The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture @ Sir John Soane’s Museum

In the two-room exhibition space at Sir John Soane’s Museum is an interesting show about five key British architects who were central in the rise of the architectural style known as Postmodernism. This review consists of:

  1. An introduction to Sir John Soane’s Museum
  2. A brief explanation of Modernism and Postmodernism
  3. Notes on the exhibition

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is a little-known treasure trove of art, architecture and antiquities, in central London.

Just a few minutes’ walk from hectic Holborn tube station, down narrow back alleys, you arrive at big, leafy Lincoln’s Inn Fields and here, on the north side of the square, in the centre of a terrace of sober Georgian houses, is Sir John Soane’s Museum, with its surprisingly grand neo-classical facade.

Facade of Sir John Soane's Museum. Photo by John Bridges

Facade of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo by John Bridges

This unusual facade is because Soane was himself an architect in the neo-classical style, and a great collector of art and antiquaries. To quote from Wikipedia:

Soane (1753-1837) made his living as an architect in the neo-classical style and rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. His best-known work was the Bank of England (his work there is largely destroyed), a building which had a widespread effect on commercial architecture. He also designed the Dulwich Picture Gallery whose top-lit galleries were a major influence on subsequent art galleries and museums.

At one point Soane owned three adjoining houses in the square, numbers 12, 13 and 14. He spent much time remodelling the facade of number 13 (now the museum), experimenting with internal design and decoration in all three properties, and also experimenting with ways to hang and display his ever-growing collection of paintings, books and antiquities.

The museum was created by an 1833 Act of Parliament which gifted Soane’s huge collections to the nation on the condition that they be displayed as they were during his lifetime, in the old-fashioned ‘cluttered’ style, with rows of paintings one above the other, and statuary and antiquities crammed higgledy-piggledy together.

In the past ten years the Soane Museum has undergone extensive renovation. But although the trustees have bought the house next door (number 14) and carried out extensive work to create a new Research Library, a room devoted to Soane’s huge collection of drawings (9,000) by the architect Robert Adam, an airy shop, offices and a temporary exhibition space – it is still the clutteredness of the hang which really makes an impression – small, tall, top-lit rooms and staircases absolutely crammed with busts, friezes, sculptures, antiquities and paintings all packed cheek by jowl.

Interior of Sir John Soane's Museum

The interior of Sir John Soane’s Museum

It’s this combination of intense clutteredness with the open and airy nature of some of the upstairs drawing rooms – and, of course, the value and interest of many of the objects, drawings and paintings – which gives Sir John Soane’s Museum its unique and magical atmosphere.

2. Modernism and Postodernism

Modernism

To understand Postmodernism, it helps to understand the modernism it was reacting against.

Modernism in literature, art and architecture from, say, the First World War through to some time in the 1970s, took it as axiomatic that there was one and just One, central avant-garde Movement and, if you were serious, you had to belong to It.

This avant-garde – in architecture in particular – was devoted to getting rid of all ornaments, all decorative features – which were condemned as bourgeois luxuries, fripperies, indulgences – and instead designing stark, angular buildings, which emphasised their harsh functionality.

The Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner and writer Le Corbusier was the lead figure in the 1920s and 30s of the idea that a building is no more than ‘a machine for living in’.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1931) designed by Le Corbusier

Architects from the German Bauhaus pioneered designs which reduced buildings to the simplest possible shapes, cubes, square windows. Most were left wing if not active communists and saw themselves as building the architecture of a future society in which everyone was equal and lived in well-designed, functional units which could be mass produced and easily assembled.

After the Second World War the style became international. Not only decoration of any type, but even decorative materials were rejected in the name of the most simple, ‘honest’ building methods of the day.

When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933, a number of its artists and architects fled abroad. The most famous exile was the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who became head of an architecture school in Chicago. Mies is largely credited with bringing to perfection the principles of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus in a series of soaring steel and glass skyscrapers in ‘the Windy City’.

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

860–880 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe

Completely smooth facades made of industrial steel and plate glass are combined with often light and airy atriums or plazas to give a sense of drama, combining the thrusting power of the building with sometimes surprisingly graceful spaces.

He strove toward an architecture with a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the implied freedom of unobstructed free-flowing open space. He called his buildings ‘skin and bones’ architecture. (Wikipedia)

An alternative variant of this Modernist style was the unrestrained use of concrete in low-rise buildings. During the 1960s this style became known as Brutalism, possibly a reference to Le Corbusier’s use of the French term béton brut, which means ‘raw concrete’ in French, but the term took off because it accurately described the unflinching, uncompromising, in-your-face look and feel of buildings which were made from slabs of raw concrete.

Prime examples are the Hayward Gallery or the Barbican Centre in London. Indeed, the newly-reopened Hayward Gallery shop stocks a surprising number of books celebrating Brutalism around the world. There’s even a book titled Brutal London with maps so you can go on a pilgrimage around the brutalist buildings of London. Harsh, slabby, heavy, undecorated.

The Barbican Centre, London

The Barbican Centre, London

It’s difficult to recapture at this distance in time, but Modernism was strongly flavoured by left-wing politics, with the notion that unnecessary ‘decoration’ was a sign of bourgeois, wealthy elitism, and that all right-minded architects were working for a better world, a new socialist, communist, egalitarian world, whose buildings must be characterised by clarity and simplicity and ‘honesty’ to their materials.

Instead of bourgeois mystification, statues of lions or generals, ornate facades and so on, Modernist buildings should emphasise their functionality – the vast frontages of identical windows in Mies skyscrapers, or the open-to-the-elements staircases, walkways and balconies in Brutalist buildings.

Result: Countless 1960s high-rise blocks of flats. New towns. Ring roads. Shopping centres. Square, featureless, concrete slabs.

Postmodernism

But as is the way with all fashions, people – that is the architects themselves – eventually got fed up with all this plainness, brutality and po-faced, anti-bourgeois rhetoric.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, the Modernist mindset began to crumble. New architects questioned the need for everything to be grey and joyless, and also the need for there to be only One Dominating Aesthetic, approved by a jury of like-minded straightlaced colleagues.

Why shouldn’t buildings have decorative features? Why did they all have to be made of slate-grey concrete? And why must there only be One Style? Given the possibilities of modern engineering and the wealth of new materials – why not hundreds of styles – why not a different style for every building?

Postmodernist architecture started in America and is often linked with the name of architect Robert Venturi who published a deliberately controversial book Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, which suggested that architects could learn something from the tacky, commercial shops, drive-ins, Dunkin’ Donuts and MacDonalds buildings, the big signs and flashing neon, along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Venturi and others began building deliberately garish, playful new buildings in a range of materials.

In Britain, in 1977 critic and architect Charles Jencks wrote The Language of Postmodern Architecture, a book which brought together examples of a wide range of fanciful and colourful buildings being designed by American architects. The book popularised the term ‘Postmodernism’ to a wider audience, and ultimately led to it spreading out to other disciplines in the humanities.

So postmodernism was a conscious revolt against the Modernist architectural orthodoxy which many felt had become stifling and dull. The new young architects thought that new buildings:

  • should reintroduce historical references and quotes from other periods
  • should reference and echo their surroundings, instead of being concrete boxes plonked down willy-nilly
  • should use a variety of materials instead of just concrete (Brutalism) or steel and glass (Internationalism)
  • should use colours – shock horror – yes the whole rainbow of colours, not just slate grey
  • should be funny, witty, ironic and provocative

Suddenly there was no longer One Dominant Orthodox Movement, but the potential for everyone to break free and do their own things.

3. Five postmodernist British architects

This exhibition brings together a range of drawings, sketches, plans, designs, models and images, as well as full-scale replicas, of iconic works by five of the British architects most associated with Postmodernist architecture. The drawings and models are displayed in large wall cabinets and in table-based display cases.

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Installation view of Return of the Past. Photo by Gareth Gardner

The five architects are:

  • Terry Farrell
  • John Outram
  • Jeremy Dixon
  • James Stirling
  • CZWG

Terry Farrell (b.1938)

Farrell is sometimes taken as the pioneer of the new look in Britain. The wall labels explain that postmodernism was, among other things, an end of the utopian, left-wing beliefs of Modernism. Instead of trying to bring about a brave new egalitarian world through buildings, Farrell was one of a number of architects who looked back beyond the concrete wastelands of Modernism, with a view to reconnecting to older styles and, well, having fun.

Why not reference the old architectural motifs of classicism and so on, but done in a new way, with a 1980s aesthetic, the age of shoulder pads and big hairdos, with bright colours and ornamentation?

One of the earliest of the new wave buildings was the TVam headquarters, built next to Camden Lock. It includes unnecessarily bright colours, references a range of older elements, and emphasises its frivolous decorative features. Why not?

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

TV-am building, Camden (1981–82) by Terry Farrell

In terms of cultural references, there were elements of an Egyptian ziggurat (look at the skyline at the back of this photo) and a Japanese tea garden tucked away at the back. The front of the building sported a modernist metal variation on a traditional archway, complete with massive keystone – but made not of stone but of brightly coloured tubular piping. The whole facade curves gently following the curve of the road it stands on, and is end-stopped by huge cutouts of the letters T V a m. And all done in bright brash colours, unafraid of the grey Style Police.

Traditional Modernists hated it and really hated the set of 11 fibre glass rooftop eggcups dotted along the top of the building. Breakfast TV – hard-boiled eggs – geddit? One of them is in the exhibition!

Critics thought it was all tacky, vulgar, superficial and – worst epithet of all – bourgeois!

One of the eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

One of the fibreglass eggcups from the TV am building by Terry Farrell, photo by the author

Farrell went on to design what is now one of London’s iconic buildings, the new SIS or MI6 building at Vauxhall on the south bank of the River Thames.

Initially it was just going to be another speculative block of offices, it was only some way into the process that he learned the government was interested in buying it. The exhibition includes a fascinating series of preparatory sketches and drawings. Farrell starts from the premise that a number of other London riverfront buildings make big, grand stylistic statements (for example, Somerset House) and then the drawings show him playing with different combinations of cubes and bulges and curved sections, working towards the stepped faced we see today. It’s really interesting to see architectural ‘creativity’ at work.

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

SIS Building, London by Terry Farrell, completed 1994. Photo by Nigel Young

The exhibition includes models of the building which help you examine the ziggurat-style, stepped detail of the finished building close up, along with one case devoted to the Dr Who, Tardis-style blue entrance doors on the side of the building. The closer you look, the weirder it all gets.

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

Display case showing models of side entrances into the SIS building by Terry Farrell. Photo by Gareth Gardner

John Outram (b.1934)

Outram emerges as the philosopher and visionary of the group. He built the New House, Wadhurst Park (pictured in the show) but it is the models and big plans of some of his unbuilt projects which really dominate. Here is a large colour drawing for a building planned for 200 Victoria Street in London.

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Project for 200 Victoria Street for Rosehaugh- Stanhope Developers (1988-90) Image credit: John Outram

Mad, isn’t it? A long, long way from concrete slabs, in fact it’s difficult to know where to begin in describing the extravagant use of colour and decoration. Most outrageous are the coloured statues of mermaids on the roof, and what appears to be a windmill design off to the top right. The surface seems to be as encrusted with coloured tiling and decorations as an Anglo-Catholic Victorian Church.

And I was tickled to learn that Outram claimed to have invented an entirely new ‘order’ of column, the Robot Order. Anyone interested in columns knows that the ancient Greeks pioneered three ‘orders’ of column – the plain Dorian, the Ionian with a scroll at the top, and the Corinthian which has a capital covered in carved acanthus leaves – which were copied all across Europe from the Renaissance up to the present day.

In his plan you can see that Outram’s ‘robot order’ is characterised by its squat massiveness (the columns actually contain all the building’s services), but most of all by the way that each column is topped off by a massive pair of turbines, spoofing the Doric order. A good example of the jokey, ha-ha, ironic, insider wittiness which Postmodernist architects now felt free to display in their buildings.

Jeremy Dixon (b.1939)

Dixon is represented by the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden, which took from 1989 to 2000. There are a number of plans plus two wooden models of the piazza and one of the Opera House itself, with one wall pulled away to give a cutaway, inside view.

Reading about the evolution of Covent Garden the scheme reminds you of probably the most distinguishing feature of architecture as an ‘art’, which is how mightily collaborative it is, and how very restricted by site, location and environment.

I can paint a painting, write a sonnet, take a photograph more or less anywhere. But most architects are hemmed in a) by the space where the building is to go b) by an extraordinarily complicated web of planning regulations and restrictions. And all of that before c) you get to the self-imposed limitations of fashion, what’s in, what’s new etc.

