Drawn in Colour

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Nude Grand Arabesque, First Time. 1860s

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

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

 

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

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

-Edmond de Goncourt (1874)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shattered World, New Beginnings

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Copyright © 2017 Senate House Library, University of London

Tuesday 31st October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses disputing the power of indulgences to the archbishop of Mainz, Germany. This sparked a movement that would alter the world for ever and end the control the Catholic Church held over Europe: the Protestant Reformation. To commemorate the dawn of the reordering of the Christian religion, many establishments throughout the country (National Portrait Gallery, British Museum) are holding exhibitions, events, and workshops to bring to light the significant impact the movement had in England and the way it shaped the lives we lead today. The Senate House Library is one of these many institutions hosting an informative exhibition.

Founded in 1836, the Senate House Library is the central library of the University of London and one of the largest academic research communities in the country. Usually holding two free exhibitions per year, Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings is the second public display of 2017 and will run until the middle of December. Making the most of their two million book collection, the Senate House Library has pulled written material and medieval manuscripts from their vast collections, as well as borrowing or purchasing from the archives of other libraries, to put together a display to illustrate the crucial changes in England during the 16th century.

Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.

– Richard Hooker (1554-1600), Church of England Priest

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Vom christlichen Abschied aus diesem tödlichen Leben des ehrwirdigen Herrn D. Martini Luther Bericht – Justus Jonas, 1546

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk and professor of moral theology at the University of Halle-Wittenburg. Through his own preaching, Luther challenged the Catholic sentiment that freedom from God’s punishment for sins could be purchased – occasionally with monetary donations –  with the idea that salvation and eternal life are given as a gift from God for the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ. His academic debate criticising the ecclesiastical corruption was written up in his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and sent to Albert of Brandenburg (1490-1545), the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517. Allegedly, Luther may have also have posted the Theses on the door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg as well as other churches in the area.

Martin Luther refused to abandon his strong views and was eventually excommunicated by Pope Leo X and condemned as an outlaw by Emperor Charles V. However, with the recent mechanisation of printing technology, the Ninety-Five Theses was already spreading rapidly throughout Europe.

At this time, England was under the rule of the second Tudor monarch, the notorious Henry VIII (1491-1547). Initially, Henry debunked Martin Luther’s ideas by writing, or at least commissioning, Assertio Septem Sacramentum (In Defence of the Seven Sacraments) (1521)This earned Henry the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) from the pope, however, he was soon to fall from the pope’s good graces.

For centuries, England had been a Catholic country with most aspects of life revolving around the Church. Although Henry was king, the Pope held higher power, therefore when Henry wished to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), in order to marry Anne Boleyn (1501-36), permission was denied. Enraged, Henry took matters into his own hands, utilizing Luther’s theory to overthrow authority and establishing himself as the Head of the Church of England in 1534.

Martin Luther, however, remained persona non grata after calling Henry a pig and a drunkard in retaliation to the king’s opinion that Luther was a malicious, evil and impudent monster. Although Protestantism entered England for selfish reasons, it soon spread quickly as the population’s literacy increased allowing people to read texts and form their own opinions. Soon, art and literature were adopting secular themes, theatres became popular, and religion took a back seat.

The manuscripts flew about like butterflies.

– John Aubrey (1626-1697), English antiquary

 

The exhibition at the Senate House Library is divided into four “galleries” (“display cases” would be a better term): Culture, Society, Communications and New World Order. The exhibition in general focuses on the English Reformation rather than the Protestant Reformation as a whole, therefore, each glass cabinet is filled with books and pamphlets relevant to the events and changes in London and the rest of England.

It is fortunate that enough medieval and historical texts remain in order to put together a sufficient display. Not only are they extremely old, many books were destroyed in an attempt to abolish Catholic ideas. Placing Catholic texts alongside Protestant publications emphasises the dramatic impact reform wrought from both a religious point of view and a cultural one.

Previously, English culture had been determined by the church. Expressions of religious ideas were communicated through literature, paintings, and music, the latter often being liturgy accompanied by music. Church services were conducted and the Bible was written in Latin regardless of the congregation’s comprehension. Martin Luther, and thus Protestants, believed that services should be in a language that all can understand, therefore, in England, preachers were ordered to present their sermons in English. Likewise, the Bible and other religious texts were converted to English and made available to the general public. Many translations of the Bible were produced, culminating in 1611 with the King James Version, which, to this day, remains the best selling Bible throughout the world.

