Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites @ the National Gallery

This is a smallish (just 33 works) but really beautiful and uplifting exhibition.

It’s devoted to showing the influence of the northern Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, on the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Well, I love Northern Renaissance art and I love later Victorian art, so I was in seventh heaven.

In the mid-19th century Jan van Eyck was credited as the inventor of oil painting by the Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Great Painters (1550). We now know this not to be strictly true; a more realistic way of putting it is that Van Eyck and his contemporaries in the mid-15th century Netherlands brought oil painting to an extraordinary level of refinement and brilliance. They were the first to use multiple ‘glazes’ (building up successive layers of partly translucent paint) and to pay astonishing attention to detail, producing works which combined amazing precision and sumptuous colour, with an intoxicating sense of depth.

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

The exhibition opens with a ten-minute film (shown in a dark room off to one side) which explains the idea succinctly. In the 1840s the National Gallery only owned one work by any of the Netherlandish masters – Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which it acquired in 1842 when the National Gallery itself was only 18 years old.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

At that point, the Royal Academy’s School of Art was located in the same building as the small National Gallery collection. All the art students of the day had to do was walk along a few corridors to view this stunning masterpiece. Among these art students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848.

Nearby hung the very first painting acquired by the Gallery, this enormous work from the High Renaissance, The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The PRBs thought that works like this had become so stylised and formalised as to have become meaningless and devoid of emotion. They disliked the artificial poses, the pious sentiments, the sickly colouring, the simplified pinks and blues and greens.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The raising of Lazarus typified everything the PRBs disliked in painting, a sterile academicism. Compare and contrast the van Eyck, with its precision of detail (look at the pearls hanging on the wall, the candelabra, the fur trimming of husband and wife), the humane mood and emotion, and the realistic use of light.

The PRBs rejected Piombo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the masters of the High Renaissance and, as a group, made a concerted effort to return to the twinkling detail and humanity of medieval painting. (A trend which was helped by the medievalising tendency in Victorian culture generally, epitomised by the poetry of Tennyson, the historical novels of Scott, and which would be carried through into the Arts and craft movement by William Morris).

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

In total the exhibitions comprises a room or so of works by van Eyck and contemporaries (Dirk Boults, Hans Memling) before three rooms look at masterpieces by the PRBs which pay homage to the Arnolfini Wedding; and a final room looks at its influence on art at the turn of the century.

Pride of place in the first room goes to van Eyck’s stunning self-portrait. For me this epitomises the strength of northern Renaissance painting in that it is humane and realistic. Unlike Italian Renaissance paintings which tend to show idealised portraits of their sitters, this presents a genuine psychological portrait. The more you look the deeper it becomes. His wrinkles, the big nose, the lashless eyelids – you feel this is a real person. For me, this has extraordinary psychological depth and veracity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Near to it is a Virgin and Child by fellow northerner, Hans Memling. I love the medieval details which cling to these works, the toy sailing ship in the background such as might have been used in the Hundred Years War. Note the way there is perspective in the picture (things further away are smaller) but it is not the mathematically precise perspective which Italian Renaissance painters liked to show off. In particular the floor is set at an unrealistically sloping angle. Why? To show off the detail of the black and white tiling, and especially of the beautifully decorated carpet.

As well as the humanity of the figures and faces, it is this attachment to gorgeous detail which I love in north Renaissance art.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The convex mirror

Next we move on to the first of the Victorian homages to van Eyck and it immediately becomes clear why the exhibition is titled Reflections. The curators have identified a thread running through major early, later and post-Pre-Raphaelite paintings – use of the CONVEX MIRROR.

If you look closely at the Arnolfini Wedding, you can see not only the backs of the married couple but a figure who is usually taken to be a self-portrait of the artist. It adds an element of mystery (nobody is completely certain it is the artist in the mirror), it expands the visual space by projecting it back behind us, so to speak, and painting an image distorted on a convex surface, along with the distorted reflection of the window, is an obvious technical tour de force.

Now look at this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, the Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) in which a ‘kept woman’ is suddenly stirring from the lap of the rich bourgeois who keeps her (in this instance, in a luxury apartment in St John’s Wood).

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

Note the sloping floor which gives full scope to a gorgeous depiction of the patterned carpet; the hyper-realistic detailing of every one of the cluttered elements in the room, for example the grain of the piano, the gilt clock on top of it, the crouching cat, which recalls the dog in the van Eyck. But behind the figures is an enormous mirror which adds a tremendous sense of depth to the main image.