A lot of people stuck their oar into the Covent Garden redevelopment, from the City of Westminster, through the GLC and the government. Only a decade earlier there had been moves to demolish the entire square and build some nice brutalist flats over it. By the time Dixon became involved in the 1980s it was clear that the existing structures were going to be preserved, but how should they be fronted, completed and styled?

Dixon decided the facades would be allowed to change to reflect their immediate surroundings. Thus a new arcade was created at the north-east of the piazza – where it abuts the Opera House – in order to echo, but not copy, the central arcade designed by Inigo Jones back in the 1630s.

Modern but… echoing the old. Certainly not outfacing it with a vast steel skyscraper nor shaming it with Barbican-style bunkers.

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

Painting of the Royal Opera House project in Covent Garden by Jeremy Dixon and BDP (1986) Painting by Carl Laubin

James Stirling (1926-1992)

A similar problem confronted James Stirling when he was commissioned to design a building for 1 Poultry, opposite the Bank of England. Six huge plans are on display here for the first time (on the far wall in this photo), showing how Stirling sought to ‘relate’ his design to nearby buildings designed by Edward Lutyens and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table

Installation view showing the large case of drawings for 1 Poultry, on the wall, and models of the TVam frontage and the SIS building by Terry Farrell on the table. Photo by Gareth Gardner

CZWG

The firm CZWG is named after four students who studied architecture together in the 1960s – Nicholas Campbell, Rex Wilkinson, Roger Zogolovitch and Piers Gough. Next to Farrell, these guys seem to have come up with the most playful designs.

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

CZWG Architects, China Wharf, London (1988) Photo by John and Jo Peck

The display case devoted to this building, at China Wharf, contains old photos showing the state of the often derelict Victorian warehouses surrounding the site, and makes the case that the structure ‘echoes and reflects’ its surroundings. Maybe. But, the casual viewer might point out, it also has a dirty great big red concrete stuck onto the front.

The wall label says:

The orange concrete facade echoes adjacent warehouse frontages, whilst making reference to Baroque and Art Nouveau design – all to create a new architectural identity for Docklands.

My Dad told me never to trust anyone who says ‘whilst’.

Another CZWG building facing on the Thames is Cascades. This building had a display case devoted to it which was arguably the most interesting in the exhibition because, alongside contemporary photos and ephemera (for example, an invitation to the opening party), were extracts from magazines and newspapers which were virulently critical of this building and of the Postmodern trend it represented.

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades, London (1988) by CZWG Architects. Photo by John and Jo Peck

Cascades was one of the first new-look builds in Canary Wharf, a twenty-story tower which, to quote the wall label:

emerges at its base through references to Victorian warehouses and the ocean liner aesthetic, before reaching a summit that would not appear out of place in Hong Kong… The sloping side gives the building a dynamic shape absent from a more conventional tower, while allowing the penthouse apartments along that side to have south-facing balconies open to the sky…. Cascades showed how high-rise living could be popular and glamorous.

With its sloping side, its tonal variation from dark to light brown, with its semi-circular bulges dotted along the facade, the many round ‘porthole’ windows and the three white ocean liner style piped vents, it couldn’t be further from the grey concrete brutalism of a 1970s tower block.

What’s fascinating is the highly critical article shown alongside the plans, written by architect Stephen Gardiner (1924-2007). Gardiner warms up by making general criticisms of Postmodern architecture, raging against its ‘jazzy vulgarity’, the way it screams out like a TV commercial, is full of cheap dodges and flashy effects, is ‘B-movie architecture’. Then he lets fly at Cascades in particular, finding it:

a grotesque and shapeless 20-story tower block on the Isle of Dogs… a horrifying result of the deregulation of aesthetic controls… an example of visual chaos… a crazy jumble of so-called architectural references … and a heap of different materials… These architects appear to regard a city as a private gallery for their brand of pop-art buildings. But it isn’t: their appearance affects us all, particularly when exposed on the river front. Whatever the situation architects have a very special responsibility to the public…

Go Stevie, go. This article is more or less the only thing in the exhibition which really expresses why the new Postmodernist style was so controversial and on what grounds its critics attacked it.

But all good things come to an end. In 1987 an essay was published in Art in America magazine titled Late Postmodernism: The End of Style? By the late 1980s the first fine careless flush of anti-establishment defiance was played out. Postmodernist buildings continued to be built into the 1990s but younger architects tried to forge new lines of development moving beyond its jokiness and irony.

Thoughts

I suppose architecture can be considered and assessed in three ways:

  1. As plans and designs and drawings and concepts I warm to straight lines and geometric patterns, and also to dinky scale models of buildings with tiny little figures walking by, so I often find architectural designs and models entrancing. That said, insofar as they are drawings, they all look a bit samey, drawn in the same kind of technical way on the same kind of paper with the same kind of formal conventions.
  2. It’s only when they’re built that architects’ plans come alive and can then be considered in two ways.
    1. If you live or work in one – does it work? What’s it like? Does it have the conveniences promised? Or is it badly designed and thought-through, as so many ‘city in the sky’ council flats and tower blocks of the 1960s and 70s were.
    2. What’s it like to walk past? What impact does it have on those who don’t live or work in it, but whose built environment it contributes to? What contribution does it make to the skyline and cityscape?

I am no expert, I am just an averagely educated Londoner, but I think there are now so many buildings like Cascades – the Thames from Battersea to Westminster, and from the City down to Docklands is so lined with quirky jokey blocks of luxury apartments, take the stepped ziggurats and the tower block that bends backwards at Battersea Reach – that most people just accept it as the style of our times.

Battersea Reach, London

Battersea Reach, London

I don’t really like any of it. Today I walked through the Covent Garden piazza on the way to Sir John Soane’s Museum and all I can think is that a) it’s a blessing that the bastard planners of the 1970s didn’t knock it down and replace it with concrete flats b) it does the job of being a Tourist Trap, a place where tourists are funneled and blunder around buying over-priced coffee and gewgaws.

But I don’t really like the Royal Opera rebuild or the North arcade. I rather think I dislike it for seeming hollow and… somehow fake.

And I happened to walk through the little atrium of 1 Poultry a month or so ago and it seemed dark and noisily polluted from the two City roads which hem it in. Some kind of rebuilding work was going on, there were pipes across the floor, drilling, entrances to some tacky chain shops like Accessorise or H&M. Horror.

Whenever I’ve been past the TVam building in Camden it’s always seemed to me poky, tacky, narrow, low and constricted. It makes me feel choked and cramped. It is not a happy building.

I don’t think I’ve consciously seen the China Wharf building but there are now so many extraordinary designs of buildings dotted all over the Isle of Dogs that it’s just one more in the wacky show.

Buildings for faceless overlords

My impression is that nobody can stop it now. Quirky, funny, witty, ironic, call it what you will – knowing, arch, self-referential etc, Postmodern architecture is where we are, is the modern look.

The Thames is now lined with ranks of po-mo apartment blocks which come from the same lineage as Cascades.

I appreciate that more recent buildings which have hit the headlines such as the Shard and the Gherkin are not Postmodern in style. If you look it up you discover that the Shard and the Gherkin are examples of ‘neo-Futurism’. Neverthetheless, it feels that the way was paved for this generation of jokey, quirky, steel-and-glass monsters, by the jokey, quirky innovators of Postmodernism.

The net result of all this is the widely shared feeling that modern architecture is commissioned, given planning permission, designed and built by a faceless élite, by our lords and masters, by nameless faceless people who don’t seem to be accountable to anyone except their billionaire oil sheikh or Russian oligarch sponsors – to Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra who owns the Gherkin or to the Qatari Royal Family who own the Shard.

Modern architecture in this vein is the plaything and fantasy of an international cosmopolitan élite which has nothing to do any more with the concerns and tastes of the powerless populations which they tower over.

Which is why I always laugh out loud whenever I see architects writing about ‘social responsibility’ or ‘working with the community’. Ha! As if. Which is why I always think of the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition as ‘the Room of Shame’. Most architecture doesn’t have anything to do with ‘ordinary people’. Maybe it never did.

Postmodernism is a lot better than the concrete misanthropy which preceded it. In terms of architectural history, it opened the floodgates to an enormous diversity of modern buildings whose designers feel free to play and experiment with a wide range of designs, ornamentation, features and materials.

But I don’t think there are any po-mo buildings that I actually like. And in my mind, anyway, the big hair and padded shoulders of TVam associate it with the end of the post-war social democratic consensus and the rise of loads-of-money capitalism, the Thatcherism and Blairism of the 1980s and 90s, which led directly to the steel-and-glass artefacts of the age of terror, the age of relentlessly growing inequality, and the age of a hyper-articulate, cosmopolitan art and architectural élite pandering to the wishes of the international super-rich – the age in which we now find ourselves.

Conclusion

The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture is a small but really interesting exhibition. It was useful to be reminded of the names of the architects behind the MI6 building, or 1 Poultry, to be shown that this was Stirling, that was Farrell, and to be introduced to the unbuilt extravaganzas of John Outram.

It was fun.

And, like all good exhibitions, it sets you thinking about its subject – about architecture and the modern built environment, determined to read up more on a subject which, although it affects all of us – the buildings we live and work in and walk by every day – is given surprisingly little coverage in any of the media.

And it’s FREE. Check it out.


Related links

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Edward Bawden @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery is hosting a fabulous retrospective of work by the British artist and designer, Edward Bawden (1903-89), displaying more than 170 works, half of them from private collections i.e. a rare opportunity to see them.

It’s the most wide-ranging exhibition since Bawden’s death nearly thirty years ago and takes a comprehensive overview of his 60-year career. As often with these kinds of shows, extra work has gone into digging rarities, which include previously unseen works from the Bawden family private collection as well as bringing together 18 rarely-seen works which Bawden did as a war artist during the Second World War, on display together here for the first time.

Kew Gardens London Transport poster (1939) by Edward Bawden © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection © Estate of Edward Bawden

Kew Gardens London Transport poster (1939) by Edward Bawden © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection © Estate of Edward Bawden

Bawden was a commercial artist – an innovative graphic designer, book illustrator and printmaker, who turned his hand to a bewildering variety of formats. The exhibition includes examples of:

  • posters (including ones for Ealing Comedies, several for Kew Gardens, as well as a number for London Transport)
  • adverts and commercial designs for – among many others – Fortnum & Mason, Shell and Twinings
  • maps (a huge map of the seaside resort of Scarborough, the cover for an early edition of the London A to Z, a wonderful cartoon-style guide to the layout of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition)
  • murals (which he made for the Festival of Britain and for Morley College’s cafeteria, in central London)
  • promotional brochures and leaflets
  • menus
  • tiles and beer mats, including a set based on signs of the horoscope
  • book covers for a huge variety of genres, from Edith Sitwell’s poetry, translations of classics (Herodotus), jaunty travel books round Britain (East Coasting by Dell Leigh), and cookbooks (The Magic of Herbs by Mrs C.F. Leyel, Good Food and Good Drinks by Ambrose Heath)
  • postcards and booklets
  • calendars and Christmas cards
  • and wallpaper – three of the exhibition’s six rooms have walls covered with Bawden designs, namely ‘Tree and Cow’ and ‘Pigeon and Clocktower’ and a blown-up version of Covent Garden market

The wallpaper is still commercially available:

You name it, Bawden had a go at designing or decorating or illustrating it.

Friends and mentors

Bawden was born the only son of a Methodist ironmonger in Braintree, Essex, and grew up into a boy much given to solitary wandering and drawing. He went to a Quaker school, where his talent was encouraged. He went on to study at Cambridge School of Art before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art School of Design in London, where he studied from 1922 to 1925. On his first day there he met and befriended fellow student Eric Ravilious who would become a lifelong friend.

At the Royal College, Bawden was taught by Paul Nash, the great and strange painter of English landscape (as recently seen at Tate Britain’s Paul Nash retrospective).

The Showboat at Baghdad (1944) by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden.

The Showboat at Baghdad (1944) by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

In the first room of the exhibition is this large picture of a wartime scene in Baghdad, Iraq (a British ship had been sent to win Iraqi hearts and minds by holding a pop-up cinema and fireworks displays; Bawden, as a war artist, was instructed to paint this rather bizarre sight, as much else during the war).

If you look at the moon in the top left of the Baghdad painting, the way it appears in an area which seems almost to have been torn out of the rest of the fabric, in the way it is almost totally eclipsed, and then at the wash of colours around the fireworks on the right – all these seem to me to be completely in the unsettling watercolour wash style, the rather ragged finishing, and the hallucinatory oddness of Paul Nash.

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox( 1943) by Paul Nash

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1943) by Paul Nash

As for Eric Ravilious, the exhibition informs us that he and Bawden remained lifelong friends until Ravilious’s tragic death during the war, in 1942. We’ll come back to Ravilious.

