Following the Stars

Stars, very large balls of bright glowing light that appear tiny when viewed from earth, have fascinated humans for millenniums. An online exhibition provided by the National Gallery takes a look at the ways stars are portrayed in art. Star Trail traces the stars from one painting to another in the National Gallery Collection, pointing out the stars illuminating the night sky but also revealing them in less obvious places.

As well as being natural phenomena, stars hold meanings for different cultures, religions, mythologies and individuals. For some, a star is a sign from God, for example, the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus. In Judaism, the six-pointed Star of David is an important symbol and a similar star is found in Hinduism.

A star’s meaning can alter depending on whether it is static or moving. Shooting stars are often symbolic, the most common being the opportunity to make a wish. Once again, different cultures have various ways of interpreting these so-called miracles (meteors to the scientifically minded). For some, a shooting star is a sign that you are close to your destiny but in Asia, they are considered a bad omen. For the Greeks, these stars symbolise the raising or lowering of human spirits, whereas, in some branches of Christianity and Judaism, they are believed to be falling angels.

Typically, stars carry positive meanings. They often represent hope, faith and new beginnings and artists throughout time have depicted them as objects of wonder. Just as there are hundreds of meanings, there are several ways of drawing and painting stars to signify their importance.

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319), the Tuscan painter, chose to use real gold to represent stars and heaven in the altarpiece The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea. This portable altarpiece may have been commissioned by Cardinal Niccolò da Prato (d.1321), who was both a Dominican Friar and the Cardinal of Ostia. This would explain the saints on the wings of the triptych: Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea of Ostia.

In the tympanum above the central panel are seven figures who have been identified as Old Testament prophets: Daniel, Moses, Isaiah, David, Abraham, Jacob and Jeremiah. They stand above a portrait of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, which is where Duccio has placed two stars; one on Mary’s shoulder and the other on the hood of her shawl. Duccio mixed gold leaf into his paint to draw these stars on top of the rich, blue egg tempera. The background of the entire wooden altarpiece was also painted in gold to represent the importance of heaven.

The famous English Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) took a completely different approach to depict stars. The evening star is barely visible in Turner’s painting of the same name. It is the merest speck of yellow paint towards the top of the canvas. If it were not for the reflection of the star’s light in the sea, the star would go unnoticed.

The evening star is an incorrect term because, whilst it may take on the appearance of a star, it is actually sunlight reflecting off another planet, usually Venus, although Mercury, Mars and Jupiter can also cause this phenomenon. Turner was particularly interested in transitional moments such as the evening and morning star, which are the same “star” but appear at different times depending on Earth’s proximity to the sun.

The Evening Star was painted at dusk rather than night because, once the moon had risen, the star would no longer be the brightest thing in the sky. As can be inferred from Turner’s painting, the star is barely discernible in the early evening, therefore, it would be almost impossible to see in the competing glow of the moon.

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

Studying the night sky, or stargazing has been a popular pastime for centuries. Long before humans understood what they were seeing, astronomers, astrologers and scientists were producing maps of the night sky, pinpointing the individual stars they spotted, first with the naked eye and later with a telescope. It was through these studies that the Earth was eventually proved to be round rather than flat plus not the centre of the universe as previously thought.

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As well as maps, astronomers produced globes showing the stars that could be seen from Earth at different times of the day. One of these celestial globes can be seen in Hans Holbein the Younger‘s (1497-1543) painting The Ambassadors. Similar to Duccio’s painting, the stars appear to be painted in gold paint, making them stand out from the blue background of the globe.

The painting, produced during the same year that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was born is a double portrait of two men. The identity of the men has been under debate for centuries but the most accepted identification of the man on the left is Jean de Dinteville (1504-55), a French diplomat. He may also be the person who commissioned the painting, particularly as he appears to be the grander of the two men. De Dinteville’s motto was Memento mori, meaning “Remember thou shalt die,” and there are several references to death in the painting. One is the anomorphistic skull at the bottom of the painting, which must be viewed from the side to be seen properly. Another is the crucifix in the upper left-hand corner.

The man on the right is believed to be Georges de Selve (1508-41). He would have been 25 when he sat for the painting and had just been appointed Bishop of Lavau in France. This explains his clergyman vestments and the other religious symbols in the painting, including the crucifix and Lutheran hymnal.

There is no written evidence that De Dinteville and De Selve were interested in the stars, however, the objects in the painting suggest they were involved with science. As well as a celestial globe there is a terrestrial globe, a sundial, a shepherd’s dial, a quadrant for measuring angles, and a medieval astronomical instrument known as a torquetum. It is possible De Dinteville and De Selve, or their associates, were among some of the earliest people to discover scientific truths about the universe.

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

Before humans understood the science behind the stars, they often featured in myths and legends. In Greek and Roman mythology, constellations were often linked to particular gods or goddesses, as were the planets.

The constellation Corona Borealis features in the top left-hand corner of an oil painting by Titian (1488-1576). Bacchus and Ariadne was produced for Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (1476-1534) and is considered to be one of Titian’s greatest works.

Ariadne was a Cretan princess who had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by her lover Theseus. The Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek) discovered Ariadne on the island whilst leading a procession of partygoers in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs. In the painting, Bacchus is either in mid-leap from the chariot to save Ariadne, or Bacchus has just thrown Ariadne’s crown into the sky where it transforms into the Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown.

There is more than one story that explains the Northern Crown constellation. The first, which is presumably being shown in Titian’s painting, is that Bacchus throws the crown into the sky. The other, claims Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and promised her the whole sky. He then raised her into the heavens where she became the constellation.

The Corona Borealis is one of many constellations that can be found in mythology. Others include Andromeda, Aquarius, Cassiopeia, Orion and Pegasus.

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

As well as the individual stars and constellations, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had a story to explain the existence of the Milky Way.

The story, which is shown in The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94), involves Jupiter’s desire for his son Hercules to be immortalised. Hercules was the son of Alcmene, a mortal, therefore he could never be fully immortal unless he had been nursed by a goddess. Jupiter’s wife Juno refused to nurse a child that was not hers, especially the son of her unfaithful husband, however, whilst she was asleep, Jupiter held Hercules up to Juno’s breast so that he could drink her milk. At that moment, Juno awoke and milk spurted upwards into the sky, forming the Milky Way. The milk droplets that fell to earth became white lilies.

Instead of depicting milk, Tintoretto represented the beginnings of the Milky Way with ten shooting stars. The original painting also showed lilies forming on the ground, however, about a third of the canvas was cut off at the beginning of the 18th century.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

Of all the different genres of paintings, the one where you are guaranteed to find stars or at least a star are scenes of the Nativity. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men or magi followed a star from the East, which led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem. Paintings of this nature are often called The Adoration of the Kings or The Adoration of the Magi.

Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was one of many artists to depict this biblical scene. Mary, dressed in blue, sits with the Christ-child in the ruins of a building, receiving a gift from one of the “kings”. The Bible never mentioned the visitors were kings and nor did they have names. Art historians, however, have given this figure the traditional name Caspar. Melchior stands to the right of Caspar and Balthazar to the left. Alongside the “kings” are several exotically dressed attendants and more can be seen approaching in the distance.

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Floating above the scene are angels and right at the top, slightly dwarfed by everything else in the painting, is the Star of Bethlehem. The entire composition was painted on oak panels that when pieced together measured 177.2 cm (69.8 in) by 161.8 cm (63.7 in), and the star does not take up much space at all. Nonetheless, when studied closely, Gossaert’s precise brushstrokes and painstaking detail emphasise the importance of this star. Most likely painted in lead-tin-yellow, the star lights up the sky around it, appearing to push the surrounding clouds away so that it can shine over the Christ-child.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

The star is much more prominent in the Baroque painter, Carlo Dolci’s (1616-86) version of the subject. This highly finished picture contains fewer people than Gossaert included, keeping the focus on the three “kings” in opulent robes as they kneel before Mary and the Christ-child. Although their gifts look important and expensive, they are executed in paint, whereas the haloes over Mary and Joseph and the light surrounding Jesus’ head was painted in gold.

Although the figures and their robes were painted in rich colours, the Star of Bethlehem outshines them all. The star’s light bursts forth from the clouds above, making it the brightest part of the painting. When looking at the composition as a whole, the eye is constantly drawn upwards to the star, which some see as a symbol of God looking down on his precious son.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

In contrast to the previous two paintings, Filippino Lippi’s (1457-1504) version contains a less obvious star, fading in the light of the daytime sky. Probably due to the star mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, artists tended to portray the visit of the magi at night rather than during the day.

Another difference between Lippi’s version and the traditional version is the landscape. The Holy Family sit in the ruins of a building in a rocky landscape. They have very little shelter and there appear to be no other establishments nearby. As well as the “kings” and their retinue, there are several saints hidden in the background. These have been identified as Mary Magdalene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome and Augustine. There is also a representation of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias.

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The way Lippi chose to portray the star is very different from the previous two examples. To begin with, it appears much lower in the sky, floating above the Holy Family. Rather than a solid or compact star, it resembles a firework. Lines of golden light appear to be shooting in all directions, some landing within touching distance of the figures below. Yet, this slightly faded star does not make it seem less important than other versions. The explosion of light beams emphasises God’s magnificent power that, although it is not easy to see in the daylight, is always there.

Lippi’s painting was the last to feature in the National Gallery’s Star Trail. The handful of paintings they looked at revealed that stars have been important in science, mythology and religion. Of course, there are so many more examples of stars in the National Gallery and other locations. Each artwork demonstrates one method of representing stars. Some artists opt for a five-pointed star, whereas others choose a greater number. Alternatively, a star can be represented by a ball of light or the smallest of dots, as Turner chose.

Vincent van Gogh‘s (1853-90) Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhône are perfect examples of alternative ways to paint stars. As an impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s stars are less precise with no clear outlines. They are made from swirls or dabs of yellow paint and yet, everyone knows they are stars.

The National Gallery’s online exhibition Star Trail provides a new and interesting way of looking at art. Sometimes a painting has so much going on that it is impossible to appreciate every detail. Also, when walking around a crowded gallery, it is not always possible to pay the artworks the attention they deserve. Looking for stars, or any other object, helps people to understand the artwork and the artist. By first studying how the star is depicted, it is then possible to step back and admire how it interacts with the rest of the scene.

