Spanish Master of Light

It has been over a century since the works of the Spanish painter Sorolla (1863-1923) were last exhibited in the UK. Known as the “Master of Light” for his luminous paintings, the National Gallery in London has provided the opportunity to see a collection of his works outside of Spain, a chance that may not come again for another hundred years. Until 17th July, The National Gallery has possession of Sorolla’s vivid seascapes and beach scenes, portraits, landscapes and Spanish genre scenes, totalling 58 canvases, many of which won awards.

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Self Portrait, 1904

In the first room of the exhibition, the National Gallery describes Sorolla as a family man, however, little is mentioned of his unfortunate upbringing prior to his marriage in 1888. Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was born on 27th February 1863 in Valencia, Spain to a tradesman, for whom he was named, and his wife, Concepción Bastida. The following year, Sorolla’s sister Concha was born, however, by August 1865, the siblings were orphaned after their parents died from cholera. Fortunately, their maternal aunt and her locksmith husband were able to care for both of the children.

Little else is recorded about Sorolla’s early years except that he began studying art from the age of nine. At 18, Sorolla travelled to Madrid where he studied the masters at the Museo del Prado and at 22, after completing military service, he received a grant to study painting in Rome for four years. These experiences introduced Sorolla to the traditional forms of painting, however, a temporary stay in Paris opened his eyes to the potential of modern painting.

 

In 1888, Sorolla returned to Valencia to marry Clotilde García del Castillo (1865-1929), who he had met ten years previously when working in her father’s art studio. In 1890, the couple moved to the Spanish capital, Madrid, and by 1895 they had three children: María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). The National Gallery displays portraits Sorolla made of his wife and children, however, they do not show the exceptional talent of the Spanish painter. These portraits introduce the artist and his family in the same way that a photo album would today.

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Mother, 1895-1900

A canvas titled Mother gives a better indication of Sorolla’s potential. The painting reveals Clotilde in bed looking tenderly at her youngest child, Elena, who is enveloped in a bright, white, cottony swathe of light. Although both the bedspread and walls are white, Sorolla has softened the brightness with yellow and green tones to create gentle shadows. This is one of the early examples of Sorolla’s excellent ability to control light in his artwork.

Although Sorolla is considered to be a Spanish impressionist artist, he preferred to work on large canvases, unlike the French impressionists who worked to a much more smaller scale. After his marriage, Sorolla began concentrating on producing large scale works on a social realism theme. Whilst Spanish landscape paintings were greatly admired, Sorolla wanted to bring attention to the hardships of working-class people who lived in the country.

 

Sorolla’s social realism paintings ended up in exhibitions displayed in numerous cities, including Madrid, Paris, Venice, Munich, Berlin, and Chicago. His first success occurred in 1892 when he was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid for his painting Another Marguerite. This award was shortly followed by first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition for the same painting.

Inspired by a scene Sorolla witnessed on a train, Another Marguerite depicts a broken woman who has been arrested for allegedly suffocating her baby son. Immediately after the event, Sorolla asked passengers to recreate the scene so that he could begin sketching out his idea. The diagonal view of the carriage emphasises its starkness and the downhearted appearance of the woman and two guards is contrasted with the warm glow of light from the window. All these elements build up a melancholy image that, even without context, stirs emotions in the viewers. The title stems from a character in Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

Fishing was a popular career for working-class men in Valencia and, whilst it was often rewarding, it also had its dangers. And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! features two fishermen attending their young companion who has been injured by a fish hook. The unstable space within the rocking boat is not the best conditions for performing potential life-saving procedures, however, this is the only space accessible to the fishermen. The title mocks the Spanish population who complain about the price of fish not realising the dangers the fishermen face on a daily basis.

This painting reflects the style of art taught in art schools at the time, the portrayal of light resembling that of 17th-century naturalist painting. Sorolla’s final social realism painting, however, is much more indicative of his future mature work. Sad Inheritance (1899) shows a group of crippled boys bathing in the sea in Valencia under the observation of a monk. These children are crippled as a result of their parents’ syphilis, hence the title Sad Inheritance.

Despite taking the Paris World Exhibition by storm in 1900 and receiving the medal of honour at the National Exhibition in Madrid the following year, Sorolla never returned to the social realism genre. “I suffered terribly when I painted it. I had to continuously force myself. I will never paint a subject like that again.”

 

Sorolla went on to win another gold medal, this time at the Paris Salon in 1895 for his much-admired painting The Return from Fishing (1894). This genre painting shows a group of fishermen returning to shore after fishing on the coast of Valencia. Two oxen are towing the boat through the last of the shallow waters to dry ground. Although Sorolla produced other paintings of fishermen, this was the first to demonstrate Sorolla’s personal style. The way the sunlight plays on the water is excellently portrayed as are the shadows created by the vessel, men and animals. As Sorolla said himself, this was the first canvas on which he had managed to give visual form to his painterly ideal.

Sewing the Sail (1896), which won awards in Munich and Vienna, was not as greatly received by some of the critics. Not so keen on the cramped conditions of the sewing party, critic José Ramón Mélida (1856-1933) wrote, “It is highly audacious for him that mass of formless canvas that seems to be the protagonist of the composition.” Whilst Mélida may not have approved of the overall composition, Sorolla was revealing the conditions in which the seamstresses were forced to work. Although the women seem cheerful, emphasised by the colourful climbing vine, their working conditions were not necessarily appropriate for the large canvas sail. Nonetheless, the mass of material gave Sorolla the opportunity to experiment with light and shadow over the folded sail.

These two paintings and many of his other works are known as costumbrismo, which is a term that sums up the “literary and pictorial interpretation of local everyday life, mannerisms, and customs, primarily in the Hispanic scene,” particularly in the 19th century. The majority of Sorolla’s works fall into this category and usually focus on a scene out in the open air. Packing Raisins (1901), however, is set in a gloomier location, which Sorolla witnessed during a sojourn in Jávea in the summer of 1901. Until more recent years, foods like raisins were individually packed by hand – a gruelling, tedious task. Sorolla captured the dreariness of the occupation using thick impasto, which was rather unusual for the artist but, perhaps, was inspired by other impressionist painters.

 

“I dislike painting portraits, unless it is in the open air.”
– Sorolla, 1909

Whilst Sorolla produced a few portraits, it was not his favoured genre of painting. Nonetheless, he applied himself to the genre and was rewarded with a considerable income and firm reputation, particularly in Spain and the United States of America. The portraits displayed by the National Gallery, reveal that Sorolla painted traditional “mundane”, elegant portraits in a similar style to that of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828), both of whom Sorolla admired greatly. In fact, the Spanish journalist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867-1928) wrote an essay in which he referred to Sorolla as the “grandson of Velázquez, son of Goya.”

Velázquez’s influence on Sorolla can be seen in Portrait of Ralph Clarkson (1911) in which a segment of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) can be seen in the background. Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942) was an American painter who also admired Velázquez. Las Meninas being both artists’ favourite painting was an appropriate addition to the commissioned portrait.

More references to both Velázquez and Goya can be seen in Sorolla’s painting My Children (1904) from which the figures: María, Joaquín and Elena; emerge from a dark background. It is evident that Sorolla asked his children to pose for the painting, which has resulted in a rather disconcertingly intense stare on their faces – thus not quite replicating Velázquez’s technique.

Other artists’ styles creep into Sorolla’s work every now and then, for instance, the aforementioned impressionists. Sorolla’s Portrait of Amalia Romea, lady of Laiglesia (1897), however, was influenced by the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Sorolla painted Amalia Romea in a soft colour palette typical of Alma-Tadema. The side-on, relaxed position of the sitter is also reminiscent of the Dutch-British artist.

Portrait of Mr. Taft, President of the United States, 1909

Although Sorolla may not have enjoyed portraiture as much as his other types of painting, his reputation caught the eye of William Howard Taft (1857-1930), the 27th President of the United States of America. Invited to stay at the White House with the Spanish-speaking Taft family, Sorolla painted the proud president in a similar fashion to the dark, elegant portraits of Velázquez and Goya. Whilst this particular painting is not displayed in the National Gallery’s exhibition – it is on permanent display at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio – it features in the Exhibition Film, which all visitors are invited to view.

 

Without a doubt, Sorolla’s artistic abilities are at their highest in his paintings of beach scenes. It is the way he created realistic light as well as the movement and dampness of the water that earned him the title “Master of Light”. Living in Valencia and other areas of Spain gave Sorolla plenty of opportunity to capture images of children playing on the sand and amongst the waves. At the time, it was usual for boys to play on the beach naked, whereas girls wore thin dresses or wraps. Although in today’s society scenes such as these would cause outrage, Sorolla’s paintings express the innocence, freedom and joy of the children at play.

