The Virgin of the Rocks

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The 500th anniversary year of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) death has come to an end but not before the National Gallery jumped on the bandwagon and ended the year with the exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece. Unlike the Queen’s Gallery, which focused on Leonardo’s life, and the British Library, which displayed examples of his notebooks, the National Gallery chose to focus on just one of the artist’s paintings: The Virgin of the Rocks.

The exhibition was split into four sections, each exploring a different aspect. Firstly, by reading quotes from Leonardo’s notebooks in a mirror (he always wrote backwards) visitors learnt about his fascination with rocks and landscapes, which feature in the background of many of his works. Secondly, visitors were introduced to a mock-modern studio, which revealed the secrets that science and conservation have revealed about The Virgin of the Rocks, for example, the colours used and the discarded composition hidden under the paint. The third room allowed visitors to experiment with shadows, discovering the dramatic effects light has on an object. Finally, visitors came face to face with the original painting, hanging on the wall of an imagined chapel to contemplate how the masterpiece looked in its original setting.

The Virgin of the Rocks, sometimes known as Madonna of the Rocks, is the title of two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. They both depict the same scene: the Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky setting; however, there are a few significant differences, for example, the direction of the angel’s gaze. The original version, or at least the version considered to be the eldest, hangs in the Louvre in Paris, the other, hangs in the National Gallery and was the subject of the Leonardo exhibition.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Virgin of the Rocks shortly after his move to Milan in the early 1480s. Having established his painting career in Florence, Leonardo had moved to search for new opportunities, which he found at the church of S. Francesco Grande. On 25th April 1483, Prior Bartolomeo Scoreline contracted Leonardo to produce painted panels for the new altarpiece in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception that was attached to the church. Leonardo was contracted as the “master” of the project with brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis as his assistants.

The artists were instructed on the colours and subject of the paintings. The central panel was to be of the Virgin Mary and Christ child with two prophets, perhaps David and Isaiah, surrounded by angels. Another panel was to show the Virgin Mary with God the panels to the side of the main painting were to contain angelic musicians. The job was to be completed by 8th December 1483, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

As can be seen when looking at both versions of the painting, Leonardo did not stick to the instructions. Only one angel is present in the scene and there are no prophets except for the child John the Baptist. The church was not happy with the work Leonardo had produced by the completion deadline, therefore, he continued to work on it for a further five years until they were satisfied. Unfortunately, there was a dispute over payment so Leonardo, whether from spite or the need for money, sold the painting, which has eventually found itself in the Louvre. Leonardo was allowed to begin a second version, which was installed in the chapel in 1508.

The subject of the two paintings, which was not what the church had originally requested, is the adoration of the Christ child by the infant John the Baptist. Although it depicts Biblical characters, the scene is not an event that features in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew reports that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was warned by an angel in a dream about King Herod the Great who had ordered that “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” were to be killed. (Matthew 2:16 ESV) Therefore, Joseph fled to Egypt with his wife and Jesus.

Several non-Biblical stories explain the flight to Egypt in more detail. One such story claims John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was also staying with his family in Bethlehem where the Massacre of the Innocents was about to take place. Whilst the Holy Family made their way to Egypt after then angel’s warning, John the Baptist was escorted there by the Archangel Uriel, where he met his aunt and cousin on the road. It is this scene that Leonardo painted, therefore, it is assumed the angel he depicted is Uriel. Similar stories, however, claim the angel was Gabriel.

It is not certain whose idea it was to deviate from the original contract but Leonardo had just come from Florence, whose patron saint was John the Baptist. Many religious artworks produced in Renaissance Florence involved the Christ child with John the Baptist, therefore, it may have only been natural for Leonardo to include the future preacher in his painting.

Both paintings contain the same subject matter and similar background of rocks and distant mountains. The Christ child sits on the right of the painting, being supported by the angel, raising his hand as a sign of Benediction towards his cousin. John, on the opposite side of the painting, kneels with his hands together as though in prayer, whilst gazing at Jesus. This, however, is where the similarities end.

The figures in the second painting are slightly larger than the original and everything is more defined. In the first, the angel’s hand is raised as though pointing at John, whereas in the second, he rests his hand on his lap. The pointing angel also looks out towards the viewer, almost as though it is saying, “Look, it is John!” Leonardo’s second angel, on the other hand, looks down in a contemplative manner. Other notable differences include the halos, which are omited in the first painting, and the cross held by John, which only features in the second.

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A study of the fall of light on a face, about 1488

The style of the second painting appears to be remarkably different from the former. The sharpness of the outlines is one thing but there is also a lot of attention to shadow and shade. Notebooks belonging to Leonardo reveal he approached his paintings in a scientific way. Being a polymath, Leonardo was interested in the natural world and human anatomy, therefore, paid great attention to detail. He was aware of the effects light had on an image. When lit from above, shadows fall in a different direction to when lit from below, which can create a vastly different appearance. In the first painting, there is a distinct lack of shadow, however, it features heavily in the second.

The effect of contrasting light and shadow in art is known as chiaroscuro, which is derived from the Latin words for clear/bright and dark/obscure. The term was first used during the Renaissance period, coinciding with Leonardo’s career. Since it was a new idea, Leonardo may not have been educated in chiaroscuro painting but rather developed the style himself. This could explain the difference in style between version one and two, however, some people also suggest the second was painted by someone else under Leonardo’s instruction.

The rocky background blocks out a lot of the natural light, the only daylight coming through a small gap to the left of Mary. As a result, the opposite corner is in shadow and only parts of the four figures are lit by the light. Rather than making it difficult to view the characters, the gloomy light creates an unnatural illumination, which highlights and emphasises their features.

Another technique Leonardo used is sfumato, which means “shaded off”. This is a method for softening the transition between colours and tones, making parts of the painting appear out of focus. It is also useful when painting backgrounds, mimicking an area beyond what the human eye can see. Leonardo described sfumato as blending colours, without the use of lines or borders “in the manner of smoke”.

Leonardo used sfumato around the edges of delicate forms, such as the Virgin Mary’s facial features. Rather than drawing the nose, eyes and mouth with stark outlines, Leonardo made them seem to emerge gradually from the darkness. By using graduated smoky tones, the figures appear three-dimensional.

Leonardo also used sfumato in the background where the tips of the mountain reached the sky, creating the illusion that the land continues on further than the eye can see. Just as he had studied how the light fell on the human figures, Leonardo concentrated on the shadows on the rocks that framed the light source, making the background as interesting to look at as the figures in the foreground.

As well as being a prolific painter and biologist, Leonardo had a lifelong passion for the natural world. Many of his surviving sketches feature his observations of nature, including rivers, rock formations, trees and plants, including a star-of-Bethlehem, which features in the foreground of Virgin of the Rocks. The majority of these drawings were observations of the areas he lived or travelled through. It may be due to this fascination that Leonardo used a dramatic rock formation for the background of both versions of the painting. It certainly does not represent the Egyptian deserts of the land to which the Holy Family fled.

Although the rock formation is a natural landscape, it creates an other-worldly landscape when placed behind the Virgin Mary. The broken rocks thrust upwards from the ground and downwards from the roof of a cave, creating energy that contrasts with the peaceful meeting of John and Jesus as well as the calm water between the rocks and the mountains in the distance.

The landscape feels primaeval, as though it had remained untouched since God created it thousands of years before Christ’s birth. The presence of the Holy Family makes the environment come alive, plants blooming beneath John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Although one plant appears to be a star-of-Bethlehem, the other plants have been invented by Leonardo.

Whilst The Virgin of the Rocks (second version) is impressive to look at, science and technology have revealed hidden details that create a mystery about the painting and commission. Many paintings have underdrawings, showing the preliminary sketches of the artist before they began applying paint to the canvas. When conservators examined The Virgin of the Rocks in 2005 for the underdrawing, they were surprised to find a different sketch to the final composition.

Infrared reflectography (IRR) revealed Leonardo had begun a drawing of the Virgin Mary then abandoned it. A detailed eye could be seen on the scans but little was thought of it at the time other than the artist had not been happy and started again.

More recently, the painting has been examined again with new technologies and more details have been discovered. Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning showed up elements under the painting that had been drawn in a material that contained zinc. This showed up an alternative composition of the angel and Christ child. With wings slightly open, the angel appears to be looking tenderly down at the baby, holding him in a tight embrace.

Hyperspectral imaging (HSI) provided clearer images of the angel and baby, revealing that the Christ child’s arm is raised. Whether Jesus was interacting with the angel or reaching for his mother or John is unclear.

When examining the rest of the painting, an entirely different scene was revealed. The angel appears to be holding the Christ child on his lap, who is reaching out for his mother. Rather than sitting comfortably as she is in the finished version, Mary is on her knees in mid-movement, facing her son with one arm thrown out and the other on her chest as though in adoration. John the Baptist does not appear at all.

No one knows why Leonardo changed his original composition so drastically. Perhaps there was an intervention from the church who may have wanted Leonardo to paint a replica of the first painting. Nonetheless, this second version is by no means a reproduction. The use of lighting and attention to detail shows Leonardo had conducted more research into optics and human physiology, resulting in a more realistic interpretation of the Holy Family.

There may be more hidden under the painted layers of The Virgin of the Rocks, however, until technology is enhanced further, there is no way of knowing. Unfortunately, it is 500 years since the artist died, therefore, it is impossible to answer the many questions these revelations provoke.

Using lights and animation, the National Gallery recreated how Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks would have looked in its original setting. Today, Leonardo’s work hangs as a stand-alone painting in the gallery, however, it was originally made to be inserted into a pre-existing sculpted altarpiece, carved by Giacomo del Maino (1469-1505), in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Over the following centuries, the altar was modified several times and eventually dismantled in 1780. The chapel in which the altar stood had also been demolished, and the rest of the church was torn down by Napoleon (1769-1821) to make way for barracks in 1806.

Following the dismantling of the altar, the Scottish painter and antiquarian Gavin Hamilton (1723-98) purchased Leonardo’s painting and brought it to England. Two paintings of angels that featured on the altar, although not painted by Leonardo, were also sold, however, the rest of the altarpiece is now lost.

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The Contract

Some evidence remains that helps us picture what the chapel once looked like. The commission for a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin can be traced to the spring of 1475 when the Franciscan friar and theologian Stefano da Oleggio proposed the idea during one of his sermons. Italian painters Francesco Zavattari (active 1417-1453) and Giorgio della Chiesa were commissioned to paint the decorative touches to the dome of the chapel, which included stars and the images of God, seraphim and the four Evangelists.

The contract states that the chosen sculptor of the altar had previously produced altarpieces in other churches in places such as Ponte, Sernio, Morbegno and Ardenno to the north of Milan. It is likely the church requested something similar from the sculptor.

As well as the paintings, Leonardo and his two assistants were contracted to paint and guild the entire altarpiece. In total, sixteen items were included in the contract. A statue of “Our Lady” was to have an outer coat of gold and ultramarine blue brocade and a dress of gold and crimson. The seraphim were to be painted red, but the other angels were to be decorated “in the Greek manner, painted in oils.” The place where the Christ child lay was to be painted to resemble a straw basket. “All the faces, hands and legs that are bare should be painted in oil to perfection.”

It is from the description of the contract and the existing examples of altarpieces from other churches in the area that the National Gallery managed to recreate an interactive version of the altar at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Of course, no one can ever be certain how it looked but to see The Virgin of the Rocks in situ was a breathtaking experience.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece has been extended until 26th January 2020, therefore, there is one week remaining in which to view The Virgin of the Rocks in a unique setting. Tickets are £18 and it is recommended that a timed ticket is purchased in advance of the visit.

The Self-Portraits of Lucian Freud

For the first time, Lucian Freud’s self-portraits have been united for one extraordinary exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. With a career spanning almost 70 years, the exhibition explores Freud’s development as a painter from his earliest portrait of 1939, to his final one painted 64 years later. Displayed in chronological order, the self-portraits create a visual timeline of Freud’s appearance, providing the perfect opportunity for the Royal Academy to discover the man behind the canvas.

