Treasures of Trafalgar Square

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Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Trafalgar Square is one of the most popular tourist interests in Central London, attracting well over one million people per year. Surrounded by museums, galleries and historic buildings, the public square is continually travelled through as sightseers make their way from place to place. Containing numerous statues, there are plenty of photographic opportunities for selfies or group pictures as well as the chance to witness a diverse selection of street performance.

With so much to offer, how much do visitors gain from their visit to Trafalgar Square? Apart from the lions and the acclaimed Nelson’s Column, a lot goes unappreciated or even unnoticed. By stepping back from the crowds and taking the time to look around you – up high, down low and side to side – you will discover the history and wonders of the dynamic location.

Trafalgar Square was developed by the architect John Nash (1752-1835) in the early 1800s. After its completion, the new square was officially christened Trafalgar Square in 1830 to commemorate the victory at the infamous Battle of Trafalgar a quarter of a century earlier. Some tourists are frequently confused by the name and incorrectly assume that the battle against Napoleon took place in this very square. The British Naval victory was earned at Cape Trafalgar on the coast of Spain, in which the Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life.

In 1843, a bronze statue of Nelson was erected on top of a 145 ft Corinthian column designed by the English architect William Railton (1800-77); a tremendous monument in honour of the war-hero. The bronze lions on the pedestal below, sculpted by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73), were added thirty years later to stand guard around the column.

Nelson, literally and figuratively, overshadows all the other statues and plinths around the square and, unless time is taken to study them carefully, many remain unaware of who they represent and the significance of their position. Over the years, several sculptures have been erected (and even removed from) Trafalgar Square and they are worth having a look at.

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Jacobus Secundus, Photograph by Prioryman

To the left of the entrance to the National Gallery, stands a particularly old bronze statue. Originally erected in the Palace of Whitehall in 1686, King James II stands in a Contrapposto pose (hips and legs twisted away from the position of the head and shoulders) sculpted to resemble a Roman emperor. With right hand outstretched, it is believed that the King, or Jacobus Secundus as the plinth states, once held a baton, which is now missing.  The rest of the plinth, when translated from the Latin, reads “by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. Defender of the Faith. 1686.”

In the top right-hand corner of the square sits an equestrian statue of another king of England. Cast two years before George IV’s death in 1830, his statue depicts him in ancient Roman garments – possibly an attempt at resembling a Roman emperor similarly to James II – and was originally intended for the top of Marble Arch when it was used as the entrance to Buckingham Palace. Temporarily placed upon a plinth in Trafalgar Square, it has remained there ever since, although the inscription below was only added in the late 19th-century once his flattering features were no longer recognised by the public.

The most interesting thing about the George IV statue designed by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841) is that he is riding with no stirrups. Whether it was intentional to depict the king bareback riding or an oversight of the sculptor remains unknown.

There is another equestrian statue in Trafalgar Square on the opposite side, near Whitehall. Older than both James II and George IV, the statue was cast in the 1630s by Hubert Le Sueur (1580-1658), a French sculptor, in honour of Charles I. Dressed in armour typical of the era, the King sits proudly on his horse who has its right front leg raised as if walking.

Those who know their English royal history will wonder how the statue survived after the execution of Charles I. The bronze figure was sent to a metalsmith in Holborn along with instructions to melt it down, however, the smithy secretly hid the statue instead. When the royal family was restored to the throne, it was rediscovered and placed in Trafalgar Square in 1675, on the original location of one of the Eleanor crosses.

The Eleanor cross that stood in Trafalgar Square was destroyed during the civil war, however, a replica was produced in 1865 in front of Charing Cross railway station, where it still stands today. The Eleanor crosses were ornately decorated monuments adorned with a cross commissioned by Edward I in memoriam of his beloved wife. Each cross was positioned at the site her coffin lay overnight as it made its twelve-day journey from Lincoln to London before finally being buried in Westminster Abbey. Charing Cross was the final stop and therefore the most elaborate of the twelve monuments.