Sorolla perfectly captures the colours and movements of the water, of which The White Boat, Jávea (1905) is a perfect example. The sunlight reflecting on the water is extremely realistic, as is the shadow of the boat and the bodies of the two boys swimming in the sea. Boys on the Beach (1909) is another painting that makes Sorolla worthy of his “Master of Light” title. Although the water is shallow, the sand is clearly covered with a layer of liquid and a sheen of water reflects off of the boys’ bare bodies.

Some of these beach scenes also fall into the costumbrismo genre, for example, Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904). Here, a young boy is carrying a basket of fish whilst other children his age splash around in the sea. Despite his age, he is already in the world of work, perhaps coming from a poor family who relies on the income of their children as well as their own to get by.

Running Along the Beach, Valencia (1908), on the other hand, reveals the carefree nature of children who were not forced into work. This is one of Sorolla’s most impressive works; not only has he painted the light on the sea, sand, clothes and bodies, but he has also captured the fast movement of the children. For paintings of this nature, it is not possible to ask someone to pose, the moment is over in a blink of the eye. Sorolla created many quick sketches and studies until he was satisfied with the composition, only then did he take to the larger canvas.

 

Throughout his career, Sorolla became increasingly known throughout the United States. His success resulted in a commission from Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955), the founder of the Hispanic Society of New York, in 1911 to paint a decorative frieze for a new hall at the institution. Huntington initially wanted a mural featuring the milestones in Spanish history, however, Sorolla convinced him to focus on “renderings of contemporary life in Spain”. The frieze was to be over 70 metres long and just under four metres in height but Sorolla was not comfortable working at that size and proposed to break it down into a series of canvases of various dimensions.

This commission, known as the Visions of Spain, occupied the majority of Sorolla’s time from 1911 until 1919. During these years, Sorolla was constantly travelling around Spain in order to “truthfully capture, clearly and without symbolism or literature, the psychology of each region.” Sorolla wanted to portray a truthful representation of his country as well as reveal “the picturesque aspects of each region.”

Sorolla focused heavily on the Spanish traditions, often hiring peasants to pose for him in regional dress and various costumes. Whilst these carefully positioned portraits were arguably not the “truth” of the country, they did combine Spanish practices, beliefs and culture.

Unfortunately, this commission required an enormous effort from the ageing artist and it began to affect his health. As a result, Sorolla’s other projects began to dwindle and his reputation began to drop. By the time the Visions of Spain was installed in the hall in 1926, three years after his death, his prominence in the United States had waned and the opening of the hall did not cause the anticipated sensation.

 

“We painters can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it.”
– Sorolla

The exhibition of Sorolla’s work reveals that not only was he skilled at representing natural light in his paintings, but he also loved working in outdoor settings. His better artworks are those that include bodies of water, particularly the sea. A handful of landscape paintings of gardens and famous Spanish buildings fail to live up to the reputation Sorolla set himself with his beach paintings. One of the final rooms of the exhibition displayed a few of the landscapes and gardens, however, the only two that particularly stood out were Reflections in a Fountain (1908) and The Smugglers (1919).

Reflections in a Fountain was painted in the gardens of the Alcázar of Seville. Rather than painting the facade of the building, Sorolla chose to paint the building’s reflection in the water of the fountain. By doing this, Sorolla was able to focus on the light and ripples on the water, which, as evidenced in his beach scenes, he is an expert at.

The Smugglers, whilst considered in the exhibition to be a landscape, is more of a genre or beach painting. Set above the cliffs looking down at the water, several smugglers are caught on canvas climbing up the rock face. Once again, Sorolla was able to play with the bright sunlight on the distant waves and the bright patches and shadows on the steep rocks.

The exhibition also reveals a little about Sorolla as a person. It is evident that he is a family man, faithful to his wife and protective of his children. When his eldest María contracted tuberculosis, Sorolla missed out on two exhibitions whilst he nursed her back to health.

Not including portraits, Sorolla’s children appear in many of his paintings. In Skipping Rope, La Granja (1907), for instance, Elena is skipping around a pond with some younger children. His daughters also appear walking along the beach, sitting on a bench, or even painting their own paintings in his other works.

Sorolla’s career came to an end in 1920 when he suffered a stroke midway through a painting. With half his body paralysed, he was unable to work and his health deteriorated rapidly over the next three years. He finally died on 10th August 1923 when he was staying in the mountains near Madrid. Although his popularity in the States had diminished, he was still loved and respected in his own country and received a state funeral in his native Valencia.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light reintroduces a unique artist to a new generation. Although he has been called an impressionist painter, he does not really fit into any particular category of art, therefore, he can be appreciated for his own work with no need to compare with other artists. The exhibition remains open until 7th July 2019 and costs £16, however, members of the gallery can visit for free.

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The Power of Seeing

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The name John Ruskin may be familiar to many people, however, how many can accurately say who he was, what he did and why he is important in today’s art world? In a recent exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated with a collection of 200 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, plaster casts and so forth that demonstrated Ruskin’s stance on aesthetics, culture and society. Regarded today as one of the greatest Victorian artists, critics, educators and social thinkers who devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, the exhibition briefly delved into the mind of a polymath whose influence is still felt today.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the only child of sherry and wine importer John James Ruskin (1785–1864), co-founder of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, and his wife Margaret (1781–1871). From an early age, Ruskin’s parents pressed their ambitions upon him, introducing him to writers, such as Byron (1788-1824), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Walter Scott (1771-1832). Whilst John Ruskin Senior was focused on intellectual knowledge, his mother, an Evangelical Christian, pressed the Bible upon her son, teaching him to repeatedly read it from beginning to end and learn lengthy passages by heart. At this time, Ruskin also began to develop a passion for geology.

Described by Ruskin in his autobiography Praeterita, he had very few friends his own age, to begin with, as a result of being homeschooled at Herne Hill, in Camberwell, South London, although, he later spent a year at a school in Peckham. It was not his education, however, that set his path for the future. When he was thirteen, Ruskin was given a book-length poem illustrated by the painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which sparked an interest in both art and poetry.

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Portrait of John Ruskin (1875)

Whilst studying at Oxford University, where he took up residence at Christ Church in 1837, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry and met the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Ruskin also met and became close to the future Dean of Westminster, William Buckland (1784-1856), who also had an interest in geology and palaeontology. Ruskin’s other good friends, however, were studying archaeology and medicine.

Unfortunately, Ruskin never achieved independence whilst at university because his mother was lodging nearby and his father joined him at weekends. He was also suffering from ill health and had to take a lengthy break from Oxford before returning to pass his exams with a double fourth-class degree.

Even with a degree under his belt, Ruskin was unable to escape from the clutches of his parents. From 1840 until 1842, the Ruskin family spent time abroad, mainly in Italy, where John had the opportunity to study Italian painting. After returning to England, Ruskin continued to live with his parents in Camberwell, where they were frequently visited by the likes of Turner and the watercolourist Samuel Prout (1783-1851), whose work was collected by Ruskin’s father. At this time, J.M.W. Turner’s work was under severe criticism at the Royal Academy and Ruskin was spurred to defend his childhood idol.

Ruskin passionately regarded Turner as the greatest painter of his age and was thus outraged at the critical judgment of the Royal Academy. In a book eventually published in 1843 under the anonymity of “A Graduate of Oxford”, Ruskin wrote Modern Painters I as a response to these attacks.

“Turner perceives at a glance the whole sum of visual truth open to human intelligence … The power of every picture depends on the penetration of the imagined into the TRUE nature of the thing represented, and on the utter scorn of the imagination for all shackles and fetters of mere external fact that stand in the way of its suggestiveness.”
– John Ruskin

John Ruskin held the controversial opinion that landscape artists, such as Turner, were superior to the “Old Masters” from the post-Renaissance era. He argued that these so-called Masters painted from pictorial convention, i.e. with emotion, and were not being true to nature. Ruskin maintained that an artist should observe the reality of nature and not produce imaginary scenes in a studio. Turner, on the other hand, had a better understanding of the “truth”, such as the air, the clouds, water, stones, and plants.

Inspired by Turner, Ruskin produced his own artworks, adopting the artist’s subtle use of colour. His watercolour painting of Towers of Freiburg, which was painted on a misty morning in Germany’s Black Forest, was used in the book Modern Painters as an example of “Turnerian Topography”. While in France, Ruskin painted Lanslebourg, Savoie, recording the “facts” and landscape that he saw, rather than an attractive impression.

Unlike Turner’s paintings that sometimes appear as a blur of colour, Ruskin produced many carefully observed drawings, such as The Kappellbrücke at Luzern (Lucerne) in which he has captured every element, including the angles of the bridge, the stonework on the turret and the shimmering light on the water.

