Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians. And Darwin shows how it was a smug and self-centred attitude echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the other world civilisations.

Thus from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition looks at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty was just the latest in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since its inception in the 630s. The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I have reviewed books about the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire as it was slowly overtaken by the Turks.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from 1453 to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. Twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times.

Throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

The Victorians

There are some pieces form earlier, including the striking portrait of a Sultan by a painter from the school of Veronese which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

– but the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The period 1800 to the outbreak of he Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Partly this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its cruise branch in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and in oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of the exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire was a particularly close and dominant cultural presence for Europe throughout the period, a kind of cousin, a slothful and declining Orient against which we measured our evergrowing knowledge, technology and power.

Thus the exhibition aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts, of:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

It was interesting to learn there was a genre called costume books which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards.

All kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on: Egyptian metalwork, Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. Grammar of Ornament was Owen Jones’ design masterpiece, a lavish folio highlighted stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the lovely plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by two or three obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by Islamic craftsmen and artists. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that they were trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which was barely scratched.

Similarly the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful tiles, but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian manufacturer using Islamic motifs, and then that that was it when it came to tiles.

Similarly, Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely the Arab Hall. He had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William da Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model.

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but leading up to a big wall displaying about 20 classic late Victorian Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of Orientalism, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague term generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East. It survives in many places today, for example London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1977 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt. Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered, casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been revised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition fully paid up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe. ; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant. … The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of the 1001 Nights or any other cultural product they’ve displayed and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the trend for mock Moorish architecture or the use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on, and behind all of this detail, lies the looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

My point is that, cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels create a sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the labels. Also it felt like I was being less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets and so on.

Said’s idea is that these images are condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, amount to a patronising distortion of the complexity of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East. Morevoer, taken together, they are based on and promote an ideology claiming all these cultures and peoples were backward and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of about 20 images like this are obviously meant to represent a kind of Wall of Shame. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets.

But the real impact of hanging so many of them next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, or produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

One of the main criticism of modern critics and curators against Orientalist painters was that they fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted.

Well, didn’t all 19th century artists? There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of paintings of Victorian children I went to at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who need rescuing from dragons?

The same exaggerated depiction of colourful epitomes of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted, out as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours?

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was looking forward to the section about the harem mainly because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary. After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting, none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! There’s a small photo of one of the classic nudes by Ingres but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by Ingres or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

And also it raises another politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that Jean Léon Gérôme was known for his meticulous sketches and drawings preparatory to making an oil painting which obviously makes you think: – in what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

It’s all the more puzzling because this damp squib of a section is followed by the final part of the exhibition which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to frame these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But this doesn’t really work  because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which they’re kicking back against.

Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco. She or her models take the poses of famous Orientalist paintings, only here they’re fully dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

It feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition. Its claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West ought to mean it’s divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which pinch Islamic motifs, if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this also felt very skimpy, with just one small room which featured a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul. Is that it?

Lastly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

When I got to the section on the harem and realised how thin it was, it crystallised how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had the shock of the new, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing, with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East.

There is a lot of this kind of writing in existence and so Said had a rich vein to draw on. And writing of any kind easily morphs into official, governing and imperial writing, reports, assessments, anthropological studies can be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell. As part of an enormous explosion of household goods and products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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

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

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

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

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The convex mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Videos

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Every room in the Guildhall Art Gallery

The Guildhall Art Gallery is a newish building, opened in 1999 to exhibit selections of the 4,500 or so art works owned by the Corporation of London. It replaced the original Guildhall Art Gallery which was destroyed by fire during the Second World War.

At any one time the gallery has room to exhibit about 250 artworks in its five or so spaces (the main, balcony, ground floor, corridor and undercroft galleries), as well as special exhibitions in the exhibition rooms. But the overwhelming reason to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery is to see its fabulous collection of Victorian paintings.

The gallery is FREE and there are chatty and engaging tours of the pictures every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 12.15, 1.15, 2.15 and 3.15.

Victorian painting

Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) saw the fruition of the Industrial Revolution and the growth and consolidation of the British Empire, but neither of these subjects is much in evidence in the paintings here. Instead the wall labels emphasise the way Victorian artists widened the scope of painting from traditional Grand History paintings or mythological subjects or portraits of the rich, to include a new and wider variety of subjects, especially of domestic or common life treated with a new dignity or compassion, and with a growing interest, as the century progressed, in depictions of beauty for its own sake, in the work of the later pre-Raphaelites and then the Aesthetic Movement.