Six rooms

As usual, the show is housed in the six exhibition rooms of Dulwich Picture Gallery, each with a specific theme.

The World Off Duty

Bawden was not a fine artist, devoting himself to exploring himself or the human condition via laborious oil painting. The reverse. He was fascinated by people and all their multifarious activities and, insofar as he became a highly successful commercial artist, he was always on the lookout for novel, imaginative and quirky channels for his humorous vision of people at play.

This first room is designed to introduce you to his prolificness and variety. One wall is lined with the striking pigeon and clocktower, on another hangs the Baghdad watercolour shown above. There’s a watercolour of the English relaxing on a beach which is very reminiscent of Stanley Spencer. There’s a huge and eccentric map of the seaside resort of Scarborough which he made for a hotel there.

Gardening

In 1932 Bawden married Charlotte Epton, who had been a fellow-student at the Royal College and was a professional potter. After a few years in London they bought a house in the Essex village of Great Bardfield and lived there for the rest of their lives. It had a garden and Bawden took to gardening like a duck to water, buying up loads of seed catalogues, experimenting with planting schemes and enthusiastically illustrating gardening books.

This is a watercolour Bawden painted of the view from his room. Note the architectural accuracy of the brickwork on the right and the roof on the left, and the line of the fences. The trees, bare in winter, are obviously more organic in shape but still partake of the generally geometric cast of mind which characterises the whole.

February 2pm, 1936 by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

February 2pm, 1936 by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

Spirit of Place

Through the 1930s, into the 1940s and 50s Great Bardfield became home to an impressive array of English artists who began a tradition of holding ‘open houses’ to showcase their latest work. The Great Bardfield Artists eventually included John Aldridge, Edward Bawden, George Chapman, Stanley Clifford-Smith, Audrey Cruddas, Walter Hoyle, Michael Rothenstein, Eric Ravilious (who lodged with Bawden at Brick House), Sheila Robinson and Marianne Straub. Other artists linked to the art community include Joan Glass, Duffy Ayers, Laurence Scarfe and the political cartoonist David Low.

Back in the 1930s when Ravilious came to stay, the two friends discussed ways to revive the great English tradition of watercolour painting. They set about trying to adapt the Great Tradition to the discoveries of the Modernists and the shocks of the Great War and post-war period, to update the great English pastoral tradition to the ‘age of the motorcar and the wireless’.

From Cubism onwards the tendency in continental art had all been about discovering the geometric buried in organic forms, as well as reacting to the odd brittle staginess of much 1920s culture, the peculiar artificiality of the poetry of Edith Sitwell, the fragility of Noel Coward’s witty plays about neurotics – a cultural tone which was associated with the so-called ‘Bright Young Things’.

March: Noon, 1936 by Edward Bawden. Pencil on paper © The University of Manchester © Estate of Edward Bawden. Photo courtesy of the Whitworth, Manchester

March: Noon, 1936 by Edward Bawden. Pencil on paper © The University of Manchester © Estate of Edward Bawden. Photo courtesy of the Whitworth, Manchester

I kept finding myself comparing the odd, geometric stylisation of the trees, and the way they seem to have been plonked onto an almost abstract stage set, with the work of Paul Nash. Nash is more haunted and disconcerting but both share the same mood of alienated figuration (even though Nash was mostly working in oils and Bawden in watercolours).

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash (1930)

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash (1930)

And you can also compare and contrast Bawden’s landscapes with the style of his good friend Eric Ravilious. Many of the pair’s depictions of rural scenes are almost interchangeable. But Ravilious nearly always has a somehow softer and more rounded tone. His objects are somehow more complete and gentler.

This Ravilious watercolour is both more overtly geometrical than the Bawden (in the hatching of the immediate foreground or the cross-hatching of the grass on the right of the ‘island’) yet something is softening the impression. Maybe it’s the cartoon image of the geese waddling, or maybe it’s the palette, in particular the warm orange-brown colour of the spokes of the waterwheel. Ravilious’s images always feel more humanised somehow.

The Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious (1938)

The Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious (1938)

By contrast with the warm bath effect of Ravilious, Bawden always seems a bit more scratchy. But both produced scores and scores of immediately evocative and beautiful depictions of that strange homely but disconcerted England between the wars, where the pretty southern landscape remains the same and yet you can sense that something in the culture has been irrecoverably shattered.

Different works for different moods. Having looked at the Nash, Ravilious and Bawden for some time, I wonder if the Bawden isn’t the deepest: the cross-hatching of the sky in particular, of the central muddy groove in the road, and of the way he creates the sense of different leaf shapes on the different species of trees without actually drawing any leaves – just by using different types of hatching and shading – creating a vivid, modern, compelling image.

Wartime portraits

This room is a story in itself. When the Second World War broke out Bawden was recruited as an official war artist. He was sent to depict the British army in France and then, following the army’s evacuation from there, in the Middle East. There followed five years of widespread travels all around the British Empire and its numerous theatres of war. There’s a handy world map on the wall to help you locate all the various places where he went to paint British and Commonwealth troops.

Bawden had had it drummed into him at art school that he was no good at figure painting and so they are largely absent from his watercolours, and he rarely if ever did portraits before the war. This also explains why, although he created designs for book covers, he rarely if ever did illustrations of the actual text, being shy of trying to depict human beings let alone fictional characters.

But part of being a war artist was being under direct orders to portray British and Commonwealth soldiers, nurses and so on wherever he went. And so this room brings together over 20 examples of wartime: portraits, scenes with a few people in; and larger scenes with crowds. A characteristic example of crowds is the Showboat in Baghdad, above. There’s also a powerful depiction of refugees at Udine in Italy.

Refugees at Udine by Edward Bawden (1944) © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

Refugees at Udine by Edward Bawden (1944) © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

To me the sketchiness of the figures reminds me a little of the contemporary work of Edward Ardizzone, just two years older than Bawden, a successful book illustrator (and, later, author) who was also commissioned as a war artist and did some wonderfully vivid war paintings and sketches.

Note:

  • the way details all over the Bawden are more abstract and stylised, for example the trees at the top
  • the way Ardizzone’s people are surprisingly anonymous mop-heads, whereas there is a lot of individual portraiture in the Bawden, for example the Italian priest dressed in black in the centre
  • and the way Bawden’s buildings are more strictly defined – and their windows more bleak and haunting in a de Chirico kind of way.

You can’t see it very well in this reproduction but down at the front of the Bawden are the figures of a mother holding the hand of a child and looking through the wire into the camp, presumably the wife and child of one of the prisoners. Now I come to study it like this I can see that, although the Ardizzone is more pleasurable to look at, the Bawden is much more composed and arranged and artful than the Ardizzone. Deeper. There is much more to see.

Scout Cars of a Regiment of Hussars Liberating a Stalag by Edward Ardizzone (1945)

Scout Cars of a Regiment of Hussars Liberating a Stalag by Edward Ardizzone (1945)

Anyway, compelled to do portraits, Bawden turned out not to be as bad at them as he expected. All the examples here don’t exactly have photographic accuracy, but they are powerful in that between-the-wars, watered-down, English modernist way. Verging on a kind of quiet surrealism.

The more I look at this portrait of the sergeant – once I’ve got over the blue face – the more important and unsettling I realise the extremely accurate depiction of the staircase behind him is. It could have been far more sketchy but the accuracy with which Bawden captures every single step with its slight overhang and shadow adds not only realism but a kind of threatening sur-realism to the image.

A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians by Edward Bawden. Watercolour, chalk and ink on paper © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians by Edward Bawden. Watercolour, chalk and ink on paper © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

His five-year odyssey took Bawden from Dunkirk to Libya, Sudan, Cairo, Eritrea and Ethiopia (where he met and liked the Emperor Haile Selassie), Palestine, Lebanon, southern Iraq, Casablanca, Baghdad and Kurdistan, and to Jeddah, back to Iraq and into Iran. He had a spell back in Blighty in 1944, painting in Southampton docks before setting off for Yugoslavia, by way of Rome, taking in Ravenna, then Greece, Austria and Florence. What an exotic five years!

To quote the exhibition:

He successfully battled his own feelings of inadequacy as an artist to produce some of the most compelling artworks of the conflict such as A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians, 1940-1944. Portraits of Iraqi Jews, Kurds and Marsh Arabs are displayed alongside servicemen of different African nations, revealing the range of people Bawden encountered and his warm treatment of all.

Once I started looking at the credits for each picture, I realised that all 20 of them (and a couple more which spill over into the next room) are owned by the Imperial War Museum, presumably because it inherited the archive of war artists’ work. A reminder of the vast troves of art held by IWM, and the frustration that there isn’t a big gallery to put them on permanent display.

Architecture

Albert Bridge by Edward Bawden (1966) Linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge by Edward Bawden (1966) Linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

The war had interrupted Bawden’s experiments with the technique of linocutting. After the war he found himself well known. He was profiled in in the series of Penguin Modern Painters, received a CBE and was elected Associate Member of the Royal Academy.

But tastes had changed. The 1930s fondness for landscape had been swept away to be replaced by an urge to modernise. Amid ongoing work in murals (the 1951 Festival of Britain), designing book covers and other commercial activities, Bawden began to really explore the technique of print-making from linocuts.

We have noted the ‘geometric’ aspect of some of Bawden’s prints and the architectural accuracy of the watercolour of his back garden. Well, something about that action of cutting into the lino in order to make the print played very heavily to Bawden’s tendency to strong lines and architectural definition, strengths which really came to fruition when he applied the technique not to people or landscapes, but to the built urban environment.

The results are consistently vivid and powerful. Not all of his watercolours, of his landscapes and even the frivolous book covers and so on are convincing. By contrast, almost everything in this room full of linocut prints is powerful and impactful.

Bawden’s fondness for the humorous and fantastical led him to a series of prints of Brighton, from the gaudy Brighton pier to the absurd fantasia of the Brighton Pavilion. But it is the series of linocuts about London which I found most powerful. He did a set of London Monuments which included an arresting image of St Paul’s, along with depictions of Horse Guards Parade, the Tower of London and so on.

But I particularly loved two prints from the series about London markets, one of Covent Garden and one of Borough Market. For two years I worked in an office near London Bridge and walked under the railway arches and past the market stalls of Borough Market twice a day, besides all the times I’ve come this way to visit Tate Modern and sometimes to visit the church in the background, Southwark Cathedral, with its monuments to Shakespeare and John Gower.

Borough Market (1967) by Edward Bawden

Borough Market (1967) by Edward Bawden

The exhibition, naturally enough, pays attention and respect to all phases of his career, but I get the impression reading around the subject that it was the clarity and monumentality of these linocut prints which really made him a household name.

Fable and fantasy

Old Crab and Young by Edward Bawden (c.1956) Letter press with line-drawn illustration with added colours. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Old Crab and Young by Edward Bawden (c.1956) Letter press with line-drawn illustration with added colours. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

The final room aims to bring out the thread of humour and the fantastical in Bawden’s work. He’s not a great inventor of fantastical beasts or landscapes; he is not John Tenniel of Alice in Wonderland fame or Arthur Rackham or E.H. Shepherd or Ardizzone.

There’s something a little more staid and reassuring about his illustrations, something very 1950s. Although the huge map of Scarborough at the start of the show features animals and a few fantastical creatures on it, they are somehow tamed to the scale of the English imagination. Clear brightly defined lines. Humorous stylisations. Nothing too unexpected or strange, thank you.

Aesop’s Fables, The Gnat and Lion (1970) Colour linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Aesop’s Fables, The Gnat and Lion (1970) Colour linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

If you like Bawden this is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity not only to see a wide selection of his work, but to read a number of private letters in which he discusses his approach as well as examining preliminary studies, preparatory drawings and unfinished designs he made, especially for the murals – a really thorough exploration of his achievement.

It’s all a must for the Bawden completist, and the comprehensive exhibition catalogue fleshes out many of the themes and ideas here with additional biographical facts and illustrations.

And comparing and contrasting Bawden with Nash, Ravilious and Ardizzone as I’ve done, brings out for me a greater understanding of his strengths – less soft and rounded than Ravilious, maybe more penetrating in his landscapes; and more incisive and architectural in his war work that Ardizzone; less immediately appealing and yet, when you look closely, much more composed, detailed and sometimes disturbing.

This exhibition is an enormous pleasure.

P.S.

Bawden was commissioned to design a series of eleven murals for the First Class lounge of the P&O liner Oronsay, which was launched in 1951. The theme was ‘the English pub’ and Bawden depicted traditional pub names, such as the Rose & Crown. One of these murals is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, until 17 June.

