Some Favourite London Paintings

This week I spotted Time Out’s ‘100 best paintings in London‘ doing the rounds on twitter.

 

Ask my brother what response you’ll get if you ask me what ‘the best’ or ‘my favourite’ is, and he’ll tell you (because he’s seen it frequently) that I’ll roll my eyes and give an equivocal response along the lines of “Well I like this about X and that about Y.”

 

So I couldn’t expect to agree with Time Out’s pick because I don’t really see how you can rank Piero della Francesca’s 1450 Baptism of Christ (which clocks in at #5, National Gallery) against Richard Dadd’s 1855 The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (at #21, Tate). I was also, of course, interested to see where, if at all, any of Blake’s works were placed – in case you’re interested, Tate’s Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20) clock in at #42, just above JMW Turner’s 1839 The Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery), which was once voted the Nation’s favourite painting and seemed to be the only Turner work many visitors to Turner Contemporary wanted to see when I worked there (but had failed to check whether it was actually on loan there, which it wasn’t; cue lots of of disappointed/angry visitors).

 

Nevertheless, this did get me thinking about my favourite London paintings, so here it goes. First, a few disclaimers. As a resident of the North, I should add that London doesn’t have a monopoly on great paintings, and perhaps I’ll get round to writing about a few of my Manchester favourites at some point, but as a sometime Londoner, this is my take on Time Out’s survey. These are in no particular order – just numbered for sake of knowing how many I’ve got up to. It’s a highly personal selection – these are all paintings that have stayed with me in some way. I’ve also limited myself to one work per artist per collection, and I haven’t included any works on paper. Apologies for hyperlinks rather than illustrations; chasing permissions for reproductions is rather involved!

 

1. Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27, Tate). Oddly enough, it was this rather than a Blake work that first popped into my head as missing from Time Out’s list. This is a monumental painting, which always stops me in my tracks when I see it.

 

2. William Blake’s The Agony in the Garden (c.1799-1800, Tate). This is Blake at his most innovative – handling a popular subject in Christian art in an idiosyncratic way.

 

3. Blake’s The Christ Child Asleep on a Wooden Cross (c.1799-1800, V&A). Like The Agony in the Garden, this is one of about fifty tempera paintings illustrating the Bible which Blake produced for the Civil Servant Thomas Butts, one of Blake’s most important patrons. I wrote about this work in a piece of coursework when I was an undergraduate, which was the starting point of my fascination with Blake’s pictorial works. I also used to include it in tours when I was a volunteer guide at the V&A.

 

4. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (1450, National Gallery; see above). I have to agree with Time Out putting this among the top picks. A masterpiece in composition and symbolism. Although there’s no way Blake could have known this work, I find it a helpful pendant for reading his version of this subject in his watercolour illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Regained (c.1816-20, Fitzwilliam Museum).

 

5. I also agree that Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (1855, Tate; see above) is a top pick. I’d like to learn more about Dadd, but this is another work that I always stop at when I’m wandering around the Tate (though in contrast to Spencer’s Resurrection, this is a work to be viewed at close-quarters).

 

6. The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-99, National Gallery) came somewhere near the bottom of  Time Out’s 100. This is an English masterpiece, whose importance is enormous, in spite of its small size. I remember an engaging lecture about this work when I was an undergraduate, as well as looking at it during my MA.

 

7. Henri Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891, National Gallery). One of the first paintings I can remember learning about – aged about eight, when our teacher gave us a potted history of art, got us to create our own versions of masterpieces (including this one, which might still be somewhere are my parents’ house), and took us on a trip to the National Gallery to see some of them. I wonder if he knew Blake’s Tyger.

 

8. Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome (c.1496, National Gallery). This is a work I wrote an essay on for my Master’s at King’s College London, which was taught in collaboration with the National Gallery. It’s a little devotional panel which depicts St. Jerome in the wilderness on one side and a fiery vision on the other. There’s a great article on this painting by Andrew Graham Dixon for the Independent, available here.

 

9. JMW Turner, The New Moon; or, ‘I’ve lost My Boat, You shan’t have Your Hoop’ (exhibited 1840, Tate). There had to be a Turner picture given the many hours I spent with Turner pictures during my stint as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary. This one was the headline image for the big Turner show that was on whilst I was there, ‘Turner and the Elements‘ so in a way it stands for the exhibition as a whole. This image was a favourite among visitors and staff alike, with its charming subject and its location near to the site of the gallery in Margate. I don’t know if it was cleaned at some point in recent years, but the image on the exhibition website is closer to my memory of the colours than that on the Tate’s website.

