Exhibition Review: Fighting History at the Tate

imagesFighting History is a strange exhibition (and one which seems to have had many poor reviews). An exhibition on history painting – and its often counter-cultural attitudes – sounds like a brilliant idea for an exhibition, but for me it didn’t deliver. The only review I saw (heard, actually, on Radio 4, I think) before I went left me unclear as to what the exhibition was really about, and I’m afraid that visiting it didn’t really make that any clearer. The exhibition blurb says:

From Ancient Rome to recent political upheavals, Fighting History looks at how artists have transformed significant events into paintings and artworks that encourage us to reflect on our own place in history.

From the epic 18th century history paintings by John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West to 20th century and contemporary pieces by Richard Hamilton and Dexter Dalwood, the exhibition explores how artists have reacted to key historic events, and how they capture and interpret the past.

The first rraleighoom, Radical History Painting, argues that history painting is not in fact the conservative genre we think it is, but one which resists authority and undermines the conventional way of thinking. I didn’t think that history painting is a purely conventional genre, but even if I did I’m not sure that the three pieces in this room – Dexter Dalwood’s trite ‘The Poll Tax Riots’, Jeremy Deller’s word-map linking acid house to brass bands, and Robert Edge Pine’s ‘John de Warenne’ – would have convinced me. It seemed like a self-conscious start to the exhibition, shouting to the foolish and naive exhibition-goer: ‘Look! Art isn’t what you think it is, and we are here to show you that, in a very modern and non-chronological way’.

Now, although I am probably conventional and old-fashioned in this, I prefer chronological approaches to exhibitions, usually; however, I’m not so conventional that I’m not open to doing this differently, especially when trying to make a radical point, and grouping the art works by themes across 6 rooms might have been a learjolly good idea; however, the themes were odd, and oddly represented by the works in them. 250 Years of British History Painting, in the second room, worked on the vague premise that approaches to history change over time, and contained an odd assortment of paintings with varied relevance to history, including Alma-Tadema’s ‘The Silent Greeting’ (which tells us little about history, though something about the artist and his period), along with Millais’ ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ (again, not exactly history, except in the ‘lives of great men’ school), Henry Wallis’s ‘The Room in which Shakespeare was Born’ (is that really history?) and, more sensibly but lacking in context, Johann Zoffany’s ‘The Death of Captain Cook’. The third room, Ancient History, contains, randomly, Millais’ ‘Speak! Speak!’ and the ghastly ‘King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia’ by James Barry, alongside some genuinely ancient history from Poynter and Gavin Hamilton.

yeamesRoom 4 is British History, which I think attempts to identify a specifically British approach, and – like the other rooms – does contain some interesting pictures, but sadly by this stage my mind was overtaken with annoyance at failing to understand the grand narrative behind the exhibition. I’d like to think that the whole concept was terribly postmodern, undermining a conventional narrative to show the fallacy of historical narratives, but to be honest I don’t think that was the case. Still, I was interested by the (populist but well-done) ‘Amy Robsart’ by William Frederick Yeames, showing the (presumed) murder of the wife of Robert Dudley, freeing him up to marry Elizabeth I (which of course he didn’t), as well as John Minton’s modern, sympathetic ‘The Death of Nelson’, with its homosocial undertones. Yet I was still wondering, why ‘Fighting History’? Fighting against it? Undermining it with radicalism? (in which case, why Alma-Tadema? Why Barry, Millais, etc?) Or fighting it in the sense of depicting a fight of some kind? Who knows.

