Sun, 14 Feb 2016
Bruegel to Tiepolo

The Courtauld Gallery has a small Bruegel exhibition showing three of his very rare grisaille paintings side by side. The gallery is also displaying other Bruegel drawings in the collection, along with copies and some fakes (good drawings, but made to deceive).

The Wedding Dance (detail), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1566

We have to be careful we know which Bruegel we are talking about because there are a few in the family, all artists. The one doing the grisaille is Pieter Bruegel the Elder, famous for his "peasant" scenes: idiosyncratic and often charming (see right). He had two sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder, with Peiter spending most of his artistic life copying his father, whilst Jan did a lot of still-life and landscape painting (and sometimes collaborated with Rubens, another artist well represented at The Courtauld).

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery,
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

A grisaille is a black and white painting (perhaps with some umber as well) often thought to be used as a preliminary underpainting for a finished work in full colour oil. His Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was highly praised, and a picture he like so much that he never parted with it.

One of the things I noticed this visit was how good the Tiepolo San Pascual oil sketches are. In the early 1770's, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was in Madrid and commissioned by King Charles III of Spain to paint some altarpieces for the church of San Pascual in Aranjuez. Apparently, the King was not impressed with the finished works and they were removed from the church and lost or destroyed (horrendous to think of the loss now). The surviving sketches are wonderful though.

Shown below is the Immaculate Conception of 1767. Size is 60 x 40 cm (roughly), so fairly small (On the right is a close-up). The style is fluid and accomplished, quite modern and beautiful.

Sun, 07 Feb 2016
Almost Real

The picture on the right is a drawing by Kelvin Okafor called Jasmins Interlude. I came across this at the Mall Galleries on Saturday morning in the Columbia Threadneedle Prize Show

Visitors can vote for their favourite piece and I had 3 or 4 in mind, but I ended up casting my vote for this. It really stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it. Extremely realistic and drawn with a supreme level of drawing skill. Quite amazing.

Okafor is a British artist (of Nigerian descent) with a website and blog. You can see him at work in a long sequence of photographs there. Very meticulous and fine work.

Right: Kelvin Okafor, Jasmins Interlude, Graphite and charcoal, 74 x 55 cm

Sat, 30 Jan 2016
Light, time, legacy

Above: Inside the Colosseum, 1780.
Watercolour with pen and ink

The British Museum have a free exhibition just now called Light, time, legacy. Running in Room 90, part of the prints and drawing collection, it displays the watercolours Francis Towne painted in Rome and Italy during his tour in 1780 and 1781.

It is always quite surprising to see how empty and overgrown Rome was in the 18th and 19th Centuries : a lot of the monumental stone work was ruined, a lot of the city abandoned by people. Possibly quite a romantic atmosphere for those of a certain temperament however, and Towne's art is extremely good. There are a lot of pictures here as well, and I'll have to visit again.

The Guardian also has a glowing review. It would be a shame not finding a way to permanently show off Towne's beautiful work.

Above: ‘Light and shadow passing like ghosts through the landscape’: At Tivoli, above the Falls, 1781

Above: The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills, 1799

Here are the 113 results of a search for Francis Towne at the British Museum site. Lots of wonderful watercolours to admire.

Mon, 25 Jan 2016
European Stories

One of the books I got at Christmas was Europe: A History by Norman Davies. This is a big history book, over 1300 pages. I recently read Davies' Vanished Kingdoms and thought it was extremely good.

One of the things I like about him as a historian, apart from being an interesting and knowledgeable writer, is that he gives proper coverage to the entirety of Europe, that is: East, Central and Northern Europe, as well as the usual Western part. To understand and appreciate the history, one needs to know the background to Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Moravia, Ukraine, Hungary and all the other neglected parts of the continent. He wants a less parochial history of Europe.

I would like to post the odd snippet from the book as I find them.

