Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits @ the Royal Academy

‘By the turn of the millennium, Freud was widely acknowledged to be Britain’s greatest living painter.’
(Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe)

Contrary to the implications of the title, this exhibition does not include all of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, nowhere near. Given that Freud was interested in self portraiture throughout his long career, the selection here is a only relatively small percentage. Also, contrary to the title, the exhibition also includes a number of portraits not of himself, in fact arguably the best room is the one devoted to portraits of other people.

Lucian and me

I don’t like Lucian Freud. I associate him with Frank Auerbach and the other dreary, depressing post-war British artists, a kind of visual equivalent of Harold Pinter, who I was force-fed at school. Their dreary, depressed, rainy English miserabilism nearly put me off contemporary art and literature for life.

But this exhibition made me change my mind (a bit) for two reasons:

1. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, which allows us to see the quite remarkable evolution of his style over 60 years of painting. Stories are always interesting and, by stopping to investigate each stage along his journey, the exhibition does a good job of making his development interesting.

2. By luck I got into conversation with another visitor who happened to be an amateur painter and she, for the first time, made me understand how his journey had been one of technique. It dawned on me that, to use a cliché, he may be a painter’s painter. Certainly the last couple of rooms make you think that his paintings may well depict men or women, naked or clothed, including himself, as subjects – but the real subject is the adventure of painting itself.

And this made me go back and really examine the technique of the paintings in the last few rooms and come to respect, in fact to marvel, at the complex painterly effects of his mature style.

A brief outline

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1933, coming to London. He held his first solo show as early as 1944. In the late 1940s he chose to make portraiture the focus of his practice.

Drawing

Drawing was central to Freud’s style from the late 30s through to the early 1950s. His drawings from this era are strikingly different from the later work. This is a rare opportunity to see a whole roomful of them together and they come from a different world. They have a graphic sharpness, an economy of line which makes them very like cartoons. Look at the careful shading in the ears and on the cheek, and the extraordinary attention he’s devoted to each individual hair. Critic Herbert Read called him ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’.

Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948) by Lucian Freud © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This clear style lent itself to illustration so it’s no surprise to learn that he illustrated a number of books, several of which are in a display case here, Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis (1955) and Two Plays and a Preface by Nigel Dennis (1958) and that Startled Man was one of five illustrations for a novella by William Sansmon titled The Equilibriad (1948).

Apart from the strikingly clean graphic style, what’s obvious is how performative these pictures are – the male head in them is always striking a pose, adopting an attitude, sometimes with props like a feather, in one dramatic case posing as Actaeon for a book on Greek myths.

Back to painting

Around the mid-1950s Freud turned his attention from drawing to painting and for a period of seven years or so stopped drawing altogether. Initially he painted sitting down using fine brushes. This enabled a smooth finished graphic style, very much in line with the clean defined outlines of his drawings, and the people in them share the same slightly distorted, rather frog-like faces as many of the drawings, more like caricatures than paintings.

Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud (1954) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The wall label tells us that Freud associated with fellow painters Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Like him they were figurative painters working against the grain of Abstract Expressionism and, later on, ignoring experimental and conceptual art. That, in a sentence, explains precisely why I don’t like them.

Bigger brushes

Anyway, Bacon inspired Freud to switch from soft sable-hair brushes to hog’s hair brushes which are capable of carrying more paint. This, it seems, was the physical, technical spur for the decisive change in his style. Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s his painting left behind the draughtsmanlike precision, so close to drawing, of paintings like Hotel Bedroom, and became far looser, a matter of large looser brushstrokes, which create more angular images, images made out of clashing planes and angles with an almost modernist feel about them.

Man’s Head (Self-portrait III) by Lucian Freud (1963) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This is the third of three self-portraits which the exhibition reunites for the first time since they were shown together in 1963. You can see how the interest is now in structure more than likeness. There is no attempt to create a realistic background (his studio or a bedroom) which is now a plain matt surface. Similarly, his face has its familiar long, rather hawkish look, but here transformed into a semi-abstract mask.

Watercolours

Surprisingly, in 1961 he took up watercolours alongside paint. Both were ways of escaping from the linearity of pen-and-ink drawing. The exhibition includes a number of watercolours where he is obviously exploring the effect of broad washes, and the dynamic contrast that creates with more sharply defined faces.

In both types of work he drops the symbols and props which had abounded in the drawings. The subject matter is simpler and in a way starker. The paintings still feel pregnant with meaning but their force or charge is achieved by different means, purely by the arrangement of brushstrokes.

Mirrors

Mirrors have been used by artists since time immemorial to paint accurate self-portraits, and countless artists have gone one step further to include mirrors in their paintings to highlight the artifice and paradox or making images which, on one level, claim to be true, claim to be reality, but on another, are patent artifice.

Quite a few Freud self portraits include mirrors or depict himself from angles clearly designed to bring out the mirrorly artifice. When you learn that he did this increasingly from the mid-1960s it makes a kind of sense; you can see the echo of similar experiments going on in in contemporary film posters and album covers. This instance using a mirror on or near the floor is striking enough, but made disturbing by the inclusion of small portraits of two of his children perched ‘outside’ the main frame.

Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1965) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

In the studio

The penultimate room is the best and it’s the one which has no self portraits. Instead there’s two massive portraits of naked women on sofas, a huge standing male nude (his son, Freddy), and an eerie portrait of two fully clothed Irish gentlemen.

The wall label emphasises that by the 1970s Freud had established a definite approach. He painted people he had some kind of connection with, himself, some members of his family and friends, and sometimes people he met through chance encounters but who held a special visual importance for him.

They are all painted indoors, in his studios, not outside, not at their houses or in a neutral space. They are always in the familiar space of his studio, whose props and space and dimensions he knows inside out. This allowed him to focus on what he stated in interviews was his aim, which was to recreate in paint a physical presence.

So the obvious things about the paintings you see as you walk into this room of late works is that:

  • they’re huge, compared to what came before
  • they’re of other people
  • they’re full length instead of face portraits
  • they’re (mostly) naked

But, among this surfeit of impressions, maybe the most striking is the extraordinary poses and postures he has put his naked subjects in. In his mature works, this became his trademark – the rather tortured and certainly uncomfortable poses of naked women, which creates an uncomfortable, unsettling psychological affect on the viewer.

Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

What is going on? Is he torturing and exploiting these naked women, demonstrating his male power, as feminist critics have it? Or is he twisting their bodies round to create symbols of his personal unhappiness or anguish, as psychological critics might have it? Or had he stumbled across a new kind of motif, which he realised he could make uniquely his own, a ‘look’ which he could use to consolidate his ‘brand’ in the highly competitive London art market, as a Marxist critic might have it? (It is rather staggering to learn that this painting fetched over £11 million at auction in 2008. God knows what it’s worth now.)

Cremnitz white

But the wall label draws attention another, more technical feature of his painting from this period.

In 1975 he began using Cremnitz white, a heavy paint which, when mixed with other paints, creates a thick granular affect. Armed with this information, look again at the sprawling nude above. Look at the white highlights on her body. Two things:

1. Identifying the area of pure white prompts you to look closely at how they relate to the other colours around them. Obviously there’s a lot of pink but, when you look closely, there’s a lot of yellow and, looking more closely, brown and grey and even green. In fact, the more you look, the more entranced you become by the interplay of colours which make up her flesh, a panoply of creams and ochres and bistre tones.

It dawns on you that maybe Freud posed his naked women (and men, he painted a lot of naked men, too) in this contorted sprawling style and lying down rather than sitting up, because this way he exposes the maximum amount of flesh. Maybe these distorted poses have nothing to do with misogynist exploitation or twisted sexuality or psychological symbolism. Maybe they simply create the largest possible expanse of human flesh for him to paint.

2. Go up close, right up to the painting, and what becomes strikingly obvious is the immensely contoured, nubbly, grainy nature of the surface of the work. It is as if someone has thrown small gravel or stones onto the surface which have got embedded in the paint. It is immensely grainy and rubbly and tactile.

Here’s a close-up of the shadow along the right-hand side of the model’s body. You can see:

1. the lumps and bobbles of solid matter in the paint of the darker shadow near the middle of the image

2. the grooves of the thick brushstrokes moving up out of that dark patch to form her tummy or, at the bottom left, the long smooth but very visible and ridged strokes which create her thigh

3. the tremendous variety of colours and tints: granted, they’re all from the same tonal range of brown: but when you look closely you can see the extraordinary dynamism and interplay of shades. There’s barely a square inch of the same colour, but a continual variety, and a tremendous interest and even excitement created by the plastic, three-dimensional, raised and very tactile way different areas of colours stroke and swadge and brush, and daub and paste and are modelled and placed over and against each other.

Detail from Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

As I mentioned above, this was partly the result of chatting to the painter I met at the show. It was her enthusiastic description of Freud as a painter as a handler of paint, as the creator of such drama on the canvas, which made me go back and look at these last paintings in more detail.

Same thing can be seen in the other big nude in the room, Flora with Blue Toenails. Armed with this new way of seeing, what I noticed about this painting were 1. that the surface is so granular and lumpy you can see it even in a reproduction 2. the striking difference in timbre between her light torso and her much darker, more shaded legs. The keynote seemed to me to be grey. Follow the lines of grey. A solid line of grey goes from her cleavage, down her sternum and snakes around the top of her tummy almost creating a circle, where it almost joins to another long serpent of the same grey which snakes across her left thigh and curls round at her knee before reappearing across her right shin.

Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

My point is that, by this stage I was seeing these compositions as adventures in paint, as incredibly complex interplays of an astonishing range of colours, applied in a thick dense impasto, with heavy brushstrokes and entire regions raised and nubbled with grains and lumps of solid matter.

Here’s a close-up of Flora’s elbow, as transformed by Freud’s painterly prestidigitation. I found it quite thrilling to step right up to the painting and examine small areas in great detail, revelling in the adventures of the tones and surfaces – look at the myriad colours intermingling in the broad horizontal strokes at the top of her forearm, it’s almost like a rainbow, the multi-levelled mixing of colours is so advanced. And all this combined with the gnarly gritty, deliberately granular surface.