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

David Milne: Modern Painting @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

While other London galleries present yet another exhibition about Picasso or Francis Bacon, Dulwich Picture Gallery maintains its reputation for staging beautifully presented exhibitions of peripheral or little-known artists, who turn out to be deeply rewarding and beautiful.

Latest to receive the treatment is Canadian artist David Milne (1882 to 1953), famous in his own country, all but unknown over here.

New York

Milne was born in a small Ontario farming community in 1882 (the same year as Braque, Stravinsky, Joyce and Woolf). Aged 21 Milne went to New York (in 1903) and began training as a commercial artist but quickly became aware of the new styles and ideas coming from France. He learned about the achievements of Cézanne, Matisse and other modern French masters via exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s famous ‘291 gallery’.

Milne gained a reputation as an interesting modernist and was invited to take part in the famous Armory Show of 1913, which first brought a comprehensive range of modern French art to an American audience.

The first room of the exhibition showcases Milne’s work from the years just before the outbreak of the Great War, showing him experimenting with a Frenchified way of treating New York’s bustling streets, emblazoned with advertising hoardings, but emphasising the presence of light, in broad expressive brushstrokes.

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

I really liked these brightly coloured images.

What’s most noticeable about seeing them in the flesh is the impasto, the extent to which you can see the swirls and splodges of oil paint sticking up from the surface.

Maybe the central insight or axiom of ‘modern’ art is the simple realisation that the painting is not, as had been believed for 400 years, a ‘window on the world’ – but an object in its own right.

His brushstrokes aren’t meant to be invisible as per the Northern Renaissance painters or the Pre-Raphaelites who copied them (as so brilliantly shown at the current Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the National Gallery). The highly visible strokes are themselves part of the aesthetic statement, as much a part as the supposed subject.

These first paintings display the mannerisms which will stick with Milne to the end of his career, namely a disinterest in realistic detail, a tendency to lay on paint in thick impasto swirls and blodges, and the habit of building the picture up through the accumulation of blocks or triangles of colour – like roughly sketched Lego pieces.

The tension is there which lasts the rest of his life between a basically figurative approach – painting the actually visible object – combined with a restless experimentation with form and media which saw him work with oils, pastels, watercolour, sketches and even photos.

Back to the country

Always a country boy at heart, Milne was uncomfortable in New York and from 1913 started taking vacations in the small town of West Saugerties, in upstate New York. In 1916 he moved permanently, along with his wife, Patsy Hegarty, to Boston Corners, a village in New York State, and lived a simple remote life.

The second room displays a series of works in which he is visibly experimenting with painting trees, woods and – an enduring subject – reflections in pools, rivers, lakes.

Bishop's Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Bishop’s Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

A number of things are going on in this picture. For a start he was experimenting with the effect of leaving parts of the composition untouched, just the plain white paper. This turns out to be just right for conveying the purity of fallen snow. But it led Milne to develop the notion of what he called the ‘dazzle spot’, a blank area, devoid of colour, to which the viewer’s eye is naturally attracted. Having caught the attention, the viewer’s eye then goes on a voyage of discovery around the rest of the picture plane, exploring the subtle interplay of shapes and colours.

Speaking of colours, they’re very subdued, derived from a limited palette, but nonetheless stylised: they don’t blend or wash as in nature but appear in clusters – of umber, a kind of turquoise, a yellow-green, and a sort of purple. There is no sense of the colours shading or blending, or of the effect of light and shade which you would have in a realistic work. The line drawing of pond and trees may be entirely figurative but the colouring is completely stylised; not in the wild way of the Frenchmen he had seen, this isn’t a brash Fauvist work. He is using the discoveries of modern painting to create something gently understated and muted.

Lastly, this work shows the result of his experiments with different techniques to try and capture the effect of reflections in water. If you scroll down the exhibition web-page you can hear the commentary on this painting (given as a sample of the overall audioguide) which gives Milne’s own account of how he experimented to create this effect.

The result, the blurred greying effect of the wash in the reflected shapes, is much more striking and absorbing, much more noticeable in the flesh, than in this reproduction. It creates a shimmering, rather supernatural effect. I kept coming back to this particular painting, to look at it again and again, becoming more entranced each time.

Experiments

On the opposite wall in the same room is a selection of rather more experimental works depicting his wife, Patsy, simply sitting – but done with more intense use of blots or blobs of colour.

Sometimes the motif is almost hidden by the intensity of the blotching and blobbing – you have to stand at just the right distance to make out the actual subject – in the case of the most attractive of the set, a simple portrait of his wife reading a book with a cat on her lap. Note the use of – what shall I call them? blobs? dots? patches? – of colour, unshaded, set down pure, a kind of large-scale use of pointillism. And the very limited palette: a very particular tint of green and brown, dirty grey, with highlights of white and black.

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

A nearby work reflects the development of camouflage during the war. Milne was fascinated by the idea of abstract patterns of muted colours which blend in with natural scenery and, once the notion has been mentioned, it’s possible to see the idea of ‘camouflage’, of the concealment of pattern in natural forms, as an underlying motif of many of his landscapes.

War artist

Milne enlisted in the Army in 1918 but, what with training and delays, missed the actual fighting. Nonetheless, he lobbied hard and wangled his way across the Atlantic soon after the Armistice in the capacity of War Artist. He painted Canadian troops in their camps in Britain, and then went on to paint a series of haunting watercolours and sketches of the devastated landscape of North-East France for the Canadian War Records, only months after the fighting had finished.

In complete contrast to the paint-covered landscapes of the previous room, in all these war zone works Milne reverts to a) leaving extensive parts of the surface pure untouched white and b) using much more flighty, impressionistic flurries of pen or brushstrokes to convey shape and colour.

In terms of style it is clearly related to the use of blocks of colour in the New York works or blots of colour in the upstate landscapes, but here the blocks are disintegrated into feathery flurries as if the painter’s technique has been as splintered and dismantled as the villages, the buildings and the minds of the people who fought and suffered.

The result is, as ever, entirely figurative but at the same time somehow abstract and spare. I actively didn’t like the effect when he used it on buildings such as Amiens cathedral, but could see the appeal in a work like Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919), one of Milne’s most famous war paintings. It shows the enormous hole created when the Allies detonated 24 tonnes of explosives underground, deep behind German enemy lines. Note the tiny figures on the horizon.

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

It is interesting to learn that picture postcards of the ruined towns and buildings of the war zone were swiftly produced and sold to the first ‘war tourists’, who were quick to arrive and be taken on tours of the still smouldering battlefields. Milne made a collection of these postcards ,which he kept for the rest of his life, and a selection of them is on display here.

David Milne, Self - portrait in military uniform, Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

David Milne pioneering the art of the selfie at Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

Rural retreat

Back in North America, Milne withdrew to the deep countryside and spent the winter of 1920-1 alone on the side of Alander Mountain, behind Boston Corners, partly inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the great exponent of living simply and communing with nature.

He lived in a cabin he built himself and devoted himself to formal experiments in how to depict nature. The paintings in this room are among the best, showing an intense observation of unspoilt landscape combined with the contrary urge, a highly sophisticated quest to seek out the form buried beneath the subject.

You begin to see how, in a very understated way, Milne never ceased experimenting.

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

There are some really atmospheric paintings here. The commentary goes heavy on one called White, the Waterfall (1921), apparently one of Milne’s personal favourites, and a much treasured centrepiece in the National Canadian collection.

Personally, I liked the story around two other paintings, versions he painted of the big tree stump which stood just outside the front door of the cabin and which he paints covered in snow and then in thaw. I wonder if he gave it a name.

The audioguide

The audioguides to exhibitions can be variable, but I thought the one for this show was excellent. My friend didn’t bother with one and so walked through gaining only a generalised impression of the work, but I did buy one (for £3) and it forced me to stop and really focus on the 22 specific works it comments on. This pays real dividends with Milne’s art.

His use of dense and often dark ‘blocks’ of paint and colour can get a bit much if taken en masse. However, being forced to stop in front of specific works and study them closely made me, in almost every instance, come to appreciate and like them more.

So White, the Waterfall may be famous but I found myself warming more to a nearby painting of the forest, Trees in spring, done in lime green and – as the commentary explained – riffing off the abstract design of palm leaves to be found in Egyptian friezes in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A good example of the way abstract interests lurk behind almost every one of Milne’s apparently figurative works. But not aggressively or stridently. Subtly. Quietly.

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Still lifes

Subtlety and quietness are the hallmarks of the still lifes Milne painted in the later 1930s.

In this period he made himself another cabin to live in, this time at the remote Six Mile Lake. Half the paintings from this period are of the lake, displaying his lifelong interest in the shimmering of reflections in water.

But there is also a selection of wonderful, understated still lifes he did inside the cabin; specifically, a series showing water lilies in simple jugs or vases. If you compare them to the same subject as done by the French painters he venerated, such as Monet or Matisse, you immediately realise how he has pared his palette right down to basic browns and greys with only occasional highlights of green or violet or orange. It is as if the colour has been bleached out of the painting to reveal the secrets of shapes and lines. More visually dominant is the lacework of drawn lines repeatedly sketching the outlines and shapes; the colours merely highlight and define the objects.

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Last works

The final room showcases a final selection of still lifes and landscapes from the 1930s. The still lifes are recognisable as vases and flowers, but many of the landscapes have moved strongly in the direction of abstraction. There are the merest horizontal lines indicating the meeting of lake and land, or land and sky, and there are variations on the interplay of stars or moon reflected in the water which tremble on the brink of becoming pure abstract shapes.

It was only in the 1930s, as he hit 50, that Milne began to receive any recognition in his native country, through contacts with curators and artists in Ottawa and Toronto, foe example it was only in 1934 that he finally began showing his work commercially in Toronto.

The exhibition finishes with one of my favourite works, Summer Colours (1936), a final landscape which walks the line between figurative and abstraction.

It’s unlike most of the previous work in not featuring the blocky, faceted approach to building up an image. It’s much plainer, with wedges of colour representing sea, land and sky, but it is recognisably the same mind and eye that produced the New York boulevard paintings. He is unafraid of showing – in fact he deliberately highlights – big brushstrokes, crudely deployed in swathes across the surface, bringing out the textured surface of the canvas. And yet, through the strange alchemy of art and despite the fact that you can see that this object simply consists of oil paint rather bluntly smeared over a rough flat canvas surface – somehow it is also a haunting image of a faraway landscape, at once a place of your dreams, and an abstract interplay of elementary colour and design.

Magical.

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Conclusion

This is another triumph for Dulwich Picture Gallery. The only thing I’d comment on is their choice of image for the posters promoting the show. They’ve chosen one of the darker, more clotted works – Reflected Forms – which initially a little put me off the exhibition. It’s a shame, because many of the other works here are lighter, more airy and poetic – and all of them reward close attention by revealing their beguiling experiments with technique, and their quiet depths…

David Milne: Modern Painting is an unexpectedly lovely, life-enhancing exhibition.

Videos

One-minute introduction by co-curator Ian Dejardin.

4’37” report on the show by Belle Donati.


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Tove Jansson @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Since their first appearance in the 1940s, the Moomins have grown to be a worldwide phenomenon. The books have been translated into over 50 languages, there are have been numerous TV series and movies, as well as plays and an opera, and there are currently several Moomin Worlds, all based on the slender tales of these harmless little cartoon characters who live in the remote and enchanted Moomin Valley.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently hosting a wonderful, beautifully staged and life-affirming exhibition which aims to set the phenomenal worldwide success of the Moomin characters in the broader context of the career of their creator, Finnish artist Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001).

The exhibition brings together 150 works to show how, as well as creating the Moomins, Jansson was also a successful painter – creating striking self-portraits as well as experimental landscapes – a caricaturist and a book illustrator.

Oil paintings

The exhibition opens with a room of Jansson’s oil paintings, portraits of lovers and of her family and some of the many self-portraits she painted of herself, striking various poses, exuding a rather unsmiling air of purpose and self-confidence.

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

She came from a family which understood and supported her artistic aims. Her mother was an illustrator, her father was a sculptor and her two brothers also became artists. She had a very thorough artistic training, studying at art schools in Stockholm, Helsinki, then Paris.

During this time she experimented with contemporary styles of oil painting – the portrait of Maya is an essay in Gauguin, while another self-portrait is all angles and shadows like a Vorticist work. But the core of her style is a kind of modern realism, epitomised by this group portrait of her family, featuring her two younger brothers playing chess.