The fifth room was devoted to modern resistance to authority in art: Jeremy Deller’s ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ set the tone, re-enacting a clash between miners and police in 1984. I quite liked the idea of re-enacting something so modern, as a riff on the concept of Civil War re-enactors, etc: it might make one ask questions about what we do with history, especially modern history; how do we process it, react to it, depict it in art and incorporate it into our lives? Sadly, such turnerquestions are undermined by the haphazardness of the final room, The Deluge, which displayed several paintings of the Flood. This was entirely unexpected and seemed an odd conclusion; though there were some excellent paintings here, including the only Turner to feature in the exhibition, and Winifred Knights’ ‘The Deluge’, a modernist painting which looks at a flood – or the flood? – as the end of history. I suppose there is something of a narrative closure there, but the exhibition overall confused and annoyed me – and it’s rare I say that. Go and see the Hepworth exhibition downstairs instead!


Sunshine and music at Elgar’s Birthplace

Edward_ElgarI’ve always had a passion for the music of Edward Elgar, and living in Worcestershire where he was born there are clearly many others who share this enthusiasm. So on a sunny Saturday we decided it was time we visited the Elgar Birthplace Museum, in Broadheath not far from Worcester. In addition to the picturesque cottage where Elgar was born in 1857, there is now a visitor centre containing items belonging to Elgar, including a drum he had as a child, his violin, and several manuscripts. (An excellent audio guide accompanies this, though due to having a three-year-old with me I didn’t get to listen to all of it!)Though the Elgar family lived there for less than three years after the birth of Edward, the composer visited the village frequently, often staying on a local farm, and retained a deep affection for the place throughout his life. His family owned a music shop in Worcester, where the young Elgar learned a great deal about music, composition and playing, and became determined to follow a career in music.

It seems that Elgar felt his roots in the Worcestershire countryside were important, and elements of this are always present IMG_1761in his music, so to visit his place of birth feels significant, as if we can access a particular aspect of what made him the man – and composer – he became. When choosing a title in 1931, he chose First Baronet of Broadheath, an indication of the place’s lasting place in his mind. In a letter to a friend (quoted on the Museum’s website), he wrote:

So you have been to Broadheath. I fear you did not find the cottage – it is nearer the clump of Scotch firs – I can smell them now – in the hot sun. Oh! how cruel that I was not there – there’s nothing between that infancy & now and I want to see it.

The cottage, then, is a tranquil spot, with a beautiful cottage garden as well as the Jubilee Family Garden, where my son happily played the outdoor instruments for a while. The cottage itself is fascinating as a period piece, even aside from its illustrious IMG_1752connections; quite small, perhaps, for a growing family, but a perfect example of its time and filled with objects which both make it feel like a family home – some furniture, for example, including curtains which once hung in other houses Elgar lived in – and also a piano from the Elgar music shop, as well as Elgar’s HMV gramophone. I was interested to see the range of hobbies Elgar pursued as a man – as well as being an avid reader, he played golf, cycled, did woodwork, and pursued chemistry; his friend W H Reed said that Elgar used to ‘ease the burden of his destiny as a composer by pretending to be a chemist’!

I also found a Pre-Raphaelite connection which intrigued me: Elgar’s friend (to whom the letter quoted above was written), Alice, Lady Stuart of Wortley, was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Alice was a close friend of the composer and influenced and inspired his compositions, particularly the 1910 violin concerto, ‘Windflower’. In the house hangs an engraving of Millais’s portrait of John Henry IMG_1750Newman, whose poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ was orchestrated by Elgar; the engraving was given to Elgar by Alice.

I’m always drawn to places where people whose work I love were born, or lived; this is no exception. Though many of the rooms of the cottage contain exhibition items rather than furniture, somehow there is still a lovely sense of it as a home, and from all the windows the views remind me of the beauty of the county. There is a room guide with information about each room and its exhibits on the website if you’re interested, and I recommend the Museum for a visit!

Listen to ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No 1’ here: 

or better still, the Cello Concerto in E Minor Op 85: 


versatilebloggernominationsI’m very pleased that Thrill Seeking Behavior has nominated me for a ‘Versatile Blogger’ award. It’s great to know that there are people out there who are reading my posts and enjoying them, just as I am reading and enjoying theirs, so thank you very much! In order to accept the award, you must:

1.Display the award logo on your blog.
2. Thank and link back to the person who nominated you.
3. State 7 things about yourself.
4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award.
5. Notify these bloggers of the nominations by linking back to one of their specific blog posts so they get notified back.

