Invitation

Don’t you ever wish you could walk into a painting? Step in, nose around corners, peer down corridors, approach closer to a distant view through an opening?

That’s what many traditional representations try to do: invite you to explore an interior, marvel at the illusion that this could be a real space, a looking glass in which you aren’t reflected but an invisible fourth wall through which you could walk, like Alice, into an imaginary theatre set.

Here is the second of my wordy wanderings through selected works of art in Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery, this time courtesy of Fred Elwell’s view of a house in Beverley, East Yorkshire.

The information label tells us this was painted in the interwar years and was probably inspired by studies of 17th-century Dutch interiors. I have always loved these domestic scenes, particularly a well-known trompe-l’oeil painting in Dyrham Park near Bristol. This National Trust property (its façades were ‘borrowed’ for a recent TV adaptation — rather disappointing, in my opinion — of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon) houses an exquisite 1662 canvas by a pupil of Rembrandt’s, Samuel van Hoogstraten, entitled A View through a House.

Cunningly positioned, van Hoogstraten’s so-called ‘threshold’ painting invites us to believe that the parrot, escaped from its cage, along with the dog and cat all exist in a real interior, and that behind a lattice window we can glimpse a man and a woman having a private conversation.

When Pepys saw this artwork in 1663, the diarist confessed that “above all things, I do the most admire [the then owner’s] piece of perspective especially, he opening me the closet door and there I saw that there is nothing but only a plain picture hung upon the wall.” Contemporary visitors too gawp when they stand at the ‘threshold’ of this painting.

Though Elwell’s painting is less monumental I was arrested by this more recent work too, imagining I was truly seeing Elwell’s neighbour caught momentarily as she descended her stairs. (Let’s hope she didn’t get a shock when she spotted Elwell ensconced in her hallway splashing paint on his canvas …)

Framed by the generously proportioned archway from the hall, the stairwell is but a link through to a dining room and, glimpsed beyond, a conservatory. Perspective effects in carpets and floor tiles draw the eye beyond the horizontals and verticals in picture frames, mirror, walls and doorways, but it is the chandelier hanging down into our field of sight (as the parrot’s cage did?) that most convinces us, unconsciously perhaps, to suspend disbelief.

Touches of blue from, for example, the flowers, the figure and a rug at the bottom of the stairs contrast with the more sombre colours evident elsewhere, but it is the woman bathed in the glow of the sun streaming in from a landing window that provides our immediate focus of interest.

Elwell also harks back not just to 17th-century painting but also to medieval icons and altarpieces. Am I wrong in sensing a subtle homage to religious triptychs?

To the left is a portrait on the wall, perhaps an early 18th-century ancestor of Elwell’s elderly neighbour. Knickknacks and objects d’art adorn surfaces, and a chair offers a visitor a chance to warm themselves by the fireplace. And yet this corner somehow doesn’t feel like a place to linger: dark and dismal is my impression, somewhere for ghosts to haunt and impart a sense of chill.

The ‘panel’ to the right is altogether more cheery: no Gothic Victorian panelling but instead a more ‘modern’ decor, a cheerful chintz covering on the armchair, vivid emeralds on the walls and rugs, a contemporary painting in the style of a Vanessa Bell or a Duncan Grant. We have progressed from the dun earthy hues of the past to the bright optimism of the twenties with its hints of growth and positivity.

I hope this cursory stroll through Elwell’s neighbour’s Beverley residence has indicated how rewarding it can be to accept such invitations to a viewing. It’s only strange that a close inspection of the painting’s surface reveals not the expected photo-realistic finish but something actually halfway between the precise techniques of those antique Dutch masters and the more suggestive daubs of the late Impressionists.

31 thoughts on “Invitation

  1. I might be a bit on the spectrum and it shows, because all I am focusing on is the mistake in the mirror. The archway is there, the chandelier is there and then instead of the door there is a wall and a picture loosely strung.