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Main gallery

Go through the main entrance and there is a wide staircase leading up to the Main Gallery, a big, relaxing open space lined with sumptuous Victorian paintings. They’ve been hung in true Victorian style, clustered one above the other and against a dark green background. It looks like this:

Although the paintings have labels displaying names and dates, they have no description or explanation text whatsoever, which is a change and a relief. Instead, the paintings are arranged in themes each of which is introduced by a few paragraphs setting the Victorian context.

Work

Love

  • Listed (1885) by William Henry Gore. My favourite painting here.
  • The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere. The tour guide pointed out the irony of the title which is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes and his trousers rolled up. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers and, if you look closely, the tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches.

Leisure

History

The main gallery on the first floor has an opening allowing you to look down into the gallery space below and hanging on the end wall and two stories high is the vast Defeat of the floating batteries at Gibraltar, 1782 by the American artist John Singleton Copley. Grand history painting like this is about the genre of art furthest from contemporary taste and culture, but there’s lots to admire apart from the sheer scale. Rather like opera, you have to accept that the genre demands stylised and stereotyped gestures of heroism and despair, before you can really enter the spirit.

Faith

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Beauty

As the century progressed an interest grew in Beauty for its own sake: one strand of this was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of voluptuous, red-haired ‘stunners’ as he called them. Strands like this fed into the movement which became known as Art for Art’s sake or Aestheticism, which sought a kind of transcendent harmony of composition and colour.

  • The violinist (1886) by George Adolphus Storey
  • La Ghirlandata (1873) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • On a fine day (1873) by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes. Although the detail is patchy, from a distance this is staggeringly effective at conveying that very English effect of sunshine on hills while the foreground is clouded over.
  • The blessed damozel (1895) by John Byam Liston Shaw
  • The rose-coloured gown (Miss Giles) (1896) by Charles Henry Malcolm Kerr. The face is a little unflattering but the rose-coloured gown is wonderfully done, lighter and airier than this reproduction suggests. There are several histories of ‘the nude’; someone ought to do a history of ‘the dress’, describing and explaining the way different fabrics have been depicted in art over the centuries.
  • A girl with fruit (1882) by John Gilbert. Crude orientalism.
  • spring, summer, autumn and winter (1876) by Alfred Emile Leopold Joseph Victor Stevens

The Guildhall

Home

During the 19th century home and work became increasingly separated and distinct. Home became a place to be decorated, shown off, furnished in the latest fashions purveyed by a growing number of decoration books and magazines. There is a massive move from the bare interiors often described in Dickens’s novels of the 1840s and 50s, to the fully furnished interiors and incipient consumer revolution of 1900.

  • Sweethearts (1892) by Walter Dendy Sadler. Late for such an anecdotal painting.
  • The music lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton. Characteristically smooth and sumptuous.
  • A sonata of Beethoven (1912) by Alfred Edward Emslie. Is that the great man himself, blurrily depicted in the window seat?
  • Sun and moon flowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie. Note the fashionable blue and white china vases.

Imagination

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra (1882) oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

A staggering, monumental work, down to the tricklets of blood leaking from the axe over the stone step.

The ground floor gallery

This actually consists of two tiny rooms next to the lifts, to the left of the main stairs, showing nine City of London-related works.

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The tour guide pointed out the face of the boy about to pinch an orange from the basket at the far left of the crowd; the black and white minstrel complete with banjo, next to him; and to the right of the white-faced soldier at the foot of the main streetlamp, is a man in brown bowler hat, a portrait of fellow artist John William Waterhouse, of Lady of Shalott fame.

The undercroft galleries

As the name suggests these are downstairs from the ground floor entrance lobby. You walk along the ‘long gallery’ (see below), through a modern glass door on the right and down some steel and glass steps into a set of small very underground-feeling rooms. The paintings are again grouped in ‘themes’, although now applying across a broader chronological range than just the Victorians, stretching back to the eighteenth century and coming right up to date with a Peter Blake work from 2015.

London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Seems clear to me that the paintings from the 1700s are of documentary interest only. Maybe there are elements of composition and technique to analyse, but they aren’t doing anything as mature, challenging and psychological as paintings like ClytemnestraOn a fine day or Listed.

War

The corridor gallery

Matthew Smith (1879-1959) was born into a family of Yorkshire industrialists. Like a lot of rich men’s sons he decided he wanted to be an artist and went to study with post-impressionist French painters in Pont Aven in 1908, then under Matisse in Paris. He served in the Great War, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. The City of London Corporation was gifted a collection of some 1,000 of his paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sketches in 1974.