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Bassus of the Whole Psalmes in Foure Partes

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, helped to spread the scriptures in English with the development of The Book of Common Prayer (1549).

Thomas Stenhold and John Hopkins revolutionised religious music by rewriting the Book of Psalms in paraphrased English and fitting the vernacular to short metrical stanzas. This allowed for communal singing where lyrics could easily be heard and understood, unlike the Latin versions intoned by a priest.

With printing presses on the rise providing cheaper and faster ways of producing books and pamphlets, it was impossible to prevent the widespread of these new forms of religious texts. However, it was not only the new Protestant Church that made use of this new development.

New authors and playwrights came to light as their novels and literature rapidly spewed out of printing houses. With religion losing its strong grip on society, writers were quick to explore new themes and secular ideas. This period of time brought forth names who have now been immortalised, such as Edmund Spenser (1552-99), The Faerie Queen, 1590), Nicholas Udall (1504-56), John Bale (1495-1563), and, of course, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Art was also to be impacted heavily by the English Reformation. European painters, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (1479-1543), arrived in England bringing with them new ideas, which lead to the English Renaissance. This opened up a range of new directions for young artists to explore including the ancient classics, history painting, genre painting, still life, and portraiture. No longer needing to paint for religious purposes, artists could now produce “art for art’s sake”.

To destroy all without consideration, is and will be unto England forever, a most horrible infamy among the grave seniors of other nations.

– John Bale (1495-1563), Bishop of Ossory

Despite society entertaining secular ideas, London was a very dangerous place to be open about personal beliefs, and opinions. Not everyone was happy to accept Protestantism and many Catholics attacked and ridiculed the new form of worship. However, with Henry VIII being head of the Church of England, he tried to dictate everyone’s beliefs, imprisoning and beheading many who refused to comply. People had to make a difficult decision: follow God or follow the King? Antagonism between the two Christian denominations lasted for many years – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a botched attempt by Catholics to overthrow the Protestant king.

Whilst it may have been easy in the past for Rome to control the Catholic faith with the use of incomprehensible Latin and strict rules about what was right and wrong, the introduction of an alternative threw everything into disarray. As more people became educated and religious texts distributed in English, individuals were able to form their own opinions and question everything they had previously been taught.

Determined to abolish Catholicism, Henry VIII ordered the closure of monasteries and destruction of libraries in an attempt to eradicate any Catholic text. It is for this reason that the items at the Senate House Library are particularly rare because very few survived. Visitors are lucky to be able to view a copy of the Book of Hours, an early 15th-century devotional for Roman Catholic use.

Whilst monasteries were shut down, most of the buildings remained standing and were quickly converted into Anglican churches or became theatres and places of entertainment. Westminster Abbey became a cathedral under Henry’s instructions, later becoming a Collegiate Church during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Although this exhibition is focused on the English Reformation, it is important to understand that other European countries were having their own difficulties as a result of Martin Luther’s Theses. In 1562, France descended into the War of Religion, a civil conflict that was primarily fought between the Roman Catholics and the Reformed Protestants or Huguenots. Lasting 36 years, this war is the second deadliest religious conflict recorded in history with over 3,000,000 fatalities.

England, with its newly established Protestant Church, became a safe haven for many Huguenot émigres who escaped over the channel. It is estimated that over the years 50,000 Huguenots found refuge in England – a significant number that resulted in even more changes to English society. As London’s population increased due to the addition of refugees, European trades and skills were introduced to the English people. The French brought new talents such as silk weaving, watchmaking, and silversmith, making it far easier for England to obtain objects that previously had to be shipped from abroad.

Preachers may be silenced or banished when books may be at hand.

– Richard Baxter (1615-1691), English Puritan church leader

It is generally believed that the introduction of the printing press in 1476 led to the increase in literacy and development of the written English language, however, they never became popular until the Reformation. It was not until people wanted to spread God’s word in a language everyone could understand that the printing press became a vital invention. Thousands of pamphlets, as well as books, were printed and distributed, including those from anonymous sources who wished to get their opinion across. The curator at the Senate House Library likens this to today’s impact of social media.

