Treasures of Trafalgar Square

1024px-trafalgar_square2c_london_2_-_jun_2009

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Trafalgar Square is one of the most popular tourist interests in Central London, attracting well over one million people per year. Surrounded by museums, galleries and historic buildings, the public square is continually travelled through as sightseers make their way from place to place. Containing numerous statues, there are plenty of photographic opportunities for selfies or group pictures as well as the chance to witness a diverse selection of street performance.

With so much to offer, how much do visitors gain from their visit to Trafalgar Square? Apart from the lions and the acclaimed Nelson’s Column, a lot goes unappreciated or even unnoticed. By stepping back from the crowds and taking the time to look around you – up high, down low and side to side – you will discover the history and wonders of the dynamic location.

Trafalgar Square was developed by the architect John Nash (1752-1835) in the early 1800s. After its completion, the new square was officially christened Trafalgar Square in 1830 to commemorate the victory at the infamous Battle of Trafalgar a quarter of a century earlier. Some tourists are frequently confused by the name and incorrectly assume that the battle against Napoleon took place in this very square. The British Naval victory was earned at Cape Trafalgar on the coast of Spain, in which the Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life.

In 1843, a bronze statue of Nelson was erected on top of a 145 ft Corinthian column designed by the English architect William Railton (1800-77); a tremendous monument in honour of the war-hero. The bronze lions on the pedestal below, sculpted by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73), were added thirty years later to stand guard around the column.

Nelson, literally and figuratively, overshadows all the other statues and plinths around the square and, unless time is taken to study them carefully, many remain unaware of who they represent and the significance of their position. Over the years, several sculptures have been erected (and even removed from) Trafalgar Square and they are worth having a look at.

800px-james_ii_trafalgar_square_right_side

Jacobus Secundus, Photograph by Prioryman

To the left of the entrance to the National Gallery, stands a particularly old bronze statue. Originally erected in the Palace of Whitehall in 1686, King James II stands in a Contrapposto pose (hips and legs twisted away from the position of the head and shoulders) sculpted to resemble a Roman emperor. With right hand outstretched, it is believed that the King, or Jacobus Secundus as the plinth states, once held a baton, which is now missing.  The rest of the plinth, when translated from the Latin, reads “by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. Defender of the Faith. 1686.”

In the top right-hand corner of the square sits an equestrian statue of another king of England. Cast two years before George IV’s death in 1830, his statue depicts him in ancient Roman garments – possibly an attempt at resembling a Roman emperor similarly to James II – and was originally intended for the top of Marble Arch when it was used as the entrance to Buckingham Palace. Temporarily placed upon a plinth in Trafalgar Square, it has remained there ever since, although the inscription below was only added in the late 19th-century once his flattering features were no longer recognised by the public.

The most interesting thing about the George IV statue designed by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841) is that he is riding with no stirrups. Whether it was intentional to depict the king bareback riding or an oversight of the sculptor remains unknown.

There is another equestrian statue in Trafalgar Square on the opposite side, near Whitehall. Older than both James II and George IV, the statue was cast in the 1630s by Hubert Le Sueur (1580-1658), a French sculptor, in honour of Charles I. Dressed in armour typical of the era, the King sits proudly on his horse who has its right front leg raised as if walking.

Those who know their English royal history will wonder how the statue survived after the execution of Charles I. The bronze figure was sent to a metalsmith in Holborn along with instructions to melt it down, however, the smithy secretly hid the statue instead. When the royal family was restored to the throne, it was rediscovered and placed in Trafalgar Square in 1675, on the original location of one of the Eleanor crosses.

The Eleanor cross that stood in Trafalgar Square was destroyed during the civil war, however, a replica was produced in 1865 in front of Charing Cross railway station, where it still stands today. The Eleanor crosses were ornately decorated monuments adorned with a cross commissioned by Edward I in memoriam of his beloved wife. Each cross was positioned at the site her coffin lay overnight as it made its twelve-day journey from Lincoln to London before finally being buried in Westminster Abbey. Charing Cross was the final stop and therefore the most elaborate of the twelve monuments.

Victorian sculptor, Thomas Earp (1829-93), constructed the replica cross from designs by E. M. Barry (1830-80), an architect famed for his work in Covent Garden. Using Aberdeen granite, Earp expertly carved the decorative monument, including a statue of Eleanor of Castile standing towards the very top.

 

There are a number of other statues located in Trafalgar Square, and there are even more located nearby within short walking distance. When visiting the square, there is so much to see in the surrounding areas, for example, the Eleanor cross, that could so easily be missed by tourists. Diagonally across from the north-east corner of the square, opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery stands a monument to the British nurse, Edith Cavell. Working in Brussels when the First World War broke out in 1914, Edith nursed hundreds of soldier regardless of which army they came from. She also helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German occupation.

Unfortunately, Edith Cavell was caught and arrested by German soldiers, found guilty of treason and shot by a firing squad on 12th October 1915. Her remains were brought home after the war, her bravery earning her a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Sir George Frampton (1860-1928) constructed the modern-looking, ten-foot marble statue of the British nurse standing on a granite pedestal. Inscribed below are the words “Edith Cavell // Brussels // Dawn // October 12th 1915 // Patriotism is not enough // I must have no hatred or // bitterness for anyone.” The monument was unveiled by Queen Alexandra in 1920 and, since 2014, it received a Grade 1 listing.

Another statue to look out for in the area is the Royal Marines Memorial installed on the north side of The Mall. Created at the beginning of the 20th-century, the memorial honours those who lost their lives during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Second Boer War in Africa (1899-1902).

To get to the Royal Marine Memorial from Trafalgar Square, the pavement takes you under Admiralty Arch. This is just one of the many historic structures that surround the square. The Grade 1 listed triumphal arch was commissioned by Edward VII in memory of his long reigning mother, Queen Victoria. Initially used as a residence for the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, the arch became government offices at the beginning of the millennium. The neoclassical arch is now in the hands of property developers who intend to reopen it as a luxury hotel in 2020.

1280px-arco_del_almirantazgo2c_londres2c_inglaterra2c_2014-08-112c_dd_186

Admiralty Arch

London, being steeped in history, has countless plaques around the city commemorating certain events, past and present buildings, notable people and so forth. Although buildings have been demolished, plaques provide information about the past to prevent history from disappearing entirely. On the ground by the Charles I statue is a metal sign explaining that it was once the site of the Eleanor cross. On the railings in front of Charing Cross Station is another plaque with a lengthy description of the design and construction of the replica. Nearby is another sign recording details of a violent storm that occurred in 1987.

It is quite surprising the places that memorial plaques can be found. In St Martin’s Street, little more than an alley way, behind the National Gallery, is a sizable memorial of the 16th century Hampton Site. The information inscribed on the stone explains that the site used to belong to Hamptons furniture store which was flattened by bombs in 1940. Later, in 1959, the government acquired the demolished area allowing the National Gallery to expand. Thus, the Sainsbury Wing was born.

Plenty of tourists take photographs outside the entrances to the National and National Portrait Gallery even if they do not venture inside (although, judging by the crowds, most do!), however, it is not a common thought to look behind the buildings. By continuing along St Martin’s Street and turning right into Orange Street, a small Congregational Church is located sporting more historical information. According to historians, the former resident of the building next door was none other than the mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton.

Orange Street Congregational Church: This church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled from France at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1776 the Chapel passed into the hands of the Church of England. The Rev. Augustus III. Toplady author of “Rock of Ages” was one of its ministers. The Chapel passed into the hands of the Congregationalists in 1787. Adjoining the chapel was Sir Isaac Newton’s house which was built in 1710 and condemned in 1913. Mrs Jemima Luke, author of the beloved hymn “I think when we read that sweet story of old” was a teacher in the Sunday School. A copy of the hymn in her own handwriting is in possession of the church.

When exploring, always remember to look up. Approaching the National Portrait Gallery from Orange Street allows the building’s architecture to be seen in a new light. Above the highly positioned windows are sculpted busts that are easily missable from ground level. Sculpted along with the three founders of the gallery are fifteen illustrious portrait painters, writers and historians, notably: Horace Walpole, Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Louis François Roubilliac, William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynold.

 

There are far too many things to note in and around Trafalgar Square to write about it one go. The more you look the more you discover, especially when glancing in the more obscure places. Whilst standing at the foot of Nelson’s column, look out for the worlds smallest police phone box (now a cleaning store cupboard), and, whilst having a drink at the Cafe on the Square, do not miss the outdated standard Imperial measures plaque where people used to come and check the accuracy of their rulers.

 

Trafalgar Square is so much more than statues, water fountains and street performers. With so many marvels hidden in plain sight, hours can easily disappear as you tour the area. This goes for the rest of the City of London, too; the more you look the more you find. Do not be blind to the history surrounding you, it is there to be noticed.

Special thanks to Treasure Trails for providing such an in-depth self-guided tour of Trafalgar Square with an exciting Treasure Hunt game. Take a look at their website for more information about the trail. (Other areas are available.)

Advertisements

A Triumphal Arch

20914420_10211933380801329_4773547170227607399_n

View from the top of Wellington Arch

Owned by English Heritage, Wellington Arch, built with the intention of being used as an entrance to Buckingham Palace, still stands in the heart of London and is open to visitors to explore. Since becoming a memorial to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, the arch is a museum dedicated to the war, particularly the Battle of Waterloo and the ensuing victory.

For £5, visitors can climb (or take the lift) to the top of the arch and take in the views over London’s Royal Parks from the balconies on either side. One side faces towards Hyde Park and Apsley House – the Duke of Wellington’s residence – whereas the other balcony provides views into the garden of Buckingham Palace (if the trees are not in the way) and the entrance to Green Park.

arch

Wellington Arch, English Heritage

From the outside, it is hard to believe that the arch is hollow, let alone big enough to contain a museum and gift shop. Beginning on the top floor, visitors can make their way through an exhibition about the Battle of Waterloo, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2015.

On 18th June 1815, the 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), led an army of British, Belgian, Dutch and German troops onto the battle fields at Waterloo in Belgium, to stand against the tyrannical French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) Armée du Nord. War had been raging since 1792 as France tried to extend her territory, but this final battle was to put an end to Napoleon’s dictatorial empire.

The exhibition only focuses on the final battle of the Napoleonic War, although it acknowledges other battles, such as Trafalgar for which a significant monument stands proudly in the capital. Information boards containing facts, figures and historical details are illustrated with paintings of the battles and the armies involved.

Brief biographies are also provided of the three key players in the Battle of Waterloo. Most people assume that the war was fought by two armies, one led by Wellington and the other by Napoleon. However, this war was not as simple as Britain versus France, in fact, Wellington’s army contained just as many Belgian and Dutch soldiers as it did British. Without the alliance of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the Prince of Wahlstatt (1742-1819), and his Prussian army, the Duke of Wellington may not have achieved the impressive victory that altered the future of Europe.

251c0d1d00000578-2931207-image-m-18_1422528551465

Wellington’s boots

Located in glass cases are a variety of items belonging to Arthur Wellesley, including commemorative memorabilia, weapons and the renowned boots that gave Wellington boots their name. After touring this exhibition and listening to the recordings and video provided, visitors will be well educated about the successful battle.

Commencing on a lower floor is a second exhibition concentrating on the arch itself as opposed to the war it now commemorates. Interestingly, the arch, commissioned by the Office of Woods and Forests in 1824, was not intended for the celebration of a war hero. The Office wanted new railings and gateways for the royal parks and commissioned the very young architect Decimus Burton (1800-81) to produce the designs. This was a substitute for the elaborate gateway designed by Sir John Soane.

Initially, Decimus Burton planned for two arches, one to lead into Hyde Park and the opposite to lead into Green Park. The latter would also be an entrance to Constitution Hill and Buckingham Palace and correspond to a neoclassical design, adorned with sculptures commemorating Britain’s victories over Napoleon.

Decimus Burton was a diligent designer, not only did he produce detailed drawings, he sketched certain sections to scale in order to fully show his intentions. Examples of his plans for Corinthian capitals to sit on top of the columns are shown in the exhibition as well as his proposition for ornamental designs of guardsmen and a quadriga (four-horse drawn chariot). Unfortunately, money became scarce and Burton’s arch was left plain with a lack of character.

So, how did this austere arch become known as Wellington Arch? In the 1830s, committees were formed to promote the idea of erecting memorials for the two British army leaders who fought victoriously against Napoleon. For Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), who died on the battlefield, a towering column was erected in Trafalgar Square with a statue of the hero upon the crest. The Wellington Memorial Committee was less ambitious and, as the Green Park arch was positioned facing the Duke’s home, it was proposed that a statue of Wellington be planted on top.

In 1838, Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862), a Victorian painter and sculptor, was commissioned to design the giant equestrian statue of the Duke. By 1846 it was completed and, much to Decimus Burton’s horror, positioned atop the arch. Despite its memorial purpose, the public ridiculed it, claiming it to be ugly and disproportionate to the rest of the structure. However, as the Duke of Wellington was still alive, he demanded that the government keep his statue in place otherwise he would take full offence at its removal. Finally, in 1883, thirty-one years after the Duke’s death, the statue was removed and re-erected in Aldershot Garrison – a military town in Hampshire.

A particularly fascinating fact about the renamed Wellington Arch is that it is no longer situated in its original position. The arch was moved! By the 1870s, the Hyde Park Corner area was becoming more crowded. Despite it still being a pre-motor vehicle era, the amount of carriages on the roads was increasing as rapidly as London was expanding. The arch in its original position caused too many traffic jams, so in 1883, the government instructed the careful dismantling of the structure so that it could be repositioned out of the way.

Wellington Arch stood in its new place, statue-less, for three decades until a retired cavalry vet turned sculptor, Adrian Jones (1845-1938) produced a model of a quadriga that could potentially be erected where the Duke’s statue once stood. This would also respect the original designs of Decimus Burton, whose idea of a quadriga never came to fruition as a result of poor funding.

Although Edward VII approved Jones’s proposal, there was still a distinct lack of money in order to complete the job. It was not until 1912, after a secret donation from the wealthy banker, Lord Michelham, that the bronze sculpture was finally put in place where it still remains today.

The exhibition about the designing of the arch displays life size replicas of a few of the features of the quadriga sculpture. The quadriga is made up of the angel of peace descending upon a chariot pulled by four rearing horses that, in this instance, represent war. This is an allusion to the memory of the triumphant final battle at Waterloo.

Since 1999, Wellington Arch has been owned by English Heritage, refurbished and opened to the public in 2001. However, the arch was in use as a building long before the charity took over. The southern leg of the arch was used as a park keeper’s residence for just over 50 years, whilst the northern section was converted into London’s smallest police station. Fitted with telegraph wires, the police station remained until the 1950s, but after its closure, the arch remained uninhabited.

With thanks to English Heritage, the arch is open for all to enter and contains a wealth of information about its history and about the battle of which it is honouring. Successfully refurbished, the arch-cum-museum feels spacious and easy to navigate – a complete contrast to the impression presented when viewing the structure from outside. Not only are English Heritage preserving a historical piece of architecture, they are keeping the past alive, educating Londoners and tourists about an important war that is generally omitted from school syllabuses.

At only £5 (for adults), Wellington Arch is worth the visit, if not for the museum, then for the views from the balconies. Although the current exhibition in the Quadriga Gallery is about the quadriga (naturally), it has contained different exhibitions in the past. This goes to suggest that the future may see alternative displays, which will be worth looking out for.

English Heritage cares for over 400 historic monuments, buildings and places – Registered Charity 1140351

Havering: More than a Museum

4629973383

When London was chosen as England’s capital city it was relatively small compared to the area we are familiar with today. It was not until buildings such as Westminster Abbey were erected that London became a place of importance. Prior to that time, Winchester was reportedly considered as the English capital when the various kingdoms united as one country in 927AD. Now, London is so large that it has been split in half: the City of London and Greater London. The latter has been divided further into thirty-two boroughs, one of which is named the London Borough of Havering.

The main towns that make up the London Borough of Havering are Romford, Hornchurch, Upminster and Rainham; but these were not always the built up areas they are today. On the site of the old Romford Brewery (now a shopping centre) is a small museum devoted to preserving the history of the borough and its original background. Although not of a considerable size and mostly run by volunteers, the museum provides an extensive history of the towns, buildings and important people that helped to develop the initial agricultural area.

Havering Museum is set out so that it is easy to navigate around the display cases and follow the information on a journey through different themes. A common theme of most historical museums is the impact of the First and Second World War. Photographs and found or donated items illustrate the war connections with the borough – although, since the London Borough of Havering did not come into existence until 1st April 1965, all historical mentions are about the areas that would eventually become one borough.

A brief history of each town has been researched and collated to provide short stories about the areas from as early as Saxon times to the present-day. Some of this is synonymous with the rest of the country and therefore is a more general history than specific to Havering. This includes developments in public transport, building material and commodities. Glass cabinets house objects from the past such as children’s toys, broken pottery, ancient coins and unidentified articles.

Throughout the year, the museum holds temporary exhibitions about specific themes or events that either affected Havering directly or would have concerned citizens in the London area in general. For example, between 15th June and 2nd September 2017, a selection of radios were on display, from early models to the more recognisable recent versions. Between the same dates was another display: 1950s Fashion. Until 4th November 2017, the museum is focusing on local men at war, which may interest those who grew up in this area during and after the conflict.

Havering Museum will mostly attract those who have lived in the area for a considerable length of time. It will evoke memories of the past but also explain some of the mysteries and questions people have about their local area. On the other hand, the museum curators have made it suitable for children to enjoy, too. There are plenty of hands on activities including puzzles and games, as well as drawers to open and inspect.

One of the activities for children (or those young at heart) is a brass rubbing of a coat of arms. With the supplied paper and crayons, visitors can create their own print of the coat of arms that once belonged to the Hornchurch Urban District Council that existed from approximately 1926 until the creation of the London boroughs in 1965. The motto “A good name endureth” has been adopted by the football club AFC Hornchurch, and they have also appropriated a similar coat of arms as their logo.

coat_of_arms

The Havering coat of arms

The current Havering coat of arms is remarkably different to the original owned by Hornchurch. To begin with, the colour scheme is a complete contrast, using royal blue and gold as opposed to red. This is because these were the colours of the ancient Royal Liberty of Havering – a royal manor built in the 11th century.

The symbols that make up the logo represent different areas of the borough. The gate house reflects on the old Palace of Havering, which was also depicted on the crest of the former Romford Borough Council. The bull’s head is a reference to Hornchurch and the leafy design points out the boroughs connection to green areas such as Epping Forest and Hainault Forest.

The lower half of the coat of arms consists of a shield with a design to represent the sails on a windmill, for example, the one that still exists in Upminster. The ring, however, has an interesting, and only slightly believable story attached to it. Legend claims that Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) gave his ring to a beggar, who later proved to be St John the Apostle, whilst saying the words “have ring”. Hence, Havering. This may seem a bit far-fetched, but no one can prove or deny it.

The logo of the London Borough of Havering is the simple word “Liberty” which means freedom and independence. The word, however, was chosen as a reminder of the Royal Liberty.

As mentioned already, Havering did not become a borough until 1965, therefore most of the story that the museum is telling is not about the borough at all. The most interesting information is about the buildings, some of which no longer exist in the area, but whose names have lived on in the names of parks, streets and schools. Other buildings are still around today, and their history is just as surprising.

There are many churches in the London Borough of Havering but only a handful date back several centuries. St Laurence Church in Upminster is a Grade 1 listed building whose tower stonework dates back as far as the 1200s. Historians believe that a church has existed on the same site since the 7th century. St Laurence Church’s claim to fame is the first accurate measurement of the speed of sound, discovered through the use of the church bells. Another historic connection is the resting place of Alice Perrers, the mistress of King Edward III, who died in 1400.

Although St Laurence Church is considerably old, it is not the most important in the history of Havering. St Andrew’s Church in Hornchurch also dates back to the 1200s, the first record of it being recorded in 1222. St Andrew’s was once the principal church in the areas that now make up Havering. Hornchurch is an Anglicised version of the Latin Monasterium Cornutum, which translates into English as “church with horn like gables”. This is in reference to the stone bull’s head on the Eastern Gable. This may not be as old as the church itself, but records show it existed in 1384. The significance of the bull is most likely associated with the leather industry that Hornchurch was originally involved with.

Other ancient buildings in Upminster and Hornchurch include a 15th-century Tithe barn, a windmill built in 1803 by a local farmer, James Nokes, now the last remaining smock mill in London, “High House” dating from the 1700s, and Fairkytes, an 18th-century house now owned by Havering Arts Centre.

Romford, as previously mentioned, was home to a large brewery that opened in 1799. It ran for almost two centuries, finally closing in 1997. Although most of the original factory has been demolished, the gated entrance to the brewery still stands. This is where the Havering Museum can be found. The rest of the site, still known as The Brewery, is a shopping and leisure centre containing a number of shops, restaurants, a cinema and a gym.

Romford’s greatest attraction throughout history has been the market place. Since 1247, people have travelled to buy and sell in the centre of the town, beginning with sheep but now selling anything from fruit and clothes to digital gadgets. Henry III granted Romford permission to hold a market every Wednesday. This attracted a great number of people, causing the town to expand. The arrival of Romford train station increased the population further, resulting in the large town it is today – one of the largest in the districts outside of central London.

Within the marketplace stands The Golden Lion Pub. Still functioning today, it has been in business since 1440. Unbeknownst to many people, including the locals, in 1601, Sir Francis Bacon inherited the position of the landlord of the pub. This is not its only claim to fame; apparently, Dick Turpin, the English highwayman, may have spent a couple of nights there.

The history of Havering’s towns does little to put it on the map in terms of a tourist attraction, however, alongside Sir Francis Bacon, there are a few significant names connected with the area. Unfortunately, the majority of these people mean nothing to society today. The elite families that inhabited the manors of Upminster and Hornchurch disappeared along with the demolition of the buildings.

“Famous” People

  • Lady Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979) – a watercolour artist and poet who produced illustrations for Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Many of her artworks are owned by the Tate. She lived in Upminster and even painted a miniature study of Upminster Common.
  • Henria Williams – a suffragette from Upminster who died two months after the “Black Friday” disturbance in which she was injured. It is highly likely that other suffragettes lived in the area and records report that pillar boxes in Romford were set alight during one of their protests.
  • Ian Dury (1942-2000) – another Upminster inhabitant, Ian Dury was a rock-and-roll singer, songwriter and actor who rose to fame during the 1970s. His second solo studio album was titled Lord Upminster.
  • Joseph Fry – the son of the English prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, lived in Fairkytes between 1870 and 1896.
  • Francis Quarles (1592-1644) – a Romford-born poet. This is presumably where the Quarles Campus of Havering College got its name. Beware of him that is slow to anger; for when it is long coming, it is the stronger when it comes, and the longer kept. Abused patience turns to fury.”

There have also been connections with royalty throughout the past centuries. Harold Godwinson often went hunting in the forests nearby, resulting in the names of two of Havering’s smaller towns: Harold Wood and Harold Hill. Edward the Confessor gave Havering Palace to Harold, which then got passed down the royal family throughout the following centuries. Havering Palace was situated in the Havering-atte-Bower area, however, it has long since been demolished. It is believed that Elizabeth I enjoyed staying there during her reign.

It is disappointing that these buildings were not preserved for posterity. So much of our history is very quickly erased. It is only with thanks to historians and volunteers, such as those at the Havering Museum, that any information about this London borough has been retained.

Most people would travel to central London or other important towns and cities around the country when looking for some historical details. What gets forgotten is that everywhere, regardless of how big or small, has some history attached to it. It is surprising what gets dug up when people put their minds to it.

Those wanting to know more about Havering and its past must take a trip to the Havering Museum. It is open from Wednesday to Saturday between 11 am and 5 pm. It only costs £2.50 to enter and is worth the price.

Regardless of whether you live in Havering or not, think about looking into the history of the area you are from. Museums in central London will provide general details about the city, but the meaningful information will always be closer to home.

Havering Museum is a Heritage Lottery Funded project and an independent Museum run by Havering’s volunteers and supporters. Registered Charity No. 1093763

The World’s Leading Museum of Art and Design

exhibition-road-va-courtyard-day-amanda-levete-architects

The Sackler Courtyard, Victoria and Albert Museum, Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A), 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, is regarded as the finest museum of art and design in the world. With over 2.3 million objects from the past five millennia, the museum is constantly expanding. Housing hundreds of collections including post-classical sculpture, fine art, silver works, ceramics, furniture, musical instruments, oriental art, and the National Art Library, it is unsurprising that the content and building is forever increasing.

From its early beginnings in 1852, the museum has undergone numerous extensions, the very latest being completed this year. Exhibition Road, South Kensington, is home to several important locations, specifically the V&A’s neighbours: the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. A new, user-friendly entrance has been designed and built, providing easy access from the road to the contemporary Sainsbury Gallery. This quarter of the museum will be home to temporary exhibitions.

Rather than having an entrance directly from the pavement, the Amanda Levete Architects have paved an ultra-modern courtyard, incorporating arches from the 19th-century building. This open-air area contains a glass-walled cafe to serve the anticipated 3.4 million visitors who use this new entrance each year.

Although people visit the V&A for its extensive collections, the building itself is a work of art. The original founders aimed to exhibit the best and most innovative design in the actual fabric of the building, as well as in its contents. The idea for the museum was introduced by Prince Albert (1819-61) the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). After the very successful Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park – the first World’s fair – Prince Albert urged for the £186,000 to be spent on developing a cultural district in South Kensington; “Albertopolis”.

Prince Albert’s ambition was to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry.”

In 1857, construction began on the building that would become the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). It was not to only contain galleries but be the residence of government departments and colleges, including the Central School of Practice Art (Royal College of Art). The original building was a temporary iron structure that stuck out like a sore thumb. It was also quickly evident that it would not be large enough to accommodate the sheer number of exhibits. Thus, a new elaborate plan was drawn out and construction began on a permanent structure.

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, the museum expanded with new rooms being constantly added to the structure. Henry Cole (1808-82), the first director of the museum, had very ambitious decorative schemes and wanted the building to represent the best of British design. With a distrust for foreign builders, Cole employed leading English artists and designers of his own choosing to work on the building.

Amongst the many workers were two painters and sculptors: George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and Frederic Leighton (1830-96), dominant figures in late Victorian art. They were commissioned to produce canvases to display inside the gallery as well as design intricate mosaics. These mosaics made up the thirty-five portraits of significant European artists that adorned the South Court. This was later affectionately named the Kensington Valhalla after the Norse mythological term for the resting place of heroes.

Specific rooms within the museum were assigned to various artists to decorate. One interior designer of particular note was William Morris (1834-96) who was known for his distinctive designs, craftsmanship, and paintings, amongst many other things. Another name worth knowing is Owen Jones (1809-74), who was commissioned to produce decorations for the Oriental Courts. He wanted his designs to complement the objects on show, therefore took great care to depict Persian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art styles.

Godfrey Sykes (1824-66), a Yorkshire-born designer, was very active in the development of the South Kensington Museum. He was the head of the decorative design team responsible for the majority of the museum’s ornamentations and ornate trimmings. The museum was the last building he worked on before his early death at the age of 42. Some of his best work includes terracotta columns in the Lecture Theatre and a tiled frieze in the Centre Refreshment Room. These, however, were not necessarily created by Sykes himself. Although he produced the designs, others would have been responsible for the modelling, including a man named John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911), the father of the world-known writer, Rudyard Kipling.

Sykes was known for his sense of humour, which he used to great effect in his “inhabited” alphabet with witty touches. Each letter contained an illustration of a person or persons interacting with the letter. These are located throughout the museum and are often used in relevant books published by the Science and Art Department.

The director, Henry Cole, and evidently the brains of the construction, retired in 1873. Although building works continued for another decade, work eventually stopped, leaving the museum in a chaotic, unfinished mess. Although able to function as an institution for the great collection of objects, the public was unhappy with the sorry looking appearance of what had promised to be a grand building. After much campaigning, an architectural competition was announced in 1891 to find a final design for the museum.

The winner of the competition was the young Aston Webb (1849-1930), an English architect who would later go on to design the facade of Buckingham Palace. Although some critics preferred the design submitted by the runner up, John Belcher (1841-1913), Webb’s proposal was far more practical.

2014hc0680-chosen-aston-webb-design-for-south-ken-musuem-1280

Design for the completion of the South Kensington Museum, Aston Webb, 1891

It was an additional eight years between the competition and the beginning of construction. Aston Webb finalised his design proposal thinking carefully about the general floor plan as well as the appearance of the exterior. Similarly to the original designers, Webb wanted to show off the splendour of British art and emphasise the importance of the museum. The facade of the building includes statues of significant people involved with the museum.

… a statue of Queen Victoria supported by St George and St Michael over the great arch and the Prince Consort below, as the Founders of the Museum; on either side in niches the present King and Queen. The great archway itself would be enriched with symbolic sculpture. The large bosses in the archivolt would represent various crafts; the large spandrils would have figures representing Truth and Beauty; while the two smaller niches on either side would have statues representing Imagination and Knowledge. …The whole edifice I suggest to be crowned by a gilt bronze winged figure of Fame.

-Aston Webb

statues

Left to right: Statue of George Frederic Watts by Richard Reginald Goulden, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 – 6; statue of William Morris by Arthur George Walker, Exhibition Road façade, 1905 – 6; statue of Alfred Stevens by James Gamble, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 –6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, Queen Victoria had died before the completion of the museum and never got to see herself immortalised in stone above the Grand Entrance. She did, however, take the opportunity to lay the foundation stone for the new structure, and thus renamed the South Kensington Museum the Victoria and Albert Museum. King Edward VII, who came to the throne in 1901, officially opened the V&A on 26th June 1909.

Aston Webb’s design was the last major construction the museum undertook – the new Sainsbury Gallery being rather minor in comparison. Yet, plenty of change has occurred over the past century.  Between 1910 and 1914, the then director, Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith (1859-1944) objected to the ostentatious design on the museum. He believed that the focus should be on the items in the collection and that visitors did not want to be distracted by the surrounding architecture. The way forward, in his eyes, was to create modest and neutrally decorated display spaces.

Harcourt Smith ordered the destruction or covering up of the supposedly inappropriate decor. Fortunately, the First World War halted the procedure, thus saving many of the original features. It was not until 1973 with the appointment of Sir Roy Strong (b.1935) as the director that the work conducted pre-war was reversed. Strong managed to restore some of the original interiors and reinstate the 19th-century collections. Unfortunately, some of the initial features are lost forever.

Beginning as a dream of Prince Albert’s, and quickly becoming a reality, the Victoria and Albert museum is continually becoming more diverse as knowledge is widened about past works of art and cultural representation. The V&A is not meant to be a historical museum, therefore it also keeps up with the times, displaying modern and contemporary exhibitions amongst the ancient. A recent exhibition illustrates how variegated the V&A’s collection can be. Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (closing on 1st October 2017) is the first audio-visual display put on by the museum, showing the beginnings, middle and end of the iconic British band.

Despite the various extensions over the years, the Victoria and Albert Museum remains one of the most difficult buildings to understand and navigate. However, this is one of the great appeals of the museum. It is a unique building with an unequalled collection. It is possible to visit the museum several times and see something different on each trip. As the collection continues to grow, the V&A will never lose its appeal; there is something there for everyone.

Any visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum is likely to be bemused as to what exactly the central thread that animates these discrepant if marvellous collections. The answer is that there is none. For over a century the museum has proved an extrememly capacious handbag.

-Sir Roy Strong

 

Matisse in the Studio

I have worked all my life before the same objects … The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a different role in ten different pictures.

-Henry Matisse, 1951

dmnsfw0pomnirwentvzu

As well as the annual Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts has been exploring some of the work produced by one of the leading artists of the twentieth century. On 5th August, the Sackler Wing was opened to the public with an exhibition titled Matisse in the Studio, which, rather than being a general showcasing of the artist’s most famous work, concentrates on the relationship between Henri Matisse and his studio.

Throughout his life, Matisse obsessively collected objects that caught his eye in junk shops and places he visited on his travels. These items accumulated on shelves, on walls and in cabinets around Matisse’s studio, creating a self-constructed place of retreat from the rest of the world. These same articles were constant features in Matisse’s artwork and inspiration for future projects. With carefully selected paintings and sculptures, the Academy endeavours to impart the incentives behind Matisse’s art.

Henri Matisse was born in France on 31st December 1869. Unlike many artists of his age, Matisse was a late starter, having embarked on a legal career until 1891 when he abandoned his professional aspirations in favour of enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts. As a result, it was not until the 1920s that Matisse became internationally known, however, he still managed to achieve the status as one of the most illustrious painters of the twentieth century, alongside his friend, and fellow painter, Picasso (1881-1973).

hfyu54hvo0vre0mtdcn2

Yellow Odalisque, 1937

Unlike Picasso, who embraced the Cubist and Surrealist movements, Matisse developed his own style, which initially resembled art that could be categorised into the Neo-Impressionism movement of which Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was a founding member. Neo-Impressionists were drawn to the sensitivity of line and the beauty of colour, often encompassing a full palette.

Matisse’s work is also associated with the Fauvist style, which was predominantly in practice during the first decade of the 20th century. This, similarly, had a strong focus on colour, as well as wild brush strokes, and simplification or abstraction.

Matisse deviated from any traditional methods and movements, preferring to experiment with different principles and processes to create unique outcomes. He also took great interest in sculpture, which not only did he produce, he painted into his compositions.

Matisse in the Studio is divided into sections that group together works involving a particular genre or process. The paintings in the gallery span the years from his initial experimental phases during the First World War all the way up until the years preceding his death in 1954.

Essential objects from Matisse’s eclectic collection have been sought out by the curators to feature alongside the paintings in which they play a significant role. Rather than painting still-lifes of the actual items in question, Matisse likened them to actors who take on other personas. Instead of drawing a chocolate-pot, for example, the one gifted to him as a wedding present, Matisse used it as a vase to hold flowers. This same object featured in many paintings but never representing the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Another article in his collection that Matisse was completely enamoured with was a Venetian Chair that he stumbled upon whilst travelling in Europe. It is of a baroque nature with a silver gilt and tinted varnish. Matisse was particularly drawn to the scallop shell-like body work, which provided plenty of lines and angles to experiment with.

It was not only these found objects that made their way into Matisse’s paintings, he produced his own items too. Matisse was a versatile artist who often turned to sculpture whenever he reached a mind block in his painting. Sculpting help Matisse “to put order into my feelings” – a form of organisation rather than a means to an end. Due to his extensive travelling, Matisse fell in love with African sculpture.

Unlike traditional European statues that stay true to form, African art used simplified shapes to resemble the human body rather than portraying a lifelike representation. Between 1906 and 1908, Matisse accumulated over twenty masks and statues from Central and West African countries, and by studying them, developed his own in a similar style. The disregard of accurate physical forms was a significant turning point in Matisse’s artistic career. He began to challenge the attitudes of the Western world’s notion of beauty.

The strong, linear lines of African art worked well with the style Matisse was already becoming known for. The exhibition displays some of the paintings of the female nude that Matisse experimented with, however, quite a number of these are based upon sculptures he had made, rather than a live model. In the instances that he did have someone sit for him, the final painting resembled the African figures more than the physical person in front of him. Matisse believed that by stripping someone down to the bare lines created a truer character and avoided any risk of superficiality.

the-italian-woman-1916

The Italian Woman, 1916

African design also found itself entering Matisse’s portrait paintings. Again, rather than producing a lifelike picture, Matisse simplified the features as much as possible. In order to evoke a sense of his subject’s true identity, Matisse believed that accurate features would distract from this purpose.

An example hanging in the RA is a portrait of an Italian woman called Laurette, who Matisse allegedly painted fifty times in less than a year. With no photograph to compare it to, it can only be assumed that the flatness of the face and sharpness of the nose and eyebrows was not a precise representation of the model. This goes to show how fixed Matisse was on the concept of African art.

African masks, rather than sculpture, were the inspiration for the faces Matisse painted. He was particularly intrigued by their stylistic designs and lack of realistic human features. A few of his collection has been located by the exhibition curators and are on display for everyone to see. These date from the late 19th to early 20th century.

Interestingly, the majority of Matisse’s paintings of the human figure were not solely based on his sitter. Matisse painted in his studio surrounded by his accumulation of foreign artefacts, which he then used as part of the setting for his paintings. The photograph at the top of this page shows Matisse in his studio with a model. There are a number of other objects surrounding the woman, patterns in the background and many different materials. Once all this has been painted, the model becomes merely a part of the artwork, rather than the main focus. The particular scene in this photograph was for Matisse’s Odalisque on a Turkish Chair (1928), which can be found towards the end of the exhibition.

During the final decade of Matisse’s life, his ability to produce art was severely debilitated after a near-fatal operation in 1941 for duodenal cancer. During this period, he was mostly bedbound, however, this did not prevent him from continuing with his work, but his method of execution needed to change.

Rather than painting directly on to canvas, Matisse turned to gouaches découpées, which involved cutting out shapes from painted or coloured papers. Many of his studio workers assisted with the cutting and pinned the pieces in place following Matisse’s precise instructions. Some examples of this latter work clearly retain the evidence of the pins.

The paper cut out allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it – the one modifying the other – I draw straight into the colour.

-Henri Matisse, 1953

From African art to collage, Matisse’s work had always been about simplifying. Even his use of colour was made plainer with the lack of shadow and tone. This does not mean to say that Matisse’s work lacks colour – they are most certainly vibrant – but he leans more towards blocks of colour rather than a natural pigmentation. Apparently, Matisse’s doctor, whether in jest or seriousness, advised the artist to wear dark glasses to counteract the intensity of the paint.

Matisse is the type of artist that spectators either love or hate. His work is often child-like and unimpressive, however, as an artist, he introduced new ideas to the world. His Fauvist style established the notion of simplifying the human figure in order to focus on character rather than appearance. He also challenged the rule that the human figure should be the focus of an artwork. Instead, he gave surrounding objects and decorations identical treatment.

Although he relied on his art as a means of livelihood, Matisse appeared to be quite reclusive, preferring to hide away in his studio than spend time in the outside world. Rather than working for other people, Matisse was creating art for himself. With his collection of interesting objects, he generated a safe and comfortable retreat where he could focus on painting rather than the negative experiences in his life. Instead of pouring his emotion into his work, he let the paint bring himself some peace and happiness. If anything, it can be said that Matisse’s paintings have an air of positivity about them, regardless of whether the viewer finds favour with them.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter … like a comforting influence, a mental balm – something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.

-Henry Matisse, 1908

Matisse in the Studio is running until 12th November 2017 and is open to the public between 10 am and 6 pm on Saturdays to Thursday, however, extends to 10 pm on a Friday. Friends of the Royal Academy are, naturally, free to enter, although, are advised to book a timed ticket. Everyone else is required to pay a fee of £15.50 (includes donation). It does not take long to walk around the exhibition, but if you choose to follow the audio guide, be prepared to be there for at least an hour.

We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable.

-Guillaume Apollinaire in an article published in La Falange (1907)

l4fh1dyvt9x4cntwc7x0A final note –
The eagle eyed amongst visitors to the gallery will notice the numbers in the bottom right-hand corner next to Matisse’s signature. This is (quite obviously, in my opinion) the date in which the painting was completed and NOT, as my friend Martin thought, the artist’s self-analysis score!

The Other Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most recognisable names of the 17th century. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Rembrandt is the greatest artist the Dutch have ever produced. In order to celebrate the opening of a new gallery at The National Gallery in London – the first to open in 26 years – an exhibition ran from 22nd March – 6th August 2017 entitled Rubens and Rembrandt. But why were these two artists merged together?

rembrandt-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-34-fb

Section of Self Portrait at the age of 34 by Rembrandt, 1640

Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn was born in Leiden, a city towards the south of the Netherlands, on 15th July 1606. Although he was the son of a miller, he would grow up to be the country’s greatest artist. His love of art was sparked by a local painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, to whom Rembrandt was apprenticed for roughly three years. However, Rembrandt’s most significant influence was Pieter Lastman, a painter in Amsterdam who he spent six months with in 1624. Lastman’s teaching inspired Rembrandt to focus on religious subjects but also to portray evocative emotion in his works through the use of dramatic lighting effects.

The beginnings of Rembrandt’s career included many portrait commissions, becoming the most sort out portraitist in the city of Amsterdam. However, by the 1640s the amount of formal portraiture declined as he turned his hand to religious painting. This may have been a psychological response to the death of his wife Saskia in 1642 and of his mother two years previously. Religion was likely to have been a comfort to him during this difficult period.

Unfortunately, it was portraits that earned artists the most money during this era, therefore Rembrandt began to suffer financial difficulties. To avoid the fate of bankruptcy, Rembrandt had to sell his lavish home and move to a poorer district – a complete contrast to the wealthy lifestyle he had been used to since birth. However, this downfall did not attack his productivity and he continued to receive important commissions from those who knew of and respected him.

As Rembrandt entered his final years, his paintings took on a greater air of human understanding and compassion. Unfortunate circumstances throughout his life saw the deaths of his wife, children and lover, however, he kept his dignity until the very end, not letting tragedy negatively impact on his artwork. Rembrandt continued to paint up until his death on 4th October 1669.

It is not only his portraits and religious imagery that caused Rembrandt such renown. Although these make up the greater part of his collection, he also produced many landscapes, still-lives and paintings that defy classification. He was also adept at etching and drawing, his skills so adroit that it has been almost impossible to surpass.

Rubens

(Sir) Peter Paul Rubens – Rembrandt’s Flemish counterpart in this exhibition – was born much earlier on 28th June 1577 in Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany). His youth was mostly based in Antwerp, Belgium, to which his family returned after the death of his father in 1587 (he had fled from religious prosecution for having protestant sympathies).

From approximately 1590, Rubens began his training to become the most influential artist of Baroque art in Northern Europe. Although he had tutors in his home country, Rubens’ style did not develop until he had spent some time in Italy at the dawning of the century. Here he took on some portrait commissions for aristocratic families whilst honing his skills by studying the artistic masters of the Renaissance.

Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 and promptly became court painter to Archduke Albert, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands. The demand for Rubens’ work increased rapidly and the artist often had to rely on his students and assistants to complete various commissions. As well as being able to paint nearly every subject possible, Rubens could also turn his hand to tapestry, book illustration and fresco, plus provide advice for architects and sculptors.

My talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject.

-Rubens, 1621

The exhibition at the National Gallery hailed the two artists as the most inventive and influential of the seventeenth century in Northern Europe. Although working at similar times, their approaches were profoundly different, yet, they both had a significant impact on the future of art. With Rubens’ work adorning one side of the gallery, and Rembrandt’s the opposite, the exhibition celebrated the differences and similarities of the two world renowned painters.

Although only a handful of each artists’ work made it into the exhibition, the selection showed off the diversity of their talent, including, but not limited to, subject matter and scale. Some paintings were more well known than others, particularly the self-portraits of Rembrandt aged 34 and 63.

The most expressive of Rubens’ work in the display was Samson and Delilah which was painted in approximately 1609. This is an interpretation of the Old Testament story in which Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair – where his source of great strength comes from – weakening him enough to be captured and imprisoned by soldiers (Judges 16:19). It is not the story that grabs the viewers attention, but rather the dramatic lighting effects and strong use of the colour red. This goes to show the influence other painters hand on Rubens during his time in Italy. (For example, see Caravaggio)

Many of the other paintings in the display revealed Rubens penchant for Roman mythology. One oil painting of significant scale, The Judgement of Paris (c1632-5), tells the story of the golden apple that Paris was solicited into giving to the goddess he believed to be most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, the goddess of love, angering the other two goddesses, Minerva and Juno, and foreshadowing the Trojan War.

Although this painting does not have the Caravaggesque of Samson and Delilah, it is still brightly coloured and detailed, making it pleasant to look at. Despite containing nudity, it is not lewd or suggestive, thus doing justice to the major Roman goddesses.

Rembrandt’s work, on the other hand, is much darker – not the subject, but in the choice, or lack of colour. As can be seen in the section of his self-portrait above, Rembrandt preferred to leave the background in shadow with little to none detail. His dramatic lighting draws the viewer to the important parts of the painting. At a glance, a general overview of the stories depicted can be ascertained, however, a deeper study must be made to reveal all the elements.

An example that sums up all these aforementioned approaches is Belshazzar’s Feast (c1636-8). The source of light highlights the lesser known Babylonian king written about in the Bible (Daniel 5), pouring wine from precious containers. In the top right-hand corner, Hebrew words appear that translate to “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting.” As the Bible story goes, Belshazzar was killed later that night.

A closer look at the painting shows the shock of Belshazzar’s guests at his reaction to the words by the divine hand. The lack of colour in the figures help to emphasise the strong light source that shines through the written words of God. This is just one of many religious paintings that Rembrandt undertook during his career, and also goes to show that he did not only stick to the famous Bible stories, instead illustrating the more obscure.

Other religious paintings that were displayed in the exhibition include Ecce Homo (1634), The Woman taken in Adultery (1644) and An Elderly Man as Saint Paul (c1659). These all contain a distinct lack of colour, preferring browns and shades of black over anything more flamboyant.

The most obvious difference between the two European painters is the choice of colour palette. Rubens’ brighter selection paint a more fairy-tale-like story that befits mythology, whereas Rembrandt’s dark colours create a sense of melancholy and seriousness. The contrast of theme between Rubens’ mythological paintings and Rembrandt’s religious is also evident, however, is also misleading, for only a marginal selection were on display. Both artists are known to have focused on both subject matters in their paintings.

One final observation and contrast is the brush work. The strokes in Rubens’ paintings are much smoother than Rembrandt’s who appeared to have dabbled the paint more often than applying a gentle, steady hand.

Take One Picture 

1024px-a_roman_triumph2c_about_16302c_peter_paul_rubens

A Roman Triumph, Rubens c1630

Every year, the National Gallery encourages primary schools throughout Britain to focus on one painting in their collection and create an artistic response. In an exhibition titled Take One Picture, the gallery is exhibiting a variety of the work produced by these children. This year’s painting of choice is Rubens’ A Roman Triumph, which felt highly appropriate regarding the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition in the adjacent room.

This painting depicts a Roman triumph to celebrate either a military campaign or victory. A procession of young men, musicians, dancers, a priest and exotic animals are witnessed by spectators as they make their way through the city. Instead of regarding the busy painting as a whole, each participating school was encouraged to select a particular aspect to study. Children contemplated the sounds, smells, and feelings the participants may have felt and responded to these ideas with a group art project. A range of art forms has been experimented with from performance to sculpture and puppet-making.

Despite the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition closing on the 6th August, Take One Picture has remained throughout the summer holiday and will continue to be shown until 24th September. Not only is it interesting to see how young minds reacted to the European master’s painting, it also encourages visitors to assess their own thoughts about the work.

Some children were inspired by the people in the painting, taking an interest in their postures and the way in which they were walking or standing. Others narrowed it down to the clothing, looking closely at patterns, fabrics and colours. Naturally, some classes were drawn to the animals, particularly the elephants, but the way they executed their creative responses varied greatly.  Some based their work on the types of animals, whereas others used the sounds the animals may have made as their inspiration.

Whichever element of the painting the schools honed in on, none of the responses were the same. This goes to show how open to interpretation artwork can be. No one will know what Rubens hoped viewers would take away from his painting, but today it still has educational purposes and is a great source of entertainment.

Take One Picture has been running since 1995 and has greatly benefitted children with its cross-curricular opportunities. It will be interesting to follow the scheme and discover which art works are chosen in the future. For 2018, the choice has already been made. Next summer, the National Gallery can expect to display a wide range of responses to Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768).

Take One Picture is generously supported by GRoW @ Annenberg, The Dorset Foundation, Christoph Henkel and other donors. Further information about the programme, related CPD courses for teachers, and the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery can be found here

Figures Seemingly Alive

The summer holidays may well be over, however, the National Portrait Gallery’s summer exhibition The Encounter is only half way through. Open until 22nd October 2017, a rare collection of drawings from several Renaissance and Baroque artists are on display at a fee of £10 (members free). Emphasis needs to be made on the word drawings or, to make it more transparent, the synonym sketches may be more appropriate.

Rather than showing the priceless paintings and famous works of European artists, the gallery has sourced from collections throughout Britain the initial drawings of the accomplished draughtsmen. Providing a fresh understanding as to how the artist begins a portrait and the materials used, these sketches bring forth a feeling of humanness – imperfect – and a sense of the private encounter between the artist and the sitter.

Due to their sensitivity to light and resulting fragileness, it is unlikely that viewers will recognise the drawings in the exhibition because they rarely get put on display. Since many are initial sketches rather than finished artwork, it is plausible to suggest that viewing The Encounter is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The majority of people depicted in these portraits are unknown, being referred to as Seated Young Girl (Wenceslaus Hollar, 1635), Woman Wearing a Hood (Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90) and so forth.

Unfortunately, the exhibition’s strapline is a little deceptive. “Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt implies that one will see drawings by the famous Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). To their credit, the National Portrait Gallery has located a study by each of these outstanding artists but, alas, that is all. Rather than misleading art lovers and tourists by enticing them with two well-known names, it could have been more appropriate to subtitle the exhibition “Drawings from the Masters 1430-1650” or something of that nature.

If the name of an artist needed to be used to advertise this exhibition, Hans Holbein the Younger would have been a far more appropriate choice. Not only is a Holbein the first portrait to be seen on display (John Godsalve c.1532), a whole section compiled of eight drawings has been devoted to the artist. In fact, Holbein the Younger is treated as though he were the most accomplished portraitist in Europe during the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein (1497-1543) was a German painter and designer who was trained by his own father, Hans Holbein the Elder (1465-1534). By the age of 19, Holbein was being commissioned for portraits, notably the mayor of Basle and his wife. By the late 1520s, Holbein was the leading artist in Basle, producing murals, altarpieces and stained glass windows alongside his more intimate canvases.

Disturbances caused by the Protestant Reformation caused a decline in the amount of work offered, so Holbein moved to London. By 1536, Holbein was working for Henry VIII, painting his portraits and those of other notable people in the Tudor family. Whilst in the residence of the king, Holbein had the opportunity to mix with a whole range of people of different class. Over 100 of his preparatory studies survive today, evidencing his range of sitters from merchants to those of nobility.

“Stranger, do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these, brought forth from Holbein’s hand.”

– Nicholas Bourbon, 1538

A contemporary of Holbein, Nicholas Bourbon, is noted for proclaiming that the artist’s drawings strikingly brought people to life, easily revealing the mood and personality of each sitter. From boredom to alertness, Holbein drew those both confident and unsure, capturing an accurate representation and varying atmosphere.

It is not the artists who are the main focus of The Encounter; it is the techniques and the evidence that the artist was working directly from life, that has the greater appeal. Some drawings may almost look complete, however, the majority were implemented at speed, thus preserving a momentary contact with the sitter.

All the artists featured in the exhibitions were working in various European countries between the 15th and 17th centuries. Art historians can divide the past into art movements due to evidence in changing style and themes, but with these swift sketches, it is possible to see the reasons for certain developments. The human race is constantly evolving, inventing new contraptions and utensils in an attempt to make life simpler. Between the years focused on by the National Portrait Gallery, new materials were becoming readily available for artists, such as paper, ink and chalk.

Previously, a limited quantity of material restricted the amount of practice and preparation an artist could undertake before commencing on the final product. With paper becoming more abundant, the opportunity to try out different methods and ideas was leapt upon by the masters and their apprentices. It also allowed students to copy other works as a way of learning and honing their skills – something which most likely attributed to the development of an art movement in which the majority of work resembled a certain style.

By being able to make preparatory studies for paintings, particularly portraits, the artist was allowed to scrutinize the human anatomy and understand the importance of proportion when drawing a body. Like today’s sketchbooks, sheets of paper were easily carried around meaning that an artist could sketch wherever he pleased, thus observe people unawares and in different positions from the traditional seated posture.

It was not only the production of paper that benefited artists, the availability of chalk became extremely beneficial. Looking at the portraits in the gallery, many have been produced with red chalk and some in black. This was a recommendation at the time because chalk was a lot easier to correct than the more permanent pen and ink, which was also popular. To erase a mistake in the proportion of their sitter, artists were instructed to rub a small piece of bread over the surface. This lifted the chalk from the paper, allowing new lines or shading to be redrawn correctly.

With these new techniques and methods in place, less pressure was placed upon the sitter to remain still for a considerable length of time. A quick chalk drawing allowed the artist to judge the proportions, note down colours and facial expressions, and determine the composition. It is from these initial sketches that many artists began their final painting. This was a particularly convenient way of working when drawing a child, especially one with very little patience and easily bored.

In order to appreciate how useful the new materials were, a video has been provided within the exhibition of a contemporary artist demonstrating a few of the utensils. The tools are also on display in a glass box for visitors to have a closer look. The short film illustrates the way to use these implements, including silverpoint and pen.

Silverpoint was a technique using paper that had been pre-prepared with coloured ground and a metal stylus with a silver tip. Scratches are gently made with the stylus then gradually built up to add strokes and shadow to the drawing. Unlike working with chalk, mistakes could not be erased, thus the instruction to start lightly and only increase the pressure when feeling confident.

Pen and ink were used in much the same way. This time, the paper did not need to be covered with any substances, but a quill needed to be cut to provide a suitable nib. Dipping the quill into ink, the artist then draws lightly on the paper, adding darker strokes later to create the shadows.

Although using medieval techniques, the demonstration is similar to how a student would be taught at school today. This goes to show that the master painters were just as human as everyone else. They needed to practice daily to achieve the skills evidenced in their celebrated artworks. Artists such as Leonardo and Rembrandt were not exempt from making mistakes; their fantastic paintings did not just occur over night.

“Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.”

-Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, c1400

The Encounter is an exhibition that will appeal to those with a greater interest in art than the average tourist. Students and artists alike may find regarding these drawings advantageous to their own studies or career. It will certainly boost the confidence of those aspiring to produce portraits as good as artists such as Holbein. Instead of focusing on the final artwork, it is important to create studies, whether quick or detailed, in order to determine exactly how the portrait is going to look. It is also natural to make mistakes.

Although not a traditional exhibition of famous artists and paintings, the National Portrait Gallery has given the public a deeper insight into past European techniques and allowed each artist to be appreciated as a hard-worker rather than someone who was naturally perfect from birth. It is certainly reassuring to discover that artists from 400 years ago faced the same set of challenges contemporary artists encounter today.

The Encounter has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper and Dr Charlotte Bolland.