Welcome to the September issue of the Newsletter. I hope you all have had an enjoyable Summer and we now look forward to the new programme. As a member of the programme planning group I am especially keen that it offers our members the same level of interest and enjoyment that previous programmes have done.
In this edition I am grateful for the contributions by Daphne Winning and Beth Taylor. Daphne treats us with her description of a hidden jewel of Madrid and the geographically closer delights of illustrated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Musuem in Cambridge. Beth writes about; Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting a book by Michael Jacob and Ed Vulliamy; a visit to an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and finally in her odyssey she arrives at the Watts Gallery in Surrey.
We close with my reflections on the trip to Spain and a new article, which hopefully will become a regular feature, in which ‘Four Works of Art and Me’ are explored a la Desert Island Discs, where the writer explores four significant pieces of art that have featured significantly in their life, so far – for as we all know there is still more art to be discovered and enjoyed!
- Hidden Treasure in Madrid – Daphne Winning
- A ‘Must See’ for anyone interested in illuminated manuscripts – Daphne Winning
- A thank you from Beth Taylor, Chair of WAHG
- Connections…..literary and visual – Beth Taylor
- A visit to Scotland – Followed by a journey to Surrey – Beth Taylor
- ….. And eventually to London at the Tate Britain – Painting with Light – Beth Taylor
- Reflections on Spain – The Art and Empire WAHG Tour
- Four Works of Art and me
Hidden Treasure in Madrid
A brief visit to the church of San Antonio De La Florida was for me one of the highlights of the WAHG trip to Spain in April this year. Our stay in Madrid included the magnificent art collections of the Prado Museum and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, but the quiet intimacy of this small chapel decorated by Goya in 1798 and situated on the fringes of central Madrid brought a stillness and serenity to the end of a busy first day.
A group of seven of us felt we had just sufficient energy to squeeze in one extra visit and we set off in two taxis arriving at the chapel in the early evening. Amazingly, we had the chapel to ourselves and gazed in awe at Goya’s frescoes, illuminated solely by the light of an unusually overcast Madrilenian sky.
The chapel is compact, built on a Greek cross plan with a short nave and transept. This makes the frescoes of the cupola, vaults and walls seem very accessible. Goya was fifty-two and at the height of his career when he painted the frescoes which he completed in seven months. The originality of the composition and style suggest that Goya was given a free hand to follow his own ideas. On the dome is depicted one of St Anthony’s miracles, witnessed by a large throng, featuring a whole range of characters including a few sinister figures who are a foretaste of the characters Goya would subsequently use in his satirical prints ‘The Caprichos’. Goya’s skill in painting different facial expressions and capturing the moods of his characters is abundantly apparent.
I was particularly taken with his interpretation of angels in the vaults. Set against a grey backdrop their white flowing dresses punctuated by occasional bright colours of yellow, red, green and blue demonstrate Goya’s brilliant use of colour. The clever use of simulated curtains being pulled back by the angels creates a wonderful sense of rhythmic movement.
Goya’s innovative style and technique shine out from these frescoes. Our group, totally absorbed by this spectacle, had been mostly silent throughout our visit. We left feeling that we had seen something truly special.
A ‘Must See’ for anyone interested in illuminated manuscripts
Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year and to mark the occasion the museum is hosting an exhibition ‘ Colour – the art and science of illuminated manuscripts’.
I was bowled over by this exhibition of 150 spectacular manuscripts. Apparently the Fitzwilliam holds the ‘finest and largest’ museum collection of illuminated manuscripts in existence. The curator’s notes include detailed descriptions of the pigments used, painting techniques and how, with the help of the maths and science departments of the university, modern technology can be used to analyse the painting materials.
The exhibition is on until 30th December 2016 and admission is free!
A thank you from Beth Taylor, Chair of WAHG
I was very touched by the kind words and generous gifts which I received at the AGM to mark the completion of my 6 year term as Programme Coordinator. This role has now been taken on by three of our members, Chris Humphreys, Gill Graham Maw and Felicity Pennycook. I have now taken on the role of visits organiser from Lisa Spooner on her retirement from that role. (Lisa was superb at this task so I have a hard act to follow!). The four of us form the Programme Planning Group, with Chris as spokesperson at the main WAHG Committee meetings. I continue as your Chair – at least until the next AGM – and I am confident that the new programme planning team will bring some excellent new ideas and new energy their task. I hope you will enjoy everything they have planned for us in our September to December programme – and beyond.
