A Walk Through British Art

“Our mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British art from the 16th century to the present day and of international modern and contemporary art.”
– Tate

On the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary prison, the new National Gallery of British Art opened its doors to the public in 1897. Since then, the building has undergone fifteen extensions, more than doubling it in size. From a collection of 245 artworks at its inception, the Tate Gallery, as it was renamed in 1932, now owns over 70,000 works. Since 2000, the gallery has been known as Tate Britain and contains art dating back to the 16th century.

Whilst the Tate Britain hosts several temporary exhibitions throughout the year, there is a permanent display of hundreds of famous works. Set out in chronological order and titled Walk Through British Art, each room shows visitors paintings and sculptures from different eras, gradually revealing the changes in styles over time. Beginning in the 16th century and stretching to the present day, the gallery offers insight into the various art movements and artists that have lived and worked in Britain.

Whilst the Tate Modern, another gallery owned by the Tate Collective, is a more appropriate venue to see contemporary works, Tate Britain is the perfect place to study the changes in British art, both rapid and slow, between 1545 to the 1910s. Although other art galleries display numerous paintings from a whole range of eras, no place describes the journey through British art better than Tate Britain.

A Man in a Black Cap 1545 by John Bettes active 1531-1570

A Man in a Black Cap – John Bettes, 1545

The Walk Through British Art begins with the oldest dated painting in the gallery’s collection: A Man in a Black Cap. As the numbers in the background confirm, this oil painting was completed in 1545 and a panel attached to the back of the oak-wood canvas records “faict par Johan Bettes Anglois” – done by John Bettes, Englishman.

Nothing much is known about John Bettes (active c. 1531–1570) except that records state he was living in Westminster in 1556 and had previously been working for Henry VIII (1491-1547) at Whitehall Palace.

Art historians compare Bette’s painting to the style of the German artist Hans Holbein the younger (1497-1543) who also worked for the king. The sitter, however, is unknown but it is believed he was 26 years old due to the inclusion of the Roman numerals XXVI.

The journey through British art starts with works from 1540 to 1650 during which time portraiture was popular, particularly within family dynasties. To put it into perspective, these paintings were produced during the reigns of Henry VIII and his children up until Charles I (1600-49) and the civil war. Thus, it is only natural to find a portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

There is some discrepancy over the artist responsible for Portrait of Elizabeth I, which was produced roughly around 1563. Referred to as the “famous paynter Steven”, this portrait has been attributed to the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen (d. 1563/4), however, it has recently been suggested that the Dutchman Steven Cornelisz. van Herwijck (1530-1567) may have been the artist.

Often it is difficult to identify artists from this period because not many signed their work. This is the case with the panel An Allegory of Man of which the original purpose has also been lost. Unusually for the time, particularly the years following the Reformation, this is a religious piece of work featuring the figure of the resurrected Christ. From the 1540s onward, it was not permitted to publicly display religious images.

In the centre of the meticulously detailed scene is the figure of “Man” surrounded by a scroll on which the Christian Virtues are written: “Temporans, good reisines, chastity, almes deeds, compassion, meekenes, charity and paciens.” Surrounding the Man are several figures, including Death represented by a skeleton, who are preparing to fire arrows, each named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This provides an insight into the beliefs and values of Christians, particularly Catholics if the angels are anything to judge by, during the 16th century.

The majority of the other paintings from the 1540-1650s room are portraits, mostly of people who are no longer considered significant to British history today. These include the English court official Sir William Killigrew (1606-95) and his wife Mary painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Whilst Van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque painter, he famously became the leading court painter in England, hence why these two portraits are considered to be British art.

The period between 1650 and 1730 saw an enormous change, not just in art but throughout Britain. Whilst there was still antagonism between Catholics and Protestants, the threat of upsetting the Tudor monarchs was long gone. The country had seen the beheading of a king but by 1660 they were celebrating the Restoration of the Monarchy. With Charles II (1630-85) on the throne, Londoners suffered from the plague and the Great Fire of London. Later, James II (1633-1701) was overthrown by the Dutch stadtholder William III (1650-1702) in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Finally, to end this period of transformation, the United Kingdom was created in 1707.

All of these events had an impact on British art, which had previously been dominated by portraiture. During the Restoration, new genres began to appear, including landscapes and still-life. Whilst there have been many British landscape artists, the genre was introduced by the Dutch and Flemish artists who were coming to England in the hopes of better job prospects.

Still-life paintings became very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, artists during the 17th century were already experimenting with the genre. One such artist was Edward Collier (d.1708), a Dutchman who arrived in England in 1663. One of his paintings, Still Life with a Volume of Withers ‘Emblemes’, gave still-life paintings another name: vanitas. The composition is built up with musical instruments, jewellery and wine, which represent life’s pleasures. This is emphasised by the Latin inscription of Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, hence vanitas. Other objects, however, including the skull and the open book featuring a poem about mortality, gives the message that pleasure is fleeting and that death comes to all.

Now that the Stuarts were on the throne, it was once again safe to produce religious paintings, which both Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) and Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) did during this era. Lely’s painting Susanna and the Elders is based on a story from the biblical Apocrypha during which two elders of the Jewish community attempt to seduce the young lady, threatening to accuse her of adultery if she did not consent to their desires. Kneller, however, painted a slightly more positive scene involving the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah and the Angel shows the elderly prophet being awakened by an angel who is making him aware that God has sent him bread and water to save him from starvation.

This period of art also introduces one of the earliest female artists, Mary Beale (1633-99). Beale, with the help of her husband, ran a professional portrait painting business. It is believed that Portrait of a Young Girl was produced as a study piece to help Beale improve her art technique by painting quickly in order increase the number of sales and commisions.

Prior to the 18th-century, the majority of world-famous painters came from the European continent, however, there began to be a rise in the number of painters born and educated in England. The most significant of these and, perhaps, the first internationally famous British artist, is Willaim Hogarth (1697-1764), whose self-portrait hangs in the Tate Britain along with his dog Trump. Hogarth is well-known for his narrative series of paintings that tell a moral story, particularly A Rakes Progress, which can be found in the Sir John Soane’s Museum near Holborn, London.

An example of Hogarth’s narrative moral series can be seen in the sixth frame of The Beggars Opera based on a scene from John Gay’s (1685-1732) play of the same name, which was first performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728. In this scene, the highwayman Macheath is being sentenced to death while his two lovers, who happen to be the daughters of the jailer and lawyer, plead for his life.

Tate Britain owns a handful of Hogarth’s work, which can be seen in the third room of the Walk Through British Art. In a display case are a few prints that were produced of some of his paintings. Prints became popular in the 18th century because they were cheaper thus more affordable to the people of lower status who wish to purchase artwork. It was also a means for the artist to earn some money; whilst a single painting would take months and earn a lump sum, several prints could be made at once and sold to many different customers.

Although British born artists were beginning to take the stage, painters from the continent were still flocking to London. This includes Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1768), a vendutisti painter (painter of cityscape views), who arrived in England in 1746. He was already known as ‘the famous painter of views of Venice’ but during his ten-year stay in the English capital, he painted many beautiful landscapes showing the grand London architecture. Landscapes include buildings such as the new and old Horse Guards and A View of Greenwich from the River.

The rise of British born painters continued during the later 18th century, helped by the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 by George III (1738-1820). The Academy was intended as a venue for public displays of art and an art school for future generations, both of which it remains today. With 34 founding members, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), who was knighted by the king in 1769, was elected as the first president. A number of Reynold’s works are owned by Tate Britain, including Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen.

By the end of the 18th century, more British artists were on the scene and a wider range of styles and themes were being painted. William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) became the Prime Minister at the tender age of 24, a term that coincided with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. These events influenced many artists, including John Copley Singleton (1738-1815) whose painting pays tribute to Major Francis Peirson who lost his life during the attempted French invasion of Jersey.

The island of Jersey had once been part of France, however, since 1066 it had been in the possession of the English. The Death of Major Peirson shows the death of the young man as well as the victory of the British against the French. In one painting, Copley manages to depict both the victories and horrors of war. Whilst Britain may have won the battle, not everyone lived to see it.

In complete contrast to Copley’s work is Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-88) portrait of Giovanna Baccelli, which was painted at roughly the same time. Giovanna was an Italian ballet dancer who became brief friends of Marie Antoinette (1755-93) until the French Revolution unfolded. Gainsborough paints her in a lively but elegant manner, using small, light brushstrokes to evoke a sense of movement, which suggests Giovanna is dancing rather than posing. This is a far more positive painting than the war paintings that were simultaneously being produced.

Another popular theme during the late 18th century was literature and mythology. Just as they are today, plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) were well-known and popular amongst the various social classes. Tate Britain displays a couple of paintings based on scenes from his plays, the most eye-catching being Titania and Bottom by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Although born in Switzerland, Fuseli spent the majority of his working life in Britain and was particularly fond of the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His oil painting shows the events of Act IV, Scene I in which Oberon, the king of the fairies, has cast a spell on Queen Titania, causing her to fall in love with Nick Bottom, whose head has been transformed into that of an ass.

Also prevalent at this time were mythological scenes, particularly the tales written about in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the 4th president of the Royal Academy, painted an imagined scene of the Greek poet Homer reciting The Iliad to a small audience. Although no one knows who Homer was or even if he ever existed – some scholars suggest the stories had more than one author – Lawrence accurately portrays the way the epic poems would have been “read”. Paper books did not exist during Homer’s time, therefore, bards learnt the words and travelled around Greece telling the story in instalments at different locations.

Jupiter and Ganymede 1811 by Richard Westmacott 1775-1856

Jupiter and Ganymede, Richard Westmacott, 1811

Not all the artworks at Tate Britain are paintings. British Sculptor Richard Westmacott’s (1775-1856) Jupiter and Ganymede is a marble relief of Ganymede, a shepherd boy, being abducted by an eagle as written about in stories from classical mythology. The head of the Roman gods, Jupiter, was attracted to the handsome youth and took the form of an eagle so that he could seize Ganymede and take him to his home on Mount Olympus.

Later on in the Walk through British Art, another well-known sculpture is displayed, which many people will recognise from the centre of Picadilly Circus. This is the Model for “Eros” (or Anteros) on the Shaftesbury Memorial, Picadilly Circus produced by Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934) in 1891 and eventually cast in Bronze in 1925.

During the early 19th century, Britain faced more wars, most famously the Battle of Waterloo which saw the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) defeat Napoleon (1769-1821). As well as victory, these conflicts brought more death and destruction as shown in JMW Turner’s (1775-1851) The Field of Waterloo, which depicts a group of people searching through masses of corpses for their loved ones. Despite these hostilities, artists continued to paint and new styles began to emerge, particularly in relation to landscape paintings.

Two British painters, in particular, held the forefront in landscape painting: Turner and his contemporary, John Constable (1776-1837). A marked contrast can be seen between Constable’s sketch of Hadleigh Castle in Essex and the landscapes produced by artists in the previous century, for instance, Canaletto’s painstakingly detailed cityscapes. Although this version of Hadleigh Castle was only a preparatory oil painting, Constable’s rapid brushstrokes and almost Impressionistic sky suggest artists were moving away from the traditional methods of painting. Constable’s gloomy and sombre sketch reflects his mood – his wife had just died – rather than the atmosphere he experienced on site.

Britain’s most famous landscape painter is arguably Joseph Mallord William Turner who gifted the majority of his work to the British public in his will. Tate Britain has an entire gallery devoted to his atmospheric watercolour landscapes, however, a Walk Through British Art focuses on a couple of his oil paintings. As well as his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo, the gallery displays a mythological piece based on the poem Hymn to Apollo by the Greek poet, Callimachus (310-240 BC). The Greek sun god is on a quest to build a temple for his oracle at Delphi but in order to do so, he must defeat a giant python. Turner shows Apollo moments after delivering the final blow to the monstrous creature.

