Exhibition Review: Virginia Woolf

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The view of Godrevy Lighthouse (which inspired To the Lighthouse) from the hotel.

Last weekend I went all the way to St Ives in Cornwall with some friends for a fabulous time visiting the Virginia Woolf exhibition currently on at Tate St Ives. It’s the perfect place to explore Woolf’s ideas, landscape and feminist consciousness; St Ives is well known as an artists’ place, with its light and landscape which has inspired so many; and Woolf wrote so fondly of the inspiration and happiness provided by her early summers spent at Talland House (which we sought out, of course). A Londoner by birth, Woolf writes Cornwall into several of her novels, including Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. She wrote that

‘I went for a walk in Regent’s Park yesterday morning, and it suddenly struck me how absurd it was to stay in London, with Cornwall going on all the time,’ she records of her sudden train journey from London to Cornwall in 1909. I have been walking along the sands and sitting in the sun… I am so drugged with fresh air that I can’t write…As for the beauty of this place it surpasses every other season.

As someone who frequently feels the urge to hop on the Penzance train instead of going home at the end of a long day, I understand completely. For Woolf, Cornwall offered a kind of freedom from the social life and claustrophobia of London (which, equally, she

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Talland House

thrived on), and this and so much more is reflected in the exhibition. Woolf’s life and work are situated in a web of cultural forms, from art to bookbinding, home furnishings to sculpture, and of course she had close ties to the women’s suffrage movement and wrote passionately about women’s creativity and education. This exhibition, then, in the year in which we mark 100 years of women’s suffrage, is particularly significant, and all the more so because it only features women’s work. Over the last decade attention has repeatedly been drawn to studies about the under-representation of women artists, and this has been repeatedly ignored, but here is an exhibition that makes a wonderful attempt to redress the balance.

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(c) artcornwall.org

The show offers, consequently, an insight into the changing landscape of women’s lives over the last 100 years. Many of these insights are internal: there are some of Vanessa Bell’s wonderful still lives, which seem to echo Woolf’s novels is so many ways, as well as furnishing fabrics, ceramics and portraits. From Gwen John’s uncompromising stare in her self-portrait to Laura Knight’s The Dark Pool (one of my favourite paintings, but which does not appear in the catalogue, sadly), to photographs of Dora Carrington as a ‘living sculpture’, unconventional creative women are celebrated throughout. There are several wonderful ‘windowsill’ paintings, by Bell, Knight, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and others, which transform a woman’s point of view from a domestic centre by looking outwards. Some are almost mocking in their refusal of domestic life (such as Knight’s Cactus, complete with dead flies), and they indicate both the necessity of a ‘room of one’s own’ along with a denial of ‘traditional’ feminine values.

Woolf argued that, as women, we must ‘think back through our mothers’, indicating the need for a strong female tradition in art and literature to rival that of the male tradition. The exhibition offers a way to do this. Judy Chicago’s setting for Woolf from her famous work The Dinner Party (1978) offers a feminist approach to thinking about female creativity and sexuality, while other exhibits such as Claude Cahun’s fascinating photographic self-portraits explore multiple selves and aspects of gender which seem to echo Woolf’s Orlando. Gluck’s marvellous landscapes, meanwhile, so low and with so much sky, position the woman in the landscape itself. The many contradictions of social, personal and cultural constructions of womanhood are explored in their glorious, confusing multiplicity: women both is and isn’t a part of ‘nature’, for example; womanhood means many things and both is and isn’t an ‘essence’. Women are not necessarily mothers, or nurturing, but what we learn is that women are creative, and perhaps all the more so when this is against the odds. Perhaps women’s work looks different when it is not displayed alongside often larger and showier masculine artworks (although some of these are larger and showier, too!) but in some ways I left feeling that gender is perhaps less important to art than I thought: there are some wonderful works here, demonstrating female excellence in a range of media, and though the public and private faces of womanhood are central to many of them, they are not the only thing that matters.

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Gluck, Before the races, St Buryan, Cornwall (1924, private collection)

 

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Exhibition review: ‘Beyond Ophelia’

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Curator Hannah Squire

Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton is hosting an exhibition devoted to the art and poetry of Elizabeth Siddall, and, shockingly, it’s only the second exhibition to focus exclusively on Siddall. I’ve been writing about Siddall for a while now (my book My Ladys Soul: The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall will be published in June) and while her face is familiar to many, her work less so, particularly her poetry, though her life exerts a great fascination. This exhibition makes a good attempt at redressing the balance, then: although information about Siddall’s life and Pre-Raphaelite connections is there, the focus is on her as an artist and poet. And Wightwick is the perfect place for it: they hold the second-largest collection of Siddall’s works (the first being the Ashmolean).

