John Golding: Finding the Absolute (Piano Nobile, Kings Place)

3The title of Piano Nobile’s current exhibition of John Golding’s 1960s abstract paintings is a nod to the artist’s seminal work in the field of art history, Paths to the Absolute, which brought together his A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts series, given at Princeton in 1997. This rich yet accessible account analyses the deep spiritual quest taken by seven giants of twentieth-century abstract painting. Tracing the distinct journeys of each artist as they move from figuration to abstraction, Golding reveals that despite the differing methods and beliefs, these painters shared a common goal to attain an ‘absolute’ pictorial truth. For each of them, subliminal exploration and artistic experimentation were inextricable. Similarly, Golding’s painting also began in the world of figuration before moving gradually and thoughtfully through several abstract idioms. The works in ‘Finding the Absolute’ are significant in that they represent Golding’s earliest forays into the language of abstraction, a pursuit he would continue to develop and refine over the next three decades.

JOHN GOLDING Portman Square, 1965-66 Acrylic and oil on canvas 165.1 x 165.1 cm 65 x 65 in

Portman Square, 1965-66
Acrylic and oil on canvas
165.1 x 165.1 cm 65 x 65 in

Most of the works in the exhibition at Kings Place are on show for the first time in over forty years, yet they exude a freshness of spirit and maintain a thoughtful dialogue with the current revival of interest in abstract art. The paintings stand out as strong, lively statements in bold colour, yet they are characterised by a combination of complexity and multi-layered simplicity, as well as an attention to detail that demands closer looking—a practice that Golding also advocated in his formalist approach to art history. At first, the colours seem solid and opaque, but then the subtleties of their dappled surfaces begin to appear, offering a sense of atmospheric depth. The exhibition space is unique in that it allows the individual works to interact with each other across the large atrium and its adjoining hallways. Likewise, the hanging of the works animates a rhythmic energy of rebounding shapes and colours that goes hand in hand with the coinciding music programme of  ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’ at Kings Place.

Dr. Robert Travers, Dr. Charlotte de Mille, and Professor Paul Greenhalgh introducing ‘Finding the Absolute’ on Friday, 6th of February.

Dr. Robert Travers, Dr. Charlotte de Mille, and Professor Paul Greenhalgh introducing ‘Finding the Absolute’ on Friday, 6th of February.

Professor Paul Greenhalgh — current director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art and former student of Golding — introduced the exhibition on Friday night, taking the opportunity to celebrate the Kings Place show, as well as to announce another exhibition centred on Golding opening at the SCVA this weekend. ‘Abstraction and the Art of John Golding’ draws from their impressive collection to present a diverse survey of the origins and development of abstract art at the beginning of the twentieth century alongside a selection of canvasses by Golding.

Although his overwhelming success in the field of art history often overshadows his work as a painter, it was on the latter that Golding based his career and for which he wished to be remembered. With these two shows, Golding’s painterly responses to the materials, methods, and monumentality of his objects of academic study take their places among the giants of the abstract painting that he described so eloquently.

Jenna Lundin is a PhD student at the Courtauld.

John Golding: Finding the Absolute is at Piano Nobile, Kings Place until 4 April, 2015

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (National Portrait Gallery)

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912
Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

The idea that an exhibition of assorted paintings, photographs and objects can constitute a ‘portrait’ of someone is an interesting one. Bloomsbury biographer Frances Spalding’s exhibition on Virginia Woolf has added another chapter to the interdisciplinary history of Bloomsbury by confronting the usually only vaguely acknowledged influence of the visual arts on this heroine of literary Modernism. However, it can be complacent about historical stereotype and at times its principle of selection borders on sheer miscellany.

In the first room, a photograph of a ravaged Alfred Lord Tennyson by Woolf’s aunt Julia Margaret Cameron joins other portraits of nineteenth-century luminaries. These are delightful to see, but they are of dubious relation to the subject of the exhibition. Together with a rather sadly-skied allegory by G. F. Watts, contextualised as a friend of Woolf’s parents, they represent a black-and-white, whiskery ‘Victorian period’ out of which Bloomsbury (and ‘Modernism’) miraculously appeared.