Challenge: next time you visit a gallery, look out for stars in paintings. Until then, enjoy looking at them online.

Inspired by Flowers

Whilst the world was put in lockdown, the sun began to shine in England, lifting people’s spirits with signs of spring. Although people were told to stay at home, the warm weather could be enjoyed from back gardens, patios, and balconies. Unfortunately, not everyone had access to personal outside spaces, so Google Arts & Culture put together an online exhibition of artworks full of the blooming blossoms and flowers of spring.

Spring Has Sprung explored twelve different artists, some well known and others less so, who had been inspired by flowers. Some artists were drawn to flowers because of their beauty and colours, whereas, others were inspired by the symbolism and meanings portrayed by the plants.

Flowers are usually used to symbolise spring, however, certain folk cultures and traditions assign different meanings to specific plants. In the United Kingdom, for example, the red poppy is a symbol of remembrance of those fallen in war. Red roses traditionally represent love, however, be careful when purchasing other colours. Yellow roses can either mean friendship or jealousy and white, innocence and purity. White and red together symbolise unity, and red and yellow mean joy and happiness. Black, of course, represents death and pink is for grace and gratitude. A thornless rose is said to symbolise love at first sight.

Other flower symbolism includes:

  • Amaryllis – pride
  • Cypress – death, mourning or despair
  • Daffodil – uncertainty and new beginnings
  • Daisy – innocence
  • Gladiolus – strength of character
  • Heather – protection (white), solitude (purple)
  • Iris – good news
  • Lavender – devotion
  • Marigold – pain and grief
  • Orchid – refined beauty
  • Pansy – thoughtfulness
  • Primrose – eternal love
  • Rosemary – remembrance
  • Tulip – undying love (red), forgiveness (white), strength (black), hope (yellow)
  • Violet – faithfulness

Of course, not everyone believes in these meanings and artists do not always think of such things when painting, however, for some people, these symbols may add meaning to a particular artwork.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Throughout his career, French Impressionist Claude Monet produced approximately 250 oil paintings of water lilies, or nymphéas as they are known in French. The majority of these paintings were produced in Monet’s flower garden at his home in Giverny. Although he had travelled around France and London, his final thirty years were restricted due to suffering from cataracts. As a result, Monet worked mostly from home and the water lilies became his primary focus.

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Monet, right, in his garden at Giverny, 1922

Monet purchased his water meadow garden in 1893 and began a vast landscaping project. Several ponds were dug and filled with local white water lilies as well as blue, yellow and pink varieties from South America and Egypt. Across one pond, Monet erected a Japanese bridge, which became a central feature in later paintings. From 1899 onwards, Monet’s artwork focused almost exclusively on his garden, experimenting with the way sunlight and moonlight produced mirror-like reflections on the water. Gary Tinterow, the author of Modern Europe (1987) commented that Monet had developed “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”

Monet’s Water Lilies differed from his previous works, which mostly consisted of landscapes. Whereas landscapes depict a whole vista, Monet was focusing on smaller sections of his garden, allowing the lilies to take centre stage.

Due to suffering from cataracts, Monet saw the world through a reddish tone, which is evident in some of his water lily paintings. Later in life, Monet had surgery, which may have removed some of the lens that prevents the eye from seeing ultraviolet wavelengths of light. As a result, this may have affected the range of colours he perceived, which would explain the bluer water lilies in later paintings. Monet may have even repainted some of the artworks he had produced before his operation.

After World War One, Monet also painted a series of weeping willow trees in tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Monet’s younger son Michel was a soldier during the war and it was Michel who inherited Monet’s estate after his death from lung cancer in 1926. Forty years later, Michel bequeathed the gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts and they are now open to the public.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

When it comes to flowers, Van Gogh is most famous for his Sunflowers. Also known as Tournesols, this is the name of two series of paintings by the Dutch artist, the first made in Paris in 1887 and the second the following year in Arles. The first series depicts sunflowers lying on the ground, however, the second shows a bouquet in a vase.

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The sunflowers painted in Paris are less known, although it is possible to recognise Van Gogh’s distinctive style. During this time, Van Gogh was living with his brother Theo, which is one of the reasons why this series is less known than the second. Most of Van Gogh’s life has been pieced together from letters he wrote to his brother. The years 1886-88 are mostly missing from his biography since he did not need to write to Theo whilst they were living together.

The Arles Sunflowers are far more recognisable and can be found in collections all over the world. Van Gogh initially produced four paintings of sunflower bouquets, the first which is currently in a private collection and the second which was destroyed during the Second World War. The third version hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the fourth in the National Gallery, London. In 1889, Van Gogh produced three repetitions of the third and fourth versions, which can be found in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Whilst living in Arles, Van Gogh invited his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to stay. In preparation for the visit, Van Gogh decided to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom with his sunflower paintings. “It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’.” (Vincent to Theo, 1889)

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin painted Van Gogh at work on one of the sunflower paintings. Despite recognising himself, Van Gogh disliked the painting, claiming Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman.

The yellow quality of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was the result of the introduction of new pigments. These allowed Van Gogh to portray the flowers in vivid detail. Unfortunately, Van Gogh could only afford the cheaper paints and the paintings are gradually losing their bright colour.

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

Georgia O’Keefe was an American painter known for her paintings of enlarged flowers. She also produced landscapes of New York and New Mexico and is known as the “Mother of American modernism”. As well as being an artist, O’Keefe was a keen gardener and liked to make several paintings of specific flowers she came across. She was particularly drawn to the colours and petals of the canna lilies she found in New York.

From 1915 to 1927, O’Keefe produced nine paintings that are collectively known as the Red Canna series. Although she began by painting a bouquet of the flowers, her artwork progressed to almost abstract close-up images. O’Keefe tried to reflect the way she saw flowers, first at a distance, then in close quarters.

“Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
– Georgia O’Keefe

Unfortunately, art critics, mostly male, have misinterpreted O’Keefe’s work as references of a sexual nature. The close-up depictions of flower petals and the insides of the canna lilies have been compared to female genitalia. This was not O’Keefe’s intention.

O’Keefe was fascinated by colour, particularly the varying shades of red, yellow and orange that magnified the texture of the canna lily. An article written by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts states, “In these extreme close-ups she established a new kind of modern still life with no references to atmospheric effects or realistic details, reflecting her statement, ‘I paint because color is significant.'” Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s works are still misconstrued as female sexuality today.

Andy Warhol (1928-87)

As a leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol was best known for his screen prints of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gold Marilyn Monroe. Lesser known is his 1964 series Flowers which featured in that year’s June edition of Modern Photography magazine. They were later exhibited in the Leo Castello gallery in New York.

For this body of work, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus blossom taken by Patricia Caulfield, something for which she later took him to court. Using the photograph as a template, Warhol used a silkscreen process to build up the layers, each one being a different, vibrant colour. The template could be used multiple times, allowing Warhol to produce a total of ten screenprints. He experimented with contrasting colours and occasionally added in extra elements, for example, shadows.

The final outcomes are far removed from the original photograph. Warhol flattened and cropped the flowers, removing any distinguishing features and textures. The simplified flowers no longer appear natural and they are difficult to identify. Various critics mistook them for anemones, nasturtium and pansies.

Flowers was a departure from the norm for Warhol, who usually focused on mass culture and brands. Flowers have been included in art for centuries, making them iconic, timeless and unaffiliated with a particular art movement. The flowers also feel impersonal and, despite being based on a photograph, unnatural. The silkscreen process was originally intended for commercial use, as a method of mass production, however, Warhol adopted it as his signature style.

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Twenty years after completing Flowers, Warhol returned to the subject with his Daisy series. It is not certain whether these prints were based upon a photograph but the single flower is easier to identify. Rather than using a single block colour for the daisy, Warhol created a sense of texture and tone, printing delicate shapes and a detailed outline. Whilst the print is still simple and bold, it is much more delicate than his previous series.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was a painter from the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) who specialised in painting still-lifes of flowers. During his career, he became the dean of the Guild of Saint Luke (the guild of painters), which helped to establish him as a leading figure in the fashionable floral painting genre. All three of Bosschaert’s sons, Ambrosius II, Johannes and Abraham, became flower painters.

Bosschaert was one of the first artists to focus on flower bouquets, typically of tulips and roses. The majority of his paintings were symmetrical and painted with scientific accuracy. This suggests he painstakingly set up the bouquets and may have studied books about flowers to ensure he got all the minute details correct.

At the time, the Netherlands was a highly religious country and it is said Bosschaert hid symbolic and religious meanings in his paintings. These hidden meanings are not so obvious today, however, the inclusion of butterflies and dragonflies are a reminder of the brevity of life. The short-lived flowers, such as carnations, tulips, violets, roses and hyacinths, symbolise the transience of beauty.

Due to the prosperous 17th-century Dutch market, Bosschaert became highly successful and coincided with the national obsession with exotic flowers, also known as Tulip Mania. Despite being popular, the number of paintings by Bosschaert is relatively low. This was partly because he worked as an art dealer but also because his paintings, full of painstaking detail, took a long time to complete.

Jeff Koons (b.1955)

Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his sculptures depicting everyday objects and animals. His work usually tests the boundaries between popular and elite culture, merging modern techniques with references to older cultures. Usually of a significant scale, Koons’ artwork has received mixed reviews, some saying they are of major art-historical importance, and others dismissing them as a waste of space.

An example of Koons’ work sits on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. Puppy is a 43 ft tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland Terrier built from stainless steel and covered with a carpet of flowers. The various coloured flowers include marigolds, begonias, petunias and lobelias.

A similar style sculpture is Split-Rocker, which Koons designed in 2000. The design is composed of two halves each resembling a toy belonging to Koons’ son. When the halves are placed together, they form the head of a giant child’s rocker. Like Puppy, the 37 ft sculpture is covered with 27,000 live flowers of various genus and colour.

