Van Gogh and Britain

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Self-Portrait, 1889

Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) is one of the most famous names in the western art world. Everyone knows of the mentally unstable man who chopped his ear off before eventually committing suicide in 1890. His bright-coloured, swirly-lined paintings can be recognised by the majority of people and his Sunflowers are famous throughout the world. Yet, do we really know who Van Gogh was? Do we know his hopes and dreams, his likes and dislikes, or the inspiration for his artwork? Did you know, Van Gogh was only a painter for the last ten years of his life? What, therefore, was he doing before then? Did you know he spent three years living in Britain? Tate Britain comes to the rescue with their latest EY exhibition Van Gogh and Britain in which they explore his love of British culture and the impact it had on the style and subject matter of his art.

“How I love London.”
– Vincent van Gogh, 1875

The exhibition is curated in two parts; the first examines Van Gogh’s experience in London, his love of art and literature, and his journey to becoming an artist. The latter half focuses on the impact Van Gogh has had on British artists, particularly in the period between his death (1890) and the 1950s. Those who think they know Van Gogh have the veil lifted from their eyes as they view drawings and paintings that are rarely shown to the public.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Groot-Zundert in the southern Netherlands. He was the eldest surviving son of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Their first child, also named Vincent, was stillborn, however, the couple soon found themselves with a large family: Vincent, Theo (1857-91), Cor, Elisabeth, Anna and Willemina “Wil” (1862-1941).

Initially homeschooled, Van Gogh’s interest in art was encouraged by his mother from a young age. During his time at middle school, he was taught by the Dutch artist Constant Cornelis Huijsmans (1810-86), however, Van Gogh was deeply unhappy at the school and learnt little from his teacher. He later described his childhood as “austere and cold, and sterile.”

In July 1869, Van Gogh’s uncle got him a position with the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After a few years of training, he was transferred to Goupil’s London branch at Southampton Street, which is where the exhibition’s story begins. Theo van Gogh believed this first year in London was Vincent’s happiest; that is until he fell in love with the unavailable Eugénie Loyer, the daughter of his landlady.

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L’Arlésienne, 1890.

The exhibition opens with Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne (1890), a portrait of his friend Marie Ginoux who ran the train station café in Arles, France. Situated on a tabletop in front of her are two books: Contes de Noël (Christmas Books) by Charles Dickens (1812-70) and La Case de L’Oncle Tom (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96). These books were not in situ when Van Gogh painted the portrait but added purely because they were two of his favourite books.

In the same room as L’Arlésienne are a number of books by British authors that Van Gogh enjoyed. Amongst them are the works of Dickens, George Eliot (1819-80), Christina Rossetti (1830-94) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Unbeknownst to many, Van Gogh could speak in four languages, including English, and thus enjoyed reading English literature during his stay in London. Many of these books, particularly those by Dickens were an inspiration to him for the rest of his life.

“Reading books is like looking at paintings … one must find beautiful that which is beautiful.”
– Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Theo

From the age of twenty until twenty-two, Van Gogh worked in the Goupil offices near Covent Garden. He spent his days travelling to and from work via boat, underground and on foot. During this time, he witnessed the hardship of the working class and became concerned about their welfare. He also developed an interest in popular religion and, after he was dismissed from his job, tried out careers as a teacher and preacher in Kent and west London.

During his time as an art dealer, Van Gogh came across a number of works that stuck with him for the rest of his life. One of the most impactful was the book London: A Pilgrimage by William Blanchard Jerrold (1826-84), which contained 180 engravings by Gustave Doré. During his lifetime, Van Gogh collected seventeen prints of these engravings, which are on display in the exhibition.

Whilst in London, Van Gogh took the opportunity to visit museums, galleries and art dealer’s rooms where he discovered and was inspired by a number of paintings. Van Gogh became a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and treasured the memory of bumping into John Everett Millais (1829-96) on the street. Van Gogh particularly admired Millais’ painting Chill October (1870).

I keep thinking about some English paintings.
– Vincent van Gogh, 1884

After both Van Gogh’s career attempts at teaching and preaching failed, his brother Theo suggested that he take up art. Turning to the paintings he saw in London for inspiration, Van Gogh began producing his own works. Some of these replicated the nature scenes he witnessed in Britain, for example, Autumn Landscape (1885), which he painted while living in the Netherlands. The following year, he moved to Paris where he painted The Bois de Boulogne with People Walking (1886), whose style was influenced by the French impressionist painters. The thickness of the paint is also an indication of the route that would lead to Van Gogh’s mature style of art.

“When I was in London, how often I would stand on the Thames Embankment and draw as I made my way home from Southampton Street in the evening.”
– Vincent van Gogh, 1883

Of course, an exhibition about Van Gogh cannot exist without at least a handful of his well-known works. The first visitors come across is one of Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night canvases, which he painted after he moved to Provence in 1888. Whilst this shows the view of Arles across the River Rhône, Van Gogh was inspired by the River Thames in London, which was also lit up with a combination of artificial and natural light (moon and stars).