As well as modern landscape painters, Ruskin was inspired by the works he saw on his travels around Europe. In 1844, whilst in France with his parents, Ruskin was able to investigate the geology of the Alps as well as study the artwork at the Louvre in Paris. Finally, in 1845 at the age of 26, Ruskin travelled without his parents for the first time, taking the opportunity to explore medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and Italy. Cities such as Florence, Pisa and Venice were of great inspirational value to the young artist, however, he was dismayed at the modernisation processes, which were gradually replacing the traditional buildings.

Ruskin’s independent tour of western Europe led him to write a second volume of Modern Painters. This time, however, he concentrated on the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance, arguing that aesthetic and the divine are inextricably bound together: “the Beautiful as a gift of God”. His tour also took him in a new artistic direction; temporarily leaving painting behind, Ruskin developed a keen interest in architecture.

Bunney, John Wharlton, 1828-1882; Western Facade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice

Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice – John Wharlton Bunney

In 1847, Ruskin developed a close relationship with Euphemia “Effie” Grey (1828-97), the daughter of family friends for whom he had written the story The King of the Golden River when she was twelve years old. They married on 10th April 1848 at her home in Perth, Scotland and spent their early years together in Mayfair, London.

Although the European Revolutions of 1848 restricted the amount of travel the newlyweds could undertake, the couple eventually visited Venice in October 1849. In the meantime, Ruskin’s knowledge of architecture had been rapidly increasing and earlier that year he had travelled with his parents – Effie was not well enough to join him – to gather material for the third and fourth editions of Modern Painters.

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark's, Venice by John Ruskin 1819-1900

The North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark’s, Venice – Ruskin, 1851

Whilst in Venice, John and Effie’s marriage began to breakdown. Effie wished to socialise, whereas, her husband was occupied in solitary studies. Already that year he had published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which promoted the seven virtues of secular and Protestant Gothic buildings: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. Now, all he wanted to do was gather material for his three-volume work, The Stones of Venice and create sketches of notable buildings that he feared would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops.

“Nothing interrupts him … He is either with a black cloth over his head taking Daguerreotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs just as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick.”
– Effie in a letter home to her family

Despite Effie not being keen on her husband’s work, Ruskin was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was established in 1848 by John Everett Millais (1829-96), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1826-82). The group were committed to “paint[ing] from nature only” and shared Ruskin’s opinion about the “Old Masters”.

Through the poet Coventry Patmore (1823-96), a mutual friend of Ruskin and Millais, Ruskin met the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote letters to The Times to argue against their critics. Ruskin provided the Brotherhood, particularly Millais, with encouragement and patronage, and Effie became one of their models.

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John Ruskin – Millais

In 1853, Millais visited the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he studied and closely observed the landscape. In his painting of Glenfinlas, Millais added Ruskin’s portrait. Previously, Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.

Unfortunately, Effie was growing increasingly distressed about her unhappy marriage, causing her to suffer both physical and mental illnesses. She was constantly arguing with Ruskin who would rather concentrate on his studies than spend time with his wife. Effie was also fed up with his intense and overly protective parents. In an act of desperation, Effie filed for an annulment on grounds of “non-consummation” due to Ruskin’s supposed “incurable impotency”. Although Ruskin disputed the claim, the annulment was granted in July 1854. A year later, Effie married Millais.

Shortly before the end of his marriage, Ruskin had begun lecturing on architecture and painting in Edinburgh. This led to lectures at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 about how to use and acquire art. By 1869, Ruskin had become the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, delivering his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre.

The following year, he founded The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University. The School’s intent was to challenge the orthodox teaching and methodology of government art schools. Often, his lectures, which included themes such as myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature, were so popular, they had to be given twice.

“The teaching of Art is the teaching of all things.”
– John Ruskin

In the 1870s, Ruskin visited Sheffield where his former pupil and friend Henry Swan (1825-89) was working as an engraver. By this time, not only had Ruskin had a fairly successful career, he had amassed an impressive collection of art, minerals, books, architectural casts, ancient coins and other precious, beautiful objects. After purchasing a small cottage in the district of Walkley to store his collection, Ruskin founded the Guild of St George, a charity devoted to arts, crafts and the rural economy. The cottage was then opened as a museum and he encouraged the working class man to view artworks that were once only something the wealthy could afford to see. The majority of the items at the Two Temple Place exhibition came from this museum.

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Rose La Touche – Ruskin

Whilst it is not certain how the collapse of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie affected him, he remained unlucky in love for the remainder of his life. When he was nearly 40 years old, he became the private art tutor to the daughters of the Irish poet Maria La Touche. Rose La Touche (1848–1875), who was only ten at the time, caught the eye of the much older Ruskin who gradually fell in love with her. Ruskin proposed to her on her 18th birthday but she asked him to wait three years until she was 21. At the time, Ruskin was having doubts about the Christian faith, which was beginning to cause problems with the staunchly Protestant family.

Ruskin proposed a number of times to Rose but she consistently turned him down. Her final rejection occurred in 1872, however, they still met up occasionally. Sadly, Rose died at the age of 27 after suffering from a long illness. As a result, Ruskin was plunged into despair, which led to bouts of mental illness, breakdowns and hallucinations. In an attempt to help himself come to terms with Rose’s death, Ruskin turned to Spiritualism, believing it would give him to power to communicate with the dead. Gradually, desperate to believe there was life after death, Ruskin returned to Christianity.

Throughout his life, Ruskin wrote numerous books, ranging in topic from art and architecture to travel guides and literature. His last great work was his autobiography Praeterita, meaning “things of the past”, which focused on selective parts of his life, omitting many facts.

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John Ruskin, 1882

Ruskin’s final home was in the Lake District where he tried to continue to write, however, most of this work was considered irrelevant in the art world. He was also still suffering from mental health issues and was unable to continue to travel to Europe. His 80th birthday was celebrated around the country, however, Ruskin was barely aware of the proceedings. Not long after, he passed away from influenza.

The once slim lecturer with piercing blue eyes became the grumpy old man with a long beard who resembled an Old Testament prophet. Although he held strong opinions throughout his life, his later convictions were more complaints than anything insightful. As part of the Two Temple Place exhibition, the curators had pieced together Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed from the writings of John Ruskin.

Ruskin detested iron railings and bemoaned that the Houses of Parliament were “the most effeminate and effectless heap of stones ever raised by man.” The Renaissance buildings in Venice were defined as the “ribaldries of drunkenness” and, apparently, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge looked like an upsidedown table.

Other things Ruskin despised were the “doggerel sound” of Wagner’s The Meistersingers, lawyers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, being photographed and cycling. He hated railway stations and could not stand the “beastly, blockheady, loggerheady, doggish, loggish, hoggish-poggish, filthy, fool-begotten, swindler-swallowed” railways round Dieppe in Northern France. And more fool anyone who got Ruskin talking on matters such as making money or the English constitution: “The rottenest mixture of Simony, bribery, sneaking tyranny, shameless cowardice, and accomplished lying that ever the Devil chewed small to spit into God’s Paradise.”

Regardless of the ups and downs of his personal life and his strong opinions, Ruskin is renowned across the world. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times”. Ruskin also influenced people such as Gandhi (1869-1948), the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and William Morris (1834-96). Ruskin’s thoughts about the conservation of historic buildings inspired the foundation of the National Trust and many Christian socialists were inspired by his ideas.

Overall, Ruskin wrote more than 250 works, beginning with topics involving art and architecture. As he became more known for his work, he expanded to cover topics encompassing science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, pollution, mythology, travel, economy and social reform. Alongside this, he painted and developed the idea that it was important to paint what can be physically seen rather than imagined.

Numerous areas of study, research and thought have been affected by Ruskin in one way or another. His influence is still present throughout the arts, education, economy and environment today. Although most people are oblivious to his presence, John Ruskin is embedded in contemporary culture and society. Without him, who knows what the world would be like today.

Whilst it is important to celebrate the phenomenal works of John Ruskin, the man behind the books and artwork must not be overlooked. A number of events are being held by Ruskin 200 in honour of the bicentenary of his birth. Details of events can be found on their website www.ruskin200.com

Eastbury Manor House

A hidden gem

Hidden in the heart of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is one of the very few surviving Elizabethan gentry houses. With a history of over 450 years, Eastbury Manor House is set in tranquil gardens on land that once belonged to Barking Abbey, established in 666 CE. Today, it is a peaceful place for visitors to explore, enjoy a snack in the Kitchen and discover an extraordinary history.

