Drawn in Colour

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A rare opportunity to see stunning paintings, pastels, and drawings by leading French Impressionist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Coinciding with the centenary of Degas’ death, the National Gallery has organised an exhibition of the artist’s pastel works in collaboration with the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Rarely ever put on public display, twenty fragile artworks are arranged in a darkened room to protect them from light damage, and will remain for public consumption until 7th May 2018. As well as celebrating his life’s works, Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell provides an insight into how Degas worked and the impact his personal circumstances had on his outcomes.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917; born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) was the firstborn of a family of five children. Growing up in Paris, Degas was encouraged by his father, a wealthy art-loving banker, to train for law work, however, Degas quickly made his own decision to change career direction. At the age of 20, Degas began studying with Louis Lamothe (1822-69), an academic artist who taught him all he knew about draughtsmanship.

Degas also briefly enrolled in classes at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, he preferred to educate himself by carefully studying paintings in the Louvre. Incidentally, it was whilst making a copy of a painting in the gallery that he was spotted by the modern painter Édouard Manet (1832-83). Manet introduced Degas to the newly formed circle of Impressionist artists. The group focused on expressing their personality through their artwork in response to the world around them. Joining the Impressionists set Degas on a path that influenced him to focus on contemporary scenes rather than the historical type witnessed in the Louvre. Degas was to become known for ballet and theatre scenes, cafés and women bathing.

Like most Impressionist art, Degas’ scenes look fresh and informal as though they were spontaneous and unplanned. However, Degas confessed that this was only how they appeared and were a far shout from reality. Degas was a very meticulous artist and carefully planned all his compositions.

Initially, Degas preferred to use oil paints, however, by the age of fifty, his eyesight was becoming significantly impaired. As a result, he began to use pastel as an alternative (as seen in this exhibition) because it meant he could get physically closer to the work surface in order to see it better. Degas experimented wildly with pastel, inventing ways to manipulate the colours and produce effects that had never been seen before. The worse his eyesight became, the more garish the colours and tones of the artwork.

 

The exhibition is divided into sections which include Modern Life, Dancers, Private World, and Horses. This shows the range of themes Degas explored as an Impressionist artist. One thing that is striking about Degas’ outcomes is that the people depicted appear unaware that they are being watched. Pastel drawings of ballerinas appear to have been made whilst viewing a dance rehearsal, the jockeys as though viewing a race, and the bathing women do not seem to realise anyone else is in the room.

“Until now, the nude has always been represented in poses that presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest, simple folk … It is as if you looked through a key hole.”

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Nude Grand Arabesque, First Time. 1860s

Amongst the twenty pastel drawings in the exhibition is a nude sculpture of a dancer. Originally molded out of wax, Degas produced these himself in order to aid his artwork. Degas often relied on these tactile forms to help him draw the dancers who he could no longer see clearly.

It is obvious which artworks in the exhibition occurred after sight loss due to the change in tone and execution. Older works feel much smoother and the scene is easier to make out, whereas those produced in the latter stages of Degas’ career have a more rushed appearance; the lines are more chaotic and the figures blurred. It is as though viewing a scene with poor eyesight – the way Degas probably saw it.

 

The two drawings above are a clear example Degas’ eyesight had upon his outcomes. In The Rehearsal (1874), the figures are clear with detailed shadows and clothing. The architecture of the room is precise, particularly the spiral staircase which reflects the contortion abilities of the dancers. In contrast, Dancers on a Bench (1898) is less defined, the colours unnatural and the pastel strokes obvious.

A strange fellow, this Degas — sickly, a bundle of nerves, with such weak eyes that he is afraid of going blind, yet for these very reasons extremely sensitive to the character of things. He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know.

-Edmond de Goncourt (1874)

Today’s exhibition would not have been able to take place, or at least be significantly harder to curate, without the extensive collection of one Scottish man. Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was an art collector who, from 1916 onwards, devoted his life to collecting. Whilst his interests were diverse, his collection soon became strong in medieval art and 19th-century French painting. His passion for the latter resulted in a number of Degas’ pastel drawings, which are currently on loan to the National Gallery.