Van Gogh was also inspired by the black and white prints he encountered during his brief career in London. Doré’s work was one source of inspiration but Van Gogh also admired the illustrations in Charles Dickens’ books, which he felt complemented the stories. During his lifetime, Van Gogh collected over 2000 prints and it is from these that he taught himself to draw.

In 1882, Van Gogh’s uncle commissioned him to produce twelve views of The Hague. Whilst Van Gogh completed the request, his uncle was unimpressed with his nephew’s ‘resolute honesty’ of Doré’s style and was probably expecting something more picturesque. One of these paintings, Carpenter’s Yard and Laundry (1882) is on display and, if it were not for the accompanying label, could easily be dismissed as someone else’s work.

As well as illustrations in Victorian novels, Van Gogh admired the wood engravings of urban life in the social reforming newspaper The Graphic. Although he did not create many prints himself, it is evident that his graphite drawings are an attempt to replicate the line work in engravings. Van Gogh studied these black and white works and often produced portraits of people in a similar style, which he occasionally developed into full coloured paintings at a later date. One example is the etching of his doctor Paul Ferdinand Gachet. This was produced in 1890 not long before Van Gogh shot himself in the chest, which goes to show that these types of illustrations stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Whilst living in The Hague in 1882, Van Gogh aimed to draw full-figure portraits of the working class members he met in the street. His pictures of older men, for instance, Old Man Drinking Coffee (1882), were posed for by war veterans.

“I met a pregnant woman … who roamed the streets in winter – who had to earn her bread, you can imagine how. I took that woman as a model and worked with her the whole winter.”
– Vincent Van Gogh, 1882

The woman Van Gogh met was Sien Hoornik (1850-1904) and appears in a number of his sketches: Mourning Woman Seated on a Basket (1883) and Woman Seated (1882). Hoornik and her children lived with Van Gogh for a few months whilst he used her as a model. His relationship with Hoornik was platonic but it gave Van Gogh the experience of a domestic family home, however, he was soon urged by his brother Theo to move to another city to concentrate on other artwork.

Van Gogh’s favourite novels continued to play a role in his artwork. Although the title cannot be seen, Van Gogh drew war veteran Cornelis Schuitemaker with a book in Man Reading at the Fireside (1881). Other drawings of war veterans, such as Adrianus Zuyderland in At Eternity’s Gate, were influenced by illustrations in books such as Dickens’ Hard Times. This particular drawing was reworked as a painting in Van Gogh’s mature style in the final year of his life. In Sorrowing Old Man, the man represents Van Gogh who often sat with his head in his hands when he was unwell.

Van Gogh’s love of Doré also lasted until his final days. In 1890, Van Gogh painted The Prison Courtyard as a “translation” of Doré’s Exercise Yard at Newgate Prison (1872) originally published in London: A Pilgrimage. Although the scene is almost exactly the same in Van Gogh’s painted version, he painted it as a response to the way he felt when residing at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, where he had admitted himself due to his declining mental health. When writing about his life in hospital, Van Gogh said, “The prison was crushing me, and père Peyron [his doctor] didn’t pay the slightest attention to it.” He felt trapped, just like the prisoners in Newgate Prison.

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Self-Portrait with Felt Hat – Van Gogh, 1887

It is largely thanks to his brother Theo that Van Gogh developed into the painter he is remembered for today. At the age of 32, Van Gogh left the Netherlands for good and joined his brother in Paris. Theo was an art dealer, a more successful one than Vincent had been, and was able to introduce his brother to a number of artists. Some of these came from Britain and are included in the exhibition.

One particular artist became a close friend of Van Gogh during his time in Paris. Described as a neo-impressionist artist, Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), the eldest son of Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), was experimenting with dots and dabs of contrasting colour in his paintings. Van Gogh came across a painting by Pissarro at the Salon des Indépendants annual art exhibition and was inspired by the technique.

Rather than replicate Pissarro’s technique, Van Gogh adopted the idea and made it his own. Whereas Pissarro’s dots and dabs were small and indistinct, Van Gogh went for bolder, more rapid strokes with a more noticeable contrast of colour. This was the beginning of the style of Van Gogh’s art that is famous today, yet, he only began working in this method during the final years of his life.

In the same way that he was inspired by Pissarro, other artists were in turn influenced by Van Gogh. Upcoming artists admired the use of colour and directional strokes of paint. Those who had never met Van Gogh in person began experimenting with his colourful technique. Even Pissarro was inspired by Van Gogh, despite having directed his artistic path in the first place.

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Vincent van Gogh in conversation – Pissarro, 1888

Van Gogh and Pissarro found they had a lot in common, for instance, they had both spent time working in Britain. They shared similar opinions about social ideals and were enthusiastic about the development of modern painting. During one of their meetings, Pissarro produced a sketch of Van Gogh in conversation with his brother Theo. This is the only known image of the brothers together.

As is the way with many famous names, Van Gogh only became well-known after his death. It was not until after twenty years had passed that Van Gogh was introduced to the British public. In 1910, organised by the critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) at London’s Grafton Galleries, the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists displayed examples of Van Gogh’s work. It was also the first time the term “post-impressionist” had been used to describe artists of this nature. Others included Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-91) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), all of whom were dead by then.

