Celebrating the Arts

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On Friday, I went to Tate Britain, one of my favourite places. I had two paintings in mind which I thought might make an interesting blog but, to my dismay, they weren’t hanging where they should have been. A gallery attendant told me that they were on loan to Canberra, and wouldn’t be back until October. Disaster. It was Friday and I needed a blog for Sunday.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 by John Singer Sargent, Tate Britain

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Last year, the British Museum opened the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World and I went to see it. The press reviews, rightly, raved about the Mosque lamps in glowing colours, the beautifully-decorated jars, and so on. Not only were the objects displayed of top quality but the exhibition space itself had been meticulously designed and lit especially to enhance the visitor’s experience.

I decided I’d go back, photograph of my favourite objects, and write a blog about them. But something happened.

Pottery Jar with Lid

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Recently, I saw the Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill exhibition at that extraordinary Gothic extravaganza, Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of the author, letter writer, and passionate collector of the Fine Arts, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Horace was the son of the politician and statesman, Sir Robert Walpole, and rich enough to do what he wanted: travel in Italy, buy art and antiques, and live the life of a cultivated man of leisure. His tastes were unusual and original – and he had the money to indulge himself.

Strawberry Hill: note the Gothic windows, tower and chimneys

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John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic and a man who held strong views on what values a society should hold, was one of the most influential men of his generation. For example, when Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) visits the church of Santa Croce in Florence, she’s desperate to know which tombstone was praised by Ruskin. This is her first trip abroad and she’s unsure of her own taste; she needs the reassurance that she’s admiring the right one.

However, I think it’s fair to say that Ruskin is not always an easy person to appreciate in the 21st century. Nowadays, we like to view ourselves as liberal-minded and tolerant, particularly in sexual matters. An intellectually very gifted only child, Ruskin was brought up on strict Puritanical principles and cossetted by both parents. His mother had high moral standards and was a very controlling parent. It is not surprising that Ruskin turned out to be obsessive, sexually inhibited and highly-strung.

Watercolour sketch of a coastal scene with fortress by John Ruskin, 1841

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Princess Mary, the Princess Royal (1897-1965) was seventeen when World War I broke out in 1914. In normal circumstances, Mary would have been kept under wraps until she was eighteen and come out in Society, but, the outbreak of war changed everything. The House of Saxe-Coburg began to be accused of being far too German, and King George V and Queen Mary found themselves with an image problem.

Princess Mary by J. J. Shannon, R.A. 1914

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We’ve just past November 30th, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland, so it feels appropriate to celebrate the 19th century transformation of that beautiful country.

Flatback Staffordshire figure: Highlander with deer (45 cms. high)

My parents lived in Invernesshire, in the Scottish Highlands, for many years and their house contained a number of things unmistakably inspired by Scotland, one of which was this large flat back Staffordshire figure of a kilted Highlander  with his arm around what looks like a small deer. I’ve always liked it – partly because it looks so absurd. There is a gun dangerously positioned beside the highlander’s left leg pointing upwards, (my brothers and I had to learn the ‘Never, never let your gun/ Pointed be at anyone’ rule before my father, an excellent shot, would allow us anywhere near a gun), and the figure has a horn at his waist. Why? To summon a gillie? Or does it contain gunpowder for the gun, though that seems unlikely.

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The new exhibition Russia: Royalty & Romanovs at the Queen’s Gallery, has all the splendour one would expect with Fabergé eggs and other objets d’art but the initial contact between the two countries was in the late 17th century, and low key.

1914 Faberge Mosaic egg and the surprise inside it, showing the profiles of the Tsarina’s five children

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Gold has always been a key to power: it doesn’t corrode, so it holds its value, and, as every ruler knows, access to gold is essential for paying armies and controlling the state. Furthermore, in skilled hands, this precious metal can be transformed into beautiful and desirable objects which, in turn, help to cement alliances, reward allies and demonstrate the power of the ruler.

The Goldsmiths’ Company’s leopard’s head symbol entwined with vine leaves on the mantelpiece in the Court Room (Photo by Elizabeth Hawksley)

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Illuminating the Dark Ages is no easy task, as I discovered when I went to the British Library’s new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition. There are a lot of illuminated manuscripts, most of them beautiful, but what, exactly can they tells us about that troubled period? A surprising amount, as it happens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the glories of Anglo-Saxon craftsmenship. This illuminated manuscript was produced in the monastery on Lindisfarne in 715-720 AD. Its sophisticated designs owe much to Celtic art.

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I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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