot of film archive, the early stuff was dynamic, showing moving machinery and strong young people (The States "Shock Workers") producing loads while smiling.
As the exhibition progresses through time, it marks the death of Lenin and his effective deification. There is film of churches being destroyed and some architectural models of Lenin's Mausoleum - itself effectively a temple. Stalin comes to the fore and the dictatorship becomes rapidly more and more repressive - marked by a both a tendency to the artistically cynical and the production of "underground" art. Many "thinkers" - artists, poets and film directors - were sent to Gulags and either died of starvation or were shot. Forced industrialisation of agriculture, the imposition of communism and the establishment of "five year plans" virtually destroyed the agricultural economy and many millions of peasants died. There are paintings (like the one on the left) depicting strong agricultural workers and empowered women; films showed fields of wheat rippling in the breeze and the excitement of peasants when their first tractor comes to the village to "help" them. There is also blacker art - particularly filmed art - showing the deprivation of tenement slums, of homeless people begging, and the squalor of communal living.
The first part of the exhibition was about the context of history, but the second part was less cohesive - being a display of the styles of art - which was not very different from the rest of the Western World, except maybe delayed by a few years!  Artists like Kandinsky made an impact - but my perception is that this was very much a reflection of what was happening in France, and not really a product of the Revolution in Russia. Artists like Chagall who had studied in France, returned to Russia because of the promise of freedom under the revolution - and also motivated to avoid involvement in the First World War.  The promise never became a reality and the real message is that the Russian Revolution did not stimulate much in the way of artistic development, but instead actually stifled "art" by focussing on using the outputs of art - the "painting by numbers" outputs - to convey carefully prescribed and dictated social messages as propaganda to the people.
While socially interesting, this is probably one of the most boring exhibitions I have attended in the last fifty years of visiting the Royal Academy.


horizontal rule

The Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth    November 2016

Midsummer - AJ Moore

12th November :   We visited the Russell-Cotes Museum situated behind The Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth. I had not been there for years and it has been seriously redeveloped since my last visit. The main objective was to see an old friend - a painting called Midsummer by AJ Moore, one of the "Ars Gratis Artis" (Art for Arts Sake) movement of painters at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a wonderful example of the movement with genuine trompe de l'oeil work on the silver throne, which appears to be almost photographically three dimensional.  We joined a small tour which highlighted seven of the collections many paintings, including this one.  The house itself is relatively well preserved (we noted some buckets to catch leaks from the roof of the old Victorian gazebo) and is stuffed with artefacts of the Russell-Cotes' World tours, and an amazing collection of pre-Raphaelite and other late nineteenth century artworks. The rooms are all decorated with friezes, mainly comprising golden peacocks and there is hardly an inch of spare space which is not occupied by an amazing picture of some description or another! There are alabaster and marble statues all over the place, and furniture to die for!  The refurbishment which had occurred since my last visit was the addition of a modern display area, shop area and cafe at the Western end of the old house.  From the new access point one enters the old house on it's first floor and is immediately greeted with the hallway, which displays some wonderful artworks including Rossetti's famous Venus Verticordia.  Photography was allowed, but unfortunately not flash photography - and the rooms are not that well lit, so my photo of Venus Verticordia below does not do justice to the rich greens and golds of this amazing work of art.  There are two main galleries of paintings which included a huge (fifteen foot by eight foot) work called The Flight Into Egypt by Edwin Longsden Long - an amazing work brimming with symbolism.  There were several other really noteworthy pictures including Aurora Triumphans by Evelyn De Morgan and JLB Shaws Jezebel - all iconic works of the era.  The collection is huge and far to big to display it all in the house, so much is either in store or on loan to other museums.  We were lucky enough to see a temporary display called Meeting Modernism - 20th Century Art in the Russell Cotes Collection. This included some iconic nineteen thirties works like The Bather by Thomas Ronaldson and Spray by Harold Williamson as well as some original illustrations by Eric Gill - one of my favourite draughtsmen.   Upstairs were loads more paintings and a collection of Japanese and Hawaiian art - plus magnificent views of the huge rolling waves from the Southerly gale crashing onto the beach below with Bournemouth Pier as a backdrop.
An amazing collection - and only a couple of hours away. I shall have to visit this museum more often.


Venus Verticordia                                     part of the 1920s exhibition                                             the upper landing of the main hall                              Victorian Bust                           One of the galleries                            


horizontal rule

The Tate Britain   September 2016

Carnation Lily Lily Rose

24th September :  Fran and I nearly missed this exhibition. Although it has been on show since May I had somehow missed it until a week before it closed, and our visit was on the penultimate day. The concept of the exhibition is to explore the early days of photography which was initially seem a tool for artists, long before it was recognised as an art form in its own right. The first photograph to be printed on photographic paper was produced by William Henry Fox in 1839 and by the early 1840's artists were using photos as reference points and for capturing poses. A lot of the early work was done by Robert Adamson in Edinburgh and the opening gallery of the exhibition showed a selection of those very early prints. Although the negative plates are still available, no actual original prints have survived, so the exhibition was actually digital reproductions from the plates - but was none-the-less impressive. In the first hall is a twelve foot long painting by Adamson of the signing of the separation of the "Free Church" from the "Church of Scotland" - with hundreds of people witnessing the act. All the faces are very realistic - and because there is no way all those people would sit still for a picture to be painted - indeed the artwork took from 1843 to 1846 to complete - the individual likenesses were captured by the developing technique of photography and painted onto the canvas at leisure.  Interestingly the huge painting looks remarkably like a badly Photoshopped picture because all the faces are in clear focus, some are slightly the wrong size for the perspective and some are even looking the wrong way! But it was a pioneering artwork and showed what could be done. The technique of photography developed in parallel with the pre-Raphaelite movement in the UK; and the thrust of this show was to compare, contrast and explore links between the two movements. When the pre-Raphaelite movement started it was very focussed on the absolute accuracy of detail (perhaps ironically, what we would now call "photographic detail").  The exhibition maps parallels and even overt copies of one to the other - either tableaux photographs mimicking recent paintings - and a developing theme of photographs being used to reinforce the use of live models, and in some cases to totally replace them. I must confess that my favourite parts of the exhibition were not the photographs - but the Pre-Raphaelite paintings which were dotted about - Millais, Burne-Jones, GF Watts, culminating in the dramatic works of John Singer-Sargent - including my favourite picture - his Carnation, Lily Lily, Rose.  Worth the trip just to see that!


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art   July 2016

Hockney: Barry Humphries

12th July : I took a long lunch break to see what the new David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art had in store. I enjoyed it.  There were eighty two portraits and one still life. The still life was nothing to write home about, but the portraits were interesting as a seriesHockney had taken eighty two of his friends and sat them in the same chair in the same room for three days each - and made a portrait of each.  As a result of the short sitting time the portraits were inevitably sketchy and relied quite a bit on caricature to make them work. Celia Birtwhistle's characteristic button nose for instance was "buttonised" by using a blob of green paint instead of more conventional painting and colouring techniques; while Barry Humphreys was mainly recognisable because of his trademark hat and legs akimbo pose. Most of the other eighty portraits were of personal friends - people I do not know - so I cannot comment on the artistic representation - but some were apparently relatively well finished while others were more aligned with a working sketch than with a finished portrait.
Overall - like many "series" paintings - the effect was good and the whole exhibition was very worthwhile visiting. On the whole I enjoy most of Hockney's work. He doesn't stop still and milk any particular genre as some of the other RAs do. Ken Howard and Elizabeth Blackadder are examples among many who have developed an excellent - but formulaic - style so that you can recognise them from a distance. In Ken's case you even get to recognise the models!  Hockney, however, keeps changing genres and medias - so while his painting style is individualistic - it isn't formulaic.  I'm sure he will be remembered long after most of the current batch of RAs are only noticed by art historians.

Hockney: Celia Birtwhistle


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art   June 2016

The Summer Exhibition

12th June : Stephanie and I set out early to drive to London and arrived at the exhibition soon after ten o'clock. The Royal Academy of Art has decided to apply its rules about timed ticketing to "Friends".  I'm not happy about this - my whole raison d'être for paying to be a "Friend of the RA" is that if I find myself nearby with an hour or so to spare I can use the membership to avoid queuing for a timed ticket. Being Mr Grumpy I spent ten minutes explaining this to the officials at the Friends Desk before getting through their new over-complicated admin system to collect our timed tickets to preview the annual Summer Exhibition. As I came away from the reception desk feeling victorious after my struggle with the administrators I ran into Fran McGillivray & Mike Burke as they came into the foyer - not really a surprise as we had arranged to meet, but lovely to see them both.  The exhibition this year was very interesting and I liked an unusually high proportion of the art at first visit (I have visited all the Summer Exhibitions since 1985 and it has often taken me three or four visits to really like a decent proportion of the content). I really value having Stephanie with me on my first visit each year. My tastes are fairly conservative and she both slows me down - which stops me dismissing work out of hand; and she questions why I don't like things, which often leads me to deciding that some of them do have some redeeming features after all! There were some notable great pieces of art, and quite a few absolutely rubbish ones which made us wonder why the hanging committee had accepted them at all. Examples of bad art were a grey painted canvas with a few sludgey blobs down one side, and another was a small sheet of white paper with six oval potato prints (just ovals - not even a pattern cut in to the potato!). The "hang" this year was weird (not nice weird, but "pretentious" weird.)  Some pictures were hung ridiculously high up and divorced from the others, and the narrative in each room which described the hang read like the classic bullshit from Private Eye's "Pseuds Corner" - lots of space wasted which could have been used to show a larger selection of real art. Toward the end of the exhibition were some fairly pornographic works, which I found quite offensive.  I don't think I shall be taking my grandchildren to this years exhibition. Overall it is quite a good collection this year, but the display leaves a lot to be desired. 
12th July : I made a second visit to The Summer Exhibition.  It was strangely quiet, not as busy as usual - which I suspect my reflect that this years exhibition is not so popular as usual. As a result I got a much better view of the whole exhibition than the packed experience of the "Friends Days" a month before. As an overall view it was even more obvious that "the hang" was pretentious - lots of white wall space, and some works impossibly out of sight above door lintels. Another feature that was much more obvious when the exhibition is taken in as a "vista" is that the predominant colour is grey! I'm pretty sure that the submitted works had a more normal distribution of colours and that the drab choices reflected the tastes of the hanging committee rather than any real assessment of what art may be pleasing to the public. I came away seriously considering terminating my annual subscription to the RA, because this fiasco of what should be the flagship of World art exhibitions demonstrated to me that the artists running the place have really lost touch with real people, and were in a world of their own, probably somewhere up their own arses! The day was saved by The Hockney Exhibition which was on upstairs, and which made me think that - economically anyway - there was some point to remaining a "friend of the RA".