Bloomsbury members certainly reacted against their Victorian parents’ ways of writing and painting, not least Roger Fry, who went from Berensonian aesthete to Cézanne fanatic. However, I would caution against falling for Bloomsbury’s own ploy to cover up its late-nineteenth-century origins to appear cutting edge. In the excellent accompanying book, Sandy Nairne singles out an interesting statement of Fry’s that compares Woolf’s Modernist language to the verbosity of Henry James, and historical comparisons like this might have been fun to see played out through the objects on show. We are also promised an insight into Woolf’s overlooked political life, though the inclusion of a distracting Picasso drawing commissioned for an event at which Woolf happened to sit on stage compromises the show’s credibility.

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924 National Portrait Gallery, London

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924
National Portrait Gallery, London

One highlight is an actual portrait of Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell, slumped in an orange armchair and Vuillard-like hard at work with needle and wool (c. 1912). It is a provocatively gendered piece: this is an aspiring author – the artist’s sister – not writing, but knitting. In the other paintings on show, Duncan Grant appears as inconsistent. His early portrait of James Strachey against a red screen (1910) is the first in a very successful trademark genre of portraits of people reading, though his memento mori Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf (c. 1960) is a decidedly dodgy exercise in paragone and defuses the emotional force of Woolf’s nearby suicide note. Particularly interesting photographs of Woolf from Vogue are nice reminders of Bloomsbury’s talent for self-publicity and its privilege.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939
Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

This small show makes an interesting case for the significance of assorted visual material in understanding an author. But that anecdotal tendency is worrying because it risks presenting, as many have done before, Bloomsbury itself as something anecdotal. The exhibition clearly makes the point that Bloomsbury occupied a very well-connected place in artistic (not to say political) milieux in the first half of the twentieth century in Britain. But did we already know that? And was Bloomsbury something more?

Thomas Hughes is a PhD student at the Courtauld working on the language of art writing in the later nineteenth century.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision was at the National Portrait Gallery from July 16 to October 26 2014.

Constable: The Making of a Master (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Study of cirrus clouds, John Constable, about 1821-22, oil on paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Study of cirrus clouds, John Constable, about 1821-22, oil on paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Constable is one of those artists who will stay forever loved among the English, but is unfortunately often relegated to obscurity abroad. When I visited the V&A for this major new exhibition of his painting, I was struck by not only how busy it was on a Tuesday morning, but it also appeared that the median age of attendees was about fifty. Comments about the painter’s appeal to the elderly aside, this exhibition demonstrates Constable’s genius through an unapologetic statement regarding his influences, both contemporaneous and historical, reaching beyond his oft-celebrated colleague Turner. Constable collected over 5,000 prints and numerous paintings during his life. His friend and biographer, C.R. Leslie recounted that, ‘Constable died as he lived, surrounded by art, for the walls of the little [bedroom] were covered with engravings’. If there is a singular importance to this exhibition, it is the ability to view Constable’s works alongside the art he immersed himself in.

The Three Trees, Rembrandt, 1643, etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Three Trees, Rembrandt, 1643, etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The gallery space itself is much larger than I would have expected and unlike many modern exhibitions, flows nicely from room to room. Although I have done a fair amount of personal study on Constable before, I still felt the displays had taught me a wealth of knowledge. Additionally, Constable’s painterly process is outlined beautifully by the curators. There is a clear line of thought that is enumerated through the progression of sketches made en plein air, to larger studio sketches and finally to finished works, many of which he displayed at the Royal Academy then at Somerset House, the Courtauld’s current home. It brings together these earlier stages for many of Constable’s most loved works, such as The Hay Wain, and the grandiose scale of this exhibition allows the viewer to get up close and see each one individually.

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery

I do, however, take some issue with the curators’ use of the term ‘impressionistic’, which is used once to describe Constable’s style.  Although it demonstrates that the attitude the French Impressionists are often credited with inventing was actually begun almost a hundred years earlier, it does seem an often inappropriate comparison that belittles Constable’s own originality. However nit-picky that may seem, the overall composition, lay out and framing of this exhibition brings to light this great English painter’s thought process, and his insatiable work ethic.