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    1. I hadn’t really twigged that anomaly in the mirror, so thanks for pointing it out. A few points immediately occur to me, first being that this may be because this is a nod towards famously ambiguous paintings incorporating mirrors, such as Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Velasquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas, where what is reflected in the painted mirror facing the viewer plays with our perception of reality.

      The second impulse is to wonder whether what we see is not what we assume. Is the wooden frame with the square capital which we see perhaps behind the viewer/painter, as is the loosely hung picture? Despite what I said earlier about perspective, the room which is our vantage point is all skew-whiff, as we can see from the rug in front of the fire on the left. Elwell, I think, is deliberately playing with our perceptions. Possibly.

      Yes, I’m on the spectrum and now this anomaly is all I can see… 😁

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      1. There’s another thing, that if the sun is shining down the stairs and lighting up the hall, why are the shadows in the room on the right pointing the other way? I feel that the painter, painted it over a length of time perhaps or that there is something in that room that lights it up from within. It reminds me of Poirot and how he solved a case (I won’t say which one and spoil it for you). Oh wait, I think that was used in a Columbo once or thrice too. Shadows, sun bleached rugs, it’s nothing new and all Ray’s original idea (get it?) {{{giggles}}}.

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        1. I’ve just checked in our house, and the sun shining in strongly at a slanting angle at the front has created the expected shadows; however, at the back, where the sun hasn’t yet reached, there is still enough reflected light and general daylight to create shadows (marginally fainter, it’s true) lying the opposite way — and that seems to be the case in this painting. Nevertheless that doesn’t negate your point about Elwell painting this over a length of time, accounting for what appears to be counterintuitive.

          Apologies, I don’t get the ‘Ray’ reference though I can see it’s a pun! I haven’t read enough Poirot mysteries (watched even fewer Columbo episodes) to even begin to pinpoint Ray’s significance — I have led a rather sad life insulated from much popular culture… 😁

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          1. I do love a mystery and trying to solve them. I’m not into soap operas. I cannot see the point in having to watch each and every episode. I have been known to call it terminal telly. I’ve really enjoyed the Gentleman Jack series, for it was based on a real person who was strong and opinionated, so there’s the main appeal.

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            1. EastEnders? Pah! Coronation Street? Puh-leeze! Emmerdale? No fanx. Hollyoaks? Enough already. Open-ended soaps, not my bag. ‘Terminal telly’ is a perfect description.

              Finite series, whether comedy or drama? Much more appealing, whether Fleabag, Gentleman Jack, Green Wing — anything so long as it’s not interminable season after season getting more and more preposterous.

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            2. Oh wait you forgot Holly… oh no you said that one {{{shudder}}} Never fall asleep in front of a telly only to wake up and wonder WTF is going on, only to find you’ve been watching a soap in your half awake state and it’s called Hollyoaks. Tell you what, not a lot of people realise there was only ever 12 episodes to Fawlty Towers. Love the rat scene, just love it.

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            3. ‘Quit while the going’s good’ is always the best advice. Basil the Rat was a fine episode, indeed. I don’t think I have a favourite episode, unless it’s the one I’m watching at any given moment…

              Walking up to Hollyoaks? I feel your pain.

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  2. Thank you, Chris, I’ve enjoyed this detailed look at a painting I’d not seen before. It’s so inviting and for some reason aspects of it feel familiar. The uncomfortable chair against the wall is reminiscent of waiting outside to see the Headteacher! The lovely trompe-l’oeil painting in Dyrham Park is one that I also love, the first time I visited I nearly walked into it…

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    1. Thanks, Anne: I’m glad to hear that you didn’t accidentally walk into the non-existent Hoogstraten room!

      I used to haunt the Bristol City Art Gallery as a teenager and must have seen the Elwell a few times, but this was the first time I really examined it in detail (along with a few other artworks I shall post about now and again). I know what you mean by the headteacher’s chair for anxiously waiting children! I’m taken back to the panelled prep school in Bristol I briefly attended (now a university department building) and that overbearing Victorian institutional vibe those kinds of places had—and no doubt still have.