In the art world, Koons’ work is labelled as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop. He claims there is no hidden meaning in his work but his choice of subject matter has occasionally caused controversy. Like Andy Warhol, Koons has been sued several times for copyright infringement for basing his ideas on pre-existing images. Nonetheless, Koons has received enough praise and support to encourage him to keep designing his impressive sculptures. “From the beginning of his controversial career, Koons overturned the traditional notion of art inside and out. Focusing on banal objects as models, he questioned standards of normative values in art, and, instead, embraced the vulnerabilities of aesthetic hierarchies and taste systems.” (Samito Jalbuena, 2014)

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)

Rachel Ruysch, like Bosschaert, was a Dutch still-life painter during the Dutch Golden Age. She also specialised in flowers and was the most successful female painter at the time with over six decades worth of work. Ruysch’s father was a professor of anatomy and botany who inspired his daughter to learn to depict nature with great accuracy.

Although Ruysch’s work looks similar to Bosschaert, she is more playful with her compositions and choice of colour. More often than not, Ruysch’s bouquets are asymmetrical and wild with drooping flowers. Nonetheless, her paintings were never rushed; she paid attention to all the details and every petal was painstakingly painted. She even included hints of pollen at the centre of the flowers.

It was during the Dutch Golden Age that people began to associate flowers with specific meanings, therefore, there may have been some thought into Ruysch’s choice of flowers. Typically, Ruysch painted peonies, roses, foxgloves, poppies, nasturtium and bindweed.

Despite being a woman, some art critics claim she was the best still-life artist during her lifetime. By her death, she had produced more than 250 paintings, each selling between 750 and 1200 guilders. To put this into perspective, the famous Rembrandt (1606-69) rarely received more than 500 guilders for a painting.

Clementine Hunter (1886-1988)

Clementine Hunter was a self-taught black artist from Louisiana, USA. She spent most of her life as a farm labourer and never learnt to read or write, however, at the age of 50 she picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. Initially, Hunter depicted plantation life in her artworks and sold them for as little as 25 cents. Fortunately, she gained the support of the locals who helped to supply her with paints so that she could produce more artwork, which eventually received wider attention.

Although she was mostly known for her depiction of plantation life, such as cotton picking and washing clothes, she eventually moved on to painting flowers, particularly zinnias. Zinnias were abundant in the South and her paintings usually capture a freshly cut bunch placed in a pot. Hunter’s style is flat and lacks perspective, however, the vibrancy of the paint has made them attractive to many.

By the end of her life, Hunter’s paintings were being exhibited in galleries and she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. In 2013, Robert Wilson (b.1941), an American playwright, produced an opera about Clementine Hunter entitled Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter. According to the Museum of American Folk Art, Hunter is “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.”

William Morris (1834-96)

William Morris was talented in a multitude of occupations, including artist, designer, writer, poet and socialist. He is largely remembered for his textile designs and contribution to the British Arts and Crafts Movement. His textile designs, which extended to tapestries, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass windows, were often floral. Only a few do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants.

Morris observed the natural world as inspiration for his designs. Rather than producing a single image as a painter might, Morris turned his flowers into repetitive patterns that could be repeated without interruption. He also only included one or two types of flower in his designs so that people could easily purchase fabrics and so forth to complement their tastes.

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Strawberry Thief

The first flower Morris used in his textile designs was jasmine, which was followed by tulips. Occasionally, Morris included other elements in the pattern, such as the birds in the Strawberry Thief design.

By experimenting with different dyes and techniques, Morris was able to accurately represent flowers upon striking backgrounds – often indigo. His initial designs were rather bland in comparison to the later ones. With nearly 600 designs, Morris produced patterns containing all the popular flowers in Britain at the time. These include roses, hyacinths, tulips, marigolds, honeysuckle, anemone, acanthus and willow branches.

Édouard Manet (1832-83)

Édouard Manet is not usually an artist associated with flowers, however, throughout his career, he produced twenty floral still lifes. The majority of these were produced during the last year of his life. Manet is mostly remembered as a French modernist painter who transitioned from Realism to Impressionism. The majority of Manet’s paintings feature people, usually in social situations, so it is not surprising that his flower paintings have gone unnoticed.

Manet was only forty when his health began to deteriorate. He developed partial paralysis and severe pain in his legs, which was eventually diagnosed as locomotor ataxia, a side effect of syphilis. In his final month, Manet’s left foot was amputated because of gangrene and he passed away eleven days later.

Due to his health problems, Manet spent a lot of time in bed where he was visited by his closest friends. As per tradition, his friends brought fresh flowers when visiting the sick man. Placing these at his bedside, Manet passed the days producing small paintings of the bouquets.

The majority of Manet’s flower paintings consist of a glass vase on a marble top table. The flowers, predominantly lilacs and roses, are made up of thick paint and swift brushstrokes, as was usual of the Impressionist style.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871)

Anna Atkins née Children was an English botanist and photographer who was the first to publish a book illustrated with photographs. Some claim she was also the first woman to take a photograph. Born in Tunbridge, Kent (the so-called “Garden of England”) Atkins grew up helping her father, John George Children (1777-1852), a mineralogist and zoologist, produce detailed engravings of shells. As she got older, her interests turned to botany and she began collecting and preserving dried plants. By 1839, Atkins had been elected a member of the London Botanical Society.

Both Atkins’ father and husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friends with Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), an inventor and pioneer of photography. Through this connection, Atkins learnt about “photogenic drawing”, a technique that involved placing an object on light-sensitized paper, which is exposed to the sun to produce an image.

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Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Another friend of Atkins’ father and husband was Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), the son of the man who discovered the planet Uranus. He introduced Atkins to cyanotype, a photographic printing process similar to Talbot’s invention but produced a blue-tinted print. Atkins began by producing prints of algae and seaweed, which she published in her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

In the 1850s, Atkins began to produce photographic prints of flowers. Published in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), the prints capture a translucent silhouette of the flowers, which appear a greenish-white on top of a blue background. Since photography, as we know it today, had not yet been invented, these were the most scientifically correct artworks of the 19th century.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hokusai is one of the best known Japanese artists and printmakers of the Edo Period, famous for his internationally iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai’s most praised work is his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, however, he also produced several bird and flower prints (kachō-ga).

At the age of 18, Hokusai was apprenticed to Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93), who introduced him to ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art produced through woodblock printing. This technique involved engraving an image onto a wooden block, only chiselling away the sections the artist wished to remain white or empty. These were then inked and placed on top of paper or fabric and put through a woodcut press. More than one woodblock could be used to produce several colours in the same image.

Hokusai began producing detailed images of flowers and birds before his famous Great Wave, which was printed in the 1830s. The flowers are species that can typically be found in Japan, including peonies and poppies. By the age of 73, Hokusai said, “I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants.” He believed that each year of his life was an opportunity to develop and perfect his art and that by the age of 110 he would be a real painter. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 88.

Flowers have meant something different to each of the above artists and the same paintings will have unique meanings for anyone who looks at them. For some, painting flowers was a way of life, a way of earning money. For others, flowers were something in which they were personally interested. Whilst flowers and plants can be used symbolically, this is not always the artist’s intention, however, personal interpretation can add new meanings to the work.

Regardless of when they were painted or which medium was used, paintings of flowers are timeless. Nature has found its way into all art movements, therefore, whatever your preference of style, you will find a piece of art to brighten up your day.

The Enigma: Ejwsf Zyhcx

Earlier this year, the Science Museum held an exhibition called Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security. From World War One to the present day, the exhibition explored the many forms of communications intelligence that have been used throughout the century. Visitors were able to see examples of past and present gadgets, read declassified documents, learn about GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) and discover previously unseen artefacts. An exhibition about cyphers, however, could not be complete without a section about Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers of the Second World War.

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Turing c. 1928 at age 16

Alan Mathison Turing (1912-54) was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist who is mostly remembered for his work with the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park where he helped to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code. The Enigma Machine scrambled the 26 letters of the alphabet so that the Nazi Party could send messages that could not be intercepted and understood. This resulted in pages full of gibberish, a bit like Ejwsf Zyhcx, which is supposed to be “Alan Turing” when put through an online enigma decoder.

Turing was born on 23rd June 1912 in Maida Vale, London, to Julius Mathison Turing (1873-1947) and Ethel Sara Turing (1881-1976). Turing’s father worked with the Indian Civil Service in Chatrapur, India, however, wished his sons, John and Alan, to be brought up in England.

From a very young age, Turing’s potential genius was evident and his parents enrolled him at St Michael’s day school in St Leonards-on-Sea, near Hastings where the boys stayed with a retired Army couple when their parents were in India. At 9, Turing began attending Hazelhurst Preparatory School before being sent to Sherborne School at the age of 13, a boarding school in Dorset. Although Turing’s aptitude for numbers was appreciated by the teachers at his primary school, it did not earn him any respect at Sherborne, where more focus was given to classical studies.

Despite his school’s attitude to scientific subjects, Turing went on to achieve first-class honours in mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge in 1934. The following year, he was elected a fellow at King’s and, in 1936, published his first paper On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Computable numbers were problems that could be solved by human mathematical clerks, who at the time were known as “computers”.

The Entscheidungsproblem (decision method) was proposed by the German mathematicians David Hilbert (1862-1943) and Wilhelm Ackermann (1896-1962) in 1928. They believed a machine could be invented that would be able to determine whether a mathematical statement could be proven. To put it more simply, “Is it possible to prove this mathematical statement?” The machine would respond with either a yes or a no. Turing, on the other hand, believed such a machine to be impossible.

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A Turing machine realisation in Lego

Turing’s paper essentially pointed out that a manmade machine can only achieve what it has been programmed to do by a human. Since a human’s mind is limited, it would not be possible to produce a machine that could solve mathematical problems that a “human computer” could not. To illustrate this, Turing proposed a theoretical machine, now known as the Turing Machine, that could solve through the use of special symbols a mathematical statement that a “human computer” had the power to achieve too. The Turing Machine demonstrated the fundamental logical principles of the future digital computer.

After the publication of his paper, Turing continued to study, this time at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he obtained a PhD in 1938. As well as mathematics, Turing studied cryptology, which proved to be vital to his future career. Returning to England that summer, Turing joined the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), now known as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). A year later, Britain was at war in Germany and Turing moved to the organisation’s wartime headquarters at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Shortly before the Second World War officially began in Britain, the government had been given details from Poland about the Nazi Enigma Machine used to encrypt radio messages, which a small team of Polish mathematicians had succeeded in deducing. Led by Marian Rejewski (1905-80), the Polish cryptologists had developed a code-breaking machine called the Bomba, which helped them crack the Enigma code. Unfortunately, the German’s changed the code, rendering the Bomba useless.