The artworks initially shocked people who were unfamiliar with the development of modern styles. Nonetheless, the exhibition attracted over 25,000 visitors and was a turning point in British culture. Many were influenced by the works they saw, including the sisters Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Vanessa Bell (1879-1961).

“A toi, Van Gogh!” – Harold Gilman

The exhibition includes a number of British artists who were influenced by Van Gogh’s work. One, in particular, was Harold Gilman (1876-1919) who was a founder-member of the Camden Town Group. He adapted Van Gogh’s colours, angles and distinct brushstrokes in his own work. Reportedly, Gilman kept a print of a Van Gogh self-portrait next to his easel and, before painting, would salute the portrait and declare, “A toi, Van Gogh!” (Cheers, Van Gogh)

Another member of the Camden Town Group, Spencer Gore (1878-1914), was equally impressed with Van Gogh’s work. He was particularly inspired by Van Gogh’s Yellow House (not shown in the exhibition). When staying with Gilman in 1912, Gore painted his friend’s house in a similar manner.

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Sunflowers – Van Gogh, 1888

Of course, the paintings that Van Gogh is remembered for most are his Sunflowers of which he produced several versions. Van Gogh initially painted these flowers to decorate the walls of his house in Arles, South France. They first came to London in 1910 for Roger Fry’s major exhibition followed by another in 1923.

After Van Gogh’s death and his brother’s six months later, his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862-25) inherited all of Van Gogh’s paintings. So easily could Vincent’s paintings have been discarded at this point, however, knowing how much Vincent meant to Theo, Johanna was determined to promote his reputation. In 1924, she sold Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) to the National Gallery, Millbank (now Tate), stating, “… he himself, le ‘Peintre des Tournesoles’ [the ‘Painter of Sunflowers’], would have liked it to be there … It is a sacrifice for the sake of Vincent’s glory.” The painting was subsequently transferred to the National Gallery in 1961 where it has remained until now – this is the first time it has returned to Tate Britain.

“Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until Van Gogh saw … the arrogant spirit that inhabits the sunflower.
– Art critic Roger Fry, 1910

Whilst some artists were inspired by Van Gogh’s style, his Sunflowers sparked a revival of flower painting. Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), for example, produced his own Sunflowers after seeing Van Gogh’s work exhibited in Paris in 1895. Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), who was primarily a sculptor, took up flower painting later in life, trying to replicate the energy of Van Gogh’s brushwork and colour.

William Nicholson (1872-1949) was another British artist who produced Sunflowers in response to seeing Van Gogh’s version at the Tate Gallery. His style, however, differs slightly to the Dutch artist. Christopher Wood (1901-30), however, whilst inspired by Van Gogh’s work, chose to paint Yellow Chrysantheums (1925) instead. “I mean to paint my things in compositions of not more than three, often only two colours. I still admire Van Gogh tremendously.”

Between the two World Wars, Van Gogh’s reputation in Britain continued to rise after the publication of two biographies and a book of his letters. Artists continued to follow in his footsteps, experimenting with style and composition in the same manner as their hero.

“The drama of the man was predicted in his pictures… We race along with him, breathless – whither? No matter, for we follow a man, a hero, perhaps the last!”
– Julius Meier-Graefe in Vincent van Gogh, 1922

During the 1920s, Van Gogh’s work became collectors’ items and many galleries began to acquire them. Some were bought by other artists and remained in private collections until the owners’ deaths. One of these artists, Matthew Smith (1879-1959) not only purchased a painting by Van Gogh but also visited the areas Van Gogh had lived and worked, producing his own paintings of the landscapes.

After the second world war, Van Gogh continued to be celebrated in Britain with books, films and exhibitions, including the last Van Gogh exhibition to take place at Tate, in 1947. Viewed as a tragic and alienated artist, citizens were able to relate to Van Gogh as they came to terms with the aftermath of war.

Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV 1957 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Study for Portrait of Van Gogh IV – Francis Bacon, 1957

Today, as this exhibition proves, Van Gogh is celebrated for far more than his tragic story. By the 1950s, Vincent van Gogh was a household name and was continuing to inspire artists. The final paintings in the exhibition are by Francis Bacon (1902-92) who considered Van Gogh to be one of his greatest heroes. His brushwork was influenced by Van Gogh’s heavy use of paint during his mature years.

After reading some of Van Gogh’s letters, which had been published sometime after World War One, Bacon began to think of the artist as someone who was always on the road, travelling from place to place. In response to this, Bacon produced a series of artworks containing the figure of Van Gogh walking to an unknown destination.

Before visiting the exhibition, it is difficult to predict what Van Gogh and Britain will entail. Most people’s experience of Van Gogh is the handful of paintings in the National Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Whilst these galleries allow people to view the famous paintings or, in the case of the latter, tell his story from birth to death, they fail to examine the artist’s thoughts, inspiration and outcomes in the way Tate Britain has done. Rather than concentrating on Van Gogh’s mental health and tragic death, the exhibition takes a look at three years of his life in Britain and the impact it had on his consequent art career.

