Simple yet elegant

Dust jacket based on Wyndham Payne design for Christmas wrapping paper

Design: Wyndham Payne
by William Connelly and Paul Payne.
ACC Art Books, 2020.

A designer of dust jackets for crime fiction by Agatha Christie, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and novels by Vera Brittain and Richmal Compton; an illustrator for books and magazines like Punch and Vogue; a designer of advertisements, greetings cards and calendars; a printmaker and model maker. Who am I referring to?

I must admit Wyndham Payne was not a name I’d ever heard of let alone rated till this book came into my hands. With a biographical essay by William Connelly (which first appeared 2005-6) and additional material by one of the artist’s grandsons, this well-illustrated retrospective gives an excellent introduction to a largely self-taught artist who deserves to be better known and appreciated.

He also was an avid collector of bric-a-brac and bargains from junk shops – what he called ‘gubbins shops’ – resulting in the purchase of what appeared to be a later copy but was in fact an original 15th-century painting of the Crucifixion on vellum by Herman Scheerre, now in the British Library. And a watercolour copy of a Rembrandt painting he purchased at auction later turned out to be by Constable.

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April with his sweet showers

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Venus Verticordia

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote …

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Tomorrow is kalendae apriles — the kalends of April — and in ancient Rome it was was marked by the festival known as the Veneralia, the feast day of Venus Verticordia (“Venus the changer of hearts”). April then would have been the month dedicated to the goddess Venus.

It seems an apt time to conjure up the notion of love when there’s a lot of hating going on the world: as Peter and Gordon sang in 1964 in the Paul McCartney song, “I don’t care what they say I won’t stay | In a world without love.”

Below I list ten related facts for your edification, but in honour of the better known association of the first day of April one of them will be a factoid or fake news; can you guess which one it is?

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Cherry on the top

Joos van Cleve, Madonna of the Cherries (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Two, four, six, eight,
Mary at the cottage gate
Eating cherries off a plate,
Two, four, six, eight.

As we hurtle towards the end of this most eventful, least forgettable year, and we approach the day when we are encouraged to trust that peace may come to people of good will, let us pause awhile and contemplate one version of the image that is associated with Christmas, the Madonna and Child.

With this final visit to the canvases of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for 2020 I present you with my thoughts on a Renaissance painting called The Madonna of the Cherries by Netherlands artist Joos van Cleve, who died around 1540 or 1541, leaving his wife a widow.

Existing in several versions, with the composition sometimes reversed, the Bristol example caught my eye for various reasons, some of which may resonate with you too.

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The 1903 Delhi Durbar

Delhi Durbar, 1903

It’s about time for another visit to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and this time there’ll be just one painting for my virtual viewing: The State Entry into Delhi, also known as The Delhi Durbar of 1903.

Painted in 1907 by the British-born American artist Roderick Dempster MacKenzie (1865–1941) it’s a mammoth canvas, 2.9 metres by 3.7 metres (nine and a half feet by twelve). Protected by reflecting glass I found it impossible to get a clear overall shot as it was marginally obscured by pillars supporting a balcony above, but I was at least able to get in close to observe details. (The original version in Delhi is even larger: 3.3 metres by 5, or eleven feet by seventeen.)

It’s a controversial painting these days, of course, with its explicit imperialist and colonialist messages. And, rightly, the museum last year had placed it opposite Devolved Parliament, Banksy’s 2009 satire of Britain’s archaic parliamentarianism, with adult chimpanzees taking the place of the honourable members: both canvases, each separated by a century, had been curated to encourage questioning about traditional attitudes and their relationship with evolving values in the 21st century.

Here I want to look at a few details of Mackenzie’s work and discuss its artistic merits within a broader context.

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Dream worlds

The Garden Court, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

It’s time for another visit to Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. We’ve been here a few times before, looking at canvases depicting interiors, portraits, seascapes.

Now we look back to an imagined Middle Ages, courtesy of a Pre-Raphaelite painter, plus another artist influenced by that backwards-looking movement.

Finally in this post I cross the Bristol Channel to glance at another PRB painting in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, Amgueddfa Cymru. What is the appeal of this rosy-tinted view of the past?

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All at sea

I hope you’re ready for another visit to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in this, the seventh of a series of posts examining artworks which have caught my eye.

This time I look at a trio of paintings themed with the sea. They all feature a craft or vessel on the water, either in a dangerous situation or after that time of crisis.

Unlike the portraits and interiors we previously put under the microscope these three paintings emphasise the open sea as a place of peril. How exactly do they do this?