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Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park, once a Victorian manor house situated on 58 acres of land, was acquired by the government in 1938 for the GC&CS. Renamed Station X, Alan Turing was one of 200 workers to begin working there after the outbreak of war. Crossword experts and chess players were sought and hired throughout the following years to assist the decyphering work. By 1944, 9000 people were employed at Bletchley Park, the majority being women.

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Bombe machine

One of the first things Turing and his colleagues achieved was the Bombe machine, based on the details they were given about the Bomba. The Bombe successfully decoded large amounts of German military intelligence that had been encrypted by the Enigma, which was passed on to British army officials. As the team became more adept at using the machine, they were able to increase the number of messages they intercepted. Eventually, they were decoding 84,000 per month, which equates to two messages every minute.

As the personnel at Bletchley Park grew, the manor house became too cramped for everyone to work in comfortably. In order to accommodate people, machines, storage and so forth, dozens of wooden outbuildings known as Huts were constructed within the grounds. Turing and his associates worked in Hut 8, where they successfully cracked the Enigma code.

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Enigma Cipher Machine

Since there was more than one Enigma machine, the code-breakers at Bletchley Park needed more than one Bombe machine. Unfortunately, there was a lack of sufficient resources to build the machines. In 1941, Turing wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) to explain the situation and the importance of the machines. Churchill reportedly went straight to his chief of staff and gave the order to “make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.”

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Lorenz SZ42

Enigma was not the only type of machine the Germans used during the Second World War. The more sophisticated Lorenz cypher machine, nicknamed Tunny by the British, was used to transmit messages between the Axis countries. In 1942, Turing developed the first systematic method for breaking these messages.

The Tunny machine encrypted messages by converting individual letters into binary code, for example, A became 11000 and B 10011. To make the messages even harder to crack, the machine blended in other letters to mask the binary code.

William “Bill” Tutte (1917-2002) was the first at Bletchley Park to notice a systemic pattern in the code and began to identify the letters that did not belong to the encrypted message. Building upon this, Turing developed a method of breaking these codes by hand, however, the process was slow and it was impossible for people to keep up with the number of messages they were intercepting.

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Colossus Computer

In 1944, Turing had finally completed a machine that was able to help the team translate the Tunny machine. Known as Colossus, Turing’s machine was a form of early computer involving 1600 vacuum tubes. The machine’s job was to strip the surplus letters from the messages, after which they were passed onto hand-breakers to translate the remaining code.

By the end of the war, there were nine Colossus machines, or Colossi, which helped to speed up the decryption process. The messages sent out by the Tunny machine revealed the German army’s plans, positions, supplies and conditions. The intelligence gathered was crucial to the success of the Normandy D-Day landings on 6th June 1944.

All the operations that took place at Bletchley Park were kept secret, even after the war ended. It was not until 1974 that the world began to learn about their achievements. Nonetheless, Alan Turing was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his code-breaking work.

“It is a rare experience to meet an authentic genius … Alan Turing was such a genius, and those, like myself, who had the astonishing and unexpected opportunity, created by the strange exigencies of the Second World War, to be able to count Turing as colleague and friend will never forget that experience, nor can we ever lose its immense benefit to us.”
– Peter Hilton, British mathematician

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After the war, Turing moved to Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond where he stayed until 1947. He had been recruited by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to create a digital computer. Turing produced designs for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), the first concept for a stored-program computer, i.e. a computer with memory. Although the concept was entirely feasible, the NPL thought it too difficult to attempt and built a smaller machine instead. As a result, Turing missed out on the opportunity to be the first person to create a digital stored-program computer. This honour was achieved by the Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory in 1948.

Disappointed with the lack of ambition at the NPL, Turing moved to Manchester where he was appointed Reader in the Mathematics Department at the Victoria University of Manchester. The following year he became the director of the Computing Machine Laboratory where he helped work on another digital stored-program computer, the Machester Mark 1. He also designed the programming system for the first-ever marketable electronic digital computer, which was eventually built in 1951.

Turing is credited as a founding father of artificial intelligence and modern cognitive science. He proposed a test to determine whether a machine could exhibit intelligent behaviour, i.e. can machines think? The Turing Test, as it is now known, would distinguish original thought (human) from “sophisticated parroting” (programmed machine). Turing argued that a machine can only be called intelligent if it reacts and interacts like a sentient being.

The Turing test, nicknamed the “imitation game” involved a human and a computer to answer a set of questions. A human interrogator would then attempt to determine which answers belonged to which test subject. A computer’s intelligence was rated by its probability of being mistaken for a human.

Turing’s idea was inspired by a few philosophers, particularly René Descartes (1569-1650) and his famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” Another philosopher, Denis Diderot (1713-84) stated, “If they find a parrot who could answer to everything, I would claim it to be an intelligent being without hesitation.” Turing believed by the year 2000 a computer “would be able to play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than a 70-per cent chance of making the right identification (machine or human) after five minutes of questioning.” So far, no computer has come close to this standard.

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Today, a reversed form of the Turing Test is regularly used on the internet. When logging into some websites, people are often asked to complete a CAPTCHA, which stands for “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart”. This test usually requires someone to enter a sequence of slightly distorted letters and numbers. This is something a computer would be unable to achieve, therefore, humans are effectively being asked to prove they are not a robot. This prevents computer hackers from using computer software to break into people’s online accounts.

In 1948, Turing and his colleague David Gawen Champernowne (1912-2000) began writing a chess program for a computer that had not yet been produced. Named the Turochamp after its creators, the game was tested on existing computers, however, they lacked enough power.

In March 1951, Turing received his highest honour when he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Unfortunately, Turing’s personal life was soon under scrutiny and all his successes rendered meaningless.

Back in 1941, Turing had proposed marriage to Joan Clarke (1917-96), a colleague at Bletchley Park. The engagement, however, was short-lived, ending soon after Turing admitted he was homosexual. Joan was unfazed by the revelation and thought they could make their relationship work, however, Turing was too ashamed to go through with the marriage.

Being gay was no longer a punishable crime, however, homosexual acts were still a criminal offence. In 1952, it came to light that Turing was in a relationship with 19-year-old Arnold Murray and they were both charged with “gross indecency”. Turing was given the choice between imprisonment or probation, of which he chose the latter, however, his criminal record meant he could never work for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) again.

By opting for probation, Turing had to agree to undergo hormonal treatment to reduce his libido. For a year, Turing was injected with synthetic oestrogen, which caused breast tissue to form and rendered him impotent. Although he had lost his security clearance, he was able to continue his academic work throughout this process.

Sadly, Alan Turing was found dead at the age of 41 on 8th June 1954. A post-mortem revealed he had died the day before as a result of cyanide poisoning. It is thought, although not proved, he had ingested a fatal dose of cyanide that had been injected into an apple. His death was recorded as suicide. Some biographers have suggested Turing was re-enacting a scene from his favourite film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Some people have questioned the coroner’s verdict, suggesting Turing’s death was not suicide but an experiment gone wrong. Turing had set up an experiment in a small room in his house, which involved the use of cyanide. Turing may have inhaled a considerable amount of the poison during the day, causing him to collapse later that evening. Although a half-eaten apple was found at Turing’s side, it was never tested for traces of cyanide.

Generally, it is assumed Turing’s death was suicide, which is attributed to the hormone “treatment” he received at the hands of the authorities for being gay. Nonetheless, the injections had ended a year before his death and his friends claimed he was in good spirits. This cleared the authorities from any blame.

Naturally, conspiracy theories have evolved suggesting Turing was murdered by the secret services for knowing too much about cryptanalysis. At the time, homosexuals were also regarded as threats to national security, which adds a certain weight to this theory.

Regardless of the cause of death, Turing’s prosecution for being gay has become infamous, causing Prime Minister Gordon Brown (b.1951) to apologise for Turing’s “unfair treatment” on behalf of the British Government in 2009. Queen Elizabeth (b.1926) followed suit in 2013 by granting Turing a royal pardon.

“Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”
– Gordon Brown, 2009

Since the 1990s, Alan Turing has been honoured in various ways, particularly in Manchester where he was working at the end of his life. In 1994, the A6010 road was renamed Alan Turing Way, and the bridge the road goes over is now known as the Alan Turing Bridge.

In 1999, the American weekly magazine Time listed Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. The article pointed out that “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”

On 23rd June 2001, the Alan Turing Memorial was unveiled in Sackville Park in Manchester. The sculpture, which depicts Turing sitting on a bench with an apple in one hand, was created by Glyn Hughes from cast bronze. On the bench, a series of letters reveal the phrases “Alan Mathison Turing 1912–1954” and “Founder of Computer Science” as though encoded by an Enigma Machine. “IEKYF RQMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ” The plaque on the ground in front of the statue is written in English, saying, “Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice” This is followed by a quote from the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture.”

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To mark the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth in 2012, the Alan Turing Memorial was visited by the London 2012 Olympic Torch. It also came to light that Turing attempted to enter the previous London Olympics but lost out to other candidates. Yet, in 1948 he had finished a cross-country race ahead of the future silver medalist and his best Marathon time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds, was only 11 minutes slower than the winner in the 1948 Olympic Games.

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In 2019, the Bank of England revealed Alan Turing will feature on the new £50 notes when they switch from paper to polymer in 2021. Turing was selected from a long list of experts from the field of science, including Mary Anning, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, Stephen Hawking and Ernest Rutherford.

Thankfully, Alan Turing will be remembered for his achievements rather than the events that marred the end of his life. Turing has been immortalised in films, books and plays. He features in Ian McEwan’s 2019 novel Machines Like Me and inspired William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer. In 2000, he was the main focus of a Doctor Who novel, The Turing Test.

Alan Turing’s life was portrayed by Derek Jacobi in the stage show and film Breaking the Code, and in 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch starred as Turing in The Imitation Game with Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, which focused on Turing’s success at Bletchley Park.

Dozens of universities across the world have statues of or rooms named after Alan Turing. He will always be remembered and admired by students, particularly those involved with mathematics, computer science and cryptology.

