Saturday, 1 December 2012

British Art Up North - Leeds, Wakefield, Manchester and Birmingham


William Hogarth - The Distressed Poet

An ill-travelled Southerner, I recently headed up North to Leeds, Manchester and Wakefield, with a short subsequent jaunt to the Midlands and Birmingham (which is still North from here, anyroad). This gave me the opportunity to visit the local galleries and see the excellent collections of British art which they hold from the Victorian and early to mid-twentieth century periods, and come across works by favourite artists which I’d not encountered before in the sense of standing before the actual painting (an experience which no reproduction, no matter how expertly photographed and reproduced, can replace). The Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham museums and galleries are all housed in imposingly monumental buildings reflecting the sense of civic pride in these newly emergent cities of the industrial revolution. Given the neoclassical Victorian facades of all these buildings, it’s unsurprising to discover that they all have impressive collections of nineteenth century British art, with Manchester and Birmingham having particularly fine displays of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. There are works by earlier favourites, too: Hogarth, Blake and Samuel Palmer. The original oil painting of Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet (1733-5) in Birmingham, which was subsequently reproduced in several versions as a print, vividly portrays the poverty and despair of a Grub Street writer (the precursor of the modern day hack). Hogarth depicts his jobbing wordsmith as more exploited than exploitative. The garret room is unadorned and bare (as is the food cupboard) and the ceiling plaster is crumbling, exposing the joists beneath. The writer, still in his nightshirt and dressing gown sits at his desk, his chair the end of the bed, desperately rubbing his head beneath his wig as if to prompt the circulation of new ideas. The detritus of crumpled and discarded papers below indicates that they are refusing to emerge to order. Meanwhile, his wife sews his worn trousers and attempts to deal with the demands of the milkmaid, who proffers the full board of unpaid bills. Only the cat seems comfortable, curled up on the writer’s coat, which is cast down on the floor. His comfort may be shortlived, however, since it seems unlikely that he’ll be getting any more milk. It’s a scene which had a bitter personal resonance for Hogarth. His father, Richard, came down to London in the late 1680s, with dreams of becoming a writer and teacher, and settled in the Bartholomew Close in the Smithfield area, adjacent to Grub Street, where William was born. But he found the learned life to be a hard struggle, and failed to make a name for himself, his proposals for a dictionary and literary coffee house never realised. The only books for which he did find a publisher were a children’s introduction to Latin, Greek and English and a few school texts. The manuscript of the dictionary and encylopaedia, his grand work, was later lost. In 1709, when young William was 12 years old, he found himself in the Fleet debtor’s prison, where he remained until 1713. His incarceration would have been more extended had it not been for a new parliamentary bill offering relief for low-level debtors.

Samuel Palmer - The Bright Cloud
There were a couple of William Blake paintings in Manchester, delicately sculptural renderings in tempera of literary ‘heads’, busts of the Spanish poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga and the French enlightenment essayist Voltaire. Relatively conventional and lacking in his customary visceral visionary intensity, these date from around the year 1800, when he also submitted two biblical paintings in tempera (The Last Supper and The Loaves and Fishes) for exhibition at the Royal Academy. It would seem that this was a period in which he was making one last bid for artistic respectability. Blake’s follower Samuel Palmer has his painting The Bright Cloud (1833-4) in Manchester. It’s not the only picture he did with this title, and the billowing masses of cumulus cloud form a secondary landscape in the background. It’s one of his depictions of a golden and russet coloured autumnal idyll, a Kentish Eden in the Darenth Valley, where he lived in the village of Shoreham. The sleepily rural scene, with placid cattle idling on the hillside beneath oak and beech, is given a sacred resonance by the figures walking past, baskets on their heads presumably containing apples from an adjacent orchard. They are led by a figure in a blood-red headscarf (echoing the autumnal reds on the hill) on a donkey, who guides them in a processional line into the valley, like Christ riding into Jerusalem; the prelude to an English pastoral Passion.