Detail of Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

Which meant that by the time I entered the final room, a collection of self-portraits from his final years, I wasn’t at all interested in either the biographical or supposedly psychological elements to them (‘ruthlessly honest, apparently) but instead was riveted by the extraordinarily vibrant, confident, sweeping, dashing painterliness of the things.

Here’s a medium close-up of the 1985 work, Reflection (Self portrait) which is a prime example of his thickly-painted and complex technique. Note the green – green blodges either side of his nose and the pouches under his eyes.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

I became irrationally fascinated by the patterned edge to the image, to his shoulders which is presumably created by a spatula of some kind to model the border between the figure and the background, and which created the kind of crimping effect you see around the edge of pies.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

But everywhere you look in the painting you see the same supremely confident use of paint, applied in apparently slapdash thick strokes and in a blather and combo of colours which seems almost chaotic when seen from really close up…

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

… but you only have to step back a few paces to see how these thick, spattered applications meld, at the ideal viewing distance, into extremely powerful, and even haunting, images.

Reflection (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

So I’m still not sure that I particularly like Lucian Freud’s paintings, but now, thanks to this handy exhibition, I have a much better grasp of the shape of his career, and a completely different way of seeing and conceptualising his paintings – not as the grim and dreary products of a troubled claustrophobe with dubious psychosexual issues, but as thrilling and masterly exercises in painterly technique.

I am not very interested in him as a painter of portraits per se – I couldn’t care less about the various marriages or children which the wall labels tell us about. But this exhibition did help me see how Freud really was one of the greatest painters of human flesh who ever put brush to canvas.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

Sir Quentin Blake helped set up the House of Illustration, which opened in 2014. One of the perks of being found is that the third and smallest of the House’s exhibition spaces is a permanent Quentin Blake gallery which is given over to a rotating series of small exhibitions and displays by the great man.

At the moment, the Quentin Blake gallery is hosting the latest iteration of a project titled simply ‘From the studio’.

England’s favourite illustrator (born in 1932 and so now 87 years old) draws every day. In this little, L-shaped room are gathered the early drawings from several of his recent projects.

The mouse on a tricycle

Words cannot really convey how fantastic Blake’s work is. With a few strokes of the pen he creates characters and situations which transport you. Not only that, but almost everything he draws is funny.

Take the adventures of the mouse on a tricycle. That’s just a brilliant idea, but he then submits it to a series of hilarious variations, with the eponymous mouse, a tiny figure on his little trike, being: cheered on by football supporters with rattles and a megaphone; inspiring a flowery poet to song; having his photo taken by the paparazzi; being given a stern telling off by an elderly teacher; being made the subject of a learned disquisition by a science professor to his students accompanied by a barrage of graphs and statistics by a businessman, and so on.

Each one is brilliant. The cumulative effect is genius.

The Mouse on a Tricycle by Quentin Blake

The art of conversation

Just as simple is the idea of ‘the conversation’, which gives rise to a florid variety of different people conversing in wildly different ways, from muttered asides, to arm-waving rants, to jolly chaps with legs crossed in the park, to two people talking over the head of a disgruntled neighbour at a dinner party.

The Art of Conversation by Quentin Blake

In fact both mouse and conversation are part of a series QB has been published called the QB Papers, relatively short, large format paperbacks containing a series of drawings based on a single topic. There is no text and no story, so you are free to browse and free-associate. To date the Art of Conversation and Mouse on a Tricycle have been joined by Constant Readers, Scenes at Twilight, A Comfortable Fit, Free in the Water and so on.

The King of the Golden River

Blake has previously shown some of the illustrations he’s done for a luxury edition of John Ruskin’s 1842 children’s story, The King of the Golden River. This time round he’s showing the coloured versions, and explains that he waited some time after doing the initial drawings, for the correct colouring schemes to come to him.

Illustration for The King of the Golden River by Quentin Blake

The Lost City Challenge

There are drawings done for the Lost City Challenge, which was an instagram campaign organised by Greenpeace, the ‘lost city’ being the vibrant ecosystem surrounding chimney-shaped hydrothermal vents located in the middle of the Atlantic which are under threat from mining companies planning to extract rare earth minerals from the area. Blake contributed a picture of a vibrant oceanic scene and another one showing a lifeless seascape after the drilling has killed everything.

Moonlight travellers

This began as a personal project in 2017, the notion of a group of anonymous people journeying through a moonlit landscape. Slowly they grew into a series of watercolours depicting journeys through unknown landscapes which capture, with vivid immediacy, the mystery and intrigue of the dead of night. This years the series was published accompanied by a prose text by novelist Will Self mediating on the mystery of the moonlight.

Illustrations to Moonlight Travellers by Quentin Blake

There are only twenty or so drawings and watercolours in all, but every single one is a thing of pure delight.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake @ the House of Illustration

Quentin Blake was the moving force behind the campaign to create a gallery dedicated solely to the art of illustration, which resulted in the House of Illustration being opened in 2014.