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Lucian Shaving – David Dawson 2006

Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on 8th December 1922. Initially, he grew up in Germany with his parents, Lucie and Ernst Freud (1892-1970) and his brothers Stephan and Clement. In 1933, the family fled to the United Kingdom to escape Nazi Germany and were later joined by Lucian’s famous paternal grandfather, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

The Freud family settled in St John’s Wood, London, however, the boys attended Dartington Hall School in Devon. Lucian later attended Bryanston School in Dorset, however, was expelled after a year due to disruptive behaviour. After this, Freud attended a few art colleges in London and was encouraged by his mother to display some of his artwork at an exhibition of children’s drawing at London’s Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in 1938.

From 1939 until 1942, Freud attended the Welsh painter Cedric Morris’ (1889-1982) East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Suffolk. Whilst there, Freud became determined to have a career as a painter and produced his first self-portrait. His art education was briefly disrupted when he was called up to serve as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy, however, he was invalided out of service after a few months.

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Man with a Feather, 1942

Freud destroyed many of his self-portraits but, fortunately, over 50 remain, including one of his early works Man with a Feather (1943). This was painted after finishing his art education, which concluded with a year at Goldsmith’s College in London. This painting was exhibited with a selection of Freud’s works at his first solo exhibition at Lefevre Gallery, London in 1944. The three-quarter length portrait shows Freud holding a white feather, which he had been given by his first serious girlfriend, Lorna Wishart (1911-2000). Incidentally, Freud went on to marry Lorna’s niece Kitty (d.2011), who was the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959).

Comparing the early self-portraits with his later works, Freud was initially influenced by German Expressionism and occasionally surrealism. After the war, Freud developed a precise linear style using muted colours and elongated brushstrokes. His drawings were sharp and graphic, produced by a variety of ink, crayon and pencil.

Man with a Thistle (Self-portrait) is an example of Freud’s linear style painting. This particular self-portrait was produced during a five-month stay on the Greek island of Paros. The vertical and horizontal lines are severe and dominate the painting, whilst the image of himself is relegated to the background.

During the 1940s, Freud tended to prefer drawing over painting, therefore, the majority of his early self-portraits were produced in pencil and pen. Startled Man, for example, was drawn with conté crayon and pencil. The outcome looks similar to the result of etching, and the facial expression is not too dissimilar to the series of experimental self-portrait etchings by the Dutch artist Rembrandt (1606-69).

Other examples of Freud’s drawings include Man at Night and Self-Portrait as Actaeon. Both of these outcomes must have taken an exceedingly long time since the drawing is made up of tiny markings. Freud used dots and dashes to produce the tones, shadows and outlines, leaving the lighter areas blank. This works particularly well in Man at Night, which reveals the artist lit up from one side by an artificial light source.

Self-Portrait as Actaeon was originally intended as an illustration for a book of Greek myths. Unfortunately, the book was rejected by the publisher, however, the illustrations were later published in a magazine. Possibly inspired by Titian’s (1488-1576) Diana and Actaeon, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, Freud depicted himself as Actaeon, a famous Theban hero, who was turned into a stag after accidentally coming across the goddess Diana bathing.

“People thought and said and wrote that my paintings were linear and defined by drawing. I’ve never been that affected by writing, but I thought if that’s all true, I must stop.”

Around the mid-1950s, Freud transitioned from drawing to painting and began to approach his artwork differently. For years, Freud used small canvases that he could fit on his lap, however, he began to find this rather restrictive and decided to paint at an easel instead. Whilst he continued to produce the occasional small painting, Freud started working on a much larger scale.

Since his return from Greece, Freud had made London his permanent home and was later characterised as a figurative painter in the “School of London”. Amongst this group of artists were R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007), Frank Auerbach (b.1931) and Francis Bacon (1909-92), the latter being a great influence on Freud. Bacon tended to use hog’s hair brushes, which allowed him to handle a heavier load of paint than Freud’s sable-hair brushes. After swapping to hog’s hair brushes, Freud’s style became vastly different from his earlier work. Whilst the handling of the paint created more texture on the canvas, the portraits were closer to reality than his flat, graphic versions.

When the focus was purely on the body, Freud used his new style of painting. The thicker brushes and paint helped him to concentrate on the texture and colour of flesh. Unlike his graphic drawing style that he eventually stopped using, Freud retained this new style for the rest of his life, as can be seen when comparing his work from the 1950s with a self-portrait painted in 1978. Self-Portrait with a Black Eye was painted immediately after an argument with a taxi driver that evidently turned physical. Intrigued by the changes in colour and shape caused by the bruising and swelling, Freud was keen to capture it on canvas.

Although he continued to use hog’s hair brushes for the rest of his artistic career, it was not the only style of painting Freud developed. During the 1960s, Freud experimented with watercolours, which resulted in a flatter colour than the thick oil paint. By using this medium, Freud retained a little of his earlier linearity but the colour washes reduced the harshness of the lines. Freud replicated this style in oil paint, particularly when there was more to a painting than human flesh. An example of this is Hotel Bedroom, which combines his old style with a softer brushstroke.

Hotel Bedroom includes a self-portrait of Freud who is standing behind a bed in which his wife is lying. This is not a portrait of Kitty, who Freud divorced in 1952, but his second wife Lady Caroline Blackwood (1931-96) who he married in 1953. Unfortunately, their marriage only lasted four years and a sense of estrangement can already be felt in this artwork, which was painted in 1954. Freud did not marry again after his second divorce, however, it is rumoured that he fathered as many as 40 children, however, only 14 have been officially identified as his – two from his first marriage and 12 by various mistresses.

Throughout his career, Freud painted portraits of other people, including his children. The first time his children appeared in his work, however, was at the bottom of a self-portrait, Reflection with Two Children. Rose and Ali are positioned in front of a gigantic mirror, producing a slightly surreal effect, since they do not have any reflection. The painting was inspired by a picture Freud had seen in a book, however, it also tells us a little about Freud’s painting process.

When creating self-portraits, Freud preferred to paint his likeness from mirrors rather than photographs. He often left mirrors lying at various angles in his studio in the hopes that it would produce an interesting perspective. For Reflection with Two Children, Freud placed the mirror directly on the floor and painted himself peering into it from above. Unlike his previous self-portraits, Freud included the mirror’s frame in the painting.

Freud may have taken inspiration from past painters who included mirrors in their work, for example, Velázquez (1599-1660) and Van Eyck (d.1441). For a while, Freud continued to include mirrors in his work, for example, Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening in which he included a small self-portrait behind an enormous houseplant. Freud also used a range of different sized mirrors of which Interior with Hand Mirror (Self-portrait) is an appropriate example. Slightly different from his usual style of work, the tiny reflection resembles Freud’s usual method of depicting flesh, however, the rest of the painting feels washed-out and rushed.

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Two Irish Men in W11, 1984/5

“My work is purely autobiographical. It’s about myself and my surroundings … I work from the people that interest me and that I care about and think about in rooms that I live and know.”

By the mid-60s, Freud was focused on full-length portraits, which continued to show his ability to convey the luminous texture of the human flesh. Many of these portraits were of nudes, including paintings of his children, which unsettled many viewers. Rather than portraying men and women in the tradition of Renaissance artists, Freud was brutally honest, revealing all parts of the human anatomy.

Not all Freud’s full-length portraits involved nudity, for instance, Two Irish Men in W11 in which the men are fully clothed. The unnamed men were painted in one of Freud’s London studios. Throughout his career, Freud had studios in Paddington, Notting Hill and Holland Park, which were decked out with battered sofas, bare walls and wooden floors. Some critics claim these downtrodden environments added to the psychology of Freud’s work, evidencing the influence of his grandfather.

Although the main focus of the portraits was on the sitter, Freud often managed to subtly include himself in the painting. Sometimes a glimpse of his reflection can be seen in a mirror or, in the case of Two Irish Men in W11, unfinished self-portraits sit on the floor against the wall. Oftentimes these glimpses go unnoticed unless pointed out.

Freud painted portraits of his friends and fellow artists, including Auerbach and Bacon. Sometimes the sitter was clothed and other times naked, often sprawled across a bed or on the floor. He did not seek out attractive models for his nudes but painted people of all shapes and sizes, including the very large Sue Tilley (b. 1957), nicknamed Big Sue. Despite going against conventional beauty, the painting sold for $33.6 million in 2008. His most frequent sitter was his friend David Dawson, however, he also painted a few well-known names, such as Kate Moss (b.1974) and the Queen (b.1926), the latter obviously fully clothed.

Freud painted his first nude self-portrait at the age of 70, using thick layers of paint to draw attention to his ageing body. It took him several months to complete and Freud was never completely happy with the result. “I couldn’t scrap it,” he said, “because I would be doing away with myself.”

As well as the full length nude, Freud continued to produce self-portraits, for example, close-ups of his head and shoulders. Again, he applied thick paint to the canvas to reveal the lines on his ageing face as well as the shadows caused by the artificial lighting in his studio.

Towards the end of his career, Freud rekindled his passion for lines by producing etchings, which he had briefly experimented with during the 1940s. Freud approached his etchings in a similar manner to painting, propping the copper plate upright on his easel. Over weeks and months, he etched into the metal, working heavily on the backgrounds to make it darker than the subject of the etching. Freud only produced one etched self-portrait, which shows up all the wrinkles and imperfections of his 74-year-old face. Due to the overworking of the stylus on the metal plate, the final print is rather dark, almost as if the elderly man is fading into the background.

In 1996, 27 of Freud’s paintings and 13 etchings were displayed at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria. This was a particularly major exhibition for the artist and it was followed by an exhibition of his early works at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In 2002, Tate Britain held a large retrospective of Freud’s work, however, it has taken until 2019, eight years after Freud’s death, for the first exhibition of his self-portraits to be held.

Lucian Freud died on 20th July 2011 and was buried by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (b.1950), at Highgate Cemetry. Freud was an extremely private man, which is why the majority of his paintings are of friends and family. No doubt the number of self-portraits indicate Freud prefered his own company to others. His self-portraits reveal his change in artistic techniques but also provide an insight into his psyche. Never smiling, it is possible Freud did not like what he saw, suggesting he did not have the greatest relationship with himself. The fact he destroyed many of his self-portraits is also indicative of this.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits does not contain any “wow-factor” paintings, however, it allows visitors to learn and understand the painter, who until now has just been a well-known name. Living in the shadow of his grandfather, Freud made a name for himself as a painter, shocking people with nudity and unpolished human flesh, and yet, we learn he was a private individual, vastly contrasting with the opinions of the public and critics.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits is open at the Royal Academy of Arts until 26th January 2020. Tickets are £18 and it is advisable to book a timed entry in advance. Although under 16s can visit for free, some paintings are unsuitable for young visitors.

Inspired by the East

The Islamic world or the Middle East has inspired western artists for hundreds of years. The various styles, objects, fashion and so forth of these exotic lands led to the artistic movement known as Orientalism, which introduced Middle Eastern and North African designs to Europe and North America. Until 26th January, the British Museum is studying these outcomes and comparing them with what we know about the Islamic world today.

Orientalism has come to mean the ways in which the “Orient” has been misrepresented in western culture. The eastern world was represented as a land of beauty and fascination, causing the lines between fantasy and reality to be blurred. The exhibition Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art provides a more complex look at the history of the influence and inspiration of the “Orient”. Featuring a range of ceramics, drawings and paintings, music from Piano Concerto No.5, Op.103, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) helps to set the scene as visitors make their way around the exhibition.

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The Prayer – Frederick Arthur Bridgman

The exhibition opens with a painting of The Prayer by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928). The artist has imagined a moment of prayer inside a mosque between an elderly but wealthy man and a poorer Muslim mystic. Both figures wear typical eastern garments and the mosque is decorated with a Persian rug. The artist, however, was American and spent most of his life in France. With that in mind, how far can we trust these paintings of the Orient by western artists?