I think this is a great idea, since it gives me the opportunity to thank the bloggers whose writing I enjoy, and also to pass on their details to readers of this blog. So, here are my nominations; please visit these lovely blogs:

The Kissed Mouth: This is a great blog for all things Pre-Raphaelite, and I particularly enjoy the irreverent take on Victorian art and literature, such as Swinburne, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll.

Diary of a Vintage Girl: I’ve been following this blog for ages, basically because I love the 1940s clothes and hair. And also, quite often,  there’s cake as well!

Artistic Dress: This blog is based on research on the subject of aesthetic dress, and includes gems such as Floppy but Manly.

The Library Ninja: This is a new blog which promises to be very interesting, reviewing children’s and young adult books such as those by Michael Morpurgo.

Bead Flowers: I must admit, I am not a beader, but this blogger is a very good friend of mine and she writes some very interesting posts about creativity, motivation and other things besides beading.

Art and Architecture mainly: there are some fascinating posts on here on a variety of subjects including, of course, art and architecture, but also history (see this one, for example) and museums.

The Purl Bee: Probably my favourite craft blog – there are always good ideas on here. One of my favourites is these felt roses.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood: I love this. Especially Wombat Fridays.

Vagabond Baking: I am not much of a baker. But how could you not want to bake (and eat) these?!

Looking Glasses at Odd Corners: This is a research blog, and there is always something interesting to read about Amber’s research, such as her post on the idea of home and the uncanny.

Journal of Victorian Culture Online: This is cheating slightly, as I write guest posts for JVC Online. However, they have an amazing range of posts from different academics, including book, film and TV reviews, research posts and conference reports. Posts such as The Humanities, the Victorians, and Impact address important questions for university English departments and Victorian studies in particular.

Pre-Raphaelites in the City: Another great Pre-Raphaelite blog. Excellent analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’.

Bookgaga: Literary blog, always introduces me to something new. Feel the book love

Ysolda: This blog is basically knitting porn. There are so many lovely ideas, patterns, and cosy chats along the way! I love these knitted cuffs.

Stuck in a Book: The title says it all. I like the idea of being stuck in a book, and there are all kinds of bookish ideas, reviews and inspirations here. Have a look at The Library at Night.

I am also supposed to post seven things about myself. You will probably have gathered many things about me from my choice of blog reading, whether rightly or wrongly, so I shall keep this brief:

I am slightly obsessive about old things. Anything pre-1950 is better than modern stuff, especially if it’s furniture.

I tend to get poetry on the brain the way normal people get music on the brain (although I do that too).william_bad_resoltion

I have a small son whom I refer to as Fatso. This isn’t unkind because he is small and doesn’t understand what I’m saying.

My favourite books are probably Richmal Crompton’s Just William series. Or Paddington. The night before my PhD viva, I read Paddington.

My phone ringtone is Transvision Vamp, Revolution Baby.

I write best when listening to opera.

I am writing this looking out of my bedroom window over fields and trees and a beautiful sunset. This makes me happy.


Victorian Masquerade

NPG D8157; Queen Victoria possibly by and possibly after Louis HagheA very small exhibition, ‘Victorian Masquerade’,  in the National Portrait Gallery explores the Victorian middle- and upper-class interest in fancy dress. Dressing up was popular for balls and parties among the well-to-do, particularly on a historical theme (thus perhaps offering people the chance to show off their knowledge as well as their wealth), and, as this exhibition shows, alongside this interest in  masquerades grew the concept of the ‘fancy portrait’, paintings or photographs which show the sitter in costume, perhaps with suitable props and against an appropriate backdrop. After all, if you’re going to go to all that trouble, one might as well record it for posterity. For example, the image on the left, from the NPG collection, shows Queen Victoria (yes, it really is) in the 1840s, in the dress of the eighteenth-century French court.NPG P79; Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt by David Wilkie Wynfield