2018 is proving to be a year for celebrating women’s achievements, often against all odds, given that it is 100 years since women were able to vote (though this was not on equal terms until 1928). The Manders, who built Wightwick and collected Pre-Raphaelite 28276572_10154975470041315_6622862564304738970_nand Arts and Crafts works with which to furnish it, were also keen suffragists, and one room of the house is currently set up for a Suffragette meeting. Siddall’s achievements as an artist, limited by her early death and all too often viewed as dependent on her more famous husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are appropriately celebrated, then. Wightwick’s collection of 12 works by Siddall are on display in the beautiful Daisy Room, framed for the first time, along with other works no longer in the collection but loaned for the exhibition. This offers a genuinely unique opportunity to consider Siddall’s work as a body (though of course there are many other works), but there is plenty here to give you a feel for her skill as an artist, with her expressive and evocative pencil drawings, 28279682_10154975470241315_2380485743337476893_nand two small and beautiful oils, St Agnes’ Eve and The Haunted Wood (above).

I’m delighted to see that the exhibition also includes some of Siddall’s poetry. A few of her poems are beautifully printed and hung on the walls alongside her artworks, and I hope that this will encourage visitors to explore her under-appreciated poetry. It’s a particular pleasure that some lines appear on the walls above the wallpaper, drawing the eye. Her work as an artist and poet, in the complex gendered environment of the nineteenth-century cultural sphere, is outlined in exhibition boards, and visitors are encouraged to see Siddall as a creator of serious art in her own right – something which, despite three decades of serious critical work on her art, and less sustained but still significant work on her poetry, is still overlooked. Both the art and the poetry demonstrates Siddall’s engagement with her cultural milieu: her illustrations for poems and ballads, and the influence of these works and forms on her own writing, bear out her deep consideration – and transformation – of other works of art.

This is a small exhibition, but it is beautiful, and the room with its fireplace and gorgeous wallpaper feels intimate and cosy. It is open from March 1st until December 24th, 2018, so there is no excuse not to go and see it! Siddall is so often remembered as the model for Millais’s Ophelia, and it is encouraging to see this exhibition encouraging us to go ‘beyond Ophelia’.

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Exhibition Review: Stanhope Forbes

Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) is usually referred to as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’ of artists, and is indelibly associated with the group of Cornish artists despite being born in Ireland; his move to Newlyn coincided with his first major success, and his paintings reflect the differing realities of life on the Cornish coast. It’s appropriate, then, that the Penlee Gallery in Penzance is holding a major exhibition of Forbes’ work which includes almost all of his best paintings (on until September 9th).

91c6c4ee0a448b5f333e7b32b6a78a2aForbes studied in France where he learned the ‘plein air’ style, and recorded life there while he studied, and some of these early French paintings are on display here (The Convent, 1882, reminded me in its effects of open air of The Pretty Baa Lambs by Ford Madox Brown). His move to Cornwall in 1884 was primarily a search for subjects, and he certainly found it; his works have atmosphere and local colour in bucketloads, and the appeal to tourists ever since is clear, but there is something more genuine, and less chocolate-box, about his work than simply a postcard painting. He celebrates local festivals, bands playing, people celebrating – but he also shows us the heartbreak and the sheer hard work of life on the coast. A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885, above) was one of his first Cornish paintings, and one which taught him the challenges of painting outside, as light and people moved and weather made things difficult. This is one of his most famous works, and demonstrates that he is not sentimentalising the topic, I think, though it’s clear he had an eye for the market (and the Royal Academy). Regatta Day, Penzance (c1890, below) shows a cheerier scene which captures both the period and the idiosyncrasies of the local population, but in these two paintings as in the others it’s clear that he is watching the local community as an outsider with privileged access, rather than as part of it, which is perhaps the lot of a painter, maintaining detachment and distance.

Forbes, Stanhope Alexander, 1857-1947; Penzance Regatta Day

Other works, such as The Quarry Team (1894) are even stronger on social realism, depicting the toughness of life in Cornish industries, and rather gloomily, too. (This painting was slashed by suffragettes, incidentally, but despite careful looking there’s no sign of it! I’m interested to speculate whether this was random or if they chose this work for a particular reason).