People often lament “If only Van Gogh had known how famous he would be …” but it is not just his worldwide fame that is important, it is the influence he had on so many artists during the first half of the twentieth century. Van Gogh did not belong to a particular group of artists with rules and beliefs, he was a private painter, often hidden away from the public eye, and yet he touched so many people’s hearts and minds.

Van Gogh and Britain brings together 50 works by Vincent van Gogh and a large number of paintings by those whose lives he touched, the majority from beyond the grave. This is the opportunity to see some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings but also to discover some of his lesser-known underappreciated artworks. Although everyone has now heard of Van Gogh, this exhibition is guaranteed to increase people’s respect for the “tragic artist”.

The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain is open until 11th August 2019. Ticket prices are £22 for adults and £5 for 12-18-year-olds. Tate Members, as always, can visit for free.

Elizabethan Treasures

“Small wonders from Elizabethan giants” is how The Telegraph describes the National Portrait Gallery’s major exhibition Elizabethan Treasures. Focusing on two of the most celebrated artists working in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the exhibition explores the art of portrait miniatures, which are reportedly some of the greatest works to have been produced in the British Isles. Although small, these highly detailed artworks provide insight into identity, society and visual culture of the Elizabethan era.

Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and his pupil Isaac Oliver (1565-1617) are two of the central artistic figures of the Elizabethan age. Not only were they excellent painters, but they were also able to produce minuscule portraits that equalled or even surpassed full sized versions. At a time when miniatures were becoming increasingly popular, firstly with royalty and then with the middle class, Hilliard and Oliver led extremely successful careers and were much sought after by a number of patrons.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, miniatures were known as “limning” and their delicate process was recorded by Nicholas Hilliard in his manuscript A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (c1600). Only a copy made by unknown copyists remains in existence making it a rare but significant source of information about the technique of limning. Hilliard asserted that only gentlemen could be “limners” because miniature paintings needed to be tackled with a “gentle” hand. Despite this misogynistic view, Hilliard provided fascinating details about the preparation of materials and the essential tools.

The majority of the miniatures displayed in the exhibition were painted on vellum, a fine piece of animal skin with a smooth surface. To make the vellum sturdier, it was pasted onto a piece of card. Interestingly, artists often used playing cards due to their ready availability. The paint, known as bodycolour, was a mix of various pigments and water combined with a gum extracted from the sap of the acacia tree. Unlike today where paint can be bought ready-made in tubes, artists had to purchase special ingredients and make the paints themselves. The colour white, for example, was made using flakes of lead carbonate, the colour yellow from lead oxide and blue from azurite.

Naturally, to make tiny paintings artists needed tiny brushes. The handles were wooden, not dissimilar to paintbrushes today, but the brush itself was made from squirrel hair. Another important tool was a burnisher formed by a stoat’s tooth on the end of a wooden stick. This was used to add gold and silver elements to the picture, which had been created by grinding gold and silver leaf and mixing it with gum and water.

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Hilliard’s wife Alice, 1578

Nicholas Hilliard was born into a family of goldsmiths in Exeter, Devon, although he spent a considerable amount of his childhood in Germany and Switzerland with the Bodley family, who later founded the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Back in London, Hilliard was apprenticed to the Queen’s jeweller Robert Brandon (d. 1591), a well-known goldsmith in the city. During this time, Hilliard must have received some training in the art of limning but it remains a mystery as to who his teacher was. After seven years of training, Hilliard was made a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and set up a workshop with his younger brother John. He also married Brandon’s daughter Alice (1556–1611) with whom he had seven children.

Hilliard’s apprenticeship ended in 1569 and his earliest known miniature was produced in 1571. What occurred between these years is uncertain but one thing is for sure, he had an exceptional talent in limning. At some point, Hilliard drew the attention of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88) who was a favourite statesman of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and began producing miniatures for him in 1571. The following year, Hilliard was appointed limner to the queen.

Due to his royal connections, the first few years of Hilliard’s career as a painter of miniatures involved producing limnings for numerous wealthy courtiers and prosperous members of the middle class. Each miniature is either circular or ovular and averages between 44mm and 66mm in height. The National Portrait Gallery provides visitors with magnifying glasses for a closer study of each exhibit and it can only be assumed the artists used something similar in order to see what they were painting, particularly the caligraphy stating the sitter’s age and the year of production.

Many works are of unidentified men and women, however, some have been identified as important historical figures, beginning with his patron, Robert Dudley. As mentioned, Dudley was one of the Queen’s favourites and remained so for the first thirty years of her reign. He was the only serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, however, he died without gaining her acceptance. Although Dudley wears black in Hilliard’s portrait, the jewelled chain around his neck emphasises his status.

From 1576 until 1578, Hilliard travelled to France in the retinue of Elizabeth I’s ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet (1532-88), the Governor of Jersey. It is thought that the queen sent Hilliard to produce a miniature of her French suitor François, Duc d’Anjou (1555-88), the younger brother of Henri III (1551-89). Whilst in France, Hilliard was employed as the valet-de-chambre (royal household painter) by François and set up a miniature and goldsmith workshop in Paris. It was at this time that Hilliard produced the recently discovered miniature of Henri III.