The display discusses the case of Victoria and Albert first, looking at the way they used fancy dress to ‘adopt an alternative persona’ and ‘experiment with their royal identity’ when dressed as Queen Philippa of Hainault and Edward III. (I love that these costumes were modelled on tomb effigies, but include a nod to Victorian corsetry!) The medievalism so beloved of the Victorians is here, as well as the sense of continuity in the royal line. It all makes sense and is, if a little staid, quite appealing. The craziness comes later: I really want to understand and appreciate, seriously, the portraits by David NPG x131224; Walter Crane as Cimabue by Sir Emery WalkerWilkie Wynfield of John Everett Millais as Dante, and Holman Hunt in medieval dress, likewise Emery Walker’s photograph of Walter Crane as Cimabue. These medieval, idealised, literary characters are bound to appeal to such eminent Victorians, and yet I find it hard to take them seriously, all the more because the expressions on their faces suggest that they take it very seriously indeed. And in my mind, fancy dress is not something to be done with a straight face, but perhaps it was different then.

Millais’s ‘Christmas Eve’

To celebrate42255-Millais,%20Sir%20John%20Everett-Christmas_Eve Christmas Eve, I thought I’d have a look at a festive painting: Millais’s ‘Christmas Eve’ (1887), which sold this month at Christie’s for £241,250, exceeding its estimate of £150,000 – £200,000. One of his later, and less well-known paintings, it is a view in Perthshire, where he frequently stayed in the winter. It’s an unusual painting for those familiar with Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite oeuvre, since most of his earlier paintings depict figures, though often against a detailed outdoor backdrop (such as the famous ‘Ophelia’). The first of his paintings to show a full snow landscape, ‘Christmas Eve’ is interesting because, while the snow may seem an idealised image of Christmas, it is not, in many ways, a festive scene. It is a rather bleak landscape, depicting a moment of stillness, in which the viewer is invited to step into a winter landscape populated only by birds and trees. Then, as now, Christmas Eve is so often not a time for quiet reflection and communing with nature; rather, we tend to be involved with preparations, visitors and home. Murthly Castle is apparent on the left of the painting, but it seems a chilly and uninviting place, without the lights and welcoming aspect we associate with Christmas. I rather like how Millais subverts our expectations here, providing an alternative which is no less valid: Christmas is also a time for peace and quiet, for reflection, for country walks and enjoying the winter landscapes, and this scene is appealing because the viewer is drawn in towards the horizon, as if we might walk straight past the castle towards the trees and bridge.

The title of the painting is, I think, the day on which the painting was completed, but nonetheless ‘Christmas Eve’ gives me the feeling of a personal Christmas moment for Millais, and for those who see it, of a moment of stillness and a different kind of festive joy. While it is dramatic, it is not sentimental or chocolate-box-y; it feels genuine and inviting, without obvious symbolism or ‘meaning’.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

The long-awaited Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain has been open nearly a week, and it’s very busy. People are clearly flocking to see it, and the newspapers and the internet are buzzing with views, reviews and comments. Turns out quite a lot of people don’t much like the Pre-Raphaelites, but I don’t suppose that will affect the numbers of visitors to this blockbuster show. And some of the negative reviews have been a delight: Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times calls the PRB ‘demented wife-swappers’ (ok, fair enough) who are ‘bonkers’ (yes, at least some of them) whose paintings centre on ‘ridiculous plot lines’ (true, but then that’s mostly to do with their literary roots, and applies to most Victorians anyway). Obviously, I am interested in/really like the Pre-Raphaelites, so I don’t need convincing of their artistic merit. From that point of view, this exhibition can’t fail, for me and so many of my friends and colleagues, because it is simply the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibition we’ve ever been to (I think I did go to the 1984 one, but was too young to remember it). For anyone with an interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, this exhibition is as unmissable as you would expect it to be – it contains many (although not all) of the major works of Pre-Raphaelite art; and a huge range of paintings and drawings are included, alongside sculpture, photography and furniture. This exhibition specifically set out to be inclusive in the way that earlier exhibitions were not, covering a range of media as well as drawing on more women artists, for example, and overall in this it is fairly successful.