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”
– Alan Turing

Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

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Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song

Super Troupers

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Those lucky enough to visit the O2 in London before the outbreak of COVID-19 had the opportunity to visit ABBA: Super Troupers The Exhibition about the chart-topping Swedish pop sensation ABBA. A 14,000 square foot immersive experience charted their music, lyrics, creative process and influence from their small beginnings to their meteoric rise to fame. Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid (“Frida”) Lyngstad’s lives were also brought to the fore, revealing their personal journeys leading to the success of ABBA.

ABBA soared to fame after they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and continued to top the charts until 1982. To date, the supergroup has sold an estimated 380 million records, making them one of the best-selling artists of all time. Made up of the first letters of their first names, ABBA is one of the most commercially successful acts in the history of popular music.

Benny Andersson

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Göran Bror Benny Andersson was born in Stockholm on 16th December 1946. His love of music came from his father Gösta (1912-73) and his grandfather Efraim, who taught Benny how to play the accordion at the age of six. He grew up surrounded by Swedish folk music and schlager – a happy-go-lucky style of music in Europe.

At the age of 10, Benny taught himself how to play the piano and by 15, he was performing in youth clubs. Benny’s first girlfriend Christina Grönvall was also musical and they joined Elverkets Spelmanslag (The Electricity Board Folk Music Group) in 1964. Christina and Benny had two children, Peter (1963) and Heléne (1965), however, they never married and went their separate ways in 1966.

Towards the end of 1964, Benny joined the Swedish rock group Hep Stars as a keyboardist. The band mostly played covers of popular international songs, however, he also began writing his own material. Hep Stars became the most celebrated Swedish pop band of the 1960s and Benny gained many fans as a teen idol.

In 1966, Benny met Björn Ulvaeus and they began collaborating on songwriting. Their first was titled Isn’t It Easy To Say, which was recorded by the Hep Stars. Benny also worked with the Swedish songwriter Lasse Berghagen (b.1945), including Hej, Clown, which he submitted to the 1969 Melodifestivalen – the competition to determine the Swedish Eurovision Song – and finished in second place. At the Melodifestivalen, Benny met vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad with whom he became a couple.

Björn Ulvaeus

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Björn Kristian Ulvaeus was born in Gothenburg on 25th April 1945, although he moved to Västervik when he was six. Björn originally contemplated a career in business and law, studying at Lund University after undertaking his compulsory military service.

From 1961, Björn was a member of the Hootenanny Singers, a Swedish folk-schlager band, which gained enormous popularity in Sweden. While touring with the band, Björn met the Hep Stars and struck up a friendship with the keyboardist, Benny Andersson. The two shared a passion for music and began helping out in the recording studios of each band. This led to many songwriting collaborations.

In 1969, Björn took part in a special schlager show for television, which is where he met eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter Agnetha Fältskog, who soon became his wife. Meanwhile, Björn continued to record and tour with the Hootenanny Singers as well as working for the Polar Record Company with Benny. They wrote several records, including the single She’s My Kind of Girl, which they released as a duo in 1970.

Björn and Benny also produced a cover of Omkring Tiggarn Från Luossa, which put the Hootenanny Singers in the Swedish radio charts for 52 consecutive weeks.

Agneta Fältskog

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Agneta Åse Fältskog was born in Jönköping on 5th April 1950. Although her father Knut Ingvar (1922-95) was a department store manager, he held great interest in music and show business. This influenced Agneta, who wrote her first song at the age of six: Två små troll (Two Little Trolls). At 8, Agneta began piano lessons and joined her local church choir.

Having left school at 15, Agneta went on to develop her musical career. She joined a local dance band for a couple of years, however, it was the song Jag var så kär (I Was So in Love) that Agneta wrote after breaking up with a boyfriend that got her noticed. Retired rock and roll musician Karl Gerhard Lundkvist offered Agneta a recording contract at Cupol Records, which she readily accepted. Jag var så kär went on to sell more than 80,000 copies.

Throughout the 1960s, Agneta wrote and released many songs, becoming one of Sweden’s most popular artists. Her fiancé Dieter Zimmerman, a German producer, encouraged her to move to Germany where he promised she would achieve success. Unfortunately, Agneta did not get on with the demands of the German producers and returned to Sweden after breaking off her relationship with Zimmerman.

In 1972, Agneta was chosen to portray Mary Magdalene in the Swedish production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (b.1948) Jesus Christ Superstar. By this point, she had met and married Björn Ulvaeus and in 1973, had her first child Linda Elin Ulvaeus. Their son, Peter Christian Ulvaeus, was born in 1977.

Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad

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Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss, Countess of Plauen (née Lyngstad) was born on 15th November 1945 in Bjørkåsen, Norway, the only member of ABBA born outside of Sweden. Her German father, Alfred Haase (1919-2009) had been a sergeant in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, and fearing repercussions, Frida’s grandmother took her to Sweden in 1947. Although Frida remained close with her family, she was led to believe her father had died during the war.

Frida showed musical talent from a young age, encouraged by her grandmother who frequently sang old Norwegian songs to her as a young child. At school, Frida was asked to sing in front of her class and soon became known in the neighbourhood for her beautiful voice. At the age of 13, Frida became a schlager singer with the Evald Ek’s Orchestra.

“It was hard to believe, such a young person could sing that well. She was so easy to rehearse with and she was never shy onstage. The only thing I taught her was to sing out. In those days, she had a tendency of holding back her voice a little.”
– Evald Ek

In 1964 at the age of 18, Frida married Ragnar Fredriksson with whom she had two children: Hans Ragnar (b.1963) and Ann Lise-Lotte (1967-98). Frida sang with her husband in the Gunnar Sandevarn Trio and her own band, the Anni-Frid Four, however, the couple separated in 1968.

In 1967, Frida won the Swedish national talent competition, “New Faces”, which exposed her to a much wider audience. The following year, she met Agnetha Fältskog when she performed on Studio 8 and in 1969, met Benny Andersson at the Melodifestivalen, where she performed the song Härlig är vår jord (Our Earth Is Wonderful).

Frida’s first solo album Frida was produced by Benny, who was her fiancé at the time. The album met with considerable praise for her versatile voice. Through her relationship to Benny, who she eventually married in 1976, Frida became good friends with Agnetha and Björn Ulvaeus, which led to the formation of ABBA in 1972.

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Before ABBA was officially formed, the two couples first combined their musical talents when they went on a joint holiday to Cyprus in 1970. Having been spotted singing on the beach together, the four ended up performing an improvised concert in front of the United Nations soldiers on the island. At this time, Benny and Björn were already in the process of recording their first album and invited Agneta and Frida to provide backing vocals on a few of the tracks. Their first “hit” as a quartet was Hej, gamle man about an elderly Salvation Army soldier, which reached number five in the charts.

As time went on, Frida and Agneta went from being backing singers to more prominent vocals. By 1971, they were regularly performing together as a quartet in Swedish folkparks. Meanwhile, the Swedish music manager Stig Anderson (1931-97) told Björn and Benny, “One day the pair of you will write a song that becomes a worldwide hit.” Anderson was determined to establish his record company Polar Music in the mainstream international market and believed working with Björn and Benny would be his breakthrough.

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Stig Anderson met Björn when he began managing Hootenanny Singers in 1961. When Björn and Benny decided to pair up, Anderson was keen to manage them as well. Soon, he began managing Agnetha and Frida before eventually becoming the manager of ABBA. Anderson helped write some of ABBA’s earliest music and was often referred to as the fifth member of the band.

Although Agneta and Frida were becoming more prominent in Björn and Benny’s songs, it was not until June 1972 when they were officially considered to be a quartet. Their first single People Need Love was released under the name Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Despite only reaching 17 in the charts, Stig Anderson was convinced they would grow to be a big success.

In 1973, Anderson persuaded the band to enter Melodifestivalen with the song Ring Ring. The lyrics were originally Swedish, however, Anderson had them translated to English in the hopes it would become popular in the UK and USA. Ring Ring came third in the competition, therefore, they were not chosen to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest. Agneta would not have been able to perform anyway, since she was heavily pregnant with her daughter Linda. For performances, she was temporarily replaced by Inger Brundin, a friend of Frida.

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Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid was a bit of a mouthful to say when referring to the band, so Stig Anderson began referring to them as ABBA, an acronym for Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. The group decided to officially rename themselves ABBA in 1973, however, they had to get permission from the Swedish company Abba Seafood AB. The company responded, “O.K., as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed for what you’re doing.”

The ABBA logo was designed by Rune Söderqvist (1935-2014), who went on to create most of the band’s album sleeves. The logo first appeared in 1976 and was henceforth used for all future albums. The ambigram, as it is called because it can be read in more than one direction, contains a reversed letter B to make it a “mirror-image”. This was also a representation of the two couples in the band: Agneta and Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid.

Although Ring Ring failed to get ABBA to the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, Stig Anderson was determined to enter the band the following year. On 9th February 1974, ABBA performed the song Waterloo in Swedish at the Melodifestivalen and won the hearts of the nation and a position in Eurovision. On 6th April 1974, ABBA performed Waterloo, this time in English, at the 19th Eurovision Song Contest, held in Brighton on the south coast of the United Kingdom. With 24 points, ABBA became Sweden’s first-ever winners of the competition, seven points above Italy in second place.

Waterloo became popular throughout Europe, topping the charts in both the United Kingdom and West Germany – ironically, the UK did not give Sweden any points during the competition, nor did Greece, Monaco, Belgium and Italy. Even the United States was enthralled by ABBA, with Waterloo reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. ABBA’s next single Honey, Honey, however, did not do so well and people began to speculate that the group would be a one-hit-wonder.

From November 1974, ABBA embarked on a tour of Europe, starting with Denmark, West Germany and Austria. Unfortunately, many of their concerts were cancelled due to lack of demand. Things improved when the band travelled through Scandinavia. Most of their concerts in Sweden and Finland were sold out with audiences reaching over 19,000.

In 1975, a new single SOS put ABBA back in the UK charts and their album of the same name saw success in Germany and Australia. The single even received attention in the USA where it peaked at number 10. The song that solidified their success in Europe was Mamma Mia, a number one record in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom. In 1976, their new single Fernando went to number-one in at least thirteen countries and stayed in the charts for a record 40 weeks. This record was not beaten until 2017 when it was overtaken by Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.

