Celebrating the Arts

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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Recently, I re-visited Westminster Abbey; I hadn’t been there for years – the last time I went, there were few visitors and you were allowed to go wherever you wanted. What I remembered was the soaring Gothic architecture and the wonderful fan vaulting of the ceiling. I loved St Edward’s shrine and the various chapels of the early English kings and queens; and I was able to wander round and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of 800 years of prayer, largely uninterrupted.

St Edward’s the Confessor’s shrine.

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1767. Young Mr Hand, a Huguenot, flees from Flanders to escape religious persecution by the French. He is not alone. Ever since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, (which had granted French Protestants freedom of religious practice) thousands of Huguenots had fled to nearby Protestant countries – and taken their skills with them.

A formal coat for a diplomat. The first thing once notices is its weight and rigidity. This is about status not comfort.

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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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