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 about 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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Visions of London

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William Blake, ‘London’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy F. Relief etching, 1974. The Yale Center for British Art.

 

Visiting London always strikes Blakean chords; even making the short walk between Euston and St Pancras when I visit my parents in Canterbury involves walking past the British Library, where Paolozzi’s Newton. after Blake looms over the courtyard (see a previous post on London) and Blake’s Notebook is guarded by the librarians.

 

This week I have been able to spend a few days among the “charter’d streets” for a conference organised by the Art and Christianity Enquiry and King’s College London on “The Sacred City: London, art and the religious imaginary.” It’s given me more food for thought than I’m able to digest at the moment, so for now I’m just posting a fairly brief record of the week’s perambulations (mental and physical).

 

On Tuesday we explored “architecture and multiculturalism” – spaces and the people who use them in relation to a number of religious traditions. We were hosted by LSE’s new Faith Centre, against the backdrop of Christopher le Brun’s windows. The day began with a conversation between le Brun and the chaplain at LSE, James Walters which was broad-ranging from the challenges surrounding creating a space for interfaith use to the practicalities of making stained glass to the role(s) of the artist.  Several papers explored the theme further through various historical and faith lenses, then the afternoon saw us exploring various places of worship in East London. A highlight for me was the unexpected gem of St. Benet’s Chaplaincy at Queen Mary’s, University of London which is decorated by ‘sgraffito murals by Adam Kossowski. Finally, an evening lecture at from Sam Wells, rector of St. Martin in the Fields, examined the topic of “Arts and the Renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields.” The lecture was held at St. Giles Cripplegate, a church I knew of from visiting the Barbican, but had never actually been inside before. Of interest for a Blakean is the fact that John Milton – a great influence on Blake – is buried there.

 

Yesterday we had a morning of papers at St. Giles in the Fields, an elegant, early eighteenth-century church which Blake may well have known and indeed Blake’s friend John Flaxman is buried there.  The day’s theme was “Medieval to Victorian Cities and focused on architectural visions of London. At lunchtime I dipped out of the scheduled activities to visit the Tate. I couldn’t resist another look at their Blake room, but my main reason for visiting was to see works by his contemporaries which were not on display when I last visited.

 

First, Henry Thomson’s Raising of Jairas’ Daughter (exh. 1820) which is utterly different from Blake’s version of this subject from twenty years previously. Second, a display entitled “Bodies of Nature” which focuses on representations of nymphs in late eighteenth-century art – a treat which combined scholarly research with playful subject matter. En route up to the Blake room, I was stopped in my tracks by Stanley Spencer’s monumental The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27), a work which is not new to me but which is so overwhelmingly powerful that I couldn’t not but stop for a few minutes in front of it. Upstairs in the Blake room, I had fun seeing some of my favourite Blakes again. I am always struck by how quiet this little room seems to be – not devoid of visitors, but audibly quiet, with people speaking only in very hushed tones. Perhaps it is the smallness and darkness of this room (necessary because of the fragile nature of Blake’s works) which lend the room a chapel-like quality which perhaps encourage (deliberately or otherwise) a special kind of reverence in this space. Or maybe people are simply self-conscious of being overheard  in a smaller space – I love eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in galleries, but there wasn’t much chance of that in the Blake room. Adjacent to the Blake room is a display which makes a striking juxtaposition: “The Nature of Common Life” opens by citing the artist and writer William Henry Pyne‘s 1806 statement that the artist should not make “an imaginary nature his model, or any other nature, but the nature of common life” – an utterly different attitude to Blake’s belief that “This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision.” I wonder if this is this another necessity of displaying works on paper in a suitable space, or a curatorial joke?

 

In the evening we were taken on a journey through London through the lens of Dante and in a fantastic lecture by Alison Milbank. We were shown who various artists have re-envisioned London via Dante and Milbank proposed that we can re-envision London today (and the world around us more broadly) as Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Our venue was the wonderful space of St. James’ Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised.

 

On Thursday we were back at St. Giles in the Fields to explore “Pilgrims and Holy Places,” including my own paper on Blake’s Magdalen, and also journeying to nineteenth-century Paris, Mecca via the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition and Willesden in North West London. I then made a couple of pilgrimages of my own to explore a bit of eighteenth-century London – the Foundling Museum and Sir John Soane’s Museum. I came away from the latter with an unexpected gem of a purchase in a teatowel which reproduces Blake’s title-page to Robert Blair’s poem The Grave. The evening saw a celebratory atmosphere with the award of ACE’s book prize and a closing dinner.

 

Finally, on Friday we were at Cheyneygates, Westminster Abbey – another site of Blakean interest, since the apprentice engraver William spent time drawing the monuments of the Abbey (see that previous London post again). The theme for the day was “contemporary art and the city” which took us from Florence, to Minneapolis, New York and sites in London, and mediums ranging from stained glass, to photography, cartoons, poetry, sculpture and light. A highlight was an in situ paper in the Abbey itself in which Emily Guerry shared her research about the wall paintings in what is now Poets’ Corner.

 

It was a treat to explore London in such multi-layered ways but a couple of days away from big cities in quiet Canterbury are now welcome!