Frederick Arthur Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1847 and became a draughtsman in his early twenties. In 1886, Bridgman moved to Paris where he joined the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) who was a great inspiration for the oriental themes for which Bridgman became famous. His first trip to North Africa took place between 1872 and 1874 where he produced around 300 sketches in Egypt and Algeria, which became source material for later oil paintings. In the 1870s and 1880s, Bridgman returned to the East, collecting examples of costumes and objets d’art, which he often painted in his artworks. Having such an extensive collection of eastern objects makes Bridgman appear to be a knowledgable man on the subject, however, as the British Museum goes on to prove, this was not necessarily the case.

The western fascination with the Middle East coincided with the growing power of the Ottoman Empire (1300-1924). From around 1500, Europeans became increasingly interested in the Empire, which at its height comprised most of south-eastern Europe, modern-day Turkey and Arabic-speaking countries. At one point, the Ottoman Empire stretched as far west as Vienna, Austria.

Europe began to trade with the Ottoman Empire and their neighbours, the Safavid Empire (1501-1722), bringing fascinating goods to the continent. Interest had originally focused on religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land, for example, the places in Palestine that corresponded with the Bible. Palestine was considered the birthplace of Christianity, and Christian pilgrims and envoys frequently travelled to the East, often bringing foreign gifts home with them. As a result, eastern goods became widely available in Europe, particularly when artisans began replicating the Oriental designs.

The British Museum provides examples of ceramics from the Orient and versions that were made in Europe. During the 19th-century, eastern traditions were a popular source of inspiration for artists. Craftsman used the examples purchased in the East as models for their designs or attempts to make exact copies. Of particular interest were the glassworks made in Persia in the 1300s and the Persian ceramics from 1600. By appropriating forgotten techniques, such as glass enamel and lustre-painting, the replicants even surpassed the originals in terms of quality.

In some cases, it could not be certain that the original was indeed the original. On display is a glazed and painted lidded bowl that was produced in Persia during the 19th-century. The unknown artist, however, got their inspiration from Austrian, French and German ceramics, which in turn had been based on Middle Eastern originals.

As well as ceramics, Europe was fascinated by the exotic fashions of the eastern world. The bright colours and materials were a vast contrast to the style of clothing back home and visitors to the Middle East also noted costume dictated the status of the wearer. Due to this interest, costume books became a popular source of exotic portraits, which in turn allowed western artists to create oriental-style portraits of European sitters.

The Kaempfer Album is an example of a costume book by a Persian artist known as Jani. The album contained 44 drawings of characters from Persian literature and life, including a Qizilbash, a woman and two storytellers. Qizilbash was a label given to a variety of militant groups, particularly those living in Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Kurdistan during the latter 15th century onwards. The term also became associated with the foundation of the Safavid Empire.

Although Jani was Persian, his illustrations cannot be used as an example of Persian art. His nickname Farangi Saz, which means “Painter in the European Style”, suggests he had been heavily influenced by European visitors. It also reveals that the western world was as much an inspiration to the east as it was the other way around.

In Europe, drawings of eastern costumes began as early as the 16th-century, evidenced by Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) sketches of eight women from Turkey. Since the drawings were produced in Rubens’ studio in Belgium, it is uncertain whether he ever met a Turkish woman. It is thought his inspiration came from an Ottoman costume book rather than real life.

Some Europeans experienced eastern costume and culture first-hand, often dressing in the appropriate fashion as part of the European diplomatic corps in Constantinople. Diplomats were invited to attend ceremonies and gain a privileged insight into the political sphere of the East. Dragomans (interpreters and translators) were employed to act as intermediaries between Turkish, Arabic and Persian-speaking countries and Europe.

The Flemish-French painter Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737) accompanied the French Ambassador to Constantinople in 1699 where he was commissioned to produce 100 oil paintings of the local people. Some of these, such as Dinner Given by the Grand Vizier, revealed the lives of the elite during the Tulip Era (1718-30) of the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier was the equivalent of a prime minister and the French Ambassador was invited to attend the meal along with two dragomans. The main purpose for these grand dinners was for the Vizier to demonstrate his wealth and power.

Dragomans featured in costume books, such as the example on display that belonged to the Prussian ambassador to Constantinople. The reports from the dragomans were one of the key methods of spreading Islamic culture throughout the west during the 17th and 18th centuries. Due to their influence, the Quran was available in French by 1647, having been translated by the diplomatic envoy André du Ryer (c.1580-c.1660). This was shortly followed by the French translation of One Thousand And One Nights by Antoine Galland (1646-1715), who was attached to the French embassy. This is a collection of stories by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central, and South Asia and North Africa, and come from a variety of roots: Persian, Arabic, Indian, Greek, Jewish and Turkish.

One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, has been extremely influential since its translation into a European language and in 1926 it became the earliest full-length stop-motion film under the title The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The original stories have inspired numerous projects, most famously Disney’s Aladdin, and has been a great stimulus for authors such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), James Joyce (1882-1941) and Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

Based on the “tyrannical world of the ‘Orient'” is Irish poet Thomas Moore’s (1779-1852) Lalla Rookh (1817). Lalla Rookh, which means “tulip cheeked” is a set of four narrative poems about an Indian princess of the Mughal Empire. Engaged to the king of Bukhara in Central Asia, Lalla Rookh sets off to meet her future husband, however, along the way, falls in love with the poet Feramorz. The poems have inspired operas and music hall performances, such as Their Customs are Very Peculiar and Feramors by Anton Rubinstein (1829-94).

Other aspects of Middle Eastern culture have influenced operatic works, for instance, Aida by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Told through four Acts, Aida is an Ethiopian princess who has been captured by the Egyptians. Radamés, an Egyptian military commander falls in love with the princess and is torn between his feelings towards Aida and his loyalty to the king of Egypt. To make things more complicated, the king’s daughter Amneris is in love with Radamés. As with most operas, Aida does not end happily and they sing their final duet O terra addio whilst suffocating from being buried alive.

One of the reasons for the sudden burst of “oriental” themed operas, plays and books was the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt. The canal, which stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, allowed watercraft an easier route from the North Atlantic to the Indian ocean. As a result, a great number of tourists were able to visit the East. The increasing developments of steamships and railways made it far easier to reach places such as Constantinople, Cairo and Marrakesh than ever before, thus opening up the world to anyone who wished to explore.

Amongst those who travelled to the East were artists and photographers who wanted to capture the visual culture of the Orient. Whilst some were successful, others discovered that reality did not fit with their imagination and stretched the truth in their artwork to complement European ideas. Many paintings of the Middle East were produced by artists who had never left Europe, relying on photographs and drawings by those who had visited the region.

Islam was a foreign religion in Europe and Muslim life became something exotic and intriguing to the western world. Paintings were produced of people at prayer or at religious schools to highlight the differences between the Middle East and the Christian faith of Europe and America. It is not certain how accurate these artworks were since the main purpose was to maintain the “oriental vision”.

Alfred Dehodencq (1822-82) was a French Orientalist painter known for his vivid oil paintings of North African scenes. He travelled to Morocco in 1835 where he lived for at least ten years, completing some of his most famous works. One of these works is called The Hajj, which depicts an annual pilgrimage to Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia. Whilst Dohodencq had plenty of experience of Islamic life in Morocco, the scene is entirely fictionalised because he had never seen the Arabian Peninsula he depicted in his painting.

In the Madrasa by the Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935) shows a group of young boys partaking in religious learning in a school (Madrasa). Whether Deutsch was privy to this scene is unknown, however, he made journeys to the Middle East in 1885, 1890 and 1898 during which time he visited Egypt three times. Deutsch is mostly remembered for his depiction of life in Cairo, particularly the colours, scenery and customs.

Swiss painter Otto Pilny (1866-1936) travelled the caravan route from Cairo to Tripoli when he was only 19 years old. Later, he became a court painter for the Ottoman Empire, suggesting that his work was accurate enough to please the Ottoman authorities. Pilny was particularly captivated by the Bedouins, a nomadic Arab group, and often travelled with them into the desert where he sketched their activities. One example of this is Evening Prayers in the Desert, which Pilny completed in 1918.

With new technologies available, artists and photographers were able to produce more up-to-date versions of the earlier costume books. The initial sketches of these artists have proved to be more accurate than their final outcomes, which tended to be enhanced with exotic colours and aspects of their imagination. Jean-Léon Gérôme was one such artist whose finished paintings were often highly imaginative. His sketch of a girl playing a stringed instrument, however, captured the true appearance of the model and showed how close an observation Gérôme conducted of the Middle East and North African cultures.

Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) sketch of a seated Arab was produced on the spot during his second trip to Morocco. His first trip was with the first French ambassador to Morocco, Charles-Edgar de Mornay (1803-78) during which time he was profoundly affected by what he saw, likening the Arabs to the people of Classical Greece and Rome. Whilst it was easy to find Arab men to pose for him, Delacroix resorted to painting Jewish women instead of Muslim because of Muslim rules requiring that women be covered.

Women of Algiers in the Apartment is an example of a painting Delacroix painted using Jewish women instead of Muslim. A merchant in Algiers had allowed Delacroix to look into his harem to get an idea of the interior, including textiles, ornaments and other props. Whilst the setting is authentic, the women in the picture are ambiguous and their activities unknown.

European men were fascinated with the goings-on in a harem. A harem was merely a private domestic space that unfamiliar men were not allowed to enter, however, due to this secrecy, the minds of the artists went wild. Using their imagination, many artists used the backdrop of a harem to paint naked women, however, this was not always the case. The Italian painter Cesare dell’ Acqua (1821-1905), who never visited the Middle East, used his imagination to paint a sensual portrait of an Ottoman woman burning incense. The model is fully clothed but wears the decorative textiles that Dell’ Acqua probably saw in costume books or other artists’ paintings.

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Women Amongst Themselves with Sculpted Voyeur – Picasso 1934

Although many artists attempted to portray the Muslim woman, it is impossible to tell how accurate they were or whether they were far off the mark. Those who copied ideas from other paintings added extra elements, making the result even further from the truth. None took this as far as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), however, who used his surrealist style to produce Women Amongst Themselves with Sculpted Voyeur, which was loosely based on The Turkish Bath by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

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Les Femmes du Maroc – Lalla Essaydi 2005

The theme of women in the Middle East and North Africa continues to the very end of the exhibition. Today, the term “Orientalism” is contested by many, some arguing that the ideals of the Orient were entirely inaccurate – more like “Disorientalism”. To close the exhibition, the British Museum displays contemporary artwork by four female artists from Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Palestine that comment on female identity and undermine the way women were portrayed by Orientalist artists.

One artwork that particularly stands out is the photographic triptych Les Femmes du Maroc by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi. Her portrayal of Muslim women is in stark contrast to the brightly coloured paintings of the 19th century. Fully clothed in white with only their eyes and hands showing, the three photographs are covered with strings of Arabic letters, emphasising that they are human beings and not the passive objects in the voyeuristic imaginings of European painters. Nonetheless, Muslim women still have a long way to go before they fully shake off their identities as possessions rather than independent women.

“There is a great deal of self-contradiction in strong and proud women, participating in the revolutionary process, willing to go to war with rifles across their back, and yet still [they] endure the laws of the harem.” – Shirin Neshat

The British Museum has curated a fascinating exhibition about the way the “Orient” became popular throughout Europe. It also highlights the inaccuracies that developed as a result, however, it shines little light on the truth. Then again, with so many paintings, ceramics and objects in existence it is difficult, if not impossible, to subtract the false from the truth.

Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art is open until 26th January 2020. Tickets cost £14, however, members and under 16s can visit for free.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters

Most people have heard of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young British artists active in the nineteenth century who aimed to return to the style of art produced in Italy before the High Renaissance – i.e. before Raphael (1483-1520). Their artworks are recognised by the use of bright colours and young women with long, (usually) red hair dressed in flowing garments. The question is, who were these women and how did they come to be models for the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers? What were they like in real life? How were they related to the painters? What were their lives like? This year, the National Portrait Gallery decided to find out, resulting in a major exhibition that looks at the lives of twelve women who fulfilled various roles including model, muse, studio manager, housekeeper, wife and even artist.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters examines the type of role the women depicted in paintings and how this compared to their status in real life. A Pre-Raphaelite wife tended to assist her husband in a variety of ways, both at home and in the studio. Some men looked for women elsewhere to inspire them, often resulting in romantic affairs. On the other hand, a few men became supporters of wives or sisters who worked as artists alongside the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The National Portrait Gallery looks at each of these women in turn, celebrating their importance.

Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, Wife, Manager

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Effie Ruskin by Thomas Richmond

The first woman in the exhibition is Euphemia (Effie) Gray who was born in Perth, Scotland and was encouraged by her father to marry family friend John Ruskin in 1848. Unfortunately, the couple’s personalities clashed and Effie was often ignored by her husband who preferred to concentrate on his solitary studies. To relieve her boredom, Effie modelled for the artist John Everett Millais (1829-96) who used her for the Scottish woman securing the freedom of her wounded Jacobite husband in his painting The Order of Release 1746. She had previously modelled for the artist Thomas Richmond (1802-74) at the request of her father-in-law. As a result, Millais was invited to visit the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he and Effie became close friends.

After five years of marriage, Effie Ruskin was still a virgin, her husband having put off consummating the marriage to allow him to concentrate on his studies. Due to the lack of common ground, Effie decided to have their marriage annulled and eventually married Millais in 1855. She became Millais’ business partner, which involved sourcing clients, costumes, locations and keeping a record of payments. She also dabbled in watercolour painting.

Millais and Effie had a happy marriage, which resulted in eight children: Everett (1856), George (1857), Effie (1858) Mary (1860), Alice (1862) Geoffrey (1863), John (1865) and Sophie (1868). Their youngest son John went on to become a notable artist. Throughout the marriage, Effie also sat for many portraits.

Due to her annulment from Ruskin, Effie and Millais were barred from any event involving the presence of Queen Victoria. Being a rather socially active couple, they were disheartened by this, however, when Millais was dying, the Queen relented and awarded him a baronetcy, thus giving Effie the title Lady Millais.

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet, Sister, Model

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Christina Rossetti – Rossetti

Christina Georgina Rossetti is a fairly well-known poet in her own right who was also connected to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London to the Italian poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), Christina was brought up in a creative atmosphere and her two older brothers went on to become founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her most famous brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) is known for the typical paintings associated with the Brotherhood. William Michael (1829-1919) Rossetti, on the other hand, was a writer and critic who ran the Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, in which Christina had several poems published. Christina’s older sister Maria Francesca (1827-76) was also a writer but became a nun in later life.

Christina sat for many of her brother’s artworks, including a quick sketch when she was sixteen and, most famously, as the Virgin Mary in Ecce Ancilla Domini! Dante also produced a cartoon based on one of his sister’s tantrums, which were quite frequent as a child.

In 1858, Christina began working at a home for girls who were considered to be sexually “at risk”. The experience inspired her famous poem and masterpiece Goblin Market, for which Dante provided a couple of illustrations. Christina also produced a handful of illustrations herself, designing some of the pages of poems and devotional writings she had written.

From her thirties onwards, Christina spent most of her time looking after family members whilst also suffering from a thyroid disorder. Dante needed a lot of attention, often suffering from mental ill-health. During his worst periods, focusing on drawing portraits of his mother and sister aided his recovery and return to the art world. Whilst Christina was a blessing to her family, her health began to deteriorate rapidly after a near-fatal heart attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and, although the tumour was removed, she died the following year.

Elizabeth Siddal 1829-62 Model, Artist, Poet

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Ophelia [detail] – John Everett Millais

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Eleanor Siddal is mostly recognised for her portrayal of Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ painting of the same name. She is also remembered as the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and for being an influential poet. After leaving school, Lizzie began working at a dressmakers and millinery shop in Cranbourne Alley, London and produced drawings and poems in her spare time. On one occasion whilst at work, Lizzie’s drawings were seen by a man who put her in touch with his son, Walter Deverell (1827-54). As a result of this meeting, Lizzie became a model for Deverell who introduced her to other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She became a model for a couple of other artists, including Millais, eventually becoming Rossetti’s model and muse.

As well as helping Rossetti with his paintings, Lizzie practised art alongside him, producing a handful of sketches, drawings and paintings. John Ruskin subsidised her art career by paying her £150 per year in exchange for all the work she produced. Her artwork was inspired by a variety of different poets, including Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

During this period, Lizzie also wrote many poems, often on the theme of heartbreak. For Lizzie, however, heartbreak was far from her mind when Rossetti, who particularly admired Lizzie’s verses, proposed and married her in 1860. Besotted with each other, the couple became rather anti-social, however, Lizzie’s health soon began to deteriorate. There are several suggestions for the cause of her frailness, such as tuberculosis, an intestinal disorder, anorexia or addiction. Another idea is the prolonged effects of pneumonia, which she contracted after posing for Millais in a bath of cold water for his painting Ophelia.

Whether as a result of her poor health, Lizzie gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1861, which led to severe post-partum depression. In February the next year after overdosing on laudanum, Lizzie passed away. Shortly after her death, Rossetti discovered several draft poems that may have been an indication of the state of her mental health leading up to her suspected suicide.

O Mother, open the window wide And let the daylight in;
The hills grow darker to my sight
And thoughts begin to swim.
And Mother dear, take my young son, Since I was born of thee
And care for all [its] little ways
And nurse it on your knee.
And Mother, wash my pale pale hands And then bind up my feet;
My body may no longer rest
Out of its winding sheet.
And Mother dear, take a sapling twig And green grass newly mown,
And lay it on my empty bed
That my sorrow be not known.

At Last, by Elizabeth Siddal

Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model, Muse

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Annie Miller – Rossetti

Annie Miller was a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelites who first posed for William Holman Hunt at the age of 18 for his The Awakening Conscience. Before she began modelling, Annie was a barmaid and had a fairly lowly upbringing as the daughter of a wounded soldier and a cleaner. As well as providing Annie with a job as a model, Holman Hunt planned to marry her and arranged for her to be educated in literacy. During this time Holman Hunt needed to travel to Palestine and left Annie under the care of other artists, such as Millais, who she could sit for in his absence.

The Pre-Raphaelite artists loved using Annie as their model, however, Holman Hunt believed she had become frivolous and wilful, so broke off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Annie became engaged to Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Heron Jones, 7th Viscount Ranelagh (1812-1885) who she married in 1863. The couple had two children, Annie Helen and Thomas James, and moved to the south coast, thus ending her time as a model with the Pre-Raphaelites. She lived to the age of 90 and is a prime example of someone who had risen significantly on the social scale, beginning in poverty and ending in comfort.

Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model, Lover

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The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sarah Cox, who renamed herself Fanny after her sister who died in infancy, was the daughter of a blacksmith from Surrey. Whilst visiting the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London, Fanny met Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) who took a liking for her appearance. She became Rossetti’s model in 1856 and there are rumours she may also have been his mistress. Fanny married Timothy Hughes, a mechanic, in 1860 but the marriage did not last long. For reason’s unbeknownst to anyone, she adopted the surname of her ex-husband’s step-father, Cornforth.

When Rossetti’s wife died, Fanny moved in as his housekeeper and lover. For over a decade, she sat for Rossetti’s paintings, often posing as a fallen woman. Rossetti was also able to support Fanny financially during this period, however, after he became seriously ill, she was forced to move out by his family. Fortunately, Rossetti was well enough at the time to purchase a house for Fanny and gave her several of his paintings.

No longer Rossetti’s lover, Fanny married the publican John Schott who ran the Rose tavern in Jermyn Street, Westminster. After Rossetti’s death, she and her husband opened a gallery in his honour to sell some of the works he had given her. After John’s death in 1891, Fanny lived with her stepson until he died in 1898 when she moved to Sussex to stay with her in-laws. Unfortunately, Fanny was soon diagnosed with dementia and forced into a Workhouse in West Sussex against her will. Following this, she was admitted to the West Sussex County Lunatic Asylum where she remained for the rest of her life.

Joanna Boyce Wells (1840-61) Artist

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Elgiva – Joanna Boyce Wells

As the name of the group suggests, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were predominantly male artists, however, there were a couple of female painters who were just as accomplished. Joanna Boyce Wells became a successful artist after her painting Elgiva, which was modelled by a family friend, was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1855.

Joanna was the sister of the watercolour painter George Boyce (1826-97) and the wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Tamworth Wells (1828-1903). Despite these connections to the art world, Joanna worked hard to become an artist in her own right, studying at Francis Cary’s (1808-80) art academy at the age of 18 before studying at the atelier of Thomas Couture (1815-79) in Paris.

Although Joanna and her husband created an artistic partnership in Britain, many considered Joanna to be the head of the firm. She painted emotional scenes, such as a mother bidding farewell to her young sons as they leave on a crusade to Jerusalem, and exquisite, imaginative portraits, such as a child depicted as an angel.

Joanna gave birth to three children, the first Sidney (1859-69) whose portrait she painted during his first year. Sidney did not live past the age of ten, however, Joanna never got the chance to see any of her children grow up, having succumbed to obstetric fever after the birth of her third child, Joanna Margaret.

Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

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Portrait of Mrs Fanny Eaton – Simeon Solomon

Considering the period the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was active, it is unsurprising that there was a lack of black women in their paintings. Fanny Matilda Eaton née Entwistle is the only black woman featured in the exhibition. Originally born in Jamaica, Fanny came to England with her mother during the 1840s where they found work as domestic servants. At some point, Fanny met the London horse-cab driver James Eaton who she married in 1857. They had a long and happy marriage, resulting in ten children.

The Eaton family were not well off, which led Fanny to seek modelling work to take on alongside her job as a charwoman. Her distinctive features and ethnicity were sought after by artists wanting to depict female characters from the Bible or Egyptian, Indian and other “exotic” scenes. Her children often featured in paintings alongside Fanny, for example, as baby Moses in The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905).

In her later years, Fanny worked as a seamstress and a domestic cook until around 1911 when she settled in Hammersmith with her daughter Julia and her family. She eventually passed away in 1924 at the age of 89 from dementia and syncope.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Model, Artist, Wife

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Georgiana Burne-Jones with Philip and Margaret – Burne-Jones

Georgiana Burne-Jones née Macdonald became engaged to Edward Burne-Jones at the tender age of fifteen. As well as being a model for her husband, Georgiana became an artist, studying briefly at the Government School of Design in South Kensington before having lessons from Ford Madox Brown. Her artwork mainly consisted of small illustrations and woodcuts and she was never as successful as her husband.

Georgiana put her art to one side after the birth of her son Philip in 1861. Her daughter Margaret was born in 1866, which coincided with her husband’s affair with one of his models. Nonetheless, Georgiana focused on being a good mother and continued to help run the home and studio until her husband repented and returned to her.

As well as being focused on her home life, Georgiana assisted the local community by supporting the South London Art Gallery, voicing her opposition of the Boer war and working as a parish councillor in Sussex. She also made major contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, writing a biography of her husband and helping her son-in-law put together the Life of William Morris.

Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, Muse, Sculptor

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Study for Head of Cassandra – Burne-Jones

Maria Zambaco, born Marie Terpsithea Cassavetti, was the model with whom Edward Burne-Jones conducted an affair. Maria had been born into a wealthy Anglo-Hellenic family and was the niece of the Greek Consul patron of art Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-90). In 1861, Maria married Paris-based physician Demetrius Zambaco and moved to France, however, the marriage had broken down by 1866 despite having two children. On her return to London, her mother arranged for her to pose for Burne-Jones, which sparked a three-year affair.

Despite her pleas, Burne-Jones refused to leave his wife and their affair ended. Following this, Maria threw herself into her artwork, studying at the Slade School under the French painter Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Some of her most successful works include portrait medallions, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.

Although she was working as an artist and no longer in a relationship with Burne-Jones, Maria still modelled for some of his paintings. Some of Burne-Jones’ biggest and well-known paintings feature images of Maria, for example, The Beguiling of Merlin and The Tree of Forgiveness.

Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, Muse, Craftsperson

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Study for ‘The Hour Glass’ – Evelyn De Morgan

Jane Burden is best known for being the wife, model and muse of the British painter and craftsman William Morris (1834-96). Born into poverty in Oxford, Jane did not have much of a future ahead of her until she met the Pre-Raphaelite painters who were decorating a chamber at Oxford University. She quickly became the prized model of many painters and was considered the embodiment of beauty.

Jane and Morris married in 1859 and she became a partner in the decorative arts firm known as Morris & Co. She undertook a few embroidery commissions for the company and experimented with calligraphy and bookbinding.

After the birth of her daughters Jenny and May, Jane began modelling again, particularly for Rossetti, with whom she embarked on an affair until his mental breakdown in 1876.

Since she was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ favourite models, Jane appears in many artworks and has posed as a whole range of literary and mythical characters including Iseult, Queen Guinevere, Pandora, Beatrice and Proserpine.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model, Artist

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Marie Spartali – Madox Brown

Marie Euphrosyne Spartali is another female painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. She was born to a wealthy Greek family in London and was introduced to the art world by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) who wished to take her photograph. Marie then set her sights on painting and became the student of Ford Madox Brown in 1864. By 1867, her artworks were already being exhibited and she began to pursue painting as a professional career.

Against her parents’ wishes, Marie married the American journalist William J. Stillman (1828-1901) who worked for The Times. His career meant the couple needed to travel regularly to Greece and Italy whilst also bringing up their three children and the three from Stillman’s previous marriage.

Despite the unsettled lifestyle, Marie was able to keep in contact with her Pre-Raphaelite friends and developed a distinctive style of painting. Her artwork featured mainly female figures from the writing of Shakespeare, Petrarch and Dante as well as Italian landscapes. She took part in several exhibitions and also sent some of her work to the USA.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

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Jenny Morris – Evelyn De Morgan

As the granddaughter of the Earl of Leicester, Evelyn Pickering did not need to worry about earning a living, however, she was determined to become a professional painter. Following in the footsteps of her uncle, the Pre-Raphaelite painter J.R. Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), Evelyn became a prize-winning art student and exhibited works alongside Marie Spartali.

In 1887, Evelyn married ceramicist William De Morgan (1839-1917) and used her earnings to support her husband’s pottery business.

Evelyn’s works were typically figural and brightly coloured, often resembling Baroque-style art. She focused on a range of subjects, including medieval and classical legends, allegories and the afterlife. Her passions and experiences were often reflected in her artwork, for example, her support of the suffrage movement and life during the First World War.

Arguably, Evelyn De Morgan is one of the best Pre-Raphaelite painters, although she is constantly overlooked on account of her gender. Particularly impressive paintings include Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund, which is based on a medieval legend about Henry II and his lover, and the allegorical piece Night & Sleep.

“YET if you should forget me … do not grieve …
Better by far you should forget and smile,
Than that you should remember and be sad”

‘Remember’ by Christina Rossetti

The National Portrait Gallery successfully provides an alternative insight into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In recent years, the PRB has come back in favour and their paintings have proved to be popular at other exhibitions in which they have featured. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, however, reveals there is far more involved with the artwork than meets the eye. The female artists have every right to be remembered and respected as their male counterparts. The other women in the exhibition deserve to be commended for tirelessly standing by the artists whilst they drew, painted and attempted to establish themselves.

With many famous paintings on display, Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is a fantastic exhibition for art lovers, particular fans of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Alongside the well-known works are the lesser-known paintings by women and visitors are almost certain to leave with a new favourite painting in mind. Coinciding with the recent centenary of woman’s suffrage, this exhibition is the perfect way to celebrate the women who did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved during their lifetime.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters is on display until 26th January and tickets are priced between £17 and £20. For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website.

Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

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William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

For years, Tate Britain has had a small room dedicated to the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Now until 2nd February 2020, Tate Britain is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation. Detailing his life chronologically, 300 original works illustrate Blake’s talents, personal struggles, innovation and vision.

Blake’s art and poetry continue to influence and inspire many people regardless of profession, religion and nationality. Although produced during a period of unrest involving war, the British Empire and industrialisation, Blake’s work resonates with the present world and the struggles people face today.

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Portrait of William Blake, 1802

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, London, the third of seven children to James and Catherine (née Wright). His father, a hosier, and mother thoroughly encouraged Blake’s aspiration to become an artist. Although he attended school long enough to learn to read and write, he was educated from home by his mother after the age of ten. The Bible was an important aspect of his studies, which remained a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.

Blake was encouraged to practise his drawing ability by producing engravings of well-known artworks for his father. Alongside this, he attended classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand and explored the art of poetry, reading works by Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Edmund Spencer (1552-99) as well as the Book of Psalms. In August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire (1730-1802), a significant British engraver, for seven years. By the age of 21, Blake was working as a professional.

In 1779, Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was situated in Old Somerset House. He may have attended with one of his brothers, Robert, whose illustrations are briefly featured in the exhibition. The Royal Academy taught its students to draw by studying and copying classical sculptures, prints, live models and paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Blake, on the other hand, rejected these teachings, preferring to use artworks by classical artists, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).

Despite rebelling against the traditional teaching methods, Blake participated in six exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, since he did not conform to the typical oil paint-format the Academy expected, Blake’s watercolours were often consigned to a smaller room.

Students were encouraged to paint serious subject matters, often resulting in portraits and landscapes. Blake, on the other hand, chose to focus on Biblical stories, for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Written in the Book of Genesis, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The series of events that follow result in Joseph having significant authority in the land of Egypt and, during a famine, his brothers end up begging him for help.

Blake produced three watercolours that express the latter part of the story of Joseph. In the first, the brothers, unaware who Joseph is, bow down before him, pleading for help to survive the famine. The second, Joseph Ordering Simeon to be bound, shows one of Joseph’s older brothers willingly being arrested for a crime he did not commit to spare the life of another brother. Noting that the attitudes of his brothers have changed since they sold him into slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity and welcomes his brothers with open arms, as shown in Blake’s third painting.

Similar to his Joseph paintings, Blake’s early work typically involved sweeping lines of ink or watercolour, revealing dainty characters full of grand gestures. These tended to have a strong visual impact, evoking emotion and communicating a message or story. Subjects were often drawn from Bible passages, although not necessary the well-known ones, and other literature, such as Shakespeare. As time went on, however, Blake’s works became more obscure and harder to decipher.

Shortly after Blake’s time at the Royal Academy, he met Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), the daughter of a market gardener in Battersea on the south side of the River Thames. At the time, Blake was suffering from a rejection of a previous attempt at love and Catherine proved to be a good ear to listen to his tales of heartbreak. This led to the pair falling in love and marrying on 18th August 1782 in St Mary’s Church in southwest London. The couple had a long, invaluable marriage with Catherine helping her husband to print some of his later works and Blake teaching his wife to read and write.

As well as illustrating existing stories, Blake began to write and illustrate his own, for example, the epic poem Tiriel, although this was never published. Blake borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and Gaelic stories to pen the narrative of an aged king, Tiriel, who had been exiled from his land. In the past, Tiriel enslaved one of his brothers and cursed his children and now seeks solace from his misrule and arrogance. Frail and blind, Tiriel tries and fails to make amends for what he has done, thus receiving his comeuppance for his acts of tyranny.

The illustrations Blake produced to accompany the poem Tiriel were engravings rather than paintings. Having trained as an engraver before joining the Royal Academy, Blake found this technique a preferable way of earning an income. Engravings involved copying or drawing an image with fine cuts onto a metal plate, which could then be inked, printed and reproduced several times. This was a technique Blake used for many commissions, such as those delivered to the print shop he temporarily opened with his friend James Parker in 1784. He also worked for a range of London publishers, including the radical Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published works by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) amongst other feminists and religious dissenters.

Etching and engraving were time-consuming and limited, which Blake found frustrating. In 1788, Blake developed what he termed “relief etching”, which allowed him to print in colour and combine text and images. Over time, Blake printed numerous books in this manner, many of which he had written himself and continue to be some of his most famous work. This style of engraving combined “both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was also a cheap and efficient method of printing, although the stories and poetry the illustrations accompanied often baffled Blake’s readers and supporters.

From 1790 to 1800, Blake and Catherine lived in North Lambeth, less than twenty minutes from his childhood home. Although the property has been demolished, a nearby tunnel of Waterloo Station is decorated with a series of 70 mosaics resembling illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books. These books reflect Blake’s thoughts during a turbulent time in Britain. Both French and American revolutions occurred during Blake’s lifetime, leading him to become vocal about freedom and liberty, and argue against slavery and the empire.

Despite his strong views, Blake was rather cryptic in how he portrayed his thoughts in his poetry and illustrations. Had his views been expressed more clearly, Blake would have been at risk of arrest, however, his symbolism was too obscure to attract the attention of the authorities.

Tate Britain displays a range of examples from Blake’s radical illuminated books including Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which condemns forced marriage and defends the rights of women. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell expressed Blake’s revolutionary beliefs using biblical prophecy as a basis. Rather than Hell being a place of punishment, Blake depicts it as a place of chaos and irrationality.

Blake also created his own mythology, for instance, The Book of Urizen, from which his recognisable illustration The Ancient of Days comes. Urizen, depicted as a bearded old man, is the personification of reason and law. Considering himself to be god-like and holy, Urizen traps people in webs of law and conventional society. He is often shown with some form of architectural tool, such as a compass, with which he creates his universe. Urizen’s only opposition is Los, who can be likened to a fallen angel, representing imagination. Blake’s myth is almost a reversal of Christian beliefs, with Urizen serving as a Satanic force.

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Little Girl Lost – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Amongst all the books represented in the exhibition is one of his most well-known works Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the famous poem The Tyger. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…” Published in 1794, the book of poems is a combination of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793). Although the illustrations are suggestive of children’s books and the poems deal with themes of childhood, they also tackle morality, suffering and injustice, which are topics usually deemed unsuitable for that demographic.

Although Songs of Innocence and Experience is famous today, Blake only sold about 30 copies during his lifetime. For income, he relied heavily upon commissions and patronage, including fellow artists. John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and draughtsman Blake met at the Royal Academy. Flaxman supported Blake’s publication of Poetical Sketches in 1783 and his wife, Ann, commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-71).

A civil servant, Thomas Butts was one of Blake’s biggest patrons, purchasing over 200 different works. Many of these were watercolours on biblical themes. Whilst typical scenes involving Jesus, the crucifixion and well-known Old and New Testament characters were popular, Butts was also interested in Blake’s more imaginative works, representing the prophecies of Ezekiel or the Book of Revelation.

The Reverend Joseph Thomas (1765-1811) of Epsom, Surrey was another keen purchaser of Blake’s biblical work. He was also interested in the works of Shakespeare and John Milton and commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for various plays and poems. For Milton’s hymn On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Thomas paid Blake two pounds for each drawing – a total of six – which was more than Butts paid for individual watercolours.

Thomas Butts also purchased a series of large coloured prints that Blake produced by experimenting with monotype. This involved using thick, tacky ink on the metal etching plates, which was then transferred onto paper by applying pressure. Once printed, Blake added watercolour and ink washes to finish the illustration. This gave the prints the initial appearance of a painting, however, many elements are impossible to achieve by hand.

The twelve large prints included in the exhibition relate to a range of themes. As usual, Blake depicted biblical scenes, for example, the madness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose humiliating suffering was predicted in the Book of Daniel. Blake produced an illustration of God judging Adam, whereas most artists focus on Eve’s sin. Other biblical images include Lamech and his Two Wives and Noami Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab.

Amongst the prints is a portrayal of the famous English mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), albeit a rather young and muscular one. Unlike the older figure most people imagine when thinking of Newton, Blake drew Newton as a Michelangelo-esque character crouched naked on a rock. The figure’s attention is fully focused on a piece of parchment at his feet on which he draws a diagram with a compass.

Blake chose to illustrate Newton as a reproach rather than praise. The artist was critical of Newton’s scientific approach, which followed precise rules rather than taking in the bigger picture. The figure’s focus on the compass represent’s Newton’s methods, which makes him oblivious to the beauty in the colour of the rocks on which he is sitting.