For this reason the third and smallest of the gallery spaces in the House of Illustration is always dedicated to a small, rotating display of some aspect of Blake’s work – for example the charming exhibition of his black-and-white pen drawings inspired by Valentine’s Day, which was on display back in the spring.

However, for this exhibition Blake takes over the main gallery as well, for a major retrospective of his large, non-illustrative art in oil paints, pastels and watercolour spanning 50 years. Because – it turns out – alongside the book and other illustrations which have made his name and career, Blake never stopped being fascinated by, and painting, the human figure, mainly for his own pleasure, as this show makes abundantly clear.

Most of the works have never been seen before and I found them stunning. It’s a small, intimate space, the House of Illustration, and I felt it perfectly proportioned to bring out the intimate and often sensuous nature of these paintings.

The exhibition is hung in chronological order and the wall labels give copious insights into Blake’s working life, from his earliest years as a student in the 1950s through to the 1990s.

Room one

Room 1 explains that after finishing university Blake went back to live with his parents in Kent, commuting up to London for life studies classes once or twice a week. He tells us that he made great efforts to use shading to record the volume, balance and stance of the figures. But he also got into the habit of completing the life study and then, turning away from the model, drawing what he could remember – the essential features, as it were.

The twenty or so early pen, ink and wash drawings from the early 1960s are all of nude women in various poses, in arty studios, accompanied by potted plants, easels, chairs and sofas and, in quite a few, by birds. Uncanny to see many of Blake’s later visual motifs appearing so early.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

What comes over is the slightly scrappy or scratchy sensuousness of many of them. Naked women lying back, leaning forward, themselves painting or sketching, thinking, posing – their full creamy thighs often the most physically realised part of the image, the quickly-drawn, pointy faces a kind of counterpoint to the smoothness of the thighs – and the little pouting breasts a sort of scratchy afterthought.

Main room

When you move along to the main gallery, you are suddenly confronted by works from the 1960s. Blake had moved into his own flat in London, and now had hardboard and canvas to work on.

The change is astonishing. While the subject is still female nudes, the treatment is wild and splotchy. He now worked with commercial house painters’ brushes and you can see it in these large paintings, covered with thick sprawls and daubs of industrial paint. They are vivid and powerful but remind me a bit too much of Frank Auerbach and the other School of Mud artists, one of the few groups of artists I actively dislike.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Also in this room are smaller scale drawings of female nudes, done in with thick charcoal, with more blurring and heavy shading, than in the room of earlier work. Giving a much more full-bodied and rich visual impression.

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

The long gallery

It’s the next room, the long room in the main gallery, which really took my breath away. On all four walls and then on both sides of a central stand, are forty or so oil paints (and some pencil and wash works) from the 1970s and 80s.

As Blake explains in the very illuminating video which is shown in an alcove off to one side, illustrations are tied to a narrative and Blake has proved himself a master of illustrating a wide variety of stories.

But in this, his private work, he was able to experiment with – basically the same motif, a nude woman – in countless forms and variations, in particular experimenting with scale (some of the paintings are enormous) and, above all, experimenting with colour.

First you sketch out your human figure lying, sitting or reclining. But what happens if you paint her legs blue and her chest yellow? What happens if you use variations on one tone throughout?

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

What happens, as he mentions in the video, if the outline all flows in one direction but then you deliberately paint bars of colour across those lines, at odds with the flow? What kind of visual and emotional responses do you get?

The answer is, in the best of them, a very strong, dynamic visual impact.

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

The results of this restless experimentation are stunning. Not all of them are great, but I found it genuinely difficult to tear myself away from a handful of what I thought were masterpieces. I wandered round the exhibition and then came back to stand in front of them again.

There are yellow figures, and orange figures (thoughtfully arranged together along the south wall, as per two illustrations above), deep mud-brown figures (in the first, Auerbach, room) – but it was in this big gallery that I was blown away by a handful of enormous nudes done in deep, dark midnight blue.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Reproduction can’t convey how huge and powerful this painting is in the flesh. Looming over the viewer, I thought it depicts a naked human figure turning and running, though the friend I went with thought it was a woman sitting in one of those groovy 1970s hanging chairs.

What do you think?

In my reading I am blown away by the a) dynamism of the pose and b) the incredible use of colour, the deep blacks and blues of the background and figure, strangely highlighted by fleeting splotches of white and green and red. What a fantastically powerful, intuitive use of raw primal colours.

Third room

The third and final room of the main gallery contains a display of work from the 1980s and 90s in which Blake brings together his different approaches to painting and to drawing. The works in this room combine line drawing with colour washes in watercolour and pastel.

They are much mellower than the oil paintings, but still full of interesting experiments with colour and the emotional impact of colour. I was very taken by a sketched nude coloured entirely in yellow, and others coloured solely by variations of turquoise.

What happens if..? What if you colour it so…? What effect does a wash of yellow along the back have…?