Records of Eastbury date back to the twelfth century in which the land was recorded as a demesne of Barking Abbey. The Manor House, however, was not built until after Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) Second Suppression Act in 1539, which dissolved all large monasteries and religious houses. Initially, the Crown sold the land to Sir William Denham in 1545, however, it was later sold in 1556 to Clement Sysley (d.1578), the man responsible for the construction of the house.

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Eastbury Manor is set up as a museum with information boards, photos, illustrations and hands-on activities aimed at younger visitors. The majority of this, which can be found in the East and Central Attics, tells the story of Eastbury Manor’s development, beginning with Sysley’s purchase until the present day. Unfortunately, no portraits – if there ever were any – have survived of Clement Sysley or Sisley, and the only information about the man has been gathered from legal documents.

Sysley, who was granted a coat of arms in circa 1566, appears to have been a wealthy man of Yorkshire descent who obtained the majority of his money from two wealthy marriages. His second wife, Maud, died in 1562 before work on the manor house could begin but, almost immediately, Sysley entered marriage with Anne Argall (c.1545-1610), the only daughter of a royal tax and land administrator, Thomas Argall – yet another wealthy connection.

Work on the Eastbury Manor, or “Estbery Hall” as Sysley called it, began in 1566 but was not completed until 1573. Sysley moved in with his third wife and children whilst leasing other parts of the estate to farmers. The Sysley family also owned their own cattle and horses and employed at least eight servants to help with the running of the house. Unfortunately, Sysley could only enjoy his new home for five years because he died in 1578, leaving the manor and his debts to his wife and four children.

During the Tudor period, women had very little rights, therefore, Sysley had left the manor to his son Thomas for when he came of age. Meanwhile, Anne remarried in order to resolve the growing debt problem with which she had been lumbered. Her new husband Augustine Steward’s (d.1597) wealth brought the family financial security as well as a guardian for Thomas who was only 14 at the time. Unfortunately, Clement Sysley had so many debts; some were still outstanding on Thomas’ 21st birthday. After much persuasion, Augustine Steward took charge of Eastbury in return for paying substantial debts and annuities.

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After Steward’s death, the house passed to Anne and Augustine’s youngest surviving child, also called Augustine (b.1584). Like his step-brother Thomas, he was only a teenager at the time and had to wait until he reached the age of 21 or got married to gain his full inheritance. At the age of 19, Augustine married Elizabeth Barnham (d.1620) and thus became the wealthy owner of Eastbury Manor.

The Steward claim to fame is the connection with Augustine’s cousin on his mother’s side, Samuel Argall (c1572-1626). Argall, the Deputy Governor of Virginia, was also the naval officer who commanded the ship that sailed the kidnapped Pocahontas (1596-1617) to England. Augustine eventually moved to Virginia to join his cousin, leaving his wife and children behind.

In 1629, Eastbury Manor was sold to William Knightly who then sold it onto the goldsmith Sir Thomas Vyner (1588-1665) in 1650. Vyner was a wealthy businessman and politician who served as the Lord Mayor of London between the years 1653 and 1654. The manor was then passed down the Vyner Baronetcy followed by a range of different families. Not all the owners lived at the manor and various tenants looked after the land. By the time World War One broke out in 1914, Eastbury Manor House was in a derelict condition.

In danger of demolition, the National Trust bought Eastbury Manor House in 1918 and, after Barking became a borough in 1931, the council turned it into a museum.

”It is the earnest wish of the Council of the Borough of Barking that the opening of Eastbury Manor House as a Museum will further stimulate the interest of the people of Barking in the history of their town and increase, by the gift of greater knowledge, the pride that is engendered in the hearts of all of us who live within its boundaries.

We are proud of Barking. We hope that the preservation of its records in our museum, records that will give us an intimate picture of those who lived and worked here before us, may prove an inspiration.”
– Mr. W.J James, Mayor of Barking

During the Second World War, the manor was used as an ARP platform and a nursery for children whose mother’s were involved in war work, something that also continued for a few years afterwards. Eventually, on 28th May 1954, Eastbury Manor House received a Grade 1 listing from Historic England for its exceptional historical and architectural interest, an honour that is only bestowed upon 2.5% of buildings.

After extensive restoration work between 2001 and 2006, Eastbury Manor House reopened as a museum once again, also becoming an idyllic venue for weddings, corporate functions and special events.

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Whilst the name Clement Sysley may not mean anything to people today, Eastbury Manor may have had a significant role in a major event in English history.

“A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was first contriv’d …”
– Daniel Defoe, 1724

The house referred to by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), an English trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy, famous for writing Robinson Crusoe, is none other than Eastbury Manor House. At this time, the Seward’s were the owners of the house but they had rented it out to Alderman John Moore (1620-1702) and his Catholic wife Maria. Despite John’s death, Maria remained at Eastbury with her daughter, also called Maria, who married Lewis Tresham, the cousin of the infamous Robert Catesby (1572-1605), the leader of a group of English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Most people know the story about Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) who was discovered under the Houses of Parliament with several barrels of gunpowder but what cannot be proved is whether or not the plotters met at Eastbury Manor to discuss their plans. The plot was discovered after Lewis Tresham’s sister Mary received a letter about the scheme. Mary was married to William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (1575-1622) who was able to inform Parliament “they shall receive a terrible blow … and yet they shall not see who hurts them”. Thus, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled.

Whether or not Eastbury was the meeting place of the plotters, it makes a good story, which can be read in more detail in the East Attic. Also in the attic rooms are the histories of the Manor’s owners, information about life in Tudor times, a series of maps that show how the land has developed over time, and the opportunity for children to dress up as Tudor ladies and gentlemen.

Very little remains of the original furnishing of Eastbury Manor, however, elements of Tudor architecture still remain. The East Chamber, for example, which would have once been divided into bedrooms and dressing rooms, contains the only fireplace in the manor with its original stone surround. Now painted white, the fireplace is decorated with Tudor roses and acanthus leaves.

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Described by the twentieth-century architectural scholar, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), Eastbury Manor is a ‘very valuable medium-sized Elizabethan Manor House’, built according to an H-shaped compact plan, with a small inner courtyard. The facade has a striking gabled roofline and more chimneys than fireplaces. Whilst this appears similar to the original building, the interior has changed somewhat over the years.

The Great Hall on the first floor at the front of the house was once much longer than it is today. In the nineteenth century, part of the hall was partitioned off to make a space, now the reception area, where a modern staircase could be added. Originally, the hall’s fireplace would have been the central feature, however, it is now further towards the east side of the room. The original fireplace surround was sold in 1840 to the owner of Parsloes Hall, Reverend Thomas Lewis Fanshawe (1792-1858), therefore, the Great Hall is only a shadow of its former self.

Eastbury Manor House had two parlours, which were separated by a small vestibule. Appropriately named “Summer Parlour” and “Winter Parlour”, these were used by the family at different times of the year; presumably, the Winter Parlour at the rear of the house was warmer. Parlours were a typical feature in Tudor buildings and were used for a range of activities. The Sisley family and subsequent owners may have used these rooms to entertain guests, however, they may have also used them for more private purposes, such as writing letters, reading, embroidering or playing musical instruments. Similarly to the Great Hall, the fireplaces of both parlours were sold to Reverend Fanshawe.

Upstairs in the “Painted Chamber”, the fireplaces have also been sold, however, remains of paintwork on the walls are being carefully preserved. The paintings were not part of Clement Sysley’s original plan and were added later by John Moore at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Whilst only a fragment of the frescoes survive, their presence helps visitors to imagine what living in the manor may have felt like.

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The tea room “Eastbury Kitchen”, which serves freshly prepared lunches, homemade cakes, scones and refreshments during the house’s opening times, is set in Eastbury Manor’s original kitchen. Situated in the western wing of the house along with the buttery where barrels of food and drink were stored, the kitchen was easily accessible from the servant quarter. Meals would have been cooked over the huge hearth but, unfortunately, the room has lost all its other original fittings.

The two turrets at Eastbury Manor contain staircases, which would have been the only means of getting to the upper floors of the house – the front staircase and lift being installed much later. The spiral staircase on the east side of the building was for the Sysley family’s private use, however, the original stairs had completely collapsed by 1834. On the west side of the house, the servants’ staircase is still fully intact. Built from Tudor oak, the creaky stairs were constructed around a central newel post, which itself was made from three tree trunks so that it could stretch from the ground floor to the roof, thus providing access to all floors of the house. Visitors are welcome to climb the twisting staircase to the observation tower at the very top, approximately 16.5 metres or 52 feet above the ground. From here, the original family would have been able to see for miles, however, today the slightly murky windows reveal a view blocked by modern houses.