In 1800, Blake and his wife moved to a cottage in Felpham, (West) Sussex, where he illustrated works for the poet William Hayley (1745-1820) until 1804. Hayley is best known for his biography of his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) whose work was among the poems Hayley wished Blake to illustrate. Mostly, however, Hayley expected Blake to produce miniature portraits, which was something Blake was not keen on due to the lack of inventiveness.

Hayley had recently established a new library in The Turret, his house in Felpham, and commissioned Blake to produce long canvases to decorate the room. Each canvas represented a famous poet, including William Cowper. In the centre, Blake reproduced a likeness of the poets based on existing portraits and engravings and used the remains of the canvas to be more creative. Other poets included William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) and Edmund Spenser (1552-99).

As time went on, Blake began to resent Hayley, who he believed did not appreciate art. Fortunately, Hayley was still on Blake’s side and able to bail him out when he was arrested following a physical altercation with a soldier. After his acquittal, Blake returned to London.

In 1806, Blake began planning pictures for Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of 24 short stories written by the “father of English literature”. Mostly written in verse like Blake’s own work, the tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-70). Blake envisioned a frieze-like composition, which he completed in 1808 and published as an etching in 1810.

Unfortunately, Blake could not enjoy his work on The Canterbury Tales because he felt he was competing against two friends who were also producing work for the same book. He felt betrayed by these friends, believing that their work would overshadow his artistic vision. He claimed his so-called friends were more interested in making money than producing great art.

Around the same time, Blake was working on illustrations for the 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s (1699-1746) poem The Grave. The commission came from the newly established publisher Robert Cromek (1770-1812), and not wanting to let Cromek’s new career flounder, Blake took the project very seriously.

Blake was attracted to the poem’s themes of death and the afterlife, which were often topics of his own writings. He quickly produced twenty drawings for Cromek, which the publisher began to promote widely in public places, touring London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst this gave Blake the attention he deserved, he felt betrayed when Cromek employed someone else to print the illustrations.

The disappointments and supposed betrayals of the early 1800s led Blake to break contact with some of his friends and set up an independent exhibition in 1809. Using the upper rooms of his childhood home, now belonging to his brother James who used the lower rooms for his hosiery shop, Blake displayed several of his paintings, which were accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue. It was a rather strange location for an exhibition – rather modest in comparison to Blake’s gigantic ambitions – and only a handful of visitors attended. In the only public review written about the exhibition, Blake was branded “an unfortunate lunatic”.

Tate Britain excels itself by recreating one of the rooms in the Blake family home, complete with fake flooring, ceiling, windows and walls, upon which a handful of paintings are hung. Many of Blake’s original paintings have been damaged over time, losing their colour and becoming dark and difficult to decipher. Every 20 minutes, two of the paintings are illuminated to appear as they would have done in 1809 and a disembodied voice reads out Blake’s words from the Descriptive Catalogue.

“The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age.”

Blake’s solo exhibition took place during a period of war and upheaval. Although his paintings appear to be disconnected from politics, featuring allegorical and spiritual elements, they are full of hidden meaning. Two paintings are based on national figures who had both led Britain in the war against France. These figures, the late Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) and naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), are shown alongside biblical monsters, bringing chaos and destruction to the world. Blake likens these heroes to mythological and biblical characters, for instance, Hercules and cherubim. Although the paintings are representing destruction, Blake is hinting at the potential new freedoms and spiritual rebirth that could follow.

In the next room, a projection shows close up details of these two paintings. He had once dreamt that they would be executed on a large scale and displayed on public walls. After the failure of his solo exhibition, Blake knew this dream would never come to fruition and became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. Tate Britain tries to do Blake’s aspirations justice by showing the paintings at such a large scale.

Having withdrawn from society for a few years, Blake returned with a burst of creativity for the final decade of his life. In 1818, he met the artist John Linnell who provided him with moral and material support. During this time, Blake produced relief-etchings for new and old books for a variety of purchasers, including engravings for the Book of Job.

Throughout his life, Blake reportedly had visions of spirits with whom he conversed. Encouraged by a friend, Blake began to draw these spirits for a series he titled “Visionary Heads”. Over six years, Blake drew more than a hundred of these vision, often attending séance-like sessions to study the details of these characters. Whilst, on the one hand, some people believed in Blake’s visions, others debated whether they were real or a sign of mental ill-health.

One of Blake’s most bizarre characters was The Ghost of a Flea. Depicted as a muscular, nude figure – part-man, part-vampire, part-reptile – the Flea is using its tongue to drink out of a bowl of blood. In its left hand is a thorn and acorn, which are typical icons of fairies and similar mythical characters. Whether or not Blake saw this figure, his painting magnified a flea, which is usually associated with uncleanliness, into a monstrous, bloodthirsty creature.

As well as his personal monsters, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to illustrate the creatures in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem, which describes a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, leant itself to Blake’s typical style of illustration and preference of theme. Blake used dark, menacing colours to illustrate the depths of Hell, contrasting it with the luminous shades of Paradise.

Although he intended to illustrate the poem in its entirety, Blake passed away before he could finish. Another unfinished work was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was a popular religious text during Blake’s lifetime. Again, it suited Blake’s style, dealing with the realms of dreams, destruction, sins and heaven.

Before Blake’s death in 1827, he managed to complete and illustrate one final epic poem, which is probably his best-known work today. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is the longest of Blake’s prophetic books and tells the story of the fall of Albion – Blake’s personification of Britain and the western world. The narrative, however, can be confusing and does not have a linear plot.

Jerusalem is not to be confused with the famous hymn of the same name with music written by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), which was used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1917. Although Blake wrote the words of this hymn, it comes from the preface of his epic poem Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

Blake’s magnum opus, on the other hand, is a 4500 lined poem that his first biographer called “a chaos of words, names and images.” Albion (England) has been infected by “soul disease” and her “mountains run with blood” as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Religion is being used to exploit the lower classes and those in charge of the country are full of greed. If Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem once more, then all humanity will survive and be bound together in love.

Jerusalem, like some of Blake’s previous works, summed up his philosophical thoughts, particularly concerning the Age of Enlightenment, which dominated Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment focuses on ideals of rationalism and empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes from experience), which went against Blake’s beliefs that imagination was the most important human element. Previous paintings showed that Blake was opposed to the Newtonian view of the universe and unimpressed by the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Royal Academy who looked at art with a “vegetative eye”. Jerusalem was Blake’s final attempt at expressing his strong views.

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”
– Excerpt from Jerusalem

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William Blake Wearing a Hat – John Linnell

Blake spent his final years living with his wife at Fountain Court off the Strand, near to where the Savoy Hotel is situated today. It is reported that on 12th August 1827 Blake was working on his Dante series when he stopped, turned to his wife and insisted he drew her portrait. Afterwards, he sang hymns and recited verses of poetry until 6 pm when, after promising Catherine he would always be with her, he died. Five days later, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Catherine buried her husband in Bunhill Fields, the same burial ground as his parents.

Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work until her death in October 1831 when an acquaintance took up the job. Although only a mere handful of his works sold during his lifetime, William Blake became posthumously famous and in 1949, the Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour. He is also recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and, in 1957, a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey for both him and his wife.

William Blake is the type of figure whose name is recognised worldwide and yet very few know much about him. His name is associated with various titles of books and poems but knowledge of his private life is less common. Tate Britain rectifies this by providing a chronological timeline of Blake’s life alongside his works. We learn who he was, how he lived, how he thought and what he believed. Although many will disagree with his philosophies and controversial ideas, Blake is an interesting character who is worth knowing about.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is open until 2nd February 2020. Prices are £18 for adults, £17 for concessions and £5 for 12-18 years olds. Whilst under 12s may visit for free when accompanied by an adult, some of Blake’s work is unsuitable for younger children.

The Face of a Stranger

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Last exhibited in London almost 130 years ago, the Royal Academy of Arts have reintroduced Helene Schjerfbeck to UK audiences. Virtually a stranger in Britain, Schjerfbeck is a Finnish national icon known for her abstract self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes. The exhibition, due to end next week (27th October 2019), highlights the evolution of Schjerfbeck’s art, demonstrating her fascination with superficial appearance and what lies beneath.

Helena Sofia Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki on 10th July 1862, the third child of office manager Svante Schjerfbeck and Olga Johanna (née Printz). At the time, Finland was an autonomous Grand-Duchy within the Russian Empire and the Schjerfbeck children were brought up speaking Swedish. By the end of her life, Helene Schjerfbeck could speak Swedish, French, English and German but not, ironically, Finnish.

When Schjerfbeck was four years old, she broke her hip after falling down some stairs. As a result, she would always walk with a limp and was unable to attend school. To cheer her up, her father gave his daughter drawing materials to keep her occupied during hours of immobility. Little did anyone know that this act would have such an impact on her destiny.

By the age of 11, Schjerfbeck was producing remarkable drawings for someone so young. After the drawings had been shown to the Finnish genre painter Adolf von Becker (1831-1901), Schjerfbeck was enrolled as the youngest ever member of the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki. Becker, who was a tutor at the school, paid for her tuition.

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Portrait of Helena Westermarck, 1884

The school taught its students to draw by copying other artworks and sketching sculptures or, occasionally, life models. Copying famous artists was something that would play a huge role in Schjerfbeck’s future. During her four years of study, Schjerfbeck won many awards and began to spell her name as Helene to distinguish herself from her newfound friend and future artist and writer, Helena Westermarck (1857-1938). The selection of Schjerfbeck’s early work at the exhibition includes a portrait of Helena.

Sadly, Schjerfbeck’s father died after a bout of tuberculosis in 1876 and never saw his daughter graduate from the Finnish Art Society, which she achieved the following year. Had Becker not been paying for Schjerbeck’s education, the working-class family would not have been able to afford the fees. Schjerfbeck’s mother began taking in boarders to get by.

After graduation, Schjerfbeck began studying at Westermarck, von Becker’s private academy in Helsinki. Again, her tuition was paid for, allowing her to study for two years under von Becker’s guidance. During this time she learnt how to work with oils and paint from memory. She continued to win many prizes and had some of her work displayed in the Finnish Art Society’s annual exhibition in 1880.

Schjerfbeck continued winning prizes after graduating, including a prize awarded by the Senate of Finland for her painting Wounded Soldier in the Snow. With the prize money, she was able to travel abroad to continue her studies. Along with Helena Westermarck, Schjerfbeck moved to Paris to study at Mme Trélat de Vigny’s studio. The following year, they both enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, where they studied for a short time before returning to Finland.

In 1883, the Imperial Senate presented Schjerfbeck with a scholarship that allowed her to return to the French capital and exhibit at the Salon for the first time. She also spent time in the emerging artist’s colony Pont-Aven in Brittany. Whilst there, Schjerfbeck developed a new, expressive style that can be seen in her painting Clothes Drying and The Door. The latter is a small, modest painting showing light spilling from under a closed door. Produced while sitting in Tremalo Chapel, Pont-Aven, Schjerfbeck ignored the altars and sculptures that attracted other artists in favour of the unassuming door. The only evidence that she is in a church is the stone archway to the right of the door.
Allegedly, Schjerfbeck became engaged whilst in either Brittany or Paris, however, her unknown fiancé wrote to her breaking off the engagement. All correspondence between the pair was destroyed by her friends and Schjerfbeck returned to Finland in 1884.

Schjerfbeck did not remain home long before she was awarded another grant from the Finnish Art Society. In 1887, she returned to Paris but spent the summer in St Ives, Cornwall at the invitation of her friend Marianne Preindlesberger (1885-1927), who she had befriended during her studies. The summer soon became autumn, winter and then spring before Schjerfbeck returned to Paris. In 1889, she repeated the trip once more.

The atmosphere and quality of light in St Ives inspired many artworks. She rented a tower and attended art classes led by Preindlesberger’s husband Aidan Scott Stokes (1854-1935). Her paintings took on a plein-air style, which was well received and included landscapes and portraits, such as, View of St Ives and Woman with a Child. She also paid a small fee to set up her easel in a local bakery, where she painted the stone kitchen, capturing the warmth of the room and bread.