Victorian sculptor, Thomas Earp (1829-93), constructed the replica cross from designs by E. M. Barry (1830-80), an architect famed for his work in Covent Garden. Using Aberdeen granite, Earp expertly carved the decorative monument, including a statue of Eleanor of Castile standing towards the very top.

 

There are a number of other statues located in Trafalgar Square, and there are even more located nearby within short walking distance. When visiting the square, there is so much to see in the surrounding areas, for example, the Eleanor cross, that could so easily be missed by tourists. Diagonally across from the north-east corner of the square, opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery stands a monument to the British nurse, Edith Cavell. Working in Brussels when the First World War broke out in 1914, Edith nursed hundreds of soldier regardless of which army they came from. She also helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German occupation.

Unfortunately, Edith Cavell was caught and arrested by German soldiers, found guilty of treason and shot by a firing squad on 12th October 1915. Her remains were brought home after the war, her bravery earning her a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Sir George Frampton (1860-1928) constructed the modern-looking, ten-foot marble statue of the British nurse standing on a granite pedestal. Inscribed below are the words “Edith Cavell // Brussels // Dawn // October 12th 1915 // Patriotism is not enough // I must have no hatred or // bitterness for anyone.” The monument was unveiled by Queen Alexandra in 1920 and, since 2014, it received a Grade 1 listing.

Another statue to look out for in the area is the Royal Marines Memorial installed on the north side of The Mall. Created at the beginning of the 20th-century, the memorial honours those who lost their lives during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Second Boer War in Africa (1899-1902).

To get to the Royal Marine Memorial from Trafalgar Square, the pavement takes you under Admiralty Arch. This is just one of the many historic structures that surround the square. The Grade 1 listed triumphal arch was commissioned by Edward VII in memory of his long reigning mother, Queen Victoria. Initially used as a residence for the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, the arch became government offices at the beginning of the millennium. The neoclassical arch is now in the hands of property developers who intend to reopen it as a luxury hotel in 2020.

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Admiralty Arch

London, being steeped in history, has countless plaques around the city commemorating certain events, past and present buildings, notable people and so forth. Although buildings have been demolished, plaques provide information about the past to prevent history from disappearing entirely. On the ground by the Charles I statue is a metal sign explaining that it was once the site of the Eleanor cross. On the railings in front of Charing Cross Station is another plaque with a lengthy description of the design and construction of the replica. Nearby is another sign recording details of a violent storm that occurred in 1987.

It is quite surprising the places that memorial plaques can be found. In St Martin’s Street, little more than an alley way, behind the National Gallery, is a sizable memorial of the 16th century Hampton Site. The information inscribed on the stone explains that the site used to belong to Hamptons furniture store which was flattened by bombs in 1940. Later, in 1959, the government acquired the demolished area allowing the National Gallery to expand. Thus, the Sainsbury Wing was born.

Plenty of tourists take photographs outside the entrances to the National and National Portrait Gallery even if they do not venture inside (although, judging by the crowds, most do!), however, it is not a common thought to look behind the buildings. By continuing along St Martin’s Street and turning right into Orange Street, a small Congregational Church is located sporting more historical information. According to historians, the former resident of the building next door was none other than the mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton.

Orange Street Congregational Church: This church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled from France at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1776 the Chapel passed into the hands of the Church of England. The Rev. Augustus III. Toplady author of “Rock of Ages” was one of its ministers. The Chapel passed into the hands of the Congregationalists in 1787. Adjoining the chapel was Sir Isaac Newton’s house which was built in 1710 and condemned in 1913. Mrs Jemima Luke, author of the beloved hymn “I think when we read that sweet story of old” was a teacher in the Sunday School. A copy of the hymn in her own handwriting is in possession of the church.

When exploring, always remember to look up. Approaching the National Portrait Gallery from Orange Street allows the building’s architecture to be seen in a new light. Above the highly positioned windows are sculpted busts that are easily missable from ground level. Sculpted along with the three founders of the gallery are fifteen illustrious portrait painters, writers and historians, notably: Horace Walpole, Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Louis François Roubilliac, William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynold.