Maybe it is a symbol in a painting packed with religious symbolism: maybe the window opening into sunlight and air is an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from her life of shame.

The curators have selected works which demonstrate the way the mirror theme is repeated by all the pre-Raphaelites, famous and peripheral. Here’s an early Burne Jones watercolour where he’s experimenting with a complex mirror which consists of no fewer than seven convex mirrors each reflecting a different aspect of the main event (the capture of Rosamund by Queen Eleanor).

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

The exhibition explains that this type of convex mirror became highly fashionable among the PRBs and their circle. Rossetti was said to have over 20 mirrors in his house in Chelsea, including at least ten convex ones. In fact we have a painting done by his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn which shows a view of Rossetti’s own bedroom as reflected in one of his own convex mirrors.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

A generation after The Awakening Conscience Holman Hunt uses a mirror again, this time because it is part of the narrative of the influential poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem the eponymous lady lives her life in a high tower, shut off from real life outside, devoting her life to creating an enormous tapestry, seeing the world outside only as it is reflected in a grand mirror. One day along comes the heroic knight Sir Lancelot, the mirror cracks and the lady rises up, leaves her ivory tower and ventures out into ‘real life’.

(A relevant fable for our times, maybe, when so many of us are addicted to computer screens and digital relationships that we have coined an acronym, IRL [in real life] to depict the stuff that goes on outside the online realm.)

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries / Bridgeman Images

Note the wooden sandals or ‘pattens’ on the floor which are a direct quote from the Arnolfini Wedding, as is the candelabra on the right.

This painting is hanging in a room devoted to the story of the Lady of Shalott since, obviously enough, the mirror plays a central part in the narrative, and so gave painters an opportunity to explore ideas of distortion, doubling and reflection, ways to convey complex psychological drama.

Nearby is hanging another masterpiece by a favourite painter of mine, John William Waterhouse.

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

In the mirror we can see what the lady sees i.e. the window through which she can see dashing Sir Lancelot and the green fields of the real world. But we are looking at her looking at him although, in fact, she seems to be looking at us. And in her eyes is conveyed the haunting knowledge that, although her life to date may have been a sterile imprisonment – in fact, her emergence into ‘real life’ – in the poem – leads to her mysterious and tragic death.

I love Waterhouse’s faces – like Burne-Jones he hit on a distinctive look which is instantly identifiable, in Waterhouse’s case a kind of haunted sensuality.

By this stage, we are nearly 40 years after the first Pre-Raphaelite works, and Waterhouse’s art shows a distinctively different style. Among the things the PRBs admired in van Eyck was the complete absence of brushstrokes; the work was done to such a high finish you couldn’t see a single stroke: it was a smooth flat glazed surface, and they tried to replicate this in their paintings. Forty years later Waterhouse is not in thrall to that aesthetic. He has more in common with his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, in using square ended brushes and being unafraid to leave individual strokes visible (if you get up close enough), thus creating a looser, more shimmering effect.

In the final room the curators attempt to show that van Eyck’s convex mirror remained a source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, including Mark Gertler, William Orpen, and Charles Haslewood Shannon. These artists incorporated the mirror into their self-portraits and in domestic interiors well into the early 1900s, as seen in Orpen’s The Mirror (1900) and Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918).

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Conclusion

In the final room the curators include a massive copy of Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) on the basis that the van Eyck was for a time hung in the Spanish Royal Collection and so might have directly inspired Velázquez’s use of the mirror motif.

At moments I became confused whether this was an exhibition about van Eyck’s overall stylistic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – or a history of ‘the mirror’ in painting. You feel the exhibition doesn’t quite do either theme thoroughly: ‘the mirror in art’ would be a vast subject; ‘van Eyck’s convex mirror’ would result in probably a smaller show than the one here, whereas ‘van Eyck’s influence on the PRBs’ would have stopped earlier, certainly not including the 20th century works and probably not the Waterhouse.

So in the end I was left slightly confused by the way the exhibition had two or three not-totally-complete threads to it. But who cares: on the upside it includes a number of absolutely beautiful masterpieces. The mirror theme is kind of interesting, but I found the alternative thread – the direct relationship between van Eyck’s meticulous realism and that of the early PRBs – much the most visually compelling theme.

It is epitomised in this wonderful masterpiece by John Everett Millais, painted when he was just 22.

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

No convex mirror in sight, but what is in evidence is a luminous attention to naturalistic detail (the needle in the embroidery on the table, the leaves on the floor, the wee mouse, bottom right, echoing van Eyck’s doggie) and the technique.

