The History of Gardening

The Garden Museum, housed in the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth in London, is Britain’s only museum of the art, history and design of gardens. The church, adjacent to Lambeth Palace on the South Bank of the River Thames, was deconsecrated in 1972 and scheduled for demolition. Fortunately, the building was saved when a tomb belonging to two 17th-century royal gardeners and plant hunters John Tradescant the Elder (1570s-1638) and the Younger (1608-62) was discovered in the churchyard. John and Rosemary Nicholson who found the tomb were inspired to turn the building into the world’s first museum dedicated to gardening.

The main section of the museum is on the first floor, which has been added to the main body of the church. The collection includes a wealth of information about the history of gardening and displays a collection of tools, art and other ephemera.

The Garden Museum

What constitutes a garden? Areas of land can be private, public, designed or wild, however, what makes it a garden is the activity within it. Gardens are usually maintained, cultivated or used for public and private enjoyment and recreation. The history of gardens begins in 1600, towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, when John Tradescant, the first great gardener, began his career, however, it was only the wealthy that could afford such privileges.

It was during the 18th and 19th century when the general public began enjoying their private gardens. Whilst farming has been a necessity throughout time, gardening for pleasure has increased rapidly over the last few centuries. Flower Shows began emerging in the North, the first taking place in Norwich in 1843; the show was dedicated to chrysanthemums. Three years later, the craze had spread across the rest of Britain.

Prizes were awarded at Flower Shows for various achievements. Gardeners competed for best flowers, biggest vegetables, neatest gardens and so forth. To begin with, these were held in small communities but today, some competitions have reached a national scale.

Advice for gardeners began being printed and distributed as early as 1826 when the first gardening magazine, The Gardener’s Magazine, was established. Initially, this was targetted at the gardeners of country estates but it soon found a more general readership. Taking advantage of this, The Amateur Gardening Magazine was founded in 1884, providing advice about plants, soil and seasons. The magazine is still published today.

Other companies soon jumped on the bandwagon, producing magazines such as The Garden Home Journal (1907), Understanding Gardening (1960s) and The Woolworth Gardener (1950s). The latter was published by Woolworths, then Britain’s biggest seller of seeds and bulbs. It included advice from many professional gardeners and boasted that it was “a guide to successful gardening for all“.

From the mid-to-late 20th century, gardening advice moved to televisions with programmes such as Gardeners’ World in 1969. The show was presented by Percy Thrower (1913-88) who had been professionally gardening since the age of 18. Thrower was known for his early work at Windsor Castle, promoting the Dig for Victory campaign during the Second World War, and designing the Blue Peter garden. In 1974, Thrower created the Master Gardener Series, providing simple guides about sowing seeds and other gardening tips.

Percy Thrower died in 1988, however, his legacy lives on in the continuation of Gardeners’ World and the introduction of other gardening programmes, such as Ground Force (1997-2002).

Growing flowers was by no means a new concept in Britain. People had kept window boxes and bought cut flowers from markets to display in their homes for hundreds of years before they began maintaining larger gardens. From the late 19th century, however, owning a garden was not just about growing plants, they became places of leisure. Croquet and lawn tennis became popular and children used gardens as a space to play and invent numerous games.

Around the same time, novelty items began to appear in gardens, for instance, the garden gnome and, later, pink flamingoes. Today, garden centres are full of traditional and contemporary sculptures specifically designed to stand on lawns or hide in flowerbeds. Since the mid-20th century, children’s playthings: swings, slides, climbing frames; have dominated lawns. Unfortunately, due to the modernisation of towns and cities, not everyone has the opportunity to own a private garden.

Fortunately, the lack of a garden does not prevent people from enjoying flowers and plants. Cut flowers have been available in London since Covent Garden Market opened in the 1630s. As modes of transport improved, different types of flowers became available at the market, for instance, daffodils from Lincolnshire, violets from Devon and, by the 1900s, carnations from southern France.

Today, florists sell flowers from all over the world, particularly from Holland. In Britain, the changing seasons control which plants can be grown throughout the year, however, thanks to air travel, it is possible to order whatever cut flowers we desire, whenever we want. The majority of roses sold in Britain, for instance, come from Kenya.

Statistically, Britain has the least native flora than any country in Europe other than Ireland. From as early as the 16th century, “plant hunters” were sent to other countries to discover foreign plants and introduce them to Britain. Snowdrops and tulips were found in the Ottoman Empire and Sunflowers arrived from Central America. Later, in the 19th century, explorers found rhododendrons and wisteria in the Himalayas.

Some of these expeditions were funded by aristocrats who wished to show off exotic plants in their gardens. Other trips were arranged for scientific reasons by the government. The plants that were gathered were brought to the botanical gardens at Kew where botanists could learn about the foreign flora and their potential economic and medical properties.

Buried in the gardens of the church/museum is Vice-Admiral William Bligh (1754-1817) who captained the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty in 1789. His main task was to transplant the breadfruit from Tahiti to the British colonies in the West Indies as cheap but nutritious food for slaves. The breadfruit had been found when Captain James Cook (1728-79) had sailed to Tahiti in 1769. Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the founder of the Botanic Gardens at Kew, who travelled with Cook was intrigued by this “miracle food” that bore fruit for seven months of the year. The fruit could also be easily stored and dried so that it was available for the remaining five months.

At 22 years of age, Bligh accompanied Cook on his final voyage where Cook, unfortunately, was killed on the island of Hawaii. Due to his experience at sea, Bligh was chosen by Banks to captain HMS Bounty and transplant the breadfruit tree. During a five-month stay in Tahiti, Bligh and two gardeners collected a thousand cuttings of the breadfruit, however, they never managed to transport them to the West Indies. Led by Fletcher Christian (1764-93), some of the Bounty’s crew decided to take over the ship. Unable to regain control of the mutineers, Bligh and his loyal sailors rowed over 4000 miles to safety.

Fortunately, Bligh was able to return to Tahiti in 1793 aboard HMS Providence. This time, the ship reached Jamaica with 1,281 breadfruit plants. Today, the plants grow abundantly across the Caribbean.

Bligh went on to serve in the Napoleonic wars before becoming the Governor of New South Wales, Australia in 1806. Unfortunately, due to his sympathetic attitude towards the poor settlers, he was overthrown by the rich colonists. Bligh returned to England where he eventually died at home in Bond Street, London in 1817. He was buried in a tomb at St Mary’s, which had been built for his wife Betsy.

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Initially, it was only the aristocracy that could afford to purchase the plants that explorers like Cook and Bligh collected, however, in the 18th century, nurseries were set up where the general public could purchase the seeds to sow in their private gardens. These nurseries were the precursor to today’s garden centres.

Unlike the nurseries, garden centres can assist with landscaping as well as maintaining plants. Garden design is believed to be one of the most challenging forms of design. The designer must understand the properties of plants and soils as well as be able to imagine aesthetically pleasing spaces. Garden designers are not only responsible for the positioning of plants but also walls, paths and features, such as ponds and fountains.

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Plan of the Eden Project, 1998

Garden design can be studied as a profession, although many people save money by designing their family gardens. Public gardens, however, need the attention of professionals to make them safe as well as attractive for visitors. As an example, the museum displays a copy of Dominic Cole’s (b.1957) design for the Eden Project.

“Tools make the garden. We, the gardeners, may dream and scheme to our heart’s content, but with no more than our bare hands we can’t proceed far down the garden path with our imagined garden plan. We can’t even begin to make the path.”
– Christopher Thacker, garden historian

To design and maintain a garden properly, the gardener needs to have access to the right tools. Today, standard tools can be found in all good garden centres and DIY shops, however, in the 17th century, tools were made specifically for individual gardeners. For years, most gardeners relied on hand tools, however, techniques began to change in the 19th century.

In 1830, Edwin Budding invented the first lawnmower. Up until then, grass was cut using scythes or even sheep, but Budding, inspired by a factory machine for cutting cloth, developed a way to make maintaining lawns much easier.

The introduction of new materials allowed for cheaper and quicker production of garden tools. In the 1960s, the plastic flower pot became popular and plastic was also used to make watering cans. The development of rubber hoses provided an alternative, faster way of watering the garden. Putting the current war on plastic to one side, these inventions made gardening accessible for everyone, regardless of skill.

The museum contains examples of tools throughout the years, examples of seeds, gardening magazines and a wealth of information. Located at various points around the displays are information boards about several people who have contributed to the world of gardening.