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ABBA eventually reached number-one in the USA with Europop song Dancing Queen, released in August 1976. The song was written by Björn, Benny and Stig Anderson during the summer of 1975 and when Frida first heard it she allegedly cried. “I found the song so beautiful. It’s one of those songs that goes straight to your heart.”

Speaking about the single, Agnetha said, “It’s often difficult to know what will be a hit. The exception was ‘Dancing Queen.’ We all knew it was going to be massive.” Years later, Dancing Queen is still an internationally popular song. In 2000, it came fourth in Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Number One Singles and in 2015, Dancing Queen was inducted into the Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame.

“Dancing Queen is beautifully produced: catchy and euphoric, the perfect backdrop for a song that encapsulates the carefree bliss of youth.”
– Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 2016

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ABBA self wrote an operetta titled The Girl with the Golden Hair, which they performed during what they considered to be their first major tour. The tour began in Oslo, Norway in January 1977 followed by Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Essen, Hanover and Hamburg. The European leg of the tour ended in the United Kingdom with concerts in Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and London.

Following the success in Europe, the tour continued in Australia with eleven concerts. This leg of the tour was captured on film by Swedish director Lesse Hallström (b.1946), who directed the majority of ABBA’s music videos. The clips from the tour were pieced together to create a drama-documentary called ABBA: The Movie. Half fiction and half reality, the film follows a Radio DJ across Australia in an attempt to get an in-depth interview with the group. With many missed chances and several run-ins with the band’s protective bodyguard, the DJ eventually gets his interview after a chance encounter in a hotel lift.

By 1978, ABBA was one of the biggest bands in the world and began to plan their first tour of North America. Unfortunately, the pressure that came with fame had an adverse effect on Björn and Agnetha’s relationship and they announced they were getting divorced at the beginning of 1979. Nonetheless, the band were determined not to let it affect their band’s future, however, Björn and Benny had to secretly travel to the Bahamas to concentrate on their songwriting and escape the press.

ABBA travelled to the USA where they released their sixth studio album, Voulez-Vous, in April 1979. Popular songs from the album include Chiquitita, Does Your Mother Know and I Have a Dream. The tour of North America officially began on 13th September 1979 with a full house at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Canada.

“The voices of the band, Agnetha’s high sauciness combined with round, rich lower tones of Anni-Frid, were excellent…Technically perfect, melodically correct and always in perfect pitch…The soft lower voice of Anni-Frid and the high, edgy vocals of Agnetha were stunning”
Edmonton Journal.

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ABBA at Edmonton, Canada, 1979

After four sold-out concerts in Canada, the band performed a further 17 in the United States. The final show, due to be held in Washington DC, was unfortunately cancelled after a flight from Boston in severe weather conditions left Agnetha emotionally distressed. Agnetha had a fear of flying, which is why the band only managed a couple of tours outside of Europe.

After a long flight home, ABBA continued their tour with twenty-three sold-out gigs in Europe, six of which were held at the Wembley Arena in London. The following year, Agnetha braved the flight to Japan where they performed eleven concerts. This trip marked the end of their foreign adventures.

In July 1980, ABBA released the single The Winner Takes it All and found themselves back at the top of the UK charts. Although the lyrics are about a divorce, the band claimed it was fiction and not connected to Björn and Agnetha’s divorce. “One thing I can say is that there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.” (Björn) In 1999, The Winner Takes it All was voted Britain’s favourite ABBA song and, in 2006, Britain’s favourite breakup song.

Super Trouper, another UK number-one, was released towards the end of 1980. Originally, it was going to be called Blinka Lilla Stjärna (Twinkle Little Star, in Swedish), however, the name was changed to reference a brand of spotlights used in stadiums called Super Trouper. The song became ABBA’s ninth number one in the UK, putting them in fourth place for the most UK chart-toppers in history. At the top were The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. ABBA remained in fourth until Madonna released her tenth number-one single in 2000.

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ABBA during the TV special Dick Cavett Meets ABBA in April 1981

The year 1981 was a mix of good and bad for the members of ABBA. In January, Björn married Lena Källersjö and their manager, Stig Anderson, celebrated his 50th birthday. In February, however, Benny and Frida announced their divorce. They admitted their relationship had been crumbling for years and Benny had met another woman, Mona Nörklit, whom he married later that year.

In April, ABBA returned to the United States for a special interview with the US talk show host Dick Cavett (b.1936). This coincided with the release of their final studio album The Visitors. According to Björn, the tracks on the album referred to current and personal affairs, including the threat of war, failed relationships and ageing. One track, When All is Said and Done, fittingly became ABBA’s final Top 40 hit.

ABBA did not know at the time that The Visitors would be their final studio album. At the beginning of 1982, they were busy writing songs and planning a tour, however, by the summer, they had only recorded three songs. Realising they were struggling, ABBA decided to take a break from songwriting and produce a special album of their existing singles in time for Christmas. The album was titled The Singles: The First Ten Years and went to number one in the UK and Belgium.

In November 1982, ABBA travelled to West Germany and the UK to promote The Singles. On 11th December, they appeared through a live link on Noel Edmonds’ The Late, Late Breakfast Show, for what ended up being their last performance together. ABBA never officially announced the end of their group but decided amongst themselves to have a break. Fans have hoped ever since that ABBA would reunite but Björn crushed those dreams in 2008 saying, “We will never appear on stage again … There is simply no motivation to re-group. Money is not a factor and we would like people to remember us as we were. Young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition.”

Despite ABBA dissolving, Björn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha’s careers were far from over.

Benny Andersson

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Benny and Björn continued writing music despite no longer performing themselves. Together, they collaborated with the lyricist Tim Rice (b.1944) on their first stage musical Chess. The concept album was released in October 1984 and the track I Know Him So Well, sung by Elaine Paige (b.1948) and Barbara Dickson (b.1947), shot to number one in the UK. The show eventually opened in May 1986 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London.

In 1985, Benny began working as the producer of Genesis, a brother-sister pop duo from Sweden. Many of their songs were written by Benny and Björn, including the track Mio My Mio, which was used in the film Mio in the Land of Faraway based on a book by Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002).

Benny began writing and performing music alone, releasing his first solo album in 1987. The majority of the music was performed by Benny on his accordion. Two years later, he released a second solo album. At the same time, Benny continued to write music for other artists and composed the introduction melody for the 1992 European football championship.

Björn and Benny collaborated on another stage musical during the 1990s, resulting in the award-winning Mamma Mia! Based around twenty-four of ABBA’s songs. Success continued with the film version in 2008. Mamma Mia! The Movie is currently the best selling film musical of all time and the biggest-selling DVD ever in the UK.

Today, Benny performs with his own band, Benny Anderssons Orkester (Benny Andersson’s orchestra). The band is made up of sixteen musicians and has released five albums so far. Benny’s son Ludvig (b.1982) has followed in his father’s footsteps by forming his own band, Atlas.

Björn Ulvaeus

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Björn married music journalist Lena Källersjö in January 1981, towards the end of his career with ABBA. The couple have two children, Emma Eleonora (b.1982) and Anna Linnea (1986). Emma was born around the time Björn and Benny were working on the musical Chess, however, Anna was born after the family had moved to the United Kingdom, where they remained until 1990. Björn and his wife currently live in Stockholm.

Whilst Björn was in the UK, he set up an IT business with his brother. Later, he became an owner of NoteHeads, a Swedish online music composition company. Back in Sweden, Björn began working with Benny on the production of Mamma Mia!

Björn is a member of Humanisterna, a nonprofit organisation working for a secular society and human rights. He is a “cash-free campaigner” and has reportedly lived without using any physical money for over half a decade.

Today, Björn continues to write music and has been awarded The Special International Ivor Novello Award alongside Benny.

Agnetha Fältskog

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Only a year after ABBA disbanded, Agnetha released her first post-ABBA solo album. Wrap Your Arms Around Me immediately went to number one in the charts in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, and Denmark. Her second album was less successful, however, in 1987, Agnetha released the album Kom följ med i vår karusell (Come Join Us On Our Carousel) with her son Christian and was nominated for the Swedish music prize Grammis.

In 1987, Agnetha travelled to California to record her fourth studio album, however, decided to have a hiatus from recording after its release. For the next few years, she devoted much of her time to astrology, yoga and horse riding. In 1990, she married a Swedish surgeon, Tomas Sonnenfeld, but they divorced three years later.

The mid-1990s were a difficult period for Agnetha. In 1994 her mother committed suicide by jumping from a balcony and, the following year, her father died. A brief relationship with a Dutch forklift worker, Gert van der Graaf, ended in a court restraining order after he continued to stalk her long after the relationship ended.

Agnetha returned to music in 2004 with a new album called My Colouring Book. The majority of the tracks were covers of songs from the 1960s, however, she managed to top the charts in Sweden. Reviews in British newspapers suggested that “time hasn’t diminished her perfect voice,” (The Observer) and “Agnetha Fältskog has a vulnerability that gets under the skin of a song.” (The Guardian)

Agnetha’s latest album, A, was released in 2013 and includes a duet with Gary Barlow (b.1971). Over 600,000 copies were sold in the first two months after the release and reached number six in the UK charts. The same year, Agnetha was awarded the SKAP 2013 Kai Gullmar Memorial Award and performed live for the first time in 25 years at the BBC Children in Need Rocks 2013 concert in London.

The successes Agnetha has achieved are remarkable not just for her talent but because of her fight against hidden mental health issues. Her aviophobia made it difficult to tour with ABBA and she would always travel by bus when she could. Unfortunately, experiencing a bus accident on a Swedish motorway in 1983 put her off that mode of transport, too.

Other things Agnetha struggled with was stage fright, fear of crowds, fear of open space and fear of heights – all things that made being a pop superstar very difficult. Agnetha needed therapy following her split from Björn and the deaths of her parents worsened her depression.

Today, Agnetha lives with her son, near Stockholm and her daughter lives nearby.

Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss

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Before ABBA had split up, Frida was already working on her first post-ABBA solo album. Produced by Phil Collins (b.1951), the music had a rockier tone and was a success across Europe and the United States.