Burrell eventually had 8000 objects in his collection, which he presented to the city of Glasgow in 1944 along with a considerable sum of money to pay for a museum to be constructed in which to display the artworks. Now currently under refurbishment, the Burrell Collection is closed until 2020, thus providing the perfect opportunity to temporarily rehouse Degas’ drawings at the National Gallery rather than putting them into storage.

Despite it being easy to obtain permission to borrow the artwork, it was not easy to transport and display the fragile drawings. Pastels can quickly be damaged by handling and light, but Degas’ pastels are even more delicate because of the type of paper he preferred. The majority of his work was produced on tracing paper which is very flimsy and easily torn. Their age only increases the risk of breakage making this exhibition one of the more challenging the Gallery has assembled.

The artworks are displayed on dark grey walls in rooms with subdued lighting. Although this is to limit the possibility of damage, it changes the way visitors perceive the images. The darkness makes Degas’ work feel precious, rare and special – almost sacred. Unlike the rest of the National Gallery, which can get very noisy, no one raises their voice above a whisper as they tour the Drawn in Colour exhibition.

One of the great things about seeing an exhibition devoted to one artist, rather than viewing randomly positioned paintings, is the insight into the artist’s life, thoughts, and techniques. Seeing one painting alone, whether in person or online, almost removes any meaning or history, whereas in a collection the processes and developments can be seen. Along with explanatory captions and walls of information, the National Gallery’s tailor-made displays and exhibition are as educational as reading a textbook.

As already mentioned, Drawn in Colour is open until 7th May 2018, so there is plenty of time to arrange a visit to the Gallery. There are also a few other works by Degas in other rooms that may also be worth viewing in order to compare his pastel works with those completed in oil on canvas.

A list of works by Degas that the National Gallery has in their possession can be found on their website.

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Art in the Park

It has already been five years since London held the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Years of preparation took place beforehand, building new venues and creating a sporting complex for an event that would only last a few weeks. However, unlike the situation in Rio after the last Olympic games, London has not abandoned this expensive project and is continuing to use and develop the Olympic Park today.  Christened the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in commemoration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, the area was developed into the largest urban park in Western Europe by restoring wetland habitats and cultivating native plants.

Of course, the original Olympic arenas are still in use and sit within the park in all their quirky architectural glory. The London Aquatics Centre has been open to the public since 2014 as has the Lee Valley VeloPark at the opposite end of the park. The Olympic Stadium, now known as the London Stadium, is home to West Ham United Football Club and British Athletics, both making use of its multi-purpose arena.

During the construction of the Olympic Park, designers and landscapers were fully aware of the impact the project would have on the local area. In order for Londoners to benefit from the park, they chose to incorporate creative features so that the final outcome would not be completely sports oriented. In 2011, The Legacy List charity was set up to support the games but also to create connections with the general public by commissioning art installations and educational enterprises.

The art installations are still displayed in the park, reflecting on the landscape, history and local memories. Artists from far and wide were invited to participate, resulting in some unconventional outcomes. Some may not be much to look at whilst others may be easily overlooked, however, they all have interesting stories behind them.

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ArcelorMittal Orbit

Due to its 560 acres, it is not possible to see all the artworks in the park on one visit, but there are a few that are unmissable from the moment of entry. In fact, one can be seen from a distance and has attracted many visitors since its re-opening to the public in 2016. The ArcelorMittal Orbit stands at 114.5-metres and is the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom. Originally commissioned by the Mayor of London in 2012. Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s intricate continuous loop of recycled steel has been converted into a 178-metre tunnel slide that takes daring visitors spinning around the structure twelve times at the same speed it takes World Record Holder Wayde van Niekerk to run 400-metres.

The Mayor, Boris Johnson, originally commissioned the construction because he thought the park needed “something extra”. Designers were given the task of blueprinting ideas for an Olympic Tower from which Kapoor and Balmond’s concept was chosen as the winner. This brings about the question as to what the other designs looked like and why this contemporary eye-sore was selected above them all. At least the views from the top promise to be impressive.