It’s humorous and piquant to see him handle and experiment with colour so confidently, so blithely, these watercolours are light and airy..

Two pen and watercolours by Quentin Blake

Two pen and watercolours by Quentin Blake. Photo by the author

Big blues

But it was the Big Blue Oils that had taken possession of my soul. I strolled round the small space again – sat and watched the video again, admired the early sketches again… but found myself being pulled back into the big room to stand in front of the handful of huge, midnight blue paintings – which just took me to a completely different place.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Summary

Starting gently with early drawings which remind you of his lovely illustrations, 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake then takes you on a thrilling journey into the possibilities of painting – via the thick impasto sludge of the early 60s, on towards the light yellow watercolours of the 1990s, with side dishes of thick charcoal drawings – but it is the middle years and the middle room which seemed to me to have struck a perfect balance — heavy blue oils, but handled with a lightness and vibrancy and confidence with colour which dazzle.

And which take you to a place of almost visionary intensity – wholly unexpected from the master of the airy, humorous children’s drawings which we all know and love.

What a revelation!


Related links

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration 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

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


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Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950 @ the British Museum

This is a lovely exhibition and it is FREE.

Go into the main entrance to the British Museum, walk through the Great Court round the side of the shops, on through room 24 with its colourful displays of tribal artifacts, and through to the double staircase right at the back. Walk up, or take the lift, to the 4th floor where you come to the modern glass doors and darkened spaces of rooms 90 and 90a, which are devoted to changing displays of the Museum’s vast collection of prints and drawings.

These rooms are currently hosting the first ever exhibition devoted to landscape drawings and watercolours by British artists from mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century – Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950.

The poet Laurence Binyon worked as a curator at the BM and – apparently – personally reviewed every watercolour in the BM’s collection in order to create its watercolour catalogue, work which led to his 1933 book English Water-Colours. There’s a quote from him on a wall label saying that English watercolours of the period showed ‘no neat or orderly progress… [but] an array of very diverse and individual artists.’

That is very much the impression given by the 125 works on show – they can be grouped into periods and styles up to a point, but the ultimate impression is of range and diversity. And eminence. Many of the greatest artists of the era produced notable watercolours, including Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, John Singer Sargent, Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.

The exhibition’s title is borrowed from the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson’s 1949 collection of essays, Places of the Mind. The general idea is that every landscape drawing is as much a construct of the mind and imagination of its creator as a depiction of an actual ‘place’.

Given the title I was surprised that some of the works weren’t in watercolour at all, but included other techniques on paper – for example, the use of bodycolour, pastel, chalk and pen and ink.

Victorian market

There was a massive and lucrative market for watercolours during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Artists whose names are now mostly forgotten made fortunes selling exquisitely detailed depictions of the grand scenery of Scotland, Snowdonia and the Lake District to the northern barons of the Industrial Revolution. Very broadly speaking the Victorian watercolours could be divided into Sublime Landscapes, and quite often rather cheesy depictions of a fantasy version of Rural Cottage Life.

N.B. Where possible I have linked images to their pages in the British Museum Collections website. Click on the image to see a bigger version. Click on the section titled ‘Curator’s comments’ to read detailed comments on the artist and work.

The Sublime i.e. Scotland, Wales, the Lake District

John Ruskin said artists must be true to nature, walk with nature, study nature, and so on. He was one of many tributaries into the Great Victorian Idea that the landscape contained noble, spiritual, religious truths. Take the View on the River Teme, Ludlow (1873) by George Price Boyce. The depiction of dark heather or rock interspersed among the greenery behind the angler reminds me of the same effect in William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852). Boyce knew and was friendly with some of the PRBs.

View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–73) Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–73) Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • A Scottish farm (1853) by William Henry Millais, brother of John Everett Millais, thus close to the Pre-Raphaelite circle.
  • Snowdon (1856) by David Cox, a prolific painter of the landscape of North Wales. The label picks out the rough manner of the paintwork, which certainly gives it a kind of virile strength. Cox gave lessons to young artists sketching in the area, such as George Price Boyce and Alfred William Hunt whose work is displayed nearby.
  • Dolwyddelan castle (1857) by Alfred William Hunt
  • Rydal Falls by Arthur Croft (1865) Croft was known for his depictions of the Alps, the classic setting of Romantic picture-making. The highly stippled effect gives a slightly blurred impression and makes it feel more dated than some of the other Victorian works. A similar affect to the kind of would-be-antique prints you get in a certain type of country pub.
  • View near Cotehele, Cornwall (1868) by William Frederick Yeames. It captures the distinctive feel of sunlight coming through thick cloud cover, the veiled light itself reflected silver in the river water. This silver light caused by dense overcast is, I think, a characteristic of the English landscape – compared to the dazzling blues of the Mediterranean.
  • Gordale Scar, Yorkshire (1877) by Arthur Severn. It’s blurrier than it first appears, because of the lack of hard outlines. Note the pattern or rhythm of shadow.
  • A sheep farm on the Duddon, Windermere (1891) by Hubert Henry Coutts. An oddly and unusually bright orange palette among so many images of green and brown.