Whilst some artists were embracing new ideas, others preferred the tried and tested methods of the 16th and 17th centuries. Henry Thomson (1773-1843), a member of the Royal Academy, was one of these artists whose work resembles the style seen during the Renaissance era. Not many British artists produced large-scale religious works, however, this was one of Thomson’s main focuses. His painting of The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, a story that can be found in three Gospels of the Bible, is an example of this.

Densely hung in two tiers are many works produced in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). This is to evoke the atmosphere of a Victorian gallery where paintings would have been crowded together in a similar manner. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to view all of the artworks, particularly those higher up that have to compete with the glare of the sunlight coming through the glass ceiling. Yet, the number of examples from this period emphasise the vast range of styles and genres that artists gradually adopted.

Scenes from everyday life began to address topical issues that also reflected the changes in industry, culture and politics, including the question of female emancipation. Many of these artists were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who determined to ignore the teachings of the Royal Academy and revert to styles popular before the Renaissance, i.e. before the painter Raphael (1483-1520) came on the scene. A couple of paintings from the founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) are on display, as well as works by those who associated themselves with the Brotherhood, for example, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Other artists sought back to antiquity for inspiration, often focusing on ancient buildings such as the ones in the background of John William Waterhouse’s (1849-1917) Saint Eulalia. Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was also famous for paintings of antiquity, however, the painting on display is of a more recent 17th-century setting.

Hidden messages and meanings began to appear in paintings, such as the American-born John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. The artist draws attention to the young girls whose innocence is emphasised by the lilies, which represent purity. The Japanese lanterns, however, represent ephemerality, suggesting that this innocence will never last. George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914), on the other hand, hid meanings related to a more topical issue: women’s rights. Whilst many later became involved in Suffrage movements, there were some people completely against the cause, such as Hicks who represents women as the ‘fairer sex’, i.e. pure and submissive to men, thus suggesting women need not have the right to vote.

Biblical scenes were not as popular during this era but Tate Britain has located a couple of examples of artists who did use the Bible for inspiration. Millais painted a scene loosely based on scripture showing Christ in the House of His Parents. Likewise, Edward Armitage imagined The Remorse of Judas (1817-96) after he sold Jesus to the Romans.

The works produced from the end of the 19th century onwards are younger than the Tate Gallery, which Sir Henry Tate (1819-99) began providing artworks and funding for in 1889. Some of the works Tate donated “for the encouragement and development of British art” are still on display at the gallery, including Arther Hacker’s (1858-1919) The Annunciation, a more contemporary version of Mary receiving the news from an angel that she will have a son based on descriptions in the Protoevangelium of James (145 AD).

Many art movements were competing with each other and new styles and processes were being developed. Impressionism, whilst rejected by critics, to begin with, began to appeal to many artists, particularly those who painted en plein air. Henry Scott Tuke’s (1858-1929) August Blue is an example of this impressionist style painted by an Englishman; most Impressionist painters emerged from France.

Aubrey Beardsley’s (1872-98) Masked Woman with a White Mouse is an example of another art style, which was influenced by Japanese woodcuts. During his very short career, Beardsley was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement, which including other artists, such as James A. McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and authors, for instance, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

The 20th century and the beginning of the Edwardian-era saw a return to more realistic approaches to art. Art schools still taught classical and traditional painting techniques, however, young artists had been exposed to Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists and other avant-garde approaches. Whilst Realism was becoming popular, artists were moving away from the “old” version of realistic, as seen in many Renaissance paintings, and producing more natural-looking outcomes, particularly of the human body. Take Sir Thomas Brock’s (1847-1922) marble model of Eve for example; there is nothing to suggest she is the sensual temptress in artworks of the previous centuries, instead, she looks natural with an anatomically correct body and a subtle expression of feeling.

Other artists chose to concentrate on realistic settings that depict the working class rather than the elite. Both Albert Rutherston (1881-1953) and Sir George Clausen (1852-1944) painted people at work in some of the least glamorous jobs, i.e. laundry and gleaning. Rutherston also painted in a realistic style, however, it was far from the smooth brushwork of the 15th and 16th centuries. Clausen, on the other hand, leans more towards an impressionist style.

The 20th century also saw a rise in female painters, including Lady Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979). Tenth child of the philanthropist Benjamin Waugh (1839-1908), who co-founded the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Clarke Hall was mostly known for her illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1818-48). Tate Britain, however, displays one of her oil paintings, Still Life of a Basket on a Chair.

The artwork from the 1910s onwards is much harder to document. Modern art was at war with academic art; Britain was at war with Germany; suffragettes were at war with parliament. It was a difficult time for everyone and artists turned to their work for consolidation. Some joined Futurist movements, others experimented with Cubism and some artists wholly embraced Abstract Expressionism.

Whilst Tate Britain continues its Walk Through British Art to the present day, it is impossible to accurately describe the styles and outcomes of British artists. With so many influences, it is simpler to use the title “International Art” since no form of contemporary art is unique to Britain. The spectrum of art is so diverse that every artist becomes almost incomparable to another, whereas, prior to the 20th century, only a trained eye could recognise whose hand had painted certain canvases.

From 1540 to 1840, Tate Britain does a fantastic job at documenting the history of British art. After this period, the rooms become more crowded and the styles more assorted, making it difficult to follow a timeline of development. Nonetheless, Tate Britain has access to some wonderful artworks and a huge range of British artists. Whether the aim is to experience the changes in art throughout time or just look at a handful of paintings, Tate Britain is an excellent destination.

Entry to Tate Britain is free for everyone with a charge for special exhibitions. Visitors with a disability pay a concessionary rate, and a companions entrance is free. Tate Members and Patrons get free entry to special exhibitions. Under 12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian) and family tickets are available (two adults and two children 12 – 18 years) see individual exhibitions for more information. Tate.org.uk

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Edward Burne-Jones

“… a reflection of reflection of something purely imaginary.”
– Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

In 1933, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) launched an exhibition at Tate Gallery in recognition of 100 years since the birth of his uncle Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). For the first time since then, the solo retrospective has returned to Tate Britain, reaffirming the last of the Pre-Raphaelites as one of the most influential artists of the end of the 19th century. Known for awe-inspiring paintings, stained glass windows and tapestries, the exhibition offers insight to Burne-Jones’s entire career, bringing together best-loved works that are shown together for the very first time. Although he achieved worldwide fame and recognition during his lifetime, Burne-Jones’s reputation dwindled during the 20th century. Nonetheless, this exhibition proves his growing influence on the contemporary world.

 

Now known for his consistent paintings of otherworldly beauty, Burne-Jones did not begin his artistic career in the typical fashion of painters at the time. In fact, in terms of art, he was mostly self-taught. Edward Coley Burne Jones was born in Birmingham on 28th August 1833 where he was brought up by his Welsh father – his mother sadly passed away shortly after his birth. Burne-Jones initially aspired to be a minister and enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford to study theology. Although he completed his degree, a chance encounter led to a life-long friendship with the now famous William Morris (1834-96), with whom he shared a love of poetry.

Morris was also studying theology with the intention of a career in the church, however, his love of medieval romance and architecture encouraged both Morris and Burne-Jones to direct their religious enthusiasm towards art. After university, Burne-Jones moved to London, seeking an apprenticeship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) who guided him as he started to make elaborate pen and ink drawings, a few of which can be seen at the beginning of the Tate exhibition.

Through Rossetti, Burne-Jones was accepted into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement that aimed to overturn everything artists were being taught at the Royal Academy Schools by going back to the style of medieval and early Renaissance painters, i.e. pre-Raphael (1483-1520). Outlined in their shortlived publication The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art, the society believed:

The endeavour held in view throughout the writings on Art will be to encourage and enforce an entire adherence to the simplicity of nature; and also to direct attention, as an auxiliary medium, to the comparatively few works which Art has yet produced in this spirit.

Burne-Jones’s association with the PRB strongly influenced his style of work, absorbing their desire for realism and purity. His paintings often portray the Pre-Raphaelite traditional pale-skinned woman with red hair, mostly as a result of using the same models as other artists within the group, however, his light and dark-haired women all have a similar body shape. As he became more independent, Burne-Jones began to combine other elements with the Pre-Raphaelite ideals, such as aestheticism and symbolism.

William Morris was also associated with the PRB, however, he is most famous for the design collective Morris & Co. In 1861, Burne-Jones became a founding member of the company, designing furniture and stained glass windows for both domestic and ecclesiastical settings. Tate Britain displays a few examples of the windows, which are beautifully designed with evocative shapes and rich colours.

In 1864, Burne-Jones was elected to the Society of Painters in Watercolours, also known as the Old Water-Colour Society, with whom he exhibited with for six years. By this time, Burne-Jones had begun to move away from religious genres, focusing instead on Arthurian stories or classical legends and myths. His painting style was also rapidly developing and the Society began to disapprove of the way colour was heavily layered on to his canvases. Burne-Jones took no heed of these complaints until a particular painting caused controversy amongst members.

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Phyllis and Demophoön

In 1870, Burne-Jones painted Phyllis and Demophoön, taking inspiration from a story occurring in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women. Demophoön, the son of Theseus, promised to return to his lover, Phyllis, however, failed to do so, resulting in her taking her own life. The gods turned Phyllis, who was the Queen of Thrace, into an almond tree, which Demophoön discovered on his eventual return. This painting shows the moment Demophoön remorsefully embraced the tree from which Phyllis emerges to forgive her lover. It was not the subject matter, however, that displeased the Old Water-Colour Society, it was the full frontal nudity that offended their Victorian sensibilities.

Burne-Jones was asked to alter the painting so that Demophoön’s dignity remained intact but, angered at the situation, the painter withdrew his membership and retreated from public society for seven years. During this time, Burne-Jones painted freely, unconstrained by commisions, deadlines, criticism or ridicule. Nonetheless, future paintings suggest he took the Society’s critique to heart, covering up the genitalia on another painting of the same story, The Tree of Forgiveness.

 

Although Burne-Jones was uncomfortable in the public eye, preferring “to forget the world and live inside a picture”, he took the London art world by storm with an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887. The gallery, founded in 1877 by Sir Coutts Lindsay (1824-1913) and his wife Blanche (1844-1912), exhibited artists the Royal Academy did not welcome whose work emphasised sensory expression and poetic feeling rather than the more conservative approaches. Tate Britain devotes an entire room of the exhibition to Burne-Jones’s paintings that featured in the Grosvenor Gallery.

Burne-Jones’s canvases were unusually extended, some vertically and others horizontally. They often displayed men as the victims of female power and desire, for instance in The Depths of the Sea, which shows a mermaid dragging her prey to his death at the bottom of the ocean. Naturally, these melancholy subjects caused some controversy, however, they ultimately won him immediate fame.

Whilst Burne-Jones was inspired by myths and legends, for instance, those written in Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (1415-71), some are less easy to understand. Dark, austere and mysterious, viewers are transported to other realms where knights and heroes walk the land but, apart from those based upon a particular story, the meanings of some of the paintings remain elusive.

One of Burne-Jones’s mysterious paintings is titled The Golden Staircase, which has been on permanent display since it entered the Tate Gallery in 1924. A group of eighteen elegant, almost identical young women, dressed in white and holding a range of musical instruments, are climbing down a spiral staircase, almost as if in a trance. Who are they? Where are they going? The purpose of their journey remains unknown.

“My wheel of Fortune is a true-to-life image; it comes to fetch each of us in turn, then it crushes us.” Despite his slightly disillusioned comment, Burne-Jones’s Wheel of Fortune is much easier to interpret. The woman in the painting is Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and the personification of luck. According to ancient philosophy, Fortuna possesses a Rota Fortunæ, or Wheel of Fortunewhich she gradually turns at random, determining the fates of those on earth; some suffer great misfortune, others blessings.