The other fairly noticeable artistic feature in the park is Keith Wilson’s Steles. Thirty-five coloured poles ranging in height between 3 and 5-metres are found along the side of the Waterworks River which flows through the park before joining up with the River Lea. Although 8-kilometres of waterways flow through the park, Wilson’s Steles are only situated in a small section. Painted in the colours of the Olympic rings, these Steles look like giant crayons, however, are meant to resemble nautical waymarkers. These were the first art installation to be completed in the park and have a physical function as well as an aesthetic one. Due to their position in the water, they can easily be used as mooring posts for barges and small boats that float along the river. Alternatively, they make good roosting posts for the local black herons.

Other art installations are less noticeable until you stumble across them whilst exploring the park. Some may not even be noticed unless you are aware of them, to begin with. Hidden behind the Aquatics Centre is a utility building that has been used as a canvas by the artist DJ Simpson. Commissioned by the Olympic Delivering Authority, Simpson’s peculiar artwork, Open Folds, was installed in March 2012 to represent the contours of the neighbouring landscape. Constructed of dark anodised aluminium, Open Folds hugs the outside walls of the building. Simpson has punched out holes and formed patterned lines to emphasise the varying shape of the surrounding terrain.

In the main section of the park, another building has been used to display an installation of 2000 wooden cubes. One wall of the Podium Café is the location of Pixel Wall by the London-based design collective known as Tomato. The interactive wall allows visitors to turn the cubes, which have a mix of light and dark surfaces, in order to create different pixellated images or words. This is something that appeals to most visitors who cannot resist touching and playing with the cubes and discovering their creative potential. Despite clear instructions not to, vandals have unfortunately written on the cubes, ruining the overall aesthetic of the artwork.

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The Fun Palace by Caroline Bird.

All forms of art were involved with the development of the Olympic Park and, although they all resulted in something tangible, they did not necessarily begin that way. As well as artists and designers, poets were invited to contribute their thoughts and words. On a wooden shed by the South Lawn is an engraved verse from a poem written by Caroline Bird.

Titled The Fun Palace, Bird’s poem narrates the life of Joan Littlewood (1914-2002), a theatre director who was heavily involved with the Theatre Royal in Stratford. During her career, she dreamt up the idea of a “Fun Palace” – an arts and education centre. She envisioned this building on the site of the park, however, her ambition never came to fruition. In honour of what would have been her 100th birthday in 2014, Caroline Bird penned this poem in celebration of everything she did for the artistic community in Stratford.

Other poets have also produced verses to be displayed around the park that reflect on the local area and its history. Lemn Sissay, a local author, was the first to be commissioned to write for the London Olympics. He provided three poems – Living Is In; Spark Catchers; and Spark – which are all exhibited in a similar manner to Bird’s poem. Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed the Poet Laureate in 2009, also contributed with a poem about Eton Manor, a former leisure centre in the area.

John Burnside, a Scottish poet, was inspired by the suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, who was known to cycle around the area whilst campaigning for women’s equality. With this significant piece of history in mind, Burnside wrote Bicycling for Ladies, which has also been etched into wood, along with visual imagery.

Sylvia Pankhurst

I dreamed you came again

through the smog of time,

match-girls and broom-makers,

cycling from street to street

with The Women’s Dreadnought;

the houses lit for miles,

like beacons

and a true friend

– Extract from Bicycling For Ladies

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Made of glass and steel, and standing 9-metres high, Monica Bonvicini‘s artwork is hard to miss from the road passing the Copper Box Arena. Functioning as a mirror by day and sporting neon lights by night, the Italian artist’s contribution has an ambiguous meaning. Is it referring to the athletes at the Olympic Games, or is it instructing people to run for their lives?