Another of Hilliard’s portraits during this period was of the teenage Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who had also been sent to accompany Paulet. Bacon’s fame came later when he was appointed Lord Chancellor to James I (1566-1625), however, he was already recognised for his advanced intelligence, emphasised by the miniature’s inscription: “If a worthy portrait were granted, I would prefer the mind.”

The highlight of Hilliard’s career was no doubt working for the queen herself. The exhibition displays a number of miniature portraits of Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard, including the only portrait of her playing an instrument (lute). The first miniature of the queen Hilliard produced was at the beginning of his career in 1572. For this, the queen sat for Hilliard but, later in his career, he was so familiar with Elizabeth’s face, he could paint her from memory.

Despite a brief sojourn in France, Hilliard continued to pick up new patrons. Hilliard’s miniatures became a fashionable part of court life and many people wished to have their face painted by him. Amongst these folk was Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-91), another favourite of Elizabeth I. This miniature was produced after Hatton had been appointed both Lord Chancellor (1587) and Knight of the Garter (1588), of which Hatton is wearing the collar and garter in his portrait.

Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618), yet another favourite of the queen, also had his miniature portrait painted by Hilliard. At the time, he was at the height of favour and often wrote poetry for Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, Ralegh was prone to rash behaviour and spent a lot of time imprisoned in the Tower of London and was eventually executed by James I for disobeying orders.

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Detail of a self-portrait of Isaac Oliver

Whilst the 1580s and 90s were Hilliard’s busiest decades in terms of commissions, he also trained a number of apprentices and assistants, including Isaac Oliver. Unlike Hilliard, Oliver did not immediately fall on his feet and his portraits of Elizabeth I were not admired as much as those of his teacher.

Oliver was born in Rouen, France but moved to England at the age of three when his Huguenot parents, Peter and Epiphany Oliver, fled from the Wars of Religion. Little is known about his life, except that he had three wives: Elizabeth (d.1599), Sara and Susannah de Critz. The latter was the daughter of Troilus de Critz, a goldsmith from Antwerp, and a close relative to the queen’s Serjeant-Painter.

Isaac Oliver’s career was slow starting but this changed with the patronage of Robert Devereux (1565-1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, the final favourite of Elizabeth I. As well as painting Devereux, Oliver painted the friends within his patron’s circle and began to rise in popularity in court. Oliver produced the first miniature from a sitting, however, often produced replicas later in his studio. Of all his non-royal sitters, there are more miniature’s of Devereux than any other.

When James I ascended the English throne in 1603, Oliver began to pick up new patrons, including Lucy Harrington (1580-1627), Countess of Bedford who he painted numerous times. Another often painted patron was Ludovick Stuart (1574-1624), a relation of James I who was the only non-royal duke in Britain at the time of the king’s ascension. Unlike Hilliard who preferred to concentrate on the finery and jewellery of his sitters, Oliver focused on facial features, particularly the beards in his portraits of men. Ludovick’s beard, when looked at through a magnifying glass, can be seen as a series of tiny curling lines in various shades of brown.

Commissions for Oliver increased rapidly during James I’s reign; the king required portraits for political and diplomatic purposes, and miniatures were often given as gifts during the peace negotiations with Spain in 1604. Unlike Elizabeth who only provided her painters with an annual salary, James I also paid for each commission as well as paying for their jewelled cases, some of which were made by Hilliard.

Whilst James may have prefered Hilliard’s portraits, his wife and queen consort Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) appointed Oliver as her “Painter for the art of limning”, paying him £40 a year, the same amount Hilliard received. As a result, both artists were commissioned to paint miniatures of Anne and the children: Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612); Princess Elizabeth (1596-1662); and Charles, Duke of York (1600-49).

Most of Oliver’s portraits of Anne show her seated in the same position, right hand upon her breast. This could be because Oliver used his first portrait of her as a template for others, however, the changing style of costume, hair and the contours of her face suggest that she sat for him more often than not.

Miniatures of Prince Henry show him in military wear, promising a future warrior-king. Unfortunately, Henry died from typhoid fever at the age of 18, making his younger brother Charles, whose miniatures had been less elaborate, heir to the throne.

Although the main focus of Elizabethan Treasures was the miniature art form, both Hilliard and Oliver worked on other things during their careers. They both produced a handful of full body portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or lying in gardens. Often with a head leaning upon a hand, these portraits represented the fashionable complaint of “Melancholy.” Melancholy was usually associated with philosophical thought but was also said to be caused by disappointment in love.

Of the two, Oliver produced more non-portraits than Hilliard, beginning with his earliest work, a drawing of Lamentation over the Dead Christ, now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Over time, Oliver produced many drawings of a religious or mythological nature, although it is not known whether these were studies for intended artworks or finished pieces. Occasionally, Oliver produced miniatures of this nature for collectors, including the head and shoulders of Jesus Christ and a portrait of the Roman goddess Diana.

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Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames – Hilliard, c.1600

For those lucky enough to attend the exhibition when magnifying glasses are available, it is fascinating to see the intricate details in these tiny portraits. Not only did Hilliard and Oliver produce exceptional likenesses, but they also executed them at such a small scale. Yet, a miniature is not necessarily only a portrait, they are full of symbolism.

