Celebrating the Arts

One thing I really enjoyed about the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Ocean Liners exhibition, was seeing new, and unexpected, works by 20th century artists I’d long admired.

Take Edward Ardizzone, (1900-1979). I knew him as a children’s book illustrator but didn’t know that the P & O Line had commissioned him to produce three large murals for the first class children’s playroom on board the Canberra in 1960-61. This is a detail from one of them.

Left hand side of Edward Ardizzone’s ‘Canberra’ mural

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This is one of my favourite objects in the British Museum. It’s an automaton of a nef, that is, a model of a galleon, the state of the art ship of the 15th-16th centuries which epitomized European power and expansion at the time. The model shows an ungainly-looking vessel whose massive sails are furled, and with its foremast, a main mast and mizzen mast sticking up with the crows’ nests awkwardly curled round them.

Gilded copper and iron nef, c.1585, 90 cms high from the port side.

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This year, the Buckingham Palace State Rooms’ summer opening to the public has Royal Gifts as their theme. These are gifts that have been given to The Queen during her reign as part of the State Visits’ formal exchange of gifts. It is an opportunity for both countries to showcase their countries’ craftsmanship as well as to give something which they think the recipient will appreciate.

It is like entering in Aladdin’s cave. One of the most spectacular gifts is the ornate gold presentation tray from Ethiopia. Its inscription reads:

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Visiting the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge last week was huge fun and it’s something I thoroughly recommend. So what’s it about? It comprises a large collection of 19th – early 20th century self-playing musical instruments and (and this is the fun bit) most of them still work. I went on a group tour, guided by the wonderful Roy Huddlestone – now eighty-six and looking twenty years younger – who not only knows the various instruments and their stories inside out but also demonstrates them, to thrilling effect. Until you’ve heard the Popper ‘Clarabella’ Orchestrion, which, in its 1910 heyday thrilled customers in a German Bier Garten, complete with flashing lights and lit up ornamental waterfall, not to mention a bronze statue of the Pied Piper, belting out popular tunes fortissimo with full orchestral piano, xylophone, Glockenspiel, drums, cymbals and triangle, you ain’t lived.

Orchestrion from the front

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My copy of this famous book belonged to my grandfather and dates from the late 19th century. It’s based on a French translation by Antoine Galland, who heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story teller in Aleppo, sometime in the early 17th century. Galland’s translation appeared in 1704-8 and became an instant hit. James Mason, who edited this English version, wrote: ‘Few works have been translated into so many languages, or given such wide-spread delight.’

He felt that it was particularly well adapted ‘for putting into the hands of the young, to stimulate their growing faculties, to cultivate their imagination, and to assist, by healthy exercise, the expansion of their mental powers.’ We know that Charles Dickens loved the stories since childhood. As my grandfather’s copy was acquired when he was well into his forties, I would argue that it’s a wonderful book for all ages.

The Sultan Schahriah and Scheherazade (above) and her sister Dinarzade (below)

I do not know who is responsible for the illustrations; the frontispiece says only ‘With numerous illustrations.’

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Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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This week I’m looking at a poem/picture about love: a tale of a fatal attraction between two children. She, Maud, is a woodman’s daughter; he is the squire’s son and they meet in his father’s woods where Maud’s father, Gerald, is clearing the undergrowth. The story comes from Coventry Patmore’s 1844 poem The Woodman’s Daughter.

The young Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais (1829-1896), came across the poem and made it the subject of his 1851 Royal Academy painting.

The Woodman’s Daughter by John Everett Millais

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I first came across the Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652), in Our Hidden Heritage by Eleanor Tofts, published in 1974. It was one of those books at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s which sought to re-instate women writers, artists and composers whose works had been forgotten or downgraded.

Our Hidden History by Eleanor Tofts, 1974

Artemisia was taught to paint by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in Rome. Both were influenced by the new style of the painter, Caravaggio, with its accentuated use of shadows, strong colours and dramatic story-telling. Artemisia became known for her wit and high-spirits, as well as her painting. But, when she was only seventeen, her life took a traumatic turn. She was raped by a friend of her father’s, a fellow painter called Agostino Tasso. Orazio appealed to the Pope and Agostino was brought to trial. Artemisia was cross-questioned under torture but held firm, and Tasso was imprisoned for eight months. Poor Artemisia was hastily married off and moved to Florence.

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In the 19th century, screens were very popular and many well-to-do day homes had one. They comprised three wooden frames hinged together, with hessian stretched across each frame and painted to create a base for illustrations. The owners would decorate the screen themselves. They could buy a whole range of painted decorations – often flowers, birds or animals – and customize the screen to suit their own tastes. Looking at the oval photographs of Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s youngest child) and Prince Henry of Battenburg which probably celebrates their wedding in 1886, I’m guessing that my screen dates from the late 1880s, and I suspect that the original owner was female, romantic and about thirteen. I’ve named her Muriel after my great-grandmother.

One of the pictures is interestingly misleading.

Three boys pulling girl in sleigh on the ice

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