The exhibition contains a number of photographs of the artist at work in his studio or Forbes, Stanhope Alexander, 1857-1947; Chadding on Mount's Baypainting outside, and also fishing, with other artists, etc, suggesting he was a jolly outdoors sort of chap of the type that the late nineteenth century bred so well (I’ve no idea if this is true, though). There are some more idyllic scenes among those on display: Chadding in Mounts Bay (1902) is a more cheerful, sentimentalised and more Edwardian scene (right), in which the sun shines, the sea is blue and the children are rosy-cheeked and cheerful(ish). Gala Day (1907) is slightly less so, because despite its emphasis on the local and the patriotic, there are figures on the fringes – an elderly woman straightening a child’s sleeve, women chatting and pointing – which makes the work feel real, almost photographic in composition if not in style.

Many of the paintings are linked to a specific location, and some of those have hardly changed – Mousehole Harbour (1910), for example, is still distinctly recognisable – but in many ways Forbes’ paintings preserve a moment in a world now lost. Times change, though, and in many ways his later paintings update these earlier idylls: the children of Relubbus Bridge (1930) are updated versions of the earlier cherubs that went chadding in Mount’s Bay. Yet there is change, in people, in dress and in subjects chosen; Forbes lived a long life and demonstrates his understanding of a changing way of life on the coast. The interwar years have less working men and more scenery, less sentiment and also less local colour in the form of festivals and ceremonies.

Lightin Up TimeThe colours of the paintings are often the colours of the sea; apart from some interiors, blues and greys (glas is the Cornish word for whatever colour the sea is) predominate, some muted and some vivid, but usually with a touch of brightness somewhere in the painting. The exhibition is carefully hung to emphasise this, I think; gallery 3 is darker, with many indoor or night paintings. The light effects in darkness here are masterly, seen in Lighting Up Time (1902), for example (left). The Steel Workers (1915) depicts a much more modern industry and seems uncharacteristic of his previous topics, though logically it’s another relevant industry to depict, and the painting demonstrates similar techniques with spots of light highlighting different parts of the painting. The Letter (1898, below) provides a major contrast, though: this is high Victorian melodrama, featuring dramatic lighting for a scene in which a presumably tragic letter has arrived, and the mother of the family opens it in the doorway watched by her family, the postman and, for full sentimental effect, the dog.

Letter

I’ve seen a lot of Stanhope Forbes’ work over the years, but this exhibition still managed to surprise me with the breadth and depth of his work; there is no substitute for seeing a wide range of an artist’s work on display together, and this demonstrated to me how much Forbes chose his subjects to suit his audience as well as his own style, and how well that style works in a coastal setting. The exhibition is set up to consider continuities in his work from the earlier to the final paintings rather than to examine his development as an artist, but it is, of course, possible to see both with careful attention.

Hunting the Pre-Raphaelites at Lanhydrock

NT; (c) Lanhydrock; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI am a fairly regular visitor to Lanhydrock, an impressive Jacobean house near Truro, owned by the National Trust. However, while the house is 17th century originally, much of the house was rebuilt and redesigned, with new furniture, after a serious fire in 1881. Lord Robartes instructed architects to reconstruct the house along its original lines, keeping the traditional features of the house as well as imposing a segregation by gender, age and class on its inhabitants. The architects instructed were James MacLaren and Richard Coad; the latter was a Cornishman who had worked on Lanhydrock previously, and was supervised by George Gilbert Scott. He went into partnership with his previous apprentice, MacLaren, whose work was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and whose work was to influence Rennie Mackintosh. There is much of Lanhydrock that manifests the influence of the pair; a Pugin wallpaper, Morris-inspired papers (and a spectacular green gilt ‘Sunflower’ paper which is modern but perfectly in keeping with Skilbeck, Clement Oswald, 1865-1954; Saint Luke Writing His Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Marythe tone of the house). The Smoking Room has a wonderful Arts and Crafts chimney piece, dated 1883, and other small details such as Minton tiles demonstrate the incorporation of and enthusiasm for this late-Victorian aesthetic. As the guidebook notes, much of the house’s interior was influenced by Charles Eastlake, an architect trained by Philip Hardwick and a strong advocate for Morris’s medieval style. Eastlake’s book A History of the Gothic Revival (1872) has clear implications for Lanhydrock’s furnishings, and it is fascinating to see how such manuals of style influenced the creation of rooms such as those found here.