Rural idylls

It’s easy enough to claim that the new wealthier Victorian middle class had a taste for nostalgic pretty-pretty images of idealised rural life. It’s also easy enough to dismiss them as cheesy kitsch. As I’ve got older I’ve tended to overlook the wish-fulfilment aspects of the images and grown a respect for the tremendous artistry and craftsmanship involved. Take The Old Bowling Green (1865) by John William North. This is a masterpiece of accurately rendered detail, given focus by the conversation of the lady and rural worker at right – a pair of Hardyesque star-crossed lovers, maybe? – with an added layer of sentiment given by the little child sitting forlorn in front of the game of bowls. Maybe her mother/maid has abandoned her to chat to the swain?

'The Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Court, Somerset (1865) by John William North. Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘The Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Court, Somerset (1865) by John William North. Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Potato Digging in the Kitchen Garden (1871) by William Small – this is another miracle of fine detail. I enjoyed the way the woman carrying the trug is having to lean her body to the right to counter-balance the weight. Hard to see are the numerous fine white strands of dessicated grass which are poking out along the borders of the vegetable patch, just as they do in my garden come high summer.
  • Cowdray cottage (1890s) by Helen Allingham. One of the many saccharine images of the cottages, gardens and people Allingham made of the area of mid-Sussex where she lived. Allingham was the first female artist to be elected to the Royal Watercolour Society. Cheesy but brilliant. I love the detail of the woman in the road hitching up her skirt a little and the detail of both women’s laced boots.
  • Washing day (1892) by Walter Langley. Langley moved to Newlyn in Cornwall where he helped establish an artists’ colony and tried to depict the harsh lives of the locals fishermen and farmers. The detail of the roof tiles and jugs is breath-taking. But overall it is the striking use of shadow covering all the human figures which is remarkable.

The exotic

The British have always been great travellers, no doubt partly to escape the grim weather of their own grey and drizzly islands. During the eighteenth century it became more or less obligatory for artists to go on the ‘Grand Tour’, which took in the sublimities of the Alps and climaxed amid the ruins of Rome.The nineteenth century saw all kinds of variation on this theme.

  • Choropiskopos, Corfu (1856) by Edward Lear. What strikes me about this beautiful work is the way it contains two completely different styles: the mid and far distance are drawn in with immaculate draughtsmanship and a multitude of lines suggesting slopes and foliage; but the foreground with its rougher splodges of golden yellow and green colour, and the dryness of the brush revealing the grain of the brushstroke at, say, bottom left, suggest a wildly different aesthetic – they could be by Minton or Sutherland a hundred years later.
  • Karnak (1868) by Henry Stanier. Note the yellow highlight stone. And the shadows.
  • Bay of Salamis and Piraeus from Xerxes’ seat (1880) by William Simpson. This is larger than the reproduction suggests, with a quite breath-taking topographical accuracy of hills and horizons, covered in the pale water blues.

Personally, as the years go by, I dislike these kinds of subjects. The artists were pretty harmless tourists but, still, they were often touring round countries held by the British Empire, and I have a slight nagging feeling of cultural imperialism about them.

Impressionism 1890s

Of course the last decades of the 19th century saw the birth of the modern concept of an ‘art movement’. The Pre-Raphaelites had evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement (1880), which paralleled the rise of the Aesthetic Movement and Art for Art’s Sake. On the continent French Impressionism came to prominence during the 1870s. As the names suggest these movements all reflected a movement away from strict linear draughtsmanship and towards vaguer softer outlines which tried to capture the effect of light and dark.

  • Amsterdam nocturne (1883) by James McNeil Whistler
  • Street scene, Venice (1890) by Hercules Brabazon Brabazon. Using the soft washes and blobs of colour available in watercolour to create a very impressionistic image.
  • Torrent in Val d’Aosta (1907) by John Singer Sargent. Sargent was one of many artists here who made their living from oil painting or illustrations, but enjoyed doing watercolours in their spare time and for their own pleasure. The handful of watercolours by him here, although using the same broad brush approach as his oil paintings, are strikingly unfinished.
View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911) by John Singer Sargent. Watercolour and oil over graphite © The Trustees of the British Museum

View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911) by John Singer Sargent. Watercolour and oil over graphite © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Graveyard in Tyrol (1914) one of numerous watercolours Sargent made on his annual summer tour round the Continent, which lasted into August 1914 so that he found himself caught up in the mobilisation for the Great War.
  • Port Vendres (1926) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh is famous for his wonderful Art Nouveau architecture and designs yet he left Scotland after the war, feeling he had not achieved recognition for his architectural work, and lived for five years in Port Vendres near the border with Spain.

Standing slightly to one side of any kind of linear narrative (as, in fact, many of the works here do), is a beautiful watercolour by the famous book illustrator, Arthur Rackham.

  • Landscape near Bezan (1901) by Arthur Rackham. Fascinating to see how impressionist it is and, apparently, unlike the detailed line drawings of his illustrations although, on closer examination, there is a kind of family likeness in the shape of the blobs and squadges.