 

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Freeze Frame by Neville Gabie

 

Not all the artwork that has featured in the Olympic Park remains on public display. In 2012, Neville Gabie was appointed artist in residence for a period of 16 months. During this time, he created a series of work using film and photography. In one film, he recorded his attempt to sit on every seat in the stadium. His most imaginative outcome, however, is the recreation of George Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). By carefully placing people in high visibility jackets, Gabie reimagined the famous painting in the modern setting of the Olympic Park.

Although not commissioned as an art installation, there are two famous structures that attract many visitors and make great photograph opportunities. These are, of course, the Olympic Rings and the Paralympic Agitos. Located either side of the River Lea, these relics from the Games will remain as a reminder that the park was where the majority of the events took place. For whatever reason that you have gone to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, seeing the Rings and the Agitos is a must.

Despite being transformed into a recreational public parkland, it is impossible to erase the success London had in being the host city of the Olympic Games. Along with the Rings, Agitos, and arenas, facts and memories of the Games have been dotted around the park. The entrance near the Aquatics Centre has a series of facts spread over the pathway, reminding people what London and its athletes achieved, as well as informing the future generations. There is also an opportunity to try and beat Greg Rutherford’s long jump world record of 8.31-metres.

The park has been made child-friendly with the addition of playgrounds containing several different climbing frames, swings and slides to enjoy. These have been designed as abstractly as the buildings and structures surrounding them, in keeping with the contemporary appeal of the area. During the summer, Children can enjoy racing through the water fountains as they turn on and off at great speed.

The park, architecture, and artworks have not appealed to everyone, resulting in a lot of criticism, including in the national papers. The architecture critic for The Guardian expressed the opinion that “There is a frenzy of wacky light fittings, of playground installations, of seats, tree species, sculptural lumps of granite, kiosks, railings and coloured surfaces…It suffers from an Olympic syndrome, where everyone wants to be a Mo or a Jessica and make their mark … Great care was taken to make the Athletes’ Village aesthetically orderly, to the point where it began to resemble Ceausescu’s Bucharest: this eruption makes such efforts futile.”

It appears that the developers have tried too hard to make everything look modern and have ultimately created something that looks obscure and slightly alien. Unlike the natural parks around Britain, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park feels false and overcultivated. Attempts have been made to produce gardens of foreign plants, including those from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, however, this increases the unnatural feel of the park. Granted, the park is clean, neat and well looked after, but it looks too perfect to be considered parklands. It does not help matters that between the arenas and different “green” sections is an abundance of concrete pathways. The roads crisscrossing the park are a nuisance too; it is impossible to forget you are in London.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is still being developed as new installations and areas are added to improve visitors’ experience. No doubt more artwork and perplexing architecture will be added to the area over the coming years. With different events happening throughout the year, there is always something new to attract tourists to the area, making the park a worthy project.

Whether or not contemporary art appeals, it is still worth taking a trip to the Olympic Park. We are fortunate to have free access to a place where British history was made and, hopefully, always be remembered.

The park is a short walk from both Stratford Station and Stratford International Station. There are also many buses in the area, making the park easily accessible. Facilities are available for children, adults and disabled to ensure that everybody gets the most out of their visits. Numerous cafés and restaurants are on site and there are plenty of staff to help if you need directions or would like a tour of the park.

Download the Art in the Park field guide for more information about the art installations and where to find them.

The World’s Leading Museum of Art and Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Aston Webb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sir Roy Strong

 

Matisse in the Studio

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

-Henry Matisse, 1951

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

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

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

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Yellow Odalisque, 1937

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Italian Woman, 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Henri Matisse, 1953

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

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

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

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

-Henry Matisse, 1908

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

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

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

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

The Other Rembrandt

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

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

Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

Rubens

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

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

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

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

-Rubens, 1621

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take One Picture 

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A Roman Triumph, Rubens c1630

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figures Seemingly Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Nicholas Bourbon, 1538

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, c1400

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

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

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

Faith at the Heart of the Nation

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© 2017 THE DEAN AND CHAPTER OF WESTMINSTER

It is virtually impossible to find a building more steeped in British history than the spectacular structure of Westminster Abbey. Although sections of the present building date from the 1200s, its history dates even further back. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Abbey has been in constant use and importance in the life of past and present royal families. Still used for church services today, Westminster Abbey welcomes visitors to tour the sacred building and marvel at the architecture and the many wonders hidden inside.