In paintings of royalty or members of the royal court, there are clear examples of symbols, for instance, jewels, garters and crowns. Some represented promotions and triumphs and others emphasised the sitter’s status. In other miniatures, however, there are deeper, more secret symbols.

A popular form of symbol was an impresse, which combined imagery with a written motto. These words could be as simple as a name or heraldry, or as obscure as a private pun. Unfortunately, the latter makes it difficult to understand the intention of the miniature.

Yet, not all symbolic miniatures included an impresse. Of a more suggestive nature, Hilliard’s Unknown Young Man against a Background of Flames (c.1600) does not need words to explain its symbolism. The unknown man wears an unbuttoned shirt and holds a jewel whilst the burning flames of passionate love fill up the background. Needless to say, this was a very private portrait and is thought to be a gift for the man’s sweetheart. To emphasise desire and passion, Hilliard highlighted the flames in gold, so that if the portrait is twisted from side to side, the flames appear to flicker – something that is lost as it sits stationary in a display cabinet.

Compared by their contemporaries to Michelangelo and Raphael, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver are without a doubt two of the greatest painters from the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. For many, these two names will be unfamiliar and yet they were the leading limners in a highly admirable art genre. Elizabethan Treasures introduces the artists to a new generation and allows their work to once again be appreciated. Some of these works may not have been intended for public consumption and visitors should feel privileged to be able to view them in close up detail.

The downside about an exhibition of miniature portraits is that in order to see them, visitors must stand up close to the display cabinet, blocking the view of those behind them. As a result, it takes a while to see everything in the exhibition, especially if you want to look at items in more detail with a magnifying glass. Nonetheless, it is an exhibition of great worth.

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver is open daily until 19th May 2019. Tickets are £10 (£8.50 concessions) and, as always, members of the National Portrait Gallery can view the exhibition for free.

All Too Human

“Renaissance painters painted men and women making them look like angels. I paint for angels, to show them what men and women really look like.”
– F. N. Souza, 1962

Throughout history, artists have attempted, some more successfully than others, to represent the human figure. For centuries, the Renaissance influenced the angelic, pure forms that many have replicated, giving a false impression of the realities of human appearance. Historical portraits can be likened to the contemporary Photoshop mania where sitters or models dare not resemble anything less than perfect. However, within the last couple of centuries, radical thinkers and artists have challenged the rules with movements such as Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. Although originally sparking outrage or stubbornly ignored due to their supposed “bad taste”, artists have stretched the boundaries to try to capture the life they see around them.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, hosted by Tate Britain, explores the works of 20 artists in Britain from the early 20th-century to the present day. All 20 fall into what the general public would deem “modern art”, however, they use a variety of approaches. Some artists, hence the two mentioned in the exhibition’s strapline, may already be known to some visitors, but many will be new names. Whether abstract, minimalist or conceptual, each artist has moved away from the previously accepted methods of art to create a whole series of figurative paintings.

The exhibition is set out in a loose chronological order beginning with four painters who were working in Britain towards the beginning of the twentieth century. Confusingly, not only paintings of the human body are included in the display, however, they help to emphasise the style of each individual artist. David Bomberg (1890-1957), Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) and Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) inspired the generation of figurative painters that followed them. Despite all working during the same period, the four artists had different approaches from the way they handled paint to their subject matter. The scenes were influenced by their everyday lives, particularly the people and places that meant something to them. To quote Sickert, each artist was attempting to depict “the sensation of a page torn from the book of life.”

 

 

The second room in the exhibition (there are 11 in total) jumps straight to one of the key artists featured in All Too Human. This is, of course, the Irish-born painter, Francis Bacon (1909-92). Having left Ireland for London at the age of 16 and living through two World Wars, Bacon was a troubled soul who expressed his feelings of isolation and angst in his artwork. Bacon was also dealing with homosexuality in a world where it was not yet accepted.

Bacon’s paintings of the human figure were usually solitary and distressed, perhaps expressing the sense of loss after the devastation of war. As a result of the wars, the philosophical theory of existentialism rose and became associated with artists such as Bacon and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), whose isolated figure sculpture stands alone in the centre of the room surrounded by Bacon’s paintings.

In essence, existentialism emphasises the importance of the individual and the freedom to develop through acts of their own will. It is perhaps due to this thinking or the increasing difficulty to believe in God or a higher power, that Bacon produced abstract pastiches of other artists’ paintings, particularly those of popes. One example is Study after Velázquez in which Bacon uses Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) portrait of Pope Innocent X to create a demonic-like figure screaming in an isolated, cheerless room.

Francis Bacon appears once again in a later room of the exhibition. Here it reveals his interest in portraiture and the lengths he went to collect sources from which to base his paintings. Bacon used a variety of photography and newspaper clippings to inspire him, often commissioning the photographer John Deakin (1912-72) to take specific portraits of people. Bacon’s outcomes never looked like the original photograph, however, they were vital as a starting point. Incidentally, Bacon’s first identified sitter, Study of  Portrait for Lucian Freud (1964), was in fact based on a photograph of Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

 

 

A contemporary of Bacon, the Indian artist Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), was also affected by the war and expressed his personal feelings within his artwork. His figurative paintings are simplified bold, swift strokes made with thick oil paints, which give a sense of movement as well as dark and distressing emotions.