 

Many of the paintings exhibited at Grosvenor Gallery, and later at the International Exhibition in Paris where Burne-Jones became famous throughout Europe, involved the idea of fate, fortune and time. Laus Veneris, which many will recognise from the Tate advertisements for the exhibition, is Burne-Jones’s interpretation of the legend of Tannhäuser, which had been retold in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s (1837-1909) book of Poems and Ballads (1866). The Latin title can be translated as In Praise of Venus and shows the Roman goddess of love with her maidens. The story of Tannhäuser follows the wandering knight who gives up his role, abandoning himself to sensual pleasure with Venus.

Love among the Ruins, based on a poem by Robert Browning (1812-89), combines the topic of love with the passing of time. Emphasised by the vacant stare of a woman as she clings to her male companion in a derelict building, love is a pure and fragile condition that can endure the passing of time. Similarly, in Love Leading the Pilgrim based on The Romaunt of the Rose by the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), shows love, personified by a combination of a Christian angel and Cupid, enduring as the pilgrim goes about his quest.

 

Burne-Jones was a great storyteller through painting. Within a single canvas, he could set the scene, mood and bring to mind the story it was portraying. Whilst these were standalone images, it led Burne-Jones to explore the idea of a series of paintings following a single theme. Tate Britain has reassembled two of his great narratives, which, until now, had never been displayed together. The first is known as the Perseus series, recounting the life of the Greek hero. This was commisioned in 1875 by the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (1848-1930). He requested a series of paintings to decorate his drawing room but left it up to Burne-Jones to decide on the subject matter.

Perseus was instructed by Polydectes, king of Seriphos to bring him the head of the Gorgon, Medusa. Burne-Jones began his series with a dejected-looking Perseus contemplating the impossibility of the task, wondering how he could destroy a creature who could turn a body to stone with one glance. The following frames plot Perseus’s journey to sea nymphs, who would provide him with the means to defeat Medusa, and finally to the cave of the Gorgons. Burne-Jones produced two compositions for the Death of Medusa, the second showing Perseus fleeing from the remaining enraged Gorgons.

Burne-Jones did not leave Perseus’ story there but continued on to explain how he ended the eternal sufferings of Atlas, a Titan condemned to hold up the weight of the sky, by freezing him with the gaze of the beheaded Medusa. Perseus, on returning to Seriphos, discovers the beautiful Andromeda chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster sent by the Greek god Poseidon. Burne-Jones shows Perseus freeing the maiden and killing the serpent-like monster before finally winning Andromeda’s hand in marriage.

Despite having drawn out these preliminary paintings for Balfour’s drawing room and carefully planning how they would be positioned on the walls, the task was ultimately too ambitious for Burne-Jones. Only four of the images were worked up into finished oils, however, the quality of these preparatory works go to show his exceptional talent.

 

The second series of paintings do not tell a sequential narrative, as in the Perseus series, instead, they show four different scenes from a story that occur simultaneously. This is the Legend of Briar Rose, based on the version published by the Brothers Grimm, now more commonly known as Sleeping Beauty. These four paintings were originally exhibited in 1890 at Agnew’s Gallery in Bond Street, however, were quickly purchased by Sir Alexander Henderson (1850-1934) and removed to his country house Buscot Park near Farringdon, Oxfordshire.

Full of intense mood and jewel-like colours, Burne-Jones approached this task in the same manner and style as his previous paintings.  The flat, frieze-like, richly textured surfaces and his figures, both male and female, reflect the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites. Another connection with his associates are the inscriptions below each of the frames taken from William Morris’s poem The Briar Wood.

“The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose;
But lo! the fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart!”

The first picture in the series shows a knight discovering a group of slumbering soldiers who have become entangled with the thorny branches that have grown up around them. The knight is likely to be the rescuer of the princess who fell into an eternal sleep after pricking her finger on a spindle as foretold by an evil fairy at her christening many years before. As a result, the rest of the kingdom has been put to sleep until the princess can be safely awakened by true love’s kiss.

The second frame shows members of the council asleep in their chamber, including the king, who is slumped on his throne. The third reveals weavers who have fallen asleep whilst working, slumped over their looms.

“Here lies the hoarded love, the key
To all the treasure that shall be;
Come fated hand the gift to take
And smite this sleeping world awake.”

The final painting in the series reveals Princess Briar Rose sleeping peacefully in her bed surrounded by her slumbering attendants who lay slumped on the floor. The sleepers look peaceful and beautiful, as though it would be a shame to wake them. Those familiar with the story, however, will know the gallant knight will eventually find and wake the princess and live happily ever after. Burne-Jones, on the other hand, did not wish to reveal the ending of the story, explaining, “I want to stop with the princess asleep and to tell no more, to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of the people.”

 

Whilst The Legend of Briar Rose may be Burne-Jones’s most detailed and spectacular work in the 150 items shown in the exhibition, there is so much more to his talents. Burne-Jones never completely left his religious roots behind, continuing to be a strong devotee to the church. Throughout the country, some of Burne-Jones’s finest work can be seen in churches and cathedrals in the form of stained glass, most of which retell biblical stories. As well as paintings and windows, Burne-Jones also produced designs for tapestries, for example, The Adoration of Magi.

Although there are many stained glass windows and tapestries to his name, it is unlikely that he was the craftsman who put the finished product together. Instead, he would carefully draw out his design, which would then be replicated. Dozens of drawings can be seen around the exhibition, showing the design and thought-process of the artist. Some of his works evolved over many years, beginning with studies, preparatory drawings and full-scale cartoons.

Burne-Jones was typically a quiet, reserved man often susceptible to bouts of depression and isolation, however, Tate Britain introduces another side to his character. Described by the artist Walford Graham Robertson (1866–1948), Burne-Jones was “Puck beneath the cowl of a monk,” and could quickly change from being grave and morose to mischievous with a great sense of humour. Within the exhibition are a handful of caricatures, often self-deprecating and occasionally cruel. One that sticks in the mind is William Morris reading poetry to Edward Burne-Jones in which a tall and slender Burne-Jones falls asleep while the short, stout Morris reads his latest work aloud.

Although this caricature is rather insulting from Morris’s point of view, the pair remained friends their entire lives and were often involved in joint projects. The exhibition displays a couple of examples of illustrations Burne-Jones produced for books published by Morris’s company Kelmscott Press. Burne-Jones also received numerous commissions, including the decoration of a piano, as seen in the final room of the exhibition.

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Portait of Georgiana Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones also painted portraits, however, he only took commisions from friends or well-known people. His daughter, Margaret, was often the subject of many portraits, the most famous being the young woman dressed in blue sitting in front of a concave mirror. His most memorable portrait, however, is of his wife, Georgiana with his children, Margaret and Philip in the distance.

Georgiana “Georgie” MacDonald (1840–1920) was married to Burne-Jones in 1860 and was often involved with his work, particularly modelling for paintings. Often, she would read to her husband while he painted, hence the inclusion of a book in her portrait. The flower resting on the open page is a pansy known as heartsease, a symbol of undying love. This portrait was produced a number of years after Burne-Jones had an affair with Greek model Maria Zambaco, however, rather than destroying the relationship, the end of the affair brought the married couple closer together.

“I want big things to do and vast spaces, and for common people to see them and say Oh! – only Oh!”
– Edward Burne-Jones

“Oh,” is definitely something visitors to the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain may be thinking when they see the breathtaking paintings of the last Pre-Raphaelite artist. From drawings and stained glass to dramatic paintings, Burne-Jones was a phenomenal artist with his own distinctive style – a style that works and he stuck with throughout his career. There is not a single artwork that does not live up to Burne-Jones’s exemplary standard. Edward Burne-Jones is perhaps Tate Britain’s most delightful exhibition to date, attracting hundreds of people within the opening weeks. He may have lost his popularity during the 20th century, however, after this exhibition, there is no doubt Burne-Jones will be back on the list of most admired British painters.

The exhibition Edward Burne-Jones will remain open until 24th February 2019. Tickets are £18 and can be booked online or purchased on the day. 

 

Christian Angelology​

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: “Glory in the heights above to God, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.
Luke 2:13-14

What are angels? A supernatural being found in various religions and mythologies? A humanoid of extraordinary beauty? A creature with wings and a halo? Something that is only seen at Christmas time in Nativity plays, cards and decorations? A guardian? A myth? The term angel has become so commonplace in the English language that it has almost lost its religious heritage. Today, the term “you’re an angel,” is often heard when someone performs a favour, whereas, in reality, they are merely human. So, what are angels?

The word angel derives from the Late Latin word angelusliterally meaning messenger, which in turn had derived from the Greek aggelos. In religion, particularly Christianity, the term was used to describe the celestial beings who acted as emissaries between God or Heaven and mankind.

The Christian idea of angels was inherited from Judaism, with Michael (who is like God), Gabriel (God is my strength) and Raphael (it is God who heals) being the most well-known in both the Abrahamic religious and secular world. Angels also appear in Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Neoplatonism, although, with slightly different manifestations.

“Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.”
– Christina Rossetti

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The Assumption of the Virgin – Francesco Botticini

Angels in Judaism are categorised into ten hierarchies, the more important being in the top ranks. Likewise, Christianity has adopted this idea of a hierarchy, splitting the angels into three groups of three. This Christian angelic hierarchy was initially put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th-6th century), an ancient theologian and philosopher, in his book De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy). This work inspired many scholars throughout the middle ages and medieval period to expand upon the idea of angel orders or “Angelic Choirs”, suggesting alternative classifications.

When writing De Coelesti Hierarchia, Pseudo-Dionysius referred to passages from the New Testament, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), an Italian Dominican friar and Catholic priest, when tackling the same subject in his work Summa Theologica. Whilst the New Testament is fairly quiet on the hierarchy of angels, both writers used passages, such as Colossians 1:16, to develop a schema of three Spheres of angels, each comprising of three Orders or Choirs.

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
– Colossians 1:16 (NIV)

Due to the subject of angelology coming from sources outside of the Bible, not all Churches believe or accept Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas’ proposed hierarchy. It is viewed on a similar level to the communio sanctorum or the communion of saints, which is mostly associated with Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, the nine orders of angels are generally agreed upon, as recognised by Pope Gregory I (540-604) at the end of the 6th century:

  1. Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

 

 

Naturally, the first sphere contains the angels who are closest to God – those who serve as his heavenly servants. The first two orders, Seraphim and Cherubim are the most recognised titles throughout Christianity and beyond, mostly thanks to the popular Christmas poem-cum-carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Yet, what these terms mean remains a mystery to many.

Seraphim, meaning burning ones, are the highest order of angels and serve as caretakers of the Throne of God. The Seraphim or Seraphs are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible in Isaiah 6:1-7. In a vision of the Lord, the prophet saw the Seraphim hovering above God chanting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Interestingly, Isaiah’s description of their appearance goes against contemporary manifestations of the heavenly beings. “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” (Isaiah 6:2 NIV)

Pseudo-Dyonisius maintained that Seraphim aided God to sustain perfect order, purifying those on Earth with their ” burning and all-consuming flame”. Around the throne of God, there is no day or night, the light comes from God himself and his Seraphim whose “radiant and enlightening power” dispell and destroy the “shadows of darkness”.

Another early Christian scholar and theologian, Origen of Alexandria (184-253), also wrote on the topic of Seraphim. In his treatise, On First Principles, Origen argues that the angels described in the Book of Isaiah are in fact physical representations of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. As a result, he concludes the Seraphim are privy to the knowledge of God, thus elevating them to the top tier of angels.