Although Eastbury would have been a sizeable portion of land, Sysley included two private gardens for his family on either side of the house. On the west side of the house near the kitchen is the vegetable and herb garden. Not only were herbs used in cooking as they are today, but they were also important ingredients in Tudor medicine. Most women knew how to make these remedies and in the 17th century, the physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) wrote The Complete Herbal, which explained the common usages of plants.

Whereas modern medicine is based on science, Tudor medicine was approached on a more spiritual level. Many believed God had placed every plant on Earth for human benefit. Each plant supposedly had a signature clue on its leaves, roots or flowers to reveal how it ought to be used. Ginger root, for example, was thought to look like intestines and was therefore used to cure ailments of the stomach.

Ginger is not among the plants in the garden today, however, a number of the current herbs had distinct purposes in the past. Lavender, for example, was used for curing headaches, and mint for stomach aches. Yarrow was used in ointments to reduce inflammation and comfrey was believed to “knit” wounds closed.

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On the east side is a walled garden, which supposedly increased the temperature of the soil slightly, making a microclimate where a range of unusual plants could grow. As well as growing plants, the walled garden was the perfect place to keep bees. Still visible today are a number of bee boles (recesses in the wall) in which skeps (straw or wicker beehives) were placed. Beekeeping was a popular Tudor pastime, which provided the family with honey to eat and wax for candles.

“The octopus, spreading it’s tentacles across the countryside…”
– England and the Octopus, 1928

Since October 2018, a new exhibition Eastbury Saved tells the story of the house between 1883 and 1918, when it was purchased by the National Trust. Due to its derelict state, Eastbury Manor House was at risk of being condemend; the building was uninhabitable and the farms were gradually being sold to develop new houses.

Politicans and locals held differing opinions about Eastbury’s future. Some saw it as a vital part of local heritage, whereas, others thought the money needed to restore the house was better off being used for something else.

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Newly developed associations, such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) as well as the National Trust, were determined to campaign for heritage and landscape. Eventually, funds were raised for the building to be purchased and saved from demolition.

Formed in 1927, the Ferguson Gang was formed who helped to raise funds for the National Trust. Influenced by British architect Clough Williams-Ellis’ (1883-1978) publication England and the Octopus, which denounced insensitive building and ugly developments, the Gang raised £4500 to help the National Trust preserve many buildings, including Eastbury Manor House. A little bit of information is provided in the exhibition about the anonymous gang of women who took on unusual, mock-Cockney pseudonyms, such as, Bill Stickers, Sister Agatha, Kate O’Brien the Nark, Red Biddy, The Bloody Beershop, and Shot Biddy.

Eastbury Manor House is open to visitors on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays between February and December. National Trust and SPAB members can visit for free, as can people living in the borough, otherwise, a small fee is required (£5.20 adults, £2.60 concessions). As well as being an historical place of interest, the National Trust provides various events throughout the year, such as Easter egg hunts, Shakespeare plays, Christmas crafts and carol concerts, such as one given annually by the Kingsley Choral Group.

Having been saved from demolition, it is worth taking the time to visit Eastbury Manor House, one of the only surviving buildings constructed during the Elizabethan-era. Although it may not have a significant past, it helps to shape the history of an area on the outskirts of London and explores the lives of the people who once lived there.

More information about visiting can be found on their website: http://eastburymanorhouse.org.uk/visit-us

Simeon Encounters Antwerp

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Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has been off on his travels once again. Having caught the travel bug on his trip to Amsterdam in 2018, Simeon could not wait to go on another trip abroad. This March, our fluffy little friend braved the Eurostar for his second holiday on foreign soil and he is eager to tell you all about it. So, here it is, Simeon’s review of a city like no other: Antwerp.

Antwerp is a city in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium. Also known as Anvers in French, it is the most populous city in the country and lies approximately 25 miles north of the capital city Brussels. Situated on the River Scheldt, the Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest in the world, ranking second in Europe, Rotterdam in the Netherlands coming first.

Having travelled over 200 miles via Eurostar and train, Simeon got his first glimpse of Antwerp after emerging from the Premetro at the Groenplaats. The Groenplaats or ‘Green Place’ is one of Antwerp’s most prominent squares located in the heart of the city’s historic district. Ironically, there is nothing green about the cobblestoned square on top of an underground car park surrounded by cafes. The name stems from the cemetery that stood on the site until the 18th-century when Emperor Joseph II (1741-90) abolished cemeteries inside the city walls.

For Simeon, the first glimpse of Antwerp was rather overwhelming, having emerged from the underground to a world surrounded by Baroque buildings, an impressive cathedral and a Hilton hotel. In all the excitement, our little friend almost missed the bronze statue of Antwerp’s famous painter standing in the centre!

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In 1843, a crucifix that once stood in the Groenplaats was replaced by a statue of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) who lived in Antwerp from 1587 until his death in 1640. By far the most celebrated artist in the city, the statue was commissioned in 1840 in honour of the bicentennial of Rubens’ death. The sculptor, Willem Geefs (1805-83), depicted the bearded artist standing with his paint palette and distinguished hat at his feet. Although some critics complained that the statue appeared to be discarding his artistic emblems on the floor, Geefs’ intention was for Rubens to be remembered as a human being rather than the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition.
Rubens is not the only notable statue in the city; around the corner in the Grote Markt with its back to the Stadhuis van Antwerpen (city hall) is the Brabofontein, which tells a legendary tale from the Middle Ages. Simeon, a lover of fairytales, was enchanted to discover the story behind the intriguing statue.

Once upon a time, let’s say 2000 years ago, Antwerp was only a small settlement in the Roman empire, however, it was under threat from a huge giant of Russian descent. (Cue Simeon gasping) Druon Antigoon, as he was called, had built a large castle along the River Scheldt and was demanding a toll from every ship that wanted to pass by. Unfortunately, not everyone was rich enough or willing to hand over half of their cargo, which angered the giant. As a punishment, Druon Antigoon cut off the hands of sailors who refused to pay and threw them into the river. (Cue Simeon quaking in fear)

One day, a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo was sailing along the river when he came upon the giant’s fortress. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Italian man,” shouted Druon Antigoon. (Simeon added that bit) Just as he had done with all the previous sailors, the giant demanded Brabo to give him half of the ship’s cargo. Brabo refused but before the giant could chop off his hands, Brabo challenged him to duel. (Cue Simeon’s hair standing on end)

Brabo rushed at Druon Antigoon with his sword held high, (Cue Simeon covering his eyes) and just like in the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll the vorpal blade went snicker-snack! Brabo chopped off the giant’s head and hand and threw them both into the river for good measure. Thus, Antwerp was saved from the giant and they all lived happily ever after. (Cue Simeon cheering)

Regardless of the accuracy of this myth – who knows, there could be an element of truth – according to Dutch etymology, the city’s name Antwerpen was derived from this event. The name is made up of two Flemish words: (h)ant” (hand) and “werpen” (launch), which allude to Brabo throwing Druon Antigoon’s hand into the river. Other etymologists, or spoilsports as Simeon calls them, maintain that Antwerp is a combination of “anda” (at) and “werpum” (wharf), regarding its location on the River Scheldt.

The legend of Brabo is very symbolic in Antwerp, particularly after the temporary downfall of the city in the 18th-century. In 1585, Dutch authorities closed the River Scheldt, requiring a toll from any passing boat. As a result, the city began to diminish in size until it lost its status as one of the world’s largest and most powerful cities. Recalling the legend of Brabo and the giant, the Dutch finally stopped demanding tolls in 1863 and the city began to grow once more.

As a reminder of the near ruin of the city, local sculptor Jef Lambeaux (1852-1908) presented the city council with a design for a new fountain celebrating the reopening of the river. The fountain portrays Brabo throwing the giant’s hand in the river. Brabo stands on top of a column decorated with water spouting sea animals, mermaids and a dragon-like monster. Druon Antigoon’s body and head lie at the bottom.

The fountain was inaugurated in 1887 and is turned on every summer with water spurting out from the various elements of the statue. Since it was March, the fountain was not in operation, which was just as well because Simeon had found a comfy place to sit on the rocks surrounding the base of the fountain!

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Simeon’s favourite statue in Antwerp is a fairly recent addition. Titled Nello and Patrasche, a sculpture of a boy and a dog lying on the ground partially covered by a blanket of cobblestones can be found on Handschoenmarkt, in front of the cathedral. Designed by Batist Vermeulen (‘Tist’), the boy and dog appear to be sleeping, or at least that is what Simeon thinks. The characters come from the 1872 novel A Dog of Flanders by the English author Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908) under the pseudonym Ouida. The story, despite being popular in Antwerp at Christmas time, is rather sad and not for the likes of tender-hearted gibbons, so cover your ears, Simeon!