 

10. Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery). Another well-known favourite which came somewhere fairly high in Time Out’s list. It’s another of those pictures that grabs you as soon as you enter the gallery it’s in (fortunately it’s hung high enough that it can easily be seen over the inevitable crowd hovering around it) with its extraordinary vividness and drama. It’s also here because mention of Caravaggio always brings to mind my brother doing an impression of one of our school teacher who was a particular fan of the artist.

 

11. Pietro Gerini, The Baptism of Christ (1387, National Gallery). This is another work which brings back memories of my MA. This work was included in the exhibitonDevotion by Design’ which ran the summer at the end of my MA, prior to which it underwent a year and a half’s conservation (you can hear/read about the conservation here). One of the courses on the MA taught at the National Gallery focused on altarpieces and the other on John the Baptist and this work encompasses both themes. Why it really sticks in the memory is that we got to visit the conservation studio during the cleaning process and got to see some bonus fish in the river which had been added by a later hand and were subsequently removed to restore the work closer to its original state.

 

12. John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919, Imperial War Museum). This iconic image from the First World War reminds me of taking A-Level English Literature for which our synoptic unit was literature from and about the First World War, so we were encouraged to read and see as much material as possible on that theme. I took myself off to the Imperial War Museum, where this painting hangs, on the way to a university open day (which is actually the first time I can remember making a solo excursion to a museum or gallery). Like Spencer’s Resurrection, this work has special resonance in this anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War and it’s re-entered my consciousness via John Keane’s 1991 Ecstasy of Fumbling which is currently in the exhibition ‘Sensory War’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Keane was an official war artist in the Gulf War; this is a self-portrait of the artist during a gas alert taking its title from a line in Wilfred Owen’s First World War Poem Dulce et Decorum est which describes a gas attack. A postcard of Sargent’s painting is among the collage elements of Keane’s work.

 

13. William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress (1733, Sir John Soane’s Museum). This is actually a set of eight paintings which were the basis for a set of prints which tell the rise and fall of the fictional character Tom Rakewell (you can read about the narrative by following the link). They’re in here largely because of the experience of visiting them at the Soane’s Museum (which I only got around to doing this summer), where they’re hung in a room eccentrically, but ingeniously, containing a series of panels hidden behind the wall panels – a design which both increases hanging space and protects works on the inner layers from the light. A Rake’s Progress has inspired some brilliant re-workings of Hogarth’s moral tale, including Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences tapestries, which we had at Manchester Art Gallery earlier this year and were fun to discuss with visitors. I also ended up seeing them again at the Foundling Museum in the summer, where I ended up getting into conversation with some other visitors to impart my MAG guide knowledge.

 

14. John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3, Tate). John Martin’s paintings are awesome in the true sense of the word. Some years younger than Blake, they’re sometimes compared as religious eccentrics, although their careers took rather different paths – John Martin was far more (commercially) successful in his lifetime (although he is less well-known now). They also handled their subjects in very different ways; to make a gross generalisation, their modes of composition were: Blake = dominate a small canvas/piece of paper with figures and go easy on the scenery; Martin = dwarf a few tiny figures in a vast, dramatic landscape with brooding sky on a large canvas.

 

15. Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond (1899), or ‘The Bridge’, as I think of it. Another seemingly unimaginative choice, perhaps, but this is another work that takes me back to primary school, when another teacher got us to create out own version of the painting, no doubt destroying numerous paintings making all the ‘dots’. Mine still hangs over the fireplace in my parents’ living room.

 

16. The Triumph of Orthodoxy Icon (c.1400, British Museum). This icon celebrates the end of the Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium in 843 – a subject I wrote essays on during both my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees. This work sort of stands for Byzantine icons in general, which I find interesting for the rich theology behind them and the sheer ancientness of some extant examples (although this icon is from several centuries after the end of the iconoclast controversy).

 

So there’s sixteen works off the top of my head; I’ll probably realise I’ve forgotten some others I love before to long, but if nothing else, I’m glad this has set me thinking about pictures other than Blake’s!

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The Rhino and the Flea – “Curiosity” at Turner Contemporary

The latest offering from Margate’s Turner Contemporary is “Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing” which is a contemporary curatorial take on the cabinet of curiosities, showcasing an eccentric array of things from historic prints and drawings to taxidermy, a variety of contemporary art, works by the gallery’s namesake, J M W Turner (in this case, studies of birds’ heads), and other things besides.

Two works in the first room caught my interest with my Blake hat on. The first is Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (1515; view via the British Museum’s website), which I suspect influenced Blake’s figure of Behemoth in his Illustrations to the Book of Job (view via the University of Manchester’s LUNA). As mentioned in a previous post, Blake admired Dürer’s work, and assuming he knew the print, I suspect the combination of text and image and way in which the rhinoceros is almost forcing its way out of the borders of the picture would have appealed to Blake. I’m fairly sure the link between the two images must have been suggested before, but since I’m currently taking a break from the books I can’t check up on this.