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Putto on building in Ptuj, Slovenia

Whereas Cherubim are ranked ninth (second from bottom) in Jewish angelic hierarchy, Christianity places them directly below the Seraphim. Of all heavenly beings, Cherubs are mentioned the most in the Hebrew Bible and are traditionally believed to be the guardians of the Garden of Eden. “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24 NIV)

Cherubim are highly revered throughout the Bible, for instance, God considered them important enough to feature as gold statuettes on either side of the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17-22). Carvings and statues of cherubim feature in the “Most Holy Place” mentioned in 2 Chronicles 3:7-14 (NIV) as well as in the sanctuary described in 1 Kings 6:23-28. It is also believed that Satan came from the Cherubim order before his fall from grace.

The physical appearance of Cherubim is written in the Book of Ezekiel and, similarly to Seraphim, go against contemporary conceptions. According to Ezekiel, the Cherubim were completely covered in eyes, both on their bodies and their wings, of which they have six, as Revelation 4:8 suggests.

“Each creature had four faces. The first was the face of a bull, the second a human face, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 10:12-14 GNT) Whilst this sounds rather grotesque, it is said that each face has a particular purpose to represent the four dominions of God’s rule: domestic animals, humanity, wild animals and birds. These faces have since been adopted as symbols of the four Gospels: Luke, Matthew, Mark and John respectively.

In the western world, Cherubim have incorrectly become associated with putti or “baby angels”. Putti also derived from the classical Roman god Cupid, who was traditionally portrayed with a slender, youthful body. Putti can be typically found in figurative art, both with and without wings, in the form of small, plump male baby- or toddler-like beings.

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The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne – William Blake

The third order in the first sphere are the Thrones, however, there is some discrepancy as to who or what they are. Christian theologians describe them as adoring elder men who listen to the will of God and the prayers of men. These same theologians believe that the twenty-four men mentioned in the final book of the Bible come from the order of Thrones: “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” (Revelation 4:4 NIV)

Not including this verse in the book of Revelation, there is only one direct mention of Thrones in the Bible. Paul the Apostle writes about the Thrones in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). There is, however, no physical description.

The idea that the twenty-four elders are Thrones has become generally accepted, however, some writers have other views. Rosemary Ellen Guiley (b.1950) is one of a handful who associates Thrones with Ophanim or Wheels mentioned in Ezekiel 10:16: “When the cherubim moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the cherubim spread their wings to rise from the ground, the wheels did not leave their side.” (NIV)

“The ‘thrones’; also known as ‘ophanim’ (offanim) and ‘galgallin’, are creatures that function as the actual chariots of God driven by the cherubs. They are characterized by peace and submission; God rests upon them. Thrones are depicted as great wheels containing many eyes, and reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape. They chant glorias to God and remain forever in his presence. They mete out divine justice and maintain the cosmic harmony of all universal laws.”
– Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Encyclopedia of Angels (1996)

There is, however, very little evidence to support this argument, the strongest being that the Cherubim and their wheels carry the throne of God according to chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel. As a result, tradition states that Thrones are a separate body of angels from the Cherubim and are not purely material beings.

The angels in the Second Sphere, who work as heavenly governors of God’s creation, are much more difficult to comprehend and find Biblical evidence for their existence. The first of this trio is known as both Dominions or Lordships, which is also mentioned in Colossians 1:16 alongside Thrones: “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (ESV) The only other Biblical reference is in Ephesians: “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.” (1:21 KJV)

Depending on the translation of the Bible, Dominions or Lordships are sometimes not mentioned at all but when they are, their title depends on whether the text was derived from the Latin or Greek version. Dominions derive from the Latin dominationes, whereas Lordships stem from the Greek term kyriotēs.

Some theologians claim that Dominions look like divinely beautiful humans with a pair of feathered wings, much like the kind seen on Christmas cards, however, they rarely make themselves physically known to humans. Some claim the Dominions or Lords carry glowing orbs on the end of their sceptres or the pommels of their swords, but where this suggestion came from is unknown.

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The Virtues, late 15th century stained glass panels

The second order in the Second Sphere is Virtues or Strongholds. These also appear in chapter 1 verse 21 of Ephesians, however, in some translations are also referred to as powers. Aquinas opted to use the term Virtues in his Summa Theologica. 

Pseudo-Dionysius also wrote about the Virtues, stating that they signify “a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies.” They are strong in character and never succumb to weakness, always having their sights set on the “Source of Virtue.” Little else has been recorded about this angelic order.

The final order in the Second Sphere is Powers or Authorities, not to be confused with the powers mentioned in some translations of Ephesians 21:1. Stemming from the Latin potestates and Greek exousiathis order is introduced briefly in Ephesians 3:10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (NIV)

It is thought that the purpose of the Powers is to maintain order throughout the cosmos, supervising the movements of celestial bodies and making sure everything remains in order. Represented as soldiers wearing full armour and helmets, the Powers or Authorities use their shields, spears or chains to fight off evil spirits, particularly ones that threaten the equilibrium of God’s creation.

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The Principalities, late 15th century stained glass panels

The third and final sphere of angels contains those that act as heavenly guides, protectors, and messengers to humans. Whilst these are the lower ranks of angels, at least two of the orders are more familiar in today’s world.

The first, however, is as obscure as those of the Second Sphere. These are the Principalities or Rulers, sometimes referred to as Princedoms. Biblical acknowledgement of the order appears in both Ephesians 1:21 and Ephesians 3:10, along with those previously mentioned.

Principalities are responsible for the protection and guidance of nations or large groups of people, for instance, the Church. They are depicted wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre and follow instructions given to them by the upper sphere angels. As well as overseeing groups of people, these tasks involve bequeathing blessings upon the Earth. The Principalities or Rulers are also known as the educators and guardians of the people on Earth, often inspiring the study of the arts or sciences.

 

The second order of angels in the Third Sphere is perhaps the most famous: the Archangels. The name comes from the Greek archangelos, which translates into English as chief angel, which considering they come so low down the ranks, is a rather peculiar title.  The word only appears twice in the New Testament and, despite what many believe, only one archangel is named.

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16

The named Archangel is Michael who appears in Jude 1:9, Revelation 12:7-9 and Daniel 12:1. In the latter, Daniel is informed that Michael will appear at the “time of the end”, i.e. the apocalypse, and in Revelation, Michael’s fight with Satan is recorded in a description of a war in heaven. In Jude, Michael is also recorded confronting Satan:  “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'” (NIV)

Another named Archangel is Raphael, who is written about in the Book of Enoch. This book, however, is not included in Christian canons and, therefore, Raphael is not officially a Biblical character. He also appears in the Book of Tobit, however, since this book is deuterocanonical, it also does not count as a Biblical reference.

In Enoch 10:4-6, Raphael is recorded defeating the fallen angel Azazel: “And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert …'”

The most famous story about Raphael is recorded in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. The Archangel appears to Tobiah, the son of Tobit disguised in the human form of “Azarias the son of the great Ananias.” Tobiah is on an errand for his blind father and Raphael keeps him company on the journey, protecting him in many ways, including defeating a demon in an Egyptian desert. The archangel only reveals himself as “the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord,” (Tobit 12:15) after healing the blind Tobit later in the story.

Uriel is another of the named Archangels, however, is only mentioned in the second apocryphal book of Esdras, therefore, most Christians dismiss him as a Biblical angel. Uriel, whose name means Light of God, is sometimes listed as a Cherub and, according to Abbot Anscar Vonier (1875-1938) stands at the Gate of Eden with a fiery sword.

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Virgin of the Rocks – Leonardo da Vinci

The angel in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) painting Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6), which shows Christ and his mother being reunited with John the Baptist after their flight to Egypt, is thought to be Archangel Uriel. Some Christian sources claim that Uriel rescued Jesus’ cousin John and his mother, Elizabeth, from the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod.

Some Christians may argue that Michael is not the only Archangel mentioned in the Bible. The other is Gabriel, meaning God is my Strength, however, he is never referred to as an Archangel in the passages in which he features.

The most famous reference to Gabriel occurs in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament making him a fundamental character in the Christmas story – and, therefore, the key reason for the cute, white-winged angels on Christmas cards. The angel Gabriel first appears to Zechariah, revealing the prophecy that he will have a son: John the Baptist. The second appearance occurs in Luke 1:26-38, in which similar news is delivered to Mary, telling her that she will have a baby.

“And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women … thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”
Luke 1:28-31 KJV

Due to the lack of the word Archangel in reference to Gabriel, some people believe he is only an Angel, the lowest of the ranks and the final order of the Third Sphere. Frustratingly, it is not certain why this order is named Angels, also the umbrella term for the entire three spheres, which can make explaining Christian Angelology rather confusing.

These Angels, or malakhim as they are known in Hebrew, whilst the “plain” angels, are the most recognised in the Bible. They are mentioned in numerous book of the Bible, including Psalms, Colossians and Hebrews. “Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 GNT)

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Kristus i Getsemane – Carl Bloch

Angels of the third sphere variety are the ones who have the most contact with the affairs of men. Often, they are sent to Earth with messages, hence the belief that Gabriel is not an Archangel. They are also sent to guide and support people, for example, the angel who comforted Jesus in Luke 22:43 during the Agony in the Garden.

It is from this realm of angels that the idea of Guardian Angels has arisen. Those who believe in Guardian Angels claim that everyone has been assigned one, regardless of their religious affiliations. Although belief in Guardian Angels can be traced back to antiquity, there is no Biblical evidence of their existence.

So, in answer to the opening question – what are angels? – they are a lot of things. So many things that it requires around 3000 words to fully explain. There is no straightforward answer. One thing for certain is that they are not all the white-robed, feathery-winged, halo-wearing creatures in paintings, literature, Christmas ornaments, and so forth, however, it is much easier to imagine them as such, particularly at this time of year – Merry Christmas.

Christmas Card 2018

Christmas Card designed by me

The Life and Designs of William Morris

With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.”
– William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (1896)

 

 

Set in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow, London, is a house dedicated to one of the most multitalented artists Britain has ever seen. Once the home of William Morris (1834-96), the William Morris Gallery offers a detailed history of the revolutionary Victorian designer, craftsman, writer and campaigner. Through nine galleries that cover most of the house, visitors are introduced to Morris’ life, career and a notable collection of textiles, furniture, ceramics, paintings, designs and personal items. With films, audio clips and interactive displays, there is something to interest people of all ages, regardless as to whether they are William Morris enthusiasts or soon-to-be fans.

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William Morris age 23, c.1853

William Morris was born on 24th March 1834, the eldest son of a rising stockbroker. When he was six, the wealthy family moved to a mansion on the verge of Epping Forest, an ancient woodland that would prove to be a great inspiration for Morris later in life.

Morris much preferred roaming the forest on his own pony than he did education. His initial schooling at Misses Arundale’s Academy for Young Gentlemen proved to be futile, barely being able to spell by the time he moved on to Marlborough College, Wiltshire, in 1848. The previous year, Morris’ father of the same name died at the age of 50, causing his surviving family to downsize despite his fortune of £60,000.

In 1848, the Morris family moved to Water House in Walthamstow, the same building that is now the William Morris Gallery. William would not have been home often due to boarding at the school in Wiltshire, however, he returned home in 1851 due to a lack of discipline at the school. From then on, his education was provided by the Reverend Frederick Barlow Guy (1826-91), who encouraged Morris’ enthusiasm about the history of the Middle Ages. The Reverend was also a member of the Oxford Society for the Study of Gothic Architecture founded by John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic who would have a significant influence on Morris.

The introductory room at the Gallery explores Morris’ childhood and education, including letters and photographs that were written and taken at the time. An interactive map allows visitors to trace Morris’ footsteps around Walthamstow to discover the houses and places he liked to visit as a child.

