Celebrating the Arts

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Re-reading Emma recently, it struck me that, far more than Jane Austen’s other novels, it is permeated by a sort of unease about class. On the surface, it’s a socially stable society with the Woodhouses at Hartfield and Mr Knightley at Donwell Abbey at the apex. Their wealth and status has obviously been established for many generations – that socially damning word ‘trade’ is no part of their financial inheritance. It is the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, who is the most conscious of social class and she believes that she knows to a T where everyone fits into the class structure. It is Emma who is the most unforgiving about people wanting to climb above their ‘proper’  – as she sees it – place.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870 courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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I first came across Gilbert & Sullivan operas when I was about 17 when I went to live with my aunt Dolly, who was not only a Communist, ‘Nobody’s red enough for me, dear!’ but also a commercial artist with a lot of interesting, arty friends, including Dennis, a film cameraman. Dennis and his wife were very involved with their local G & S Opera Society. Every year, my aunt and I would go to see whichever G & S opera the society were performing.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Savoy Operas, first published in 1926. I inherited this from Aunt Dolly and very useful it is.  

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Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), artist, and author of a brilliant diary, is somewhat neglected nowadays, though he was an interesting man and counted Keats, Hazlitt and Wordsworth among his friends. He was a good portrait painter – as his 1842 portrait of Wordsworth below attests – but, unfortunately, he passionately believed in the old-fashioned 18th century notion that Great Painting should concentrate on historical and religious subjects in the Grand Manner.

William Wordsworth against a background of the majestic Helvellyn, in the Lake District,  by Benjamin Haydon, 1842. Once a staunch Radical and Romantic poet, Wordsworth, by 1842, had become an establishment figure and would become Poet Laureate in the following year. 

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Room 61, in the British Museum’s Egyptian Galleries, which showcases the wonderful Tomb of Nebamun, is one of my favourite rooms. The display is created around eleven frescoes from the tomb of Nebamun, who lived in the city of Thebes (present-day Luxor) on the River Nile, around 1325 B.C. He was a middle-ranking official scribe and grain counter working at the nearby temple complex; and an important man. The frescoes were acquired by the museum in the 1820s.

The herdsman and peasant farmers herd Nebamun’s cattle to be counted. (Photo courtesy of the British Museum)

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Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) was a late Victorian artist who specialized in beautifully designed paintings of children, mainly little girls, in Regency costume to illustrate stories and poems. ‘She created a small world of her own, a dream world, a never-never land,’ said one critic, and it was one which was, financially, extremely successful.

Illustration of ‘Jack and Jill’ from ‘Mother Goose’ (1886)

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I’ve always loved Victorian magic shows with their sleights of hand and appearances that trick the eye. To my delight, this year’s exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Palace, at the Summer Opening of the Buckingham Palace State Rooms, offers a genuinely Victorian touch of magic with an optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost. I couldn’t wait.

But first, a bit of background…

Queen Victoria by Thomas Scully, 1837-9. She’s Queen, she’s unmarried, and Life beckons. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

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I have long been a fan of the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837); and his London home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, now Sir John Soane’s Museum, is one of my favourite places. I love its quirkiness, its ingenious use of light – long horizontal windows in strange places, like just below the ceiling and skylights letting in light from above – and the unexpectedly vibrant colours he liked to use.

Sir John Soane by Sir Thomas Lawrence, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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This year, the Queen’s Gallery marks 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) with a thrilling new exhibition which displays over 200 drawings held in the Royal Collection. What makes them so extraordinary is that you feel at once that you are being allowed inside the head of a genius, a man who was, above all, curious to know how things worked.

1. Study of shoulder muscles from sketchbook of Leonardo da Vinci

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