On some of the legacy of the post-Roman world and the great migrations in the centuries after:

Greek persisted in the Eastern Empire, both as the official language and in many places, especially in Asia Minor, as the vernacular. But several areas, including the Peloponnese, were for a period wholly or partly slavicized. One should be wary of oversimplification. But the thesis advanced by the Bavarian scholar, Jakub Fallmerayer (1790-1861), in Ueber die Entstehung der Neugriechen (1835), merits attention. Fallmerayer's work, which caused deep trauma amidst the Greeks of his day, argued that the Greek nation of modern times was largely descended from hellenized Albanians and Slavs, "with hardly a drop of true Greek blood in their veins". This may have been an exaggeration; but it is less absurd than the notion that every modern Greek is a direct ethnic descendant of the inhabitants of ancient Greece. No modern European nation can lay reasonable claim to undiluted "ethnic purity".

Sat, 09 Jan 2016

At the National Gallery and paying some attention to 17th Century Spanish paintings, I came across a Velázquez, Philip IV hunting Wild Boar (La Tela Real) :

Diego Velázquez, Philip IV hunting Wild Boar (La Tela Real). Probably 1632-7.
Oil on Canvas. Dimensions 182 x 302 cm

It is quite a large picture (182 x 302 cm) and a very good piece of work, but not one that grabs you like one of his portraits or religious paintings. There's a lot going on and what is particularly well done is his attention to the figures. He captures each one with a few strokes of the brush, no extra fine detailed work but enough to capture the whole. All the (many) figures look good. This ability to do so much with so little effort is why Velázquez is a great artist.

Wed, 06 Jan 2016
Common Tree

This is "A Common Tree", a painting from a photograph I took of a tree on Clapham Common a year ago. It was a cold late November day, mid-afternoon but the sun was starting to set and the shadows lengthening. Painted almost a year later, November 2015.

This is my first painting done using oils, a medium I liked but one that will take some getting used to. The slow drying is both a blessing and a curse. But overall, I really enjoyed painting this, even though I had trouble in some places. I like the end result.

Once again, the photograph of the painting leaves a bit to be desired compared to the painting itself though.

Fri, 25 Dec 2015
Heights of Fashion

The new V&A gallery Europe 1600-1815 is devoted to the growing magnificence of European artistic taste through the Baroque and to the Romantic period.

Above: Cup, Copper painted in enamels
with gold mounts, Switzerland, 1700-1720

As you can imagine, there's a lot of splendour and style on display. The new gallery has been a while in the making but it shows off the beauty and craftmanship of the age (in a way, similar to the British Museum's Waddesdon Bequest). We have furniture, fashion, sculpture, ceramics and even a whole room on display. The royals and the rich spared very little expense.

Some of the things on display are so finely created and so astonishing that they need to be seen to be believed.

Above: François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, 1758

Right: Vase with the Abduction of the Sabines, made at
Dihl and Guérhard's porcelain factory,
about 1790-95, France

In his television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke considered these years as a peak of high civilisation, and it is hard to disagree. If you like gold, silver, fine art and beautiful display, the V&A is for you, and this gallery in particular.

You can watch (what appears to be all of) Civilisation on YouTube.

Tue, 22 Dec 2015
Yr Hen Ogledd

Above: What was the North British Hotel, Edinburgh.

"The Old North"

In Edinburgh a few months ago, I referred to the big hotel at the east end of Princes Street as the North British. I was corrected: it's The Balmoral now (well, I've been away a while).

Balmoral is a Gaelic word meaning "majestic dwelling", and I think that would certainly apply to this impressive hotel. Of course, the name "Balmoral" has royal connotations today as well. Gaelic itself is appearing on all sorts of signs in Scotland now, even though most Scots have no idea how to pronounce much of it. However, the original language of North Britain (this is all well before the country "Scotland") was not Gaelic but Brittonic (or Brythonic) a "celtic" language shared with the inhabitants of the rest of the island of Britain; a language that would become Old Welsh.

I recently read Tim Clarkson's book Men of the North. Clarkson tries to shed as much light as possible on the various North British Kingdoms that sprang up after the Roman's retreat from the island. This is a very hard period of time to unravel but he does a good job with the extremely unreliable and fragmentary evidence available.