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William Morris (24.03.1877)

Morris’ family expected him to aspire to a clerical career, however, a chance encounter during the Oxford entrance examination altered Morris’ direction in life. In January 1853, Morris entered Exeter College at Oxford University alongside the soon-to-be painter, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), who would prove to be a lifelong friend. A piano belonging to the latter can be found in the Gallery.

Influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, Morris and Burne-Jones discovered young, controversial painters, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This encounter was the first of many sources of inspiration that prompted Morris to begin a life of art.

Morris became involved with short-lived publications, such as The Germ, a house journal of the Pre-Raphaelites. Some examples of these are on display along with early works of Morris and Burne-Jones. In 1857, Rosetti gathered together a group of friends, including Morris, to help him paint the walls of the Oxford Union with scenes from the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately, this commission was a disaster as, due to their inexperience, they failed to prepare the walls properly before painting.

Morris threw himself into painting but also extended his efforts to wood carving, stained-glass designing and poetry. He also experimented with embroidery and wall-hangings. Despite the effort he put into his work, Morris only completed one painting, La Belle Iseult, based on Arthurian legend. His model was his fiancee Jane Burden (1839-1914), who, unfortunately, lived up to her surname. The painting, depicting the unfaithful Iseult, was a hidden precursor of events to come.

 

 

On 26th April 1859, Morris married Jane in Oxford. None of his family attended, perhaps due to Jane’s working-class background. The pair eventually moved into their own home in Upton, designed and decorated by Morris himself. Due to the colour of the Gothic brickwork, the house was affectionately known as Red House. Undaunted by their neighbours’ distaste, the Morrises lived a rather medieval lifestyle, consuming fruit and vegetables from their own garden and using candles for lighting. Apparently, the style of clothing Jane and her friends preferred were also decidedly odd.

In January 1861, Morris welcomed his first daughter Jane “Jenny” Alice (1861-1935) who was followed by her sister Mary “May” (1862-1938) in March the very next year. By now, Morris had given up the idea of painting as a career and was aspiring to set up his own successful decorative arts business.

Encouraged by Rossetti, Morris launched Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company: Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and Metals, a.k.a The Firm, in April 1861. Beginning with a sum of £100 provided by Morris’ mother, who despite her disappointment at his aborted career in the Church, was willing to contribute to this latest endeavour, The Firm opened for business, receiving commissions from numerous establishments.

An interactive table allows visitors to attempt to run Morris’ business, making decisions about prices and materials to see if they could survive in a similar market. Morris was naturally the manager of The Firm, however, many of his friends had vital roles in the establishment. Burne-Jones was in charge of stained-glass design and another Pre-Raphaelite, Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), took on the role of chairing meetings. Rossetti was a valuable source, using his wide range of social contacts to receive commissions.

 

 

True to his nature, Morris took up a new artistic venture, wallpaper. Designs, such as Trellis and Daisy were registered in 1862 and were an immediate success. Despite business doing well, Morris’ health made it impractical to commute from home to The Firm’s premises in Bloomsbury, London, so the family moved to the residential quarters above the shop; something that placed a further strain on his rapidly deteriorating relationship with his wife.

Nonetheless, The Firm’s reputation was growing, receiving prestigious commissions such as redecorating the Armoury and Tapestry Room at St James’s Palace. This, along with their involvement with the Western Refreshment Room at the South Kensington Museum – now the Green Dining Room at the V&A – attracted the attention of Queen Victoria, who invited them back to St James’s Palace to decorate the Grand Staircase in 1880. The company also sold a furnishing fabric Utrecht Velvet, which was used to decorate the interior walls of the ocean liner, Titanic. 

 

 

After Morris took complete control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co in 1874, a decade worth of exceptional creativity began. During this time, Morris produced designs for thirty-two printed fabrics, twenty-four machine-made carpets, twenty-three woven fabrics and twenty-one wallpapers. He also opened showrooms at 264 (now 449) Oxford Street, on the corner of North Audley Street, in 1877.

The Gallery has recreated Morris’ showroom, using appropriate furnishings and decorations. It provides the atmosphere of the original place and enables visitors to envisage what entering the shop as a customer would have been like at the time. A number of designs and items are on display and large sample books of various textiles and wallpapers are available to browse through.

Next door, a workshop is set out to resemble the Morris & Co workshops at Merton Abbey, where The Firm moved in 1881. Morris went to lengths to ensure his materials were the finest quality and his workers highly skilled. Pieces of machinery alongside brief videos introduce visitors to the hard work that went into producing the carpets, wallpaper and stained glass for Morris & Co. Examples of the outcomes adorn the walls, many of them featuring birds and plants, inspired by Morris’ upbringing around Epping Forest. Hands-on stations around the room encourage visitors to draw their own patterns, build a stained-glass window and experiment with some basic weaving.

 

“Ever since I can remember I was a great devourer of books.”
– William Morris

The ground floor rooms of the Gallery are devoted to Morris’ artwork and business, however, upstairs are entirely different sides to the versatile Victorian. During his years with the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris began writing poems, sometimes for publications. This was encouraged by Rossetti who is also remembered for his poems as well as his paintings. After he self-published The Life and Death of Jason in 1867, a retelling in verse of the Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts, Morris was predicted to secure his place amongst the chief English poets of the age. The poet Robert Browning (1812-89) declared the volume “noble, melodious and most beautiful,” and within five years, over 3000 copies were sold.

Shortly following this success was Morris’ first volume of The Earthly Paradise, a sequence of twenty-four narrative poems about Greek and Norse mythology. Morris dedicated this book to his wife, ignoring the evidence that Jane was having an affair with Rossetti. Morris later escaped to Iceland to avoid the marriage-destroying fling back home. He had previously been introduced to the Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnusson (1833-1913), with whom he collaborated with on translations, for example, the original Icelandic Grettis Saga. Morris also translated the Aeneid into English and a loose interpretation of the Volsunga Saga. Titled Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, his last major poem, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) dubbed it “the greatest epic since Homer.”

As well as writing, Morris became interested in calligraphy and typography, which sparked the desire to tackle book-printing. In the late 1880s, Morris established the Kelmscott Press at 16 Upper Hall, which became his main preoccupation for the remainder of his life. Coming from a design background, Morris was intrigued with the union of art, literature, typography, binding and ink and determined to produce elaborate, unique page layouts that reflected his passion for all things medieval.

The Kelmscott Press printed over 50 titles, many of them written by Morris himself, but also the writers he admired, including Ruskin, Shakespeare, Rossetti, Keats and Chaucer. The gallery has many examples of the books and pages Morris designed, showing off his intricate calligraphy, exceptional illustrations and gothic patterns. The Kelmscott Chaucer was hailed at the time as the most beautiful book ever printed.

 

William Morris’ artistic and literary career was not his only focus in life. He was aware of the benefits he had gained from being born into a wealthy family and the hardships of the lower classes.

“If I had not been … well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, should have been a mere rebel against … a system of robbery and injustice … The contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured … Such a system can only be detroyed … by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons of the upper or middle classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it.”
– William Morris

Unsupported by his peers, Morris became a Socialist during his 50s, committing himself to public lectures, despite not being much of a speaker. Looking back at his beloved medieval period, Morris wished to bring old ethical values back into practice, for example, co-operation, dignity and honesty. As a member of the Democratic Federation (DF), he took part in marches, sold the group newspaper Justice on street corners and published his own book for the cause: Chants for Socialists.

Later, when the DF was renamed the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Morris was invited to take the place of president, however, he turned down the offer. Yet, in 1885, Morris became the leader of the Socialist League in Hammersmith, which had broken away from the original SDF. The Socialist League quickly gained hundreds of members and famous names were attracted by Morris’ lectures, including Oscar Wilde (1845-1900) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

In 1886, the Socialist League began producing a weekly publication, Commonweal, however, it failed to make a profit. In an attempt to raise funds for the magazine, Morris wrote his only play, The Tables Turned; or Nupkins Awakened, giving himself the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The play was performed ten times, however, Morris did not think the audience understood the Socialist message he was trying to get across.

The events of 13th November 1887, also known as “Bloody Sunday”, were a crucial part of Morris’ Socialist vocation. Morris led a large group to a protest meeting at Trafalgar Square, however, violent police involvement caused the death of two protestors and left hundreds injured.

Despite his involvement with politics, Morris did not give up on his other interests, continuing to run Morris & Co whilst writing poetry and translating popular works. He also combined his love of gothic design with his political tendencies, setting up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877, a company that is still in existence today, to try to prevent damages to the original architecture of old buildings. Morris believed the Victorian restoration of these buildings was doing more harm than good and feared historical evidence of the foregoing centuries being destroyed completely.

 

Being such a talented and varied man, William Morris has left a huge legacy behind him. The final rooms at the Gallery explore the ways Morris has left his mark on the art and literature world. One room devotes itself to the work of Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), one of the founders of the William Morris Gallery who was briefly apprenticed to William Morris. The other room takes a look at the resulting Arts and Crafts movement, inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin (1812-52), writer John Ruskin, and, of course, designer William Morris.

The Arts and Crafts movement flourished between the 1880s until the beginning of the First World War. Young artists, designers and craftsman were inspired by Morris’ ideas and continued to protest against the effects of industrialisation, just as he did during his time with the SDF and Socialist League. Unlike other art movements, Arts and Crafts was based more upon ideas than visual style, particularly ideas about Socialism, education and the environment.

Examples of work by these young artists can be seen in the eighth room of the Gallery, such as stained glass by Christopher Whall (1849–1924) and a carved plaque of Morris by George Jack (1855-1931) in tribute of the late artist.

May Morris, Morris’ youngest daughter was also an inventive designer. She learnt embroidery at a young age and by 1885, when she was only 21, she was elected head of the embroidery department at Morris & Co. Her passion for sewing helped to reconstruct embroidery from a female pastime to a serious form of art. The Gallery displays a fine silk embroidery by May titled Maids of Honour. Delicately made, this work of art was not produced for sale and remained in May’s private collection for the rest of her life.

“The true root and basis of all Art lies in the handicrafts.”
– Walter Crane (1845-1915)

Due to the sheer amount of information available, the William Morris Gallery is a place to be visited numerous times. Its free entry makes it a desirable place to revisit and its location in Lloyd Park only adds to its popularity. Activities for children are available throughout the Gallery, including brass rubbing, activity sheets and the opportunity to dress up.

The tea room or The Larder, situated in an orangery at the back of the house, provides breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea during the Gallery opening times. Throughout the year, specific exhibitions are also held in the building, the current one being The Enchanted Gardenfeaturing artists such as Claude Monet, Lucian Pissarro, Edward Burne-Jones and Beatrix Potter. This runs alongside a solo exhibition of fine artist Rob Ryan.

William Morris, as his obituary states, “was not only a genius, he was a man.” By encompassing his entire life rather than his outcomes and legacies, the William Morris Gallery succeeds in keeping the memory of the human being behind the name fresh and alive. He is definitely a person worth knowing about.

wmg_logo22Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 5pm. Free entry.

Mantegna versus Bellini

A tale of two artists: family and rivalry is the theme for the National Gallery’s current exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in collaboration with the British Museum. Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini are two of the greatest Italian painters of the Renaissance. Whilst it may appear the younger Bellini began his career by copying Mantegna, the already established artist, his work developed into groundbreaking paintings of which no one had seen the like before. With temporary loans of dozens of rarely seen artworks, the exhibition, Mantegna and Bellini, provides the opportunity to study the similarities and differences between two artists who shaped Italian art.

 

 

It started with a book. On entering the exhibition, visitors are faced with a glass display case containing the London Drawing Book of Jacopo Bellini. Although this does not contain the works of the two artists in question, it is a key object that links their stylistic development together.

Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-70) was one of the founders of the Renaissance style of painting in Venice and northern Italy. His sons, Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni (c.1430-1516) learnt the art of painting and drawing under his tutelage, however, it was not until Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) joined the family, that the younger son, Giovanni, began to make his name known.

Mantegna was born in Padua and adopted by the artist Francesco Squarcione (c.1395 -c.1468) in whose studio he also worked. Unfortunately, the young artist believed Squarcione was exploiting his pupils and took him to court so that he could become an independent painter. As a result, Mantegna was free to go where he wished, marrying into the Bellini family in 1453.

After his marriage to Nicolosia Bellini (d.1460), Mantegna was able to study the drawings of Jacopo Bellini. As can be seen in the illustrations, Jacopo was interested in architecture and perspective, which inevitably rubbed off on his son-in-law and then his son.

Whilst Mantegna had already experienced life as an artist, having to work hard to make a living, Giovanni Bellini had grown up in an extremely wealthy family of Venetian painters and had not endured the same fate, nor yet developed his own style and place amongst Italian artists. Looking to his brother-in-law for inspiration, Bellini appropriated many of the established and highly inventive artist’s ideas, gradually forging a name for himself.

 

 

The first and most obvious example of Mantegna’s influence on Bellini is their similar versions of The Presentation at the Temple. These show the moment Mary and Joseph present their child, Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth. Here, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 2:22–40, they meet prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna. Both paintings show the Virgin Mary tenderly holding the tightly swaddled Christ Child while Simeon comes forward to take him. In the background between these main figures, Joseph watches the proceedings.

In Mantegna’s version, which was painted shortly after his marriage, there are two figures stood either side of the painting. These are thought to be portraits of the artist himself and his wife, Nicolosia. The composition is rather claustrophobic, the framing being just enough room to hold the upper bodies of Mary and Simeon with their halos.

Bellini’s version, however, is observed from further away, allowing room for an extra character on either side. It has not been officially determined who these people represent. To produce this piece, Bellini traced Mantegna’s original, which had been completed over ten years beforehand, keeping the poses, facial expressions and types of clothing almost exactly the same. The changes appear in the colours of the fabrics, the brightness of the scene and the lack of halos upon the Holy Family’s heads.

To some, the paintings are so similar that Bellini’s version appears to be blatant plagiarism. On the other hand, there is enough difference to make it his own. It is as though Bellini is trying to say to Mantegna, “Look what I can do,” or perhaps even, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”

 

The Presentation at the Temple is just one of many examples the National Gallery uses to emphasise Mantegna’s influence on Bellini. Another is The Agony in the Gardenwhich Mantegna first produced at the end of the 1450s, inspiring Bellini to produce his own version at the beginning of the following decade. The paintings refer to chapter 14, verses 32-43 in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples, Peter, James the Great and John the evangelist sleep.

It is thought that Mantegna was initially inspired by a drawing by Jacopo Bellini. This Bible passage was an unusual choice to represent at this time since many Biblical paintings came in sets, representing the birth, life and resurrection of Christ; The Agony in the Garden was the first stand-alone religious painting in western art.

Mantegna’s rocky terrain and sharp colours give the painting a harsh atmosphere and a portent of the events to come emphasised further by a dead tree and vulture on the right. A host of angels stand above on a cloud clutching Instruments of the Passion, another omen of Christ’s impending death. In the background is the city of Jerusalem from which a troop of soldiers follow Judas’ lead to arrest Jesus.

Although Bellini took inspiration from Mantegna, on this occasion his outcome is not a copy of his brother-in-law’s. The events depicted remain the same, however, Bellini has introduced his own interpretation. Bellini chose to include only one ghostly angel standing aloft on a wispy cloud carrying a cup and plate as symbols of the approaching sacrifice. The colours and the way Bellini portrays light in his composition gives the painting a more tender feel. Unlike Mantegna’s version, it suggests hope, a hint of the resurrection, a sign of prayers being answered.

 

 

Up until the 15th century, Biblical paintings showed the characters, Jesus, the Holy family and so forth as beautiful, angel-like beings. They were figures that personified the love of God and served as examples of the ideal human being. During Mantegna and Bellini’s careers, these notions began to change. Although traditional scenes of the nativity and the Madonna remained popular, artists began to change the way they portrayed the death of Christ. Instead of a peaceful, serene outcome, Mantegna and Bellini focused on painting the torture of Christ, revealing through him the sorrows of man.

 

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised …
– Isaiah 53:3

The National Gallery provides more examples of Bellini’s depiction of the “despised and rejected” Christ, however, both artists were keen to express the lifeless body and the grief on the faces of his mother and disciples.

 

Whilst Bellini was intensely impacted by Mantegna’s art and style, Bellini’s evocative landscapes and application of colour equally inspired Mantegna. As their careers developed, the landscape became an integral part of their paintings. Rather than spend all their energy painting the foreground and characters, the brothers-in-law paid equal attention to the backgrounds of their compositions.

Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin, for example, could simply have been portrayed in a room with bare walls. Instead, the artist has included a huge open window overlooking the city of Mantua, where he was currently residing. Likewise, Bellini in Madonna of the Meadow did not solely focus on the tenderness of the mother and child. In the background is a landscape complete with the buildings of a distant city. The inclusion of these structures maintains the original teachings of Jacopo Bellini who enjoyed sketching architectural drawings.

One of Bellini’s greatest examples of a landscape is Assassination of St Peter Martyr. This tells the story of Saint Peter, a Dominican friar, who was ambushed by assassins on the road to Milan. Saint Peter received a head wound and was repeatedly stabbed to death. This incident takes place in the lower left of the painting, leaving a huge amount of canvas that Bellini fills with an expressive landscape.

The death of St Peter takes place in a wooded area outside of a city; the buildings can be seen through the trees. Oblivious to the saint’s demise, woodcutters are chopping down branches for firewood, an intended allusion to the way in which the saint was killed.

The most impressive landscape the gallery displays by Mantegna is Triumphs of the Virtues. Unlike the first few rooms in the exhibition which show religions paintings, this is a mythological image that reveals Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, expelling the vices from the Garden of Virtue. Some of the other characters are identified as Diana, the goddess of chastity, escaping from a centaur who, in this case, is a symbol of lust and desire. In the sky, the three primary moral virtues, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, watch over the proceedings.

As well as expertly telling the mythological tale, Mantegna painted a magical landscape full of luscious green meadows and mountains. In the foreground, arches are made up of foliage and, in keeping with the whimsical story, the tree nearest Minerva is shown with a human head.

 

Despite the familial connection and the clear influence they had on each other, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini only worked in close proximity briefly before Mantegna took up the post of court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Although the artistic style of work is close enough to be mistaken for the other, the direction they went with themes and purposes gave them individuality within the art world.

Mantegna had a great interest in antiquity and attempted to recreate ancient Rome in some of his paintings. Three of nine large canvases covered the walls in the final room of the exhibition of the Triumphs of Caesar, which shows the arrival of Julius Caesar in Rome. These are thought to have been commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519), the 4th Marquis of Mantua, although, they were later acquired by Charles I in 1629 and now remain in the Royal Collection.

Another example of Mantegna’s interest in antiquity can be seen in The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome commisioned by Francesco Cornaro (1478-1543), a Venetian nobleman, in 1505. Rather than painting a life-like illustration of the scene, Mantegna painted a sculptural relief. Although the background is coloured a red marble or wood, the stone figures are completely monochrome. This goes to show Mantegna’s skill with the paintbrush; producing a black and white painting is only half the challenge, making figures look like stone is a true success.

 

Unlike Mantegna, Bellini remained in Venice his whole life, often completing commisions in many Venetian and religious buildings. Despite being away from his brother-in-law, they remained in contact and had similar interests. Bellini was also interested in antiquity, finishing commissions Mantegna left incomplete after his death. At this time, however, the term antiquity also referred to events written in the Old Testament, such as the story of Noah.

The Drunkenness of Noah was completed about a year before Bellini’s death and shows the daring and revolutionary ideas of the artist. Traditionally, Biblical paintings reveal positive stories and messages, however, this painting based on Genesis 9:20–23 reveals Noah’s vices rather than his virtuosity. Noah is lying naked on the floor in drunken slumber whilst his sons, Shem and Japheth, attempt to cover him with a red cloth. His third son, Ham, however, laughs at the sight of his father.

Bellini also received commissions for portraits, however, he much prefered to paint portraits of characters rather than real people. The most beautiful of these is Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene which, unlike his other paintings with expressive landscapes, has a black background; the characters are lit from a light source outside of the frame.

Although not overly elaborate or detailed, Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene attracts attention with its chiaroscuro effect and the glossy finish to the painting – an element that is lost looking at the image online or on paper. Mantegna’s medium of choice was egg tempera, which Bellini initially used before developing a preference for oil paints. Oils allowed for deeper colour and contrast in shading.

There is no doubt that Mantegna and Bellini were two of the greatest painters in Italy during the 15th century, however, for an exhibition expressly about the pair, very little is alluded to about their lives, personalities or whether the brothers-in-law got on well together. This exhibition does not let Mantegna and Bellini’s personalities come through. It eliminates them in preference for detailed comparisons about how they painted and drew the same subjects, such as The Agony in the Garden and The Presentation at the Temple.

Of course, it is interesting to see the similarities and difference between the two artists, but on leaving the exhibition, visitors remain none the wiser about who the two painters really were. Did they have happy lives and happy marriages? Do their paintings reflect their personalities? Did Mantegna mind Bellini copying his work? Were they rivals or is this a label art historians have assumed? So many questions …

Despite these misgivings, it is incredible to see all these paintings in one place, especially as many belong to private collections and are rarely lent out to other organisations. It is interesting to see the famous paintings as well as the lesser known and to be able to witness the growth from early career to pioneers of the Renaissance. Although Mantegna and Bellini’s lives are not much revealed, the history, development and changes in paintings from the 15th century is fascinating.

Mantegna and Bellini is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 27th January 2019. Tickets are between £12-16 and can be booked online or bought on the day. 

 

Art in the Aftermath

On 11th November 1918, fighting on land, sea and air in World War I between the Allies and their opponent, Germany, finally came to an end. One hundred years later, television, magazines and museums throughout Britain are paying tribute to the events of the Great War with reflective thoughts, facts and stories, revealing truths and experiences of those who fought or were affected by the conflict. Tate Britain jumped on the bandwagon with a major exhibition throughout the summer: Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One. Bringing together over 150 artworks from 1916 – 1932 by British, French and German artists, the exhibition explored the artistic responses to the physical and psychological scars left by the war. With over 10 million soldiers dead and 20 million wounded, the fighting may have ceased but the after effects of the devastation continued to plague the hearts and minds of those left behind to pick up the pieces.

 

 

 

The exhibition, which closed on 23rd September 2018, began with a selection of paintings produced by artists who had either fought or witnessed the battle first hand. Since the majority of civilians had not seen the fighting in the trenches, they were sheltered from the brutality of the experience. Artists struggled to express the horrors of war, the battlefields and the loss of human life; instead, they painted the scene after the guns had fallen silent, indicating the violence by revealing the destruction of the landscape.

Paul Nash (1889-1946) used his surrealist style to produce a ruined field full of shell craters and broken trees. Although no human remains can be seen, it is easy to imagine the significant death toll caused by heavy artillery and automatic weapons. Other artists included abandoned helmets as a piercing symbol of the death of a soldier. An example of British, French and German helmets, which had originally been collected as war souvenirs, was displayed in a glass case in the first room of the exhibition. The rusted state of the British and German helmet was a strong reminder of the damp, inhospitable environment soldiers were subjected to.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946), one of the greatest British war artists, included a couple of corpses in his painting Paths of Glory (1917). Lying face down in the mud surrounded by barbed wire, the soldiers are stripped of their dignity and identity, becoming a small percentage of the war losses. When the painting was first displayed in London, the Department of Information threatened to censor it, however, Nevinson got there first, pasting pieces of brown paper over the dead bodies with the word “censored” written over the top. Rather than protecting the viewers from the truth as the Department had wished, Nevinson caused people to demand to know the realities of the war.