Smoking room

The paintings found throughout the house are often family portraits, many by outstanding painters of their day, such as Gainsborough and Joseph Wright of Derby. What particularly caught my eye, though, were works which were often less prominently displayed, but which suggest to me that someone in the house, perhaps StrudwickLord Robartes or his wife, had a particular interest in the style of painting produced by the Pre-Raphaelites. On the whole the paintings don’t include the big names of the PRB; there are no Rossettis or Burne-Joneses here, but the aesthetic is unmistakeable. There are a number of works which are untitled and for whom the artist and date are unknown, which in their colour and subject matter suggest a Pre-Raphaelite influence, and others where it is clearer. The Madonna with Attendant Angels (1901) by John Melhuish Strudwick is one of the best examples of this; Strudwick had worked as an assistant to Burne-Jones and Spencer Stanhope, and the influence of this is very clear. The painting is striking if somewhat overblown, known also as Virgin and Child, with glowing gold leaf halo; it was bought for the house by Michael Trinick, the Trust’s regional director, who perhaps had himself a penchant for Pre-Raphaelitism. Another, more obscure example, is A Girl with a Violin (1884-1896) by Henry Harewood Robinson, a St Ives based artist whose other interest was music. A young woman with long red hair in a green medieval style dress contemplatively plays a violin, surrounded by lilies; though little seems to be known of the artist the clearly implies an emulation of Pre-Raphaelite subject matter and use of Lawrance, C. E.; Pancolour; the painting was given to the family by the artist’s widow. Similarly, a head of Pan (1889) by the unknown C E Lawrance recalls Simeon Solomon’s poised and beautiful heads of young men; this appears to have been in the Robartes collection.

The house has a print of Millais’s infamous Bubbles, as well as two of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, though I don’t think either are on display, and many of the works do have a religious themes, which is unsurprising for a devout family. A painting entitled The Nativity (date unknown) is unassumingly monogrammed EP, for Evelyn Pickering, later Evelyn de Morgan, whose work, along with her husband William’s, is well-known for its Pre-Raphaelite style. This work is a beautiful, subtle monochrome work in chalk and charcoal, with the angels’ faces clearly recalling the work of Burne-Jones. Another religious painting is St Luke writing his Gospel at the Dictation of the Virgin Mary (1892by Clement Oswald Skilbeck (1865-1954), whose name I didn’t know The Nativitybut whose work again appears influenced by the PRB; he was a friend of Morris and Burne-Jones, it seems, and the jewel colours of his painting, the hyper-real style coupled with the medievalised aesthetic demonstrate their influence. This, however, is one of the paintings which was bought by the National Trust in the 1970s rather than originating with the family.

The house, and its contents, are a late Victorian gem. Though much was lost in the fire, the beautiful restoration of the house and its contents captures the late Victorian aesthetic and its preoccupation with beauty, colour, morality and faith in a remarkable way. And, although this is beyond the remit of this post, it also tells us a lot about a Victorian and Edwardian way of life, in the remarkably well preserved servants quarters, the artefacts of everyday life in an enormous house, and the effective way in which the house is set up so you might believe the family could come back at any moment.

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An Adventure in Moominland

MoominsA while ago now, we went to see Adventures in Moominland at the Soutbbank Centre at the weekend, and I can safely say I’ve never been to an exhibition like it before, and also that it’s the most my five-year-old has ever enjoyed an exhibition (and he does like visiting art galleries anyway). I’ve always been fond of the Moomins: from when I first got them out of the school library when I was about 8, I’ve always felt they were admirable creatures: they’re cute and appealing, but also sensible. They deal with life well, enjoying the world around them and building strong relationships – but in a fun way. I love how Moominmama is always in the kitchen, with her handbag and an apron, but is quite happy to just go off on an adventure at the drop of a hat – we should all be a bit more like that. The loner philosopher Snufkin is my favourite, I think, though. So it’s been a delight to introduce my son to the books, and since the exhibition offered a chance to go into Moominland, how could we resist?!

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No photos are allowed inside, so I can only describe it, but the exhibition is set up as a imagesjourney into Moominland. You begin in a tent, where the Moomins camp out, and there is a tour guide (who refers to the children as ‘My young adventurers’) and also a voice-over with more discussion of the author, Tove Jansson’s life, beautifully done by Sandi Toksvig. You travel through magic forests with “real” snow on the ground, tropical gardens with sand, haze and plants, where the Hemulen collects his botanical samples, the boathouse (which doubles up as Jansson’s studio), and many other scenes, and end up in Moominhouse, where the Moomins are asleep, snoring, in the next room. There’s two interlinking narratives here; the guide presents one suitable for children, and while the children are tampere-art-museum-moominvalley-collection-photo-jari-kuusenaho-2-copy-1001x1024exploring there is also the voiceover which gives more information for adults. I didn’t know much about Jansson’s life but it was fascinating: how she developed the characters of the Moomin family and their friends, how she worked contemporary events during WW2 into her stories, etc. There are not just scenes, of course, but also many, many original drawings by Jansson, and they really are wonderful; the detail (and, often, menace) in them really makes them works of art in their own right. They are in protective cases that appear as suitcases, set in walls, or otherwise presented so that they are at child level but safe from small fingers! It’s an innovative and informative way of exhibiting Jansson’s work which draws on her life and her work, and has equal appeal to adults and children. It was meant to close in April but has been extended until August, giving more people a chance to see it.