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

She hoped this would be treated as a masterpiece but the critics weren’t that keen. It was a good thirty years since Picasso, Matisse and the rest had revolutionised western art. In this context, it’s a very conservative work, and also rather a mish-mash. The faces of the mother, father, older boy and Tove’s own face all seem like they’ve been done in different styles. (Also, I was slightly irritated that I couldn’t make out the position of the pieces in the chess game. What’s the point of painting a chess game if you can’t see the pieces?)

War and satire

Born in 1914, Jansson came to adulthood in the ominous atmosphere of the 1930s, and witnessed the Soviet attacks on Finland in 1939. When Hitler’s Germany invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, Finland allied with the Nazis, and Finnish troops took part in the 872-day siege of Leningrad.

As might be expected her family, and Jansson, were strongly pacifist and throughout this period she worked as a caricaturist for the Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. There is a good selection of the cover illustrations she drew for Garm in a display case. They are extremely good, well designed, well drawn, and, above all, funny. In this cover illustration from 1938, Hitler is the spoilt cry-baby being offered choice bits of Europe to try and stop his bawling.

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

It was handy that Jansson’s artist mother had herself worked for Garm since it was established in 1929. All through the exhibition we are told what a strong, independent woman Jansson was, but it certainly helps your ‘independence’ if you have well-connected, sympathetic, comfortably-off parents to get you jobs and support your career.

Still, the covers are not only hilarious, they get better – better drawn and more sophisticated – as they go on. There’s a good one from 1943: as the war turns against Germany, posh people in suits are depicted rowing boats away from a swastika sinking in the sea. There’s a bitterly satirical one from the end of the war showing a Heath Robinson-style big industrial contraption, with black-faced evil Nazis entering at the bottom, passing through various cranks and cogs, and emerging as white-faced angels flying about the sky at the top! Yes, it’s time to forgive and forget 🙂

The one below, published as the Germans were retreating on all fronts in 1944, shows cartoon Hitlers looting Europe.

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

The clarity of line, and the stylisation of Hitler, remind me of the political cartoons of David Low, who published cartoons in the British press through the 1930s and 1940s.

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

I like cartoons so I loved these Garm covers. Jansson’s work should definitely be included in any books or collections about political cartoons of the 1930s and 40s.

The Moomins

If you look at the bottom right of the second Garm illustration, you can see Moomintroll hiding behind the ‘M’. Apparently Jansson sketched him as the result of losing a bet with her brothers. Initially he was called Snork. (Maybe this explains the similarity between the Snorks and the Moomins in the books.)

The Moomin story, the characters and their adventures, are so numerous and prolific that it is impossible to summarise. Briefly: they began as little extras in the Garm illustrations. Then Jansson developed comic strips, little sets of three or four pictures telling a story. These appeared in a Finnish left-wing newspaper for a while but it was only when the London Evening News (forerunner of today’s Evening Standard) signed a contract with Jansson after the war for a daily supply of cartoon strips, that they became famous. The exhibition devotes a lot of space to explaining how the Moomin characters evolved, and the commercial roots of them, giving examples of first drafts of the strips, sketches and rough workings.

The Evening News contract ran for seven years, being Jansson’s main source of income, and by the end the strip was being seen by twenty million people daily. The exhibition includes a wall full of fascinating of examples. What’s interesting is to see the Moomins – who in the books are targeted at pretty small children – taking part in grown-up comedy: it’s quite a shock!

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

And then, alongside the newspaper comic strips, Jansson began writing and illustrating book-length adventures for her cleanly-drawn, black and white biomorphic characters. The books, in order of their original publication, are:

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

So, as you can see, there are 25 years between the first and the last book – a full generation – in which the tone and attitude of the books subtly changed, maturing and becoming more wistful.

The second half of the exhibition is predominantly about the Moomin characters (there is a display case of an early version of little figurines of the characters made by Jansson’s brother), their development, the premise and plotlines of each of the books, and wonderful evocative illustrations from each of them.

I read all the books when I was about 8 or 9 and every single book illustration is imprinted on my memory and carries me off into a lovely warm memories of childhood absorption in her wonderful fantasy land of Moomin valley, with its collection of eccentric and lovable characters.

It should be mentioned that the exhibition has been carefully designed to encourage younger visitors (there were loads of toddlers about when I visited). The walls of each room are painted vibrant primary colours (yellow, orange, green) and are dotted with large decals of Moomin characters, like Renaissance putti, watching over the visitors.

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

You can read about the Moomins elsewhere, there is no shortage of sites and sources for more information:

Moomin merch

Writing the books and the strips went alongside managing the increasing range of merchandise, which began appearing even in Jansson’s lifetime. As Andy Warhol said:

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say ‘money is bad’ and ‘working is bad’. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art.

And a lot of Jansson’s later energy was devoted to managing the growing Moomin empire, ensuring quality control for the various Moomin stage plays, operas, TV series, animations and spin-offs. This task has been taken over by her estate which keeps strict control of the Moomin images to this day.

Book illustrations

Coming off the back of this success as an illustrator of her own books, Jansson was invited to create illustrations for three children’s classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1961) and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1959) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1966).

The commentary says Jansson made some effort to distinguish these works from her Moomin illustrations, but I’m not sure she succeeds. The Alice illustrations are the least convincing. The Hobbit ones are bizarre, as we see Jansson’s essentially warm comforting style deployed on dragons, orcs and giants. There are some brilliant examples, I liked the one of the three giants, but if you google it you can see scores more.

Best of the three in my opinion are the illustrations for The Hunting of the Snark.

Sea paintings, late oils

Jansson had more or less abandoned oil painting during the war for the Garm work, and then moved seamlessly on to produce the ever-growing Moomin universe. But in the 1960s she had the time and money to return to oil painting, her first love. The exhibition includes a room of later oil works, including three interesting abstract works designed to convey the sea.

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

They make heavy use of impasto or laying on the oil in thick wedges to create ridges and rifts of colour. They’re not really that distinctive enough to form a view. Three examples wasn’t enough; a room-full of her landscapes would have been interesting and useful (the other works in this room were still lifes and portraits), especially since the sea plays such a large part in the imaginative life of the Moomin books.

What they do convey, though, is the importance of the sea and lakes and water to Jansson. The audio guide includes a very useful 6 or 7 minute film summarising her entire life, and what this makes clear is what a happy, loving childhood she had. Every year her parents took her and her two brothers to the Finnish lakes where they played and frolicked all summer long. In adult life, Jansson rented a house on a remote island – Klovharun – among the Pellinge islands, and then built her own cabin where for the next three decades she and her partner, the graphic designer, Tuulikki Pietilä, lived and worked together. Her 1993 autobiography is titled Notes from an Island and is illustrated by Tuulikki.

This biographical film ends with a really wonderful bit of home film footage showing Jansson dancing on the top of a little ridge near the cabin, perfectly captured in silhouette. Just a normal person, not beautiful or thin and elegant, not a model or an actress, just a rather dumpy person like you or me who makes up her own Happy Dance and dances down towards the camera with a huge grin on her face.

It’s hard to imagine a more complete expression of contentedness and happiness. It’s wonderful.

For me the dominant theme of the Moomin books is tranquillity and acceptance. They describe great marvels and wonders – a comet rushing towards the earth, a great flood, the spooky silence of snow-covered mid-winter – and the Moomin family keep meeting all sorts of odd and peculiar characters – but they are never really afraid. All the oddity and adventure is calmly accepted by the eccentric Moominpapa and the supremely calm and practical Moominmamma. They stories are redolent of a warm and loving family, and I think that in the books and illustrations what comes over with great force is her happy childhood and warm supportive family life.

Adult fiction

It comes as no surprise to learn, then, that after her mother died in 1970, Jansson found herself unable to write any more Moomin stories. The special closeness she shared with her mother was broken; the untroubled happiness of Moomin Valley fell into shadow. (In fact a few large-format Moomin picture books did appear later – The Dangerous Journey (1977) and An Unwanted Guest (1980) – but the five big picture books are the triumph of pictures and design over text; they don’t have the imaginative intensity of the novels.)

And that’s when she turned to writing stories for adults, short stories and short novels. These have only slowly been translated into English (not all of them are yet available) and have established yet another string to her bow, as the ‘painter’ of charming, winsome tales of girls, childhood and femininity.

Novels
1972 The Summer Book
1974 Sun City
1982 The True Deceiver
1984 The Field of Stones

Short story collections
1968  Sculptor’s Daughter
1971 The Listener
1978 Art in Nature
1987 Travelling Light
1989 Fair Play
1991 Letters from Klara and Other Stories

Comments

Bright and lovely This is a beautifully conceived and laid out exhibition, the bright colour of the walls and the Moomin decals lending it an innocence and charm entirely in tune with the subject matter.

The snug Half way along the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s six room exhibition space is an odd circular room off to one side, a dimly-lit mausoleum commemorating the gallery’s sponsors, Sir Francis Bourgeois, Noel and Margaret Desenfans. For most exhibitions you simply walk past, but for this one the curators have put rugs and beanbags into the Mausoleum along with several library book holders full of Moomin books. This is where I lay to watch the video about Jansson’s life before it began filling up with toddlers. My advice to the curators: Put many, many more beanbags and rugs into the Snug – and some kind of heater: make it really snug.

Be happy ‘As happy as Tove’ should be a new proverb. What an extraordinarily talented woman. And what a gift to be able to channel her sense of warmth and security into a series of wonderfully reassuring, imaginative and beautiful stories.

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

The video

Here is the show being previewed by Ian Dujardin.

For those who want more, BBC Scotland made an hour-long documentary about Jansson.

Moomin merch

There are over fifty items of Moomin merchandise for all your Christmas shopping needs.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Sargent: The Watercolours @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first UK show in nearly 100 years devoted to the watercolours of the Anglo-American artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent biography

Sargent was American, born to a successful Philadelphia eye surgeon, who quit his trade to live a peripatetic life travelling round the beauty spots of Europe, with wife and a growing brood of children. Sargent’s parents encouraged his artistic tendencies and supported his decision to train as an artist in Paris in the 1870s. Here he learned precise draughtsmanship and a sumptuous way with oils, though he was also attracted to the new fashion for painting in the open air which came to be called Impressionism.

In Paris Sargent painted a number of successful portraits before moving to London in the mid-1880s where he quickly established a lucrative practice as a portrait painter to the upper classes. Sargent produced some 900 oil paintings, many of them masterpieces of style and grace, as demonstrated by the recent awe-inspiring exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

But throughout his life he continued to paint watercolours for his own pleasure and, once his London practice was secure, from the 1890s onwards, took a regular extended summer holiday, travelling all over the most picturesque parts of Europe and painting painting painting wherever he went.

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The exhibition

This beautiful exhibition brings together a selection of some 80 of the estimated 2,000 watercolours which Sargent produced. Away from the pressurised world of his London studio and expensive commissions, the watercolours depict a relaxed and sunny world of picturesque locations – Venice, the Alps – a world of colourful locals in Italy or Spain, and of leisure ladies lounging with parasols.

It is the world of wealthy, confident Yankee ex-pats depicted in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, a gracious world untroubled by rumours of war, where the moneyed could travel easily and stylishly from hotel to hotel in Venice, Rome, Bologna, Corfu, maybe down into Spain, and, after a good breakfast, set out one’s easel, pin up the cartridge paper, moisten the brushes, adjust one’s straw hat, fix the brollies in place, and then start sketching with light confident pencil strokes before moving on to start building up washes of colour.

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Architecture

Many of the watercolours give the impression of being deliberately unfinished, accentuating their light and airy effect. In fact one of the four headings into which the exhibition is divided is ‘Fragments’, although it is intended to have a different meaning. The curators use it to draw attention to the way Sargent is deliberately experimental in the way he frames and focuses many of the watercolours, cropping the subject, viewing it from unusual angles. Sargent’s oil portraits had to be pretty conventional, showing the key parts of the body of the sitter in a well-defined and well-decorated space – take one of my favourites, the staggering Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer in Tate Britain.

By contrast, in many of the watercolours Sargent deliberately focuses on details, cropping and cutting off, zooming in on unexpected aspects. This is particularly true of the depiction of buildings which dominate the first few rooms. He is interested not in the whole thing but of significant details and aspects, which he renders luminous with his amazing technique.

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

The curators point out the influence of photography which by the turn of the century had pioneered all kinds of ways of cropping and focusing. I love draughtsmanship and all lines, firm clear lines, so something in me warmed to all of the architectural paintings. Venice is the prime location for these, many of them ‘taken’ from low on the waterline, providing a gondola’s-eye view of the famous crumbling palazzos and churches. a) It’s a question of angle but b) also of the play of light on water.