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A Nunnes Prophesie, 1615

An example of an anonymous pamphlet displayed in the exhibition is A Nunnes Prophesie, a form of propaganda. It claims that the pope had become the ruler of the world through evil means, but his enemies, having become as strong as unicorns, would destroy him with God’s help.

 

 

 

Look to your conscience and remember that the theatre of the world is wider than the realm of England.

– Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

The guide book produced to accompany the exhibition in the library jokingly says that taking England out of Catholic Europe was the country’s first “Brexit”. Many enemies were formed with countries that had previously been friendly, in particular, Spain. At the beginning of the Tudor reign, Spain and England had a close relationship, but by the time Elizabeth I became queen, things were quite the opposite. In 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail with the intention of making England Catholic again, however, poor planning on the Spanish behalf proved the attempt futile.

On the other hand, countries further abroad developed positive ties with Protestant England. By the end of the 17th-century, the East India Trading Company had been set up and new products were constantly being brought in from Asia. This introduction of foreign trade, similarly to the Huguenots, completely changed English society and culture. Without this development, life would be very different today.

The Senate House Library has done what it can with its limited resources to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Although it is understandable that any tangible evidence of the Reformation is hard to come by, or even nonexistent, the mini display does come across as a little sad and disappointing. In order to learn about the Reformation, it is more beneficial to purchase (or download for free) the exhibition guide book, which provides visuals as well as information of every item on display.

Nonetheless, thanks to the Senate House Library, people of today’s world have the opportunity to learn about the civil conflicts of the past which have greatly impacted the way we currently live. Primarily about religion, the English Reformation altered the way people think, encouraged education, and introduced many new art forms and ideas. Although a worrying and dangerous time for the people who lived through it, they deserve recognition and gratitude.

Reformation runs from 26 June to 15 December 2017. Free entry to all, but please register before hand.

 

Matisse in the Studio

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

-Henry Matisse, 1951

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

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

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

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Yellow Odalisque, 1937

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Italian Woman, 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Henri Matisse, 1953

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

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

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

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

-Henry Matisse, 1908

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

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

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

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

The Other Rembrandt

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

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

Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

Rubens

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

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

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

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

-Rubens, 1621

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take One Picture 

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A Roman Triumph, Rubens c1630

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figures Seemingly Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Nicholas Bourbon, 1538

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, c1400

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

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

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

The Art of the Natural World

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© The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

When visiting the Natural History Museum in London South Kensington, visitors already have some idea of what to expect. For starters, the recently erected skeleton of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling of Hintze Hall has been the talk of the public for some time. Whilst many tourists have flocked to view this giant, they are also expecting dinosaurs, fossils, extinct animals, creepy crawlies and volcanoes. People have not come with the hopes of looking at artworks.

To the casual observer, the exhibitions at the museum are exactly what they expected: bones, stuffed animals, more bones, ancient rocks, bones, fossils, dead things, and a wealth of information. On the other hand, looking past the scientific and factual details is a plethora of art waiting patiently to be acknowledged.

Before entering the museum, the original building screams out for attention, demonstrating Romanesque-style features, making it one of the finest Victorian buildings in Britain. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was an English architect who became greatly associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival Style. The Liverpudlian designer was only 36, thus still in the beginning stages of his career, when he inherited the task of designing the building for the Natural History Museum.

Influenced by German Cathedrals, Waterhouse developed the first building to be decorated both inside and out with intricate designs. Using honey and pale blue terracotta, beautiful decorations were modelled from Waterhouse’s drawings, representing fossils, birds, animals and fish – many of the items in the museum’s collection. After its completion in 1881, critics from The Times exclaimed, “The walls and ceiling are decorated as befits a Palace of Nature.”

Although it has been extended in recent years, the original building looks much the same as when it was first constructed. Many visitors wonder whether it was formerly a cathedral or monastery due to its phenomenal beauty, however, it was built especially for the museum.

The Natural History Museum would not have existed at all if it were not for the proficient naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Although his initial claim to fame was introducing drinking chocolate to England, his collecting skills, which narrowly bordered on hoarding, provided scientists with the opportunity to learn the secrets of the natural world. By his death at the age of 92, Sloane had stockpiled over 80,000 objects and books from all over the world. The collection was crammed into his own home, however, his will stipulated that he wished to leave it to the nation. As a result, the British Museum in Bloomsbury was born.