War 1914-18

Although some foreign and exotic locations are included, it is surprising that, given the centrality of war in this period – the Crimean War (1853-56), the American Civil War (1861-65), the Boer War (1899-1902), the Great War (1914-18), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Abyssinian War (1935-6), the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Second World War (1939-45) – there are in fact remarkably few depictions of bomb-blasted landscapes. Only the Great War features, of all the century’s wars the one which the English seemed to take most to heart. The one that damaged us most.

Paul Nash seems to be a transitional figure here. As we learned from the recent Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain, Nash was enraptured by the southern English landscape from an early age, but was then thrown into the carnage of the Great War, commissioned as an official war artist, and produced many memorable images of the devastated landscape in a linear, geometric, modernist style.

Modernism 1910-20

Out and out Modernism, self-consciously feeding off European cubism and Futurism, is not so well represented.

  • Slag heaps at Leeds (1920) by Edward Wadsworth. In fact this painting shows a significant retreat from Wadsworth’s highly abstract pre-War work. Like many contemporaries he rejected complete abstraction as somehow not conveying the urgent emotional and social truths of the time.
  • Air street by CRW Nevinson – The British Museum owns many prints directly about the Great War (in which he served) by Nevinson (e.g. Bomber, 1918), but chose to represent him with a much later work which is actually in chalk.

Nevinson, like Nash, like many other English artists, consciously retreated from the extremes of geometric modernism they’d espoused just before and during the War. Maybe they’d had a bellyful of hard unforgiving often violent images.

Back in England after the war, Nash recuperated at Dymchurch, where the Tate exhibition explained that he had a sort of slow-motion nervous breakdown, personal trauma that may – or may not – be reflected in his obsessively repeated imagery of the sea wall at Dymchurch.

In Wadsworth, Nash and Nevinson you can see the progression from the 1914 to 1924 as a retreat from pure angularity towards an angularity softened and humanised. Leading towards…

Neo-Romanticism 1930s

Victorian landscapes are easy to understand and enjoy, ditto impressionism. And of course highly skilled painters continued to work in the older tradition, for example William Russel Flint, who wrote a manual on watercolour painting.

But after the trauma of the war and the break in tradition represented by the various forms of modernism with their rejection of the figurative in favour of abstraction or surrealist juxtapositions – I find the 1930s and 40s to be the most strange and challenging period of modern art. Some artists continued to feel a deep reverence for the English landscape, but couldn’t return to the innocence of Victorian literalism. What to do?

The commentary points out the revival that took place during this period in the reputations of a group of pre-Victorian landscape artists – John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), Francis Towne (1740-1816) and Samuel Palmer (1805-1881).

Cotman and Towne’s watercolours are elegant and stylised. They don’t feel the need to produce the Grand Sublime of the mid-Victorians or the gorgeous colouring. Their classical lines and spaces of flat, pale wash seem open and retrained. They suited the chastened mood of the 1920s and 30s.

Samuel Palmer is a different thing altogether. Palmer is best known for the paintings he did at Shoreham in Kent in the 1840s, which charge the staid and gentle landscape of the south of England with a resonant mysticism. His use of stippled colouring, especially round gold and orange and red, the vagueness of the human figures, and settings at dusk or dawn, create images of the countryside deeply charged with some ineffable meaning.

  • Classical river scene (1878) by Samuel Palmer. A late work which nonetheless conveys Palmer’s love of the equivocal effects of twilight, and his fondness for red and orange and auburn. The human figures aren’t distinct but that is the point – they are part of the landscape.

These predecessors, with their more classical approach to line and colouring (Towne and Cotman, or their concern for the numinous symbolism of landscape (Palmer), provided ways forward for the post-war artists. Again this can best be seen in the work of Paul Nash who took his boyhood late-Victorian spiritualism through the battlefields of Flanders and out into a new way of conceiving landscape. In Nash’s hands landscape becomes symbolic of inner quests and impressions. It becomes much more psychological.

But the figure who emerges as central to the 1930s – in this account, anyway – is Graham Sutherland, an artist I’ve always disliked. His semi-abstract shapes have always seemed to me both ugly in design and horrible in colouring. But he appears to have been a revelation to younger artists who he taught and mentored. Sutherland is quoted as saying, ‘I felt that I could explain what I felt by paraphrasing what I saw.’ It’s a thought-provoking analogy: as a paraphrase takes the meaning of a text but casts it into new words, so paraphrasing what he saw in nature meant casting it into radically semi-surreal, abstract but still zoomorphic shapes.

One of Sutherland’s devotees, Keith Vaughan, said that Sutherland thought landscape needn’t be looked at scenically … but symbolically. This idea of converting the directly seen into another, symbolical language, opens a huge doorway into new styles of art. The Sutherland watercolours in this exhibition are small and unconvincing, but he profoundly influenced the artists who became known as the neo-Romantics who he helped liberate to recast landscape into a variety of new and stylised forms.