Souza’s portraits are of a range of figures, including saints, businessmen and nudes. A few are inspired by biblical passages, for instance, Crucifixion (1959) and Jesus and Pilatus (1955-6). His abstract depiction of the human body removes the masks society hides behind to reveal the raw and complex emotional states underneath. Souza often used these strong emotions to express his feelings about the attitude towards different races: “I painted Negro in Mourning in London when the race riots flared. I personally think it is one of my best works – socialist realism maybe, Expressionism certainly. Moreover, Negro in Mourning is close to the bone of man because it is about the colour of skin.”

As well as portraits, this gallery contains a few cityscapes, which were also a favourite subject of the artist. Souza was a frequent traveller and visited many cities. It is thought that the complex, cubist-like paintings are a composition of memories and images of the places he encountered and his personal experience within these cities.

Other artists of the same period follow in the next few rooms of the exhibition and reveal different approaches to figurative art. William Coldstream (1908-87), for instance, painstakingly attempted to record reality by intensely scrutinising his subjects and measuring the locations of the key features in order to achieve the correct perspectives. Markings on the edges of the canvas can be seen where Coldstream had made his initial measurements.

David Bomberg (1890-1957), on the other hand, had a completely contrasting painting technique. As a tutor at the Borough Polytechnic in south London, he emphasised the importance of capturing the physical experience of the subject matter rather than merely the appearance. For Bomberg, art was about the process of applying paint to canvas, which can be seen in the works of some of his art students displayed here in the exhibition. The amount of paint applied to the canvases borders on excessive and creates a tactile as well as a visual outcome. This technique is a literal take on one of Francis Bacon’s insights into art: “the image is the paint and the paint is the image.”

 

 

As already mentioned, All Too Human is not an exhibition solely focused on the human body. Many of the paintings can explore what it is like to be human without needing to include a detailed portrait. Frank Auerbach (b.1931) and Leon Kossoff (b.1926) are two examples of artists whose approach to art focuses on alternative ways of engaging with reality. Although their style of painting differs, Auerbach and Kossoff both lived and worked in London and explore what it is like to be human in a modern and industrial society.

Both artist’s paintings are dynamic, play with light conditions, and reflect the mood of the setting or scene. The sharp, geometric lines that shape Auerbach’s Chimney in Mornington Crescent – Winter Morning (1991) imply a bleak, cluttered city life, which is a stark contrast to Leon Kossoff’s Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971). The latter’s carefree brushstrokes, implying natural movement, convey a more pleasant experience.

 

 

Eventually, the exhibition reaches the second of the named artists in the title’s strapline, the grandson of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Lucian (1922-2011). Considering the size of the room Freud’s work is displayed in, he is perhaps the most celebrated of the 20 artists featured in this exhibition. A couple of his early works were shown in previous rooms in which he had laboriously approached with small brushes to achieve a smooth finish. The features on the faces of his models were usually abnormally large, particularly the eyes, however, by the 1960s, Freud’s method of painting changed completely.

From the 1960s until his death in 2011, Freud swapped his small brushes for thicker, bristly ones and applied paint to the canvas in a method more characteristic of a palette knife. Although Freud was less precise with his paint brushes, the final outcomes are far more realistic than his previous method.

The first painting visitors come across in Freud’s new style is a self-portrait. At the time it was painted, Freud was in his 40s and made no effort to romanticise his appearance. He focused heavily on his flesh and the contours of his face, which he positioned in an ungainly angle emphasised by his fist. This heavily textured style was employed in all his portraits regardless of who they were, their age and so forth.

Freud also began to paint full figures, particularly of naked men and women, in immodest positions. These are not the easiest of paintings to look at and may evoke disgust or embarrassment in many visitors. Yet, all Freud was attempting to do was confront reality, show the body simply as flesh and reveal the animalistic nature of the human body. As T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) stated in his poetry collection Four Quartets, “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

Taking Freud’s portrait of Leigh Bowery (1991) as a less indecent nude painting, it is easier to understand his objective. Leigh Bowery (1961-94) was an unconventional gay performer in nightclubs and was usually recognised by his flamboyant dress sense, yet, this small portrait strips that all away. Bowery is painted asleep with his bald head resting on his left shoulder, evoking a feeling of vulnerability – a complete contrast to his public persona. Freud has uncovered the true human form beneath his everyday identity.

Freud predominantly uses the same setting for his portraitures – his sparsely-furnished studio – making each figure almost feel like an intrusion into his private space. On the other hand, this helps draw the eye to the model, whether naked or clothed and contrasts the complexities of human life with the simplicity of inanimate objects. These carefully constructed compositions are similar to the approaches of other artists, for example, David Hockney (b.1937) who, not only painted people in his studio, always used the same chair.

Interestingly, one painting within this display of Freud’s artwork is completely different and unexpected. Titled Two Plants (1977-80), this botanical painting contains no evidence of human life. The two plants, Licorice and Aspidistra, are painted in perfectionistic detail and look almost photographic. Its inclusion in this exhibition is entirely metaphorical; the plants are in various stages of growth and death, which can be used as an analogy for the human life cycle. “I wanted it to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying.”