Frida continued releasing successful albums until 2005 when she decided to have a hiatus from music. By 2010, however, she was producing music again.

In 2013, Frida helped organise the opening of ABBA: The Museum in Stockholm, however, she reportedly stated she wanted to “let ABBA rest”, crushing any hopes of a reunion.

After ABBA split up, Frida moved to London before relocating to Switzerland with her new boyfriend, Prince Heinrich Ruzzo of Reuss, Count of Plauen (1950–1999), who she eventually married in 1992. In 1988, Frida became a grandmother for the first time when her daughter Ann Lise-Lotte gave birth to Jonathan Casper. Sadly, Ann died in 1998 from fatal injuries after a car crash. Frida’s husband died the following year.

Today, Frida lives in Sweden with her current boyfriend Henry Smith, 5th Viscount Hambleden (b.1955), a descendant of the founder of WHSmith. Frida is involved with many charities and environmental issues.

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Posing together with the actors from the motion picture Mamma Mia! The Movie on 4 July 2008

Despite having split nearly forty years ago, ABBA is still reeling in the success of their many albums and Mamma Mia! In 2017, a blue plaque was erected outside Brighton Dome to commemorate their 1974 Eurovision win.

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The last public appearance of all four members of ABBA took place on 20th January 2016 at Mamma Mia! The Party in Stockholm. A few months later, it was revealed the band had reunited to work on a digital entertainment experience. The idea involves life-like avatars or Abbatars that will “perform” their songs. In 2019, Björn revealed they had written five new songs that will feature the Abbatars, due to be released in 2020.

Now, all we can do is wait and see what ABBA do next.

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.

Picasso and Paper

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Self-portrait, 1918

“To this day, I remember him lost in a mountain of papers.”
– Jaume Sabartés

Pablo Picasso was one of the most influential artists in the 20th century and is remembered for founding the Cubist movement. His paintings are recognised by his radical style and characteristics of Surrealism, although he was never part of the Surrealist movement. Yet, there was so much more to Picasso’s talents that have been overshadowed by his revolutionary artistic accomplishments. This year (2020), the Royal Academy of Arts brings Picasso’s fascination with paper to the foreground, displaying more than 300 works that span his 80-year career, many of which are hard to believe are his.

“Some day there will undoubtedly be a science… which will seek to learn more about man in general through the study of creative man. I often think about such a science, and I want to leave to posterity a documentation that will be as complete as possible.”
– Picasso

It appears Picasso kept everything – drawings, prints, designs, photographs, manuscripts, poems, doodles on newspapers, ideas scribbled on scrap paper – and the Royal Academy have sorted through the items to create a chronological exhibition entitled Picasso and Paper. Unlike the exhibition Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy at Tate Modern in 2018, which focused on a single year, the Royal Academy attempts to look at every aspect of Picasso’s career. By studying the diversity and range of Picasso’s use of paper, both in preparatory works and final outcomes, the exhibition reveals the mobility of his intelligence and provides a deeper understanding of his work.

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Dove and Dog, Picasso age 8

Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, named after a series of saints and relatives, was born in Málaga, Spain in 1881 to Don José Ruiz y Blasco (1836-1913) and María Picasso y López. He began showing an artistic talent from a young age and his mother claimed his first word was “piz”, short of lápiz, the Spanish word for pencil. Picasso’s father was a painter, specialising in still life, landscape and pigeons, and gave Picasso his first art lessons in 1888. In 1891, Picasso attended his father’s ornamental drawing classes at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in A Coruña. By the age of ten, Picasso had surpassed his father in artistic talent.

The family moved to Barcelona in 1895 following the death of Picasso’s younger sister Conchita from Diptheria. Despite the sad time, Picasso enrolled at the School of Fine Arts, being admitted to the advanced class at the young age of 13. At 16, his father decided to send him to Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, although he stopped attending after a few days, preferring to study the paintings in the Prado.

Academically, Picasso was a realist painter, however, from 1897 he began to show elements of Symbolism, adding unnatural colours to his work. In 1900, Picasso made his first trip to Paris where he shared an apartment with the French Poet Max Jacob (1876-1944), however, severe poverty forced him to return to Madrid the following year.

In 1901, Picasso was heavily impacted by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casamegas (1880-1901). Having met in 1899, they quickly became friends and travelled across Spain together. Casamegas went to Paris with Picasso, however, there were signs his mental health was suffering. It is believed Casamegas shot himself after a rejected marriage proposal.

Casamegas’ death led to the development of what is now known as Picasso’s “Blue Period”. As well as his friend’s death, the works produced during this period (1901-04) express his feelings of loneliness and life in poverty. The majority of his paintings at this time were rendered in shades of blue and blue-green. Subjects included sad-looking women with children, prostitutes, beggars and his recently deceased friend.

The Royal Academy displays pen and ink studies Picasso made when planning his painting La Vie. The sketches reveal he originally intended to include himself in the painting as though it were set in his studio. By studying these papers, we learn how Picasso approached a painting by experimenting with ideas before applying paint to canvas. By the time he started painting, the figure of himself had become a likeness of his friend Casagemas.

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The Frugal Meal, 1904

During his Blue Period, Picasso was introduced to the technique of etching by the Catalan artist Ricard Canals (1876-1931). This printmaking technique, also known as drypoint, involves scratching very fine lines onto a copper plate. The plate is then inked and laid face-down on a piece of paper, which is then squeezed through a printing press. By this process, the image is transferred onto the paper.

Picasso’s debut etching is entitled The Frugal Meal, which depicts an emaciated blind man and sighted woman sitting at a table. A very sparse meal is laid out in front of them, which is not enough for one person let alone two. Blindness was another key theme during Picasso’s Blue Period.

When Picasso made his first engraving, he was also living in poverty and could not afford to purchase a copper plate. Instead, he scraped down a previously used plate, which resulted in a few unintended lines in the background of his etching.

In 1904, Picasso returned to France, leaving his Blue Period behind in Barcelona. Inspired by French performers at the Cirque Madrano, clowns, dancers, acrobats and harlequins, Picasso began a new period: his Rose Period (1904-06). Tinged with the colour pink, these paintings expressed his melancholy feelings towards the lives of these performers. Nonetheless, the pinks and oranges have a much lighter tone than his Blue Period.

As well as painting, Picasso continued to produce etchings and drypoints, culminating in his first significant series, the Saltimbanques Suite. These included portraits of performers and scenes at the circus.

Some critics believe Picasso’s change from Blue to Rose was sparked by his relationship with Fernande Olivier (1881-1966) who was a French artist and model that Picasso met in Paris. They became lovers and their relationship lasted seven years. In 1906, Picasso and Olivier spent the summer at Gósol in the Spanish Pyrenees, which inspired another painting theme. Sticking to the red and orange tones, Picasso began painting the landscape and locals in a stylised way, moving further away from the realist art of his youth. With Olivier as a willing model, he also became more interested in representing the female nude.

The Royal Academy devotes one room of the exhibition to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which he painted in 1907, although they only have a digital reproduction of the final artwork. Around the room are examples of studies and preparatory sketches Picasso produced when planning what would become one of the most revolutionary paintings in the history of art. His sketchbooks suggest the composition was originally going to include a sailor and a medical student in a brothel, however, the final result only featured women.

At first, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may appear to be a continuation of his Rose Period, however, it was actually the beginning of his African Art and Primitivism Period (1907-09). Picasso had become fascinated with Iberian sculptures that were produced between the Bronze Age and the Roman Conquest. Iberian art, mostly sculptures, was largely inspired by the Greeks, the Phoenicians and Oriental countries and tended to use blocks of shapes rather than carefully sculpted realistic dimensions. Picasso liked this idea of simplification and experimented with it in his sketchbooks.

In 1907, Picasso visited the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro where he saw and was impressed by African artefacts. This encouraged him to continue to experiment and simplify his drawings into abstract, geometric shapes. Picasso began to reject the teaching of Western art, particularly in terms of perspective, squeezing scenes together into compressed spaces.

Picasso’s sketchbooks are an invaluable resource, providing insight into his transformation from realism to abstract. As time went on, his drawings became flatter, rigid and geometric like the ancient Iberian sculptures. The African influence is obvious in the mask-like faces some of his characters portray.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was not publically displayed until 1916, partly because of the shock and revulsion his new style received. Picasso’s rival Henri Matisse (1869-1954) initially assumed this “savage” style was a hoax and he was not the only artist to make snide comments. Fortunately, the French painter Georges Braque (1882-1963) saw potential in Picasso’s new direction.

From 1909, Braque began working closely with Picasso, exploring the directions Picasso’s latest style could go. Together they developed what we now know as Cubism, however, this is a broad term for the style that quickly spread across Paris and then Europe. Art critic Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1934) coined the word “cubism”, however, Picasso’s work can be separated into Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism.

Analytic Cubism (1909-12) is the style of painting Picasso and Braque developed, which involved using monochrome or neutral colours. Rather than painting what they could see, they mentally took apart the objects and analysed their shapes and forms, then put them backed together like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle.

This style was not restricted to painting, for instance, Head of a Woman, which Picasso sculpted and cast in bronze. The woman is Fernande Olivier, however, rather than producing a likeness, Picasso analysed the form and shape of her head and facial features. In several sketches, Picasso explored the structure of Olivier’s appearance from various angles, fusing different sections and viewpoints together. The final result was based on several sketches merged together.

Synthetic Cubism (1912-19) was a further development of the genre made primarily by Picasso. Rather than painting, it involved the use of paper, often in fragments, which were pasted together to make a collage. By using pins, glue, newspaper, wrapping paper and wallpaper, Picasso began making papier collé (pasted paper) paintings by adding elements of collage to his paintings or drawings. This then developed into entire compositions made from paper.

Picasso’s favourite items to depict in this style appear to have been pipes, glasses, guitars or violins. These objects could easily be flattened and recognised through geometric shapes. Occasionally, Picasso would make three-dimensional models of the instruments, however, they retained their Cubist style and would not have functioned properly had they been real.

The outbreak of World War I temporarily separated Picasso and Braque, the latter who was called to join the French army, and Picasso’s artwork became more sombre. This was partly due to the devestation of war but mostly due to the death of his new lover. Olivier and Picasso had split and he had become infatuated with Eva Gouel (real name Marcelle Humbert). Many of his Cubist works expressed his love for Eva and he was devestated when she died from an illness in 1915 at the age of 30.