The curators explain that Millais used a resin-based paint for the stained glass and especially the blue velvet dress, comparable to van Eyck’s use of layers of ‘glaze’ — both of them seeking – and achieving – an incredible sensation of depth and colour and sensual visual pleasure which only oil painting can convey.


Videos

Here’s the one-minute promotional film, with funky three-dimensional techniques.

And the 50-minute-long presentation by the exhibition’s co-curators.

There are a few other short films the National Gallery has produced on aspects of the show, all accessible from this page.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

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Other museums

A Victorian Obsession @ Leighton House Museum

The Leighton House Museum is worth visiting at any time, but especially so when it is hosting an exhibition like this one – A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection at Leighton House Museum.

One of the paintings on display references Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words (SWW by John Melhuish Strudwick). Why not listen as you read?

1. Leighton House Museum

Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-96) was one of the most eminent artists of the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign, with a particular interest in classical subject matter. In his twenties his prodigious skill already had people speculating whether he would become President of the Royal Academy, an ambition he achieved in 1878, and Leighton is the only British artist to have been raised to the peerage.

Leighton acquired this plot of land in Holland Park, west London, in the 1860s and for the rest of his life collaborated with architects to build and extend and improve what became an artistic creation in its own right, ‘a showcase for artistic and aesthetic taste’. The house is lavishly decorated and ornamented throughout but the most famous part of it is the Arab Hall, built between 1877 and 1881.

Leighton House Arab Hall (1) -®Will Pryce

Leighton House Museum, London: The Arab Hall. Courtesy of Leighton House Museum and Will Pryce.

The hall was based on the reception room at the twelfth-century palace of La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily. It was built to showcase Leighton’s collection of 16th and 17th century Islamic tiles and every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling contribute to the wonderful ambience, with mosaic floors, a gold mosaic frieze designed by Walter Crane running round the walls, elaborate alcoves with views over the garden and, in the centre, a small floor-level fountain trickling into a yard-wide pool. There are chairs so you can sit and relax. It is an extraordinary thing to find in a Victorian house.

Next in impact is the large, north-facing studio Leighton had built at the top of the house, to contain his easels, works in progress and the huge collection of photographs, sketches and oils which he kept around him. I was struck that Leighton had commissioned someone to run a scale version of the Parthenon frieze along the top of the longest wall in the room, a living link between his work and the classical Greek image of bodily perfection (a notion currently displayed and discussed at the British Museum) and which he saw as the ultimate source and validator of his work.

2. A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection

The Pérez Simón collection is named after the man who collected it, a successful Mexican businessman with an eye for Victorian art and the money to acquire it: he owns the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. This is a rare opportunity to see more than fifty paintings from the Leighton era gathered together in a house which beautifully preserves the ambience and feel of the time.

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum ©Todd White

The staircase in the Leighton House Museum, with paintings from the Pérez Simón collection © Todd White

The artists

The exhibition includes works by:

Timespan

The 60 or more paintings on show stretch from 1862 to 1916, from the heart of the Victorian era through the Edwardian high summer and on into the year of the Battle of the Somme.

Though they are not displayed in order, I think you can observe a development in interests and technique across the period. Very roughly the earlier paintings have a Pre-Raphaelite interest in the Middle Ages, an interest in Arthurian and other medieval legends and a soft-focus approach, a blurriness about the features which carries on in Burne-Jones’s work into the new century. This is a rare nude by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, using his most-painted model, Alexa Wilding.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia 1867-1868 Oil on canvas The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Venus Verticordia (1867-1868) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The later group of artists are sometimes referred to as the Olympians because they were interested in the life of ancient Greece and Rome (and Egypt) – not least because archaeological discoveries were publicising and popularising these cultures. Whereas the Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti or Burne-Jones painted a fantasy of medieval life, the next generation of painters, like Poynter or Goodall, had travelled extensively in Italy, Greece and even Egypt and prided themselves on an almost photographic accuracy of setting, clothing and detail.

Tennyson’s influence

If you read biographies of the poet laureate of Victorian society, Alfred Lord Tennyson, you discover that he and his closest friends at Cambridge debated long into the night and wrote treatises and poems addressing what was for them the burning issue of the day: Should the artist write about the reality of daily life (and, by implication, of the technological, political and social turmoil of the times) or turn his back on society and describe only an Ideal Beauty?