Humphry Repton (1752-1818)

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Humphry Repton was the last great English landscape gardener of the 18th century. Born in Bury St Edmunds, Repton was destined for a life as a merchant until he visited the Netherlands where a wealthy Dutch family introduced him to the joys of drawing and gardening. Repton attempted a career as a textile merchant, however, he was unsuccessful and moved to a modest cottage near Romford, Essex. With no secure income to support his wife and four children, 36-year-old Repton turned to garden landscaping.

Repton’s first paid commission was Catton Park in Norwich in 1788. Despite having no experience, he became an overnight sensation. Repton began producing “Red Books” full of watercolours and text to help his clients visualise his proposed designs. The Garden Museum displays one of these books and a brief video showing Repton’s design process.

Sadly, Repton was involved in a carriage accident which left him unable to walk for the final seven years of his life. Fortunately, Repton’s work has secured his name in the history of gardening. Three roads in Romford and Gidea Park, near where he lived in Hare Road (now Main Road), have been named after him: Repton Avenue, Repton Gardens and Repton Drive.

Over the length of his career, Repton produced designs for over 70 grounds of country houses in Britain. These include Crewe Hall, Dagnam Park, Higham’s Park, Kenwood House, the Royal Pavillion, Russell Square in Bloomsbury, Stubbers in North Ockendon, Wanstead Park, Warley Woods, Wembly Park and Woburn Abbey. Jane Austen (1775-1817) referenced Humphry Repton in her novel Mansfield Park.

William Robinson (1838-1935)

William Robinson was an Irish practical gardener who popularised the English cottage garden. He began gardening at an early age when he became the “garden boy” for the Marquess of Waterford at Curraghmore, County Waterford. Following this, he worked for an Irish baronet in Ballykilcavan, County Laois where he was in charge of several large greenhouses. Possibly due to an argument as rumours suggest, Robinson fled to England in 1861 where he found work at the Botanical Gardens of Regent’s Park.

Robinson specialised in native British wildflowers and was sponsored by Charles Darwin (1809-82), David Moore (1808-79) and James Veitch (1792-1863) to become a fellow of the Linnean Society, dedicated to natural history. Robinson left Regent’s Park in 1866 to write for The Gardener’s Chronicle and The Times, and in 1871 he established the gardening journal, The Garden. Contributors to The Garden included John Ruskin (1819-1900), William Morris (1834-96) and Gertrude Jekyll.

Through his magazines and subsequent books, Robinson challenged the traditions of gardening, introducing new ideas, such as the herbaceous border containing a mixture of plants, and the wild garden where sections were allowed to grow naturally without too much interference from the gardener. His concept of the English Flower Garden was influenced by simple cottage gardens once favoured by landscape artists.

“The gardener must follow the true artist, however modestly, in his respect for things as they are, in delight in natural form and beauty of flower and tree, if we are to be free from barren geometry, and if our gardens are ever to be true pictures….And as the artist’s work is to see for us and preserve in pictures some of the beauty of landscape, tree, or flower, so the gardener’s should be to keep for us as far as may be, in the fulness of their natural beauty, the living things themselves.”
– William Robinson, The English Flower Garden, 1883

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

(c) Elizabeth Banks; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Jekyll by William Nicholson

Gertrude Jekyll was one of the most influential gardeners of the 20th century. Born in Mayfair, London, Jekyll studied as an artist and became associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement before moving on to designing interiors. In her 40s, she progressed to designing gardens.

Jekyll’s gardens were influenced by the artistic training she had received. She was particularly inspired by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), Impressionism and the use of colour. As well as designing over 400 gardens in Britain, Jekyll developed a colour theory, which she published in Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden and other works.

Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), an English architect, partnered with Jekyll who designed the landscapes for his impressive buildings. Lutyens designed Munstead Wood, the house where Jekyll lived in Surrey; Jekyll, of course, created the garden.

Unfortunately, many of Jekyll’s gardens are now lost or destroyed, however, her fame lives on. In 1897, Jekyll won the Victoria Medal of Honour, which was followed by the Veitch Memorial Medal and George Robert White Medal of Honour in 1929. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), a friend of the Jekyll family, used their surname in his famous novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934)

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“My plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves, I read or write about them.”

In 1892, Ellen Ann Willmott inherited Warley Place at Great Warley in Essex on the death of her father Frederick Willmott. The 33 acres of land had become the family home when they moved there in 1875. When she was 21, Willmott was permitted by her father to plant an alpine garden, which included a gorge and rockery.

Willmott employed 104 male gardeners, insisting that “women would be a disaster in the border”, who helped her to grow more than 100,000 different plant species. Recognised for her efforts, Willmott was elected to the Royal Horticultural Society’s narcissus committee and received the Victoria Medal of Honour – a medal that only two women ever receive, the other being Gertrude Jekyll.

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Ceratostigma willmottianum

Expeditions to China and the Middle East were financed by Willmott to bring exotic species to Warley Place. Willmott spent so much money on Warley that she died penniless. Warley Place was abandoned to the wild, although it is now managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust.

Ellen Ann Willmott is remembered by over 60 species of flowers, which have either been named after her or Warley Place. Examples include Rosa willottiae, Ceratostigma willmottianum and a species of sea holly nicknamed “Miss Willmott’s Ghost”.

Graham Stuart Thomas (1909-2003)

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Graham Stuart Thomas

“Whether you look upon gardening as a hobby, a science or an art, the fundamental point returns again and again: that we garden because of the beauty of plants.”
– Graham Stuart Thomas, The Art of Planting, 1984

Graham Stuart Thomas declared he would become a gardener at the age of six when he was given a fuchsia as a gift. At seventeen, he joined the Cambridge Univerity Botanic Garden and then the Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage in 1930. The following year, he became the foreman at the nursery T. Hilling & Co (Hillings) in Surrey.

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‘Graham Thomas’ Rose

Whilst working at Hillings, Thomas met Gertrude Jekyll who became his mentor. She taught him how to combine plants into colour patterns and inspired him to collect samples of roses. This led to several books: Old Shrub Roses (1955), Shrub Roses Of Today (1962) and Climbing Roses Old And New (1965).

Thomas began working with the National Trust at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire in 1948. He later worked at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent; Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland; Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire; and Sezincote House, Gloucestershire.

Graham Stuart Thomas is remembered for his many books and a species of honeysuckle and rose have been named in his honour.

John Tradescant the Elder (1570s-1638)

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John Tradescant the Elder was an English gardener and collector. Not much is known about his early life other than he began his career as head gardener to Robert Cecil (1563-1612), 1st Earl of Salisbury at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. Following this, Tradescant worked for George Villiers (1592-1628), 1st Duke of Buckingham, remodelling his gardens at New Hall in Essex. Later, in 1630, Tradescant was made the Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms by King Charles I (1600-49).

Tradescant travelled to other countries and continents in search of seeds and bulbs. Places he visited include Arctic Russia (1618), the Levant (1620), the Low Countries (1610 and 1624), and France (1624). As well as looking for plants, Tradescant assembled a collection of curiosities of natural history, that he displayed in a large house known as “The Ark”, which later opened as a museum – the first-ever museum, in fact – to the public: the Musaeum Tradescantianum.

The Ark

The curiosities from “The Ark” are now housed in the Garden Museum, although they have no link to gardening. Tradescant intended the collection to be a representation of the nature, art, religions and ways of life of all nations on earth. Items include an alabaster figurine of St Fiacre, the patron saint of gardening; Roman coins; medallions; reindeer antlers; a cast of a dodo head; shells; and the vertebrae from the spine of a North Atlantic whale.

St Mary-at-Lambeth

A church has been on the same spot on the south bank of the Thames since before the Norman conquest. The crypt of the present building and some of the burials date back over 950 years. The church, whilst not the original, is a combination of medieval and Victorian architecture and is the oldest structure in the London Borough of Lambeth.

A stone tower, dating to 1377 although repaired in the 19th century, is still intact and accessible to visitors. One hundred and thirty-one stairs lead up to the roof of the tower, which provides an impressive view of London.

The churchyard was a place of burial until it was closed in 1854. An estimated 26,000 burials took place, although many were interred without tombs or monuments. As well as the Tradescant and Captain Bligh, notable names in the churchyard include Anne Boleyn’s mother Elizabeth (née Howard, c.1480-1538), Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk (1443-1524), Richard Bancroft (overseer of the production of the King James Bible, 1544-1610), and Frederick Cornwallis, Archbishop of Canterbury (1713-83).