Connections…..literary and visual
The WAHG visit to the Prado in Madrid this year meant that we could look at Velasquez’ s wonderful work, Las Meninas. This summer I read “Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting”, which was about the travel writer and art historian Michael Jacob’s study of this work in the months before his death. Michael was deeply engaged with the painting, and drew on his time at the Courtauld where Anthony Blunt had taught him to look at every aspect of a painting’s composition. He also found Foucault’s work on “the gaze” inspiring. Completed by his friend, Ed Vulliamy, after his death, it is clear that what drew Michael’s attention to this painting was its complex composition and his idea that in Las Meninas “we are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us”.
The WAHG connection with this study of the painting is that one of the people Michael spent time with was the excellent guide we had to the art treasures of Madrid, Mauricio. In the book, he is acknowledged as one of Madrid’s finest specialist art guides, “with an immense and ever-increasing knowledge of art”. Mauricio, we are told, has a special interest in Las Meninas as it was his family who were responsible or moving the painting to safety during the Civil War. How lucky we were to have Mauricio as our guide – and how fortunate for all that this painting was preserved.
A visit to Scotland – Followed by a journey to Surrey
I like to make sure I do my homework, so on holiday in Scotland early in the summer, I was pleased to able to visit an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. This was a study of 45 women artists working from 1885-1965 – so a good starter for our autumn programme theme, women artists and women as the subject of art. It was noticeable that the captions to the paintings and sculpture on display, while acknowledging that Scottish women artists did have opportunities to train and practice, did not necessarily explain that it was often the case that they had to resign from teaching posts once married and that financial circumstances could mean they had to put their husband’s careers first. Nevertheless they were clearly a determined lot – and the stunning work on display bore this out.
One of those paintings was The Awakening by Phoebe Anna Traquair . A group from WAHG had visited arts and craft sites in the New Forest and saw her sanctuary murals in All Saints, Thorney Hill, so I was interested to see how her easel painting compared with her other arts and crafts work. The painting displayed a Pre-Raphaelite influence, but did not really shine out amongst the other works on display – but then I had a very different reaction when I visited the Watts Gallery recently. There, in a small display case in Mary Watt’s Studio at Limnerslease, is a display of Traquair’s enamels on loan from the V & A.
Traquair was one of the key figures of the Celtic Revival and best known for her murals which Mary Watts corresponded with her about. She took up enamel work in 1901 and thereafter enamelling replaced book illustration as her favourite small scale or ‘lyric’ medium. Taking her subject matter from scripture and myth, she aspired to capture the beauty of an Edinburgh September sunset in her palette. I found them utterly entrancing, luminous miniature wonders.
Traquair used the basse taille technique developed in the 13th century and popular in the Gothic and Renaissance periods. In this the metal base of the work is carved in low relief and then covered with translucent vitreous enamel giving a brilliant tone to the colours chosen – in her case predominantly iridescent green, turquoise blue, and golden brown set in gold or silver. Here is one example, a necklace with a mermaid and ships.
The main purpose of my visit to the Watts Gallery had been to see “Close up and personal: Victorians and their photographs”. This as an enjoyable overview of the Victorian obsession with photography, especially with portraits of the celebrities of the day, and with their own portraits and those of their families. It ends with some examples of stereoscopic views from educational series showing photographs of subjects like tableaux of historical events, famous paintings etc.
….. And eventually to London at the Tate Britain – Painting with Light
The Watts exhibition space is small – this was not the case with my next visit which was to Tate Britain for their “Painting with Light” show. This fills nine separate large sections in their exhibition gallery and displays work from the earliest days of photography to the early 20th century from the Wilson Centre for Photography alongside iconic paintings from the Tate’s own collection. It is an exhaustive overview of the links between art and photography in that period, from the time of Hill and Adamson in Edinburgh to the modernist period and covering both the use of photography by artists and the inspiration found in art by photographers, sometimes obvious, sometimes more subtle. Both media developed alongside each other so the movements we are familiar with in art – like the aesthetic movement – were mirrored in the photographic work of the Linked Ring brotherhood.
I found the final room less convincing – but that may have been because I had already spent two and half hours in the exhibition by the time I got to the end! Overall, very worthwhile for me as I saw works that I had not seen before, both paintings and photographs. Amidst all the glories of the exhibition, my own favourite was a photograph by Gustave Le Gray, Sea and Sky.
Deceptively simple – a high horizon, with a distant land rise to the right of the image, two dark areas of sea either side of the dazzling luminosity created by sunlight on the surface of the sea – but carefully composed and made by combining two negatives for tonal balance, to give the sense of how our eyes perceive this effect.
And now for all the autumn exhibitions – and some new joys!