We know what happened: with occasional sideways references to contemporary life (glimpsed in Maud, The Princess or In Memoriam), Tennyson ultimately developed into the poet of escape, epitomised by the Idylls of the King (1859-85) which retold the legends of King Arthur in a particularly drowsy, dreamlike style. The artists collected here followed his path and their tremendous technical proficiency is used to depict dreams of heroism and chivalry, like the chocolate box perfection of Millais’ The Crown of Love.

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

John Everett Millais The Crown of Love (1875) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Tennysonian escapism

The art on display here is wholeheartedly escapist, awash with Arthurian stories or myths and legends from Greek, Roman or Biblical sources. There is none of the squalor and haste of Victorian life, let alone the innumerable small wars of Empire which Kipling was to write about from the late 1880s.

Instead, the viewer is transported back in time to the lazy lives of the leisured classes of long ago. Hardly any of the paintings depicts activity: a deep languor hangs over them, and the later in the period they are created, the lazier the lives depicted.

Are we to indict these artists for failing to depict the squalor and misery of their times, as if all art must always be about the most sordid subject matter the age can provide; or celebrate them for providing visual antidotes to it, for following the almost universal contemporary belief that art exists to create the inspiring and uplifting, the ‘beautiful’?

The female image

Woman as embodiment of virtue ‘A preoccupation at the heart of pictorial expression during this period is the representation of female beauty’ (the guide). Why? Women, constricted and constrained by Victorian laws and conventions were, paradoxically, turned into the embodiment of what men were fighting for, what men were working for, what needed to be protected. In the social realm, whether they wanted to or not, women had forced upon them the role of Embodiment of the Good, of Virtue.

Male pleasure In the realm of Art, pale, white, virginal, half-naked women were obviously pleasurable for male artists to paint and male critics to judge and male patrons to buy and stare at. Thousands of artists devoted their working lives to equating the category of beauty with the female face and body, an object to be coveted, fantasised and dreamed about.

Market forces A couple of times the commentary mentioned specific paintings being composed and created with an eye on the market. An artist has to earn a living. If images of scantily-clad young women sold, then the artists would produce every variation on the theme, placing scantily-clad young women in settings as diverse as imagination allowed, from Arthurian myth, to the legends of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Model power That said, art then – as maybe fashion or pop music today – offered an escape route from lives of poverty and low expectations, for the artists (some of whom came from very humble backgrounds) and also for their models, often illiterate girls plucked from the street.

Dorothy Dene

One such was Dorothy Dene, born Ada Pullen, the daughter of an impoverished engineer from Clapham. She became Leighton’s favourite model and muse for the rest of his career; she changed her name to Dorothy Dene and Leighton helped her start quite a successful stage career, paying for acting lessons and pulling strings to get her roles.

It is pleasing to read that Dene was one of the last people invited to visit Leighton on his deathbed in 1896 and that he left her the vast sum of £5,000, more than any other beneficiary of his will.

Crenaia

The vertical shape of the painting below reflects the waterfall in the background, a realistic depiction of the highest waterfall in Ireland, part of the river Dargle, which ran across the estate of Lord Powerscourt,  the painting’s first owner. Like so much art, it is about power and money and control – control of a foreign land which no doubt came with serfs and vassals, a fine house full of willing servants, and the leisure to stare at the white, elongated body of a beautiful young woman with her clothes just gently falling off her.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Crenaia, the nymph of the Dargle (1880) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Is Crenaia pornographic? Not really, not as our age knows pornography. Is it a form of soft porn or titillation? Probably, yes. I think it must have pandered to its patron’s sense of seigneurship and that it flatters any man who looks at it with a momentary sense of ownership of a woman of such soft pink perfection. But it is a very deliberate work of art and so, at a level above that, it flatters the owner’s connoisseurship: because, putting the sexuality of the figure to one side, it is a striking composition, so tall and thin, depicting a body elongated to echo the falling waterfall, and the whiteness of the gown and the white pinkness of the flesh stand out as if spotlit against the deep darkness of the background. The gown to the left is mirrored by the waterfall to the right and both could be mistaken for wings; it is almost one of the fairy paintings which were such a feature of Victorian art. So, multiple layers of visual and psychological pleasure.

Aestheticism

It’s hard to understand that these swooning beauties represented something of a rebellion against the art establishment. In the 1870s and 80s the movement which was known variously as Aestheticism or Art For Art’s Sake rebelled against the heavy hand of Victorian moralising. A great deal of Victorian art is anecdotal, telling a story, all too often one which thumps out a great moral lesson, quite often about the perils of infidelity. Although he never went as far as the polemical aestheticism of a painter like Whistler, Leighton created a number of marvellous canvases which are quite obviously more interested in form and design, in the harmonious arrangement of colours and fabrics, than in any particular myth or legend. Probably the most famous is Flaming June (1895), but on show here was the equally stylised and striking Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea, a much earlier work from 1871.