Atkinson Grimshaw - Reflections on the Thames, Westminster (1880)
Leeds Art Gallery honours its native son, Atkinson Grimshaw (he was born in Back Park Street on 6th September 1836) with a number of his works from their extensive collection on display. Probably best known is his fairy painting Iris, which also acts as a study in autumnal colours and atmospheres. The titular fairy, hovering above a woodland pool with a certain aerodynamic implausibility, has a fiery halo forming a coronal crown about her head, the light from which reflects on the spectral translucence of her dragonfly wings, which in turn refract in beams and phosopherescent spatters of radiant light. This sprays out into the twilight shadows of the autumn woodland, bringing out and making hallucinatorily vivid their orange, red, caramel and mossy green colours. Iris was the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, connecting heaven and earth, the divine and the human, and was associated with the rainbow, which similarly connected those realms. Here, Grimshaw brings the Greek goddess into a very English environment, linking the old Mediterranean myths with the more native fairy tale tradition, with its northern European roots. She becomes the spirit of autumn, highlighting the beauty of the season which Grimshaw would repeatedly depict to such atmospheric effect. Iris is, in effect, his muse. Grimshaw was also known for his nocturnes, evocations of nightime atmospheres, either in reflective, rain-slicked city streets or in tree lined suburban streets, with eerie, shadowy figures hovering in the middle distance. On display here was his London picture Reflections on the Thames, Westminster, in which the curve of the Embankment leads to Westminster Bridge, lit by doubled rows of gaslit lamps, and the clockface of Big Ben smoulders with a baleful orange glow. A woman looks longingly over the water, silvered by the full moon which shines through dappled cloud, thinking who knows what. Perhaps she is considering how inviting the waters look. Her dog looks at the oncoming night strollers, intent on protecting her from any unwanted attentions. The lunar light creates a moody green luminescence which is an instantly recognisable characteristic of Grimshaw’s nocturnes. His nights are always tinted with a copper-green patina. A small, late work from 1892-3 is also on display, Snow and Mist (Caprice in Yellow Minor). A departure from his signature style, the musically allusive title makes clear his debt to Whistler, his fellow nocturniste. Its snowbound landscape is featureless noplace, daringly stripped of recognisable landmarks or any sign of human habitation. The lady with a shawl carrying her small basket on her concealed arm is walking into a blank void. It’s a study in off-whites, approaching abstract colour composition in the manner of Turner. It’s a brave turn towards experiment, an exploration of new styles and techniques in what was to be the last year of his life. He died in the year of its completion, 1893, and was buried in Woodhouse Cemetery in Leeds.

Ford Madox Brown - Work (1852-65)
Ford Madox Brown’s Work, in Manchester, is one of the key works of Victorian art, in which the Pre-Raphaelite medieval dreaming or pious religiosity was set aside for a moment in order to represent the world around them as they saw it. Just as much of a dream, perhaps, but a fascinating insight into the Victorian mindset. And, thanks to the detailed photographic realism of the Pre-Raphaelite style, with its invisible brushstrokes, a real snapshot of Victorian life in all its colour and grime. The view is from the raised footpath above Heath Street in Hampstead, and is still recognisable today, although the road is now habitually choked with traffic heading up the hill towards the heath and over into Golders Green and points north, or down towards the centre of the ‘village’ and on through Archway into the dense heart of the city beyond. As usual with Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the composition is cluttered with symbolic detail, every carefully placed object and figure freighted with some more or less obscure meaning. I find it best, having taken note of the different meanings, to ignore them and just enjoy the painting on its own pictorial merits. Here, Brown crams all the tiers of Victorian society within his small, overarching gold frame: the industrious navvies digging up the pavement; the well-dressed ladies leisurely taking the air; the marchers with their sandwich board surplices, perhaps advertising their temperance sentiments; the dishevelled, bare-footed flower-seller, miserable with poverty; and the unruly and unsupervised urchins in the foreground, antecedents of the ‘chavs’ of modern-day parlance (these maybe having a more direct linguistic correspondence, gypsies coming down from the fairs on the heath). Overlooking the whole teeming parade with a surveying stance of analytical detachment are portrait figures of the Reverend F.D.Maurice, a man of the cloth with a bent for social reform, and the social philosopher Thomas Carlyle. With their air of casual repose, they represent a less physically arduous kind of work, the labour of the mind. They stand in for the observer of the picture, implicitly inviting a unifying overview which draws all the elements together into a socially representative whole. Carlyle was a difficult model, too impatient and restless to stand still long enough for his portrait to be accurately painted. His likeness was instead worked up from a photograph, the new medium which allowed for a realistic reproduction of nature to be created within the comfortable confines of the studio.