The collection was rapidly added to over the following century and a decision was made to split the artefacts into sections. Thus, a new building was commissioned and by 1881, the natural history section was gradually relocated to its new home. As scientists learn more about the world, the collection continues to grow. It is estimated that the museum currently houses over 22 million items preserved in methylated spirits alone.

Looking at ancient dead things may seem like a long way from looking at art, however, there is a specific section of the museum that begs to differ. Within the blue section on the map supplied by the museum (actually, just ask someone to direct you; the map is not all that helpful) is an exhibition titled Images of Nature. Unlike the majority of the museum where reconstructed skeletons and educational models are in abundance, this long room works more like an art gallery with most items hung up on the bare walls.

Nowadays, a simple click of a button can eternally save evidence of nature, but, before the development of the camera, artists were relied upon to produce highly detailed illustrations. Although some of these artworks were produced to be enjoyed, scientists found them extremely valuable. Specimens were often collected by explorers, but after a while, colours would fade and plants would dry and shrivel up, making it impossible to demonstrate what it originally looked like. A watercolour study produced by an adept artist recorded an accurate image that visually explained the appearance of the foreign objects.

The museum has 500,000 natural history artworks within its collection, but only a handful of them are on display. Due to the fragility of many of the older drawings and paintings, the collection is rotated as curators periodically change the exhibit in order to limit any light damage.

Presently (July/August 2017), examples of illustrations can be seen by several different artists. Edward Wilson (1872-1912), for example, was a polar explorer who also enjoyed painting and drawing. In a glass cabinet alongside stuffed versions, his illustrations of the British hedgehog are on view. This is just one of the many iconic mammals he drew in the early 1900s. In cabinets nearby are more illustrations such as British birds by Phyllida Lumsden (c.1940), Nautilus by George Brettingham Sowerby (1788-1854) and Eggs of British birds by the Dutch artist Henrik Grönvold (1858-1940).

 

Slightly more graphic images are included in this gallery. Scientists are not only interested in what a specimen looks like on the outside, they are also intrigued by the inner workings of the plant or animal they are studying. One example is of the innards of a loggerhead turtle produced by Cesare Ferreri (1802-1859). Interestingly, developments have been made since 1833 when this image was produced. Originally it was labelled a spur-thigh tortoise, but today’s scientists, with their extensive knowledge, have identified it as the loggerhead.

Although cameras are available to most people, some scientists still prefer to capture their findings on paper. Bryan Kneale (1930-) provides a great example of modern illustration with a blue chalk drawing of a giant tortoise, which stands out amongst the other artworks surrounding it.

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Giant Tortoise, Bryan Kneale, 1986

The most interesting aspect of Images of Nature is the analysis of a 17th-century oil painting by the Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639). The painting of a dodo may be recognisable by many and is the go to image when looking for representations of the extinct bird. Hung next to the initial painting is a modern version painted by the talented scientist, Dr Julian Pender Hume. Apart from the choice of artistic medium (oil/acrylic), there are a number of alterations to the plump, flightless bird.

When Savery painted the comical looking bird, dodos had mostly succumbed to extinction. The artist relied on limited fragments of a dodo skeleton to come up with this representation. Pender Hume, with his knowledge of avifaunal anatomy, explains in an accompanying video that, due to its inability to fly, the dodo would not have had such a bulky body; it would not have needed as much muscle as the Flemish artist gave it.

 

Images of Nature is one of the more quiet sections of the museum and may not appeal to younger children. However, there is an interactive game of sorts that allows the player to learn about the basic process of drawing a beetle specimen. The game goes through the stages an artist may look at, beginning with the initial shape of the insect and ending with a close look at adding appropriate colour. There is also the opportunity for visitors to draw their own picture based on any of the specimens seen around the museum. These can be posted in a box in the gallery for the chance of it being displayed for all to see.

 

Despite the fact that the purpose of the Natural History Museum is to store and display the collected specimens of past and present explorers and scientists, it does host an exhibition devoted to the art form photography. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the museum’s most popular exhibition that takes place once a year. Currently, the finalists and winners of the 2016 entries to the annual competition are being showcased in the East Pavillion.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the most highly regarded as well as the largest photography competition in the world, often attracting over 42,000 professional and amateur artists each year. This figure also includes an exceptional number of teenagers who submit their nature photographs to the junior section.