Most of this evidence is much later than the time it purports to describe. It can also be as much about the time it was written as the time it covers. Thank goodness for Bede, a Northumbrian who wrote the best and closest account we have of this early period.

Above: Dumbarton Rock.

One of the longest surviving British Kingdoms in the north was Alt Clut, based at the mouth of the Clyde and Dumbarton Rock. It was only in 870 that the rock was abandoned when it was attacked and sacked by the Vikings. The center of power was moved to Govan. In the 11th Century, the Kingdom of Strathclyde was absorbed by the growing power of the Scots :

Around 1050, the kingdom of Strathclyde was conquered by the increasingly powerful Scots. King David I founded a new diocese in Glasgow in 1114, and the old church at Govan was gradually abandoned. As for the Britons themselves: "They were no longer Cumbri but had become 'Scots' like their new political masters. Inevitably, as time wore on, the deeds of their forefathers began to fade from memory. Soon only the sculptured stones remained, a handful of monuments scattered across the land, to bear mute witness to a forgotten people." (Tim Clarkson)

The above quote is from The Govan Stones, a blog post from Jo Woolf describing a visit to Govan Old Parish Church. The church contains a surprising number of very ancient standing stones and sculptures from this early period. Tim Clarkson linked to this from his own website devoted to the Britons of Strathclyde, Early Medieval Govan.

Above: the enigmatic "hogback" stones.

Who would have thought things like these were hidden away here? Some of the oddest artifacts are the "hogback" stones - are they norse? No one really knows what they were made for, or what they represent. But as Jo Woolf says :

Built to withstand the wrath of giants, they look as if their whole purpose is to keep something in! You get a sense of someone being locked within the earth, safe from all kinds of unspeakable evil.

A good reason to visit Govan; something I never thought I'd want to do.

Mon, 14 Dec 2015
Tea Time

Sir Peter Lely, Catherine of Braganza, 1665

In the early 1660's, King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the Portugese King. This is an episode covered in Peter Ackroyd's latest book in his History of England series, Civil War, a book I have almost finished. It's a good and straightforward read as usual.

As Ackroyd notes of the occasion, Charles and Catherine met in Portsmouth for the first time and it sounds like a delicate moment :

One of Catherine's first requests was for a cup of tea, then a novelty. Instead she was offered a glass of ale.

She was going to have to put up with a lot worse. Charles was a complete philanderer as Ackroyd further notes :

Pepys calculated that he had at least seventeen mistresses even before the restoration.

Such was the current nature of the aristocratic estate.

Blair Worden in The Spectator review of Ackroyd's Civil War book is less than impressed. He thinks it is all a bit predictable, with little or nothing new to say, and less analysis. Fair enough. It does tell the same stories many might know from previous histories, but Ackroyd can still engage. Fundamentally, the stories might not be fresh, and there might be little "analysis", but this is not the goal of his history here. Good stories bear re-telling.

Sun, 13 Dec 2015
Under the Mona Lisa

The BBC have made an excellent television program with Andrew Graham-Dixon about the mystery of Leonardo's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, known in France as La Gioconda.

In the Secrets of the Mona Lisa, Graham-Dixon travels to Florence, Singapore, Oxford and Paris to investigate the existence of a second portrait, one that more closely matches early eyewitness accounts (including a drawing Raphael made).

Right: Reconstruction of the painting Cotte finds underneath the Mona Lisa.

The discoveries made by French scientist Pascal Cotte using a scientific technique he invented called Layer Amplification Method are intriguing. A hidden painting underneath the painting we know. Is this the real Lisa Gherardini?

Left: Raphael's drawing of the original Mona Lisa? ('Young Woman on a Balcony’).

Jonathan Jones in the Guardian is sceptical :

Cotte has forgotten that Leonardo was a genius. Of course he did not do anything so banal as paint someone else on top of his portrait of a Florentine woman. What he did was so much more fascinating. He worked on this portrait until the face of a real person was transformed into a myth.

Well, who knows? But all are agreed: this is fascinating stuff. A great television programm with Andrew Graham-Dixon superb as our guide and interpreter. Highly recommended.