The Garden Museum is open Monday – Sunday, 10:30 – 17:00. Tickets are £10, although some concessions are available. The entrance fee includes both the museum and the tower. A tower only ticket is available for £3. More information is available on their website: www.gardenmuseum.org.uk

Play Well

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Stockport, 1966 – Shirley Baker

Extended by popular demand until 13th April 2020, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Play Well explores the lives of children, societies, historic toys, games and contemporary designs to try to work out why humans, both young and old, play. More broadly, the exhibition asks what does “play” mean and why is it important? With the help of a group of 5 – 11-year-olds from Argyle Primary School in Camden, Play Well examines the significance of play in childhood and its importance in education, social development, emotional resilience and physical wellbeing.

Research over the years has revealed that play is essential for learning about the world as well as having fun. There is also evidence the urge to play is not exclusive to humans. Animals, both domesticated and in the wild, have been observed playing. Polar bears have been caught on camera sliding down snowy hills on their stomachs and a monkey was filmed looking after a rock as though it was a baby or a doll. The concept of play is not something that is learnt, it is an instinct, however, it does require the right environment to be beneficial.

Philosophers, psychologists and educators have researched the value of play in education and, although there are many differing opinions, many think encouraging children to explore the world through their actions can be as good as or even better than formal teaching methods. One man who believed this was the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852). He described play as the “highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul”.

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Friedrich Fröbel

Fröbel began his career in education in 1805 at a secondary school in Frankfurt where he learnt about the radical ideas of the educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Pestalozzi’s motto was “Learning by head, hand and heart” and he believed that every aspect of a child’s life, including play, contributed to their education. Inspired by these ideas, Fröbel went on to found a Play and Activity Institute in 1837, for which he later coined the word kindergarten.

Kindergarten, a German phrase meaning “garden of children”, reflected Fröbel’s belief that children should be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden”. Women, who were trained by Fröbel, opened kindergartens across Europe and the concept eventually reached the USA in 1856, although was conducted in German until 1870.

“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.”
Fröbel, Sonntagsblatt (c.1840)

For use in his kindergarten, Fröbel developed educational play materials, known as Fröbel Gifts (Fröbelgaben). These were used alongside other aspects of his child-centred approach to education, including singing, dancing and gardening. The Gifts were physical items children could play with that had educational benefits. Fröbel initially developed six gifts but they were eventually extended to twenty. Each focused on a different age group.

Gift one, intended for babies, involved soft balls of yarn in red, yellow, blue, purple, green and yellow. By holding, dropping, squeezing, rolling and hiding the balls, children developed an awareness of spatial relationships, movement and colour. Gift two, for one to two-year-olds, consisted of a wooden cube and sphere. Fröbel recorded children’s delight in discovering the sphere could roll but the cube would remain where it was placed. Gift three (2-3 years) also involved wooden cubes. This time, children could use eight small cubes to piece together a large cube or create another shape. Gift four (2-3 years) involved rectangular shapes that could also create a cube when placed together. Gift five (3-4 years) included a mix of cubes and rectangles and Gift six (4-5 years) introduced triangular prisms.

Further Gifts included tiles (Gift 7), rings (Gift 9), drawing slates (Gift 10), paper cutting (Gift 13), paper weaving (Gift 14) and paper folding (Gift 18). These gifts have influenced the many educational techniques that are still in use today, for instance, building blocks and alphabet blocks. Yet, it is not only education that these Gifts affected; they have been a source of inspiration to architects and artists.

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Seaside Resort in the South of France – Paul Klee, 1927

Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Le Corbusier (1887-1965), and Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) were exposed to Fröbel Gifts as children and the geometry of the building blocks stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Wright was given a set of Fröbel blocks when he was about nine years old. “For several years I sat at the little kindergarten table-top ruled by lines about four inches apart each way making four-inch squares; and, among other things, played upon these ‘unit-lines’ with the square (cube), the circle (sphere) and the triangle (tetrahedron or tripod)—these were smooth maple-wood blocks. All are in my fingers to this day.”

Fuller recalled that it was Gift 19 that had the greatest effect on him. “The teacher brought us some toothpicks and semi-dried peas, and told us to make structures… I tried to make something that would work… I found the triangle held its shape when nothing else did.” Fuller went on to popularise the geodesic dome, a structure made up of triangular shapes.

The Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) also grew up with Fröbel’s philosophy. He adopted geometric shapes and patterns into his work and went on to work at the Bauhaus, a revolutionary school of art, architecture and design. Many teachers at the school were familiar with Fröbel and used his ideas in their teaching.

Although Fröbel’s kindergarten still exists today, other methods of teaching have been developed. The 20th century has been named “the century of the child” due to the amount of research and focus on childhood, education and play. In 1914, sisters Rachel (1859-1917) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) set up a nursery school for children of poorer families, which focused on both education, play and health. Children from impoverished families who were too young to go to school, often spent the day playing in dirty gutters, picking up all sorts of illnesses. Not only did the McMillan’s nursery provide a safe place for the children to play, but it provided a healthy environment too. “Once inside the child comes under the influence of the great healers, earth, sun, air, sleep and joy… the buildings should face south or south east, and in order to have this, the line of the rooms or shelters must be straight, the walls at either end shaped in butterfly form to catch all the sunshine possible.” (Margaret McMillan, 1919) Unfortunately, Rachel died three years after the opening of the nursery, so Margaret renamed it the Rachel McMillan Nursery School in her sister’s memory.

A similar type of establishment was set up in northern Italy during the aftermath of the Second World War. Named after the village in which it was founded, the Reggio Emilia Approach allowed pre-school children to learn through play, which in turn helped them come to terms with the war they were born into. The Reggio Emilia Approach has since spread to other countries, however, their principles remain the same:

  • Children must have some say over what they learn; additionally, the senses play a big role in the learning process.
  • Children must be able to touch, move, listen, see and hear in order to fully process something.
  • Children are encouraged to interact with other children and explore the world through material items and relationships.
  • Children should be encouraged to always express themselves and be given infinite means and opportunities to do so.

By the early 20th century, a connection had been drawn between children’s emotional health and play. Children had been left orphaned or traumatised by the First World War and had no way of processing their feelings. British pioneer of child psychology, Margaret Lowenfeld (1890-1973), began to study child behaviour, eventually setting up the Children’s Clinic for the Treatment and Study of Nervous and Difficult Children in Notting Hill, London in 1928, later the Institute for Child Psychology (ICP). By studying how children play, Lowenfeld developed the Lowenfeld World Technique, a type of therapy that allowed children to express themselves through play rather than words.

For her research, Lowenfeld conducted individual sessions with children during which she would record how they played. An example displayed in the Play Well exhibition was a world a troubled child created with farmyard figurines. The child was prone to outbursts and violence when he first met Lowenfeld, however, processing his thoughts by creating imaginary scenes helped him work through his feelings and gradually become more sociable.

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Squiggle drawings

Lowenfeld was not the only psychiatrist to notice the connection between play and emotional wellbeing. Donald Woods Winnicott (1896-1971) trained as a child psychoanalyst during the 1920s and served as consultant paediatrician to the children’s evacuation programme during the Second World War. During this time he observed that mothers had the greatest impact on their child’s development. Anti-social behaviour developed when a child had not experienced the “mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding…”

Winnicott also observed that play was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. He noted that play did not necessarily need to involve the use of toys or objects but could be similar to the ways adults “play” by making art, participating in sports, telling jokes, having hobbies and so forth. From this observation, Winnicott developed the “squiggle game”.

The squiggle game was a “game with no rules” which involved both Winnicott and the child’s participation. First, Winnicott drew a shape on a piece of paper, then the child would add to the “squiggle” to turn it into a drawing. Winnicott would also allow the child to make the first squiggle, which he would then finish off. After this, doctor and patient would talk about the drawings, creating stories that would often reveal insights into the child’s life.

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Play Lab

Due to the research by Winnicott, Lowenfeld, Fröbel and other psychoanalysts, play was declared a basic human need in 1989 by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nations have since been obliged to provide spaces for children to play and many schools, nurseries and kindergartens use play-based learning. To make sure children of low-income countries, often those affected by war, could access safe areas to play, the Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC) committee established Play Labs, designed to ensure that vulnerable children aged 2–6 years were provided with a safe place for healing through play.

Now partnered with Lego, BRAC Play Labs have been established in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda. Over 7000 children have been given the opportunity to play and to learn, including those in refugee camps. Whilst these labs are only for younger children, research suggests the experience they have will impact on their whole development.