 

There are far too many things to note in and around Trafalgar Square to write about it one go. The more you look the more you discover, especially when glancing in the more obscure places. Whilst standing at the foot of Nelson’s column, look out for the worlds smallest police phone box (now a cleaning store cupboard), and, whilst having a drink at the Cafe on the Square, do not miss the outdated standard Imperial measures plaque where people used to come and check the accuracy of their rulers.

 

Trafalgar Square is so much more than statues, water fountains and street performers. With so many marvels hidden in plain sight, hours can easily disappear as you tour the area. This goes for the rest of the City of London, too; the more you look the more you find. Do not be blind to the history surrounding you, it is there to be noticed.

Special thanks to Treasure Trails for providing such an in-depth self-guided tour of Trafalgar Square with an exciting Treasure Hunt game. Take a look at their website for more information about the trail. (Other areas are available.)

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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.

Picasso: Coloured In

 

Toward the end of 2016, the National Portrait Gallery in London held an exhibition on the works of the master of modern art, Pablo Picasso. Displaying a lifetime of artwork, the gallery provided a concise biography of Picasso’s life, providing the opportunity to learn about the artist as well as his paintings. The gift shop at the exit of the exhibition sold mementoes of the display, including a colouring book containing 20 black and white versions of some of the major works of Picasso during the 20th Century.

Pablo Picasso: To Colour In was published in April 2016 with the intention of using the popular fad to educate readers/colouring book enthusiasts about the techniques and secrets of the great master. Each work included in the book has a brief paragraph explaining what it is (in case you cannot tell) and a few details about Picasso’s intentions or the events happening in his life at the time.

Although Pablo Ruiz Picasso was Spanish, he lived in France for the majority of his adult life. As a child, he lived in various areas of Spain beginning with Malaga where he was born on 25th October 1881. He lived here with his parents and two sisters, Dolores and Concepción. However, Concepción, or Conchita as she was known, died very young, a tragedy that had a great impact of Picasso.

Picasso’s father, a museum curator and teacher of fine art, encouraged his son to begin painting. Picasso received lessons in technique and academic style, completing his first painting, The Picador, in 1889, at a mere eight years old. Later, after moving to North-Western Spain, Picasso completed his initial training at La Lonja Academy in Barcelona.

Picasso attempted further education in Madrid at the San Fernando Royal Academy – a competitive college to get into – however, was forced to return to Barcelona after a severe bought of scarlet fever. This did not prevent Picasso from continuing his artistic journey and he was soon producing compositions that impressed local academies.

His surname, Picasso, evokes images of abstract art, however, there was a steady development of style and technique until he reached the more obscure results. Picasso’s colour palette was key in his varying phases, the first being predominately blue. What triggered this period was the sudden loss of a close friend to suicide in 1901. Devastated, Picasso painted a death portrait, which was spread through with blue tones. During this “blue period”, Picasso painted many melancholy subjects such as beggars and hospital patients. It was during this time that Picasso began to branch out into other forms of artistic expression, for example, sculpture.

By 1904, Picasso had moved and settled in Montmartre, France, where he had a small studio of his own. After three years of excessively using the colour blue, Picasso entered a new phase now known as the “rose period”. Naturally, this incorporated a brighter colour palette and heralded more cheerful subjects. Inspired by a local circus, Picasso often depicted harlequin clowns in his paintings. This vivid period lasted until 1907 when Picasso produced his first major work The Young Ladies of Avignon (see above), which sparked the beginning of yet another period: cubism.

Picasso’s cubist paintings are different from the majority of artists involved with the movement. Initially, he was inspired by other artists, but eventually abandoned all traditional rules and focused on painting geometric still lifes, revealing an object from several directions, rather than the way the human eye would usually perceive it from one position.