“One day, Nello and Jehan Daas find a dog who was almost beaten to death, and name him Patrasche. Due to the good care of Jehan Daas, the dog recovers, and from then on, Nello and Patrasche are inseparable. Since they are very poor, Nello has to help his grandfather by selling milk. Patrasche helps Nello pull their cart into town each morning.

Nello falls in love with Aloise, the daughter of Nicholas Cogez, a well-off man in the village, but Nicholas doesn’t want his daughter to have a poor sweetheart. Although Nello is illiterate, he is very talented in drawing. He enters a junior drawing contest in Antwerp, hoping to win the first prize, 200 francs per year. However, the jury selects somebody else.

Afterwards, he is accused of causing a fire by Nicholas (the fire occurred on his property) and his grandfather dies. His life becomes even more desperate. Having no place to stay, Nello wishes to go to the cathedral of Antwerp (to see Rubens’ The Elevation of the Cross and The Descent of the Cross), but the exhibition held inside the building is only for paying customers and he’s out of money. On the night of Christmas Eve, he and Patrasche go to Antwerp and, by chance, find the door to the church open. The next morning, the boy and his dog are found frozen to death in front of the triptych.”

On a happier note, the statue is popular with tourists and is a favourite destination for selfie-takers.

Simeon saw all three of these statues on his first tour of the city, however, during his four-night stay, he packed in so many of Antwerp’s other great attractions. Antwerp, particularly the Old Town, is full of museums that explore an extensive history of the city, culture and inhabitants. Of this large number of places to visit, Simeon would like to recommend three museums in particular. The first on his list is the home-turned-museum/gallery of Antwerp’s most famous resident, Rubens.

My dear friend Rubens,
Would you be so good as to admit the bearer of this letter to the wonders of your home: your paintings, the marble sculptures, and the other works of art in your house and studio? It will be a great delight for him.
Your dear friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresac, 16th August 1626

In a street named Wapper, Rubenshuis (The Rubens’ House) is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., except on Monday, for a fee of €10 per adult. This is the house Peter Paul Rubens bought in 1610 with his first wife Isabella Brant (1591-1626), where he lived and worked until his death in 1640. Originally, the building was not as large as it is today, however, Rubens designed and enlarged sections, adding a studio, portico and a garden pavilion. Unfortunately, the garden and courtyard are undergoing restoration work and will not be open to the public until 2028.

Initially a typical Antwerpen house, Rubens developed it into a building that resembled an Italian palazzo. Not only was it an unparalleled home, but it was also the perfect location for Rubens’ internationally admired collection of paintings and classical sculpture. Despite the current renovations, the building retains its original mid-17th-century appearance, however, only a fraction of Rubens’ accumulation of art remains, the rest has been dispersed to museums and galleries throughout the world.

Disappointingly, very little is explained about Rubens’ day to day life in the house and the majority of artworks are by his contemporaries rather than himself. Nonetheless, there is a copy of the portrait Rubens produced of his second wife Helena Fourment (1614-73) whom he married when she was only sixteen. There is also one of Rubens’ four self-portraits, which he painted around the same time he married Helena, aged 53.

Simeon particularly enjoyed seeing Singerie, an oil painting by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). It shows a group of monkeys dressed in clothes mimicking human behaviour. Brueghel was a good friend of Rubens, which is probably how this painting came to be in his possession.

Simeon’s advice: Pick up a free guide book at the ticket desk, which provides you with detailed information about the highlights in each room.

Through labour and perseverance.
– Plantin’s motto

With rooms set out as they may have been 400 years ago, the Museum Plantin-Moretus reveals the lives of the Plantin-Moretus family and the printing press Christophe Plantin (1520-89) and Jan Moretus (1543-1610) set up in the mid-16th-century. Now a Unesco world heritage site, for €8 visitors can experience the building’s creaking oak planks and panels, see an impressive collection of books and art, and the oldest printing presses in the world.

Christophe Plantin was a bookbinder from France who published his first book in 1555. In 1576, Plantin relocated his family and printing works to the Vrijdagmarkt in Antwerp, converting the house into a beautiful mansion. Here, he also set up his printing office, the Officina Plantiniana, which quickly became an international publishing firm and ranked among the top of Europe’s industrial leaders.

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In the heart of the mansion is the old printing shop, which was first used in 1580 until its last owner, Edward Moretus, sold the house to the City of Antwerp in 1876. The museum contains the two oldest printing presses in the world, dating from around 1600 and six other presses that are still in working order. Thousands of tiny lead type can be seen in wooden type cases, which, as Simeon learnt, were assembled in reverse on a chase before being put on the press.

Simeon’s advice: The museum takes approximately two hours to see in full. For those in a rush, by following the highlights on the map provided, it is possible to limit your visit to one hour. The entry bracelet allows visitors to come in and out of the museum throughout the day, so feel free to take a coffee break.

“A surprising museum in the heart of Antwerp”

Rubens was not the only artist and art collector to live in Antwerp. On Keizerstraat sits the houses of two key figures during the Baroque era, which have been combined to create the Snijders&Rockoxhuis, a museum open to the public every day except Mondays. Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), the burgemeester (mayor), and Frans Snijders (1579-1657), a painter of still life and animals, were next door neighbours for twenty years. Carefully restored and containing a number of artworks by Snijder and his contemporaries, the museum provides an insight into domestic environments of the 17th-century.

Nicolaas Rockox and his wife Adriana Perez both lived on Keizerstraat before they were married and remained in Adriana’s family home for a short while after their wedding. Eventually, they jointly purchased their beautiful house, known as Den Gulden Rinck, where they remained for the rest of their lives. After Rockox’s death, his nephew Adriaan van Heetvelde inherited the house with the condition that when there were no further heirs, it was to be sold on behalf of the poor. After changing hands numerous times, it was purchased by the non-profit association Artiestenfonds and converted into a museum of ‘neo’ or revival styles of art. Today, the museum is owned by KBC who are endeavouring to preserve the Flemish cultural heritage and have restored both houses to their original interior.

Visitors are provided with an iPad to take with them around the museum, which provides both an audio and visual guide. The audio guide describes the lives of Rockox and Snijders whilst the iPad contributes additional information about every artwork and object in the house. Simeon enjoyed learning about his favourite paintings in more detail and looking at the musical instruments on the top floor.

Simeon’s advice: All the information found on the iPads can be downloaded from their website to read later.

A little known fact about Simeon is that he thinks he is an aficionado of beautiful buildings, particularly churches (really he’s just a fan). Antwerp during the 17th-century was shaped by a large number of churches, however, during French Revolutionary rule, all but five monumental churches were destroyed. Fortunately, this was plenty enough to satiate Simeon’s intense desire to explore and he was able to visit four plus one of the newer churches.

Unmissable from nearly every section of Antwerp’s Old Town is the enormous Roman Catholic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cahedral of Our Lady) whose 400 ft steeple towers over the surrounding buildings. It took labourers 169 years (1352-1521) to build the tallest cathedral in the Low Countries, comprising of a short and long tower, seven naves and numerous buttresses. The interior, however, is but a shadow of its 16th-century opulence having suffered a fire in 1533 and various destruction during the “Iconoclastic Fury” (1566) and Calvinist “purification” (1581-1585). Initially, on every pillar was a decorated altarpiece, however, only a handful survived.

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Thanks to the aid of Archduke Albert (1559-1621), the Infanta Isabella (1566-1633) and the Counter-Reformation, glory was restored to the cathedral and Rubens was commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox to paint a new altarpiece, Descent from the Cross (1611-14), which can still be seen in place today. The triptych depicts three Biblical scenes: the expectant Virgin Mary, Christ being lowered from the cross, and the elderly Simeon (not the gibbon) in the Temple.

Other works by Rubens can also be found in the cathedral, for instance, Resurrection of Christ (1611-12) and Assumption of the Virgin (1625-26). Statues are also prevalent in the building, including two life-size limestone statues of Saints Peter and Paul designed by Johannes van Mildert (1588-1638) and a contemporary statue of burnished bronze, The Man Who Bears the Cross, which Jan Fabre (b.1958) produced in 2015. For a fee of €6, all this and more can be admired by the public.

On the outskirts of the Old Town, just off the Mechelspleintje (Mechelen square) is the Neo-Gothic Sint-Joris Kerk (the Church of St George). Built in 1853, the church was a replacement for its 13th-century predecessor that had been destroyed by the French in 1798. Despite being tiny in comparison to the cathedral, the architect included two impressive towers approximately 50 metres in height, and a statue of Saint George on a triangular pediment.

The interior of the church was mostly the work of Godfried Guffens (1823-1901) and Jan Swert (1820-79) who spent thirty years or so lavishly decorating the church with mural paintings. Mostly images of Jesus suffering on the cross, these symbolically represent the fight and hardships of the churches in Antwerp during the French Revolution.