Between 1887 and 1890, Schjerfbeck exhibited several times in London at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in Picadilly. During this time, she painted The Convalescent, which won the bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair. The painting was later purchased by the Finnish Art Society.

Schjerfbeck’s grant ran out at the end of the decade and she returned to Finland in 1890. Again, she did not remain in Finland for long before being commissioned by the Finnish Art Society to travel to St Petersburg to make copies of paintings in the Hermitage Museum. These included works by Frans Hals (1582-1666) and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). After this, she travelled to Vienna to make more copies of paintings in the Kunsthistorische Museum, followed by Florence to do the same in the Uffizi Gallery.

When in Finland, Schjerfbeck worked as a drawing teacher at the Finnish Art Society. Whilst she was an excellent instructor, she felt it hindered her artistic flow. She felt cut off from fellow Finnish artists who were embracing new techniques and styles. She also found the demands of teaching physically taxing and fell ill in 1895.

Schjerfbeck recovered her health at a Norwegian sanatorium and quickly returned to work. Unfortunately, she had to take another year off in 1900 when she fell ill again. As a result, she decided to resign from her position at the Finnish Art Society and move in with her mother in the town of Hyvinkää.

Whilst taking care of her mother, Schjerfbeck continued to paint and exhibit her work. She used her mother as well as local women and children as her models then sent final pieces to be shown at the Turku Art Society, an association for professional visual artists. Many of her works during this period were influenced by artists she had seen on her travels. As well as masters from the past, she was also inspired by artists of her era, for instance, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

During her visit to Vienna, Schjerfbeck encountered artworks by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), whose influence can be seen in her painting, Maria. Her choice of colour recalls the blue-green backgrounds of Holbein’s portraits of royalty. She also included the word “Maria” in a gold serif typeface, which again is similar to Holbein and his contemporaries.

Inspiration was also taken from the early Renaissance frescoes Schjerfbeck had seen in Italy. She produced her painting Fragment imagining it to be a section of a much larger scene. Using several layers of oil paint, Schjerfbeck scraped sections of the top layer to reveal the colours hidden beneath. In doing this, she produced what looked like a fragment of a deteriorating Renaissance fresco.

Caring for her mother meant Schjerfbeck did not get many opportunites to leave the town of Hyvinkää. Her growing fame, however, did not prevent her from receiving a number of visitors. In 1913, a young art dealer Gösta Stenman (1888-1947) met with her in person to purchase several of her paintings. He also encouraged her to exhibit more widely and eventually became her principal dealer.

Another visitor was the artist and writer Einar Reuter (1881-1968). Although much younger than her, Schjerfbeck hoped a romantic relationship could be sparked between the two, however, it was not to be. Nonetheless, Reuter became a good friend and featured in a handful of her paintings. In 1919, Reuter sat for his portrait, however, the year before, he had sat for her in the guise of a sailor. This is a demonstration of Schjerfbeck’s fascination with superficial and true appearances.

Despite being thirty miles north of Helsinki, the Finnish Art Society commissioned Schjerfbeck to paint a self-portrait. In 1914, no other female artist had been invited to do the same and she felt vindicated by this commission, having been estranged from the society for so long. She submitted the result, Self-Portrait, Black Background, in September 1915.

Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits are evidence of her changing style and technique. She produced her first self-portrait at the age of 22, which demonstrated the methods she had been taught whilst leaning slightly towards impressionism. By 1915, however, her style had completely altered. No longer did she delicately paint her facial features, preferring to use flat shapes and colour instead. Her face has barely any sense of depth and her body is angular and flat.

Towards the end of her life, Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits became gradually more abstract, less human, and more alien or death-like. Her mother had died in 1923 and her health was deteriorating rapidly twenty years later. The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, sparking the Winter War and the fighting impacted heavily on her life. Evacuated several times to various sanatoriums, eventually ending up in Sweden, Schjerfbeck was anxious, lonely and unwell. With old age and her impending death on her mind, her self-portraits expressed her fears and depression rather than her true likeness.

Fortunately, life during the 1910s was generally good for Schjerfbeck. In 1917, she organised her first solo exhibition in Helsinki, bringing together 159 paintings. From this success, her first biography was published by Reuter under the alias H. Ahtela. Unfortuntely, it was only published in Finnish, therefore Schjerfbeck could not read it.

Whilst Schjerfbeck was celebrating her success, the Russian Revolution was in progress, which allowed Finland to declare independence. In order to establish a cultural identity, the new sovereign began to promote Finnish artists. In 1920, the state awarded Schjerfbeck the Order of the White Rose of Finland and a state pension. This marked her as one of the country’s best artists.

Shortly after her mother’s death, Schjerfbeck was taken seriously ill, moved to the town of Tammisaari and hired home help. Despite her health, she enjoyed living in the town, continuing to paint local women and children. She also painted relatives who came to visit, for instance, her nephew Måns Schjerfbeck (1897-1973). Once again, Schjerfbeck explored the fine line between superficial and real, painting a portrait of Måns in an imaginary role of The Driver. She also based paintings on her favourite works, such as El Greco’s (1541-1614) profile of the Madonna.

There was no chance of Schjerfbeck being lonely in Tammisaari; she was so famous that on her 70th birthday she had to hide to avoid all the well-wishers. None of this prevented her artistic success and she continued to receive an annual salary from her principal dealer Stenman. Her fame was also spreading on the continent with solo exhibitions in Sweden, Germany and France. The Royal Swedish Academy of Fine arts invited her to enrol as a foreign member in 1942, along with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

As well as portraits, Schjerfbeck produced many still-life paintings, taking inspiration from Cézanne. Many of these are abstract and focus intently on the relationship between space, tone and colour. Whilst she had produced still-lifes in the past, they became a predominant feature of her final years. Sent from place to place to avoid the war, Schjerfbeck painted the things around her, particularly fruit. Her final painting was Three Pears on a Plate, which is full of the sense of death and decay, similar to her self-portraits.

On 23rd January 1946, while staying at the Grand Hotel Saltsjöbaden in Sweden, Helene Schjerfbeck passed away at the age of 83, her easel by her bedside. Her ashes were buried alongside those of her parents in Helsinki and, later in the year, an exhibition toured Sweden and Finland in her memory. Ten years later, Schjerfbeck was posthumously selected to represent Finland at the 1956 Venice Biennale. To date, she remains Finland’s best known and most admired artist.

“Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”
– Helene Schjerfbeck

If Helene Schjerfbeck is Finland’s greatest artist, why is she not better known in the UK? Unlike on the continent, Schjerfbeck did not exhibit in the UK as often and, being a woman, tended to be overlooked. A planned exhibition in the USA was prevented by the war, diminishing her chances of becoming well-known on another continent.

Another reason for her lack of popularity is her work is not easy to categorise. Whilst her earlier work falls into the impressionist bracket, her mature work is a blend of cubism, post-impressionism and abstract expressionism. As a result, she gets omitted from exhibitions about individual art movements.

With the assistance of the Royal Academy, Helene Schjerfbeck has returned to the UK where a new generation has learnt her name and admired her work. Seventy-three years after her death, Schjerfbeck finally gets the chance to earn fame in other countries. But how long will it be before the whole world recognises her face?

The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition can be viewed at the Royal Academy of Arts until 27th October 2019. Tickets are £14 and concessions are available. Under 16s are free when accompanied by a fee-paying adult.

Bowling on Through the Years

“The possibilities of paint are never-ending.”
– Frank Bowling, 2017

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For the first time in his career, the 85-year-old Frank Bowling has been honoured with a major retrospective of his life and artwork by Tate Britain in London. The exhibition offers the chance to view the best of Bowling’s works and discover an artist that many know little or anything about. His large canvases dominate the rooms and show off his unique techniques, including his “Map Paintings” and “Poured Painting”. Being the first black man to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, it is surprising Frank Bowling is not better known.

Richard Sheridan Patrick Michael Aloysius Franklin Bowling, shortened to Frank, was born on 26th February 1934 in Bartica, British Guiana (now Guyana). His father, Richard Sheridan Bowling, was a police paymaster and his mother, Agatha Elizabeth Franklin Bowling was a seamstress. When Frank was six-years-old, the family moved to New Amsterdam on the Berbice River in the north-east of the country where his mother established the Bowling’s Variety Store. Frank grew up helping his mother, which included washing the feet of beggars who came to the store for a meal. His father, on the other hand, showed him very little love.

In 1953, Bowling flew to England to live with an uncle and finish his education. He dreamed of becoming a writer or poet but soon after he had finished school, he was drafted into the Royal Air Force for two years. After this, the young South American decided to train as a painter, first enrolling at the Regent Street Polytechnic, then the Chelsea School of Art. In 1959, Bowling was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art’s (RAC) Painting School where he became acquainted with other talented students, including David Hockney (b.1937) and Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1931-2007).

In 1960, Bowling was expelled from the college after marrying Paddy Kitchen, a writer and art critic, who was a member of staff at the time. Despite this, Bowling was determined to persevere with his art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London for one term. Here, he began to develop a taste for the artist Francis Bacon (1909-92), which is evident in his earlier work. Fortunately, the RAC was persuaded to readmit Bowling, which is where he finished his art training. His letter of readmission is on display in the exhibition.

Birthday, 1962

Birthday, 1962

Bowling’s penchant for abstract art was clear during his time at art college. When the students were asked to produce a painting on the theme of birthdays, Bowling did not go down the obvious route. Instead, he produced an impressionistic oil painting of a woman giving birth. When he was younger, Bowling witnessed a neighbour giving birth and the intense pain he observed stayed in his mind for many years.

Titled simply Birthday (1962), Bowling appropriated Francis Bacon’s style of composition, including line work and brushwork. Whilst the open window is fairly lucid and geometric, the figure of the woman in labour is blurred and distorted.

As well as Francis Bacon, Bowling was influenced by a number of artists he met. In 1961, he visited New York where he viewed work by people such as Jackson Pollock (1912-56). Pollock’s technique of pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface was something Bowling would incorporate into his own work later in life.

Unfortunately, many of Frank Bowling’s early works have been destroyed or are missing. He worked in many different London studios during the early 1960s and many paintings were left behind or mislaid whenever he moved. Amongst the missing is a painting Bowling produced in response to a political event. In 1961, the Democratic Republic of the Congo earned their independence from Belgium and installed their first president, Patrice Lumumba (1925-61). Martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba was produce after the president was murdered later that same year.

The year 1962 was quite significant for Frank Bowling. Firstly, his eldest son Dan was born to Paddy Kitchen, shortly followed by his second son Benjamin to another woman, Claire Spencer. Evidently, his marriage to Paddy did not last long. In the same year, Bowling graduated from RCA after writing a thesis about Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). The Dutch painter’s style was another influence for Bowling’s work.

On graduating, Bowling was awarded the silver medal for painting, with David Hockney winning gold. He was offered a travelling scholarship to Rome but requested he visit Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana instead. This was his first trip home in over a decade.

Toward the end of 1962, Bowling held his first major exhibition at Grabowski Gallery in London. His painting Birthday was purchased by the Arts Council and he was able to meet lots of new people who would become friends and mentors.

In his early career, Bowling frequently produced artworks in response to events or things he had witnessed. He produced a series of paintings titled Swan, which was based upon a dying swan drenched in oil he had come across on the River Thames. He used thin, rhombus-shaped canvases for these paintings, an idea he took from an American painter, and filled them with coloured stripes, which was a concept inspired by someone else. His dying swans are painted on top of the geometrically decorated canvases in a less precise manner, almost as if they are moving in an attempt to escape.

Bowling’s swan theme continued in his large scale painting Big Bird (1964). The pattern of the background, reminiscent of Mondrian, is a stark contrast to the expressively abstract birds. In 1965, this painting was submitted to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal where it won the grand prize for painting. Bowling was not overly keen about participating in the exhibition because he did not want to be categorised as a Black painter. He wanted to be regarded as an artist without his ethnicity taking centre stage. Later in life, he remarked that he felt suffocated by his background and frustrated that the art world focused more on his skin colour than his paintings. He observed that Guyana often felt like the heavy rock the Greek king Sisyphus was doomed to repeatedly roll up a hill.

