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.