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Male gaze

The Pianist (c 1900) by Eugène Carrière

As some of you know, I’m a pianist. Not a very good one, you understand, but good enough to accompany choirs and soloists and occasionally play in amateur orchestras and ensembles. Plus, armed with a piano teaching diploma (a licenciate, no less!) from the Royal Academy of Music, I taught piano for several years.

So it was that I was drawn to a painting — yet another in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery — entitled The Pianist. Painted around 1900 by Eugène Carrière (1849–1906), a noted symbolist artist, it practically dared me to throw my professional musician’s and arty amateur’s eye over it.

For good measure, I want to also discuss it in conjunction with a couple of other paintings in this gallery, partly to include some thoughts in the perennial debate about what’s known as the male gaze.

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The mirror not yet crack’d

A woman stands in front of an oval mirror. She is seeing if a shawl she is trying on suits her. She has been standing there for more than a century — since 1910 in fact. And I too have stood for a long time looking at her looking at the looking glass, in which I wasn’t reflected.

The Mackerel Shawl was painted by Algernon Talmage (1871–1939) and has been hanging in Bristol Museum & Art Gallery since it was acquired in 1913. Whenever I visit the gallery I am often drawn to it, but have not really thought why. Until now.

For it has stories to tell, and I want to tell you what it has told me.

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Parliament of the Apes

When I last visited Bristol in August of this year I took the opportunity to wander again around the Museum and Art Gallery, always a delight whenever back in the city I spent so much of my life in. As a way to distract from the never-ending crisis that is Brexit it is always a bonus to get a longer and more positive perspective on history and culture.

An unexpected highlight of my unhurried stroll within this temple of the Muses proved to be a temporary display of a large canvas. Entitled Devolved Parliament, it was created in 2009 by the Bristol artist known as Banksy. To the casual visitor the painting of the Commons chamber of the Houses of Parliament filled with chimpanzees may strike them as confusing or whimsical, but as with all this artist’s work there is more to this piece than meets the innocent eye.

This of course makes it an ideal subject for discussion in my series of occasional posts about the stories behind the images and other objets d’art housed in this Bristol building.

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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.

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A thousand words

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child

A picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s said. On that basis, I shall expend no more than a thousand words on a late 15th-century painting I recently saw on loan from the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

What I intend to do is draw out the narrative explicit and implicit in this late medieval Flemish image, and go a little beyond the core details contained in the adjoining gallery label.

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The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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Updating masculinity

Perry’s self-referential stamp design, entitled Summer Exhibition, for the Royal Academy of Arts

Men’s rights
The right to be vulnerable
The right to be weak
The right to be wrong
The right to be intuitive
The right not to know
The right to be uncertain
The right to be flexible
The right not to be ashamed of any of these

This quote is Grayson Perry‘s manifesto for men, from his 2016 autobiography The Descent of Man.

It’s his attempt to provide a few pointers for how old school masculinity might be transformed to become more pluralistic and, well, more sensitive and kind.

Perry is a well-known British artist (winner of the Turner Prize in 2003), presenter of TV documentaries about art and society in Britain, and a cross-dresser.

He is one of a handful of artists invited to design Royal Mail stamps to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society of Arts in London in 1768. He is also coordinating the summer exhibition which opens on the June 12th.


A review of The Descent of Man will appear here in due course

Alienation versus destruction

From a photograph looking north toward The Cloisters, taken a month before it opened in May 1938

Timothy B Husband “Creating the Cloisters”:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 70, no. 4 (Spring, 2013)

Published in 2013 to mark the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters in New York, “Creating the Cloisters” documents the origins, development during the 1920s and ’30s and eventual opening of this ‘landmark’ museum, its unveiling taking place the year before war ripped Europe apart for the second time in two decades. The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art “dedicated,” as it proclaims, “to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe.” Sited at the city’s highest point on the northern tip of Manhattan, the museum overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades on the opposite bank, and is regarded as a pre-eminent jewel in New York’s crown. But a little over eighty years ago this site was largely a bare rock with a scatter of unrelated buildings.

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The archaeology of personal items

Ivory diptych, Monza Cathedral (Wikipedia Commons)
Ivory diptych, Monza Cathedral (Wikipedia Commons)

Ellen Swift
The End of the Western Roman Empire:
an archaeological investigation

Tempus Publishing 2000

As Dr Swift acknowledges, “the End of the Roman Empire is a misleading term to use for the changes at the end of the fourth century and in the fifth century. The end of official Roman authority would perhaps be more accurate.” The thrust of this book, distilled from her doctoral research, is that the archaeology of personal items may help chart the gradual transition from Western Empire to Medieval Europe, but that it still leaves many questions unanswered. Continue reading “The archaeology of personal items”