William Orpen (1878-1931) was another artist who was determined to reveal the traumas of war. Drawing on his own experiences, Orpen produced Blown Up (1917), a painting of a soldier he had witnessed wandering around in a corpse-ridden landscape.

“Practically every shred of uniform had been torn from his body … [he] was wandering crazed and naked, still clinging to his rifle.”

It was impossible for soldiers to forget the sights they had seen and Orpen was particularly outraged that the people who had “gone through Hell” were quickly being forgotten by the people in charge. Soldiers were expected to return to their daily lives as though the war had never happened. Mental illness was not an accepted concept at the time and illnesses such as PTSD were not mentioned. Instead, the dazed, emotionally broken man depicted by Orpen was deemed to be “shell-shocked”, a term coined during the war by Charles Meyers (1873-1946), a physician, who believed the behaviour of these men was a result of shockwaves caused from a nearby exploding bomb, severing men’s nerves.

 

 

Of course, the Great War itself was remembered, and continues to be, by the countries involved. Britain and France quickly erected memorials to the people who lost their lives and Germany eventually followed suit in 1931. In Hyde Park Corner, London, stands a stone monument dedicated to the First World War casualties of the Royal Artillery. Included in this statue are four bronze figures of artillerymen designed by Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934), one of which featured in the Tate exhibition.

In Britain, the Tomb of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, which contains the remains of an unidentified British soldier killed during the First World War, is still respected at memorial services today. Similarly, in France, a French unknown soldier is buried at the Arc de Triomphe. The coffins were marched through the capitals on 11th November 1920, as shown by Frank Owen Salisbury (1874-1962) in his painting The Passing of an Unknown Warrior. Salisbury captured the procession as it passed Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall where hundreds of people had gathered to pay their respects. The highly recognisable George V walks alone behind the gun carriage carrying the coffin, playing the role of Chief Mourner.

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Original version

Salisbury’s painting was not the only one at the exhibition to feature the coffin of the unknown soldier. William Orpen painted a tribute to the soldier, placing the coffin in the Hall of Peace at the Palace of Versailles, however, the story behind the artwork gives it an entirely different meaning. As the Tate pointed out, the original painting once featured two putti hovering above the flag-clad coffin, whilst two emaciated soldiers stood to either side. Five years after it had been produced, Orpen painted over the putti and soldiers, leaving the lone coffin in the middle.

What the Tate failed to mention was the painting, To the Unknown Soldier in France (1921-8) was never the original intention of the artist or the commissioners. Orpen was commissioned to paint the politicians, generals and admirals who had “won the war” in a group portrait within the walls of the Hall of Peace. Whilst Orpen worked diligently on this for nine months, his experience of the realities of the battlefield prevented him from continuing until completion. With those that had “given up their all” forgotten about by these “frocks” who had very little to do with the physical warfare, Orpen rebelled by removing the statesmen from the painting and replacing them with the coffin of an unknown soldier. He aimed to express the fate of millions of soldiers to the public back home and the war-induced trauma the survivors were suffering.

“… it must have been the experience of many men, when the war was over and they came back with minds seared with the things they has seen, to find a civilian public weary and indifferent, and positively unwilling to listen.”
– Herbert Read (1893-1968)

 

 

Although some photographs were produced during the war years, the medium was an expensive way of documenting the travesties, therefore, it was left to the artists to show the true events and after-effects. Nevertheless, a painting of a war-strewn landscape does not express the emotional, mental and physical effects upon the combatants. Soon after the war, art movements such as Dada and Surrealism became a way of communicating the damage inflicted upon bodies and minds. Warped images of half flesh, half machine figures were frequently used to represent the use of prosthetic limbs by war veterans.

The French painter Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), whilst not associated with Dadaism and Surrealism, produced a painting of robot-like soldiers sitting in a trench. The individuals look as though they are made of steel, thus dehumanising the act of war. The German painter Otto Dix (1891-1969), on the other hand, chose a cartoon-style to express his experience of war, for instance, the violent-looking, gasmask-wearing stormtroopers in his print series, The War (1924).

Dix also tried to draw attention to the way post-war German society mistreated disabled veterans as well as exposing the lives of ex-soldiers and their female relatives. In a caricature entitled Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran. Two Victims of Capitalism (1923) Dix aimed to make society aware of the men who were refused work on account of their facial disfigurement and the women who had no choice but to go into prostitution due to economic necessity.

 

 

As well as exploring the catastrophic impact of the war, many artists’ styles and genres began to radically change in the following years. Before 1914, many avant-garde movements were developing, changing the way art was perceived and executed in the western world, however, the war years brought these artistic advancements to a lull. With the world suffering physical and psychological damages, the heart temporarily went out of modern art and many returned to realism and traditional genres.

This revival has been given the art term Retour à l’ordre or Return to Order, which is thought to stem from Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) book of essays Le rappel a l’ordre, published in 1926. Although the style may be reminiscent of old approaches, the subject matter alluded to the current economic and political climate. Dorothy Brett (1883-1977), for example, portrayed a group of pregnant war widows dressed in black supporting each other through such a distressing time. War Widows (1916) emphasises the death toll of the war and the number of women left without husbands and children who will never meet their fathers.

Rudolf Schlichter (1890-1955) also alluded to the effects war had on women. In his portrait Jenny (1923), Schlichter gave great attention to the sitter’s facial expression, exposing the inner turmoil of her mind. Jenny appears to be deep in thought, distant and detached from the world. The war did not only affect the men who fought but also the women who lost husbands, sons, fathers and brothers. Another artist, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), produced a narrative print portfolio that focused on the war from the perspective of mothers and children. It was one of the strongest and most powerful anti-war statements made at the time.

Other artists subliminally referenced the war by returning to classical themes, such as religion, combining them with modern settings. Winifred Knights (1899–1947), for instance, combined the Biblical story of the flood in the book of Genesis with frenzied figures wearing typical clothing of the 1910s fleeing from the rising waters. The Deluge (1920) was displayed at the Royal Academy in February 1921 and received positive feedback from critics. “The ark suggests the modern concrete buildings, and the figures are those of present-day men and women. Critics declare the painter a genius.” (The Daily Graphic, 8 February 1921)

The most surprising artist to feature in the Return to Order section of the Tate Britain exhibition was Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Known for cubism, surrealism, expressionism, post-impressionism and more, it is easy to forget that Picasso was also an exceptionally good realist painter. Although he quickly returned to his iconic modern style, for a short time after the war, Picasso entertained ideas of classical and Biblical art. In Family by the Seaside (1922), Picasso paints what appears to be a family of three relaxing on the beach, however, a closer inspection reveals the unnerving nudity of the father and child. The similarities between this painting and the Pietà are evident in the position of the father lying unmoving on the ground whilst the mother and child watch over him.

 

 

Although war art is typically focused upon the actual combat and after effects, artists began to think about the future of a post-war society. In Britain, France and Germany, social and political unrest was plaguing the cities, particularly in the latter in which the percentage of unemployed skyrocketed. In the 1920s, Germany saw the rise of a new art movement, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which encompassed the artists who rejected the pre-war expressionist movement. Between 1925 until the fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933, German painting began to characterise the attitude of public life.

Otto Griebel (1895-1972) painted Die International (The International) in 1929 to express the working class’ antagonism against Capitalism. Griebel paints an unending crowd of workers marching together whilst singing the Communist anthem. The individuals are dressed in all manner of work clothes but despite their different positions, they are determined to support each other.

Otto Dix also focused on the working class with his portrait of a street urchin in Working-Class Boy (1920). The young German boy would not look out of place in a Charles Dicken’s (1812-1870) novel such as Oliver Twist (1838) and other stories set in 1800 cities. This suggests that a century on, nothing has been achieved in helping the poor or that the war has reverted the world back to a previous era.

Disabled veterans who fought for their country were often ignored rather than receiving the thanks and praise they deserved. In George Grosz’s (1893-1959) recognisable Grey Day (1921), the cover image of the Aftermath exhibition, a social worker deliberately turns away from a struggling veteran. The public was led to believe everyone was treated equally, whereas, in reality, society had been split into social types similar to the old class system. Grosz and other members of Neue Sachlichkeit aimed to unveil the inequalities through their artwork.

“…I considered any art pointless if it did not put itself at the disposal of political struggle….my art was to be a gun and a sword.”
-George Grosz

There were, of course, positive changes in society after the war. As most people will by now be aware, this year is also the hundredth anniversary of British women receiving the right to vote. It was a time when women were finally getting greater freedom and independence, particularly in the workforce. Cities and economies were adapting in order to fit women into their entitled positions. Europe was also looking to America and following their example of technical progress and modernity.

Some artists produced paintings of ambitious modern cities, full of hope and recovery from war. Nevinson, on the other hand, began to feel disheartened. Bearing in mind the prospect of a Second World War was not yet on the cards, Nevinson was already having doubts about the rapid changes occurring both sides of the ocean. The Soul of the Soulless City (1920) was originally meant to show the modern architecture of New York City with an imagined elevated railway; whilst the picture has not been altered, the meaning changed after a critic described it as “hard, metallic, unhuman”. What initially looked like a city of hope became a city in which buildings and technology replace human life.

As Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One proved, the First World War left lasting effects upon citizens regardless as to whether they experienced warfare first hand. One hundred years on, it is not only important to remember the people who fought but also the people left emotionally scarred by the conflict. The artworks shown at the Tate Britain exhibition show how complex the aftermath of the war was; just because the fighting had stopped did not mean life could return to its former state.

It was refreshing to see a handful of female artists who, until more recent years, were often omitted from art history. Their contribution helped to show another side to war that, again, is often forgotten about. The year 1918 has been recorded as a celebratory time for women, which, unfortunately, overshadows the emotional pain of war that they, their children and the soldiers were subjected to.

Tate Britain did an excellent job curating the Aftermath exhibition. Rather than acting as a First World War centenary memorial, it revealed the harsh truths about the impact of war, which, after all, was the original intention of the majority of the exhibits. Although the doors closed a month ago, Aftermath has opened visitors’ eyes and minds to the physical and psychological scars left by WWI. It also reveals the power a work of art can contain, speaking volumes at a time when the public had no voice of its own. Most importantly, it has changed the way the Great War is remembered and has given everyone something to think about.

Michael Jackson: On the Wall

“I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had a chance to talk to him, I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is, not about who he went out with last night or why he decided to sit out in the sun for so long.”
– Michael Jackson, 1993

Coinciding with what would have been his 60th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery presents their exhibition of the year, Michael Jackson: On the Wall. With number one hits from age 11, Jackson is known not just for his music but his choreography, dancing ability, fashion and humanitarian efforts, too. Despite his death in 2009, Jackson continues to be a major influence on contemporary art.

Before anyone gets excited about a Michael Jackson exhibition, it needs to be noted that this is not a biographical display of the life of the “King of Pop”, nor are there any memorabilia or personal artefacts. On the Wall is about artwork and Jackson’s influence on 48 different artists from different generations and areas of the world.

