Painting the Modern Garden – The Royal Academy


Painting the Modern Garden
Monet to Matisse – The Royal Academy

Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse at The Royal Academy

Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse at The Royal Academy

After a couple of hours in Tate Britain at the Frank Auerbach exhibition and stomping by foot all the way over to The Royal Academy, I have to admit my feet, legs and eyes were somewhat fried! However, when in London I have to make the most of it.

My heart fell when I walked through the doors – it was packed full and trying to get to the paintings was a bit of a scrum! I’m usually so behind with these things that the initial furore is normally over – as per the Frank Auerbach. The first display was mainly Monet and I made a tactical decision to plough on as I had seen many of his garden paintings at another exhibition (Monet’s Garden – Kunsthaus, Zurich). This turned out to be a smart move, most people seemed only interested in Monet.

I was quite surprised at the number and variety of artists included here – gardening and gardens are obviously a favourite of painters.  Especially the impressionists seemed to see it as another way of painting with plants but not exclusively.

There were paintings by many artists I have researched and discovered through the Practice of Painting Course, although they were more known for other subjects, such as:

  • Pierre Bonnard – researched as part of the still life section. Having said that there were still elements of still life in a few paintings, particularly the tea-table. He always seems to achieve a serene and narrative image.
  • Edvard Munch – Jealously in the Garden showing figures in a narrative, although the main character does have the haunting look reminiscent of The Scream, also shown was Apple Tree in the Garden which is a more mellow theme with some vibrant colour.
  • Paul Cezanne – The Pond at the Jas de Bouffan had a different feel to a lot of his paintings, it seemed more solid somehow.
  • Raoul Dufy – I had been aware of his seaside views through hotel windows and doors, here I particularly liked The Little Palm Tree which was a charming painting full of atmosphere and light. In contrast was his The Abandoned Garden which was quite dark in mood and colour with strong directional marks making up solid objects and the sky.
  • Emil Nolde – I was so excited to discover several of his paintings as I had only seen his work on-line when researching Abstract Expressionists. These were expressive, however, I wouldn’t call them abstract. The colours were as vibrant and striking as I’d previously seen. I don’t think there was one I didn’t like but, in particular I was drawn to Red Flowers, Flower Garden and Peonies and Irises.
  • Wassily Kandinsky – More abstract expressionism with Marnau Garden I & II. These were more as I expected although they were discernible as gardens.

John Singer Sargent featured well, one of my favourite representational artists. Two of my favourites were oil studies in the garden – Garden Study with Lucia and Kate Millet and Garden Study of the Vickers Children.

Some paintings that I really enjoyed were by artists I wasn’t familiar with prior to the exhibition:

  • Joaquin Sorolla – several paintings were by this artist although I particularly liked the serene mood and dappled light of Garden of the Sorolla House.
  • Henri Le Sidaner – the paintings by this artist were quite different in style and had a soft-focus effect that invoked an ethereal mood. The style worked beautifully in the soft light of a snowy garden with the gentle glow of lights from the cottage windows of the painting The Steps, Gerberoy. Interestingly, where this was rendered in pastel, a very similar effect was created in the oil painting The Table in the White Garden, Gerberoy.
  • Santiago Rusinol – this artist’s paintings warranted a room of their own with subdued lighting. Whereas these were very realistic and skilfully draughted images, they were stunning in their light effects. The handling of light and dark made the sunlight out of the shadows glow with warmth, using bright hot colours in contrast to the cooler, shadowy areas took my breath away. Glorieta VII, Aranjuez and Gardens of Montforte are two to note.

There were so many more painters represented here that I would be re-writing the catalogue to mention – I wholeheartedly recommend this exhibition as there really is something for everybody.

Obviously, Monet featured large in the exhibition and it was not my intention to dismiss his importance or brilliance in the beginning of this report. However, I have to say I am, nowadays, drawn to his later, more expressive works such as the Weeping Willow, Nympheas, Japanese Bridge 1918-26 and The Japanese Bridge 1923-25. These brilliant colours, atmosphere and brush marks radiate off of the canvas and captured my attention for some time, they evoked a strong emotional reaction that I am glad was covered by the low lighting! Of course, we had to end with one of the epic Water Lilly paintings taking up an entire wall – Monet deserved to have the last word!

Frank Auerbach – Tate Britain


Frank Auerbach – Tate Britain (b. 1931)

Frank Auerbach Retrospective at Tate Britain 05/01/16

Frank Auerbach Retrospective at Tate Britain

I have been reading snippets in the art press, on Facebook and seen short videos on YouTube about Frank Auerbach for several months now and was intrigued by this semi-reclusive artist and his way of working. He was also one of the selection committee for 2015’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, which I didn’t have the opportunity of seeing. Last Thursday at our portrait class, we were chatting about his work and methods as another student had been to the exhibition before me. He wasn’t impressed by the portraits although liked a few of the Mornington Crescent paintings. I decided to keep an open mind and was quite excited about seeing the show – I haven’t really experienced this kind of painting before and appreciated that the real thing was going to be very different from seeing reproductions in books and on-screen.

The exhibition was roughly set out in decade order, although it was noted right at the beginning that FB hoped each work would stand alone in its own right. The first room had mainly portraiture and figures displayed. Right from the start I could see that each work would need time to look at and absorb it.

The painted portraits of E.O.W. were extraordinary – the depth of the paint was at least 3cm in places and I could see clearly where it had been scraped back and restated many times. Some were quite disturbing as the layered strings of paint gave an impression of the head/face decaying before your eyes, particularly where the colours were dark. Being more comfortable, initially, with more representative work, I was particularly taken with the charcoal self-portrait. Here it was still clear that much rubbing back and scrubbing out had been part of the process. There were many patches of repaired paper that added to the texture and interest of the surface.

I found that to really appreciate each work, it was necessary to look closely, stand back and squint my eyes as well just look hard. Having said that, with the Camden walks I found just by emptying my mind and looking in almost a meditative way, objects came into focus and made sense. This was particularly the case with Mornington Crescent 1963 – it reminded me of the Channel 4 logo on TV where the viewpoint of the camera swings round and shows the figure 4 clearly coming into focus. This made me smile and was a method I repeated with other paintings. With The Origin of the Great Bear 1967-8, I found the blocks of buildings on the river and from there made sense of the rest of the painting. I found that often, I needed to find one anchor point in a painting and everything else followed. I don’t know if this is a conscious process Auerbach had or if it’s just the way it worked for me, however, it opened up the paintings to me. Looking Towards Mornington Crescent Station 1972-4 also struck me in a similar way. The more I looked the more I could see the view, I knew it was a station even before I looked at the title – on first glance however, it was just abstract pattern.

Standing in front of Julia Sleeping 1978, I was strongly reminded of Manet’s portrait of Berthe Morisot, I remember the feeling, however, now I look at the reproduction in the catalogue, I can’t see it so much. I think that this may be that the physical paintings have a much stronger emotional pull than printed photographs.

Coming into the 90s and 2000s, the amount of paint Auerbach used is mostly reduced although still impasto with a variety of mark making. His morning walks still inform his views of Camden and I found it interesting that he made notes in his memory only and didn’t sketch from life. Maybe this is why the paintings are so compelling – his emotional response is deep within the marks he makes and is reflected right back at the viewer. He repeated the same subjects and sitters over and over again so they must have become deeply ingrained in his memory and subconscious.

The charcoal, graphite, chalk and oil pastel drawings of his sitters are fascinating, and although done from life, still have the emotive attraction. By not just drawing the outlines but squiggling, zigzagging and using broken line to describe shapes he gives more of his own reaction and life to the drawings. He also used a similar technique in his later paintings both portraits and landscapes – for example the painting and drawing of his son, Head of Jake 2008-9 and 2009-10 respectively. It is also interesting that untraditionally, he made the painting before the drawing.

Another remarkable painting is the very large work called E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W in the Garden 1 1963. This is several square metres in size and from a distance looks almost like a tapestry with its predominantly horizontal paint strokes – I can’t say brush strokes because it’s so thick with paint he must have used something more like a trowel! I sat and looked at this for some time marvelling at it. The aerial perspective sends the end of the garden with its fence back and the background garden and neighbouring roof tops are cleverly rendered in such thick paint. I suppose it may be said that the proportion of the main figure (I assume is E.O.W.) is a little out but that doesn’t detract at all.

The final room did make me feel a little sad and retrospective as it seemed to me, a lot of the energy had faded – however, Frank Auerbach is now 84 so it’s to be expected I suppose. As a walk through his life and work this was a wonderful and fantastic yet moving collection.

On leaving the exhibition rooms, I saw a short film made by Jake Auerbach, the artist’s son, where Frank gave a short demonstration of the expression of objects. This was fascinating and was an insight into how he thinks and makes his paintings alive. It was worth watching as a warm-down from the frenetic show.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and am glad I kept an open mind and gave each painting the time it deserved. It wasn’t as easy a view as would be say, a photographic display, I worked hard at looking and was rewarded. This was a timely visit too as I am currently studying different ways of applying paint.

Next, a long walk to the Royal Academy…




Richard Diebenkorn – Royal Academy of Arts


Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

I just caught this exhibition before it was due to close on the following Sunday – I had wanted to attend the OCA study visit but was away at the time. I am so glad I made the effort to visit under my own steam as this is, probably, an unlikely to be repeated opportunity.

I have to confess that I had not been aware of this artist until his exhibition was publicised through the OCA and on Facebook groups to which I belong. I also admit that I know little or virtually nothing about abstract art other than I like a piece of work or I don’t, it speaks to me or it doesn’t and if it does, it usually has the colour red in it. There, a total philistine! I remember many an occasion at the tea-table (we had tea in those days, not dinner!), with my mum and dad watching the news when some art work was causing a storm at the Tate Modern – prime example was the “pile of bricks”, or even a Picasso or two. Its fascinating what you absorb when you’re young from those around you. My mum was as proud as anything with my school art works, I remember catching her trotting round to my neighbour’s one afternoon after school, with a painting I’d done for my O Level course work to show it off to her. Both parents were very supportive of my endeavours, with dad taking me off to town and buying me all the materials I would need for my art lessons – a small fortune in those days. However, back to the tea-table where everyone said “Look at that! A five year old could do that!” – including me! So, there I was in front of quite a lot of abstract work at this exhibition and all these memories came tumbling over me – quite emotional! Is that what abstract art is about – making you feel not just see, or is that all art???

Anyway, my first thought was, I thought that there would be more – I had decided to go round quickly first and then go back to those works I particularly liked.  However, after discovering it was only three rooms, I went round again slowly looking at everything carefully, and then again. My second main thought? I wish there was more!

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy

Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy

I have to admit, I am true to my roots, in that I particularly loved the representative work, the life drawings, the figures, they all had so much energy, I enjoyed the workings over and over. I thought the still life in interiors were great (maybe because that is where I’m up to in my course – the negative shapes that built the structure and the patterns that weren’t ignored but celebrated as an excuse for more colour).  I was drawn to the “Ashtray and Doors” 1962, such a simple, almost throw away subject but it was beautiful and had narrative (no smoking ban in those days!).

In my humble opinion, I came away thinking that Richard Diebenkorn was a master in composition and colour, my example would be “Cityscape #1” 1963.  It has pattern, light and shapes that are recognisable yet don’t have to be – it makes sense to me, the flattened perspective works and still somehow manages to represent distance.  The seemingly cross over work, abstract-representative-abstract, is accepted by my brain, I’m getting a few steps closer! Looking at those of the Ocean Park series that were displayed, I did struggle, I warm to curves rather than angles and straight lines. However, I was drawn to the Ocean Park #27 painting for some time – there was more to it than geometric shapes, I liked the under painting and reworked lines and shapes – I felt absorbed but am not sure why.

Works I returned to for second or third viewings:

  • All the monochromatic life and figure drawings, I could see the struggle and observation in every mark.
  • Cityscape #1
  • Ashtray and Doors
  • Interior with View of Buildings – a large work that took a little “looking at”, so I did, for what felt like at least 10 minutes!
  • Girl on a Terrace – mesmerising and a little uncomfortable in composition (not as in disturbing but as in making you work to see it).
  • I even went back to the Disintegrating Pig!!

OCA Study Visit: Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden, Tate Modern


Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden, Tate Modern

A day of firsts: my first study visit, first experience of Marlene Dumas, first exhibition in Tate Modern, first group critique/discussion.

I had previously missed out on a couple of study visits due to being away, so I was looking forward to finally experiencing one, albeit with some trepidation.  There was, however, no need to worry, our tutor Angela Rogers, was extremely approachable, very familiar with the artist’s work and eager to listen to our opinions, conclusions and summations. The group was of mixed painting students, from first or second coursers like me, to 2 or 3 studying for their Masters in Fine Art, we also came from all over the country and one from just outside Naples – that stopped me whining about my 6am start!!!

We had all been given some brief notes about Marlene Dumas and links to a couple of video clips so that we didn’t go in to the exhibition completely cold.  We split into smaller groups of 3-4 of similar levels, which helped our confidence and enabled us to relate to each other’s experiences and observations. This was a large exhibition 11 or 12 rooms in all, therefore we had intended to whip round quickly and note what caught our attention and then revisit those pieces in more depth.  In reality, I think many of us were quite overwhelmed immediately with some of the work, so were spending more time discussing, making notes and sketches as well as finding out about each other’s entire OCA learning experiences.

After the previous week’s visit to the John Singer Sargent exhibition, this was about as different as you could get.  These images were hard-hitting, emotional and deeply thought-provoking.  I found that I didn’t have to like the work for it to have an effect on me.  Dumas would take images from magazine, newspapers and news footage that made her feel “something” and work on her interpretation of that image. Every brush stroke seemed to be dripping with messages, emotion and meaning.  She often worked in series – examples:

  • Rejects 1994 – ongoing, these were displayed on one large wall in a rectangular, landscape, grid layout, spaced well enough apart to be viewed individually or as a whole. These were quite disturbing in their appearance. Features, especially the eyes were scratched out, redrawn and sometimes the paper was torn out and another set of eyes or mouth was underneath. Stood in front of the display – I had the impression of faces with latex masks in various states of decay or removal.  Was the real person trying to make themselves heard or did they not want the world to see the “real” them. This was only the beginning of the exhibition – no wonder it took us a while to get round the entire show!
  • Black Drawings 1991-2, the description alongside this exhibit explained that these drawings were Dumas’ reaction to the then, European perception of black Africans. As the artist was born in South Africa and considered South African Dutch, and moved to Holland in the 70s, it was an interesting concept. Maybe it also says something about the perception of her as a person too? These studies were grouped into a square, grid-like display, each was fairly close to the other which made it more of a singular work, Was this also a comment on European perception?
  • Great Men 2014 – present, in the video link we were given prior to the study visit, Dumas explained that one motivation for this series was the recent attitude in Russia to homosexuality – in that it has now been made illegal there – such a backward step. Dumas began portrait studies of homosexual men throughout history that have contributed greatly to civilisation, be it in the arts, science or politics. Alan Turing was one of her subjects, a man who saved a great many lives and directly helped the second world war come to an end – plus left the legacy of advances in computer science. Oscar Wilde is another, a brilliant author of our now classic novels and plays and an acerbic wit. Pjotr Tsjaikofski – probably more commonly known in the West as Peter Tchaikofsky the great Russian composer – the quote that Dumas cites beneath her study is that there is “Nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature”.

There are many images that make one question the world and its inadequacies, the human conditions of hate and love, peace and war.  There was an exhibit dedicated to the loss of her own mother which explored the grief she felt and this was palpable throughout the display. During our chat together as a group after the viewing, Angela asked us to consider not only the work itself but how it was displayed, I have touched on some of these observations above regarding the series of paintings, and throughout the exhibition, there was a flow of work that related to, or, opposed each other in their subject matter in subtle ways, eg prior to the room dedicated to her mother’s passing, there was a room concentrating on her young daughter, exploring the innocence and carefree nature of a child with her mother.  Some smaller works were given more space around them, which seemed to elevate their importance belying their physical size.

All in all, this was a fascinating exhibition, which although maybe a little too large to absorb all there was to see, took me into the realms of more contemporary artworks and made me keen to see more.

The above link is still current although may be discontinued as the exhibition finishes.


John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery


John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends

A trip was organised by my local art society to view a completely different exhibition, however, it coincided with John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery. There were several exhibitions on in London that I wanted to see at the same time, however, I only managed two because of both time and viewing energy limitations.

This was a beautiful exhibition – not particularly thought-provoking, political or shocking but most definitely beautiful – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! As my friend and I are also students at a local portrait class, this was absolutely relevant and instructional.  All exhibits were wonderfully painted, with skilful use of colour and light – most were solid representations of the sitter yet had a delicacy of flesh and fabric that seemed almost contradictory in one painting. I was absolutely awestruck by the personality oozing out of every portrait. A lesson I had learnt from the Drawing 1 course when attempting a self-portrait, whereby my friends and family could recognise my drawing as me, but not the persona portrayed – a successful portrait is not just getting the eyes, nose and mouth in the right place, (although obviously a good start) but seeing into the life and soul of the sitter as the artist feels they are. This, I think, is Sargent’s “talent”/skill.  It is said that he became frustrated and resentful of formal, commissioned portraiture and changed to landscapes and more narrative work that included figures yes, but not specific portraits.  These paintings and drawings exhibited here were of like-minded artists and close friends, and it is obvious that he held these people in high regard. I, myself, find I can achieve more of a likeness if I feel connected or actually like the sitter before me – although I have a long and bumpy road ahead of me before I can achieve a fragment of the skill I saw here.

My favourites? Well I think they change by the minute, however the paintings that caught my attention most in real life, rather than the reproductions in the book, were of:

  • Vernon Lee 1881 (Violet Paget), this was not a flamboyant or overly colourful portrait of his childhood friend but it was kindly, soft and gentle – he showed the private personality of an intellectual, strong-minded woman.  The rendering of the glasses with minimal brush strokes was a lesson in itself.
  • Madame Allouard-Jouan 1882, a stunningly beautiful (that word again) portrait that concentrated on the face. A simple tonal background, black high-necked dress and bonnet with black curls around the face draw the eyes to delicate, yet strong features. The eyes are simply painted, almost hinted at, yet still enigmatic.
  • Fete familiale c1885, this has a very different feel to many of the other paintings in the exhibition. It shows a mother and father at their son’s birthday tea-table. I found it interesting that the father’s face (The French artist Albert Besnard (1849-1934), was barely represented, he was placed at the back of the scene, almost in the shadows, and quite anonymous, whereas his wife and child were sat at the table and had the lamp light reflecting in their faces with the glow of the occasion around them. This made me feel the influence of the etiquette of the day, where I imagine the father to be absent from most family frivolities and was mainly a figure of discipline and bread-winning.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson 1885, there were two paintings of RLS, one with his wife and one solo. They were both painted at his Bournemouth home which, being fairly local to where I have previously lived, also attracted me.  I was particularly drawn to the solitary portrait of Stevenson where he lounged in a chair with his feet deep in a long piled carpet or rug. The pose, Stevenson’s droopy moustache, his neutral and nondescript clothes, the shag pile rug and the loose painterly style, made it look very modern – more 1970s than 1880s. It did remind me of David Hockney’s portrait of Ossy Clark cropped of Percy and wife!
  • Henry James 1913, this does look fairly formal in style of pose. However, they were close friends and James supported the artist’s work consistently. In the “flesh”, this portrait was very attention grabbing – the author is shown as formidable and imposing, again the focus is on the face and the viewer feels appraised rather than the other way around. The brushwork on the waistcoat and watch chain gives these substance and form, I was, however, particularly taken with the treatment of the hand – very convincing and solid.
  • Alberto Falchetti 1905, Italian painter. In reproduction, this painting comes over as a little disappointing, purely because having seen the actual work, the difference is quite astounding.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from that smouldering gaze – the personality, maybe arrogance and intensity were hypnotic – had this man been a modern-day actor, he would definitely been cast as Captain Poldark!

I would have loved to have bought the accompanying catalogue, however, funds would not allow – I did treat myself to a smaller book John Singer Sargent – Painting Friends, ISBN 978-185514-550-4, published by the National Portrait Gallery Publications Ltd.  This, although not including all the images exhibited, does have a good many, is easy to read and will be reviewed under Books in my blog.

César Manrique Foundation


César Manrique (1919-1992)

While away in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, before Easter, we visited the César Manrique Foundation in Tahiche, something I had wanted to do for some time.

César Manrique was born in the capital of the island, Arrecife in 1919, graduated from the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy in Madrid, moved to New York in 1964 and returning to his native Lanzarote in 1966 where he stayed.  He became involved in abstract and non figurative work after living in Paris for a while in the early fifties, using paint and collage.  Manrique, however, was know for his “total art” approach and was fundamental in the evolution of Lanzarote and the Canary Islands as a whole. It would be almost impossible not to have heard his name or seen his influence everywhere on the island.

Manrique’s “total art” encompassed painting, collage, murals (both mosaic and paint), sculptures (his wind sculptures in particular) in plastic, metal and wood, architecture and even garden design.  He created the motifs and logos synonymous with the island and was instrumental in establishing the general appearance of the island by campaigning for and creating “Manrique’s law” which stated that all buildings should retain their traditional appearance, white walls and green or blue woodwork, no billboards should litter the highways and buildings should not be high rise. In fact there is only one hotel in the capital that is – almost as an exception to prove the rule.

Of Manrique’s work I have seen, his wind sculptures are magnificent in their design and engineering.

Wind Sculpture at César Manrique Foundation, Tahiche, Lanzarote.

Wind Sculpture at César Manrique Foundation, Tahiche, Lanzarote.


This example pictured was quite mesmerising. Each element turned in the wind independently and as a whole, acutely engineered to move freely.  This is an example of Manrique working with the elements and environment of the island, as anyone who has visited will be aware of the wind that blows many months of the year.




Passageway tunnelled out connecting rooms in Manrique's house.

Passageway tunnelled out connecting rooms in Manrique’s house.



Harnessing the surroundings is a key factor in the artist’s work. His house, which is now the Foundation’s headquarters and museum has been honed out of the volcanic rock and solidified lava flows from which the island was created.  Manrique adapted natural air pockets formed in the lava as rooms and made tunnels to interconnect these rooms – floors and walls are painted the characteristic white and ironically give the impression of being ice walls similar to that of a toboggan sleigh run.




One of the sitting rooms fashioned from an air pocket within the lava.

One of the sitting rooms fashioned from an air pocket within the lava.


Pictured is one of the underground rooms with a tree growing in the centre up and out of the ceiling/roof.  Also in shot is an example of Manrique’s metal sculptures in a similar vein to that of the Timanfaya National Park Devil, (see photo below) that was also designed by the artist and is reproduced as a memento.  With this legacy Manrique is still providing wealth of both income and culture to the island.  There are various examples and exhibits of his work and those of other notable artists of his time on display – Picasso and Juan Miro the Catalan painter, sculptor and ceramicist for example.




Within the exhibits of Manrique’s work are drawings and plans of his ideas for wind sculptures, his sketch books and paintings. The sketch books I found fascinating for the explorations of mural work. These took in the every day life of Lanzarote, farmers tending the vines, fishermen and the camels etc.  He would make line drawings, overlapping objects in his composition in a stretched landscape orientation and then introduce colour in the abstract shapes that resulted. Something I would like to try in my sketchbook of things nearer to home for me.  Moving on to the paintings, these are large in scale and incorporate natural materials and textures using acrylic, oil paint, sand and pumice. By laying his canvases on the floor and pouring on these materials, Manrique made beautifully rich and textured paintings reminiscent of the landscape all around him, the coastline, mountains and redundant volcanic structures – very inspirational.

From this visit opening my eyes to his involvement in the island I can’t help but feel that Manrique is Lanzarote and Lanzarote is César Manrique.

Timanfaya Devil designed by César Manrique

Timanfaya Devil designed by César Manrique



Book Titles


Books I have read

I have to admit, I find it difficult to get into non fiction books – give me a good psychological thriller and I’ll read it all day, however, I have applied a concerted effort and am starting to win the battle. I will add to this meagre list with more enthusiasm from now on.

101 Things to Learn in Art School by Kit White (MIT Press 2011)
I picked this up in the Royal Academy shop, I think after the David Hockney, The Bigger Picture Exhibition.  This is a brilliant little book, one I can dip in and out of easily, in fact, it’s next to my bed so I can do just that.  This book encouraged me to join the OCA as it made me realise how little I knew and how much I had (and still have) to learn. A few little gems that have stuck in my brain “65 – A painting should be satisfying at a distance of both twelve inches and twelve feet”, “30 – For every hour of making, spend an hour of looking and thinking”, and “46 – Embrace the “happy accident””.  In fact, I am going to re-read it cover to cover as more and more of it is becoming relevant to now!

Drawing Now: Eight Propositions by Laura Hoptman (The Museum of Modern Art 2002)
This is on the essential reading list of Drawing 1, and this added to my block of reading it I think.  However, over the last couple of weeks, I have really got stuck into it.  I have to say the first three chapters were a little dry to me with a few sparks, having said that, once I got to the Drawing Happiness chapter I felt more in tune.  In fact I thoroughly enjoyed it and got really involved from then on.  I found the Mental Map and Metaphysics section peaked my interest regarding the personal voice aspect that we are to try to develop in ourselves.  Looking at self portraiture in a more abstract and personality influenced way helped me see how I could put myself into my work more.


John Singer Sargent – Painting Friends with an Essay by Barbara Dayer Gallati (National Portrait Gallery Publications Copyright 2015)
Admittedly, I bought this book as a cheaper substitute for the catalogue accompanying the John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery 2015. It is however, still very informative and does have a large number of the paintings displayed in the exhibition reproduced throughout.  The essay written by Barbara Dayer Gallati at the beginning of the book is informative and readable, succinctly describing Sargent’s life, influences, friends and supporters. I get the impression that, although always categorised as American, Sargent was truly multi-national, intelligent, a formidable linguist, well-educated and an opinionated man, not to mention extremely charming when he deemed necessary. I enjoyed the snippets of background that accompanied each reproduction of his paintings and the personalised accounts of his relationship with each portrait subject. One thing though, that really became clear with this book, is that to truly appreciate the skill, life and soul of Sargent’s paintings, they must be viewed in real life.


Holbein: Eye of the Tudors – A Culture Show Special. Written, directed and presented by Waldemar Januszczak and televised by BBC2

An Overview:

Holbein: Eye of the Tudors – A Culture Show Special
Written, directed and presented by Waldemar Januszczak.  BBC2

This is a documentary looking at Holbein the Younger’s contribution to recording the English history of the Tudor monarchs and notable figures of the day. If it wasn’t for Holbein, the programme tells us, we probably would be unaware of the overpowering, visual presence of King Henry VIII.

Some facts about Holbein:

  • Book illustrator in Basel Switzerland – worked closely with Erasmus, who wrote the book “In Praise of Folly”. Young Holbein (teenage years) drew in the margins of one of the books, unofficially illustrating the tales of raucous goings on.  Even then his drawings were full of vivid, graphical descriptions of the human condition and its vices, expertly rendered and drafted.
  • He became a figurative painter of religious scenes, following in the footsteps of his father, unsurprisingly named Holbein the Elder. Young Holbein had a strong Catholic background and his paintings were strikingly realistic. This was, however, a tumultuous time religiously, with the Lutherans becoming more vocal and demonstrative shall we say, therefore, increasing in support. They were vehemently against idolising religious figures, thinking it ostentatious and decadent, this was in direct opposition to the Church of Rome.
  • Hans Holbein left to come to England in 1532 and under the patronage of Sir Thomas More became painter to the royal court of King Henry VIII. He was by this time in his late twenties and was not strictly a portraitist. However, his observation and skill with the brush soon created his reputation as such.

Without going into depth about the overwhelming power of Henry VIII and the changes affected by his insatiable appetite for bettering each wife he had, I’d like to mention a few of the portraits Holbein painted during this period.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, Frick Museum New York.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, Frick Museum New York.

The famous painting of Sir Thomas More, now hanging in the Frick Collection in New York, is fabulous in it rendering. The slightly unshaven whiskers look so realistic.  The gaze is mesmerising and alive. Holbein seems to have looked deep inside his subject and makes the sitter real, not as in a photograph (how could he have, no such thing then), but as in being actually sat in front of you.


Holbein’s portraits of Henry (of which there were many – used almost like business cards) have left an

KIng Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.  National Portrait Gallery, London

KIng Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger.
National Portrait Gallery, London

imposing impression of a powerful and authoritarian ruler, who thought nothing of upturning his country’s religious allegiance to Rome to pursue his own interests.

Henry’s servant in ridding England of the Catholic influences was Thomas Cromwell, another subject of Holbein.  This portrait is also now exhibited in the Frick Musem, New York, uncomfortably positioned the opposite side of a fire place to Sir Thomas More.  Again, Holbein has observed his subject with scrutiny, this time however, the result is an impression of a joyless, dour and stony faced man.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger. Frick Museum, New York

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Frick Museum, New York

In 1535, Holbein became painter to the King himself, rather than to the court as a whole.  This was fortuitous as Sir Thomas More, finding himself (a Catholic of standing) more and more at odds with Henry’s religious cleansing. He experienced the fate of so many others at Henry’s bidding and was beheaded as a traitor.  Another saviour for Holbein was the then Queen, Anne Boleyn, who engaged him to design many items in the Royal household, from jewellery to cutlery to a grand fireplace.  As eventually, Anne Boleyn lost favour and then her head and Jane Seymour died from complications from childbirth, Henry cast about for a suitable wifely replacement. Holbein was instructed to visit Europe and paint the portraits of potential future Queens – one of which was 16 year old Christina of Denmark. (Incidentally, the French Anne of Cleves, whose portrait had previously been painted and deemed worthy of becoming Henry’s Queen, was considered “repulsive” by the charming monarch in real life and discarded/divorced. Luckily for Holbein, it was Thomas Cromwell who bore the blame for arranging the match, was tried for treason and was, yes, beheaded!) Anyway, back to Christina of Denmark…

Christina of Denmark by Hans Holbein the Younger. The National Gallery, London

Christina of Denmark by Hans Holbein the Younger.
The National Gallery, London

Christina had already been married and was widowed at 16.  Consequently, her full length portrait showed her in mourning dress. This served to emphasise the luminosity of her face and had an ethereal quality.  It is said that Holbein had one three hour sitting with Christina and the resultant painting was simply beautiful.  Henry was obviously impressed as a proposal was despatched, sensibly, Christina declined!

As time went on, Holbein and Henry drifted apart professionally, and where Holbein had been commissioned to paint 5 out of the 6 wives of the King, the final Queen was not afforded that honour.  Hence, we have no record of Katherine Parr’s appearance by Holbein.

Holbein continued painting wealthy and influential clients, one of the most famous being commonly known as The Ambassadors.  Holbein, as have many other artists, employed the use of symbolism in his paintings.  Most of which seem to be related to time and the frailty of such.  The over-riding symbol in The Ambassadors is of course the distorted skull.  Many theories abound about its inclusion, however, in this film it is offered that it is a reminder of the certainty of death, and that its distortion is related to the youth of the subjects.  The bench/table between the two men has two shelves, the top one clearly points to their professions as an ambassador and a bishop

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger The National Gallery, London

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger
The National Gallery, London

and appears full of positivity and wealth, the second has more hidden, symbolic meaning to its objects. (I also have to say that the tapestry that drapes the shelf is painted so beautifully and observed so clearly, that it is absolutely stunning.) It houses, among other items, a book of Lutheran hymns and a mandolin with a broken string. Waldemar explains that broken strings in art symbolises discord and appears to be relevant to the Lutheran hymn book and therefore the religious movement itself, foretelling its demise. Added to that the crucifix subtly positioned in the top left corner, visible beneath the drapery, hinting that the Roman Catholic religion is still strong, waiting for the Lutheran Society to fade from popularity.


The film also comments on the Vanitas – Latin for vanity.  In the context of symbolism in art, the vanitas is to remind one that time is transient, as is life and as

Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Caravaggio The National Gallery, London

Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Caravaggio
The National Gallery, London

such that wordly pleasures, material belongings and shackles are of no importance or permanence.

Another point relating to symbolism was made regarding the positioning of items on a table, the nearer an edge, the more precarious and/or mortal it is.  Waldemar referred to the painting Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Caravaggio (National Gallery, London), where the youth of the boy is played against the attack of the lizard, where the lizard symbolises old age, confirming it comes to us all.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary, the details and history wrapped up in an artistic blanket courtesy of Holbein.  I knew little of his history, and had only been aware of the most famous of his paintings – now I feel more acquainted with this wonderfully observant and truthful painter of portraits – even in this snippet of his life.  Waldemar Januszczak has a quirky story telling style and whereas I appreciate he may be akin to that yeast extract spread, he drew me into his weird and wonderful world and I’m glad he did!


National Portrait Gallery and The Late Turner Exhibition, Tate Britain


National Portrait Gallery

The Ringwood Art Society of which I’m a member, organised a trip up to London to see the Late Turner Exhibition at the Tate Britain.  As we had afternoon tickets, my friend and I headed up to Trafalgar to the National Portrait Gallery.  We only had limited time, so only managed to peruse the ground floor in any great detail.  We were, however, lucky to see the new portrait of Baroness Betty Boothroyd by Brendan Kelly that had only been hung that morning.  I thought it a beautifully painted and luminous portrait, that showed the softer side of the woman who had previously had the dubious pleasure of keeping our elected MPs in check!  The brushwork was loose and expressive with “lost” edges that gave a glow about the painting that was quite mesmerising.

Whilst there, I was keen to show my friend a couple of favourites of mine, both by Ruskin Spear, one of Francis Bacon and one of Harold Wilson.  I was dumbfounded to discover that they no longer held the same appeal for me.  I have visited these two portraits several times, and have always loved them for their expressive brush marks.  Whilst they are still wonderful portraits, they just did not grab me as they used to.  I wonder why?

…and so, after lunch, we made our way back to Millbank.

Late Turner, Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

An unbelievably large collection of Turner’s work, covering the last fifteen years or so of his life – prolific doesn’t begin to describe the volume of creativity this man produced throughout his entire lifetime.  Even though Ruskin, as one of his sponsors, suggested Turner may have been losing it in his later years, he did indeed set painting free – or did he?

I very much enjoyed the watercolour sketches from his travels that you first encounter on the tour round the exhibition.  They are free and atmospheric with additions of graphite, some gouache body colour, ink and scratchings out.  Rivers and mountains being rendered beautifully in glowing colours on blue paper were particularly effective – will have to try that!  Turner’s sketchbooks are lessons to us all, quick vibrant drawings with notes to self.

Coming on to his oil paintings, some, vast in dimension with cyclonic skies, sweeping in circular motion grasping the viewer into a vortex of vivid colour and light.  Some of these works were so before their time, I could imagine them being painted today, if it weren’t for the figures (invariably in the bottom left of his composition) being so obviously in historic dress.  As time went on the figures became less discernible and I wished they hadn’t been there at all.  This is why I question setting painting free – did he feel he had to pander to his audience, who more than likely were disturbed, or at best uncomfortable with such wild abandon, that he had to include a human presence.  He was of course, painting as his living, hence the “Ain’t they worth more?” quote re his watercolours, did he then, in his quest for freedom still acknowledge his restrictions?  I have to say, I wasn’t enamoured with the “traditional” historical/mythical subjects of many of the larger oils, for me, it was the recurring vortices, the wild seascapes and glowering, looming skies that held my attention – in fact I could still be there looking at them!

The most striking for me was Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth….,  I also noted The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons and the many watercolours and sketches among my favourite exhibits.

This really is a fleeting impression of the full exhibition, I thoroughly enjoyed it, along with the insights into Turner’s personality and irreverence of the “establishment”, he must have been a breath of fresh air – as long as you didn’t have to deal directly with him. 🙂