Not wanting to be constrained to the stipulations of an art faction, Picasso flitted between several. After experimenting with Cubism, he stepped into the Surrealist movement, where he completed paintings and sculptures up until the beginning of the Second World War. Following the bombing of the town, Guernica, Picasso created his famously large painting of the same name. Despite its fame, Guernica has not been included in this colouring book.

Living through two wars, two marriages and many other life altering events, Picasso’s works can be used as a form of a diary. When viewed in chronological order, it is possible to tell what was going on for him personally at specific times. For example, his “blue period” was sparked off by the death of a friend and his work took on a more violent nature during the bleak wartimes. His marriages and divorce can be evidenced by the models used for many of his portraits, for instance, his female companions: Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse (again, see above).

Despite failing health, Picasso was still painting in his 90s, producing 165 canvases during January 1969 and February 1970 alone. By the time he died on 8th April 1973, Picasso had produced over 50,000 works – an astonishing feat that still evokes veneration.

Naturally, it would be impossible to produce a book of all Picasso’s recorded works, but the editors of this particular colouring book have carefully selected examples that span the majority of his life, thus encompassing the different styles he experimented with.

The author of the text – presumably Frédérique Cassegrain, who also wrote the biography and information for each included artwork – gives helpful advice about how to colour in the outlined versions of Picasso’s paintings. The paper is thick enough to be suitable for paints, particular Gouache, which is water soluble and easily blended. Alternatively, coloured pencils may be used, preferably of artistic quality, which may be more suitable for those less confident in art and design. Another option, although not mentioned by the author, are felt-tip pens. Usually, these should be avoided due to ink bleeding through the page, however, the paper is single sided, so there is no chance of damaging the following colouring page in the book.

Purchasing Pablo Picasso: To Colour In and completing the book, provides not only hours of fun and relaxation, but an opportunity to discover and understand the artist. Unlike at a gallery where the brain may switch off, being able to go away and return to the book gives us time to absorb the information and concentrate more clearly on the details of each painting.

Opposite each colouring page is a copy of the original in full colour, meaning that, if one desired, one could replicate Picasso’s work as closely as possible. By doing, rather than just looking, we begin to understand the colour choices, piece together the geometric shapes to form an image and begin to understand the thought processes of the artist.

Interestingly, there are two paintings that stand out amongst all the others. These were produced during and after the First World War, a time when Picasso returned to a more classical style of artwork. These are The Pipes of Pan (1923) and The Bathers (1918). Both show a completely different side to Picasso and would not immediately be recognised as his own work. Despite not being entirely life-like, there are no elements of Cubism or Surrealism and the colour palette is altogether natural. Picasso has focused on shading and tone to create a realistic appearance, a contrast to the flattened portraits he is known for.

Having seen evidence at the National Portrait Gallery as well as in this colouring book, it is clear that Picasso was able to paint lifelike portraits and scenes, however, he generally chose not to. This may baffle those that wish they could draw accurately; why opt for abstract art when you have a natural flair for realism? Picasso was not concerned about the aesthetic appeal of his artworks but rather used them as a form of expression. He experienced two world wars and personal grievances which greatly impacted on his painting style. Sometimes it is too difficult to put feelings into words, so Picasso represented them visually instead.

Abstract, Cubist and Surrealist art is something that people either love or hate. Many may not appreciate artists such as Picasso, whereas others find them deeply meaningful. Having the opportunity to study the artist through a detailed colouring book creates a more comprehensive understanding of the artwork and ability to acknowledge the intention and story behind it.

Pablo Picasso: To Colour In will appeal to artists, art historians and other creatives with its contrast of light relief and in-depth knowledge. The book is available online at retailers such as Amazon and The Book Depository from approximately £6. If Picasso is not your thing, there are other artists available in the series of colouring books, including Klimt, Hokusai (Japanese Art), Monet, Van Gogh, Caillebotte and Manet (Impressionists), and Paul Klee. Whatever your preference, prepare to learn whilst you are relaxing and having fun.