 

 

On entering the exhibition, a gallant prince on horseback almost jumps off the wall taking the attention away from Keith Haring’s (1958-90) untitled abstract portrait of Michael Jackson hanging on the left of the entrance. On closer inspection, the figure turns out to be Jackson, imitating the Spanish king in Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) The Restoration of Philip II on Horseback (c1630). The artist, Kehinde Wiley (b1977), is known for his paintings of African-Americans, which attracted Jackson’s attention in the early 2000s. Becoming his final commissioned portrait, Jackson asked Wiley to paint him in the typical style of European art history in order to challenge the stereotypes surrounding black people in the United States. This was an issue, as the exhibition highlights, which Jackson felt strongly about.

Although it is almost a decade since Michael Jackson’s death on 25th June 2009, artists are still enamoured with his compassion for those treated unfairly and the way [he] makes [them] feel. The year after his death, the diverse artist Lyle Ashton Harris (b1965) produced Black Ebony II (2010), which hangs close by the regal portrait of the “King of Pop”. “I remained intrigued by the vulnerability, the genius that was Michael Jackson and how his global presence still haunts the contemporary phantom scene.”

 

Some of the works have been purposely created by artists for this exhibition, for example, Graham Dolphin’s (b.1972) walls of record sleeves. Dolphin is well-known for his text art in which he hand writes minuscule words on top of pre-existing materials. In this instance, he has collaged together multiple sleeve issues of Michael Jackson’s albums Thriller and Off the Wall – of which the exhibition’s title is a parody. These are part of an ongoing series of work in which the artist explores the themes of fandom and idolatry. Across the sleeves, Dolphin has painstakingly written the complete lyrics of Jackson’s songbook.

After an introduction to a few examples of artwork inspired by Michael Jackson, the exhibition begins to follow Jackson’s timeline from his emergence into the world of fame through to his final years. Although the focus is mostly on the art, details about the singer are included in written descriptions, which help to explain the purpose and intention of each artist.

Michael Jackson was born on 29th August 1958 in Gary, Indiana, the eighth child of a working-class African-American family. His father, Joseph Walter Jackson (1928-2018), formed a band with his eldest sons, Jackie (b1951), Tito (b1953) and Jermaine (b1954), which Michael and another brother, Marlon (b1957) joined in 1964 as backing musicians on congas and tambourines. Michael was only 6 years old when he joined what would become known as the Jackson 5. The next year he was promoted to lead singer, a position he shared with Jermaine. By the tender age of 11, Michael and his brothers were already at the top of the charts with singles such as ABC and I’ll Be There.

 

During the 1970s, Michael Jackson grew from a child performer to a teen idol. Breaking away from his brothers as a solo artist, becoming the first black musician to receive worldwide fame. With studio albums and singles being released at great speed, Jackson was quickly becoming one of the most idolised musicians, winning award after award with barely a break in between, after all, you don’t stop ’til you get enough.

The National Portrait Gallery displays a handful of drawings the British painter Dawn Mellor (b1970) drew during her teenage years. These are what today’s youth call “fanart”, in which they copy pictures of their favourite stars or create imaginary scenarios derived from works in which the celebrity has been involved. Mellor also doodled portraits of the athlete Carl Lewis (b1961) and comedian Richard Pryor (1940-2005) who, like Jackson, were transcending barriers that usually limited African Americans.

Michael Jackson’s face became an iconic image after Andy Warhol (1928-87) created a series of silkscreen prints in 1984 to accompany an article in Time Magazine titled “Why He’s A Thriller”. Warhol was an avid Jackson fan and collected many of his records; commodities, such as look-a-like dolls; and newspaper clippings about the star.

As well as his physical appearance, fashion preferences and song lyrics, Jackson was also known for being a dancing machine. Some of these moves are difficult to replicate, although, many have now conquered the “moonwalk”. A more challenging dance move introduced by Jackson is “the freeze” in which he balanced on the very tip of his toes. Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom (b1984), who recently graduated from the Royal Acadamy Schools, produced a tribute to the “King of Pop” by replicating the famous “freeze” with latex balloons, ribbons and penny loafer shoes. A version of this sculpture is situated in the centre of one of the rooms in the exhibition, the shoes standing on their toes, held up by the balloons. Not only does this sculpture honour the late singer, it has metaphorical connotations too.

“… the replacement of the balloons as they individually deflate plays on the continuous work and effort in upholding an admired public image.”
– Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom

 

Living in the limelight has its positive and negative aspects. Being one of the most famous black men in the world, Michael Jackson was in a position to be to heard and listened to by millions of people. He advocated for equal rights, insisting that it did not matter if you were black or whiteJackson visited sick children around the world, giving them gifts and a moment to remember on Michael’s Heal The World Campaign in the 1990s. He turned his 3000-acre estate, Neverland Valley, into an amusement park with two zoos containing animals such as llamas, tigers, giraffes and elephants, and invited disadvantaged children to enjoy themselves.

Faith Ringgold (b1930), known for her narrative quilts, has been an activist in various feminist and anti-racism groups since the 1970s. One of her “story quilts”, which features in this exhibition, contains a figure of Michael Jackson in its centre. Her aim was to denounce racism and discrimination through her artwork.

“Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be.”
– They Don’t Care About Us, Michael Jackson

Jackson wrote songs such as They Don’t Care About Us and Earth Song as a means of getting the message across about the inequalities in the world. Some people loved him for this, however, others began to despise him. This, unfortunately, kept Jackson under critical scrutiny, which anyone would find difficult to bear.

Michael Jackson could be recognised everywhere he went, his face was easy to remember. His features were so unique that he could be identified by his eyes only, as emphasised in Mark Ryden’s (1963) cover work for the album Dangerous (1991). Jackson’s eyes can be seen peeking through a mask-like shape at the top of the composition. Ryden was inspired by various pre-existing ideas including The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and the photograph Cecil Beaton (1904-80) took of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation.

Ryden’s purpose for including so many elements in his composition, for instance, a fairground ride and a host of dressed-up animals, was to convey a cluttered mind. From talking to Jackson, Ryden determined that the singer’s mind was a jumble of memories or a fun house, the latter also being an allusion to Neverland Valley. This also suggests Jackson’s frustration and loss of childhood due to becoming famous at such a young age. Instead of running around with other six and seven-year-olds, he was already having to keep up his demeanour for his adoring fans.

As befalls many a celebrity, Michael Jackson began having issues with his physical appearance, particularly his nose. His dissatisfaction also stemmed from his childhood and the way he was treated by his father. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson admitted to “his tendency to remain hyper-compliant” in order to avoid a tirade or abuse. Allegedly, Joseph Jackson would whip his son and tell him that he had a fat nose. This, ultimately, led to several nose jobs that drastically altered Michael Jackson’s appearance. A thinner nose noticeably altered the overall shape of Jackson’s face, as shown in a posthumous painting by a French street artist, alias Mr Brainwash (1966).

 

Unfortunately, the National Portrait Gallery almost glosses over Michael Jackson’s final years, particularly his deteriorating appearance. Whether or not people believe the claim that he had only had a couple of nose jobs, it is clear that Jackson no longer looked like the young African American boy he was back in the day. The Gallery also fails to comment on the skin disease with which Jackson supposedly suffered. Vitiligo is a disease in which the melanocytes or pigment cells of the skin are destroyed in certain areas, thus causing the skin to appear white. This can affect people of all skin colours, however, the darker the skin, the more noticeable it becomes. It is unlikely to cause the entire skin to become white, which is why many people did not accept Jackson’s claims.

Maggi Hambling’s (b1945) portrait of Michael Jackson is one of the very few visual references to his change in skin tone. The pop star was reportedly diagnosed with vitiligo in 1984, however, there were also rumours he had been skin bleaching. Jackson’s biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, also states that he suffered from lupus, which made his skin extremely sensitive to light. Despite these statements, many people refused to believe that Jackson was ill, however, vitiligo was diagnosed in his autopsy report.

With all the negative press, it is no wonder Michael Jackson began to hate the sight of the man in the mirror, however, he still had many loyal fans throughout the world. In 2017, Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming (1960) painted a portrait in memory of Michael Jackson. It is interesting to discover how wide a fanbase Jackson had, reaching as far as Asia where the Western world has less of an impact.

 

Some fans revered Michael Jackson to the point that he became more than human in their eyes. One fan was the American commercial photographer David LaChapelle (b1963) who believed Jackson’s life reached almost Biblical proportions. This is a controversial subject that many may not agree with or even be offended by, however, LaChappelle saw many similarities between Jackson and Jesus Christ.

The photographer believes “we persecuted him”, listening to malicious gossip and rumours. Whilst Jackson was trying to do good, helping disadvantaged children and improving opportunities for African Americans, the world painted him as bad or even a smooth criminal, accusing him of child abuse, vanity and so forth.

LaChappelle created a series of manipulated photographs in homage to Michael Jackson, positioning him in in front of different backgrounds, adding wings and other figures to make him look like an angel that had defeated the devil or a man who had been crucified.

Although these ideas are rather extreme, they emphasise the serious allegations inflicted upon Jackson compared with the way LaChappelle wishes the musician could be remembered. As Jackson once said, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” LaChappelle is trying to preserve Michael Jackson’s dignity for his fans and his family.

At Michael Jackson’s memorial service, the Reverend Al Sharpton (b1954) also tried to preserve Jackson’s memory. He wanted Jackson’s children, Michael Joseph Jr (b1997), Paris-Michael (b1998), and Prince Michael II “Blanket” (b2002), to know that “there was nothing strange about your daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

 

Other artworks in Michael Jackson: On the Wall included videos, music clips, sculpture and painting. A particularly amusing exhibit was Michael Lee Bush’s “dinner jacket”, which was purposely made to look similar to clothing Jackson often wore. Bush was Jackson’s costume designer for 26 years, but when he was asked to replicate Jackson’s dinner jacket, he played with the word “dinner” by adding lots of cutlery over the chest and back.

The exhibition culminated in Candice Breitz’s (b1978) video installation of a number of German-speaking Michael Jackson fans singing Thriller a capella. The purpose of this project is not entirely clear and is quite frankly a disappointing end to the overall exhibition. Michael Jackson: On the Wall started off promising but lost strength towards the end. It almost felt as though the curator was struggling to fill the final rooms.

Nonetheless, On the Wall is primarily an art exhibition and, therefore, achieves what it set out to do: reveal how Michael Jackson influenced art. Jackson fans, however, may be disappointed with the lack of information about his life as his career grew and the disregard for his final struggles.

 

Viewing a life through works of art is an interesting idea but a more appropriate approach for a singer would be to hear their life through music. Since 2009, fans have had the opportunity to learn a little about Michael Jackson by listening to his music at the Lyric Theatre on Shafestbury Avenue in a 2-hour plus production of Thriller Live. Named after Jackson’s best selling album of all time, the show is currently the 15th longest running show in the West End as well as the longest running at the Lyric Theatre, which opened in 1888.

The non-stop hit songs include titles by the Jackson 5, such as Rockin’ Robin and Blame it on the Boogie, as well as all of the Michael Jackson favourites from all decades of his career. Dancers and singers perform the songs dressed to look like Michael Jackson and his backing group whilst the audience cheers and joins in, encouraged to stand up by the lead vocalist.

Although too loud for some people, Thriller Live is perfect for Michael Jackson fans, especially those who never got a chance to see him live in concert. The vocals and dance moves mimic the “King of Pop”, providing a perfect example of what Jackson usually provided for his audience.

Whilst Thriller Live is targetted at Michael Jackson fans, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is supposed to attract anyone interested in art, however, it has a greater appeal for those who loved his music. To fully appreciate both the exhibition and the stage production, the audience needs to be familiar with the “King of Pop”, his music history, and the causes he felt strongly about.

The National Portrait Gallery will be hosting Michael Jackson: On the Wall until 21st October 2018. Tickets range from £15.50 to £22 and advanced booking is advised for those who are not members of the gallery. Tickets for Thriller Live start at £32 and can be purchased online.

Note: phrases in bold allude to song titles