After looking at the psychology of play, the Wellcome Collection went on to explore what play looked like in wider society. The simplest form of play is imaginative role-play, which allows children to assume different identities. This can be acted out by a child on his or her own, or within a group, often in the school playground. Other playground games involve chanting or singing, using lyrics that date back several decades. Familiar songs include Oranges and Lemons and A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea.

Throughout time, children have played with inanimate objects, for instance, sticks. As shown in the picture book Not A Stick by Antoinette Portis, a stick can easily become a horse, a sword or a dragon when given a little imagination.

Of course, for the past few centuries, companies have been producing items specifically for play, such as teddy bears, dolls and toy cars. Over time, however, these have become associated with particular brands and stereotypes. Lego, for instance, which probably stems from Fröbel’s gifts, was initially suitable for both boys and girls. In more recent years, however, Lego attempted to make sets specifically for boys or specifically for girls.

Lego is not the only franchise that is guilty of this. Toys like Barbie and Action Men are targetted at specific genders. In 1993, activist Igor Vamos tried to emphasise how ridiculous or even dangerous teaching children to believe these stereotypes could be by founding the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO). Allegedly BLO infiltrated Toys R Us and switched the voice boxes of 300 Barbies and GI Joe dolls, making GI Joe say things like “My desk is a mess,” and Barbie, “Vengeance is mine.”

Specific franchises have even taken away the need to be imaginative. Toys based on films, for example, encourage children to act out scenes they have seen on the screen rather than create their own. With companies competing with each other for sales, these types of toys are eradicating the more traditional dolls and toys of by-gone years.

Researchers have begun to suggest toys, such as Barbie dolls, can lower a child’s self-esteem. A Barbie doll is not a realistic representation of a human, nor is a heavily muscled Action Man. Since these dolls have become iconic, it is not easy to change their appearance. Instead, campaigners are now focusing on the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the toy market.

In 2015, journalist Rebecca Atkinson founded #ToyLikeMe, a creative collective that called on global toy industries to start positively representing disabilities. Since then, franchises have begun producing toys that would resonate with over 150 million disabled children. Barbie and Playmobil are just two of the companies involved. Today, children can play with Barbies with prosthetic limbs, figures in wheelchairs, a diabetic Incredible Hulk toy, a monkey with hearing aids and dolls that are blind, bald or suffering from conditions such as vitiligo.

Children’s behaviour and ways in which they play remains a topic amongst researchers today. Despite the increase in gender-specific and franchise-specific toys, psychoanalysts still believe children need the opportunity to challenge themselves physically, emotionally and mentally through play. London based artist Eva Rothschild (b.1971) set up an experiment that allowed eleven boys between the ages of 6 and 11 to explore an art exhibition in which normal gallery rules were forgotten.

Rothschild installed replicas of her contemporary sculptures at Chisenhale Gallery, East London and instructed the boys to enter the room and look with their eyes for a long as possible, after which they could touch the exhibits. A video of the experiment is shown as part of the Play Well exhibition. Initially, the boys were cautious, refraining from touching anything for many minutes. After some time had passed, some of the boys got restless and began egging each other on to be the first person to touch something; as soon as one person had, they all began to touch. Once again, they were fairly gentle but as soon as one sculpture collapsed, the boys became more violent and, soon, nothing was left standing.

Unfortunately, there are a limited amount of opportunities for children to act as freely as the boys in Rothschild’s video. Societal rules, health and safety concerns and fears have hindered children’s freedom to play.

“Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.”
– Marjory Allen

In postwar Britain, it was not uncommon to find children playing on the streets. Many children, left unsupervised by busy parents, found themselves exploring bombsites, turning them into unconventional playgrounds. Photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) documented the street culture in working-class areas of Greater Manchester between the 1960s and 80s, revealing that children were still playing outside on the pavements, unconcerned about the dangers of strangers or vehicles.

Adults, however, were becoming increasingly aware of the risks children faced on the street but did not want to prohibit the freedom to play. As the cities and towns became more urbanised, children were limited as to where they could play, so a playground movement was organised to create specific areas for children. This mission is still important today and is the reason the majority of public parks have an adventure playground containing swings, slides and climbing frames.

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The Frog Pond at Toffee Park Adventure Playground, Mark Neville, 2016

Unfortunately, today’s playgrounds are under threat due to limited funding. There is very little money for maintenance and repairs, and many parks are being sold off to building contractors. Contemporary photographer and activist Mark Neville travelled around London parks, taking photos for his book Child’s Play. Although the book was published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Foundling Museum, it is entirely relevant to the Play Well exhibition. The book and photographs focus attention on how conditions for children can be improved and the real and imagined barriers to play in cities.

Neville’s book warns of a “shrinking childhood” and its connection to the rise of mental health problems in younger generations. Not many children are given the freedom to go outside alone, unlike their parents who may have grown up playing on the streets. Grandparents may have been walking over a mile to school without a parent from a very young age and great-grandparents were allowed to wander even further.

Do the risks of playing outside outweigh the risks of a child’s mental health? Children who have not had the freedom to explore are more likely to fear the outside world and become anxious when leaving the safety of their home and parents. Whilst it is not safe to play on pavements due to the increase in road traffic, Neville and other activists are advocating for a national strategy for play and an increase in funding for adventure playgrounds.

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In the 21st century, physical play is rapidly being replaced by digital play. Unable to play outside when they desire, children are finding ways to have fun and socialise online or through video games. Ironically, the people who restricted children’s freedom of physical play are concerned about the effects of digital play. In 2018, gaming addiction was listed as a disease by the World Health Organisation, however, this has not stopped families, schools and children from adopting digital technology.

To end the exhibition, a set of digital screens allow visitors to play games designed by 14-19-year-olds. RawMinds, a project that takes place twice a year at the Wellcome Collection, invited a group of teenagers – “digital natives” – to create games based on their experiences. They were encouraged to consider both the positive and negative aspects of gaming, resulting in games that help to forge friendships, tackle anxieties about the world and limit addiction. One game required two players to work together rather than against each other; neither player could complete the game without the assistance of the other. Another game explored the concept of visiting a shopping centre as a socially anxious child. Children suffering from anxiety would recognise themselves in the game’s characters and other children would learn to understand the minds of their peers.

Open to all ages, Play Well is an eye-opening exhibition that draws attention to the importance of play. The psychology of play is something that is not often addressed or even thought about and it is interesting to discover the theories about childhood development. Having learnt about Fröbel, the McMillan sisters, Lowenfeld and Winnicott’s theories, it is worrying how little opportunity children have to learn through play today. Yet, it is reassuring to discover the effectiveness of a few wooden blocks and the opportunity to express emotion.

Play Well is a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and will remain open until 13th April 2020. The galleries are open every day except Mondays.

Meet Vincent Van Gogh

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After captivating audiences in Beijing, Barcelona and Seoul, the official Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience has arrived in London. When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, not only did he leave behind a great number of paintings and drawings, his voice was captured in hundreds of letters to his brother and other friends and acquaintances. Using the wealth of information in these correspondences, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has designed an exhibition through which the artist speaks directly to the visitor. An audio guide tells Van Gogh’s story, reading directly from many of his letters in order to teach visitors everything they need to know about one of the most celebrated artists in the world.

Please do touch! Nothing is off-limits in this experience, there are no ropes separating visitors from exhibits. Large recreations and 3D prints of Van Gogh’s works allow people to see and feel the texture of the paint. Reproductions of tools and materials help to demonstrate the artist’s method and technique, and interactive stations throughout the experience encourage visitors to create their own art, using the words of Van Gogh as their guide.

Unlike art galleries where everything is neatly hung on walls, the Van Gogh Experience uses digital projections, props, and videos to make it feel as though one is walking directly into a Van Gogh painting. The breaking down of traditional boundaries lets visitors pull up a chair at the Potato Eater’s table, sit on a haystack, stand beside the Yellow House and enter Van Gogh’s recognisable bedroom.

As you progress through the exhibition, the scenes change, revealing key turning points in Vincent’s life. With his disembodied voice in their ears, visitors accompany the artist from Nuenen in the Netherlands to Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Engaging with the sets provides the opportunity to feel as though you are seeing the world and his paintings through Van Gogh’s eyes.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands. He was the first surviving child of the Dutch Reformed Church minister Theodorus van Gogh (1822-85) and Anna Cornelia van Gogh-Carbentus (1819-1907), born exactly a year after a still-born brother. Vincent had many siblings: Anna (1855-1930), Theo (1857-91), Lies (1859-1936), Willemien (1862-1941) and Cor (1867-1900); however, it was with Theo that Vincent had the strongest relationship.

