A Trip to the Barber

Recently I visited the Barber Institute at Birmingham University. Easy to get to – train to University and keep walking. I went to see an exhibition entitled Rhythm of Light, a celebration of the so called Scottish Colorists. These are a group of turn of the (20th) century Scottish artists who discovered light and colour in Paris and the South of France. I enjoyed the exhibition but to be honest having enjoyed the works of S J Peploe and J D Ferguson for years I found the curation somewhat tame. Some of the work of these two artists in Edinburgh and Perth is simply stunning so while the exhibition was good and has been well received it wasn’t for me this time. 

It was ironic that probably the best Fergusson in the building was His 1902 Portrait of Jean Maconochie in the permanent collection. Well I suppose it’s a matter of taste. 

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J D Fergusson,  Jean Maconochie, 1902, The Barber Institute, Birmingham.

However I did spend a little time in front of one picture in the permanent collection which made me ponder on a few things. There is a painting of The Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist. The title notes attributes the picture to Sandro Botticelli, around 1480. My first thoughts was how wonderful it was that this painting was still here hanging in Birmingham over 500 years after it was created. I pondered further on the events around Birmingham and Florence all those years ago. Both experiencing royal civil wars, both about to see great dynastic changes which would eventually challenge the heart of religious doctrine of the day. 

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Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist, 1480, The Barber Instiute, Birmingham

But then I thought – Botticelli – that’s interesting – How strong is the attribution? Is it an autograph work? Is it with collaboration? Is it a factory work? Well the notes accepts that Botticelli had a very successful studio but claims the very fine work makes it the master. So what does my “complete Works” at home tell me. Well it becomes very interesting. It turns out that Botticelli painted this scene several times and my oracle claims the original of this painting is in the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzio Pitti in Florence and is attributed by all the experts. A reverse copy exists in Paris and is partially attributed. The Birmingham painting is a second reverse copy with the same dimensions as the Paris version and the same partial attribution. So I now know how busy these studios were back in the fourteen hundreds – step back Andy Warhol!

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Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist, 1480, Galleria Palatina, Palazzio Pitti, Florence. (Note the reverse to the Birmingham version)

But then I thought – The Bible makes no mention of this meeting. Did the infant Baptist meet the Christ Child? There are numerous Renaissance and Baroque paintings devoted to this event. It arises from some of the apocryphal accounts of the Life of Christ abundant in the Middle Ages and refers to Jesus meeting his cousin on the holy family’s return from Egypt. These must have echoes of Luke recounting the unborn John recognising Christ in the womb (Luke 1:41).

But so to the painting – it is gorgeous. I hope my photograph does justice to the colours. It is difficult for me to judge on the level of restoration but the colours in egg tempera are just wonderful. And just look at the gold on The Madonna’s shawl. But most of all look at the faces. I am not sure if Italians have ever looked like Botticelli’s Madonna’s or Venus’s – but wow anyway. Most of all look at the Christ Child’s eyes. From a distance they look closed but get closer and you see just what a great artist Botticelli was – just open and clearly focussed on John. 

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Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist (Birmingham) – detail.

It is worth taking time with a painting and certainly worth it with a truly great painter like Botticelli to see how really good The Old Masters were.

The Rhythm of Light is on until 13th May and is seriously worth it but do take a few minutes with Botticelli. You will not regret it.

Royal Brighton

Looking at the Royal Pavilion tells you much about the philosophy of pleasure as enjoyed by George IV and Victoria. George saw Brighton as a a place to enjoy and had this sumptuous building, converted from the original Marine Pavilion by John Nash between 1815 – 1822, to lavish enjoyment on his court. The architecture and the decoration reflect an expression of extrovert pleasure. Close to the centre of Brighton and with the growing interest in the sea, Nash created this Indo-Saracenic Palace for the King’s delight displaying the increasing Eastern spiritual flavour with its domes and minarets.