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art    March 2016

 La Vecchia - by Giorgione: 1509

20th March : This exhibition of early sixteenth century art - mainly derived from Venice - celebrates the new art movement of the age which focussed on not just physical likeness, but on conveying moods and messages through expression, through shaping of the hands, and (usually on a more devotional level) by the inclusion of symbolic objects or backgrounds in the portrait.  Although the most prominent artists of the age was Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) there were two innovative young artists in his circle who were driving this significant change - they were Titian (1488-1576) and Giorgione (1478-1510).  This couple in turn inspired their fellow artists to embrace and develop this great change in the compositional structure of painting; chief among whom were messrs Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Albrecht Durer (1471-1528).  So the impact and influence of Giorgione on the history of Western art is of pivotal importance. However very little is known about the man personally - he died young, possibly of the plague and only a few of his paintings survive. Worse still, of those which do survive, most are banned from travel away from their home galleries.  So while this exhibition included some of the mans work, it had little option but to focus on examples of the influence he had on his peers. The exhibition opens with a few examples of how the new found technique of presenting expression into paintings started to develop - there are portrait examples by Durer and Titian, and some of the few Giorgione's which can travel. Among these is an allegorical study of age called La Vecchia;  A portrait of an old lady holding a note saying "time passes" (in Latin).
There are four further sections of the exhibition; the first spotlighting portraiture and a series of early sixteenth century paintings which are clearly influenced by the new style. The sitters have facial expressions and manual signals to convey their mood.  The next room is dedicated to the use of landscape to add expression and story lines, a technique which is clearly and famously seen in The Mona Lisa - sadly not included in this exhibition.  Room four was dedicated to devotional works, which at this juncture in history started to acquire a lot of symbolism;  not just objects like keys, banners and knives - but the inclusion of a variety of saints each of whom is patron of some theme which the painter wished to communicate to his public. Finally there was a gallery of allegorical works, which are mainly portraits of noble or famous sitters dressed or presented in mythological guise to demonstrate one or more of the virtues which they wished to be associated with; although the genre also included less economically driven portraits like La Vecchia.
An interesting little exhibition of some amazing pictures demonstrating one of the most important developments in the history of western art. 

26th March:  Another visit to this splendid exhibition - this time in company with Stephanie, who appreciates the history of art.


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art    February & March 2016


 The Vickers Children - John Singer Sargent

25th February: My first visit to this exhibition was by way of an extended lunch break on my way back from my dentist at Tower Hill to my office in Baker street - so my quick diversion at Green Park tube station didn't leave me time to do much more than whizz round and be amazed. This major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art features a dazzling list of significant painters from the period 1860 to 1920 - mainly impressionists - and he common thread was that the paintings were all of gardens.  Entitled Painting The Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse, the exhibition was enthralling - one of the best I have seen for years at the RA.  There are many examples by Monet, ranging from early works through the fabulous pictures of his gardens at Argenteuil and Giverny and including a whole room full of peaceful water lily studies. Right at the end of the exhibition in The Central Hall stand four large water lily panels from the striking and awesome series of paintings, most of which are now exhibited in the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris. Three of these panels join to form a fresco which is perhaps thirty five feet in length. Well lit, but hanging in a darkened contemplative space (rather like the old cathedral like setting at The Orangerie) There is a very peaceful quality to the room - which encourages silence and veneration of this great artists work. These three panels were originally sold in the nineteen twenties and have since been exhibited independently at different art galleries. This is apparently the first time they have all been back together (they clearly all join up) for almost a hundred years. The exhibition has much more than Monet; there are also wonderful examples from Manet Matisse, Vuillard, Singer Sargent, and many many others. There is also a touch of droll humour - Van Goch and the "modern" painters are in a room labelled "The Avant Garden".  A very minor disappointment for me was that my very favourite major garden painting was not there - I had hoped that the show would include John SInger Sargents Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose - but the absence of this was almost made up for by the inclusion of his wonderful study of The Vickers Children, which included a load of lilies. This visit was a very quick tour and I vowed to come back again to see it properly. I was so excited I even forgot to buy a catalogue!

2nd March: was my second visit - during an extra long lunch break from work.  This time I spent a lot more time studying the pictures and was - if possible - even more excited by the phenomenal artwork. Flowers are clearly the ultimate poseurs for impressionist art - and I spent ages surveying the amazingly loose brushstrokes which still summoned up detailed images when viewed from afar. I was particularly impressed with Joaquin Sorolla's work - which I didn't really know before. There were many examples of it in this exhibition - including an amazing portrait of Louis Tiffany painting in his garden n the year 1911. This time I remembered to buy the catalogue.

20th March: was my third visit, this time in company with Fran. I have no doubt that this exhibition gets better with each viewing - particularly the Monet Water Lilies paintings, of which there are many in this exhibition. 

26th March:  And yet another visit to this splendid exhibition, this time with Stephanie. Apparently the Monet Water Lilies paintings in the central hall - four of them - are valued at £85 million each !

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art    January 2016


  Julie de Thellusson-Ployard and Isaac-Louis de Thellusson - smiling at each other.

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) was a consummate portraitist - as well as being an art dealer in his own right. He used several different paint and drawing mediums throughout his career, some gouache, some just pen and ink drawings, and some fantastically detailed enamel miniatures, but the commissioned portraits were principally in oils. He had a prodigious output throughout his life, and included many self portraits ranging from age 23 to age 86.  He was from a well off Swiss family who had sought refuge in Paris in 1685 - and so were well established in Parisian society by the time he was born.  He travelled widely - initially as part of his art studies, accompanying some of the rich and famous on their "Grand Tours".  Notably he visited Naples with Louis Philogène Brulart, Marquis de Puysieulx and Comte de Sillery and he spent four years in Constantinople (Istanbul) which he travelled to with Lord Duncannon.  Duncannon commissioned him to paint "locals in native dress" as a memory of the tour - some beautiful examples of which were included in this exhibition - but Liotard also painted commissions for several of the British families based in Turkey.  By the time he retuned to Europe he was increasingly well known as a portraitist and this lovely little exhibition included a lot of his paintings of various Royal and Ducal personages from the British and French aristocracy of the mid eighteenth century.
It is clear that Liotard did not pull any punches, and painted what he saw - warts and all.  He also managed to get most of his sitters in fairly relaxed pose, and in many cases actually smiling!  Apparently not all his clients liked the realism which Liotard applied, and there was one portrait of the young Prince of Wales which had been rejected, and Liotard had been told to do it again!  It is also clear from some of his large oil portraits that the faces and hands are painted by a different hand (presumably the Master) than the backgrounds and clothing (presumably his students). His style was very realistic, with an almost exaggerated 3D effect from lighting - while in many of his commissioned works, the backgrounds and the models clothing are -by comparison - flat.  He was also thoughtful about construction and composition.  In one portrait of Princess Louisa Ann (UK royalty) aged five, he demonstrated the frailness of the little sickly princ
ess by putting her in a dress which was a bit too big for her, and emphasized her diminutive size by sitting her in an oversized chair for the portrait.  In another beautifully composed set, he painted Julie de Thellusson-Ployard smiling to her left, and wearing a ring with a cameo picture of her betrothed Isaac-Louis de Thellusson , while his portrait of Isaac is facing to his right and wearing a cameo ring with Julies picture on it. The paintings hung together look as if they are smiling fondly at each other.
Liotard was also a dealer in art, and visited London several times, including making trips to exhibit some of his work for sale - and he used the Royal Academy - then newly founded - to display his wares.  A prolific artists, but also a sound business man.