At least 902 letters of Van Gogh still exist, 819 of which he sent and 83 he received. Vincent burnt the majority of correspondence he received since it was impossible to keep them all; Theo, on the other hand, did not like to throw things away and managed to save 658 letters from his brother. Twenty-one letters to his sister Wil (Willemien) also exist, however, there appear to be none addressed to his other siblings.

Vincent was initially taught at home by his mother and a governess before joining the village school in 1860. In 1864, however, he was sent away to boarding school where he felt abandoned and deeply unhappy. Eventually, he returned home and his uncle obtained him a position at the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After completing his training in 1873, Vincent was sent to Goupil’s London branch where he began earning more money than his father. In retrospect, it is believed this was the best year of Van Gogh’s life.

The earliest dated letter from Vincent to Theo was sent in September 1872 in which he begins to confide in his brother, telling him about the things he has seen or read. “You must write to me in particular about what kind of paintings you see and what you find beautiful.” (January 1873) The letters continued during Vincent’s time in London where he regularly visited museums. “English art didn’t appeal to me much at first, one has to get used to it.” (January 1874)

Theo began working with Goupil & Cie three years after his brother, which made their relationship even stronger. Vincent’s letters, however, had become rather gloomy, often writing about a “quiet melancholy”. This may have been triggered by the rejection of Eugénie Loyer who he had confessed his love to whilst living in London. Vincent began to isolate himself and became religiously fervent, adopting the words “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) as his motto.

Van Gogh’s father and uncle arranged for him to be transferred to Goupil’s Paris branch, however, due to Vincent’s poor attitude, he was dismissed in 1876. Over the next few years, Vincent explored a variety of career possibilities, including returning to England to work as an unpaid supply teacher in Ramsgate. This proved unsuccessful, so he returned home where he worked at a bookshop in Dordrecht. This also proved futile and Vincent spent hours doodling or reading the Bible.

Even though Van Gogh’s father was a minister, he thought his son’s religious passion was excessive. Nonetheless, to support Vincent’s new-found desire to become a pastor, his father sent him to live with his uncle and theologian Johannes Stricker (1816-86). Unfortunately, Vincent failed the entrance exam for the University of Amsterdam, nor did he pass the three-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Laken, Belgium.

Undeterred, in 1879 Vincent took up a missionary post in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Up until this point, his letters to Theo had contained passages or references to the Bible, however, his experience of the squalid living conditions made him turn his back on religion. Feeling that he had no career prospects and nowhere to go, Vincent returned home.

After a few months living with his parents and a brief spell in a lunatic asylum – presumably for depression, Vincent returned to Borinage where he temporarily lodged with a miner. A letter written to Theo at the time suggests Vincent had stopped writing to him during his difficult period. “My dear Theo, It’s with some reluctance that I write to you, not having done so for so long … Up to a certain point you’ve become a stranger to me, and I too am one to you, perhaps more than you think…” (August 1880)

Whilst living in Borinage, Van Gogh became interested in the people and scenes around him, producing quick sketches, which he sent to Theo. His letters became both a means of communicating and a way of documenting his ideas. Encouraged by his brother’s new way of expressing himself, Theo encouraged Vincent to take up art in earnest. Van Gogh followed Theo’s recommendation, eventually registering at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Vincent’s early sketches in Borinage proved to be more than a desire to draw but also the inspiration for Van Gogh’s first major work, The Potato Eaters.

By the end of 1883, loneliness or, perhaps, poverty had driven Van Gogh to move in with his parents, who were then living in the Dutch town of Nuenen. During his two year stay, Vincent completed many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of the local weavers and cottages. Unlike the vivid colours of his later work, Vincent worked in sombre earth tones to capture the true nature of the scenes.

The colours inadvertently reflect the events in Van Gogh’s life during the period he stayed with his parents. In August 1884, the neighbour’s daughter Margot Begemann fell in love with Vincent and he, reluctantly at first, developed a strong relationship with her. They both wished to marry but their families were strongly against the proposal. Upset, Margot swallowed rat poison and was rushed to hospital where she was lucky to survive. Unfortunately, Vincent received another blow not long after this incident on 26th March 1885 when his father died.

Nonetheless, Van Gogh continued with his drawings and paintings then, the same year, Theo wrote to him asking if any of his paintings were ready to exhibit. Vincent replied that he had been working on a “series of peasant studies” and submitted his first major work, The Potato Eaters. This was a culmination of several years work, taking inspiration from the people in Nuenen, who often sat for him, as well as his experience in Borinage.

“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and—that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours—civilized people.”
– Vincent to Theo (30th April 1885)

Two years later, Van Gogh considered The Potato Eaters to be “the best thing I did”, which he confessed in a letter to his sister Wil. Critics, on the other hand, were less inclined to agree, including Vincent’s friend and fellow artist Anthon van Rappard (1858-92). Initially, Vincent was angry with Rappard’s criticism and told him that he “had no right to condemn my work in the way you did” (July 1885). A month later, with his confidence in tatters, Vincent tried to defend his efforts, writing “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”

In November 1885, Van Gogh spent a brief time living in a room above a paint dealer’s shop in Antwerp. Although Theo supported him financially, Vincent chose to spend the money on painting materials rather than food. He also bought Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, which he studied and copied, incorporating some elements into his paintings. He also broadened his palette, beginning to paint in reds, blues and greens.

“My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.”
– Vincent to Theo (28th November 1885)

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Portrait of Vincent van Gogh – Toulouse-Lautrec

Due to living in poverty and eating poorly, Van Gogh was hospitalised between February and March 1886, after which he moved to Paris where he lived with Theo. Since they were living together, there was no point in writing to each other, therefore, not a lot is known about Vincent’s time in Paris.

Other sources of information reveal Vincent spent time in the Louvre, examining paintings, colour schemes and artists’ techniques. Through Theo, he met up-and-coming artists, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

Theo found living with Vincent almost unbearable and, although they remained firm friends and brothers, Vincent moved in 1887 to Asnières in the northwest of Paris. Here, Vincent met Paul Signac (1863-1935), a neo-impressionist painter who helped develope the Pointillist style. Inspired by Signac, Vincent began to include aspects of pointillism in his paintings.

Van Gogh’s artistic breakthrough occurred after he had moved to Arles in the south of France in an attempt to recuperate from his smoking problem and smoker’s cough. It is believed he had the intention of founding an art colony, however, this never came to fruition. Nonetheless, existing letters reveal Vincent was in contact with several artists at the time, including Bernard, Charles Laval (1862-94) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

During his year in Arles, Van Gogh produced over 200 paintings and 100 drawings, the majority of which were intended for the decoration of the Yellow House – a personal gallery of his work. When Vincent first arrived in Arles, he signed a lease for the eastern wing of the Yellow House at 2 Place Lamartine, however, it was not yet fully furnished so he was only able to use it as a studio. Meanwhile, he resided at the Hôtel Carrel and the Café de la Gare.

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The Night Café, 1888

“I want to do figures, figures and figures … Meanwhile, I mostly do other things.” Van Gogh desired to paint portraits and, whilst he painted a few, he mostly produced landscapes. Inspired by the local harvests, wheatfields and landmarks, Vincent painted Arles in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. The wheat fields were a common feature in his landscapes, however, Vincent also painted his house, sunflowers, fishing boats and the Café de la Gare. Writing about one of his paintings of the latter entitled The Night Café, Van Gogh revealed he was trying to “to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime”.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Once the Yellow House was suitable to live in, Van Gogh began displaying some of his paintings on the walls as can be seen in his depiction of his bedroom: Bedroom in Arles. When planning this painting, Vincent wrote to his brother that “colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream.” The walls are a pale violet and the wooden furniture is “yellow like fresh butter”. On the bed, a scarlet bedspread lies on top of a “lemon light green” sheet and pillows. The windows are shuttered and the blue doors closed, one which led to a staircase and the other a guest bedroom.

The guest room was used by Paul Gauguin when he agreed to visit Van Gogh in Arles. While waiting for him to arrive, Vincent frantically worked on paintings to decorate the house, including more sunflowers, a painting of his chair and a painting of the chair he had purchased in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit.