The short corridor between the steps down from the lobby and the door into the undercroft displays some dozen of his works. Because they all have similar titles it’s almost impossible to track them down online.

These works struggle to compete with the masterpieces in the main gallery. In Matthews’ work, after the modern art revolution, the paint is laid on thick and draws attention to itself and to the canvas, to the surface and solidity, to the process of painting itself. They are about the interplay of oils, the composition of tones and colours in regard to each other, as juxtapositions of colours and shapes, of bands and shapes and lines and swirls. One result of this is that, having abandoned the realistic depiction of the outside world – using it now merely as inspiration for exercises in colour – there is an absence of the light effects which make so many of the Victorian paintings upstairs so powerful and feel so liberating.

Conclusions

Victorian painting is a game of two halves: as a general rule everything before about 1870 (except for the PRBs) was badly executed or village idiot kitsch; after the 1870s almost all the paintings have a new maturity of execution and subject matter. The change is comparable to the growth of the novel which, up to the 1860s was mostly a comic vehicle with only episodic attempts at seriousness; after around 1860 an increasingly mature, deep and moving medium for the exploration of human consciousness.

Seeing this many oil paintings together makes you realise the ability to oil to brilliantly capture the effect of sunlight – to dramatise a mythic subject and pose as in Clytemnestra – or to evoke a sense of shadow and light which is so characteristic of the English countryside, as in On a fine day – and then, in later Victorian experiments, to convey the hushed, muted shades of light at dawn and dusk – as in my favourite painting from the collection, Listed.

Oil painting can do this better than photography, in which it is very difficult to capture the difference between light and shade without glare or over-exposure. I hadn’t quite appreciated the wonderful ability of oil painting to convey the impression of sunlight in all its different effects.


Related links

Other museums

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian avant-garde @ Tate Britain

This is a stunning and informative and hugely rewarding exhibition. The sheer number of paintings and sculptures is overwhelming. And seeing so many greatest hits of English art in one experience is pure pleasure.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896) founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB as they mysteriously signed their earliest paintings) in London in September 1848, i.e. when they were 21, 20 and 19 years old.

They were soon joined by four others, art critics William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) and Frederic George Stephens (1828-1907), painter James Collinson (1825-1881) and sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892).

They chose the name Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to express their rejection of all art from the time of Raphael (1510s and 20s) and after, which they considered mannered, artificial and untruthful. They turned for inspiration to the more archaic western art before Raphael which they considered to be closer to nature, in subject matter and technique.

In making the case for the PRB to be an avant-garde movement, the curators lay out reasons why their art was so strikingly different from the previous generations’:

  • They rejected Kings and Queens and classical myths as subject matter, preferring intimate, psychologically charged moments, from medieval legends or Shakespeare
  • Instead of chiaroscuro, the use of shadows and gloom, all early PRB paintings take place in vivid sunlight which highlights every detail of the painting
  • In line with Piero della Francesca and other early Renaissance painters, perspective isn’t fully developed so that figures in different planes often seem bunched up together, as in the early masterpiece by Millais, ‘Isabella’.

Isabella by John Everett Millais

  • The combination of the above elements means the figures are defined not so much by their place in the picture plane as by outlines, almost as if cartoons
  • The PRBs painted in actual outdoor locations (they pioneered plein air painting 15 years before the Impressionists). Thus in Millais’ famous Ophelia, the background was painted by the small river Hogsmill near Ewell. Holman Hunt spent six months painting Our English Coasts (1852) on location at the cliffs at Fairlight, near Hastings.
  • Above all they were searching for Truth in Art:

‘Absolute and uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from  nature only. Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every minute accessory is painted in the same manner.’

These are the words of John Ruskin, already a formidable critic of Art and Society in the 1850s.

‘Our English Coasts’ (1852)

I learned that:

  1. The Pre-Raphaelites’ rise to prominence in the 1850s coincided with that of a new class, the industrial manufacturers of the Midlands. This was the readership for the novels of Dickens, Eliot, the Brontes, Gaskell. They thrived on psychological detail of the real world around them, rather than remote kings and queens, and so they often became the main sponsors and purchasers of PRB works. For example, Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience was commissioned by Thomas Fairbairn, a Manchester industrialist and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites who paid Hunt 350 guineas for it. Our English Coasts was commissioned by Charles Maud.
  2. The brightness, the hyper-realism of so many PRB paintings was achieved because – whereas the Royal Academy taught that canvases should be primed with black or dark paint on which the artist then built up an image whose default setting was a gloomy chiaroscuro, the PRBs primed their canvases with zinc white. Therefore, bright light was the default setting, a light which encouraged the limning in of every available detail.