horizontal rule

The Watts  Gallery    November 2015


Inside the Memorial Chapel

Six of us visited the Watts Gallery at Compton on the last Sunday in November. Watts was one of the most famous portraitists of the Victorian age - a contemporary and very close friend of Alfred Lord Leyton and many of the pre-Raphaelite artists. He initially married the actress Ellen Terry - while she was still just sixteen, and he was considerably older. The marriage didn't work, although Watts supported Terry financially for decades afterwards. Watts second wife - also some thirty years his junior - outlived him and was herself a protagonist of the Arts and Crafts Movement, just before the First World War.  Watt's home and studio was at Limnerlease, a big country house near the village of Compton, close by Guildford, and after his death in 1904 his wife built on his memory by establishing both the art gallery behind his studio and the cemetery where Watts is buried, and where the Memorial Chapel is situated. The Art Gallery is a classic Arts & Crafts design, single storey finished in stucco (pebble-dash) - very reminiscent of the architecture in Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City which were both founded at about the same time. Inside is a collection of Watts paintings and sculptures - demonstrating vividly the enormous range of artistic styles he could deliver. There are classical Victorian portraits - dark and dour, there are commissioned family groups - bright and clearly posed and these are offset by emotive paintings such as a hobo under a bridge, and a desolate and desperate young Irish family in the Great Famine - looking hopeless, but holding hands.  There are examples of his amazing sculptures, including his famous works, Clytie and Medusa, and haunting paintings in the hazy style of Turner.  Some paintings are articulated with fine layered paintwork, and others with broad stabbing brushstrokes - an amazing array of styles. There was a short term exhibition of drawings by Watts and Alfred Lord Leyton when they were young artists together.  And finally there is Watts' studio with the spectacularly enormous workings for statues of a man on a horse (twenty feet high) and a twenty foot tall memorial statue of Lord Tennyson - another friend of Watts; the bronze of which now stands outside Lincoln Cathedral. Back in the main gallery there is a basement room which has recently been re-hung with paintings from the collection of Evelyn De Morgan - another friend of Watts - who painted classically pre-Raphaelite pictures with enormous clarity and amazing detail. Her corner of the exhibition also includes some brilliant ceramics painted in amazingly vibrant metallic colours.  About half a mile along the road from the gallery stands the cemetery where Watts is buried.  After his death, in the lean years before World War One, Watts' wife "organised" the village to design, make and fire the red bricks and tiles from which the Watts Memorial Chapel is constructed. The tiles bear Celtic style relief patterns and small cameos of people and things - very ornate and very "Arts & Crafts" in style.  The heavy black wooden door is deeply engraved with Celtic symbolism and inside is absolutely amazing.  The walls and vaulted ceiling are rich with gold and red, totally covered in symbolic lines and tree like shapes moulded from heavy gesso grosso and painted. The overall feel is a cross between the Art Nouveau style and the Secessionist styles of the Austro-Hungarian art movements.  A bit like Gustav Klimt colliding with Alphonse Mucha.  Holding all this lot together (literally holding the ends of the intertwining threadwork) are a memory of an even earlier art style - eight pre-Raphaelite angels stand just above eye level, and four more are hanging above them in the vaulted ceiling. An exciting mixture of styles and tastes which sort of sum up the whole range of Watt's life.


horizontal rule

Brugges, Belgium    October 2015


Dali  and Chagall (not Picasso!)

Fran and I spent the last week of October in Brugges, and took the opportunity to visit a couple of the art exhibitions on at the time.  First we tackled the Salvador Dali Exhibition at The Belfort in the Market Place. It was mainly prints and quotes, although there were a few statues and some silver work. Dali did a lot of fascinating things, but sadly these weren't very well represented in this particular exhibition! Salvador was clearly not in the same sphere of sanity which most of us inhabit, and the prints were mainly of pen and ink drawings which showed that the man had a huge hang up - particularly about sex and . The exhibition space was dominated by a lot of Dali's egotistical quotations - which, while interesting, were not really "art". There were also some colour drawings (think they were gouache) which were very vibrant, but were just sketches. Among the works which I did find impressive were some cubist statuettes and the silver work on several book covers (see picture right). On the whole I was fairly disappointed with the exhibition. 
We bought a joint ticket with the Site Oud Sint-Jan, to see the
Pablo Picasso - Joan Miro exhibition which is a short walk away.  This was a more interesting presentation, not only because there was a narrative exploring the development of Picassos works, but there were lots of examples of other artists work which had either influenced or been influenced by Picasso's work. There were some lovely examples of small works - including Picassos Dove of Peace series and I was also impressed by Joan Miro's work and the side shows of work by Dora Marr, Marc Chagall among others.

horizontal rule

South Hill Park Art Cinema   June

Adele Bloch Bauer - 1906

I don't often report cinematic outings here, but on the evening of June 19th Fran and I walked to our local art cinema at South Hill Park and saw Woman In Gold.  It was exceedingly emotional film focused really on mans inhumanity to man - particularly during the Anschluss when the Nazis turned "ordinary" Austrians against the Jews in Vienna, but also the prejudice applied by modern Governments in protecting their own interests against those of the (mainly Jewish) individuals who's art works were looted by the State fifty years previously, including evidence that the state consciously denied access to documents which proved that Maria was the rightful heir to the pictures. A well told story, brilliantly cast and evocatively filmed with many subtle flashbacks. So where does art come in?

Well, the film is nominally about the work of my favourite ever artist - Gustav Klimt. and although it is a film I have decided to report it as I would an art exhibition. The story is that of the Altmann family, who were destroyed by the Nazis and whose art collection was stolen. It tells of the true life story of the struggle to obtain reparation and restitution from the Austrian Government as recently as 2006.  Maria Altmann had grown up in the same house as her aunt Adele, who had died in 1922, and had lived there with her parents and sister until the Anschluss. The Altmann's art collection was significant; there were five major Klimt works and several Holbein's as well as many other pictures, musical instruments and some amazing jewellery (the jewel necklace pictured right was also worn by Maria Altmann at her wedding, and was last seen on the neck of Frau Himmler at a Berlin opera during the war.)  This story is about what is probably the most famous Klimt work of all, the 1906 portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer (right), who was a major patron of secessionist art, and was also the maiden aunt of Maria Altmann, who is the central feature of the film story.
Another key real life character in the story is Randy Schoenberg - an American lawyer, and grandson on the famous Austrian composer - who gave up his job in order to pursue and win Maria's case.  They won their case in 2006 and the Altmann works which had been housed in the museums of Vienna were returned to the family, and sold.  The Portrait of Adele sold for $135 million - making Maria a rich woman for the remainder of her life (she died in 2011), and enabling Randy Schoenberg to set up his own law firm specialising in restitution of art works to their rightful owners.

So, not an exhibition - but a very artistic evening watching this brilliant film.

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art   June

Anita Klein print - purchased!

I have been visiting the Summer Exhibition every year since 1985; and it has been getting progressively less interesting.  Since those halcyon days when Ken Howard was just setting out, the late great Hamilton Fraser was painting glorious portraits and the young and thrusting Elizabeth Blackadder was painting fresh irises instead of formulaic ones - the sheer volume of exhibits which I "like" has been reducing. Of late I have liked less than 5% of the works - sometimes significantly less than 5% - and increasingly frequently have really disliked most of the 95% rather than just being ambivalent about it!  In fact this year I really thought twice about going at all, but thanks to my friend Stephanie I made the pilgrimage with her to the preview day on Sunday. I was amazed!  The whole place felt fresh - there was art which really was art, and not just somebody trying to out-Pollock Pollock without actually achieving his artistic prowess before hand. I don't know what has happened - but the RA hanging committee have evidently been re-born. Stephanie and i wandered around like a couple of kids in awe, sipping our Pimms (a feature of preview days) and agreeing on almost everything we saw and commented on. In itself this is rare because I am addicted to portraiture and she is an avid colourist - which I don't get because I'm red-green colour blind! Not only did we both love almost all of the exhibition - but I actually bought a print for the first time in my thirty year experience of this event - a print by Anita Klein (picture left).  This was reasonably priced; and Stephanie talked me out of getting into even deeper trouble with Fran by convincing me that I shouldn't buy a framed painting of a girl against an orange background (see below). I don't know who the artist is, and all his/her other works had been sold - but this one really appealed to me and I thought it was a snip at £6500.  Stephanie convinced me that while I might get away with just a slap for the print I had bought, Fran would probably severely disable me if i spent the larger amount without consultation! So I didn't buy it.   It was an wonderful exhibition and I plan to go and see it at least once more while it is on.


painting by which I wanted to buy, but didn't - don't know the artists name                                     Stephanie looking at a art work made of cork (she has a wood burning stove at home)

horizontal rule

The Pinacothèque, Paris  
April 2015

Klimt's Judith

A brilliant exhibition, which took us by surprise because we had only heard it was on by word of mouth, and had seen just one small poster of Klimt's Judith with the head of Holofernes to give us a clue about its contents. All we knew was that it was on somewhere near the Madeleine in Paris.  Friends will know that Klimt is one of my favourite artists, and I have my own copy of this picture of Judith hanging in my living room! Typically we approached the Madeleine via a restaurant ! and after lunch we found that the exhibition at La Pinacothèque de Paris was literally just around the corner.  We paid for our tickets and went in - not knowing what to expect, but anticipating that there may perhaps be some Klimt, Moll or Schiele in there.  The Pinacothèque has an unprepossessing entrance - in fact it looks like a small corner shop. But inside it leads to a large display space in the core of the building.