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin eventually arrived on 23rd October and the artists settled into a routine of sleeping and painting in the Yellow House. Noticing that Van Gogh always used visual references, Gauguin encouraged Vincent to paint from memory. They also went on outdoor ventures to paint en plein air, however, the only painting Gauguin completed in Van Gogh’s studio was The Painter of Sunflowers, a portrait of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh had hoped for friendship with Gauguin, however, after two months the relationship began to deteriorate. Vincent admired Gauguin and wished to be treated as his equal, however, Gauguin was rather arrogant and full of criticism, which was frustrating for Vincent and led to many quarrels. Every day, Vincent feared Gauguin would leave him, describing the situation as one of “excessive tension”. Eventually, Vincent’s fear became a reality.

It is difficult to determine exactly what happened next because Van Gogh had no recollection of the events. Gauguin claimed they had been cooped up in the house due to several days of heavy rain, which led to much bickering culminating in a huge argument. To cool off, Gauguin left the house to go for a walk, however, Vincent, presumably mistaking this action for abandonment, “rushed towards me, an open razor in his hand”. That night, Gauguin stayed in a hotel rather than returning to the Yellow House.

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Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Alone in the house, Van Gogh was plagued by “voices” and cut off his left ear with the razor. Whether this was wholly or partially is now unknown since there are discrepancies between the sources from the time of the incident. Van Gogh bandaged his heavily bleeding wound, wrapped the ear in paper and delivered it to a woman at a brothel he and Gauguin frequented. Vincent was discovered unconscious by a policeman the following morning, who took him to the local hospital.

Van Gogh was diagnosed with “acute mania with generalised delirium” and remained in the hospital for some time. Although Gauguin had returned to Paris, the artists put the event to one side and continued to correspond through letters. They proposed to form a studio in Antwerp when Van Gogh was well but they never had the chance.

On 7th January 1889, Van Gogh returned to the Yellow House, however, he was still suffering from hallucinations. Some sources claim Vincent tried to poison himself, whereas others say this was one of his delusions; nonetheless, concerned for his welfare, inhabitants of Arles demanded that he was forcibly removed from the house. Vincent found himself back in the hospital, eventually agreeing to voluntarily admit himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Van Gogh stayed in the asylum for about a year, during which time he was allowed to paint. The clinic and its gardens were Vincent’s primary sources of inspiration as were patients and doctors. The Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, was painted in the hospital grounds.

Letters continued to be sent back and forth between Theo and Vincent as well as a few friends. Since there was a limited amount of artistic inspiration in the hospital, Theo sent his brother prints of famous artworks from which to copy. Some of Vincent’s favourite artists to study included Jean-François Millet (1814-75), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Van Gogh’s letters to his brother became increasingly sombre and he suffered a relapse between February and April 1890. During this time, he felt unable to write, however, there are a few small paintings dated around this time. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset was one of these, based on an artwork by Millet.

Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s paintings were beginning to attract attention and he was invited to submit some of his paintings to an avant-garde exhibition in Paris. Whilst some people were critical of his work, others defended Van Gogh’s style and he was soon invited to participate in an exhibition with the Artistes Indépendants in Paris. Claude Monet (1840-1926) declared Van Gogh’s work was the best in the show.

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Almond blossom, 1890

It was not the success of the exhibition that buoyed Van Gogh’s motivation to write and paint again but rather the news from Theo that his wife Jo (1862-1925) had born a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. “How glad I was when the news came… I should have greatly preferred him to call the boy after Father, of whom I have been thinking so much these days, instead of after me; but seeing it has now been done, I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.”

Almond Blossom is unlike any of Van Gogh’s previous paintings. The blue sky is more realistic than the swirly backgrounds of his recent works. The branches of the tree are outlined in black, which was a feature Van Gogh admired in Japanese paintings.

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Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

By May 1890, Van Gogh was deemed well enough to be discharged from Saint-Rémy, however, he had no home to which to return. Instead, he moved to the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise to be closer to both Theo and his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet (1828-1909). Van Gogh continued painting, absorbed by “the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow” and “vast fields of wheat under turbulent skies”. When writing to Theo about one of his final oil paintings, Van Gogh said that they represented “sadness and extreme loneliness” and “tell you what I cannot say in words”.

On 27th July 1890, Van Gogh failed to return to his lodgings for his evening meal. His arrival later in the night revealed the reason for the delay; Vincent had shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. Although there was no damage to any vital organs, there was no surgeon in the area to remove the bullet. Two local doctors did the best they could and left him at home where he was joined by Theo. Vincent was in good spirits but soon began to suffer from an infection. Not long after his final words, “The sadness will last forever”, Vincent van Gogh passed away in the early hours of 29th July.

“… and then it was done. I miss him so; everything seems to remind me of him.”
– Theo to his wife Jo, 1st August 1890

Van Gogh was buried the next day in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise and was joined by Theo the following year. Theo had been ill and worsened after the death of his brother. Initially, Theo was buried in Utrecht, however, his wife had his body exhumed and reburied beside his beloved brother. Jo knew how much Vincent meant to Theo and it is thanks to her that Vincent’s letters have been preserved and made public. Although other family members were unhappy about this, without the letters Vincent may never have been as celebrated as he is today.

Van Gogh’s story does not end with his death but continues through the lives of millions of people around the world for whom he is still a source of inspiration. Well-known artists have been influenced by Van Gogh, including Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon.

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Contemporary artists are also fans of Van Gogh and attempt to recreate his style, for example, a Van Gogh-esque painting of Donald Duck that appeared on a Walt Disney magazine in 2015.

The Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience proves how much Vincent van Gogh is loved and appreciated. His life was full of mental anguish and unhappiness, which ended prematurely before he had the chance to witness his success. His tragic story is part of the draw to the artist, however, Van Gogh’s highly recognisable works are appreciated all over the world for their uniqueness.

With a museum named after him, Van Gogh has excelled beyond his expectations and it is a shame that he will never know. The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience allows people to learn more about the artist, to discover his story, and to appreciate his work with a greater understanding.

Tickets for the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience vary between £16.50 and £18.50 for adults, and £12.50 and £14.50 for children. Time slots and tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster in advance. The experience will be open every day until Thursday 21st May 2020.

Ever yours,
Vincent

British Baroque

Throughout history, there have been many art movements. Baroque, for instance, flourished in Europe from the early 17th century until the 1740s. It began after the Renaissance and Mannerist periods and was followed by Rococo and Neoclassical styles, such as the Georgian Period in Britain. This year, Tate Britain is exploring how the Baroque style influenced architecture, painting, sculpture and other arts in a major exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion. The Baroque style can be recognised by deep colours, grandeur, a sense of movement, contrast and elements of surprise.

The Baroque style was introduced to Britain after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and lasted until the death of Queen Anne in 1714, encompassing the reigns of the last Stuart monarchs.

Between the death of Charles I in 1649 and the return of his son Charles II (1630-85) in 1660, the country had suffered under the “protection” of puritanical Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The Church of England had been changed beyond recognition, royal and Church estates had been sold and castles had been destroyed. After Charles’ coronation, the Church of England was restored and attempts were made to reconstruct the pre-revolutionary regime. Whilst this was successful, Charles also brought changes too, most particularly the Baroque style.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Baroque art first developed, however, it had already been introduced to Britain before Charles II’s reign, mostly in architecture. Charles, however, was inspired by his cousin Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France, who was famed for the splendour of his court. Taking a leaf out of the Sun King’s book, Charles introduced hedonism and self-indulgence in place of moral purity.

“That star that at your birth shone out so bright,
It stain’d the duller sin’s meridian light,
Did once again its potent fires renew,
Guiding our eyes to find and worship you.

-John Dryden, Astraea Redux
A poem on the Happy Restoration & Return of His Sacred Majesty Charles the Second, 1660

The relief of the public about the restoration of the monarchy was clear from the number of people that flocked to watch Charles II arrive at Whitehall Palace – an event that took two hours due to the crowd. The joy was expressed through poets, such as John Dryden (1631-1700), who likened Charles to mythological gods and Roman emperors. People believed the restoration of the British monarchy to be a God-given event and Charles’ coronation was bedecked in bright colours to celebrate the return of peace and prosperity.

The lavish decoration did not end there. In order to re-establish the royal court as the centre of power, Charles ordered splendour to be lavished upon all buildings belonging to the court. Palaces were not only restored but embellished and decorated to express their magnificence and importance. In Charles’ bedchamber at Whitehall Palace, John Michael Wright (1617-94) painted Astraea Returns to Earth on the ceiling to represent the King’s return to power. According to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), Astraea was the Greek goddess of Justice, whose return to Earth signified a new golden age. Likening Charles II to Astraea illustrated the hope for a better future.