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Simeon was most impressed with the large Merklin organ dated 1867, which has three keyboards and 1208 pipes. Although Simeon was not able to hear it played, it reportedly has beautiful acoustics and remains to be one of the best-preserved concert instruments in the city. The organ sits in front of a large stained glass window, looked down upon by two musical saints, Saint Cecilia, the patroness of musicians and Saint Gregory.

Located on the Hendrik Conscience square opposite the Erfgoedbibliotheek (Heritage Library) is the most important Baroque church in the Low Countries, Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk (St Charles Borromeo’s Church). Consecrated in 1621, the church is a result of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuit Order, and Antwerp’s number one painter, Rubens. The artist made considerable contributions to the facade, including the coat of arms featuring the “IHS” emblem of the Jesuits, and filled the interior with 39 ceiling paintings and three altarpieces.

Alas, a fire in 1718 destroyed the original ceiling and the altarpieces were moved to the Habsburg imperial collection in Vienna. Today, a smaller altarpiece by Rubens, Return of the Holy Family, commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox is one of the highlights inside the church.

Simeon’s favourite part of the church was the balcony from which he could look down upon the main body and altar. Two small altars can be found at either end of the balcony and, in the middle, visitors get a close up look of the huge organ.

Sint-Jacobskerk (St James’s Church) on Lange Nieuwstraat is the place to go for fans of Rubens. Only a short walk from Rubens’ house, St James’s was his parish church, which he began attending before the building was completed. The first stone of the Gothic church was laid in 1491 and the last some 150 years later. Today, the church is undergoing renovations, so to Simeon, it still did not look complete!

As was the fate of all churches in the area, the interior of the church was destroyed by Calvinist iconoclasts in 1566 but, fortunately, Baroque decorations were found to replace the majority of the damaged altars. The high altar was sculpted in marble and wood by at least four artists and is thought to cost as much as 17,874 guilders, which was roughly seventy times the annual wage of a master craftsman.

Being Rubens’ parish church, Sint-Jacobskerk is home to his resting place. One of the small, fairly modest chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary, contains Rubens’ remains which lie under an altarpiece produced by his own hand. Rubens, a rather modest man himself, was offered the chapel as his burial ground whilst he was on his death bed. Rather than accepting the generous offer, he replied that he would only be buried there if his family believed he was worthy of such an honour. Naturally, his grave is now the biggest attraction at St James’s and there is a small fee required to gain entry to the church.

The final church Simeon visited was Sint Pauluskerk (St Paul’s Church) a former Dominican church on the corner of Veemarkt and Zwartzustersstraat. Originally part of a large Dominican abbey, the church has a number of Baroque altars, over 200 statues and 50 paintings by artists such as Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Rubens, and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641).

Rubens was commissioned by the Dominicans to paint three large altarpieces and one of the fifteen paintings that make up the Rosary Cycle, Flagellation of Christ. Unfortunately, since the church building was not completed until 1634, Rubens never got to see his work in place because the altarpieces took many more years to finish and were, therefore, installed long after his death.

Visitors are welcome to view the treasures belonging to the church, including a number of reliquaries, chalices, ceremonial robes, sculptures and ornaments. One reliquary is said to contain a thorn from the crown Jesus wore at his crucifixion.

There are, of course, so many more places to visit in Antwerp but there is only so much a small gibbon can pack into a short trip. Buildings, such as Antwerpen-Centraal railway station, are worth admiring for their architecture. There is also the River Scheldt to walk along where you can see stunning sunsets in the evenings. Next to the station is Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest in the world, established on 21st July 1843, which Simeon did not visit for fear they would not let him back out again!

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Of course, you cannot go to Belgium without sampling some chocolate and Antwerp has a great number of chocolate shops. Simeon’s favourite was Elisa Pralines in the Grote Markt, which sells hundreds of handmade chocolates. They also sell Antwerpen specialities, such as Antwerpse Handjes, which are biscuits in the shape of little hands.

Another Antwerpen speciality is Tripel D’anvers, a Belgian beer made in Antwerp that is “bold, generous and [has] plenty of attitude.” Simeon suggests ordering this in Antwerp’s oldest pub Quinten Matsijs, which is 450 years old. Named after the Flemish painter (1466–1530), the building dates from 1565 and has been the hangout of many Flemish writers, painters and poets. As well as beer, they serve Gezoden worst, an Antwerp speciality of boiled pork sausages with fine herbs, served in bouillon.

While in Antwerp, Simeon was never far away from a cafe or restaurant. There is something to suit every person and mealtime. For cakes and chocolate products, Simeon suggests Sofie Sucrée and for a light bite while museum visiting, Rubens Inn, which is located next to Rubenshuis. For those wishing to be waited upon, there is the t’ Hof van Eden (literally the Garden of Eden) on the Groenplaats, which has an extensive menu. For quick bites or “fast food”, Simeon recommends JACK Premium Burgers established by Jilles “Jack” D’Hulster who wanted to “do a simple thing well, and do it properly.” Alternatively, pop into Panos, which launched its famous sausage roll in 1982. And, for those who are sceptical about trying “foreign” food, there’s always a McDonalds or Starbucks around the corner.

Having exhausted himself by sharing all his memories of Antwerp, Simeon bids you farewell and bon voyage or Goede reis, and leaves you with his top tips.

Simeon’s Top Tips

1. Check museum opening times before you visit. Most museums are not open on Mondays.
2. Be quiet in the churches. Some people have come to pray and do not wish to be disturbed by noisy tourists.
3. Save money and walk. Although there is a tram system, everything in the Old Town is within walking distance.
4. Take a raincoat. Particularly if you are travelling in March.
5. Pace yourself. There is so much to see and you need time to take it all in.
6. Try some Antwerp/Belgium delicacies. There’s more than chocolates, biscuits, waffles and beer.
7. Do not eat too much chocolate. Seriously, it will not make your tummy feel good.
8. Do not cross the road on a red light. They do not like you doing that over there.
9. Do not fall into the river. It is deep and you will get wet.
10. No need to learn French. They speak Flemish Dutch in Antwerp.

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Read all about Simeon’s other adventures:
Simeon Goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea

Elizabethan Treasures

“Small wonders from Elizabethan giants” is how The Telegraph describes the National Portrait Gallery’s major exhibition Elizabethan Treasures. Focusing on two of the most celebrated artists working in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the exhibition explores the art of portrait miniatures, which are reportedly some of the greatest works to have been produced in the British Isles. Although small, these highly detailed artworks provide insight into identity, society and visual culture of the Elizabethan era.

Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and his pupil Isaac Oliver (1565-1617) are two of the central artistic figures of the Elizabethan age. Not only were they excellent painters, but they were also able to produce minuscule portraits that equalled or even surpassed full sized versions. At a time when miniatures were becoming increasingly popular, firstly with royalty and then with the middle class, Hilliard and Oliver led extremely successful careers and were much sought after by a number of patrons.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, miniatures were known as “limning” and their delicate process was recorded by Nicholas Hilliard in his manuscript A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (c1600). Only a copy made by unknown copyists remains in existence making it a rare but significant source of information about the technique of limning. Hilliard asserted that only gentlemen could be “limners” because miniature paintings needed to be tackled with a “gentle” hand. Despite this misogynistic view, Hilliard provided fascinating details about the preparation of materials and the essential tools.

The majority of the miniatures displayed in the exhibition were painted on vellum, a fine piece of animal skin with a smooth surface. To make the vellum sturdier, it was pasted onto a piece of card. Interestingly, artists often used playing cards due to their ready availability. The paint, known as bodycolour, was a mix of various pigments and water combined with a gum extracted from the sap of the acacia tree. Unlike today where paint can be bought ready-made in tubes, artists had to purchase special ingredients and make the paints themselves. The colour white, for example, was made using flakes of lead carbonate, the colour yellow from lead oxide and blue from azurite.

Naturally, to make tiny paintings artists needed tiny brushes. The handles were wooden, not dissimilar to paintbrushes today, but the brush itself was made from squirrel hair. Another important tool was a burnisher formed by a stoat’s tooth on the end of a wooden stick. This was used to add gold and silver elements to the picture, which had been created by grinding gold and silver leaf and mixing it with gum and water.

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Hilliard’s wife Alice, 1578

Nicholas Hilliard was born into a family of goldsmiths in Exeter, Devon, although he spent a considerable amount of his childhood in Germany and Switzerland with the Bodley family, who later founded the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Back in London, Hilliard was apprenticed to the Queen’s jeweller Robert Brandon (d. 1591), a well-known goldsmith in the city. During this time, Hilliard must have received some training in the art of limning but it remains a mystery as to who his teacher was. After seven years of training, Hilliard was made a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and set up a workshop with his younger brother John. He also married Brandon’s daughter Alice (1556–1611) with whom he had seven children.