Pre-raphaelitism is in two parts For the first time I understood that the movement is in two parts:

  • Part one, all the works from 1848 into the 1860s, followed the rules set above.
  • Part two is inaugurated in the mid-60s by Rossetti abandoning all the rules and painting loads of portraits of strong-chinned, pouting-lipped, orange-haired ‘stunners’, against vague and misty backgrounds. The clothes are sumptuous amid a clutter of luxury items imported from all over the burgeoning British Empire. Whereas, in the first period, detail is in the paintings to convince of the physical truth, truth to nature, in the second period the sumptuous detail is decorative, part of the fascination with pattern and decoration which was becoming more fashionable, the drift towards Aestheticism and Art for Art’s Sake. Even the press realised the change. In 1864 the Art Journal wrote:

It is surprising, as it is satisfactory, to see how completely the ultra and more repellent forms of the Pre-Raphaelite school have died out. This slavish school has had its day.

The phrase ‘Art for Art’s sake’ first appeared in 1868, in a Walter Pater review of a volume of William Morris poetry. In their growing interest in design for design’s sake, the PRBs became subsumed in the broader Aesthetic Movement which was gathering pace throughout the 1870s.

The founding PRB, Rossetti, died young (53) in 1882 and in its later rooms the exhibition focuses increasingly on two younger artists who weren’t part of the original Brotherhood, Burne-Jones and Morris.

Friends since Oxford this pair collaborated closely on designing fabrics, furniture, tapestries and books. The penultimate room takes the theme of ‘Paradise’ and contains wonderful wall hangings, stained glass, a highly decorated antique bed Morris had in his Red House in Bexley, Morris’s political pamphlets, all dominated by, drenched in, decorated with, medieval themes. Morris died in 1896, the year he published his masterwork, the illustrated works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’. In the same year the boy wonder and founding PRB, Millais, passed away.

The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail, designed by Burne-Jones, woven by Morris

The final room is dominated by vast Burne-Jones paintings, thronged by his familiar tall, grey-eyed, blank-faced women, strange, remote and haunting. B-J never shared the incisive hyper-realism of the 1850s PRBs. He died in 1898.

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris on the Victorian Web website

The final exhibit in the show does return to its roots, being Holman Hunt’s huge Lady of Shallott, which he worked on until 1905. It is a masterpiece of light and a plethora of hyper-real detail, classically PRB in its pseud0-medieval, Tennysonian medievalism. But just two years later, and in a different artistic and cultural universe, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The PRB moment was long, long over, and the entire movement would go into an eclipse which lasted for generations…

Selection of pre-Raphaelite images on the University of Pittsburgh website

Politics? All books and articles about the PRBs emphasise their political views, their commitment to contemporary politics and social themes, as if these matched the radicalism of their art and of their free-spirited love lives. And yet there’s little evidence for it. Ford Maddox Brown’s Work (1865) and The Last of England (1855), Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853)  are rare excursions into PRBs depicting contemporary life.

In the first phase the subject matter is scenes of rural life or Jesus’s life or medieval legend. In the second phase it’s Art for Art’s sake, it’s Rossetti stunners and Burne-Jones ladies and a lot more Arthurian legend. In neither phase did they address the realities of Victorian life which pressed harder and harder on their contemporaries. That was left to completely different artists like William Powell Frith, Augustus Egg and Luke Fildes.

Still, it’s churlish to deny the achievement of these men. Whether earlier, pure PRB, or later art-for-arts-sake work, the quality of paintings on display in this exhibition is amazing, inspiring and life-enhancing.

Afterlives

Millais the boy wonder, takes Ruskin’s wife, Effie, away from him, has 8 children and, in need of money, never again devotes as much time to a single painting as he did with Ophelia, declining into chocolate box sentimentality e.g. Bubbles.

Rossetti, the melodramatic Italian, in the 1860s creates the later PBR look of the ‘stunner’ with pouting lips, then dies fairly young (53), broken by alcohol, laudanum and bad dreams of how he mistreated his model-wife, Lizzie Siddel.

Holman Hunt stays truest to the idea of hyper-real detail in the service of truth; the ‘High Priest’ of the movement because of his genuine religious faith, he made several trips to the Holy Land to paint scenes from Jesus’ life and the Old Testament. I’m not sure I like it, but one of the most striking and certainly one of the biggest paintings at the exhibition is The Shadow of Death. Right to the end he can’t paint teeth without making them look like bad dentures.

The Shadow of Death (1873) by William Holman Hunt

Related links

Other reviews of Tate exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: