Real-Time Turner

Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

Turner did not take much of a retirement.  In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display.  During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had.  There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years.  Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind.  There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP.  Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (exhibited 1850), J M W Turner, © Tate

This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’.  Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess.  Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show.  And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.

It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light.  Continue reading


The Science of Art – Making Colour, The National Gallery

The Sainsbury Wing is looking different. The walls are almost black and there are backlit photographs of vibrant explosions and placards with neon lettering. Is this the right place? Have I accidently come to the Science Museum? For an art show, there are a lot of mineral samples in cabinets and apothecary’s mounds of colourful powders. This is not South Kensington, but for its summer show, the National Gallery has turned to science or, more accurately, chemistry.  Making Colour, which runs until 7 September, is about just that, and in a collaboration between curators and the gallery’s science department, who have been given a rare pass out of their labs and into the exhibition space, the gallery’s paintings are being taken back to their elements. If the curators had to dust off their GCSE chemistry while putting together this display, so will you, with rocks and minerals (remember, they are different) and old friends from the periodic table, cropping up throughout the exhibition.

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

The show has been arranged anti-clockwise around the colour wheel, from blue to purple. A bonus room at the end looks at gold and silver which, with no place on the spectrum of white light, are not strictly colours; but try telling that to an International Gothic or Renaissance painter. It was Isaac Newton who devised the first colour wheel in the 1660s, although his circle was not that colourful, and so it is a later version by Moses Harris which the National Gallery has used to demonstrate the concept. Continue reading

Straw men and quilts – British Folk Art, Tate Britain


Bellamy quilt (1890-91), Norfolk Museums Service

Bellamy quilt, 1890-91, Norfolk Museums Service

Bellamy Quilt detail

Bellamy quilt (detail)

In the days before box sets, multiplex cinemas and a gastro-pub on every high street, what was a courting couple to do during the evenings?  Without Walter White and some triple fried polenta wedges, Herbert Bellamy and his wife-to-be Charlotte Springall, had to find something else to occupy their time together in the months before their marriage in 1891.  The result was a quilt, stitched in laborious, Technicolor detail to show anything and everything that was relevant or important to the happy couple: a sword, a teapot, Queen Vic with Alfred, a tabby cat, the local boozer, a Norfolk seal, the score to Auld Lang Syne, their favourite cartoon character.  Nearly 125 years on, the quilt looks as good as new – Mrs B was unlikely to have let their painstaking work anywhere near the marital bed – and is a textile record of a relationship.  The quilt is currently hanging in Tate Britain as part of the gallery’s exhibition, British Folk Art, which showcases a wide-ranging, often bizarre, but ultimately enchanting collection of objects and pictures.  The Bellamy quilt was produced at home for the home, and although it has formed part of the textile collection at Norwich’s Carrow House since the 1970s, one cannot help but wonder whether Herbert and Charlotte would have been mystified at the thought of their bedclothes hanging in a major public exhibition.

The curators of this show have not set out to define folk art, and any questions as to whether or not something is art have been deliberately sidestepped.  Instead they have taken the field as it already stands; this is their starting point and this is what the viewer must accept as he enters the exhibition.  And with such thorny issues out of the way, here is a compilation of folk art’s greatest hits, a collection of some of the country’s best examples of the genre siphoned from museums and galleries around Britain.


Bone Cockerel (detail), Artist Unknown, Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Bone Cockerel (detail), Artist Unknown, 1797 – 1847, Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Time filling is a running theme in this exhibition, and many of the items on display were born out of a need for occupation.  A cockerel constructed from bits of bone Continue reading

Beyond Civilisation – Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

If you are looking for Civilisation in Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, you will have to keep on looking until the sixth and final room of the exhibition.  And when you do find the 1960s television series, all you will see is a smallish screen showing clips on a loop, and a set of headphones.  The program’s success when it was aired both in Britain and then around the world, was huge, and its legacy has been lasting, so much so that it is not unusual to hear its presenter referred to as “Lord Clark of Civilisation”.  But before he wrote and appeared in the documentary, which was filmed in 1967-8 and shown in 1969, and before he branched into broadcasting at all, Clark had done a few other things, and it is these which are at the heart of Tate Britain’s new display.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933 Private collection

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Photograph: Marcus Leith, Private collection

In 1934 Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery.  By this point he had spent a stint revising Bernard Berenson’s catalogue of Florentine paintings at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, catalogued the Royal Collection of Leonardo drawings, organised a blockbuster exhibition of Italian Renaissance art at the Royal Academy, curated the Ashmolean for two years, published a book on Gothic art and bagged a beauty by marrying Jane Martin, whom he had met at Oxford.  Not bad for a man who had only just turned 31.  Clark described the years 1932 to 1939 as the “Great Clark Boom”, when he and Jane lived in a grand house in Portland Place, entertaining London’s fast set and appearing in 1930s equivalents of Hello.  “We were borne along the crest of a social wave”, he later wrote of this feverish period.


John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9 Tate; acquired by Clark for the National Gallery in 1935

It was not, however, as if Clark had come from nowhere, and the two portraits on display of him as a boy make it clear that his was not a story of rags to riches.  Continue reading

Bricks, Mortar and Paint – Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

Saint Jerome had a pleasant working environment.  A well-lit, spacious L-shaped desk with generous storage space, beautiful views of the coastline, a (sleeping) pet lion and even a pair of slippers to hand.  His bench looks hard though, and is it a bit low?  This is Venetian artist, Vicenzo Catena’s Jerome, painted in around 1510.  Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome from 35 years earlier, also seems comfortable.  He has a loggia as well as a row of windows, plenty of shelving and better seating.  But the lighting is not as good, and his lion is awake and growling.  The two Jeromes are hanging side by side in the National Gallery’s Sunley Room, as part of Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting, the final episode of the gallery’s Renaissance Spring trilogy.  Saint Jerome has not always fared so well and these two depictions are unusual in assigning him such agreeable surroundings: more often than not during this period, he was given cramped, dimly lit digs in which there was hardly room for his halo, let alone the lion.

Saint Jerome in his Study Antonello da Messina about 1475, © The National Gallery, London

Saint Jerome in his Study, Antonello da Messina about 1475, © The National Gallery, London

Saint Jerome in his Study, Vincenzo Catena probably about 1510, © The National Gallery, London


The exhibition seeks, in the words of the curators, to put the “background into the foreground”, focusing on the architectural settings of a group of fifteenth and sixteenth century Italian paintings, mostly drawn from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, but supplemented with a handful of guest appearances from around the country.  Architecture in paintings, as opposed to architectural drawings, is uncharted territory and there has never been a similar exhibition in the United Kingdom or abroad.  Yet now this show has been put on, it seems such an obvious topic, with so many Italian paintings of the period set in some sort of built-up milieu.  And in a neat nod to the subject matter, the Sunley Room does not currently look much like the Sunley Room, and has been rebuilt as a labyrinth of passageways and squares, with each section devoted to a separate sub-theme of the exhibition.  There is even a mock-up of a Florentine street corner, complete with overhead tabernacle, blessing visitors as they pass through the display.

The early fifteenth century saw a fundamental stylistic shift in painting in Italy: gone were the piles of weightless figures tottering next to spindly, geometrically-suspect buildings that might topple at any moment; and in came solid, three dimensional people positioned in, on or aside coherent, sturdy and classically-inspired constructions.  Perspective had arrived and artists such as Masaccio looked to mathematical principles in order to place objects in real space and make backgrounds recede into the distance.  3D effects were being simulated on 2D surfaces.

Except that Building the Picture is not about this great artistic leap and do not expect, when visiting the exhibition, to receive an art history lesson in the basics of Italian Renaissance painting. Continue reading

Anyone could do it – Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

“I could do that.  Actually, my four year old could do that”.  This reaction, found in a discussion thread to a review of Tate Modern’s summer blockbuster, sounds familiar.  “A load of tosh”, “hobbykraft”; “junk”, “utterly insignificant”, and so the thread continues.  Could the gallery have made a terrible mistake and opened a show devoted to the works of a nursery school?

 Icarus 1946, Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet

Icarus 1946, Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet

Of course not; but Henri Matisse’s colourful paper cut-outs have riled a few.  In fact these online cynics are rehashing some time-honoured criticism: that last hostile sound-bite was not punched into the ether by an angry Guardian reader, but comes from a sceptic in 1949, reacting to the paper creations Matisse had exhibited at Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne.  It was the first time the artist had displayed his cut-outs, and the critic was director of the Cahiers d’art, an influential artistic journal.

It is doubtful Matisse is rolling in his grave.  He predicted that reactions to his paper pieces would be mixed, anticipating in an interview in 1952 what critics and colleagues might say, “Old Matisse, nearing the end of life, is having fun cutting up paper.  He is not wearing his age well, falling into a second childhood”.  He may, however, have been disappointed that these accusations of childishness have persisted: when he remarked in the same interview, “… I know that only later will people realise how forward-looking my current work is”, he was presumably hoping that sixty-odd years might have been enough. Continue reading

Very Veronese

The National Gallery’s latest Renaissance instalment, Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, turns the gallery’s walls into a colourful theatre of Venetian style and drama. 

Veronese loved clothes.  So much is evident from the canvases hanging in the upper rooms of the National Gallery, where Venetian noblewomen rustle against saints, gods and Roman soldiers in a parade of damask and taffeta.  Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, which took five years to organise and brings together fifty of the painter’s works from across Europe and the United States, has transformed the walls of the gallery into a sixteenth century catwalk, with the artist’s models cropping up again and again, clad in one lavish item of fine couture after another.


The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565-7), Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

This is the first show in the UK devoted entirely to Veronese, which seems surprising given the artist’s stature as one of the foremost painters of the Venetian Renaissance, alongside Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto.  But if Veronese’s reputation was big during the sixteenth century and in the centuries that followed, so were many of his canvases, making the staging of any exhibition a major logistical undertaking.   A rumour that someone else in London was planning a show, a bout of jealousy on the part of Nicholas Penny – then newly appointed as Director of the National Gallery – and some hefty postage and packaging, however, have resulted in today’s display.

Continue reading