Hilliard’s apprenticeship ended in 1569 and his earliest known miniature was produced in 1571. What occurred between these years is uncertain but one thing is for sure, he had an exceptional talent in limning. At some point, Hilliard drew the attention of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88) who was a favourite statesman of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and began producing miniatures for him in 1571. The following year, Hilliard was appointed limner to the queen.

Due to his royal connections, the first few years of Hilliard’s career as a painter of miniatures involved producing limnings for numerous wealthy courtiers and prosperous members of the middle class. Each miniature is either circular or ovular and averages between 44mm and 66mm in height. The National Portrait Gallery provides visitors with magnifying glasses for a closer study of each exhibit and it can only be assumed the artists used something similar in order to see what they were painting, particularly the caligraphy stating the sitter’s age and the year of production.

Many works are of unidentified men and women, however, some have been identified as important historical figures, beginning with his patron, Robert Dudley. As mentioned, Dudley was one of the Queen’s favourites and remained so for the first thirty years of her reign. He was the only serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, however, he died without gaining her acceptance. Although Dudley wears black in Hilliard’s portrait, the jewelled chain around his neck emphasises his status.

From 1576 until 1578, Hilliard travelled to France in the retinue of Elizabeth I’s ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet (1532-88), the Governor of Jersey. It is thought that the queen sent Hilliard to produce a miniature of her French suitor François, Duc d’Anjou (1555-88), the younger brother of Henri III (1551-89). Whilst in France, Hilliard was employed as the valet-de-chambre (royal household painter) by François and set up a miniature and goldsmith workshop in Paris. It was at this time that Hilliard produced the recently discovered miniature of Henri III.

Another of Hilliard’s portraits during this period was of the teenage Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who had also been sent to accompany Paulet. Bacon’s fame came later when he was appointed Lord Chancellor to James I (1566-1625), however, he was already recognised for his advanced intelligence, emphasised by the miniature’s inscription: “If a worthy portrait were granted, I would prefer the mind.”

The highlight of Hilliard’s career was no doubt working for the queen herself. The exhibition displays a number of miniature portraits of Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard, including the only portrait of her playing an instrument (lute). The first miniature of the queen Hilliard produced was at the beginning of his career in 1572. For this, the queen sat for Hilliard but, later in his career, he was so familiar with Elizabeth’s face, he could paint her from memory.

Despite a brief sojourn in France, Hilliard continued to pick up new patrons. Hilliard’s miniatures became a fashionable part of court life and many people wished to have their face painted by him. Amongst these folk was Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-91), another favourite of Elizabeth I. This miniature was produced after Hatton had been appointed both Lord Chancellor (1587) and Knight of the Garter (1588), of which Hatton is wearing the collar and garter in his portrait.

Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618), yet another favourite of the queen, also had his miniature portrait painted by Hilliard. At the time, he was at the height of favour and often wrote poetry for Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, Ralegh was prone to rash behaviour and spent a lot of time imprisoned in the Tower of London and was eventually executed by James I for disobeying orders.

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Detail of a self-portrait of Isaac Oliver

Whilst the 1580s and 90s were Hilliard’s busiest decades in terms of commissions, he also trained a number of apprentices and assistants, including Isaac Oliver. Unlike Hilliard, Oliver did not immediately fall on his feet and his portraits of Elizabeth I were not admired as much as those of his teacher.

Oliver was born in Rouen, France but moved to England at the age of three when his Huguenot parents, Peter and Epiphany Oliver, fled from the Wars of Religion. Little is known about his life, except that he had three wives: Elizabeth (d.1599), Sara and Susannah de Critz. The latter was the daughter of Troilus de Critz, a goldsmith from Antwerp, and a close relative to the queen’s Serjeant-Painter.

Isaac Oliver’s career was slow starting but this changed with the patronage of Robert Devereux (1565-1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, the final favourite of Elizabeth I. As well as painting Devereux, Oliver painted the friends within his patron’s circle and began to rise in popularity in court. Oliver produced the first miniature from a sitting, however, often produced replicas later in his studio. Of all his non-royal sitters, there are more miniature’s of Devereux than any other.

When James I ascended the English throne in 1603, Oliver began to pick up new patrons, including Lucy Harrington (1580-1627), Countess of Bedford who he painted numerous times. Another often painted patron was Ludovick Stuart (1574-1624), a relation of James I who was the only non-royal duke in Britain at the time of the king’s ascension. Unlike Hilliard who preferred to concentrate on the finery and jewellery of his sitters, Oliver focused on facial features, particularly the beards in his portraits of men. Ludovick’s beard, when looked at through a magnifying glass, can be seen as a series of tiny curling lines in various shades of brown.

Commissions for Oliver increased rapidly during James I’s reign; the king required portraits for political and diplomatic purposes, and miniatures were often given as gifts during the peace negotiations with Spain in 1604. Unlike Elizabeth who only provided her painters with an annual salary, James I also paid for each commission as well as paying for their jewelled cases, some of which were made by Hilliard.

Whilst James may have prefered Hilliard’s portraits, his wife and queen consort Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) appointed Oliver as her “Painter for the art of limning”, paying him £40 a year, the same amount Hilliard received. As a result, both artists were commissioned to paint miniatures of Anne and the children: Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612); Princess Elizabeth (1596-1662); and Charles, Duke of York (1600-49).

Most of Oliver’s portraits of Anne show her seated in the same position, right hand upon her breast. This could be because Oliver used his first portrait of her as a template for others, however, the changing style of costume, hair and the contours of her face suggest that she sat for him more often than not.

Miniatures of Prince Henry show him in military wear, promising a future warrior-king. Unfortunately, Henry died from typhoid fever at the age of 18, making his younger brother Charles, whose miniatures had been less elaborate, heir to the throne.

Although the main focus of Elizabethan Treasures was the miniature art form, both Hilliard and Oliver worked on other things during their careers. They both produced a handful of full body portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or lying in gardens. Often with a head leaning upon a hand, these portraits represented the fashionable complaint of “Melancholy.” Melancholy was usually associated with philosophical thought but was also said to be caused by disappointment in love.

Of the two, Oliver produced more non-portraits than Hilliard, beginning with his earliest work, a drawing of Lamentation over the Dead Christ, now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Over time, Oliver produced many drawings of a religious or mythological nature, although it is not known whether these were studies for intended artworks or finished pieces. Occasionally, Oliver produced miniatures of this nature for collectors, including the head and shoulders of Jesus Christ and a portrait of the Roman goddess Diana.

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Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames – Hilliard, c.1600

For those lucky enough to attend the exhibition when magnifying glasses are available, it is fascinating to see the intricate details in these tiny portraits. Not only did Hilliard and Oliver produce exceptional likenesses, but they also executed them at such a small scale. Yet, a miniature is not necessarily only a portrait, they are full of symbolism.

In paintings of royalty or members of the royal court, there are clear examples of symbols, for instance, jewels, garters and crowns. Some represented promotions and triumphs and others emphasised the sitter’s status. In other miniatures, however, there are deeper, more secret symbols.

A popular form of symbol was an impresse, which combined imagery with a written motto. These words could be as simple as a name or heraldry, or as obscure as a private pun. Unfortunately, the latter makes it difficult to understand the intention of the miniature.

Yet, not all symbolic miniatures included an impresse. Of a more suggestive nature, Hilliard’s Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames (c.1600) does not need words to explain its symbolism. The unknown man wears an unbuttoned shirt and holds a jewel whilst the burning flames of passionate love fill up the background. Needless to say, this was a very private portrait and is thought to be a gift for the man’s sweetheart. To emphasise desire and passion, Hilliard highlighted the flames in gold, so that if the portrait is twisted from side to side, the flames appear to flicker – something that is lost as it sits stationary in a display cabinet.

Compared by their contemporaries to Michelangelo and Raphael, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver are without a doubt two of the greatest painters from the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. For many, these two names will be unfamiliar and yet they were the leading limners in a highly admirable art genre. Elizabethan Treasures introduces the artists to a new generation and allows their work to once again be appreciated. Some of these works may not have been intended for public consumption and visitors should feel privileged to be able to view them in close up detail.

The downside about an exhibition of miniature portraits is that in order to see them, visitors must stand up close to the display cabinet, blocking the view of those behind them. As a result, it takes a while to see everything in the exhibition, especially if you want to look at items in more detail with a magnifying glass. Nonetheless, it is an exhibition of great worth.

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is open daily until 19th May 2019. Tickets are £10 (£8.50 concessions) and, as always, members of the National Portrait Gallery can view the exhibition for free.