The competition is now in its 52nd year and has expanded significantly. When it first ran in 1965, only three categories were provided. Today there are more than five times the amount of categories including animal portraits, underwater photographs, plants and fungi, and black and white images.

Set in a dimly lit display room, the finalists and winners from each category are arranged on the walls on digital screens. This enables the museum to display all the photographs without needing to print them out on sizeable photo paper or worry about light damage. On each screen are details about the photographer and the image itself.

Unlike the rest of the museum, which is full of over excited children and their parents, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is a peaceful environment. Its silence and subdued lighting allow visitors to contemplate each photograph in their own time and appreciate the splendour and variety of nature.

As well as being displayed at the museum, the exhibition goes on tour around all six continents, therefore it is only viewable in London for a limited time. The current exhibition is open until 17th September and costs £10.50 (£6.50 for under 17s) to enter. Of course, the photographs can be found online, but there is something special about being able to see them all in one place.

For whatever reasons you decide to visit the Natural History Museum, be it the blue whale or a fascination with dinosaurs, be on the look out for examples of art. The fact that a science-oriented museum can display such artistry is proof that art can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you do not believe me, go to the museum yourself and witness the beauty and ornamentation of nature.

Such Ships as These

They mark our passage as a race of men. Earth will not see such ships as these again.
-John Masefield, Ships, 1912

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Cutty Sark

Museums, castles, churches and other historic buildings are often taken for granted in current society. Although ancient structures may be admired for their antiquated architecture, they are frequently merely regarded as part of the landscape. Some museums successfully convey the past to the current generation, but there are some bygone days that a modern exhibition cannot do justice, for instance, maritime history.

The United Kingdom is fortunate enough to have retained a number of ships and boats that had a significant role to play in British nautical history. From the Tudors up until the World Wars, ships and boats have been a great asset to our island nation, and life today would not be the same without their existence. Of the few that have survived to date, Cutty Sark, berthed in Greenwich, is the most famous and valuable of all.

The Cutty Sark‘s history is so eventful, it is astonishing that she remains fairly intact today. Opened to the public by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, and now listed as a World Heritage Site, the ship is visited by a considerable number of tourists each day, teaching them about the numerous journeys she undertook in her heydey.

In parallel with today, England of the 1600s relied on countries throughout the world for a bulk of commodities and comestibles. Looking at labels on products goes to show the distance some of the items have travelled, and quite often this information receives as little as a fleeting thought. Before planes and high-speed vehicles, foreign products were not so easy to come by, but, in order to transport the desired merchandise, ships such as Cutty Sark were built.

In the late 1650s, Charles II’s future wife, Catherine of Braganza, made drinking tea fashionable amongst English nobility. This sparked a greater desire for the leaves resulting in the construction of clipper ships to sail to China to exchange silver for the precious cargo.

Cutty Sark was commissioned by a retired ship’s master, John Willis, in 1869, one of the first composite ships to exist, Until this date, most ships were built entirely of wood, however, Cutty Sark is an amalgamation of a wrought-iron framework and wooden planks. As a result, the boats could hold more cargo and go much faster than their predecessors.

The Cutty Sark experience (Adult £13.50, Child £7) provides visual and physical explanations about the ship’s famous voyages, the trials she faced and replicates the conditions sailors would have lived in for weeks on end. Although being able to view and touch enables education, there are some details that cannot be easily visualised, for example, why is Cutty Sark named thus?

It is common for all ships to receive a name or title on completion of construction, usually in honour of a place or person. In John Willis’ case, all his previous ships had been christened after rivers and villages near his hometown in the Scottish Borders, however, the name Cutty Sark broke away from this tradition. Obscurely, it comes from a Robert Burns poem, Tam O’Shanter (1791), which features a group of witches, one of whom is wearing a “cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn“, or, in plain English, a short dress.

As weird as it may be to name a ship after a piece of clothing, it explains the significance of the hair wielding figurehead who clung proudly to the prow. Dressed in a “cutty sark” with arm outstretched is Nannie, the young witch seen wearing a short dress in Tam O’Shanter. In the narrative poem, Tam, on horseback, is chased across Ayrshire by the wild witch. Although he reaches safety, his unfortunate horse loses her tail in Nannie’s grip. To coincide with the story, every time Cutty Sark was in port, a bundle of rope was placed in the figurehead’s hand to represent the horse hairs.