There is a discrepancy about the origins of the first church built on this site, however, historical evidence has been confirmed for the years subsequent to the death of Edward the Confessor at the very beginning of 1066. Children are taught at an early age about the Battle of Hastings that followed the death of this holy king, but little to no emphasis is put on the use of Westminster Abbey at that time, nor in the lives of future monarchs.

Visiting the Abbey will provide all the information about its uses and significance to various Kings and Queens of England. Commentary through an audio guide explains the events of different years that involved the Abbey’s use and development and, although no written information is displayed in the building, a full account of the history is available for purchase in a souvenir guide.

Originally, the church founded by Edward the Confessor stood in roughly the same place as the current Abbey, however, its surroundings would have looked completely different to the built up area that exists today. Over a thousand years ago, the Westminster area was on the very outskirts of London, a city which had not yet expanded to its contemporary grand size. Not only was the church located in the suburbs, it stood on a boggy, inhospitable island known as Thorney. Surrounded by many tributaries of the River Thames, it was not the welcoming district it is today.

The current building was erected over hundreds of years, beginning during the reign of Henry III (crowned 1216-1272). As a devotee to the canonised St Edward (the Confessor), Henry wished to demolish the existing church and construct a spectacular structure in the European Gothic Style in the saint’s honour. St Edward, who had been buried in his own construction, was provided with his own shrine. St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel still remains in the centre of the Abbey, unfortunately, due to fragility and age, visitors are unable to enter.

Little is known about who was responsible for the design of what was to become Westminster Abbey, but the three main stone masons involved in the raising of the building have been recorded as Henry of Reyns (d1253), John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley (d1285). Although influenced by French cathedrals, the continental style was simply appropriated rather than copied. In order to make the building unique to England, as well as contain the highest vault (102ft/31m), certain aspects were altered from the geometrical system. This includes a single aisle, a lengthy nave and wide transepts. The stone and marble sculptures add to the Englishness of the building.

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Great West Door (Hazel Stainer 2017)

The façade of the Abbey, for which it is most famous, is as impressive as its interior. In order to keep its magnificent appearance, Westminster Abbey has been refaced several times, and may no longer resemble the original building. Architects, such as Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and James Wyatt (1746-1813), have done a great deal of work on the building over the centuries. The latest major restoration took place between 1973-1995.

It is not clear who is responsible for the carvings, statues and effigies, but these are in over abundance in and out of the Abbey. Many Kings and Queens of England have been laid to rest under elaborate shrines and memorials that are so intricate it is difficult to believe that they were produced by the hands of a human being. And it is not only the royals who have been subjected to this lavish treatment; many members of the aristocracy have been honoured with a burial place in Westminster Abbey.

The most remarkable monument in the Abbey can be found in St Michael’s Chapel, one of the many small chapels located around the perimeter. Interestingly, this does not belong to a monarch but rather Lady Elizabeth Nightingale (1704-31) who died in childbirth. The memorial was designed by the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-1762) and consists of life-size figurines of Lady Elizabeth’s husband trying to protect her body from a skeletal apparition of death. To create realistic statues of people is one thing, but to successfully carve a skeleton from stone is a serious feat. Roubiliac was responsible for other effigies in the Abbey, including one of the musician Handel located in Poet’s Corner.

 

Westminster Abbey is open to the public every day for services including Holy Communion, Morning Prayer and Evensong. For a fee, tourists are allowed in to follow a plotted tour around the holy building. Although this means it is difficult to take your time and study every hidden corner as a result of the crowd continually surging forth in one direction, the tour is laid out so that nothing is missed. The accompanying audio guide provides the history of the building’s involvement with the English royal family but also points out works of art, sculpture and architecture that will amaze many a visitor.