The exhibition was way beyond my expectations.  There were works by Moll and Schiele, and many Klimt paintings in the broad range of styles he achieved, and they included the original Judith with the head of Holofernes, and the original Salome with the head of John The Baptist.  Both absolutely classic Klimt pieces.   There were pictures by other secessionist artists, as well as pieces of furniture, and even an old black & white film from the fin de siècle in Vienna, but for me the ultimate excitement was finding that the exhibition included the reproduction of Klimt's Beethoven Frieze !  The original frieze commemorated Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Ode To Joy. It was made in 1905 but was destroyed by allied bombing during the second world war. However, because the records and plans for its creation still exist it was possible to build a reproduction, and such a facsimile was made in the early twenty-first century to celebrate the opening of Liverpool's Tate Art Gallery.  I had made a pilgrimage to Liverpool with Stephanie in the summer of 2008 to see this faithful reproduction - which I thought had then be sent on to Vienna for permanent exhibition. I did not realise that it was still "touring", and it was great to see it again here in Paris, along with lots of other associated artworks.

horizontal rule

The Petit Palais, Paris  
April 2015

Awesome Art

What a discovery!  We had originally gone to the Grand Palais to see an exhibition of Jean Paul Gautiers work (including Madonnas conical bra) - but the queues were miles long and the estimated wait time was over two hours.  We had heard that there was a Velasquez exhibition somewhere in town, so we crossed the road to the Petit Palais to see whether it might be there.  It was not there - but we were amazed to discover that the Petit Palais is one huge art gallery, free of charge to enter. It is very reminiscent of our own Victoria and Albert Museum, but more spacious and with a distinct late nineteenth/early twentieth century feel to the exhibits on the ground floor (although we soon discovered that there were older works downstairs). 

The ground floor focussed on art works of French heritage at the turn of the last century, It had been built in 1905 as an exhibition centre for what the English would have seen as the Arts and Crafts movements.  The display is large and spacious, well presented and lit; and well labelled if you can read French (luckily I can).  Photography without flash is permitted and I rattled off over a hundred shots as we wandered the huge exhibition. We saw works by Rodin, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cassat and many others - plus many works by artists whom I hadn't heard of, but which were excellent. Down in the basement it was even more labyrinthine and after an opening section of Art Nouveau furniture and paintings there was an eclectic collection, some dating back to the twelfth century, of statues, pots, paintings and books. A huge exhibition of the French art heritage. The four of us wandered for hours. The basement rooms were like a maze and we actually all lost each other - although we eventually regrouped to go to the restaurant for lunch.

The Petit Palais - absolute magic. I shall visit that one again.

horizontal rule

The Picasso Museum, Paris  
April 2015

The Picasso Museum in Paris has been closed for a couple of years while the whole building has been renovated, so when we visited Paris in April 2015 we were looking forward to seeing what improvements had been made.  The old building in the Rue Thorigny remains, but has been fitted out inside with an impressive exhibition space on four levels. Up in the top of the building the old fifteenth century rafters have been left exposed to emphasise the buildings solidity and gravitas. The Picasso display was stunning, with a vague alignment to style, but not overly either synchronised to time or genre.  The whole wealth of the hugely broad spectrum of Picassos work is displayed - from classical painting to cubism, drawings, paintings, collages, cast statues, and symbolistic statuary. The man was undoubtedly a genius - but looking at the draughtsmanship of his early - more staid - works, he was first and foremost a brilliant artist in the old fashioned sense as well as being a bit mental! 

The exhibition wound through the ancient building, now fitted out with beautiful white display spaces and staircases - some of which are angled to give a very weird perspective.  At the top of the building was an amazing display of Picasso's own collection of artworks which had been given by his friends - Monet, Renoir, Degas, Modigliani, Miro, and many more. A small heaven for art lovers. The exhibition then plunged from the top of the building down to the basement, where a lot of more modern works were on show. Eventually the display layout directs the visitor up and out through the inevitable museum shop. A brilliant exhibition, well worth the two year wait.

horizontal rule

The Watts gallery, Compton  
November 2014

Ellen Terry by Watts.

The Watts gallery is a hidden treasure at the village of Compton, just west of Guildford. There are three local sites. The Chapel of Rest at the Watts Cemetery - a unique example of the blend of the English Arts & Crafts movement, with the European Secessionist movement and the early twentieth century ceramic art movement; a building created by Mary Watts in memory of her late husband.  There is also the house called Limnerlease - which was the Watt's country home and studio; and there is the Watts Gallery - an art gallery displaying a wonderful collection of Watts work, and space for visiting exhibitions (and a tea room!) 

Watts was a very well known Victorian painter and sculptor. He refrained from joining the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but was certainly influential in it and was a sought after society portraitist. Like many artists he was frequently in the company of models who were a lot younger then he. When he was thirty nine, and quite an established society artist, he married the sixteen year old actress, Ellen Terry. The marriage didn't last long, but Watts did paint several pictures of Ellen. He later married Mary Watts - when he was sixty nine and she was just thirty three.  Although separated he and Ellen did not actually divorce for another thirteen years. Meanwhile Ellen became such a successful actress - and through her business partnership with Henry Irving, an extremely influential one - that she had many portraits painted by many famous artists.

This year is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of their marriage, which has inspired the collection for exhibition of many portraits of Ellen Terry, including those by her ex-husband, GF Watts. The display was very thought provoking - including photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron; paintings and drawings by John Singer-Sargent and Edward Burne-Jones as well as by Watts; a small video propaganda film from the first World War and a clip of a silent movie from 1922; and even a recording (originally on wax cylinder) of Ellen Terry reciting Shakespeare.

The whole was in the context of The Watts Gallery - which itself is a wonderful collection of GF Watts' paintings and sculptures.

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art,  London  
June 2014

Mondrian Joke

The Summer Exhibition at the RA is one of those annual events which I always wonder why I bother to go to. This is my thirtieth show since I got hooked on art in1984, I even made excuses to fly back to UK for the show when I worked in Hong Kong!.  Why am I always surprised that not only do I find 90% of each years show to be disappointing, and a further 8% of it only vaguely interesting - but that the 2% which I do like is almost always from the same predictable list of artists! Ken Howard, Elizabeth Blackadder and other "old school" artists. After some thought, I deduce that I probably go for three main reasons. First, My friend Stephanie twists my arm to take her each year and I hate to disappoint friends! secondly, I secretly hope that I might see something spectacular (but in thirty years I have been mainly disappointed); and finally because I don't believe that one should be allowed to criticise something unless one has experienced it.  And not only do I enjoy being the critic - but there is usually a lot here to criticise!  My main feeling about the show as a whole is that the people who select the paintings to go on show are the problem. I picture them as pretentious "pseuds" who are really miles out of touch with humanity. I suspect that there are loads of paintings which I would love, but which get rejected because they are "too mainstream". I note that really popular artists like Jack Vettriano are shunned by this artistic community - perhaps because such artists are consistently good draughtsmen (or women) who paint what the masses really want to see. There may also be a factor that such working artists are seen as "commercial" and therefore somehow not worthy in the eyes of the members of the elitist inner sanctum of luvvies who run the Royal Academy.
That said, there were a few good pictures in the show including many by Royal Academicians themselves. There were also a sprinkling of interesting exhibits - including this year the rather jokey take on Mondrian (picture left) which is of a load of book spines stacked according to colour in a parody of Mondrian style - and the title of each book is either by, or about, Piet Mondrian. Not that clever, but at least it made me smile.
By way of contrast - while the Summer Exhibition runs in the main galleries, there is a small exhibition in the Reynolds Room of the winners of a children's art competition run by the BBC programme The One Show. These have a consistently magnificent level of draughtsmanship - and a real feeling of depth, vibrancy and "real" art - all the more amazing because it is not only juxtaposed against the pretentious works in the Summer Exhibition but it has been produced by kids as young as fourteen!

So another mediocre RA exhibition - sorry I cannot recommend it - but I do recommend the One Show exhibit - and unlike the Summer Exhibition, it is free to get into!

horizontal rule

The British Museum,  London  
November 2013


The British Museum - this time to see the exhibition of "Shunga" - sexual imagery from eighteenth century Japan. Much advertised and "risqué" because of its explicit sexual nature, this exhibition was one of the most boring I have ever seen. The works are all cartoon like - as opposed to the fine Japanese print work I am used to seeing. The cartoons were exaggerated and the depictions contorted and uncomfortable looking, but above all they were all boringly the same! The medieval Japanese don't seem to have had much imagination when it came to sex, and the style and content was so predictably "samey" that I wondered what the exhibition had going for it apart from the naughty mystique of explicit sex.

I wouldn't recommend anyone wasting their time at this particular show, with my various art club memberships and senior citizen status I managed to get in for just three pounds. It wasn't worth  it!

horizontal rule

The National Gallery,  London  
November 2013

I visited The National Gallery to see the "Facing The Modern" - an exhibition of portraiture in Vienna  around the turn of the nineteenth century. This exhibition mapped portraiture in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire from its peak around 1867 until the end of the First World War. The political landscape moved from a very authoritarian which restricted both democracy and free speech in the 1820's; through to the bohemian sexual freedoms of the 1920's - a real mapping of the "fall of an empire" as seen through portrait paintings.  The artists represented ranged from the classical society portraits of Von Amerling and Moll, through the secessionist art of Makart and Klimt to the expressionism of Schonberg and Schiele. It was an excellent exhibition with some fine paintings, I wouldn't mind going to see it again.

picture on left :  Klimt - Portrait of Amalie Zuckerandl - his last ever portrait, 1917-1918

horizontal rule

The Royal Holloway College, Egham   
 September  2013

above:   Royal Holloway College, Egham

I visited RHUL in the Spring as a delegate at a conference, and was amazed to see the Picture Gallery, which is one of the rooms we used for the conference. I tried to take some photographs of the pictures, but they are mainly glazed and the hall had a lot of reflected light in it; so after the conference I e-mailed the University to ask if they had any books for sale which might include some of the pictures. Thereafter I entered a lively correspondence with The events manager, Sue Heath, and the art gallery curator, Laura McCulloch; who both advised me that not only were there books - but that there was going to be an open day in September.