John Everett Millais - Autumn Leaves (1856)
Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, also in Manchester, is another of the best-known of Pre-Raphaelite works. This moves out of the city to a more characteristic rural and, in this case, agricultural setting. Again, the symbolism, with straying sheep and tempting apples, can be comfortably ignored, leaving us with an enjoyable portrayal of rosy-cheeked rustic lust against a beautifully realised farmland backdrop, one part pasture, one part golden-sheaved arable. This background is painted with the meticulous Pre-Raphaelite attention to the detail of the natural world, to the shape, texture and colour gradations of leaf, grass-blade and corn-stalk. Such attention to natural form can also be found in Arthur Hughes’ 1859 painting The Long Engagement, in which fern and ivy, tree-bark and moss are rendered with such exquisite care that you can almost smell the loamy woodland aroma. They draw the attention as much as the trysting figures chastely meeting behind the tree trunk. John Millais’ Autumn Leaves, in Manchester, is a more evanescent evocation of nature, a beautiful depiction of twilight gloaming. Its warm, after-sunset colours contrast with encroaching shadow in what amounts to an autumnal English impressionism, catching the quality of evening light. A few curls of smoke send exploratory tendrils into the frame from the left, and the painting exudes a taint of smoky atmosphere from neighbouring bonfires and chimneys, synaesthetically extending its sensory range beyond the visual to the olfactory. The pile of dead leaves raked up by the young girls, their cheeks rosy with the cold and faces aglow with the light from the implied bonfire placed beyond the frame, about where the viewer is standing, at which they stare, are clearly intended to reflect the seasons of life, foretelling their own inevitable aging. I prefer once more to put such sentimental and overstuffed Victorian symbolism to one side and revel in the melancholic glow of this magical autumn evening.

John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shallott (1894)
John William Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallott, in Leeds, represents the wistfully yearning Arthurian dreaming of the Pre-Raphaelites, mainly (as in this case) deriving from Tennyson. Here, the lady, forever isolated in her river island tower, weaves the threads of her own binding fate, not yet aware of the figure of Lancelot riding across the meadow beyond. The same subject was painted by William Holman Hunt, a picture I first came across on the cover of the post-New Worlds SF and fantasy anthology the Savoy Book, published out by the Manchester Savoy Press in 1978. It was his last work, completed with the help of Edward Robert Hughes in 1905, and now resides in the suitably castellated building of the Wadsworth Athenium in Connecticut. Waterhouse’s smaller painting is not to be confused with his much-loved, large scale work entitled The Lady of Shallott, which happened to be on display in Birmingham at this time as part of an exhibition of Victorian paintings on loan from the Tate, entitled Love and Death. This transports us to the final stages of Tennyson’s poem, with the lady leaving her protecting tower to float downstream towards Camelot. It’s a journey which fulfils her foretold fate, her mysterious, funereal arrival at the castle presaging the fall of Arthur’s court. The frail, fey figure of the Lady reveals, as did Millais’ Ophelia, the Victorian gentleman’s tendency to view women as fragile creatures in need of sheltering and protection, and their attraction to tragic and mournfully sentimental presentations of femininity. The popularity of the Pre-Raphaelites in the late 60s and 70, particularly in their Arthurian mode, also made Waterhouse’s Lady the model for many a wispy flower child or myth-soaked folkie.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Proserpine (1874)
The decadent phase of late Victorian art, as embodied by Aesthetics like Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Whistler, favoured a more openly sensual approach, full-bloodedly seductive or exquisitely refined, and pious religiosity or finickety symbolism tended to get left behind. There are a number of Rossetti paintings in the museums, as well as Holman Hunt’s memorial portrait of his friend, painted in 1882 from an 1853 sketch. It captures him as a wide-eyed 22 year old romantic, a remembrance of better days. Beata Beatrix, in Birmingham, posthumously casts Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal as Dante’s dead love. The poppy which the descending dove brings to her in its beak, as well as the ecstatic, dreamily self-absorbed look on her face, alludes to Lizzie’s laudanum habit and the overdose from which she died. It’s a portrait of someone who had already effectively left him before she died. This particular painting was one of five copies he made of the composition, and Ford Maddox Brown took it upon himself to complete it in as close an approximation of his friend’s style as he could manage. Bower Meadow, in Manchester, is a more Pre-Raphaelite style watercolour, with fey, dreamy women gazing into some unspecified distance, possibly an interior one. They pluck absently on their instruments, producing what we can imagine as suspended, Debussyesque melodies, to which their doubles turn floating steps in each other’s arms in the middle distance. Unusually for Rossetti, there is also a tree-lined landscape in the background, like something from a medieval tapestry. This was taken from sketches he made at Knole Park near Sevenoaks some 22 years earlier. The woman on the right, with the copper hair and full features, is Alexa Wilding, one of the women Rossetti picked up from the streets to use as a model. She featured in a great many of his paintings from the mid-1860s onwards, although her presence tends to be overshadowed by that of Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris, given the fact that she led a fairly self-contained and respectable life and had little to do with the tangled romantic lives of Rossetti and his circle. La Donna della Fiesta, in Birmingham, which dates from 1881 (the year preceding his death), and Proserpine (a variant name for Persephone, hence her biting into a pomegranate) are two of his later sensual portraits of mythological sirens which use Jane Morris as the model. Janey was the great love and muse of his life after Siddal had died. It was a love which was complicated by the fact that she was married to his friend and sometime artistic collaborator William Morris. Rossetti, perhaps more beholden to the mores of the time than he would have liked to admit, and undoubtedly sensitive to Jane and William’s feelings, kept the affair within the bounds of passionate friendship, although their relationship seemed to many to be closer than that between husband and wife. Rossetti’s feelings for her come through in the paintings, and in the roles in which he casts her. In his artistic renditions of her, he enjoyed dressing her up in theatrical finery, and imaginatively changing her appearance. In some versions of La Donna he dies her black hair golden, and in the Proserpine on display in Birmingham in the Love and Death exhibition it becomes auburn.

Frederick Sandys - Morgan le Fay (1862-3)
Like Rossetti with Alexa Wilding and later Fanny Cornforth (and to a degree Jane Morris, whom he first saw in a theatre box when she was still Jane Burden and then bumped into again in the streets of Oxford), Frederick Sandys cast a model from the streets, gypsy called Keomi, who took on the dramatic role of Morgan-le-Fay in his 1862-3 painting, in Birmingham. The sorceress’ room is imagined with a fantastic richness of detail, from the jewelled safe box with its phial and scroll in the bottom left and the coloured wool discarded on the floor, to the loom, which doubles as an owl perch, the flaming crucible and the straw scattered on the grain of the wooden floorboards. There is a similarly heady mix of textiles in different colours, with Morgan draped in folds of green, yellow and purple, a black cloak with colourful Celtic symbols hanging on the wall, and a red, green and gold tapestry covering the back wall. This Morgan is evidently very well-travelled: she wears a leopard-hide tied about her waist, holds what looks like some Assyrian relic, has a statue of the Buddha on her safe box, and a book at her feet with a painting of an Egyptian figure, as well as depictions of the Egyptian gods Bes, Horus, Set and Ra on her large tapestry wall covering. There’s a tiny landscape seen through the small window in the upper right hand corner, through the threads on the loom, the burnished after sunset colours of the sky reflected in a curve of river, suggesting that this is a room high up in a castle tower (a hidden corner of Camelot, perhaps).

Simeon Solomon - A Saint of the Eastern Church (1867-8)
Simeon Solomon, several of whose paintings are in the Birmingham collection, offered a more homoerotic perspective on Aesthetic sensuality. His paintings A Deacon (1863), A Saint of the Eastern Church (1867-8) and The Child Jeremiah (1862, privately owned but on display here) present beautiful young men dressed in fine garments, posed holding various sacramental objects within provocatively religiose compositions. The young Jeremiah has his lyre slung casually over his shoulder, an ancient Hebraic Dylan, whilst the deacon and saint hold their urns, censers and blossoming branches with an absent looseness, their inward gaze indicating that their attention is directed elsewhere. They are the kind of sexy priests, saints and prophets who might appear in the knowingly kitsch and romantically decadent photographic tableaux of Pierre et Gilles. Solomon was a friend of Rossetti and a member of his artistic circle (being particularly close with the poet Algernon Swinburne). Most of these friends and acquaintances moved to distance themselves from him after he was arrested in 1873 for picking up men in a toilet just off Oxford Street. One of the few who stood up for him was Edward Burne-Jones, on the surface a more sober and ‘respectable’ man, with none of Rossetti or Swinburne’s wildness, whose acceptance of a baronetcy towards the end of his life seemed to seal his establishment status.

Edward Burne-Jones - Star of Bethlehem (1885-90)
Burne-Jones has a whole room dedicated to his work in the Birmingham Art Gallery, an acknowledgement of his birth (in 1855) in nearby Bennetts Hill in what is now the centre of the city. The huge annunciation painting Star of Bethlehem was indeed commissioned by the Corporation of Birmingham late in Burne-Jones’s life, in 1889, its impressive yardage presumably a badge of profligate prestige. It was a copy, in watercolours, of a tapestry which he’d designed for Exeter College, Oxford in 1887, the fact that he was being asked at this stage to make copies of pre-existing works an indication of his well-established popularity and fame. Greybearded Joseph, standing just outside the stable, little more than a straw-roofed rain shelter held up by silver birch trunks, looks more like a druid than a carpenter in his blue-grey robes with a bundle of twigs under his arm and an axe at his foot. Mary sits on straw in her bower, whose wicker walls are threaded through with wild roses, contrasting with the blue speedwell and white celandine dotting the lush green grass beyond. They are quite the match for the jewels in the crown laid at the feet of one of the three kings who have just arrived. The angel who greets them, and who nurtures a warm glowing globe of light within its prayerfully uplifted hands, hovers just above the earth, indicating its separateness from the mortal realm. Its downturned feet are perfectly posed to show off the glittering straps of its golden sandals, and it casts a radiant shadow on the rush-bordered puddle beneath its weightless form. The African king seems to have a robe brought directly from Morris and Co, with Burne-Jones designs along the bottom hem. The dark shadows of the wildwood on the hills beyond the gathered group locate this scene more in the northern lands of Grimm fairy tales than in Biblical times and climates. It’s of a piece with Burne-Jones’ Arthurian paintings, part of a continuum with his mythological dreamworlds. Also in the room are large scale cartoons of The Last Judgement, created as models for stained glass windows produced by Morris and Co. for Easthampstead church in Berkshire from 1874-80. Working as murals in their own right, they indicate how prolifically hard-working Burne-Jones was, here effectively doubling the effort of creation to produce the finished glass-work. A late portrait of 1893-5 of Lady Windsor finds him painting in an uncharacteristically Whistler-like style. It is as much a subdued study in greys as it is a society portrait, and might as well have been given one of Whistler’s musical titles. The fact that he was, at this point in his career, sought after to paint society portraits, even though it was hardly what he was known for, indicates the degree to which Burne-Jones had been embraced by the art-loving establishment. His upwardly mobile drift, whilst it was not something he ever actively pursued, put a strain on his long term and very close friendship with William Morris, who was at the same time moving in the opposite direction, towards radical socialist engagement.