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Book Review: The Power

9780670919963The Power is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, and it won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.  Science fiction novels don’t normally appeal to me, but the complex gender dynamics and dystopian vision of a gender-switched future sounded interesting, so I read it on holiday and found it a fascinating read. Firstly, it’s well-written, which is obviously what you’d expect from a Professor of Creative Writing; but more than that, it’s able to switch between subtle and tub-thumping, creating a web of complicated and unexpected threads of a speculative future. Other dystopias by feminist writers (Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercey and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter spring to mind) are more of a blunt instrument, I think; The Power responds to some of the concerns of the twenty-first century in a way which is not fixed but shifts throughout the novel. Entertainingly, the novel is framed by letters from a (fictional) male author to ‘Naomi Alderman’ asking what she thinks of this novel which purports to tell a ‘new’ version of women’s rise to power; her advice, at the end, is that it’s hard to believe men were ever that strong, and that perhaps, to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘men’s literature’, he might consider using a female pseudonym.

Power corrupts. We are all increasingly aware of this, and politics, social and cultural structures,and everything that builds up most societies is based on patriarchal power, 4000the understanding from time immemorial that men are stronger physically and therefore men have the power; the threat of violence towards women, if not actually violence, underlies the patriarchy. What happens if women have a power which makes them more of a threat? At first, it’s a few teenage girls realising that they have a tingling sensation which becomes greater as they become angry (at men who attack them or their family): there is a direct correlation in the novel between the development of women’s power and their ill-treatment at the hands of men. These pubescent girls begin to realise they can do harm with this power, and from there it grows. The novel traces the development of this female power across the world, as women learn to fight back.

Like all good sci-fi, The Power gives a reason for this electricity (a liquid called Guardian Angel which was put in drinking water during WW2, and became part of the water cycle, intended to protect humans from gas attacks, but with an unintended consequence for women only), but the reason is almost irrelevant (though it does indicate the potential dangers of chemical alterations to the human body). The point is that young women develop a ‘skein’ across their collarbones which is the source of their electrical power which can maim or kill (or light candles, or tickle). Older women’s power can be ignited by younger women, and it becomes clear that ‘the power’ is metaphorical: in the early stages of the book, it seems a feminist trope, an indication of a much needed redress of the balance of power. The growth of female power is accompanied by the development Power-190x300of other social structures, however: despite attempts by masculine powers to repress or control it, women slowly gain political power, in one case setting up a women-only state, or developing a matriarchal religion. These developments are told through the stories of particular figures in different situations across the world, and thrown into relief by the story of a young man, Tunde, whose videos of early electrical attacks go viral and make him a sought-after reporter. At first the women see him as on their side; later, as his fear grows, it becomes startlingly clear to the reader how the balance of power has shifted completely, with men in fear of their lives.

The three main female characters indicate the ways in which individual situations contribute to a global reversal of power, building up slowly until it is an unstoppable tide. Allie has escaped (and killed) her abusive foster-father when the power came upon her, and she reinvents herself as a female prophet, with her own religion of female power. Margot is an American mayor looking for ways to advance her career in a male-dominated, inhospitable political environment, and Roxy is the daughter of a London gangland leader whose mother is murdered in front of her. They s-a3152730912b99a5f04ff88260dbb596194430deall have reasons for using power to their own ends, and at first it’s easy to sympathise when girls who have been victims of male power find their own strength and fight back. Quickly, though, it becomes extreme; and although little here has not been seen in the world before with the gender roles reversed – men are afraid to go out at night, men are considered to be dependent on women, men are inferior, etc – nonetheless it is shocking. And what is perhaps most shocking is the way that this approach explodes myths. Women have to be strong because they need to protect their children, the new argument goes; men aren’t really necessary. Men aren’t built for strength and speed, women are: the ultimate message of the novel is not that men and women are different, but that they are, ultimately, the same – they are corruptible. Power goes to women’s heads in the novel, just as men have been drunk on it for millennia, abusing and repressing women simply because they can.