Light on water is a perpetual challenge to a painter and water is a secret thread which connects many of the works here of ostensibly different subjects – portraits, landscapes, cityscapes and so on. There are lots of boats in harbours. Or streams in the mountains. Or lakes. His depiction of Palma harbour is an amazing attempt to capture the really dazzling, blinding white light of the Mediterranean midsummer noon, shimmering on the blue water.

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Of the six rooms here one is devoted to the subject of ‘Cities’, but in fact of the 13 paintings in the room, 11 are of Venice. Venice Venice Venice. Light on water, on aging stone, the detail of columns and porticos, friezes and balustrades. There are several rather touristy paintings of gondoliers punting their boats along canals, the spume of the waves highlighted with white impasto.

But there are plenty more of buildings, stone catching the reflections of water, and a moment’s reflection suggests that Venice combined the two great subjects, very classical monumental architecture, and shimmering surfaces of water.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

One of my favourites was this dazzling depiction of a grand baroque statue in Bologna: it demonstrates several characteristics – it is cropped (you can’t see either the top of the statue which apparently is a huge statue of Neptune, or the sides of the bowl) – it shows fascination with light on different surfaces, specifically the aged stone walling, the bronze statues and a slender line of acquamarine water – it is somehow both monumental and light and airy – and the casual pink washes give the sense of the background architecture with a wonderful casualness. It is often the bravura confidence of the backgrounds as much as anything which fills you with a sense of respect and awe at his ability.

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

Boats

Not everything is genius, however. I found the exhibition a mixed bag, with several startlingly brilliant images in each room, but also a fair amount of average or so-so works. Maybe this is because the standard of all of them is so high that you just accept it and quickly take it for granted.

In the earlier rooms I surprised myself by not liking so much his depictions of boats. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think I want my lines to be firmer and straighter, to bring out the toughness of lines to be found in rigging, the geometric complexity and angularity. There were several showing ships in a dry dock and one of some mill machinery (The Mill, Arras), but, for me, they lacked the rigour of the modernism which was to take the world by storm a generation later, when art found a language for machinery in modernist painting and social realist photography. Sargent’s ships are too soft for me.

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Some of the scenes of classic tourist destinations had a touristy tweeness; they are the kind of painting you actually find on sale in the streets of Venice, being hawked by street vendors. Depicting sweet peaceful scenes but lacking any oomph.

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Landscapes

I thought the landscapes were his weakest works. Sargent developed a routine summer itinerary from the late 1890s through to the start of the Great War: each vacation began with a spell in the Alps, then on to Venice, Rome, Bologna, maybe to Corfu. He visited Spain several times and even went on a Middle Eastern tour, as research for a historical mural he was painting back in the States. Everywhere he went, painting painting painting.

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

If you Google ‘John Singer Sargent landscape‘ you can surf through hundreds of images, many of them stunning. But some of the ones on display here were, I thought, weak. The Glacier stream (above) highlights some of those weaknesses – the perspective seems out, none of the details, of rock or water, are very convincing, and the human figure is worse. It was just as well the show included some of the weaker works: it made you realise Sargent wasn’t a god, he had his off days like other people.

That said, one of the best works in the show was a quiet but absorbing study of stones by a stream. It may not look much reproduced on a screen, but the closer you looked the more uncannily brilliant it became, you could touch each individual rock, feel the soggy sand bordering the stream. The brown blotches of heather in the background seemed perfectly judged. If I had a million pounds, I’d buy this one.

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

People

The final room is devoted to watercolours with people in them and there is a wide variety of settings. There are Bedouins in Arabia, gondoliers in Venice, Spanish street singers (this latter I find rather disturbing).

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

There are ladies in billowing skirts lounging by streams, a kind of quintessence of ease and relaxation.

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There’s a number of so-so studies of male nudes, smudgy faces and black loins. Again, if you Google ‘John Singer Sargent nudes‘ you can see scores of marvelous charcoal and pencil studies of males nudes online. The male nude watercolours on display here aren’t so good.

What did stand out for me was a trio of genius watercolours. One was of his sister, Emily. She was a painter in her own right. There’s a small display case of photos of the man himself, with friends, and of Emily and she looks a very starchy character, dressed in dense Victorian black. She travelled everywhere with a ‘companion’, a Miss Eliza Wedgwood, and there is a stunningly good watercolour depicting Emily painting, paintbrush in mouth, while spinsterish Miss Wedgwood looks off to the side. The character in Eliza’s face is wonderful; and the calm companionableness of the pair is like a novel in paint.

There are several depictions of soldiers. Sargent spent the early years of the Great War back in the States, but was recruited to become an official British war artist at the request of the Prime Minister himself. In the landscape room there are so-so depictions of ammunition dumps which don’t really have much to them, certainly none of the sketches compares to his studied masterpiece, Gassed (1919), they’re not meant to. But there are a couple of studies of soldiers from a Highland regiment, wearing kilts, at rest.

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

But the one I would like to own is this fantastic study of two soldiers pinching apples in an orchard. The light on the main figure’s helmet, and on the back of his jacket and top of his kilt, is to die for.

Last of this trio was a ravishing study of a man lying naked on a bed.

This is a stunningly relaxed and liberated, redolent of holidays anywhere hot, the big wooden bedsteads, the sharp tan lines on the body, the rumpled white sheets, the cigarette casually held. And, after I’d looked at it for a while, I came to admire the nose – the use of pink and cream to model the sheeny shiny nose of someone who’s been out in the sun, it’s just one of thousands of stunning details throughout the exhibition which Sargent’s amazing eye and staggering technique capture and record forever.

Conclusion

80 out of 2,000, that’s 4% of his total output of watercolours. A surf of the internet indicates the riches among the other 96%, but these are here, now, and available to view in the flesh in Dulwich.

Close up, you can see the texture of the cartridge paper, see the skimming pencil lines he sketched out first, capturing the essence of shapes, buildings, people, rocks – and then marvel at the confidence with which he applied colour washes and highlights to create, at their best, almost magical effects, stunningly evocative and atmospheric works.

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The video


Related links

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People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.)

In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on.

One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers.

There’s a copy of the letter of protest Sassoon wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. This exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued for an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000.

The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011).

There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition also features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

This uncomfortable question is addressed in the final room (more accurately an alcove or bay) where a large TV screen shows a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War).

From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade another foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what?

And the protests didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

So none of the interviewees can give any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any mass protest of the past 100 years.

3. Community

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause.

For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon.

But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled for domestic consumption i.e very carefully. Wars in future:

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost them the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result was that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

From the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they always have been.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

Vanessa Bell @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

‘You have a genius in your life as well as in your art’
(Art critic Roger Fry to his sometime lover, artist Vanessa Bell)

More than anything I can write, this YouTube montage of Vanessa Bell’s paintings set to music by Chopin gives a good overview of her work.

Biography

Vanessa Stephen (1879-1961) was born into an upper-middle-class and well-connected Victorian family. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, Julia being a niece of the pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, and cousin of the noted temperance leader, Lady Henry Somerset.

Her siblings were a younger sister, Virginia (later renowned as a great novelist under her married name of Virginia Woolf), brothers Thoby (Clifton College and Trinity, Cambridge) and Adrian (Westminster school and Trinity, Cambridge), and half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth (both educated at Eton, Gerald went on to found the publishing house named after him, and was able to help Virginia set up her publishing house, Hogarth Press).

The Stephen family lived in a smart house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, with lots of servants where Vanessa was home educated in languages, mathematics and history. She showed an early gift for art and had drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, before she attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896, and then went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in 1901 under John Singer Sargent.

After the death of her father in 1904, Vanessa sold the Hyde Park Gate house and moved to Bloomsbury, along with Virginia and the brothers. Here they began socialising with the like-minded artists, writers and intellectuals who would form the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ who, in all areas of life, art and literature, set themselves to overthrow the stifling influence of their Victorian parents.

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the notoriously bisexual painter, Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, in 1918.

Vanessa and husband Clive, their lover Duncan Grant and his boyfriend ‘Bunny’, all moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle in East Sussex. By farming here the menfolk, all pacifists and conscientious objectors, evaded service in the Great War.

Here Vanessa and Grant painted and also worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops, an artists’ co-operative for decorative arts established by Roger Fry that operated between 1913 and 1919, and which produced interesting work in a Vorticist/Futurist style. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. The influence of contemporary radical experiments in Futurism and Vorticism are immediately obvious in many of these bold, colourful designs.

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell lived a long life and painted right through to the 1950s, but even her most devoted fans admit that the 1910s represent her most creative and innovative period. In the 1910s, 20s and 30s she was a member of a group of friends and acquaintances who pioneered new ways of living, open marriages and a very liberal approach to sexuality. But works from the 1940s and 50s show her slowly losing the radical edge of the period either side of the Great War, her depictions of the Sussex countryside or of interiors with vases of flowers, becoming steadily more conventional.

The exhibition

This is the first ever retrospective of Bell’s work. It brings together some 100 paintings, book jackets she designed for the Hogarth Press, ceramics, fabrics, photos, diaries and letters to present a themed overview of Bell’s life and career. As always with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it offers a beautifully laid out and informative opportunity to assess a rather neglected figure in English modern art.

Several things emerge from a slow perusal of the exhibition’s six rooms:

Blocky painting style

Bell’s earliest paintings reflect the sophisticated sheen of her teacher John Singer Sargent (note the telltale flecks of white on the vase to give the illusion of reflected light in Iceland Poppies 1908). But even then she was being exposed to the revolutionary influence of Picasso, Matisse and contemporary French painting. In fact right from the earliest portraits shown here, she seems more naturally to take a slabby, blocky approach to paintwork – instead of trying to capture the smooth contours of a fabric or a face, preferring to map out areas of solid colour, depicted with broad chunky brushstrokes. The rough, sketched-out feel, the deliberate lack of finish and the deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour are all suggestive of contemporary experiments in Europe, but are done with a distinctive English gentleness. Despite this, something of all her formal training comes out in the naturalistic outline and presence. these traits are exemplified in one of her many portraits of her novelist sister, Virginia:

Portraits of friends and family

In fact portraits of family and friends are a recurrent feature of Bell’s work and occupy one of the six rooms here.

They represent a decisive break with Victorian naturalism and Salon art, and a wholesale incorporation of the unreal colours, simplification of pattern, crude brushstrokes and awkward anti-aesthetic shapes found across the continent in the work of Gauguin, Die Brucke, the Fauves and so on.

The portraits of her sister are among the most persuasive or gripping. I think this is the best one, all the more powerful for its ‘modern’ blanking of the face, the part which should, traditionally, be the most detailed, revealing the sitter’s character etc. All that has been rejected in favour of an interest in composition and colour.

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the portraits, as in her other genres, the later work becomes noticably more conservative and straighforwardly figurative. Enjoyable, but in a different way.

Derivative

After a few rooms I felt I had seen a lot of these paintings before, or ones very much like them – most recently in the early-twentieth-century rooms of the excellent Courtauld Gallery, which contains works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Bonnard and other post-impressionists. (The term ‘Post-impressionism’ was in fact coined by Vanessa’s friend and sometime lover, art critic Roger Fry, as an umbrella term to cover developments in French art since Manet.)

This feeling was confirmed by many of the wall labels for individual paintings and by the (very useful) audioguide by exhibition co-curator Sarah Milroy. Both frequently pointed out the influence of the Nabis (a group name given to the French painters Vuillard, Bonnard et al), of Cézanne, of Matisse, of Picasso, on individual Bell works.

For example, it is hard not to see the largest work in the show, The Other Room (1930) as anything other than a homage to Matisse – the emphasis on design and areas of bright colour over detail, the interest in the design on fabrics (the curtains, the chair cover), the wilful indifference to anatomical realism in the human figures.

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Landscapes

When Bell moved to the country, she took the urban continental style developed in her portraits (and the occasional, rare depiction of urban scenery) with her and applied it to numerous images of the landscape around the Sussex farmhouse. Many of these are strikingly composed in a kind of flat, blocky, post-impressionist style. They apply a continental mentality to the south of England countryside, a blockiness derived from Cézanne, along with the big slab brushwork of maybe Vlaminck or Derain.

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell painted landscapes for the rest of her life and the selection here allows you to see how her style, over the decades, lost the modernist edge it once had, and reverted to a tamer figurativeness. Thirty years separate the painting above from the one below.

Flowers and vases

Bell painted flowers and vases throughout her long working life. There is a room devoted just to this subject. I found these a lot less interesting than the landscapes or portraits.

Once again, a careful examination of the chronology suggests a falling away of intensity in the later paintings. The later flower paintings lack oomph. Maybe they’re content. Happy.

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

A note on colour and reproduction

Despite the brightness of many of the images included in this review, the colour which perhaps came over most from these paintings was a kind of turd brown, obvious in a work like The Conversation, or the double portrait of Frederick and Jessie Etchells (1912). A congeries of dark and murky browns, emphasised by the often plain wooden frames.