  • Scottish City, the Gorbals (1945) by John Minton. Leaving aside the strange shape of the heads, the colour washes over the stick-like derelict buildings recalls Sutherland.
  • Figure leaning on a garden wall (1948) by Keith Vaughan
  • Churchyard (1942) by John Craxton. Most of the other prints the BM holds are notably more Sutherland-ish. This one shows what happens when you simplify the elements of a scene, using modernist techniques to create an image which is, paradoxically, childish and reassuring. Which looks like a book illustration.

The illustrators

A million miles from the gnarly hyper-realism of Rackham’s gnomes and princesses, the retreat from experimental modernism, combined with a neo-classical backlash against the war, led somehow, mysteriously, to images which are supposedly adult but which have a definitely childish simplicity of design and execution.

Take Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. It is doubtless a ‘serious’ work. But it could also be the cover illustration of one of those 1940s or 50s travel books.

Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. Watercolour with pen and ink © Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate

Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. Watercolour with pen and ink © Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate

Other notable examples include:

  • Eric Gill’s House at Ditchling (1922) by David Jones
  • The red cottage (1927) by Eric Ravilious. What is not to absolutely love about Ravilious’s open, clear, pure-lined children’s paintings.
  • Wannock dew pond (1923) by Eric Ravilious. These early examples have something of the freshness, lack of drama, the understatement of Paul Nash. Different, but a similar sense of… restraint. And a kind of cartoon simplicity.

The 1930s modernists

During the same period and overlapping with the neo-Romantics were many other artists using the multiple currents of the time, especially the very dominant influence of surrealism, to rethink countryside, landscape and watercolour as a form. Probably the most dominant figure of the time was Henry Moore, who was as prolific in his paintings, watercolours and prints as he was in his big humanoid statues.

  • Crowd looking at a tied up object (1942) by Henry Moore. You’re supposed to find modern art disturbing but Henry Moore is maybe the only 20th century artist I find genuinely uncanny and upsetting.
  • Reclining figure and red rocks (1942) by Henry Moore. It’s hard to put into words but I find Moore’s sheer prolificness terrifying. I feel a gaping hole open at my feet. I really dislike looking at his work.
  • Two upright forms (1936) by Henry Moore

Ben Nicholson was another key figure of the time, who I find difficult to like. He also produced thousands of art works all of a kind of so-so domesticated abstraction.

Newlyn (11 April 1950) by Ben Nicholson. Graphite with watercolour © Angela Verren Taunt

Newlyn (11 April 1950) by Ben Nicholson. Graphite with watercolour © Angela Verren Taunt

  • Seashell (1936) by Cecil Collins. The transformation of landscape into something completely phantasmagorical.
  • October 2 1938 by Reuben Mednikoff who has clearly swallowed the entire Surrealist proposition whole.
Portreath (1949) by Peter Lanyon. Black chalk with grey wash © The estate of Peter Lanyon

Portreath (1949) by Peter Lanyon. Black chalk with grey wash © The estate of Peter Lanyon

Right at the end of the period, you can read works like this as the exhaustion of the tradition, and exasperation at what to do next.

Trees

Theming the exhibition by period and style makes sense. But it could have been sliced completely differently by subject e.g. wide landscape, flowers, cottages. And a central subject would have been trees. Scattered remarks by artists about trees could have been brought together and, once again, the key figure might have been Nash, who worshiped trees, whose earliest works depict a ghostly brake of trees near his house in Hertfordshire, who became obsessed with the ancient trees on Wittenham Clumps, and who was devastated by the sight of so many tens of thousands of trees blown to fragments in the horror of the Great War. He wrote:

– ‘I sincerely love and worship trees and know they are people’

and I know just what he means. For me the two standout works in this wonderful exhibition are both of trees, in different aspects:

Ravens’ Toll, Ashburnham (1883) by William Fraser Gordon, a wonderful, magical distillation of a southern English heathland, captured crystallised focused, on a clump of spectral trees.

November evening in the Welsh wood by James Thomas Watts. Born in Birmingham, Watts was deeply influenced by the writings of Ruskin and the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, as ividenced by his minute depiction of nature and the intense realism of his landscape painting. Watt was fascinated by the play of light in wooded landscapes at varying times of the year and times of the day. Watts exhibited in both oils and watercolour, but the latter was his preferred medium. His ability to capture the essence of trees and woodlands in the varying seasons is astonishing. Between the late 1870s and 1905, he confined himself nearly entirely to woodland scenes like this, becoming an absolute master of them.

A passing world

The population of England was 15 million in 1851; 38.6 million by 1951, and today it is about 54 million. The pressure of urban growth is, by definition, not recorded in an exhibition devoted to pure landscape. Much of England’s countryside has been lost, much despoiled, but there is still much to see and enjoy. The passing of the old rural England is suggested by this late Victorian work which was in fact produced after the Great War and the advent of a new age, but it commemorates the crepuscular feel of an older, pre-industrial world.

The Homeward Load (1921) by Frank Dicksee

The Homeward Load (1921) by Frank Dicksee


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