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederic, Lord Leighton Greek girls picking up pebbles by the sea (1871) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

The Roses of Heliogabulus

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, OM, RA, is the most famous painter of the classic Olympian scene, set on an airy terrace overlooking the sea. This painting, The Roses of Heliogabulus (1888) was given a room to itself, complete with various preparatory studies and some joss sticks filling the room with the aroma of roses. It depicts the (rather improbable) story from an account of the 3rd century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (203-222) who, among other corrupt and vicious behaviour, was said to have smothered guests at a feast with flower petals.

The striking thing about Alma-Tadema’s masterpiece is, of course, the complete lack of fear or violence; it looks like a lazy fin-de-siècle joke, all decadent music and fluttering rose petals. Far more noticeable than the nominal subject matter is Tadema’s characteristic attention to the detail of the surfaces, to the patterns in the marble pillars, the shimmer of the silk pillows.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus(1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Women on the terrace of a villa maritima

I am grateful to this exhibition for giving me the words to characterise these Olympian paintings, so many of which feature, as the guide puts it, ‘women on the terrace of a villa maritima‘; the image of women in togas looking over a marble parapet out across the blue Mediterranean is a stock image of the period, the speciality of Alma-Tadema in particular: charming anecdotes from antiquity.

Some highlights

  • Andromeda (1869) by Edward John Poynter – apparently, the first depiction of pubic hair anywhere in British art. As usual, the graphic nude is permissible because it is disguised as an uplifting and authorised Greek myth.
  • Passing Days (1875) by John Melhuish Strudwick – an allegory of life as figures pass from youth to age to death. Very Pre-Raphaelite in the samey vacancy of the faces. I liked the medieval attention to the detail of the background.
  • The Finding of Moses (1885) by Frederick Goodall – Goodall visited Egypt in 1858 and 1870, both times travelling and camping with Bedouin tribesmen, bringing back sundry artefacts and remaining fascinated by its legends and architecture. The very white pharoah’s daughter and Moses contrast with the dark serving girls. White is power, purity and, in this Biblical story, godliness. Note the detail of the carpet, and the frieze of hieroglyphics on the low wall behind her, and the Egyptian figures on the temple wall and the chevron of white birds rising from the trees. And I love the muddy realism of the water, giving the bottom quarter of the image a mirror-like depth.
Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

Frederick Goodall The Finding of Moses (1885) The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico © Studio Sébert Photographes

  • A Bathing Place (1890) by Albert Moore – the pose and the outdoor setting give this a surprising freshness. And it’s just a stunningly harmonious depiction of a perfect body.
  • The Crystal Ball (1902) by John William Waterhouse – lush velvet dress reminiscent of Millais at his best. Apparently there was a ‘Waterhouse profile’, a specific outline of the female face.
  • The Saz Player (1903) by William Clarke Wontner – what’s interesting is how this woman is so obviously English of the Edwardian, Downton Abbey type, and yet the drapery is very revealing. In its last years this genre became more shameless.
  • A Song of Springtime (1913) by John William Waterhouse – significantly different from the Crystal Ball, the roughness of the brushstrokes, and overlayering of paint creating a looser more spontaneous and open air feel. Although not ‘modern’ art, it has emerged from the Victorian syrup to become something more sturdy and independent.
  • A Passing Cloud (1895-1908) by Arthur Hughes – I think this is interesting because it shows the fag end of this tradition: a subject, a composition and a technique which have become hollow and superficial. The finish of the dress and the Delft tiles in the fireplace and especially the coat of the dog are little short of wondrous. But the whole painting is empty, it bespeaks an art which has migrated to the chocolate box and then been consigned to the attic. Leighton was long dead and the last survivors of his generation and his way of seeing things would die out on the eve of the Great War, which would sweep away their world, their fantasies, their ideas of Beauty, their visual imprisonment of women, and give rise to whole new ways of being and seeing.

My favourite

  • Greek wine (1873) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema – hidden next to a pillar was the highlight of the show. I liked it because of the vividness of the frieze copied from Greek pots at the back, because of the postures of the old man leaning up on his elbow and of the youth with his back to us pouring the wine, and because of the tremendous realism of the ageing, mottled flesh of the old man. An amazing depiction of the human body – and, as it happens, one of the few paintings with no women in it.

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