Fran, Jacky and I visited the college on fifteenth September. The conducted tour around the buildings and the chapel was interesting, but the conducted tour of the Art Gallery was absolutely fascinating. Laura McCulloch is an interesting speaker who really loves her subject. She was putting the collection - and some of the individual paintings - into the context of social change for women's education in the 1880's. Thomas Holloway, who founded the college, had acquired most of the gallery content in a two year period - at great personal expense - and from mainly contemporary artists - so Millais and Frith were key contributors.  Laura spoke to some of the key pictures. First "Man Proposes - God Disposes" by Edwin Landseer is an arctic ice scape with  bit of wrecked ship and two polar bears gnawing bones; an allegory on the vanished Franklin expedition which was seeking a NorthWest Passage. I recall a line drawing version of this from a school history book.  Next she moved to "The Babylonian Marriage Market" by Edwin Long - celebrated as the most expensive (in relative terms) contemporary artwork ever bought. Laura spelled out the logic for acquiring this picture as a discussion point for the well heeled Victorian lady students.  We moved along to see "The Railway Station" by William Powell Frith. The paintings history was fascinating - probably one of the most celebrated pictures in late Victorian society, eventually purchased for the college as much as a public relations / advertising stunt, as for its artistic worth. She showed us several others, including "The imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth" by Sir John Everret Millais and she even told us about it's sister painting which wasn't there!  "The Princes in the Tower" also by Sir John Everret Millais has been on loan to a Japanese art gallery - and while it is now home again, it wont be re-hung for another couple of weeks. A good excuse to return for another visit next year!


                                An angel on the chapel ceiling - the chapel - archangels along the chapel ceiling                              and             Laura McCulloch lecturing on "The Babylonian Marriage Market"

horizontal rule


The Royal Academy of Art,  London  
 July 2013

Mexico - Revolution in Art

Two really disappointing exhibitions.

The Mexico exhibition was relatively interesting - but as a historic exhibition - there was very little art in it, mainly photographs and texts.  The few paintings on display were good, and clearly demonstrated the movement through "primitive" styles, echoing (or is it parodying?) the commercial art revolution of Art Nouveau happening across the Atlantic. However the exhibition didn't really paint much of a story about how or why the art styles developed as they did - focussing more on the subject matter, which was fairly gruesome for the most part. It was a time of civil war.

The Summer Exhibition this year was very disappointing. Most of the work was lacklustre or formulaic RA "school" painting. Even some of the classic artists, like Ken Howard, appeared tired and unfinished - and he's an artist whom I have revered for decades. There were a few pieces which made me smile - one in  particular was a small automaton of a rusty metal donkey, perhaps eighteen inches tall,  sitting in front of an easel holding a pencil.  When the handle at the side was wound the donkey drew a picture of a sitting donkey on the easel. Very clever, made me smile, but is it art? Some paintings were passably OK, but apart from a couple of super-realism works using egg tempura, I would have been ashamed to present art of that quality if I had created it.  One of the factors of this exhibition is the tendency to let a revered Academician design the "hang" for each room. The result is awful, and the layout of paintings in most galleries was pretentious beyond belief.  I usually go to visit the Summer Exhibition two or three times - this year I'm not going to bother.

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art,  London  
 April 2013

Berthe Morisot by Manet

When I started to take a really deep interest in art, in the mid eighties, my interest was initially driven by trying to copy some of the great masters. Because my favourite genre has always been portraiture, it probably isn't a coincidence that Manet was one of the first artists I tried to emulate - indeed my copy of his 1869 picture "The Balcony" (with Berthe Morisot and Fanny Clauss) was one of the first works which I copied well enough to want to keep. 

Edouard Manet loved portraiture. He started with his family - and his wife Suzanne Leenhoff and her illegitimate son Leon (believed to be by Edouard Manet) feature in many of his earlier pictures.  He was well to do and sponsored parties at which artists, writers and musicians would meet - so he also got to paint many of his friends, including the artist Berthe Morisot - who later married his younger brother Eugéne.

The exhibition was well staged, although I was disappointed that some of the classics like the full size Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe were not included - however, there was the smaller working of that masterpiece from The Courtauld Gallery on display and lots of other well known portraits by the great man. 

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art,  London  
 October 2012

A pair of bronze leopards
Benin, Nigeria - mid 1500's AD

This exhibition has been highly acclaimed in the press and it certainly lived up to my expectations - indeed, I would rate it as the best exhibition I have seen at the RA for years.  The collection of bronze works from all over the World, and from all time periods ranging from 3500 BC (the Bronze Age) through to 2010 AD - the only thing in common being the media.  In fact even the media was of a broad type - there were many mixes of copper and other ingredients to make different types of bronze or brass, and many different processes for working it and for finishing it - plus the effects of age and storage.  The mainstream type of exhibit was the statue - but there were also reliefs and one amazing Romano-Egyptian inlaid altar table top.  Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the volume and quality of artefacts from Africa - particularly from Benin around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  One of the key factors which made the exhibition so interesting was the "hang" - instead of grouping exhibits by era or artist or geography, the works were grouped by subject matter! This provided the viewer with a fascinating comparison of the interpretation of each subject by a variety of artists spanning over 5000 years in each room. It was an inspired choice for the display. There were rooms dedicated to People, Gods, Animals, Objects and Heads - and all were fascinating.

The exhibition started with galleries of "people" - starting with a beautiful (but damaged) torso of a dancing satyr - just bigger than life size - which had been dredged up by fishermen off the coast of Sicily where it had lain since about 400BC.  This was an introduction to the fact that many famous bronzes referred to in history have disappeared - maybe recycled, maybe lost like this one.  The first main gallery included several huge statues - goodness knows how they transported the works or coped with spreading the load across the floor. Perhaps the most awesome was a huge statue of Perseus slaying Medusa (an 1844 cast of a sixteenth century statue) which not only towered in the room, but was fascinating with the contortions of the human form of Medusa, complete with spurting blood from her neck where her head had been severed! Sounds gruesome - but it was very effective art. 
The "animals" were also fascinating. As well as some beautiful bronze work from Europe including the famous Trundholm "Chariot of the Sun" dating from 400 years BC, my favourites were the Benin leopards (picture left).  Some of the other works were classically good, but left me feeling that they were technically good rather than soulfully good - rather like still life paintings.
The "objects" were interesting in a different way, the first couple of galleries seemed to impart a more archaeological sensation than an artistic one - although some of the decorative Chinese bronze work was breathtakingly beautiful. The final objects gallery contained some interesting reliefs and the altar table top I mentioned above, plus four huge bronze impressionist "backs" by Henri Matisse, which I imagine were border-line between "people" and "objects".     
The "Gods" were all excellent - I guess because they combined archaeology with beautiful craftsmanship. Regardless of which religion, it seems that great art is either inspired to it, or by it. I have always enjoyed far Eastern bronzes and was not disappointed to see various  beautiful works from the Indian sub-continent, particularly the two metre diameter bronze circle enclosing the dancing Shiva Nataraja. Another fascinating deity was the complexity of sixteen armed and four legged Kapala-Hevajra engaged in a classic tantric pose with his consort Nairatmya.
The final gallery in the exhibition was "Heads" - including some fine Roman heads - clearly portraits of real - but now anonymous - ordinary people, some with very ornate hair styles. There was a hauntingly lovely "Queen Mothers Head" of a seventeenth century middle African Queen from Benin, and - my favourite of all the bronzes - A beautiful "Jewess from Algiers" Art Nouveau bust by Cordier; a bronze face and headdress resting on an onyx bust and decorated with gilt, enamel and semi-precious stones.  Dated 1862, whoever she was, she was beautiful.

horizontal rule

The Victoria and Albert Museum,  London  
 July 2012

British Design : 1948-2012

I took a long lunch break to take in this exhibition, which has been running since 31st March and will end - with the Olympics - on 12th August.  The concept was to show how design has changed in Great Britain since the last time we hosted the Olympics - in 1948.  I guess it did it's job, but I wasn't very impressed.  There were a lot of posters and photo's, but few artefacts - particularly from the late forties and the decade of the fifties.  The sixties were better represented with some film clips from "Blowup", some clothes including a dress from "Granny Takes A Trip" boutique, which an acquaintance, Iggy Rose, had modelled in some fashion magazines of the era. There was also a mini minor and a bit of signage from Robert Orbach's shop (I was Lord Kitcheners Valet) - but although I found this bit  of the exhibition fascinating, I suspect it was primarily because it was "my era". It was a very small selection of the vogue at the time and not particularly representative of the era as a whole.

The picture at left shows Robert's shop sign; and the dress on the extreme right is one that Iggy modelled (she was resident model at "Granny Takes a Trip".)

The remainder of the exhibition - covering the eighties, nineties and "noughties" was equally sparsely representative of the real changes in Design over that period, although there was some reflection of the influence and impact of the changes in technology.  Overall, I got no feeling of a continuity of development across the span of the exhibition,  and the small displays may have been interesting little vignettes of the development of British Design but they were by no means wholly - or even broadly - representative of the classic designs of any of those decades.  Glad I went along, but it didn't seem a very cohesive exhibition, and as I noted, the snippets from each era weren't particularly representative of those eras.  Fun, but potentially misleading to those who thought it might be educational.

horizontal rule

The 2012 Summer Exhibition  and
Society Observed - Johan Zoffany

The Royal Academy of Art,  London  
 June 2012

David & Goliath
Johan Zoffany

I usually attend the preview of the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, but this year the opening coincided with the Queens Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and  really didn't feel like driving into London.  Instead I visited the Royal Academy on Friday 8th June, a week into the exhibition.  My habit has been to attend several times during the duration of the exhibition, and  I usually grumble and dislike almost everything on my first visit, but warm to about 10% of the works by the end of the season.  This year is no different so far; the exhibition was its usual pretentious self - not only are the chosen works of dubious (imho) artistic value - but the "hang" itself (the layout of each of the rooms is becoming pretentious too!   The only stuff I really liked were the near classic works of established masters like Ken Howard, although I did tick off on my list a newcomer named Colin Davidson, who also has a classic style. I surprised myself by liking a small impressionistic drawing of a bird, only to discover that it was by Tracey Emin - and artist whom I've never rated before - I guess I must revisit her work and reappraise my previous prejudices.