Chelsey Randall-Wright is a MA History of Art student at the Courtauld working on Early Netherlandish Art. 

Constable: The Making of a Master is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 20 September 2014 to 11 January 2015.

Art and Life (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c. 1923

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula

‘Art and life’ is currently in its third incarnation after stops in Leeds and Kettle’s Yard. When it closes after the Dulwich offering in late September it will have been on the road for nearly a year, an impressive feat for an exhibition that covers only eleven, albeit prolific, years of British art.

Ben Nicholson is the headline act. But this exhibition investigates the period before he became arguably British modernism’s MVP. Before Barbara Hepworth Nicholson’s first wife was Winifred Roberts. As husband and wife Winifred and Ben travelled to Lugano in Switzerland – via Paris and exposure to European modernist developments – where they spent three consecutive winters in the early 1920s. Here they produced works of vitality and atmospheric gravity. The tissue paper wrapped around Winifred’s flowers in Cyclamen and Primula becomes another mountain to match with their dramatic backdrop. The austere use of muted colour by Ben in 1921-c.25 (Cortivallo, Lugano) expertly displays a glimpse of a Swiss winter. They developed as artists together, their relationship reciprocal. Winifred’s colour comes out in Ben’s First abstract painting, Chelsea, and Ben’s quasi-cubist tonal blocks are referenced by Winifred in Castagnola (Red Earth) and King’s Road, Chelsea. The relationship clearly of equal importance to each.

Ben Nicholson - First Abstract Painting

Ben Nicholson, First Abstract Painting

In 1926 Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood became the third member of this cast of British post-war painters. Wood was a colourful figure who came to the Nicholson’s home in Cumberland ‘like a meteor’. He was the freest of the three, lacking the shackles of an artistic heritage such as Ben Nicholson’s, whose father had been highly respected painter, as well as being exposed to European modernist movements early in his practice, before adopting the sometimes staid English traditionalism present in Winifred’s work. All three were different, but happily worked alongside one another, each learning new ways of painting. This is beautifully shown in the exhibition by the handing of three views of Northrigg Hill, one by each: Winifred’s traditional, Wood’s gestural, Ben’s austere.

Ben Nicholson - Porthmeor Beach

Ben Nicholson, Porthmeor Beach

The fourth member of the group came in 1928 when Wood and Ben discovered the work of Alfred Wallis. Wallis became Wood and the Nicholson’s Douanier Rousseau. An untrained individual who as a result made paintings as real as real life. Wallis was championed, especially, by Ben in London, where he exhibited him in a 7 and 5 show, and it gave both Ben and Wood encouragement in their pursuit of imbuing their work with life. Examples of this abound in the exhibition, but highlights are Le phare, Porthmeor Beach and Boat on a Stormy Sea.

But nearly as soon as the quartet was formed was it finished. In 1930 Wood died in mysterious circumstances, the Nicholson’s marriage was dissolving and Wallis was becoming more and more paranoid as the success earned for him by his London friends began to affect how he was treated in St. Ives. Overall, Art and Life succeeds in showing the development and complementary relationships of this group of British painters that were sadly all too fleeting.

Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Art and Life is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 21st September 2014

Flip, Linger, Glide: The Movements of Magazine Pictures and Their Publics c. 1915


Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

Coles Phillips, cover design, Good Housekeeping, February 1915

Jennifer Greenhill’s talk focused on the illustrations of early 20th -century female periodicals, especially the work of American illustrator Coles Phillips (1880-1927).  As owner of an advertising agency and illustrator of mass-consumption magazines, Phillips is a fitting character to challenge the prevailing historiographical interpretations of magazine illustration. On one hand, Greenberg and other modernists scorned magazine illustrations as mere kitsch. On the other, many museums display illustrations and magazine covers framed on the walls, like ‘high-art’ paintings. Greenhill certainly considers illustrations art. However, she also focused on their role within magazines, where they can be flipped over, lingered on, or glided through.

Greenhill placed particular importance on the interface between the reader’s body and the printed image. She argued that certain illustrations respond to typical patterns in reading, inviting and expecting specific forms of engagement from their beholders. Although illustrations in early 20th-century magazines generally conformed to the ‘pretty girl’ type and invite a gender analysis, Greenhill’s main focus was on the formal properties of magazine cover-images, which visually compelled the reader to directly interact with the magazine’s materiality.

Reflecting this approach, Greenhill’s lecture featured a number of detailed visual analyses, the most sustained of which focused on Coles Phillips’ 1915 cover design for Good Housekeeping. Showing a young woman immersed in a book, the cover promoted a positive image of the female readership as contemplative and engaged, a representation that was relatively rare at the time. At the same time, the cover also functions as advertisement for the magazine, which was more book-like in its format and more literary in content than its competitors. Uncluttered by text, the cover easily became a collectible, a practice which publishers explicitly encouraged.

Most noticeable in this Good Housekeeping cover is Phillips’ signature fade-out technique. Whilst some forms are described in detail, others lack any outline and merge into the background. Thus, the fade-out technique emphasised two-dimensionality. Yet some parts of the image, like the folds in the woman’s dress, are accurately described and tactile in their three-dimensionality. At the boundary of flatness and illusion, the cover evokes art historian Alois Riegl’s concept of ‘haptic vision.’ Showing Phillips’ sketches along with the printed copy of his designs, Greenhill demonstrated how tactility and openness were already major bconcerns at the pre-production stage.

Titled ‘A Brown Study,’ as in the contemporary phrase denoting a state of deep thought, the 1915 cover puts a commercial spin on the contemporary fascination with psyche and self-discovery, staple themes of the Good Housekeeping. Indeed, Phillips illustrations often challenge the rising popularity of photography, demoting its high-art ambition by emphasising its commercial associations.

Greenhill’s lecture was a work-in-progress for a chapter in a forthcoming book. Yet by tightly basing her arguments on visual evidence, she delivered an inspiring and eye-opening talk.

Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed (Soane Museum)


The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

Sir John Soane’s Museum is the most fitting setting for the first major survey of Alan Sorrell’s oeuvre. Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) was an English artist who worked in multiple mediums, but is best known for his archeological illustrations. Like Sir John Soane, an architect who became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, Sorrell was a draughtsman who became Senior Assistant Instructor of Drawing at The Royal College of Art. Soane and Sorrell succeeded in their craft so much so that they enabled future artists to work as well as they did within the academic tradition. Framing Sorrell’s work inside the Soane’s Museum encourages viewers to engage and interpret the art like a new student discovering line, shape and colour in a new light.

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130


Sorrell is best known for his reconstruction drawings of British historical sites; Prehistoric, Roman and medieval. Similar to his commercial work as an illustrator (his patterns and book designs are on display as well), Sorrell captures the balance between shape and colour. The systematic attention to detail and the artistic sense of imagination creates compelling works on paper. Even though Sorrell is remembered for these drawings, I found the most compelling pieces in the exhibition to be the two self-portraits that give an intimate lens into his personal artistic process.

Self-Portrait (1928) is a drawing that Sorrell created once he arrived in Rome during his artistic endeavors. The quality of his draughtsmanship is so apparent that it begins to bleed into the viewer’s space. Pencil, ink and white gouache illuminate and stain the paper, producing an expressive moment with the artist at work. As Sorrell hunches before his easel, he looks straight out at the viewer. The contrast between the dark ink and bright gouache emphasizes the deep folds of the fabric on his body and the draped cloth beside him. The jagged edges seen throughout the composition further confront the viewer with a feeling of restlessness. The eye darts from Sorrell’s high cheekbones to his pursed lips and furrowed brow and then towards the working-sketch of the hanging lamp and multiple canvases in the background and then back to the foreground to notice the different depictions of each of the fold in his stockings. This eye movement around the image creates an entertaining (and instructive) mapping experience for the viewer.