Despite his aversion to being remembered for his geographic and ethnic backgrounds, Bowling’s life in Guyana featured heavily in his paintings, particularly his childhood home. Bowling continuously experimented with different pictorial approaches and techniques, which included photography and silkscreen. Using photographs of his childhood home, Bowling created a stencil that he could repeatedly use to print the image onto his canvases. In his painting Cover Girl (1966), for example, the image of his old house floats in the background. The “cover girl” in question is based on a photograph of the Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto (1926-2003) that Bowling found in a copy of the Observer. The dress is inspired by the designs of the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin (b.1922) and the hairstyle by British-American hairstylist Vidal Sassoon (1928-2012).

Painted at a similar time was the carefully worked out composition Mirror (1964-6). Whilst it contains many similar features, for example, the geometric backgrounds and Bacon-esque figures, there is no screen print of Bowling’s childhood home. Instead, Bowling includes two portraits of himself, one standing at the bottom of the stairs and one swinging from the top. The figure in between is Paddy Kitchen to whom he was still married. This particular painting fuses together several different styles, suggesting a rebellion against convention.

By 1964, Bowling had a third son, Sacha, with yet another woman, Irena, who he later married, although they would eventually divorce. The same year, he returned to New York and became acquainted with abstract expressionist Jasper Johns (b.1930). As well as painting, Johns was a sculptor and included found objects on his canvases. This is another idea Bowling would take up later in his career.

Frank Bowling relocated to New York in 1966, the same time that his marriage to Paddy came to an end. The following year, he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, which helped him establish himself in America. He moved into a studio in SoHo, New York, where he lived and worked until 1975.

From 1967 until 1971, Bowling worked on what would become known as his “map paintings”. Tate Britain described these as “Fields of colour … overlaid with stencilled maps of the world and silkscreened images.” Bowling applied paint to the canvas by pouring or spraying, whilst using cut out stencils of various continents, particularly of the southern hemisphere, to block out certain areas, leaving a print of the shape in its place. He also used photographs of his sons or people he met in Guyana on a trip in 1968 with the photographer Tina Tranter.

South America Squared (1967) was the first “map painting” Bowling produced. The square shapes on the red canvas show that he had not quite left behind the influence of Piet Mondrian. To create the shape of South America, Bowling created a stencil with an epidiascope. This technique was introduced to Bowling by his American mentor Larry Rivers (1923–2002).

Polish Rebecca (1971) was named after Bowling’s friend Rita Reinhardt, the widow of the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-67). She had suffered tragedy during the Second World War when both her parents and sister were murdered during the Holocaust. Although the only “maps” represented are of South America and Africa, Bowling is hinting at the connection between the extermination of Jews in Europe with the dispersion of Jews in the southern regions.

Despite not wanting to be dictated by his past, all of Bowling’s “map paintings” are connected to his roots. Barticaborn I (1967), which was used on promotional material for the exhibition, refers to Bowling’s place of birth. Bartica is situated at the junction of three rivers: Cuyuni, Mazaruni and Essequibo. When visiting New Amsterdam with Tranter, they also went to Bartica to gather inspiration for Bowling’s work.

Around 1973, Bowling began using a new technique, which, although no mention was made in the exhibition, is likely inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock. This sudden change in his method may also be associated with the end of his marriage to Irena.

Bowling began experimenting by pouring different coloured paint onto a canvas and watching them merge together. In his New York Studio and later in his London Studio, which he took up in 1984 and still uses today, he set up a tilting platform, which allows him to pour paint from a height of two metres. The colours spill down the canvas, producing an unpredictable pattern.

All of Bowling’s “poured paintings” are a result of chance. He never began with an idea in mind; he let the flow of the paint take charge. He always titled the outcomes once he was finished, using the events of his daily life and the people he knew for inspiration. The ambiguously titled Ziff (1974) is a typical example of this style of work. Bowling filled the background with colour in a similar manner to his “map paintings” before applying liquid paint whilst the canvas was on the tilted platform.

Kaieteurtoo (1975) was named after having a conversation about the Guyanese tourist attraction Kaieteur Falls. This is the world’s largest single drop waterfall by volume of water flowing, which stands at a height of 226 metres and has a width of 113 metres. This name felt appropriate because the dripping paint almost resembles a cascade of water.

Toward the end of the 1970s, Bowling was applying a growing number of contrasting techniques. As well as using his tilting platform, he used combined washes of paint, spattering and splotching. Although these were similar methods to the aforementioned Pollock, there is no doubt that the results are unique to Frank Bowling. An example of this is At Swim Two Manatee (1977-8), which has a greater density than some of his previous works. By using these unpredictable techniques, Bowling said he was making “painting happen almost as if I didn’t do anything about it.”

Due to the randomness of the applied paint, some of Frank Bowling’s works were the result of happy accidents. Vitacress (1981), for example, looks like a cosmic sky featuring a moon or planet. This round imprint, however, was the result of leaving a bucket on a drying canvas. Despite being unintentional, Bowling loved the result and used the “technique” in future paintings.

A selection of paintings at the Tate Britain is labelled “cosmic space”, however, this was never Bowling’s intention. As previously stated, Bowling never began an artwork with an idea in mind but let the flow of the paint dictate the outcome. By adding ammonia and pearlescence to the acrylics, the blending of colours produced a marbling effect, which in turn made them resemble cosmic space. Despite this, Bowling did not give them space-related titles, for instance, Ah Whoosh Susanna (1981).

As well as out-of-this-world results, some of Bowling’s artworks also resembled underwater scenes, for instance, Moby Dick (1981). The ammonia and turpentine also produced chemical reactions, which along with the water, altered the consistency and colour of the acrylic paint, allowing a smoother finish than other “poured paintings”.

Bowling was still experimenting with techniques and media well into the 1980s. In 1983, he purchased a flat in Pimlico, not far from the Tate Britain, where he still lives today. He spent his time being with his sons, visiting Tate and working on his art. At Tate, he became familiar with J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), whose use of colours sparked future ideas.

Perhaps inspired by Jasper Johns, Bowling began sticking found objects onto his canvases. These included plastic toys, packing material and oyster shells. As well as acrylic paint, he also used acrylic gel, acrylic foam, chalk, beeswax and glitter, all of which added to the texture of the final outcomes. Bowling tended to stick the items onto the canvas before applying paint using his pouring method. The weight and fluidity of the mixture occasionally dragged the items downwards into unplanned positions. Towards Crab Island (1983) is an example of this.

As always, Bowling named his paintings after they had been created and they were usually an unplanned experiment. During a summer residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, however, Bowling was inspired by the rural landscape and forests, which he attempted to explore in his work. Without changing his method of working, Bowling produced Wintergreens (1986) using earthy colours to represent the scenery. He added several strips of acrylic foam, almost reverting to his geometric patterns from the 1960s. Although the paint obscures most of the found objects, there is apparently a cap of a film canister and a plastic toy owl hidden on the surface.

In 1987, Tate acquired its first painting by an artist of Afro-Caribbean descent: Frank Bowling’s Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984-6). The title pays homage to Bowling’s fellow student at the RCA, R.B. Kitaj. Once again, Bowling created a design with acrylic foam, which was then dislodged when the paint was added. He describes these strips of foam as “the ribs of the geometry from which I worked.” Amongst the strips are bits of plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells.

Bowling’s engagement with colour came to a height at the end of the 1980s. With landscape artists such as Turner, Constable and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) in mind, Bowling began work on a series titled Great Thames. Two examples are on display in the exhibition. His choice of colour and luminous paint capture the play of light on the water at different times of the day.

“It’s exciting and challenging to work in London, Turner’s town, and the pressures of the weight of British tradition is exhilarating.”
– Frank Bowling
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Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989

In 1989, Bowling was persuaded to participate in The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post War Britain at the Hayward Gallery. Despite his scepticism about being labelled by his ethnicity, curator Rasheed Araeen (b.1935) convinced him it was worth taking part. At this time, Bowling was thinking a lot about Guyana and his childhood, particularly following the death of his mother in 1988. Accompanied by his son Sacha, he returned to Guyana where he produced paintings based on the landscape. In 1990, Bowling purchased a loft studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn and split his time between London and New York.

In 1993, Bowling made his first trip to Africa to attend A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African Painting in Senegal where he won the Pollock-Krasner award. He won the award again in 1998.

In the 1990s, Bowling experimented with composition, occasionally sewing more than one completed canvas together, for example, Girls in the City (1991). He also began to work on smaller canvases than in the past and began to reduce the number of found objects he incorporated into his work. He stopped using acrylic foam completely and smoothed the acrylic gel with a spatula, rather than leaving it to dry in textured lumps. Bowling stated the reason he stapled seven canvases together in Girls in the City was to represent “the way people structure themselves … we live in buildings and express life in opposition to minimalism, enclosure and death.”

In the exhibition, there is at least one painting named after each of his sons, for instance, Benjamin’s Mess (Hot Hands) (2006). Unfortunately, Bowling’s eldest son Dan died in 2001, which prompted him to start using a lot of white in his works as a form of memorial. Despite the grief, Bowling continued to take part in exhibitions, for example, at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and at Tate Britain in 2004. The following year, 2005, Bowling became the first Black artist to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

As well as naming paintings after his sons, Bowling titled them after other people he knew or admired. Orange Balloon (1996) was produced for Paul Adams (b.1977), who was both the youngest player in the South African cricket team and the first Black player. The painting itself has little to do with cricket or the cricketer.

Despite needing to sit down due to his age and diminishing mobility, Bowling continues to create art today, employing all the techniques he developed over six decades. Looking at Remember Thine Eyes (2014), it is evident that Bowling still uses his tilted platform, however, because he needs to stand in order to do this, he has only used the one colour (yellow) and possibly only one lot of pouring. The “eyes” have been created by resting two buckets on the wet surface – a technique he accidentally invented in 1981. The title comes from a line in Shakespeare‘s King Lear.

For parts of his artworks, Bowling is assisted by his wife, Rachel Scott who he married in 2013, although had been with since 1977, and his long-term friend Spencer A. Richards. Due to the spontaneity of Bowling’s work, it does not matter if either of them makes mistakes when carrying out Bowling’s instructions.

One of Bowling’s most recent works is Wafting (2018) in which he reverts to using tangible material. The polka dot material, purchased by his grandson Samson in Zambia, has been torn into strips and positioned on top of the canvas. It is not certain whether Richards or Rachel assisted with the fabric, however, Bowling does most of the painting himself, laying canvases on the floor so that he can pour on different colours from a seated position.

Although Frank Bowling’s artworks may not be palatable to everyone, it is a shame his name is not well known. Surely being the first Black man elected to the Royal Academy would have cause for celebration and be an event people would remember? On the other hand, Bowling does not want to be known as a Black painter, he wants his paintings to speak for themselves. After viewing a lifetimes work, it is easy to pick Frank Bowling’s paintings out of a crowd. Beforehand, however, you could be forgiven for expecting him to be a white man; after all, how many Black artists can you name?

By putting emphasis on Bowling’s wish not to be labelled as a Black man, Tate Britain inadvertently draws attention to his geographic and ethnic background. As Bowling said himself, it is something he cannot escape from. Even his artworks continually refer back to his homeland, whether in title or theme.

In the Tate Etc magazine, art critic Matthew Collings mentions that Bowling was disappointed not to see any literature about himself in the lobby of a past exhibition. There were plenty of publications about the other (white) artists who took part, which made it hurt even more. Although racism is less of a problem today, the majority of Bowling’s career as been plagued with adversity.

Some people will love his paintings and others will not understand them, however, regardless of this, Frank Bowling has received what he deserves: a retrospective of his life and career. With the exhibition virtually on his doorstep, Bowling can see his work being appreciated and enjoyed by different generations and know that it is not his skin colour they are interested in but the paintings on display. Finally, he has achieved what he has always wanted.

The exhibition Frank Bowling closes soon on 26th August. Tickets are £13, however, members of the gallery can view for free.