 

Whilst Freud was looking at the realities of the human flesh, other artists were interested in the development of social relationships. Two examples are Michael Andrews (1928-95) and Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1932-2007) who, whilst approaching painting in vastly different ways, were both followers of Francis Bacon.

Kitaj’s works are often crowded and combine several scenes together. In his busy painting The Wedding (1989-93), Kitaj has amalgamated everything he witnessed during his marriage ceremony onto one canvas, conveying the hectic day and the heightened emotions experienced. Similarly, in Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees) (1983-4), Kitaj also merges several incidents. In the foreground, Kitaj has painted himself reclining on a chair in front of the London alleyway while various people and shop fronts with a personal association to the artist fill the background.

Michael Andrews, on the other hand, painted less busy scenarios, however, still manages to convey people’s behaviour and relationships with each other. Like Kitaj, Andrews has also produced paintings of friends, family or acquaintances, although, his depictions look far more realistic. One particularly striking canvas Melanie and Me Swimming, which Andrews finished in 1979, is based on a photograph of himself on holiday in Perthshire with his six-year-old daughter. Rather than including the rocks and details of the water, Andrews focused mostly on his body supporting Melanie as she learnt to swim, evoking a sense of fatherly love and protection.

 

Although women (mostly naked) have been the subject of many paintings in this exhibition, the actual lives of the female sex have been widely overlooked. The art world was historically a male-dominated profession and it is only in recent years that women have been able to challenge the preconceived ideas of womanhood. Paula Rego (b.1935) is one such artist who places women at the centre of her work. Whether a portrait or busy scene, women are presented in various moods and activities, proving that they are each their own individual person.

Whereas in the past women were depicted as pure, angelic-like creatures, Rego occasionally goes to the other extreme, illustrating women as animalistic, powerful individuals. In Bride (1994), the woman, complete with wedding gown, lies in an animal-like position, almost like a dog lying on its back. Although dogs are animals that can be trained into submission, Rego is making the point that women, like dogs, are also powerful beasts. To be human is to be a physical creature and not something to be worshipped or controlled by men.

Covering one wall of the gallery is Rego’s triptych in response to William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) Marriage a la Mode (1743-5). Hogarth’s series tells the story of an arranged marriage between an ill-matched pair whose lives come to an end prematurely as a result. In The Betrothal, Lessons and The Shipwreck (1999), Rego brings Hogarth’s scenario into the 20th century but reverses the roles of the parents so that it is the mothers arranging the doomed union. Rego expresses her feminist views by recreating the story to focus on female suffering and strength.

Although Paula Rego was the only key 20th-century female artist in the exhibition, the final room introduces four contemporary female painters who are continuing along the same lines as their predecessors to produce works that concentrate on identity and what it means to be human. Each artist has their own unique approach, however, the human figure is their main focus. Celia Paul (b.1959), Cecily Brown (b.1969), Jenny Saville (b.1970) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b.1977) experiment with various processes of mark-making, colour palette and layout in their artworks. Brown, for example, prefers to be fluid in her application of paint, whereas the others are more precise and detailed.

Yiadom-Boakye of Ghanian descent concentrates on cultural identity but leaves the final outcomes with some ambiguity as to their purpose and meaning. With obscure titles, such as Coterie of Questions (2015), the artist invites the viewer to imagine the story behind the name and image. This brings in to question and challenges stereotypical views on race and identity.

Saville, on the other hand, is more like some of the older artists in the previous rooms, particularly Lucian Freud. She concentrates on the appearance of the flesh, refusing to shy away from the unsightly truths of the human body. The painting Tate Britain displays is a self-portrait, which is less shocking than some of her other works. Saville is particularly interested in painting wounded bodies and collects imagery of bruised skin and lacerations as inspiration. Reverse (2002-3) is a realistic representation of the human face, however, it is marred by the split lip and blood surrounding the mouth. Although a beaten up face may not be the average person’s prefered subject, Saville is successfully conveying the human body, emphasising our fragility and physical appearance.

With these four artists concluding the exhibition, All Too Human is a journey through a century of figurative painting. From its origins in the early 20th-century to the present day, the Tate Britain triumphantly reveals the determination artists have had to show humanity in its true form.

“Here are works of art that truly matter, in their humanity, courage, feeling, truth. Whatever it is that makes art profound, Kossoff and Auerbach, Rego and Andrews, Bacon and Freud have it. They are the true heroes of modern British art.”

– Jonathan Jones

Some artworks may be difficult to look at, some may disgust visitors, some may raise questions, some may inspire, but most importantly, they capture real life, real emotions and humanity at its most vulnerable. With a range of different styles, there are many interesting, beautiful and complex paintings to study that can either be taken at face value or considered more philosophically. All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is not only an art exhibition, it is a visual conversation about what makes us human.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life will remain open to the public until 27th August 2018. Entry is £19.50 per person but under 12s may visit for free, however, be aware that some paintings may not be suitable for children. Tickets may be purchased on arrival at the gallery or can be bought in advance online.