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The Garden Front of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton

The two main interior spaces are the Banqueting Room and the Music Room. The walls of the Banqueting Room are adorned with bold oriental illustrations by the designer, Robert Jones and the highlight is the chandelier held in the claws of a silver dragon weighing in at just over one ton. The highlights of the Music Room are the decorations by Frederick Crace, the Rock Clock (c1735) and the (restored) Axminster carpet. Unfortunately the Royal Saloon, with its sumptuous Egyptian couch, with crocodile feet, was closed for refurbishment for our visit but there is much to be seen in the state rooms, corridors and the upstairs rooms. Although mainly restored the flavour of excess is visible throughout; do look out for the bright yellow hand painted wall papers in Queen Victoria’s apartments.

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The Banqueting Room, Brighton, with silver gilt, pedestal lamps and chandelier.

Which brings us to Victoria. Her pleasure was much more introspective preferring the company of her family, and finding Brighton far to brash and close to the people. Having decided on the more remote Osborne House on the Isle of Wight she stripped the palace bare, to furnish Windsor and Buckingham Palace, before selling to the Corporation of Brighton in 1850. She and others have returned much of the property over the years and a long term loan from the current Queen Elizabeth II has allowed the original feeling of excess to return. Amongst the accoutrements look out especially for the eight pedestal lights and the Regency silver gilt in the Banqueting Room and the various eighteenth and nineteenth century pianos, reflecting the Prince Regent’s love of music. The list of items to note is almost endless.

We finished our trip with a look around the Art Gallery which is a quaint provincial affair resembling an emporium in part. Highlight for me was the permanent exhibition of Glyn Philpot Paintings. The family gift to Brighton shows Philpot as a highly understated twentieth century figurative painter, perhaps not fully embracing Modernism. We also love seeing the British Abstractist, William Gear, wherever we go and exhibited here are Caged Yellow 1971 and Ascending Orange 1969. Also worth seeing is the exhibits of fashion and the tastefully curated rooms looking at  transology and exhibitionism.

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Ascending Yellow, William Gear, 1971, Brighton Art Gallery.

Brighton is a great place to visit for its different approach to the world of pleasure (we were here for the Marathon) and neither the Pavilion, the museum or, indeed, the City will let the visitor down.

Congratulations, Dave for completing with a PB time of 4 hrs 27 mins

Hepworth at Henley-on-Thames

We recently had a lunch out with an American friend who decreed in the conversation that Henley-on-Thames was the destroyer of ambition. Whether this is true or not is a moot point but it certainly is a beautiful place to rest a while. The conversation came from my describing a very short time spent there recently. A beautiful sunny day; I could have languished by the river for hours but just had enough time for an hour at The River and Rowing Museum. This gem, designed by David Chipperfield, of course houses exhibits associated with rowing on the Thames but also contains galleries for other tastes. Currently there is a charming little walk through dedicated to Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. In times of so much superb children’s literature you forget what a delightful and thought-provoking tale of riverside heroes this is. Of course I did not go to the museum for Ratty, Toad and Mole. It was Finding Form, a view of Barbara Hepworth, The sculptor who did so much for British Modernism that drew me. The exhibition, curated by the museum’s Natalie Patel showed Hepworth, the worker of natural materials to great effect.

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The showpiece is Spring, 1966, a bronze cast including the two concepts so relevant to Hepworth – the hole and the string. The hole, which she discovered in 1928 and never left gives her the insight to the interior of form and it’s duality with the exterior. It is not simply a window but an emotional entrée. Likewise the strings which she employed from around 1937 onwards signify the tension in her work and maybe musicality, probably from some of her European Abstract artist associates of the thirties. Hepworth came late to casting as she had favoured carving natural materials in her early career. Spring is based on an elm carving of 1965, Oval form with Strings and Colour, 1965, in the Metropolitan in New York.  The Limestone carving, Bicentric Form, 1949, is exhibited representing both the figurative form and the menhirs, standing stones which became so familiar from her days in Cornwall. Being brought up in Yorkshire and residing for many years in St Ives her strong natural landscape always featured strongly in her work. These two feature among six works on loan from various UK galleries including the Tate. They feature all Hepworth’s sculptural methods. Painting and drawing were not major parts of Hepworth’s oeuvre of work but the exhibition does include two geometric drawings which inform the tension in her works.

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As a late developer in appreciating the full impact Barbara Hepworth had on British Art I now take every opportunity to visit her works. There is much to see at Henley and the Rowing Museum but for the short time available this exhibition is a must and is on until 3rd June 2018.