Unlike most churches throughout the country, not all the effigies remain the whitish-grey colour of stone. Evidence remains of coloured paint that was added to the statues to make them as lifelike as possible. Although some of these have faded over the years, many are still covered in the rich reds and blues.

Westminster Abbey was built before the fashion of painted ceilings and walls came in to being. In contrast to other London churches, for instance, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Abbey relies on ornate carvings for decoration. Having said that, during a cleaning in the 1930s, two wall paintings were uncovered that historians believe date back to the end of the 13th century. These have been identified as images of Christ with the apostle Thomas and Saint Christopher. Of all the artistic components of the Abbey, these early paintings are one of the few that feature religious content.

The most complex piece of art situated in the Abbey is the Cosmati Pavement in front of the High Altar. This also dates back to the 13th century and was commissioned by the abbot of the monastery, Richard de Ware (d1283). Pavements made of mosaics were all the rage in Italy, therefore Roman stonemasons were invited to England to lay something similar in the newly built Abbey. The pavement spans 24ft and is made up of a variety of material: onyx, porphyry, limestone and glass. The geometric pattern consists of an assortment of shapes and colours and, despite its age, still looks colourful today.

Although the architecture is phenomenal, the greatest attractions are the tombs and memorials of famous people – and not purely the Royals. Upwards of 3000 people are eternally remembered in the Abbey and more are likely to be included in years to come. The flamboyance of previous centuries has abated resulting in more indistinct plaques and stones for the more recent tributes. The most popular area for tourists is located in the South Transept and is most commonly known as Poet’s Corner.

Over 100 well-known authors, poets and playwrights are celebrated in Poet’s corner. Some, such as William Shakespeare (1564-1616), have ostentatious friezes, however, the majority have modest stone slabs, many of which are embedded into the floor. Literature lovers will be excited to locate some of their favourite authors, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Geoffrey Chaucer (the first to be buried in this corner), Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Lewis, Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth.

With floor and wall space running out, memorials have begun to feature on stained glass windows. These have been added fairly recently and take into consideration the writers who were shunned at the times of their deaths. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde (1854-1900) is one example. Almost 100 years after his death, Oscar Wilde, who had been denied a place in Westminster Abbey on account of his sexuality, was awarded a humble lozenge in the giant window above the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. Space remains on the window for future authors to take their place amongst the other literary greats.

Westminster Abbey is a captivating example of British architecture and history and is certainly worth the visit. There is no other church or building as elaborately adorned as this structure on the edge of the Thames. As visitors follow the numbered audio points on their tour, they are encouraged to look up and marvel at the mesmerising ceilings that must have taken several years to produce.

 

As well as the main Abbey, your ticket will also allow you to explore the cloisters behind the dominant building. Here can be found the Pyx Chamber, Chapter House and the College Garden (check opening times). There is also a restaurant that is open seven days a week where you can get refreshments after walking around the entire Abbey.

It is without a doubt that Westminster Abbey is a worthy tourist attraction, nevertheless, the extortionate entry fee may cause something of a dispute. At £22 a head, it is questionable whether walking around what is effectively a giant tomb is worth it. One could joke that it is a once in a lifetime experience because, at that price, no one is likely to want to do it twice.

Having now visited Westminster and Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral – London’s two most famous religious buildings – the differences between the two are striking. Westminster Abbey is quite clearly intended for the aristocracy, evidenced by the class of people buried in its grounds. St Paul’s, on the other hand, is much more user-friendly. Of course, the architectural styles differ significantly on account of the periods in which they were built, but Westminster Abbey makes the general public feel as though they do not belong there (the strict rules and watchful security guards do not help matters), whereas St Paul’s is a much more welcoming and comfortable environment. In terms of their purposes as a house of God, St Paul’s definitely comes out on top.

It is irrefutable that Westminster Abbey is one of the most popular landmarks in London. Whether you attend a service or join the lengthy queue to tour the building, it will certainly be a place you will never forget. Despite the development of building materials and the constantly rising number of skyscrapers in the area, Westminster Abbey will remain a true advocate of the country’s history at the heart of the nation.