After the main exhibition I had a quick look around the Madjeski Fine Rooms - which are currently housing some royal paintings to mark the jubilee and an apparently random collection of previous Academicians works. The main room of this exhibition space is The Reynolds Room - the room in which Darwin first presented his paper "On the Origin of Species" in 1859. I'm always keen to share this room with friends because I think Darwin's paper, along with fire, writing and the wheel, is one of the major historic turning points of human development. It is arguably the room in which Religion started to die.  Enough philosophising!

Finally I upstairs to see Michelangelo's Taddei Tondo and was lucky enough to catch the last day of the Johan Zoffany exhibition, entitled "Society Observed".  I have noted Zoffanys' work before when reading about the history of art - but hadn't realised just what a huge volume of work he had generated - or how many well known works are by him.  The theme is society portraits (one of my favourite genres) in the late eighteenth century. His work is clear, well draughted, beautifully proportioned and composed and clearly he could turn out a good likeness, as successive portraits including the same people at different ages testify.  In fact the exhibition was in its final weekend, and catalogues were reduced from £25 to £5 !  Not only an excellent exhibition, but another art book for my collection at a very reasonable price.

horizontal rule

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement.
The Royal Academy of Art,  London  
 October 2011


 Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement is a fascinating exhibition, focussed solely on his ballet paintings and drawings (and three photographs).

The first parts of the exhibition are classic - the ballet paintings - fluid movement, scenes with ballerinas stretching and rehearsing as well as views of performances both from the theatre and from the wings. There are also his vibrant drawings from which the paintings were compiled back at his studio,  The second hall houses the Little Dancer (aged 14) (one of the dozen or so statues which exist around the World), and many drawings of the pose.  The work was done between 1880 and 1881 using a young prostitute for a model, the statues were not actually cast until 1922, five years after his death.   The emphasis of these first galleries is on how Degas captured the essence of movement in his early career.

 he exhibition continues by showing what other artists were doing with the mediums of photography and cinematography in their attempts to capture movement, including some pioneering films by the Lumiere Brothers.  This section of the exhibition culminates with  the only three photographs which are definitely attributable to Degas himself.   Then there are a couple of rooms of his later works - evidently done from memory and working sketches because they somehow aren't as fluid as his early works. Finally, the last room is bare except for a very short loop of film - the only piece known - of a very elderly Degas walking along a French street about 1909. Very moving.

horizontal rule

The Cult of Beauty
The Victoria & Albert Museum,  London  
 July 2011

Oedipus & The Sphinx
Charles Ricketts

The Cult of Beauty - subtitled "The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900" is one of those seminal exhibitions which come up every five years or so and which will live in my memory for ever.  It has been running at The Victoria & Albert Museum since April, but I only managed to find a half day to see it a week before it closes in mid-July. I'm sure that if I had seen it earlier I would have made time for several extra trips to soak up this fantastic collection of art.

The Aesthetic movement was a counterpoint - almost a rebellion against - the harshness and grime of the industrial revolution; it is often epitomised by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, but they are only a part of the story. It involved the whole of the move to Art Nouveau, the revival of much medieval poetry, new ideas in architecture, the whole of the Oscar Wilde/Aubrey Beardsley movement and the use of new materials and "industrialised" processes for the creation of wallpapers, ceramics and furniture - which were essentially "art for the masses". The whole concept can perhaps be best summed up in the phrase "Art for Art's sake".  

The exhibition was very crowded, and unfortunately poorly laid out and badly lit.  Masterpieces were stuck in corners where visitors had to queue to read the labels, and exhibition organisers seem to not notice that direct spotlights onto tall glass fronted pictures always obscure the immediate view with their glare.  The whole exhibition actually needed about 50% more space and better lighting.

Despite this there was an awesome array of artefacts on display and every one was a gem, ranging from Leighton paintings; Beardsley prints; Wilde books; fantastic secessionist clothing and jewellery; to the furniture of Jekyll and the tapestries of Burne-Jones; and - most spectacularly - a full size cast of the statue of Eros which now graces Piccadilly Circus.  There were also examples of the impacts the movement had on society - the introduction of satire via publications like Punch and the first meaningful stirrings of emancipation for women.  A fantastic exhibition - I would love to visit it again.

horizontal rule

The Ashmolean, Oxford
The Ashmolean Museum,  Oxford  
 May 2011

Gill - relief

I visited the Ashmolean Museum, for no particular reasons other than to see the new architecture and that I happened to be staying in the hotel right opposite!  It was a fairly fleeting visit, only a couple of hours - but enough to whet my appetite for a longer visit in the future.

I went first to see my old friends, the Pre-Raphaelites, who are now hanging on the third floor.  The journey took through several galleries of beautiful old English masters ranging from Jacobean through to the middle Victorian era.  The Ashmolean has an excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelites, although only two rooms were hung. The rest are presumably out on tour or languishing in the basement.  They do tour a lot, I recall visiting the basement at the Ashmolean many decades ago when I had called in and asked to see a particular portrait of Jane Morris. To my surprise, although it was away on tour, I was invited to go to the basement archives and - with borrowed white gloves - to examine the original charcoal sketches for the painting.  The basement is now an exhibition area and the museum staff no longer quite so old fashioned and trusting.   

I also explored the impressionists and Twentieth Century English artists areas, and was really pleased to find a beautiful stone relief by Eric Gill.  He is one of my favourite sculptor/artists of the twentieth century - although while his works are fantastic, he himself had some very strange and socially  unacceptable habits.  I pressed on the inspect the refurbished architecture, which is astounding.  Two huge atrium stairways allow light to flood right down into the basement area.  I briefly visited a collection of musical instruments, some beautiful tapestries and some Abyssinian reliefs on my way back to the main exit

horizontal rule

Modern British Sculpture and Watteau Drawings
The Royal Academy of Art, London 
 March 2011

Watteau: Semi-Nude Woman, seated on a Day-bed

I visited the Royal Academy of Art, to check out the Modern British Sculptors and The Watteau drawings exhibitions.

The sculpture exhibition opened with three halls of historic sculptures which had influenced the modern artists - these were brilliant and fascinating - Assyrian reliefs, an Easter Island statue, two works by Eric Gill (my favourite) and many other beautiful works ranging from 2000BC to the 1930's, even including a full size replica of the Whitehall Cenotaph - but sadly the subsequent exhibition of modern sculptures was not at all to my taste.  In fact I didn't like any of it and found it generally pretentious and unmemorable. It included panels suspended from the ceiling in a sort of three dimensional version of Piet Mondrian's work; and a large (10 foot square, seven foot tall) case with a table full of rotting food and millions of black flies buzzing around was certainly not my idea of "art".   I'm sure that there must be some art critics who think this sort of work is ground breaking and thought provoking, but I don't think it is either art or sculpture. I firmly believe that real art is chosen by the masses, not the critics, and I will be exceedingly surprised if 5% of this stuff is remembered in fifty years time.

The Watteau exhibition by contrast was good.  Lots of meticulous drawings in various chalks - but although they do display style and show the subject matter developments across his career,  I eventually found the exhibition to be very "samey" and soporific.  Still at least it was "real" art and not the (in my humble opinion) pretentious garbage on display in the modern sculpture halls.

horizontal rule

National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery, London 
 March 2011

Dame Anna Neagle
Looking pleased with herself

I managed a fleeting visit to The National Portrait Gallery between meetings in London - just time to re-acquaint myself with twentieth century portraits.

I derive a deal of enjoyment from wondering whether the juxtaposition of portraits in these establishments is accidental, or the result of a hanger trying to achieve visual harmony; or perhaps a hanger making an ironic statement by placing people together who would have been chalk and cheese in real life.  It was nice to see Prince Charles and Lady Diana hanging next to each other in harmony - but also very close to Sid James - perhaps indicating a bit of a "carry on"?  There was a re-hang going on at the far end of the atrium hall, so I didn't see Paul McCartney or whatever/whoever they were re-hanging behind the screens.

In the main twentieth century hall there are a lot of works depicting people who are only recently deceased and whom I recall - at least from newspaper photographs - from my youth. Interesting to see how some of them have been depicted by different artists.  Sir Winston Churchill is a recurring theme. He features in a large painting recording the cabinet of World War 1;  and again as a portrait of him during or just after World War 2;  and again as  an old man in the form of a bust.   One of my favourite pictures in there - for no other reason than she looks so pleased with herself, is of the actress Dame Anna Neagle.

There was also an interesting exhibition of photographs of famous dancers from the Diagalev era through to the 1930's - a very specialised part of the story of the emancipation of women in the twentieth century; and a reminder that the camera is as valid a method of recording portraits as oil paint used to be.

horizontal rule

Sir Thomas Lawrence
The National Portrait Gallery, London 
 January 2011

Elizabeth Farren
Later Countess of Derby
by Sir Thomas Lawrence

This was actually a whole day spent savouring the heritage of The National Portrait Gallery, but also taking in a special exhibition of works by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830).