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  3. Fascinating! Both paintings are new to me and I love them – but I’m equally fascinated by how different my approach is to that of yourself and Over Soil. I didn’t notice any of the points that you two were discussing in your thread – and I confess to taking ages to spot the dog in the van Hoogstraten painting! 🤦‍♀️ I find it very difficult to notice specifics and details until I’ve finished processing the big picture. (No pun intended, this applies to everything not just paintings.) For me. it’s all about atmosphere and feelings, storyline and snapshot of a moment within that story. And there is so much story within each of these works. Beautiful!

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    1. It’s awe-inspiring how different responses, perceptions and information-processing can be among us humans. I too have an instinctive, occasionally emotional, response to experiences and situations but if that doesn’t overwhelm me (or conversely bore me) then I start analysing why I have that response. Doesn’t always apply: sometimes I’m happy to wallow in a sensual way — the sun on my shoulders in a sheltered spot, a piece of music that awakes some nostalgic memory — and then analysis be damned! Your ‘big picture’ priorities suggest you are less likely to be distracted by irrelevancies or unimportant details, Sandra, a crucial instinct when it comes to basic survival!

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    1. Aren’t they? I also love the subtleties in much abstract art.

      I do however struggle with conceptual art, which seems to me to require so much more intellectual effort but (it seems to me) with correspondingly less reward, and that often of dubious merit.

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    1. I’m a city boy at heart, Leslie, so street scenes and buildings and interiors float my boat (as it were). However, living with in a national park means we have a constantly changing landscape picture from the back of our house merely by stepping outside. I shall have to look up H G Wiles and Errol Boyley now, both names who are new to me.

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    2. Yes, I can now see the appeal of Boyley’s work, landscapes I’d be happy to admire on our walls. W G Wiles’s oeuvre is a little more straight-laced for my tastes but has a definite attractiveness.

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      1. Of course, I am biased by having known both personally. Errol in days when, as a typical starving artist, he had to be fed by my aunt. Just before he died his pictures were commanding seven figures each!

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        1. That personal connection, knowing your family was supportive from the start of his career, must be something special for you, especially knowing his talent was nurtured by that support.

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          1. We went up to Hilton to judge his garden not long before his death and renewed acquaintance. He was over the moon at having a tongue-in-cheek price on a painting for seven figures not only met, but two more commissioned!

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  4. Pingback: Invitation — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  5. earthbalm

    Really interesting post Chris. I’m going to have to sit down and compile a list. I love the way your choices for the post have background, foreground and middle ground(s). The Elwell painting is even more interesting because, as you mention, we see a reflection in a mirror of surfaces we would otherwise not see.

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    1. Both choices so far — the Flemish as well as this one — have been similar in being representational, Dale, having depth and, being interior scenes, drawing attention to different spaces by means of ‘rooms’ and/or distant views — the background, foreground and middle ground you mention.

      And did you notice the similarities between the Elwell and the Hoogstraten? Both had (among other common features) mirrors, something hanging above head level, and stairs leading off the side of the picture. Thanks for linking to the post, another of your generous stamps of approval!

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  6. A great post! As a kid I used to love sitting in the library with a big art book they had pretending I was ‘in’ the pictures. These paintings are perfect for recreating that feeling. 🙂

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    1. Oh, I too remember doing something similar when I was a kid! And I used to love those big picture books by publishers like Dorling Kindersley which visually explained how such pictures were put together, how they worked, what they were trying to say and, especially, exactly how they depicted a ‘real’ 3D space on a two-dimensional canvas. I suppose a near equivalent these days are the visuals CGI technicians create for video games and fantasy films…

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      1. Oooo, yeah, those books that break down how a picture has been created are the best and what all the symbolism is. Holbein’s The Ambassadors stands out in my mind. That and I remember this awesome book on Victorian paintings which talked a lot about their symbolism – that was ace. 🙂

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        1. There used to be weekly issues of part encyclopaedias, didn’t there, on topics such as art history, and I remember their vivid visual analyses of the processes, composition and structures of famous as well as less familiar paintings by selected artists.

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