Reflections on Spain – The Art and Empire WAHG Tour
As my two contributors to this Newsletter have already reflected in their own way on aspects of the WAHG visit to Spain earlier this year my own comments will relate to particular highlights that I personally enjoyed and to the contrasts that visiting different sites provided. I have visited Madrid, Seville and Cordoba before but Spain is a country which is always worth revisiting. And one of the delights of such a tour is that you can put your guidebook away and simply rely on your guides and their expertise.
So, Sevilla, a jewel of the South, and one of the delights was to embark on a walk in the sunshine along the river and around both its banks which offered the opportunity to see the local area and view the vistas it offered. The cathedral, one of the largest in Europe, is a magnificent building, and its interior is an experience akin to walking into a treasure box in which you are surrounded by walls of gold, or so it seems. Impressive as it is, it’s worth comparing it to the Great Mosque at Cordoba and pondering for a moment on the stark comparison of both architectural styles and the moral aspects of what each building imparts. Or more importantly how each might convey a spirituality of purpose. I do not propose to preach or give my own conclusion but I know which one had more impact on me.
A visit to the Prado was a highlight. It struck me, in comparison to the last time I had visited the musuem, quite some years ago, that then I had walked around in a fog of ignorance which meant that although I was moving through some of the greatest artists’ works it had little impact. This time was different and I added on to the tour a couple of hours on my own. Beautiful paintings and the opportunity to see the Reubens, and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights was especially worth it.
Two more entries. One, the visit to Toledo. Despite the fact that part of the walking tour was spent dodging the heavy rain it was still a joy to visit this historical city. The Synagogue El Transito was fascinating and its restoration work provides a link to an aspect of the history of the Jewish people and their faith. Secondly, the evening meal at the Posada de la Villa, a 17th century inn located in the Old Town in Madrid was a feast and the delight with which the waiters served the various dishes conveyed, for me, the hospitality and conviviality of the Spanish.
And as always that aspect of conviviality is something that the tour party as a whole had in abundance. It really was an enjoyable trip.
Four Works of Art and me
As mentioned in the introduction this article attempts to emulate the idea behind Desert Island Discs and with a judicial trimming of the number of items to be chosen I hereby sumbit my four works of art that have been part of my life. Want to share your chosen works and why you chose them? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I was 25 I shared the downstairs of a slightly run-down house in Tottenham Hale with a friend. The room I inherited from the previous tenant was obviously the lair of a depressive as the walls were painted black! After investing in Dulux Brillant White I then put posters up. These were Mucha’s Seasons; my favourite was Autumn.
My liking for Mucha was I admit at that early stage in the development of my art education a preference for bright colours and simple design but given the whirligigs of time a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to visit Bratislava where with my companions we visited an exhibition on Mucha and I discovered that he was more than just a producer of posters.
There is a hint of a connection with Mucha in that the next painting is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Both are depictions of flowing female figures. In 1979 my partner and I had a trip to Italy visiting Venice, Florence and Sienna. Florence and its mosquitoes, it was August, made us depart the city earlier than we planned but not before we had visited the Uffizi. I can recall the shock of turning a corner in the gallery and suddenly confronting the sheer size and colour of the painting. It was a feeling almost equivalent to tasting real Italian gelato from a takeaway van near the banks of the Arno.
My third painting is William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts 1852 (Strayed Sheep). I first saw this at the Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition in 1984. It was painted outdoors at Fairlight near Hastings. Many of my childhood holidays were spent in Sussex and its various seasides and the downs, especially near Eastbourne and Beachy Head, are remembered fondly. It is a luminous painting and its depiction of the countryside and native flowers coupled with the danger facing the innocent sheep are bathed with shadow and light. Beautiful.
My fourth and last painting is Breugel’s The Hunters in the Snow. It’s one of the earliest reproductions I brought. I cannot remember where or when I first saw it, presumably at an exhibition but I’m not sure. However, I do know when I last saw the original. It was in Vienna. Having gone on a day trip up the Danube from Bratislava we had an afternoon in the crowded centre of the city where we visited a restaurant to grab a small lunch and then a taxi to the Kuntsthistorisches Museum where a whirlwind tour of only part of the museum (our return trip timings limited our stay there) revealed a room of Breugels. Quite stupefying in a way, only eclipsed by an even larger room of Tintoretto’s paintings, floor to ceiling! How can one city have so much art? The painting, I like the cool minty greens, whites, blacks and the flaring of a red and yellow fire. Above all I like its narrative power, and the viewpoint which leads you to imagine the life of a medieval peasant and the hardship of existing in that cold and unforgiving environment.