Lawrence was one of the greatest portraitists of his era, a young prodigy who had made his name by his early twenties and who painted royalty, high society, international politics and war in the regency period.  His portraits of women always brought out the beauty within, even of those we know to have been less beautiful females like Queen Charlotte. Meanwhile his paintings of men were "straight-talking" in that he painted his men warts and all - but usually with some noble edge to them. Looking at them now you can almost palpably feel that the likeness must have been good - or he wouldn't have had so many commissions.  His style was clear and light and he used brighter colours than his predecessors - especially his propensity for red, which enlivens the faces of many of his portraits and which figures heavily in the clothing of some of his more formal regal portraits.  There were some chalk drawings of his on display as well - beautifully executed and vibrant.  He also had a knack of presenting children as looking angelic.  A real skill!

Among his more famous paintings are The Countess of Derby (left), Queen Charlotte,  Lady Barrow and Arthur Wellesley - first Duke of Wellington.  The latter was so well liked by "The iron Duke" that he had engravings of this portrait made to give to his admirers.  After painting a particularly good portrait of King George IV while he was Prince Regent,  Thomas was knighted, and landed a Royal commission to visit Europe and paint Field Marshall Blücher, Charles - Archduke of Austria and the other allied leaders who had helped defeat Napoleon.  His tour even took him to Rome where he was commissioned to paint Pope Pius VII.

While at the gallery we also took several hours out to view the whole collection, starting with the Stuarts and Tudors and working our way through to the twentieth century.  A fascinating collection - I wish I had more time to sit and savour each masterpiece properly.

horizontal rule

The Glasgow Boys
The Royal Academy, London 
 December 2010

Selection from the exhibition

The Glasgow Boys exhibition at the RA (Sackler Gallery) surprised me.  I didn't know much about this group of artists, based in Glasgow from about 1880 through to almost 1920.  They were a sort of post pre-Raphaelite bridge to the brighter, more realistic (impressionistic) art of the twentieth century. with a lot of influence from the continent. 

The key artists were Guthrie, Lavery, Crawhall, Walton, Melville, Henry and Hornel - and as well as Scottish scenes they worked avidly in the Mediterranean and the French artist villages around Paris.  Their influence upon other genres, such as the secessionists, is evident.  In fact in a large work called The Ferry in the first hall, I was immediately stuck by a silver birch in the foreground of the scene which was clearly in the style which Gustav Klimt would be painting twenty years later.

Their key contribution to British art was to move public taste away from the dark toned narrative paintings which symbolised the Victorian era, into the brighter realist, plein-air and impressionist circles of art which greeted the new century - complimenting the Art Nouveau movement across the channel and helping bridge into the Art Deco movements of the twenties and thirties.  Although the Glasgow Boys are not known for open air work - many of the preliminary oil sketches (some of which are in the exhibition) were clearly done on site and used to construct the major works in the studio later.

The subject matter started off with rural, primarily Scottish, peasantry - but quickly broadened to more middle class subjects; a necessity because they needed to paint pictures which would sell.  Some of these artists  and their works were totally new to me; some I have seen before in the National Gallery of Scotland without really appreciating them as part of a movement; and some - like the little peasant girl driving geese - are very publicly known from greetings card reproductions.

My only complaint about the exhibition is that the RA was only selling hardback catalogues, and at £40 each I couldn't afford to add this lot to my collection.

horizontal rule

Sargent And The Sea
The Royal Academy, London 
 August 2010

En route pour la pêche

I have always admired John Singer Sargent as a portrait painter, but this exhibition in the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy has opened my eyes to how he developed his talent. 

Sargent started painting seriously at the age of about 18 or 19 - in the mid 1870's. His early works tended to be either by the sea - or on board ship - which reflected his American parents travelling urge which kept them moving around Europe and shuttling across the Atlantic every now and again.  The exhibition includes extracts from some of his sketch books and scrap books - which show a deft draughtsmanship for all forms - but particularly an ability to capture the human aura economically and quickly - almost as a caricature. This was a talent which served him well in later life as one of the most sought after portrait painters in the last 150 years.

Although there was plenty of evidence of his ability to sketch people, there was also lots of evidence of a methodical hard working artist - many sketches and studies for larger works. The former were clearly "en plein air" while the latter were equally clearly compositions made from various notes, sketches and drafts - and were almost certainly therefore studio works.  The example on the left, En Route Pour la Pêche, is one such example - a composition clearly created from sketches and blocked in rapid water colours, many of which are also in the exhibition - assembled over a year later to create what appears to be a coherent scene.

horizontal rule

Henry Moore
The Tate Britain, London 
 June 2010

Reclining figure 1939

I have never really appreciated Henry Moore's work before; but this impressive exhibition sets out a very clear story of the way his art developed from the 1930's through to his death in 1986.  This display at The Tate Britain is well worth a visit.

The first hall sets out the relatively simple carvings of the 1920's - using British stone where possible and with the rounded cubist - almost Deco-esque- style reminiscent of Eric Gill, who was producing carvings at about the same time. These early carvings are recognisable people, mainly either the mother and child motif or the reclining person motif.   By the 1930's the carvings were still the same subject matter - but had developed to become much more abstract with holes and stylised faces.  The surfaces were rounded, fecund and almost erotic.   This style continued until the outbreak of war; which brought a fairly sudden change.  There is a room full of Moore's drawings of people sheltering in the Underground from bombing raids; the carnage of bombed ruins; and the darker side of human suffering in conflict.  His drawing technique used lots of lines rather than light and shade to represent shape.  His carvings reflected that too, with much harsher surfaces - sometimes enhanced with added colouring and with harder outlines. The earlier fecundity was replaced with a tortured look. After the war his work moved back toward the more rounded form, but now with less freshness, and with an apprehensive feel. The late sixties and seventies saw a move from stone to wood, which hailed a return to the more mellow form of abstract - but by now his work was becoming formulaic - and while still reflecting his genius, it no longer exuded the almost sexual ripeness of his late thirties works.

A good exhibition.

horizontal rule

The Summer Exhibition 2010
The Royal Academy of Art, London 
 June 2010 and added information at August 2010

The 2010 Summer Exhibition  was better than some; although I was surprised to find that I am "falling out of love" with some of the stalwart academicians who have been my steadfast favourites over the years, not least of which is Ken Howard.  I do like his style - and he is famed for his high ceilinged studio pictures with nonchalant nude girls sitting among paint pots and brushes, with well lit windows, shining wooden floors and reflective surfaces abounding.  Very clever - but he's been churning them out for what feels like twenty years now and it feels like he is in a bit of a rut - a bit formulaic.  He has introduced a couple of nice paintings of Venice, a lot looser compositions, capturing the famous Venetian light, but still featuring reflective surfaces. Let's hope he keeps moving in this direction.

The courtyard was full of huge bronze hares by the late Barry Flanagan, and at the preview the Pimms was as nice as usual, but the first impression of the overall exhibition was as bad as usual - very little caught me eye.  Of the newcomers, a couple which did catch my eye were a huge portrait of a girl in pink, painted with acrylic on Plexiglas by a painter named Alexander Klimtsov; it was called Mila.   Another fascinating work was called Portrait With A Gun a very eye catching portrait of a seated lady with a pistol in her lap, by Mila Fürstová.   Sadly it wasn't until I got home that I discovered that the exhibition has been extended this year to incorporate the John Madjeski Fine Art Rooms - so I missed a whole load of works. 

Never mind, I am sure that I'll visit again this summer - and then I'll update this blog.

That second visit came in August 2010, and this time I did a very quick visit to the main exhibition, and I also saw not only the known omission, but I "discovered" another outlier of the exhibition which I had missed on my June visit.  It was a statue called "Model Waiting" which was on the landing of the back stairs that link the restaurant to the Sackler Gallery.  This beautiful life sized bronze was stunning - almost deco in style.

I also visited the area which I knew I had previously missed - the John Madjeski Fine Art Rooms where there was a retrospective section of the Summer Exhibition featuring seven or eight RA members who had passed away in the previous year.  These included some amazing works by the late Donald Hamilton Fraser - some of which were still unsold!  I was extremely tempted to a signed limited edition print called Launch Wash - San Michele - Venice. I had a long debate with myself, but Fran would never have forgiven me for investing over a thousand pounds without at least some discussion, so I chickened out and did not buy it.

The Weston Room
2010 exhibition

photo by



Model Waiting    and     DHF Launch Wash



horizontal rule

MAHARAJAH  The Splendour of India's Royal Courts
The Victoria & Albert Museum, London 
 December 2009


This was a lucky break - I hadn't intended to visit this exhibition, but a London based Christmas lunch was so bad that I made my excuses before the sweet course and headed for the V&A to kill some time.   

 MAHARAJAH  The Splendour of India's Royal Courts  is an impressive exhibition of "The Raj" - the regal life in India from the Murghal empire (late 1600's) until independence just after the Second World War.  There are four galleries.   The first is devoted to the Murghal Empire - an India which English traders were just coming to terms with - flamboyant and with significant cross-overs between state affairs and religions.    The next gallery tells the history of the series of fragmented states and the tribal warfare which followed the collapse of the Murghal rule. An India which was increasingly influenced and eventually controlled by the British East India Company.  The third gallery is devoted to the late 1800's when India became the "Jewel in the Crown" of the British Empire.  There are a lot of old photographs and films of the British lording themselves around - when you see it as a modern observer you can clearly understand why the rest of the World despised these arrogant British invaders. The final gallery is dedicated to the Royal Indian Courts between the two great wars - the "roaring twenties" brought a facade of an East-West cultural integration which might have been superb if only it had involved the millions of inhabitants of India, rather than just the ruling elite. There are some excellent Man Ray photo's, an opulent Rolls Royce and some classic Art Deco style furniture and portraits.