Without exception all the reproductions I’ve seen online – and even the reproductions on the hand-held audioguide – come out brighter and more colourful than the actual works themselves which, in the flesh, are mostly dour and drab, with a particular deep brown the prevailing tone. As one of the commenters I quote below put its – with some notable exceptions – ‘muddy’ gives a good summary of the majority of the paintings’ visual impact. In fact, the main visual takeaway from the show has been to make me notice just how much brown there is around us in everyday life – bricks of walls and houses, reddy-brown roof tiling, brown fences and so on.

The Bloomsbury group

More than enough has been written about the loose group of artists, writers, novelists and critics, economists and philosophers who lived in and around Bloomsbury Square near the British Museum, and also had connections with Trinity College Cambridge. They shared a desire to overthrow the stuffy prudery of their Victorian parents. The philosopher G.E. Moore in his vast Principia Ethica emphasised the centrality of honest personal relationships in his definition of ‘the good’ and ‘the good life’. This represented a massive break with the strongly social basis of Victorian ideals of Duty, Honour and so on.

Thus Bell’s wholesale rejection of the Victorian naturalistic tradition in painting can be seen as part of the wider rejection of Victorian values among her wider family and friends, and her ‘open’ marriage and the complex love lives of herself and her friends constituted a breath-taking departure from the norms of her parents and the stuffy Edwardian society she worked in.

The importance of Bloomsbury as a hotbed of new ways of seeing and living is emphasised throughout the exhibition – it is unavoidable since her portraits were all unofficial depictions of her family and close friends, and so the audiocommentary and wall labels insistently namecheck members of the Group, providing details of Bell’s lovers and associates. The show features a display case showing photographs of friends and family together in the garden of the Sussex house, which convey the casual informality of this impressive group of thinkers and artists.

Bell and feminism

The Canadian curator Sarah Milroy emphasises that Vanessa was a feminist pioneer. The first wall panel claims that Bell’s

‘portraits of women offer bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new force and agency.’

With the best will in the world, I couldn’t quite see this. Some of the earliest work captures an odd, alien effect which I enjoyed, for example the worrying intensity of the female figures in –

and many of the first room of portraits are deliberately unnerving and unsettling –

and amount to a full-frontal assault on Victorian aesthetics of female beauty –

The commentary tells us that the strange and ominous Studland Beach is considered one of her masterpieces. It certainly has a kind of Expressionist alienation and Symbolist portentousness. But I don’t see it as particularly giving the women depicted in it ‘agency and force’.

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

And these are exceptions to the majority of works here. The more frequent portraits of Virginia, Iris, Molly and so on, although modernist in form, are supremely calm and placid in tone. Her sitters are generally ensconced in a comfy chair in a nicely furnished living room – and the presence in the surrounding rooms of so many depictions of the peaceful Sussex countryside, not to mention the umpteen paintings of tasteful vases of flowers – the overall effect is a great feeling of calm and tranquility.

And the early experimentalism in this genre, as in the others, slips away as the later paintings become more conventional.

The final wall label repeats this feminist emphasis, which is clearly important to the show’s organisers:

‘One of Bell’s greatest legacies is her reimagining of the image of womanhood, with her powerful female bodies and countenances claiming pictorial space with a kind of brute force.’

Many of the female portraits from her glory years around the Great War are strange rebellions, and just focusing on the work from that specific period does emphasise their originality in the hidebound English tradition. But even the weirdest of them feel to me static and dreamlike. ‘Brute force’ is just not a phrase I would apply to Bell’s work.

As to subverting or revolutionising women’s roles, which the commentary claims she did, I also couldn’t really see it. Bell designed fabrics and painted vases of flowers; she moved to a lovely farmhouse in the countryside where she hosted charming weekends for her artistic friends; she was the loving mother of two adorable sons (Julian, who went to private school and King’s College before becoming a poet, and Quentin, who went to private school before becoming an art historian). I genuinely don’t see how this is revolutionary or subversive.

Possibly I don’t understand the times well enough, and the ongoing weight of conformity to Victorian gender stereotypes which most of her contemporaries endured. Maybe it was precisely Bell and her friends who opened the door to this kind of lifestyle, which eventually became so widespread as to become a cliché in succeeding generations.

The Omega workshop and abstraction

The works of Bell’s which approach nearest to the dynamic abstractions of her contemporaries on the English art scene – Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg or C.R.W. Nevinson – derive from her period with the Omega workshop, set up by close friends Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with the idea of producing fabrics and textiles based on their own designs. It opened in 1913, produced a wide range of domestic furnishings to modernist designs, before closing in 1920.

One of the six rooms is dedicated to Bell’s Omega phase, with patterns and designs for rugs, curtains and so on, for example the Design for Omega Workshops Fabric reproduced above. There are also examples of the book jacket illustrations she provided for the Hogarth Press, the small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917.

The biggest object in the show is the painted screen from this period, Tents and Figures – a big powerful work which conveys Bell’s interest in abstraction and bold geometric design – but with a power, you can’t help thinking, borrowed from Cezanne’s landscapes and the Fauvist use of African masks for the faces. It’s good but haven’t I seen these clashing diagonals and mask-faced figures before?

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Conclusion

I found many of the the early portraits novel and fresh, some of her odder stuff (e.g. The Conversation) bracingly disconcerting, the Omega workshop designs and artefacts an interesting variation on the Modernism of her contemporaries. I found a number of the landscapes evocative, especially the earlier, more modernist ones, and some of the still lifes prettily decorative.

But, in general, the paintings which make the biggest impact are the ones most obviously derived from Continental exemplars. Bell is an interesting artist, who produced lots of good work but maybe, in the end, is an example of the way hundreds, maybe thousands of artists in the 1910s, were gripped and liberated by wholly new ways of seeing and painting created by a handful of pioneers in France and Germany (the Expressionists, the Fauves).

One of the best paintings in the show is Nude with Poppies – admirable but… isn’t it almost entirely Matisse?

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I worried that maybe I was failing to ‘get’ Bell, so I was reassured by these comments added to the online Guardian review of the exhibition:

  • “Looks very derivative to me. Not a patch on the originals, ie. Matisse, Mondrian, Gauguin, Munch”
  • “Not in the same league as the greats of the period, though, but still… pretty pictures.”
  • “I love her early work – the abstracts and experimental portraits. The later stuff is too muddy and repetitive, and the radical edge disappears pretty quickly.”
  • “Probably nice above the mantlepiece in a suburban villa. Nowt wrong with that, I’m a great lover of domestic art. But put her in a public gallery and her work withers to almost nothing. A very second rate artist.”
  • “you really have to work hard at liking them – and that’s because they are poor; badly done, lazily composed, arrogantly confident. “

Summary

So – some arresting and some eerie portraits, a few impressive semi-abstract landscapes, lots of vases of flowers. But with the nagging sense that they are very derivative, throughout. And – to step back a bit – the enormous social, political and philosophical upheavals which were going on at exactly this time (1914-1930) and are represented in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary art – or the impact and experience of the two cataclysmic world wars as captured in, say, the recent big exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain – are completely absent.

It is interesting that the curators chose to arrange the exhibition by theme and not chronologically. Is it because a chronological presentation would highlight the way the impact of the European post-impressionists set off a storm of creativity in Bell’s work during the 1910s – but also show how that energy faded in the 1920s so that by the 1940s and 1950s she is painting capable enough works, but many so bland they wouldn’t be out of place in a local jumble sale.

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

As ever with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s a thorough, well-presented and elegant exhibition of a neglected artist, and so a welcome opportunity to find out more, to range over Bell’s work, to try and formulate a view. Maybe I’m missing something but for me, although it contains some arresting work and some surprises and convinces me that her name should be better known and more of her work displayed in public collections – it ultimately doesn’t persuade me that Vanessa Bell was in any way a major figure.

DPG promotional video


Related links

Unintentional comedy There are three articles about this show in the Guardian, all of which complain that Bell has too long been in the shadow of the more famous Bloomsburyites. But ironically, the subtitles of all three articles define her in precisely the terms they claim to be trying to rescue her from:

  • “Vanessa Bell to break free from Bloomsbury group in Dulwich show – The sister of Virginia Woolf and lover of Duncan Grant is long overdue recognition as pioneer of modern art, say curators”
  • “Vanessa Bell: stepping out of the shadows of the Bloomsbury set – The artist, best known for her tangled love life and being Virginia Woolf’s sister, gets her first major solo show”
  • “Design and desires: how Vanessa Bell put the bloom in Bloomsbury – She was best known as a member of the Bloomsbury group and sister of Virginia Woolf – but will the first major show of her artwork change her reputation?”

The answer to the last question is surely – No, not as long as her biggest fans, her most knowledgeable curators and her most supportive journalists, continue to define her in terms of her better-known sister, her numerous lovers and her social set – and not as an artist in her own right, which is surely how she should be presented.

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Adriaen van de Velde @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first ever exhibition devoted to the Dutch Golden Age painter and draughtsman, Adriaen van de Velde (1636 – 1672). His reputation was high during his own short lifetime, and he was highly collectible through to the end of the Victorian era, but in the 20th century his reputation went into decline. In the twentieth century Dutch painting of the period came to be divided into a) really Dutch painting, featuring for example townscapes of Amsterdam or Delft, or b) Italianate Dutch – featuring Roman ruins and classical motifs among the cows and meadows. Van de Velde’s work didn’t easily fit into either category and so went into eclipse.

Adrian came from a family of painters, with both his father and brother – Willem van de Velde the Elder and Willem van de Velde the Younger – specialising in seascapes. Adrian broke with family tradition by concentrating on landscapes and also on human figures: in his short life he became well-known for his figure drawings and paintings – the catalogue claims he had ‘the greatest gift for drawing figures of any 17th century Dutch artist’. Thus he wasoften asked to paint the figures in other artists’ landscape paintings.

The exhibition features about 20 of the 170 paintings credited to van de Velde, alongside some 40 drawings, brought together from over 20 lending institutions and private collections. As usual it is spread across the Dulwich Gallery’s six exhibition rooms.

Room one features a selection of van der Velde’s landscapes to introduce you to themes and feel – most notably a series of paintings of the beach at Scheveningen, made when he was in his early twenties.

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660) Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660) Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Surveying the room as a whole you get a sense of big blue skies, happy cumulus clouds, and then begin to enjoy the details. In The beach at Scheveningen I was taken with the birds silhouetted against the cloud centre-left, and a clutter of starfishes at the feet of the figure bottom-right. The curator made a point of emphasising the proto-romantic aspect of the figure with his hands behind his back, as if he’s looking out at a boundless expanse. Other beach paintings include:

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

I liked the dog centre foreground, mooching at some bones. And the way the whole foreground is in shadow. Light, daylight, the play of light, light on clouds, shadows, the sunset shades of evening light – these were abiding interests of his short career. Other landscapes in room one include:

Restful. Peaceful. Tranquil. Although there are animals, and sometimes depicted bounding and leaping, nothing disturbs the tranquil light playing on almost static figures, frozen in time. They are like paintings to meditate to.

Room two is devoted to a painting of a rural hut, with a woman working outside and some sheep sitting placidly – an image of  man in peaceful harmony with animals and the surrounding landscape.

The Hut by Adriaen van de Velde (1671) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Hut by Adriaen van de Velde (1671) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This painting was chosen for a room of its own because, by a chance of history, quite a few preparatory sketches survive for it, giving us a rare insight into the working practice of a 17th century artist. There are two or three sketches of the hut itself, probably drawn on the spot, based on a real building, and done with considerable detail – the final painting keeps all the architectural detail and even the shadows exactly as per the sketches. Separate are sketches of the people and of the sheep and cattle.

There are several studies of this woman working at a basket.

<em>Seated woman with basket</em> by Adriaen van de Velde. Red chalk, 28.3 x 20 cm, Private Collection

Seated woman with basket by Adriaen van de Velde. Red chalk. Private Collection

It’s striking to learn that van der Velde used the pose and clothes of this figure in more than one painting: the room contains another painting, of a completely different location and setting, but featuring the same woman in the same pose. Striking to learn that the painters worked up ‘stock figures’ for use in different compositions.

Room three is devoted to more sketches. Here and in some other rooms I found myself strongly attracted to the preparatory sketches in red chalk, black chalk, or pen and ink. The final version of The Hut (above) is kind of finished, dark and saturated – whereas the sketches for it have a lightness and airiness more like the famous beach paintings. Thus I liked the combination of amazing detail and draughtsmanship, with a sense of openness and freedom and opportunity, given by a sketch like Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream.

Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream by Adriaen van de Velde. Pen in brown and black grey wash. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream by Adriaen van de Velde. Pen in brown and black grey wash. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

In fifteen years he experimented and tried numerous genres, never departing far from landscape but trying out figures and ideas.

The commentary points out that the reclining shepherd, ‘in its elegance and exquisite use of red chalk prefigures the work of eighteenth-century French artists such as Antoine Watteau and François Boucher’.

But some of these sketches highlighted for me his most noticeable weakness, which is his inability to do faces – the heads are often too small for the bodies, and if they’re in any other pose than full frontal, they often look contorted. This is another reason why the sketches like Herdsman (above) have an edge over the paintings – they don’t even try to do features, they are happy to be indicative of faces, and so they work better.

Room four brings together religious works and finished drawings. Van de Velde married a Roman Catholic, which wasn’t illegal, but they didn’t publicise the fact – and there is a small religious strand in his work. Which I didn’t like.

  • St John the Baptist
  • The angel appearing to shepherds
The Angel appearing to the Shepherds by Adriaen van de Velde. Brush and brown ink over black chalk © The Trustees of The British Museum

The Angel appearing to the Shepherds by Adriaen van de Velde. Brush and brown ink over black chalk © The Trustees of The British Museum

Melodrama – the Baroque – was not, I think, his thing. I was happier with more secular, humanistic works like:

(In this room the curator who showed us round was keen to single out Summer landscape with wheatfield (1662) as a very experimental work – done entirely in watercolour without a trace of pen, obviously on location in the open air, centuries ahead of the Impressionists.)

Room five focused on pastoral works. The curator explained that in the 1660s van der Velde focused almost exclusively on this type of painting, probably because there was good money in it. What documentation we have for van der Velde includes lots of correspondence about debts and loans. He seems to have been harassed by money troubles. Hence lots of saleable landscapes.

Figures in a deer park by Adriaen van de Velde (c. 1665) Oil on panel. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection

Figures in a deer park by Adriaen van de Velde (c. 1665) Oil on panel. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection

Apart from the interest in human figures, which is what brings the scenes alive – what struck me is how many of them are painted at sunset, with the sunny blue skies and white clouds tinged with crepuscular pink. This was particularly obvious in the only two van der Velde paintings which featured winter scenes and the kind of ice-bound festivities we are so used to from scores of Dutch Golden Age painters.

Room six is labelled ‘Dutch Arcadia’ and brings together a handful of really massive paintings.

Landscape with cattle and figures by Adriaen van de Velde (1664) © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Landscape with cattle and figures by Adriaen van de Velde (1664) © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

At 125 by 167 centimetres, this is a big painting, but not as big as the monster of the show, Portrait of a Family in a Landscape (178 x 148 cm).

These monsters fetched big money in subsequent centuries but The portrait of a couple, in particular, to me, shows the weakness of his face painting, a weakness less exposed in the fabulous beach paintings and not called into question in his lovely pen or chalk sketches.

The whole show radiates an atmosphere of deep calm, tranquility, peace and harmony. This is a wonderful exhibition which is difficult to tear yourself away from…

The movie

As is customary, the Gallery has produced a short promotional video.

Related links

Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Winifred Knights @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is a fabulous opportunity to soak yourself in the life and achievement of a strange and haunting woman artist, Winifred Knights, born in 1899, active in the 1920s and 30s, but who had stopped painting well before her sudden, tragically young, death from a brain tumour in 1947.

Knights was in many ways a pioneer, being an award-winning student at Slade School of Art and then the first woman to win the prestigious Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting. Knights was born into a liberal circle of Fabian socialists and female emancipationists and her artistic style and biography bespeak her lifelong self-possession and determination.

Childhood and the Slade

Knights was born in the south London suburb of Streatham and attended the very posh James Allens School for Girls, where she first showed her gifts as a draughtsperson. The show opens with pencil drawings of figures and nudes done when she was 17, 18, 19, all of which are very impressive. She won a place at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, in the Bloomsbury district of central London, at the alarmingly young age of 16 and studied there from 1915 to 1917. Among the drawings the standout piece is this breath-taking female nude.

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

At the Slade she was taught by Henry Tonks, a stickler for accurate depiction of the human body and so perfect for Knights, who he came to regard as one of his finest students. (The tall strict Tonks had taught the generation just before Knights, who featured in a previous Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, A Crisis of Brilliance.) Throughout her life Knights did beautiful depictions of figures clothed and unclothed. Even in the 1930s, when her style had evolved far from naturalism, she was still capable of producing sketches like this stunning –

Appearance and self-portraits

From the start of her career through to the end she turned these talents on herself, producing scores of self-portraits and featuring images of herself in many of her paintings, sometime more than one image.

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

These self-portraits are all the more striking because Knights herself had very striking features -possessed of a long oval face which she accentuated with an austere hair-style, her long black hair parted in the middle and drawn tightly over her ears, revealing only the imaginative ear-rings she favoured.

The air of self-possession which comes over strongly in the photographs was emphasised or brought out by her long sweeping dresses, swathing her from throat to toes and covering the arms up to the wrists, which she made herself to her own designs from a variety of fabrics. She affected a big black broad-brimmed hat which features in many of the sketches and paintings.

Photo of Winifred Knights

Photo of Winifred Knights

Her own self-presentation was so distinct and striking that the final room in the show has a wall dedicated just to photos and portraits of her by other artists. These include:

  • Photo portrait by Paul Laib
  • Allegory by Colin Ginn, where Winifred is the tall figure in the characteristic high-necked blouse and her signature black Spanish hat, standing left

All this emphasis on her portraits and photos isn’t a peripheral matter, because Knights not only used herself in many of her compositions but based her increasingly stylised depiction of the human body on her own body shape – elongated, symmetrical, posed in geometric and formal attitudes.

Rural life and art

This move away from the sensuous curve of the life studies towards something more hieratic is apparent even in the first room.

Knight’s studies at the Slade were interrupted when she suffered a nervous breakdown after witnessing the vast explosion in the East End area of London’s docklands caused by a German zeppelin dropping bombs on a dynamite factory during the Great War in 1917.

She was sent to stay with her father’s cousin on the family farm in Worcestershire and this opened her eyes to a whole new world of rural life and work. The effect on her output was immediate, resulting in a piece like her Design for a Wall Decoration (1918). (She didn’t call her works ‘paintings’, she called them ‘decorations’ and had a lifelong interest in creating art which was decorative, more often than not commissioned to be placed in specific locations within specific buildings.) She meant the design for a wall decoration to be just that, a sketch for a much larger work to be painted onto a wall.

A work like Potato Harvest is surprisingly unlike the supple sensuousness of the pencil portraits. It is deliberately flat and angular, the figures almost deliberately amateurish and set against a backdrop which emphasises simple lines and shapes.

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The show includes some very early book illustrations Knights did – specifically, this arresting illustration of Little Miss Muffet (note the use of her own self-portrait with the characteristic sharply parted hair and high-cut blouse) After returning to the Slade after the War she produced works like Leaving the Munitions Works.

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

It has the lightness of a book illustration, with the geometric sharpness of the walls and pavement and houses and the washed-out water colours. This little part of the show makes you wonder whether Knights couldn’t have had a very effective career as a book illustrator, or pursued it as a sideline; but it was not to be.

The exhibition never fully explained to me what ‘Decorative Painting’ is, but it clearly is more interested in lines and shapes and patterns for their own sake rather than the depiction of any ‘reality’. In her final year Knights won the Slade Summer Composition Prize for Mill Hands on Strike, the stylised fields in the background reminding me of the landscapes of John Nash.

The Deluge

In 1920 Knights won the coveted Rome Scholarship with her huge and most famous work, The Deluge. The competitors for the prize all had eight weeks to paint a work on the same subject. Despite losing time when she was ill for a week, Knights won the prize with this stunning huge work. A whole room in the exhibition is devoted to it, and also contains the full-size cartoon of the work and the many preparatory studies she did for it. Every detail was very carefully planned and worked over.

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Only a few years after the slight amateurishness of The Mill Hands, her style here is astonishingly finished and achieved. Note the way all the women wear long robes of the kind Knight herself wore – in fact the figure in the front is a self-portrait of the artist, while some of the other faces are based on friends and families. (The central figure carrying a baby is Knight’s mother and Knight’s then partner Arnold Mason modelled for the male figure beside her and also the man scrambling up the hill).

But it isn’t the faces you look at, it’s the extreme stylisation of the landscape and the geometric posture of the figures. It is a kind of naive Modernism, a variation on the Futurism or Vorticism of the pre-war years, except far more open and clear and simple. Maybe it is the post-war return to classicism, which took place across all the arts, as applied to cubism-futurism-vorticism, and so bringing a kind of clarity and order to the more chaotic pre-war modernism. Whatever it is, the longer you look at it, the weirder – and more compelling and powerful – it becomes.

The Rome scholarship and Italy

The scholarship paid for Knights to go and study in Rome from 1920 to 1925. Here she married fellow Rome Scholar Thomas Monnington (1924) and toured the Italian countryside, soaking herself in her beloved Early Renaissance frescoes. The way the frescoes were designed for specific locations, particular buildings, their decorative element is what she took and applied to a series of large-scale works over the coming decade.

The second half of the exhibition dedicates an room to each of these works. After The Deluge comes The Marriage at Cana (1923).

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Here again design and decoration are everything, the starkly geometric lines of buildings and doorways and benches and even hedges, emphasising the static postures of the bodies, lined up in rows. Eerily, the faces – once again – are of friends and family and the painting of course features at least two self-portraits. But the faces, although more realistic than in The Deluge, are eerily blank. The picture doesn’t contain a shred of religious feeling – instead conveys a peculiar and unsettling sense of stasis. The figures are almost like zombies.

Each of the rooms dedicated to these big works contains some of the many preparatory sketches, drawings, cartoons and paintings Knights made for them and I found myself warming to the sketches far more than to the finished works. The initial pencil depictions of the figures have the supple humanity of her earliest portraits, but the way they’re hung lets you see all the life being slowly drained out of them as they become part of a larger, more abstract, schematic design.

Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours

I found this especially true of her last big work, a series of Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours commissioned for the Milner Memorial Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral. She worked on these for five long years, from 1928 to 1933, demoralised at one stage by disagreements with Sir Herbert Baker who commissioned it, almost abandoning the scheme, but eventually returning.

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

More than ever the composition is flat and stylised like an early Renaissance fresco, and yet the flatness of the composition contrasts oddly, jarringly, with the highly realistic depictions of the faces – Knights herself is the woman standing to the left of the kneeling saint (who himself has the face of Baker, who commissioned it, just as Renaissance works included the image of the work’s patron). The faces are realistic but oddly blank. It is like a science fiction disaster has come over all the people in the picture, draining them of all expression and warmth.

By this stage (this is the last room in the exhibition) I was used to being much more attracted to the sketches and preparatory works than to the finished products, which I find cold, flat and distanced. Her works hold you at arm’s length – just as the precise clothes, the formal hat and the emotionless gaze in most of her portraits do; whereas many of the sketches are warm and wonderfully evocative; take for example:

There are three small rectangular oil paintings in the final room, which are very rough preparations for the St Martin work, in which the faces are just greyish-brown ovals, but which somehow – in their unfinished and rough state – have more energy and emotion than the highly cleansed and clinical final product.

Conclusions

There is a huge gap in Winifred Knight’s work between the warmth and sensuous immediacy of the pencil drawings, some of her preparatory sketches, and the landscapes dotted throughout the show (I particularly liked the landscapes done around Roydon in Essex and at Cuckmere Haven in Sussex) – and the deliberately static, arrested and detached feeling of the really big compositions – her large ‘decorations’.

For me The Deluge is the most successful of these because it is the closest to the dynamism of the Futurist-Vorticist tradition, whereas the later master-works – The Marriage at Cana (1923), The Santissima Trinita (1924-30), Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours (1928-33) – have become too ‘decorative’ for my taste, too like the cold detachment of her beloved Renaissance fresco work.

Last years

Knights struggled over long periods with these later works and then, after the birth of her son in 1934, found herself bogged down with the duties of motherhood. By the time was broke out in 1939 she had virtually stopped painting and the war itself was a further demoralising period of frustration and privation. Thus the final room in the exhibition has the patchy feel of covering a long period (1928 to 1947) during which not a lot was produced.

Because it contains a wall of photos and portraits of her the last room prompts the thought that in one way, Knights was her own most striking work of art – the austere, intense and ascetic image she recorded in her many self-portraits and which others were also moved to record in photos and paintings, leaving a more lasting and somehow more intimate impression than many of her strange and unsettling decorations.

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

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