Sorrell's late 1930s portrait

Sorrell’s late 1930s portrait

Furthermore, it becomes readily apparent that his talent is not limited to drawing when observing Sorrell’s later painting, Self-Portrait (late 1930s). Here, the artist has decidedly zoomed in to focus on his face during the artistic act of creation. His sharp gaze is literally parallel to the vertical and sharply pointed pencil in his hand. The attention to line and its function is present in his drawings and his paintings. Soane would most probably approve of Sorrell exhibiting in his home, and expanding his reputation among other artworks. The quality of Sorrell’s talent is clear, and the way he peers into the viewers’ eye he leaves no room for skepticism.

Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed was at the Soane Museum from the 25th October 2013 to the 25th January 2014.

See here for more information on Sorrell and the book associated with the exhibition.

Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group: 1913-63 (Ben Uri Gallery)

Ben Uri Gallery, 102, Boundary Road, NW8

Ben Uri Gallery, 102, Boundary Road, NW8

To venture to the Ben Uri Gallery in NW8 is to arrive at, quite literally, a shop front – which once penetrated, courtesy of a common entry-bell, opens out into a wealth of treasures, some of which would not be out of place in the best-renowned museums of the world. Some of the exhibits in the current show are no exception.  The conception driving this exhibition is, however, simple but powerful: fifty works spanning the first fifty years of The London Group in all its modernist radicality.

Crammed into its two (ground and basement) floors, this catholic selection makes for much neck-turning. Just as one espies a small Gaudier bronze bird swallowing a fish in 1914, Gertler’s light-footed, supple Eve diverts the gaze to an act of creation, made in the same year. Some artistic groups immediately conjure up a style (the psychologically intense painterliness of Bloomsbury) or avant-garde controversy (the primal, even feral, rawness of Vorticism) or specific, not always accurate, reputations (the supposedly bloodless precision of the Euston Road School).

The reviewer with Sarah MacDougall, one of the exhibition’s two curators,  looking at Fry’s Nina Hamnett, foregrounded by Gaudier’s hungry bird

The reviewer with Sarah MacDougall, one of the exhibition’s two curators,
looking at Fry’s Nina Hamnett, foregrounded by Gaudier’s hungry bird

It would be difficult to jam the London Group into any such category – from the deceptively gentle, astute realism of Harold Gilman’s enigmatic portrait of Sylvia Gosse (1912-13, a rare image of her) via Roger Fry’s oneiric-realist depiction of Nina Hamnett (1917, lent by the Courtauld) to Bomberg’s hard-edged Ghetto Theatre of 1920 with its regimented, glum but warm togetherness, not to mention later contributions, such as Jessica Dismorr’s positively vibrating abstract forms (1936) and Dorothy Mead’s near-mutilated self-portrait of 1960 emitting the blank chill of the Cold War.

The real value of this exhibition, however, lies in the conversations without words that these paintings conduct quietly with one another: the amazement in Stanislawa de Karlowska’s colourful produce on display at a fruiterer’s in Swiss Cottage (looking back, and reminiscing, from her newly adopted country to her Polish homeland, perhaps) in 1914 conversing with the exaggerated colours of Spencer Gore’s more radical impression(ism) of Gilman’s garden at Letchworth (1912). These are different experiences of Britain, with different eyes and from different backgrounds – but from around the same time – and they each slowly reveal their own viewpoint. And such dialogues reverberate almost endlessly through the exhibition.

William Coldstream, Portrait of Mrs Auden, 1936-37,  oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

William Coldstream, Portrait of Mrs Auden, 1936-37,
oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

Some works break the involved conversations to speak directly to the viewer – none more so, in my view, than Coldstream’s portrait of W.H. Auden’s mother. My turning neck was arrested at this point. This unassuming, but staggeringly immediate portrait in different shades and tones of yellow and brown steals the show. No reproduction can convey the shimmering immediacy of this woman in old age: thin, almost frail yet erect, severe. Apprehensive, strong and vulnerable, she stares into a future where the inevitable outcome must be death, yet the painter urgently but naturally invites further enquiries about her thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For an informative, entertaining and cogent introduction to Modern British art of the early- and mid-twentieth century, it’s worth taking heed of the ‘uproar’ going on in St John’s Wood at the moment.

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group: 1913-63 is a the Ben Uri Gallery until 2nd March.

Walter Crane and the Arts and Crafts Watercolour (Richard McDougall Lecture, 10th December 2013)

I had been rather looking forward to the annual Richard McDougall lecture on British watercolours, as during my time at studying for a BA at Manchester in 2008, there was a particularly rewarding exhibition running at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Walter Crane and Socialism. It introduced to me the extraordinary breadth and beauty of Crane’s output, a truly thoughtful and polemical High Victorian. Meaning is woven throughout his works, ranging from Socialist banners to children’s books, forging a broad, personal visual language not dissimilar to William Blake. Little did I realise the curator of this exhibition was tonight’s speaker, Morna O’Neill, the top authority on this otherwise rather neglected figure.

Walter Crane's studio

Walter Crane’s studio

In a photograph of Crane’s studio in 1885, the oil Freedom sits opposite his watercolour Pandora, the latter not distinguished by embodying the Aesthetic dictum “art for art’s sake”, but instead just as didactic as the oil. Crane encouraged the act of connoisseurship as a way to knowledge, and many details in Pandora act as emblems towards a theme of universal Hope. Particularly resonant for Crane are the sphinxes which hold up the eponymous box: ciphers for individualism against the Orpheic artist’s dream of Socialism. But all this begs the question: why choose watercolour at all? The nineteenth-century British watercolour is a strange thing, as was explored by Colin Cruise at last year’s lecture. Burne-Jones’ The Merciful Knightbravely exhibited at the Old Water Colour Society in 1864, was one of the first works to challenge what watercolour could be. It was in this context that Crane would develop his own concept of an Arts and Crafts watercolour.

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

It is rather a paradox to suggest that watercolour’s medium specificity is fluidity and ambiguity, but its role for Crane was a site of experimentation and self-referentiality. This reminded me again of Cruise’s lecture, where in Rossetti’s early watercolour, The First Anniversary of the Death of BeatriceDante is shown working in the medium in which he is painted. Crane was less direct in his reflexivity. In Pandora the mosaics of the floor and the curtain were based on Crane’s own objects that were originally designed in watercolour. Crane used watercolour extensively to provide designs for the production of Decorative arts, and also of his tremendously beautiful children’s books. Crane’s Art’s and Crafts watercolour then works as bridging the gap between designer and maker, not an end in itself, but a means to an ideal as yet unrealised.

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour, exhibited (private collection)

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour (private collection)

Surprisingly, Morna spent much time on the iconography of Crane’s works, and less on the specific painterly potentiality of watercolour, although this was explored in the evanescent visionary reverie in the Youthful Poet’s Dream (1869). Yet the central issue of Crane’s exploration of the dynamic between illustration and narrative: the act of looking as a way to knowledge, is very reassuring to any art historian who still likes looking at paintings. And one hopes Morna can see the Pandora itself soon as a way to knowledge, as currently it sits in a very private collection…

Elizabeth I and her People (National Portrait Gallery)

ElizabethReviewElizabeth I has been somewhat overshadowed by her namesake in recent years, but the curatorial team at the National Portrait Gallery, led by Tarnya Cooper, have sought to reestablish her as the mighty monarch she once was, as well as attempting to depict the lives of her subjects.
For a shy monarch the range of portraits of Elizabeth in the opening rooms are impressive, including rare examples of those painted from life. This was a time in which her image began to mean many things – from the power and prestige of its owner, to its reassuring qualities in the face of war. Her image was also one of the first to be mass produced, again evidenced in the exhibition with fine examples of coins, miniatures and portraits made from copies.
The largest room at the rear of the U-shaped exhibition space is concerned with the Nobility, Gentry and Court. This section opens, poignantly, with a portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh accompanied with a poem begging for Elizabeth’s forgiveness after his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. The rest of the room is given over to detailing the huge advancements made throughout this era. Travel and adventure are shown in the portraits of Elizabeth’s Moorish ambassador and the Arctic explorer Frobrisher, and the fruits of other exotic endeavours are scattered throughout, the highlight being the first depiction of a Guinea Pig as a household pet.