With his friends gone to war, Picasso sought out other social circles and became involved with Serge Diaghilev’s (1872-1929) Ballets Russes. Picasso was commissioned to design the costumes and set for Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) Parade, with music by Erik Satie (1866-1925). The musical score lasted fifteen minutes and involved the sounds of horns and engines to represent the chaos of modern life.

Cubism was still at the forefront of Picasso’s art, therefore, it is no surprise that his designs for Parade were influenced by this. Complicated costumes merged the elements Satie was trying to evoke through his music, including, car horns, high-rise buildings and typewriters.

Whilst working on Parade, Picasso married Olga Khokhlova (1891-1955) who was a ballerina in Diaghilev’s troupe. They spent their honeymoon near the Bay of Biscay in the Summer of 1918 then returned to Paris. Through his wife, Picasso attended many high society events and experienced the life of the rich, although he was still rather poor – his rent was paid by his art dealer Paul Rosenburg (1881-1959).

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Igor Stravinksy, 1920

Picasso and Olga had a son, Paulo, however, their relationship was impacted by their conflicting ways of life. Olga preferred social propriety, whereas Picasso wished to retain his Bohemian lifestyle. Nonetheless, Picasso continued to work with Diaghilev’s troupe and collaborated with Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) on his 1920 ballet Pulcinella.

Due to marital conflicts, Picasso began a secret affair with 17-year old Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-1977). Picasso wished to divorce his wife but this would result in Olga receiving half his wealth, therefore, the couple formally separated instead. As a result, Picasso was legally married until his wife’s death in 1955 and could not marry his new lover. Marie-Thérèse lived in hope of eventual marriage, which never happened, and gave birth to Picasso’ daughter Maya out of wedlock.

After the First World War, many artists became a part of the “return to order” movement that swept across Europe. The upheaval of the war caused people to reflect on what life used to be like and for artists, such as Picasso, this involved attempting to recreate the art and culture of classical antiquity. Thus, Neoclassicism was born.

This period, which lasted from 1919 until 1924, is largely omitted from Picasso’s portfolio and visitors to the Royal Academy’s exhibition may be surprised by the abrupt change in style. Picasso made his first trip to Italy in 1917 where he came across many examples of classicism. By using a similar range of media that classical painters used, such as red chalk, and pastels, Picasso produced exaggerated figures, emphasising the round facial features rather than cutting them up as he would have done in a cubist portrait.

Picasso’s Neoclassical period was short-lived and he soon returned to his former Cubist style. He continued to collage together different materials, including paper, string, cloth and nails, to make the shape of an object, such as a guitar. By 1925, however, he had caught the eye of another group of artists, the Surrealists. Whilst Picasso never officially joined the movement, his work inspired the leader André Breton (1896-1966) who declared him “one of us”. Picasso was invited to participate in the first Surrealist group exhibition, although he chose to display examples of his Cubist work.

A handful of sketchbooks suggest Picasso was influenced by Surrealist art, although he did not find the manifesto of the group appealing. His series of constructed guitars is similar to works or “found objects” by Surrealist artists and his style of line drawing underwent a transformation. Picasso began experimenting with irrational scale and morphing segments of an image together.

His relationship with Marie-Thérèse inspired many of Picasso’s works, particularly of an erotic nature. She appears in over 40 of his supposedly sexualised drawings of a woman’s head, which led to a sculpture of a woman with an irrationally large nose. A lithograph of Marie-Thérèse’s visage proves the nose is not based on any semblance of truth.

In the early 1930s, Picasso developed an alter ego that he used in his art to express issues in his personal life. This was the half-man, half-bull, lustful minotaur from Greek mythology. Picasso identified with its strength and masculinity and it also alluded back to his childhood and love of Spanish bull-fighting.

The minotaur was known for its ability to overpower women and Picasso attempted to demonstrate this in his drawings, mostly of a sexual nature. The women in his artworks often resembled the women in his life at the time: Olga, Marie-Thérèse and a new lover, Dora Maar (1907-97). The violence of his subject matter may be reflective of the psychological tensions between Picasso and these women.

As well as issues in his personal life, Picasso was affected by the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War. Up until now, Picasso was against mixing politics and art, however, the 1936 uprising of the fascist General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) changed this. Picasso produced a series of etchings showing Franco brutally murdering people.

At this time, Picasso was asked to paint a mural for the Republic’s pavilion at the Paris World Fair of 1937. Initially, Picasso explored the idea of portraying an artist’s studio, however, after the German bombing of the Basque city of Guernica on 26th April 1937, which resulted in hundreds of innocent deaths, Picasso changed his line of thinking. Guernica has become Picasso’s most famous work and the evolution of the painting can be seen in his sketchbooks and through photographs taken by his lover Dora Maar. Whilst considered to be one of the most powerful war paintings, not everyone understands the meaning of the different elements. Picasso, however, refused to explain, saying, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”

After the World Fair, Guernica was displayed as the centrepiece of an exhibition that toured Scandinavia and England, alongside paintings by Matisse and Braque. When Franco won the Spanish Civil War, the painting was sent to the United States to help raise funds for Spanish refugees. It was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, where a major retrospective of Picasso’s principal works was also held.

Meanwhile, Picasso continued to depict the grief and anxiety caused by the war, particularly in his Weeping Woman series, which was modelled on Dora Maar. A large collage of cut-out wallpaper, which was eventually produced as a tapestry twenty years later, is believed to show the same women Picasso depicted in Guernica. Femmes à leur toilette contains three figures that some have identified as Olga (left), Dora (centre) and Marie-Thérèse (right).

When the Second World War broke out, Picasso decided to remain in Paris during the German occupation. His paintings did not conform to Nazi ideals, therefore, his home was often searched by the Gestapo. On one occasion, an officer found a photograph of Guernica and asked if Picasso had done it. The artist replied, “No, you did.”

Sketchbooks from the period show Picasso continued with his paintings but, most interestingly, designed sculptures. Bronze casting was outlawed by the Germans, however, Picasso managed to use bronze smuggled in by the French Resistance. Sketches for Man with a Sheep show the man getting progressively older until Picasso settled on a thin, balding man. The sculpture is believed to be a response to the war, particularly the lives of innocent civilians caught up in the lives of soldiers and weapons. The sketches contribute as much emotion as the final sculpture. In an interview with Picasso, his drawing technique and medium were likened to coagulated blood.

As another means of expressing his emotions, Picasso began composing poetry. Between the beginning of the Second World War and 1959, Picasso wrote at least 300 poems. The Royal Academy displays pages containing his poetry, illustrations and scribbles, the latter which are as expressive as his words.

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Portrait of Françoise, 1946

In 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Picasso grew tired of Dora and sought the affection of a young art student, Françoise Gilot (b.1921). Although she was forty years younger than Picasso, they began to live together and had two children, Claude (b.1947) and Paloma (b.1949). Françoise later described her relationship with Picasso as abusive and claimed he had affairs with other women at the same time, for example, Geneviève Laporte (1926-2012), who featured in many portraits. Françoise eventually left Picasso, taking their children with her.

During his turbulent relationship with Françoise and other lovers, Picasso returned to admiring the artists he had looked up to as a young painter. He was particularly fascinated with Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the grass), which had sparked controversy and was ill-received when first displayed in 1836. “When I see Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, I think there will be trouble later on,” noted Picasso. The painting reveals a nude woman picnicking with two fully dressed men.

Picasso recorded his response to the painting in his sketchbooks, making over 150 drawings of the subject in his own style. Twenty-seven of these became paintings and others inspired watercolours, linocuts and three-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Picasso also reproduced works by other artists, Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment).

In his 70s, Picasso made and painted ceramics at the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris on the French Riviera where he met his next lover, Jacqueline Roque (1927-86). He began seeing Jacqueline before his relationship with Françoise had ended, who was plotting to marry Picasso to secure the rights of her children as legitimate heirs of the artist. As a means of revenge, Picasso married Jacqueline in secret in 1961.

By this time, Picasso was an international celebrity and lived in a Gothic mansion with Jacqueline and could afford luxury villas in the south of France. Nonetheless, he continued working and accepting commissions, the majority of which were sculptures. The Royal Academy, however, continues to focus on his works involving paper, such as sketches, prints and cuts outs.

Picasso had the ability to manipulate paper in new and unusual ways, for example, a free-standing paper sculpture of Head of a Woman. The woman, presumably Jacqueline, was initially drawn in pencil, then cut and folded so that she could stand upright. The image looks similar to versions Picasso painted on canvas in the past.

Towards the end of the exhibition, the Royal Academy shows a clip from the documentary Le Mystère Picasso by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-77), which captures on film the processes Picasso went through when producing a work of art. What may start as one subject (for instance, a chicken) may become a different subject entirely (for instance, a woman’s face).

Picasso’s final works were a complex mix of styles, however, due to his age, many dismissed them as slapdash works of an artist past his prime. By then, he was in his 90s and very aware of his own mortality. This is evidenced in one of his final self-portraits in which he depicted himself as a skull with terrified eyes and a mouth tied shut (either that or he had not aged well!).

Regardless of how they were received, Picasso continued producing artworks until his death on 8th April 1973. He was entertaining friends with his wife when he suffered pulmonary oedema and heart failure. Whilst Picasso’s past lovers had reported violence and abuse, his relationship with Jacqueline lasted until his final breath. Devastated by his death, Jacqueline shot herself nine years later, passing away at the age of 59. Marie-Thérèse, who Picasso had continued to support financially, killed herself four years after Picasso’s death.

Picasso and Paper reveals the side of Picasso that has been hidden from the world for so long. Everyone knows of his abstract portraits and his cubist paintings, however, his early years, collages and sketchbooks are rarely exhibited. By working chronologically through his life, the Royal Academy has focused more on Picasso’s process rather than his outcomes. Some people may argue that his work appears random, haphazard and thrown-together, however, this exhibition proves a lot more thought went into his work than it might appear.

The exhibition Picasso and Paper is open until 13th April 2020. Tickets cost between £18 and £22 but Friends of the RA can visit for free. Visitors are advised to allow two hours for their visit.