Nannie is now located in the Sammy Ofer Gallery underneath the 936-ton clipper ship. Originally, Cutty Sark sat on a concrete ground, but after restoration from 2006-12, she was raised over three metres in order to take the weight off her precious wooden hull and iron framework. This has resulted in an extensive area in the dock for exhibitions and refreshments at the Even Keel Café. Most significantly, the dock has become the permanent location of the world’s largest collection of merchant ship-figure heads. It is here that Nannie is located amongst several wooden friends.

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Nannie and friends

Excluding Nannie, the 50-odd figures came from the Long John Silver Collection owned by Sydney Cumbers (1875-1959) who purportedly earned himself the nicknames Long John and Captain Silver on account of his distinctive eye-patch. His passion for marine artefacts led him to collect over 100 figureheads and models. In 1953, he donated his precious hoard to the Cutty Sark. These figures come from a variety of ships and many have little known about them. As well as being fascinatingly prepossessing, they serve as a memorial to those who served in the merchant service.

The curators at Cutty Sark know the names of 49 figureheads in the collection, and the majority either share it with the name of the ship they featured on, or are from unknown whereabouts. Most are female, however, there are a few male figures representing people of certain prestige.

Amongst the well-known titles are Hiawatha (from a ship of the same name), Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, King Solomon (the figurehead aboard the Ophir), Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, William Wilberforce, William Pitt the younger, Abraham Lincoln and Garibaldi (incidentally from Garibaldi). Presumably, these figureheads were named in honour of these celebrities, either during their prime – for instance, the prime ministers – or after their deaths.

 

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Florence Nightengale

 

Florence Nightingale was the figurehead of the Florence Nightingale, a merchant schooner believed to have sailed and traded in the Mediterranean. Details of who owned her and when she was built remain unknown, the ship no longer exists. However, it can be assumed that it rode the waves after the Crimean War (1856) because Florence Nightingale was not publically known beforehand.

Apart from the loss of an arm, Florence Nightingale is in excellent condition. Wearing an off-white blouse and skirt and a blue jacket, she is depicted as a prim, virtuous woman. Her hair is fashioned in a bun as she gazes off into the distance with her head slightly to the left, whilst her right and only remaining arm rests upon her hip. Although lacking a bonnet, the figure and hairstyle strongly resemble the photographs and paintings of the young nurse.

Ships and their figureheads were also named after fictional or mythological characters. Some names make more sense than others, but similarly to Cutty Sark, they may have been named after the owners’ favourite stories. Sir Lancelot is one example of this, from England’s greatest legend, and another is King Leonidas, a Spartan warrior from the BC500s. King Leonidas allegedly died on the Battlefield of Thermopylae, thus being a suitable character to adorn a ship named after the Greek location.

From mythology, Amphitrite was chosen to be the figurehead of a ship that remains unidentified. As the sea-goddess and wife of Poseidon, Amphitrite was a fitting character to embellish a merchant ship. It is feasibly possible that the owner named the figurehead, and perhaps the ship, after this fairly unknown mythological individual for luck and safe passage across the tempestuous seas.

The figureheads come in all sizes and weights, perhaps in relation to the style and dimensions of the ship. Two particularly large busts of women stand out from the collection under Cutty Sark. One of these has regrettably been undesignated and nothing is known about where she was found or who she belonged to. She has Snow White-like features – pale skin and black hair – and wears a light blue dress. Upon her head, she has two tiaras which suggest she is someone of high esteem, but who remains a mystery.

The other distinctively large female is also anonymous, however, there are some theories about where she came from. Dubbed the Spanish Woman, she is perhaps the oldest figure in the Long John Silver Collection. Sydney Cumbers’s notes reveal that she was found at the Deptford Dockyard in London and may have come off the British ship, Georgina, who sailed during the 19th century. Her dress – red with a ruffled collar and high waistline – is similar to the fashion from 1800-1812. In spite of that, it is unclear why Cumbers gave her the title of the Spanish Woman.

For whatever purpose you decide to visit Cutty Sark, whether it be for the figureheads or the ship itself, be prepared to be impressed and come away with a wealth of knowledge. It is suitable for both adults on their own and those with children, however, be wary of uneven floors and low hanging ceilings. During school holidays, special events for children may be taking place, so make sure you check online before you visit. Remember to bring your camera along for some unique photo opportunities.