Like some other reviewers, I do have a few issues with the arrangement of the exhibition. Little is made of the ‘avant-garde’ label: although the introductory blurb says that the PRB were ‘both historical and contemporary in their approach’, it fails to elaborate on how their work was ‘essentially modern’, and I remain unconvinced (although it looks like the catalogue provides more detail). There is very little background on the Brotherhood, although there are some portraits in the first room, and little on how they came together or what they believed. The biggest issue for me, though, is the thematic arrangement of the works: the themes (Origins, History, Nature, Salvation, Beauty, Paradise and Mythologies) seem to fit so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings that they become almost meaningless. It’s difficult to tell why Holman Hunt’s portrait of patron Thomas Fairbairn appears in ‘Salvation’, for example, or why Millais’s beautiful ‘Chill October’ is in ‘Mythologies’ along with Burne-Jones’s Perseus cycle. Despite these anomalies, though, the extent of the exhibition is vast, and the delight of room after room of beautiful colours and lively images is hardly dimmed by this arrangement. It may, however, prove off-putting to those less familiar with the development of Pre-Raphaelitism, and, dull though it may seem, personally I would probably have preferred a chronological, cumulative developmental arrangement.

There are so many highlights, and so many beautiful paintings, rarely-seen gems and old favourites that it is difficult to give more than a very brief overview. Millais’s ‘Mariana’ (right; which I chose as my favourite painting for #PRBDay) is always a delight – the glowing colours, the medievalism combined with the realism – it is Tennyson’s poem come to life, for me, and I love it. Rossetti’s ‘The Blue Bower’ (above left) seems emblematic of High Pre-Raphaelitism: the woman (Fanny Cornforth – the Elephant, and she is surprisingly large!), the colours, the style, the blue and white background – this is Rossetti at his most sensual, florid, and irresistible, almost verging on the hallucinatory. It is marvellous to see pieces I hadn’t seen before, or for a while: I loved Alexander Munro’s Dante-inspired sculptures, and Deverell’s ‘Twelfth Night’; and Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry’ (left) is an old favourite, with its medieval, structured outline and depiction of the literary figures important to the Brotherhood. The exhibition certainly demonstrates the extent of the PRB’s engagement with literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, as well as a range of other myths.

I also particularly enjoyed seeing some of Elizabeth Siddal’s paintings, set alongside Rossetti’s medieval series. Though this juxtaposition makes it clear that Siddal’s art is both more naive than Rossetti’s, and also clearly modelled upon his work, nonetheless I think Siddal comes out of it well: her work does bear scrutiny and demonstrably deserves more attention than it usually receives (though I am not sure that I agree with the gallery label that says that her ‘work pushed the boundaries of PRB practice’ – how?) For those legions of Siddal fans, this alone will provide a real delight.

The last two rooms provide particular joys: ‘Paradise’ is full of Morris’s designs – stained glass, wardrobes, the sublime Bird and Peacock carpet, and of course the lovely Kelmscott bed. ‘Mythologies’ contains Burne-Jones’s Perseus cycle, which I always think I shouldn’t like (gratuitous naked women again, monochromatic, gesturing towards Aestheticism despite its narrative strand) but somehow I find the paintings irresistible; I think it’s to do with their form, the way Burne-Jones plays with lines, figures, shapes and shades. The exhibition closes, of course, with the magisterial presence of ‘Astarte Syriaca’, watching over the visitors with a disdainful eye. In the end, the paintings transcend their setting, their juxtaposition, their arrangements, and visitors to the show will love or hate the PRB just as visitors to galleries have always done. Everyone should have an opinion, though, so I thoroughly recommend a visit – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.