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.

Continue reading “The mirror not yet crack’d”

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”

A grail like no other

Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum
Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum

G Ronald Murphy Gemstone of Paradise:
the Holy Grail in Wolfram’s
Parzival

Oxford University Press 2010

Who has not heard of the grail? Who does not have an image of it, perhaps as a cup or some other receptable? Who has not gathered that there is some mystery concerning it, such as it being the chalice of the Last Supper, or the bloodline of Christ, or even some angelic or alien artefact? And who has not gathered that it is something many search for but few, if any, find? What is it, where did it come from and what is its significance? Does anyone really know?

It may be best to go back to basics. Continue reading “A grail like no other”

A reliable overview of a phenomenon

julia-margaret-cameron_arthurRichard Barber
King Arthur: Hero and Legend
Boydell Press 2004

Richard Barber’s classic Arthurian study was deservedly dusted off and re-issued to coincide with the film of the same name (the very curious King Arthur, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley), though there was absolutely no other connection between the two other than the title. Its first appearance in 1961 (as Arthur of Albion), despite being presented to a middle-brow audience, by its style betrayed its origins in academic research; it still occasionally appears on second-hand bookshop shelves. Next, King Arthur in Legend and History appeared in the 70s during a boom in larger format non-fiction paperbacks; unfortunately the glued binding was poor quality and all the colour plates in my copy fell out.

The present revised and extended reincarnation is substantially the same as that which appeared in both hardback and paperback in the 80s and 90s, and this time the plates stay put and the format is more friendly. Continue reading “A reliable overview of a phenomenon”

Infectious enthusiasm

Walter Crane sword-in-stoneBarbara Tepa Lupack, Alan Lupack
Illustrating Camelot
D S Brewer (Arthurian Studies) 2008

As befits a study on Arthurian book illustrations, Illustrating Camelot has a generous helping of examples of the genre – forty in monochrome and thirty-two in colour. If a picture is worth a thousand words then we have a text automatically augmented by 72,000 words!

And what a text it is. Using thirteen named illustrators as her framework, Barbara Tepa Lupack takes us through two centuries and more of imaging the court of Arthur, commenting on the politics, mores and personalities of the times and their inter-relationship with the depiction of the Arthurian ideal. Continue reading “Infectious enthusiasm”