An excellent exhibition - it taught me a lot about Indian royal history, gave me a better understanding of the evils of imperialism, and ended up pleasing me with some of my favourite art styles.

horizontal rule

J.W. WATERHOUSE The Modern Pre-Raphaelite
The Royal Academy of Art, Piccadilly, London   July 2009

Hylas and The Nymphs
Victorian Porn ?

The J.W. Waterhouse exhibition was fantastic - this is my idea of art.  Lot's of the literary critics seem to have it in for Waterhouse because of his style and the fact that he seemed to like painting pubescent girls without many clothes on - sort of Victorian soft porn.  However, in his defence, the young ladies in question are usually actually key to the plot - so perhaps one should perhaps ask why the critics a hundred years later are stung by them? Perhaps they have guilty feelings themselves when they look at teenage tits?  Or is it perhaps because this is real art, and they feel that they have to defend their pompous praising of the pseudo poseurs of modern art?  (ooh - I like that sentence!)

Overall I think Waterhouse's paintings are great.  He has a fantastically well developed sense of composition - many of his pictures are of mythical or classical tales - and these are not just scenes from stories - every picture literally tells a story all by itself.  Some of his sketchbooks are also on display, and it is very clear that his painting techniques (learned from Alma Tadema), draughtsmanship and clarity of brushwork are not - to him - the most important part of his work. He could do them - and do them extremely professionally - but his major artistic input was in arranging and balancing the composition of his pictures. He died 92 years ago, but the works are still fresh and vibrant - I really enjoyed this exhibition and fully intend visiting it again.

horizontal rule

Sotherby's Auctioneers, Bond Street, London   June 2009

Monet for sale

A brief visit to the Exhibition of Russian Art soon to be auctioned at Sotheby's was fascinating - the works ranged from church iconography to contemporary modern Russian artists, and there were some extremely interesting works by artists - most of whom I had never heard of (and probably couldn't pronounce).

Luckily, there was also one small side room which had some exquisite works in it - items for sale in another forthcoming sale of impressionist and modernist works.  There were only a dozen items in this small exhibition - but they included a magnificent Monet and a couple of major Picasso's. There was also a large granite work by Dame Barbara Hepworth.  All were listed for between £2million and £12 million.

I haven't been to a Sotheby's exhibition for many years - but they are always a great opportunity to get a rare glimpse of major works which otherwise spend most of their lives in private collections.


horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art, Piccadilly, London   June 2009

Damian Hirst

This was the preview of this years Summer Exhibition and it registered "good" on my radar.  I used to complain that I only liked about 5% of the works at first view, which would grow to about 15% after several views.  This year I thought at least fifteen percent was good at this first view.

However, there was some of the usual rubbish - daubed works which might have been done by a child, most didn't even have the excuse of looking "fresh".  Rubbish sculptures of "found" materials, which looked just like the original owners had been glad to lose them.  Whoever had designed the architecture exhibition had made a huge mistake by putting everything up high on shelves - not only were there very few good architectural exhibits, but you had to be at least eight feet tall to be able to se them properly.  

There was lots of good stuff too. As well as new things which made me smile, my favourites were all there as well.  Donald Hamilton-Fraser and Ken Howard, plus loads of others had great works hanging.  My biggest surprise was an amazing sculpture/casting/statue which I loved before I found out who had been responsible.  It is made of (apparently) solid silver - a slightly taller than life size flayed human male with amazing musculature exposed, and with his skin draped over one arm. The title of the work was Saint Bartholomew - Exquisite Pain

I was really surprised to find out that it was a work by Damian Hirst - an artist I have never really appreciated before. This was very good - in fact, it was the highlight of this years exhibition. 

I look forward to visiting again soon to see how my senses judge the exhibition when it is less crowded, and when there is not champagne available to numb the senses.

Second Visit: My second visit this year to The Summer Exhibition revealed the exhibition as rather drabber than I remember or reported above.  On reflection I suspect that I am getting more sceptical (or is it cynical?) about the skills of whoever hangs these shows. It seems to me that they are more interested in making an impact about themselves, rather than in showing art to the public. I am particularly critical of whoever spoiled the architectural section by sticking everything six feet above the floor level so only the very tall could see them. When I reprised my visit over a cup of tea in Richoux's cafe opposite, it occurred to me that the only things I really liked were by artists I already know and love - Donald Hamilton Fraser;  Blackadder; Remfry; Cummings, and Ken Howard (and even he has been stuck in a rut for the last twenty years). The only revelation to me was, as noted in my earlier report,  Damien Hirst's silver Saint Bartholomew - exquisite pain - which I confess I probably wouldn't have wanted to like if I had known who the artist was before I saw it!  I also liked the work of one particular artist I hadn't come across before, Michael de Bono.

horizontal rule

The Royal Academy of Art, Piccadilly, London   June 2009


This was the last opportunity to see the Kuniyoshi Print Exhibition in The Sackler Galleries on the top floor of the RA because it closed on 7th June (the day I visited). This Japanese artist lived at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was influenced by European works - and in turn had a massive influence on the Art Nouveau movement which blossomed in the second half of that century.  The culture in Japan was still very repressive with laws against various types of art and expression - impacting the theatre as well as art.  Kuniyoshi made his name as a satirist - and many of his prints have hidden (and in some cases, not so hidden) sub-texts which thumb a nose at the authorities.

I went with my friend Stephanie. There were hundreds of coloured woodblock prints on display, and the place was extremely crowded, so we couldn't give the exhibition all the attention it deserved - we did however see the bits we knew we'd like! which included this amazing print of Hatsuhana praying under a waterfall

To find it was a revelation because a copy of this print has hung in Stephanie's downstairs toilet at her farm in Devon since the late nineteen seventies! At that time Kuniyoshi wasn't well known in the UK, or very collectable - the picture had been picked from a pile of old prints because it seemed appropriate for a toilet!

An excellent exhibition - well worth the visit.

horizontal rule

The Orangerie,  Paris   April 2009

Renoir in the basement

This was my first pilgrimage to The Orangerie since it was completely refurbished some three or four years ago.  What luck! The first Sunday of every month is "free entry" and it was Sunday 5th.

The place has been turned upside down - almost literally.  The walls at the eastern end have been replaced with huge window panels, and the entire lead roof has been replaced by glass.  The fabulous Monet Water Lilies have been moved from the basement to the main floor - in rooms of the same oval shape, but with natural light.  The paintings are still vibrant and moving - but somehow the exhibition space is less sepulchral.  The old springy wooden floorboards are now quiet modern flooring, and where people used be hushed and reverential in the huge cathedral like spaces - they are now chattering and the setting is no longer awesome in the real sense of the word.  It's no longer a place to contemplate in peace, but the artwork is still mind blowing.

By contrast the Guillame collection of impressionist works, which used to occupy the ground floor area, has been moved downstairs to the basement . The exhibition is in long corridor like rooms - which are a bit narrow, but which do give much more wall space.  This is a more modern exhibition space and has some wonderful "old friends" hanging on the walls.  I think this bit of the exhibition is an improvement.

horizontal rule

ART 1250-1500
The National Gallery,  London    January 2009

Venus & Mars  c1485

Not a special exhibition - but a visit to the regular galleries to see some of the oldest paintings on public display in London.  I was also lucky enough to be accompanied by my mother, who was not only a teacher in her time, but since retiring has achieved a PhD at The Open University focussing on such subjects as The History Of Art. So I got a fascinating narrative as we viewed the collection - at no extra charge.

The available paintings of the era 1250-1500 are dominated by religious iconography -  acres of amazing rich blues set against gold leaf and a very clear demonstration of the evolution of such techniques as linear perspective as the art "scene" developed.  Most, if not all, of the very early religious works are "saved" from old churches where they were objects of devotion.

The committee of Nicea didn't have a total thrall over the world of art during the dark ages and there are some refreshing ventures into other subjects - notably Greek mythology, evidenced by the Botticelli on the left,  which is so crisp and clean that you can scarcely believe that it is five hundred and twenty five years old.  The people who posed for such works look remarkably modern.

horizontal rule

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 
The National Portrait Gallery,  London    January 2009

The National Portrait Gallery in London is one of my favourite permanent exhibitions.  In it you can trace the elite, the famous and the infamous from the time of Cromwell through until the present day.   Currently there is an exhibition of some of the last fifteen years of work by the renowned American photographer Annie Leibovitz - and this was the target of my visit in January - although I did take advantage of the visit to spend several hours revisiting lots of "old friends" in the permanent exhibition galleries.

Leibovitz initially made her name photographing the famous in the sixties and seventies - Mick Jagger  and John & Yoko Lennon being among her most iconic images.  She then gained a name for photographing the uncomfortable truths of warfare - piles of bodies in Sarajevo for instance.  This exhibition spanned her stay in the Balkan states during the uprisings of the nineties, but omitted a lot of her more stark (not to mention stomach churning) shots.  There was one very emotional photograph of a little boys bike lying on its side in a pool of blood - the aftermath of a shell exploding nearby; and some more personal ones of her father and one of her friends close to - if not just at - the point of dying.

Most of these pictures were of friends and family - and mostly were monochrome. Until I saw this exhibition I had thought of Leibovitz as achieving her fame through the shock of the picture - but I have changed my mind.  All the photographs - even simple snaps of her family, in this exhibition evidenced an amazing eye for composition.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer, Cumberland Island, Georgia, 1990
Photograph © Annie Leibovitz

horizontal rule

Earlier reports relegated to another page to help optimise download speeds....