The second Blake radar was Robert Hooke’s engraving of a flea from his book Micrographia (1665; see the work and read the late Tom Lubbock’s article about it via The Independent’s website). Hooke’s flea is magnified on a huge scale, on a page that folds out of the book, so that it becomes a kind of monster. It’s another work Blake may well have known and could have influenced his painting The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20; view via the Tate’s website; again, this is something I’m sure has been suggested before).

I wonder if there will ever be a “Blake Contemporary”. With his cottage in Felpham up for sale (see estate agent Jackson-Stops’ website), perhaps the right pioneers could create “The Blake at Bognor” (Bognor Regis being the larger neighbour of Felpham) which could be the latest seaside regeneration gallery.

Revolutionary Light, The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester‘s art collection, has just opened its summer season (runs to 1 September). This programme is the final farewell before the gallery closes in the autumn for a major refurbishment, and the displays showcase highlights of the collection.

The season launched on 4th July with Nikhil Chopra’s 65-hour performance piece “Coal on Cotton” as part of the Manchester International Festival which ran from sunrise on the Friday to sunset on the Sunday. By happenstance, this coincided with the sun finally emerging from the heavens to bring the some summer weather across the country (yes, including Manchester!). The sun and light are themes running through various aspects of the programme, most explicitly “Revolutionary Light” which brings together works by William Blake, J M W Turner and Anish Kapoor.

Kapoor’s series of etchings, Blackness from her Womb are seen in the distance as one enters the building (you can see the Tate’s set of the etchings on their website). He created the prints in response to his visit to the Tate’s blockbuster Blake exhibition in 2000. Each print combines a single colour with inky blackness, creating strange, visionary designs with an intense play on darkness and light.

The Blake works are a series of six illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (which you can view via the Blake Archive) and the iconic Ancient of Days (shown on the exhibition page). Originally the frontispiece to his poem Europe (1794), and reported to be a representation of a vision Blake had at his home in Lambeth, he later reworked the design as a separate plate, and it is thought that he was working on this copy on his deathbed. All seven watercolours were given to the Whitworth in 1892 by John Edward Taylor, proprietor and son of the founder (also called John Edward Taylor) of the Manchester Guardian (which became the Guardian in 1959).

I have yet to look into Taylor’s interest in Blake; all I know at the moment is that he owned one other work by Blake – curiously enough from my point of view, a copy of Blake’s Large Colour Print, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (1795) which he donated to the V&A in 1894 (you can view the work via the Blake Archive). What I would be interested to look into is whether Taylor realised how closely linked the Whitworth watercolours are: Europe, from which The Ancient of Days comes, is a kind of retelling of Milton’s Nativity Ode, and there is at least one clear iconographic link, between the compasses held by Urizen in The Ancient of Days and the figure of Peace in the first of the Milton illustrations (follow the links above to see for yourself). These points are well established in Blake scholarship now, and of course, you don’t need to have done the reading to spot the similarity between the compasses and Peace, but did Taylor know Europe well enough to realise that connection? Maybe I’ll look into it at some point.

As for the light in these images, well, the sun is at the centre of The Ancient of Days, but it is a dark sun, and seems to restrict the figure of Urizen. In the Nativity Ode we see dawn and night, blasts of light, stars and fire in this apocalyptic version of the Nativity.

Turner is famous for the presence of the sun in his works, and it is reported that his dying words were “The sun is god.” Alongside Blake and Kapoor, Turner’s sun-centric watercolours look relatively conventional. Blake and Turner is an enigma which I wonder about sometimes — although they were contemporaries, and both challenged the artistic conventions of their time (Turner rather more commercially successfully than Blake), there don’t seem to be any records of them ever meeting or commenting on one another’s works, but it is more than plausible that they were aware of one another.

There is plenty to delight in other displays at the Whitworth. “Continental Drift” showcases highlights of the collection by European artists and British artists with continental links. With or without my Blake hat on, a highlight were the Dürer woodcuts – several individual prints, plus the complete series to the Book of Revelation, displayed in dramatic lighting (you can see images of this series of prints, though not in order, via the British Museum’s website). According to the display caption, this was the first book ever created and published by an artist, making it a precursor to Blake’s own books, not to mention the profound influence the Book of Revelation had on Blake and his admiration for Dürer. Indeed, I think it was Samuel Palmer who reported that Blake had a print of Dürer‘s Melancholia I in his workshop (which is also currently on display at the Whitworth and can be seen via their website).

My visit hardly left me feeling melancholic, but I do feel that like that figure, I need to sit and ponder further on these rich displays.