Queen Elizabeth I, The 'Ermine' Portrait Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

Queen Elizabeth I, The ‘Ermine’ Portrait Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

All of the advancements were made possible by the increasing trade during the Elizabethan era, and these men and women have their own room in the exhibition. Again what is truly astounding in the works in this space are the international ties and the draw London must have had during this period. There are a series of remarkable, candid family portraits of the Wittewronghele family as well as many others from what would have been at that time far-off lands.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21-1598) by an unknown artist

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21-1598) by an unknown artist

Towards the end of the exhibition the works began to peter out somewhat. The section on Professionals, Writers and Artists is a little sparse, although the painting of the poet John Donne is a highlight. In an attempt to represent the entirety of Elizabeth’s people the curators have left a small space for the Working People and the Poor, but it is really inadequate to get a truly rounded picture of their lives. This, though, is not the curators’ fault. As they openly admit there simply are not many representations of the poor during this period, and I think it is nice that they end the exhibition with this admission, rather than simply trying to hide it in the beginning or middle of the exhibition.

The focus is undoubtedly on the well-off in Elizabethan society but this is purely because they were the only section of society that were recorded. Overall though, despite the shortfalls of breadth, the exhibition does what it sets out to do: show the lives the first Elizabethans lived to their current incarnations.



Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Elizabeth I & Her People is at the National Portrait Gallery until the 5th January 2013.

British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day (Victoria and Albert Museum)

British Drawings gallery

A brief look through the Courtauld Institute’s course options paints a bleak picture for the study of British art. Italy and France
dominate and I dare say an exhibition presenting graphic works from one of these more celebrated artistic nations would not attempt what the Victoria and Albert has: to survey four hundred years of British drawing (from Issac Oliver to Siân Bowen) in the space of two small rooms. Yet it works perfectly, the curators have been careful to make wide reaching selections in subject, media, and artist, choices that inject the exhibition with a vigour that to many people its title might not suggest.

Henry Fuseli - Portrait study of Martha Hess,1778-79.

Henry Fuseli – Portrait study of Martha Hess,1778-79.

What becomes clear throughout the exhibition is that British art has been holding its own for more than four hundred years: from indigenous Brits, such as Frederic Leighton, almost natives like Lucian Freud, to those who spent their professional life in Britain, such as Henry Fuseli, Peter Lely and Antony van Dyck. Each of these five artists, not surprisingly, shines through particularly strongly. Fuseli’s black and white chalk portrait of Martha Hess was a personal favourite. It seems to owe much to the delicate silverpoint renderings of female faces by old masters like Verrocchio. Yet here, surrounded by a Constable country scene and a furiously sketched William Blake drawing it seemed curiously out of place, serving to remind that British art has continuously produced a multitude of fine works. This is something the curators must have intended in their selections.

Whether intentional or not the show’s small size seems perfectly suited to the realm of drawing. More often than painting, it is a private artistic pursuit. While most paintings are created with a public of some form in mind, drawings are usually for the artist’s personal use. The lineage from brain to pencil can be a pure and uninterrupted flow, in which ideas, thoughts, and secrets move more freely than in painting. Witness of this flow, made manifest in the marks on the paper, seems to provide insight into the private mind of the artist. And so covering four hundred years of an art form in two rooms begins to make sense when drawing is viewed in this way. The V&A seems to have tried to emphasise this closed personal world of drawing by attempting to transport the viewer into something similar: two small rooms for meditation and private appreciation on the products of some of the world’s greatest draughtsmen. In the first room, a cabinet of sketchbooks, never created with a viewer in mind, further adds to this feeling. The anecdotal descriptions of the drawings match this urge for insight into the mind of the artist, for instance telling us of Jonathan Richardson the Elder’s urge to draw a daily self-portrait as a kind of therapy.

David Connearn, Mappa Mundi: Drawing to the Extent of the Body, 1984.

David Connearn, Mappa Mundi: Drawing to the Extent of the Body, 1984.

Any bigger, this exhibition would have been overwhelming. It takes on an often overlooked subject and presents it in all its variously imagined glories. Most importantly, it serves to educate about the very nature of the art of drawing.

Thomas Mouna is a third-year BA at the Courtauld.

British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day will be on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Room 90 until the 13th April 2014. Entry is free.