Ceiling paintings were produced for the State Apartments as well as the more public rooms of many of the buildings belonging to the court. Many of them featured portraits of the King, such as the ceiling in the Withdrawing Room at Windsor Castle, of which only a fragment survives. Plans for the ceiling of St George’s Hall at the castle reveal Charles was depicted in the sky among important figures, including Jesus Christ.

Comparing Charles to god-like figures continued throughout his reign, such as in the complex painting The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (1639-1707). Whilst still celebrating the Restoration, the date of the painting suggests it was also in celebration of the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, which Charles ended with the signing of the 1674 Treaty of Westminster. Charles is depicted as Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, surrounded by cherubs holding symbols of peace. In the background, the Royal Fleet floats on the calm waters, emphasising they are no longer at war.

Charles II’s official state portraits are just as flamboyant as the allegorical ones. Whilst he poses in similar manners to his father, the colour of the clothing is highlighted, drawing attention to what he is wearing, for instance, the robes of the Order of the Garter. Baroque fashion was very different from types of garments previous kings and queens wore. Gone were the high-necked dresses from the Tudor period and the colours of male clothing almost appear clownish in contrast to the fashions of today.

Peter Lely (1618-80) was the King’s Principal Painter and was much sought after by other members of the court. He was commissioned to produced portraits of “court beauties” dressed in expensive silk to demonstrate the success and wealth of the Restoration Court. At the time, marriages were often arranged to bring together powerful families, thus making the court even stronger. Despite a formal marriage ceremony, the lack of love between the couples led to courtiers conducting affairs with other women.

The king was no stranger to having a mistress and had several affairs despite being married to Catherine of Braganza. Barbara Villiers, Countess of Cleveland (1640-1709) was the principal mistress of Charles II during the 1660s. She was a powerful figure in court and some jokingly referred to her as “The Uncrowned Queen”. She had five children with Charles, all of whom he acknowledged, however, since they were illegitimate, they could not be heirs to the throne. Her portrait was requested from Peter Lely by Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland (1641-1702) in an attempt to gain her favour.

The King’s sister-in-law Anne Hyde, Duchess of York (1637-71) was one of Lely’s best patrons. Married to the Duke of York and future James II (1633-1701), Anne held a high position in court, although was not very well-liked. Her father, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-74), commissioned Lely to paint her portrait in celebration of her marriage to James. Dressed in colourful silks, Anne sits with her hand under a jet of water, which symbolised purity and fertility. Unfortunately, despite having eight children, only two survived infancy, the future queens Mary II (1662-94) and Anne (1665-1714).

Anne Hyde commissioned Lely to paint a group of portraits known as the Windsor Beauties to be displayed together as an example of the ideal female beauty promoted at court. One example Tate Britain displays is a portrait of Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Gramont. Elizabeth was born in Ireland but was brought up in France. After the Restoration, she came to England and became a member of the court at Whitehall where she was nicknamed “la belle Hamilton”. The Windsor Beauties were not merely portraits but contained many symbols and hidden meanings, for instance, Elizabeth was depicted as St Catherine, the “bride of Christ.” This reflected her newly married status to Philibert, Count of Gramont (1621-1707). A few years after the portrait was completed, she and her husband moved to France where she was a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Maria Theresa (1638-83).

Peter Lely was not the only prestigious painter during the reign of Charles II. His brother the Duke of York had his portrait painted by Henri Gascar (1635-1701) in the French court style. The future king is shown as Lord High Admiral but mimicking the costume of Mars, the Roman god of war. The cloak, sash and sandals are painted in ornate detail typical of the Baroque period. James, however, may not have been able to display this painting for long because he had converted to Catholicism and new legislation prevented Catholics from holding public positions, therefore, he had to renounce his position as Lord High Admiral.

Jacob Huysmans (1630-96) was the preferred painter of the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. Although she was married to the protestant Charles II, she was allowed to remain a Catholic. She had her own separate household and court, which was less flamboyant than her husband’s, however, still grand and elaborate. The Flemish painter Huysmans was also a Catholic, which may have been the reason for Catherine’s patronage. Huysmans painted Catherine shortly after her marriage to Charles in 1662. He depicted her as a shepherdess surrounded by lambs, ducklings and cherubs, all of which were symbols of love, innocence and fertility. Although the court hoped Catherine would produce an heir, her pregnancies all ended in miscarriage.

Charles, however, managed to have at least twelve (illegitimate) children with his various mistresses, but none of them were entitled to the throne. His eldest child James (1649-85) tried to challenge his uncle to the throne but failed and was beheaded for treason. Despite being illegitimate, all Charles’ children were granted a title by the royal court, for example, Charles Fitzroy (1662-1730), the 2nd Duke of Cleveland who was painted as a child with his mother Barbara Villiers. Charles Fitzroy was also styled as Baron Limerick and the Earl and Duke of Southampton.

The portrait of Charles Fitzroy and his mother was commissioned by Barbara to promote her power. The pair were depicted by Lely as the Virgin and Christ but was far from a religious painting. Christ is the son of God and Charles was the son of the King, thus implying Charles II was a powerful man.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, so was the Church of England. During the Commonwealth, the Puritans had targetted art in churches, removing images they deemed inappropriate for their style of worship. Whilst there was a desperate need to restore the churches and cathedrals, there was widespread debate about the use of artwork. Some thought elaborate decoration was suitable for a religious setting, whereas, others argued it would distract from the worship of God.

It tended to be the Catholics that embraced art and lavishly decorated their buildings. Although Charles II was Protestant, his wife’s catholicism meant he was more lenient than past monarchs on those who did not conform to the Church of England. Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena (1658-1718), James II’s second wife, were permitted the freedom to worship in Catholic chapels at St James’s Palace and Somerset House. Unfortunately, the alleged Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles in the 1678 Popish Plot caused anti-Catholic hostility across the country.

When the Catholic James II became king in 1685, the country remained officially Protestant, however, James began restoring Catholic places of worship. James ordered paintings for his newly opened chapels, such as the one at Whitehall Palace that opened on Christmas Day in 1686. The chapel contained a 12-metre high marble altarpiece containing a painting of The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715). The angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary to tell her she will be the mother of the Son of God is a deeply religious subject in Catholic art, however, someone of Protestant faith would have been more likely to hang the painting in an art gallery.

The Whitehall Palace chapel altarpiece was built by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) and Arnold Quellin (1653-86) on the instruction of James II. It took a total of five months and 50 craftspeople to complete the task and two surviving marble panels reveal the Baroque style of stonemasonry. Putti holding a crown and the coats of arms of Scotland and Ireland indicated it was both a Catholic and royal establishment. The Chapel, however, was short-lived since it was closed when the Protestants William (1650-1701) and Mary (1662-94) came to the throne.

Tate Britain briefly paused their chronological timeline to take a look at some of the fashionable paintings aside from portraits and religious iconography. Trompe l’oeil paintings were particularly popular during the late Stuart period. The paintings tricked the eye into believing what they saw was real and three-dimensional. Charles II had a collection of this type of artwork as did his successors. Trompe L’Oeil of a Violin and Bow Hanging on a Door (after 1674) is a prime example of the style. The artist, Jan van der Vaart (1647-1721) was primarily a portrait and landscape painter, however, he was also known for his depiction of violins. Realistically painted on canvas, the violin image was mounted on a wooden door through which a peg protrudes to make it appear the violin is hanging from it.

Another Dutch painter, Edward Collier (active 1662-1708) was also skilled in trompe l’oeil paintings. His favourite subjects to paint were newspapers, written notes, writing implements and wax seals. Using a single canvas, Collier painted these objects on top of a painted wooden background to make them appear as though they were all positioned in a letter rack on a wall. The details on the newspaper are so fine that they appear they have been printed rather than written by hand. Rather than signing the painting in the corner, Collier addressed the letter in the painting to a “Mr E. Collier, Painter at London”.

Hyper-realistic paintings of flowers were also all the rage during the Stuart period. Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten, who came to London in 1662, was interested in both art and science and joined the Royal Society, a society that promoted scientific experimentation and the study of the natural world. Combining both his passions, van Hoogstraten painted “perfect mirrors” of nature, making his paintings of flowers appear tangible, as though viewers could reach out and touch them. Inspired by this, other artists began replicating the style, such as Simon Verelst (1644-1717) who came to London from the Netherlands in 1669. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), the famous diarist, recalled seeing Verelst’s painting of a vase of flowers and admitted he had to check over and over again that what he was seeing was a painting and not a real plant.