Walter Crane - At Home: A Portrait (1872)
Walter Crane was another artist, illustrator and designer working in the Arts and Crafts style who embraced socialist ideals, having initially been influenced in this direction by William Morris. This is not something you’d readily detect from his 1872 picture of domestic calm At Home: A Portrait, which is in the Leeds Gallery. This is an immaculate assemblage of Aesthetic interior furnishings: there’s the blue and white china vase; blue and white fireplace tiles, illustrated with various unusual creatures, including bats, salamanders and dolphins; a Rossetti style medievalist Pre-Raphaelite wall tapestry; a decorative blue and green carpet; and a Japanese fan neglectfully held between the thumb and forefinger of a woman in a state of easeful repose. This is Crane’s wife Mary, to whom he was devotedly married for 44 years, before she was tragically killed by a train in December 1914. Here, she is more modestly dressed than most Aesthetic models, the typical loosely draped garments restricted to a white shawl falling from her shoulders. She doesn’t have the enervated slump found in many Aesthetic portraits of women, too. Instead, she leans lightly on the mantelpiece and intently reads the book she is holding. Its covers are yellow, but it’s a little too early for it to be the Yellow Book, not quite close enough to the fin de siecle. A tabby sits regally by the fire, warming its back against the crackling flames. The relaxed presence of Mrs Crane and cat (the obvious choice of pet for an Aesthetic, Rossetti’s wombats aside) make this a genuinely homely scene, rather than just an ostentatious display of exquisite taste. It’s a portrayal of quiet beauty and intelligence, a record of the artist’s own love for his wife.

Gwen John - Interior (1915-16)
Gwen John was the master of contemplative domestic interiors with calm female subjects in the early 20th century. There were several of her sensitive portraits in the galleries, all displaying the subdued use of clay-like colours, thinly applied to give the pictures the look of roughly fired earthenware pottery. The bloom in Woman Holding A Flower adds a drop of red at the bottom of the frame to the palette. The woman herself has a sad and inward look which fails to reflect this intrusion of primary colour, however. The flower is drooping in her hand, and already wilting memory, perhaps echoing the melancholic turn of her thoughts. It may have been a variant of the expressions she wore whilst modelling for August Rodin, who was also her lover at this time, but who never returned her love with the same intensity of feeling which she exhibited. The model for the Woman Holding A Flower was Chloe Boughton-Leigh, with whom John became friends in 1907, and for whom she also sat as a model. The Convalescent, in Manchester, is one of her pictures of women reading, making it a good follow-up to the Walter Crane portrait. John’s reading women, like Crane’s wife in At Home, are a study in calm, concentrated repose as they focus in on the page, and on the inward thoughts which it promotes. Here, it is a letter rather than a book which the young woman reads as she sits in her wicker chair, back propped up on a pillow and loosely clenched hand resting in her lap. The overall pallor of the background and the furniture make the teapot, highlighted with glints of reflected light, stand out with preternatural clarity, as if it contained the medicinal stuff of life (as well it might). In another such portrait, The Student, also in Manchester, John’s friend Dorelia McNeil is posed in a standing position, looking down at a well-thumbed French paperback book, La Russie (a Russian dictionary?), a notebook grasped in one hand, the other leaning on the back of a simple chair. Her face is lit by a lamp somewhere beyond the frame, and she casts a shadow on the wall behind her in what is clearly, from the proximity of the ceiling above her head, a very modestly proportioned room. The glow cast on her face could easily be seen in symbolic terms, the radiance emanating from an active and intellectually engaged mind. McNeil, who was later to have an affair with Gwen’s more extrovert and licentious brother Augustus, was a junior secretary in a solicitors office. A woman from a humble background, she nevertheless had a passion for art, and went to evening classes at the Westminster School of Art. She had a winning personality, and was soon frequenting artistic circles, where she met and became friends with Gwen. They set out in 1903 on a spontaneously arranged and barely planned continental adventure, their intention to walk from Bordeaux to Rome. In the end, they got distracted and diverted along the way, and the journey was re-routed to take them eventually to Paris. John was to make her home there for many years, too many of them spent in the vain hope that Rodin, now an elderly man, might return her romantic feelings. Interior, in Manchester, depicts her room in the Rue Terre Neuve in Meudon, just outside Paris. Like the similar A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, it is haunted by her absence, a depiction of a space from which she has vanished, leaving behind strangely affecting everyday artefacts betokening recent presence. A set of tea cups and accessories and another brown teapot, standing out with talismanic solidity against the spectrally pale backround – perhaps still warm.

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