Architecture was significantly influenced by the Baroque style and was particularly associated with Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Surveyor-General of the King’s Works. As well as being an architect, Wren was also an anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician-physicist, however, the latter two also impacted his designs. Wren was also familiar with classical architecture and had insight into Louis XIV’s building projects in Paris. Due to this, Wren was able to produce designs for buildings that expressed the magnificence, beauty and strength of the nation.

Wren was responsible for many of the great buildings built in the late Stuart era, including Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. His most famous achievement, however, was the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral following the Great Fire of London. Large columns, porticos, ornaments and domes were typical features of Baroque buildings and were befitting of the royal courts who commissioned them.

In 1709, Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) won a competition to paint the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral but the painting was delayed because ministers could not agree on what type of paintings would be most appropriate. Being an Anglican church, they wanted to avoid the flamboyancy of Catholic decoration but simultaneously did not want anything too bland. Finally, it was agreed the paintings would illustrate eight episodes of St Paul’s life, for instance, the burning of the books at Ephesus and appearing before Agrippa. Rather than using the typical bright colours associated with Catholicism, Thornhill worked in monochrome, allowing the paintings to enhance the “grandeur and modesty” of the building.

Later, Thornhill was invited to decorate the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital, which is considered to be the most spectacular painted interior of the Stuart era. Interior paintings and murals were an important feature of Stuart buildings, particularly in palaces and country houses. The paintings demonstrated the wealth of the owners whose notability was expressed through allegorical subjects from ancient history and classical mythology.

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View of Chatsworth – Jan Siberechts

Country houses were also a way of demonstrating the wealth of the aristocracy. Inspired by Wren’s buildings, architects, such as William Talman (1650–1719), Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) and John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), designed grand luxuriant buildings set in Anglo-French style gardens. Chatsworth House, for example, commissioned by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire (1640-1704), rivalled royal residences. Designed by Talman, the house had a palatial feel, which was enhanced by the fountains and statues in the gardens.

The Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690 in Ireland saw the victory of William III over James II. William, the son of Prince William II of Orange (1626-50) was James’s nephew and the husband of his cousin Mary. James was unpopular with Protestant Britain who feared a revival of Catholicism, so William invaded England in what became known as the Glorious Revolution and deposed his uncle. Under normal circumstances, the crown would have fallen to the eldest son of James II and Mary of Modena, however, the heir apparent was also Catholic. It had been declared all Catholics were now excluded from the throne. So, the crown fell to Mary and her husband William as joint sovereigns.

The Protestant royal court had many similarities with Charles II’s court, particularly where portraits were concerned. Beauty was considered to be a valuable quality for women and was often celebrated in poetry and painting. In 1690, Mary II commissioned a set of eight full-length portraits of the most beautiful women at her court. These were painted by Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) and hung in the Water Gallery at Hampton Court. Known as the Hampton Court Beauties, the women are dressed in expensive silks to compliment their appearance and express their nobility.

Among the Hampton Court Beauties were Diana de Vere (1679-1742), who went on to become Duchess of St Albans and Margaret Cecil (1672-1728), the daughter of the 3rd Earl of Salisbury. Hanging in the same room at Tate Britain is a portrait of Princess Anne, the future queen, however, her portrait was painted by Willem Wissing (1656-87) who had, unfortunately, passed away before Mary II commissioned the Hampton Court Beauties.

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The Royal Family were not the only people to commission portraits of “beauties”. For the mansion Petworth House, the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset commissioned a set of full-length portraits depicting the most beautiful women to represent their family and connections. Ranging from mid-teens to thirty, the Petworth Beauties were painted by the Swedish artist Michael Dahl (1659-1743) and hung with full-length mirrors between them, so that guests could compare their inferior appearance with the paintings.

Until recently, the Petworth Beauties were believed to be half-length portraits. This is because during the 1820s, the current owner of the house, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, decided to “cut off their legs” to create more hanging room for other paintings. In 1995, the National Trust discovered the paintings had not been cut but folded up behind the frame. Although damaged, restoration teams worked hard to save the legs and the paintings have been successfully restored. Tate Britain displays two of the Petworth Beauties, the Duchess of Ormonde and the Duchess of Devonshire, but unless told, any damage is unnoticeable.

Whilst female members of court represented beauty and innocence, the monarch represented authority and the might of the nation. For the majority of William and Mary’s reigns, Britain was at war, therefore, it is no surprise that paintings of William represent his war achievements. From 1688 until 1697, Britain, alongside the Dutch Republic, Holy Roman Empire Spain and Savoy, fought in the Nine Year’s War against Louis XIV. Following this, Britain was involved in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13).

Triumphant monarchs were always painted on horseback to symbolise their sovereignty, such as in Jan Wyck’s painting William III. Although war rages on behind him, William remains in control of his horse whilst holding a sceptre. In reality, William would have held a military baton and the sceptre was merely a symbolic element of the painting.

Jan Wyck painted another scene from the Nine Year’s War showing William III and his army at the Seige of Namur in 1695. This was one of William’s greatest victories and he can be seen on horseback amongst his officers. In the background, smoke from artillery fire obscures the view, implying the fighting is not yet over. Although William is made to appear superior and in charge, it also suggests he did not partake in the physical warfare.

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Queen Anne – Michael Dahl

Portraits of Queen Anne, the sister of childless Mary II, who came to the throne in 1702, were never used to represent military victory since she was female. Instead, the Queen represented peace. She also became associated with politics after Michael Dahl painted a full-length painting of Anne to be hung in the Bell Tavern where the Tory October Club held their meetings. Whether they had the support of Anne is unknown but the painting implied to others that they did. Dahl was the unofficial artist of Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, therefore, he may have been affiliated with the Tories.

Since 1689, the monarchy played less of a role in political life and the running of the nation was left to Parliament. The Whigs were in opposition to absolute monarchy, whereas the Tories identified with the traditions of the Stuart kings and queens.

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The Whig Junto – John James Baker

Political elections began to be held every three years, therefore, politics was a constant concern. Political clubs, such as the Whig Kit-Cat club were formed to be able to discuss politics and tactics away from the royal court and government. Members of the club were a mix of politicians, aristocrats and writers who were usually depicted as lively, happy people in their portraits, which was a stark contrast to the leaders of the Whigs who wanted to uphold social status. The “Whig Junto” as the leaders were known consisted of six men: the 3rd Earl of Sunderland, the 1st Marquess of Wharton, the 1st Baron Somers, the 1st Earl of Halifax, the 2nd Duke of Devonshire and the 1st Earl of Orford, who commissioned John James Baker (active 1685-1725) to paint them seated around a table at one of the country meeting houses. Despite the Roman military victory symbols in the painting, the Whigs soon lost power.

Although Queen Anne’s power was gradually diminishing, it was still worth gaining her favour. Despite political changes, people were still of the view that magnificent displays of power and status were important. Godfrey Kneller, who had been Principal Painter of Mary II, continued painting full-length images of courtiers and aristocrats. As time went on, however, politicians were added to the mix, such as the diplomat Matthew Prior (1664-1721).

Those with connections to the royal family also began to be seen as less important, such as Isabella Bennet, Duchess of Grafton (1668-1723) who Kneller painted with her son Charles FitzRoy (1683-1757). When she was only four years old, Isabella was married to Charles II’s illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy (1663-90). Isabella had been one of the Hampton Court Beauties but in this painting, she is older and widowed. The presence of her son gazing up at her was to try and remind people of her royal connections.

One of the final paintings in the exhibition is of Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744) and Viscountess Fitzharding (1654-1708) playing a game of cards. Sarah was once a favourite of Queen Anne but after Sarah and Fitzharding developed a close friendship, the Queen was said to be full of rage and jealousy. Perhaps this was a sign that having a connection with the monarchy was becoming less important?

Tate Britain successfully takes visitors on a journey from the beginning of British Baroque to its final stages. Comparing the paintings in the final rooms with the bright, colourful ones in the first reveals that by the 1700s, Baroque style was on its way out, making room for the Georgian period. Nonetheless, evidence of the Baroque era remains today in buildings, such as St Paul’s, and hundreds of paintings. Subsequently, the artworks reveal the lives of those involved with the Stuart monarchy and how they used art to convey power or at least imply it through illusions. With many works on public display for the first time, British Baroque: Power and Illusion is worth visiting to explore an overlooked era of art history.

British Baroque: Power and Illusion is open until 19th April 2020. Tickets are £16 for adults, £5 for under 18s and free for under 12s. Tate Britain warns that some paintings show aspects of slavery and may be upsetting for some people.