Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

NPG 212; William Blake by Thomas Phillips

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.

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.

Van Gogh and Britain

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Self-Portrait, 1889

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

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

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

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

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

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

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L’Arlésienne, 1890.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Self-Portrait with Felt Hat – Van Gogh, 1887

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

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

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

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

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Vincent van Gogh in conversation – Pissarro, 1888

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

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

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

“A toi, Van Gogh!” – Harold Gilman

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

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

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Sunflowers – Van Gogh, 1888

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk Through British Art

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

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

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

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

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

A Man in a Black Cap – John Bettes, 1545

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jupiter and Ganymede 1811 by Richard Westmacott 1775-1856

Jupiter and Ganymede, Richard Westmacott, 1811

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Burne-Jones

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phyllis and Demophoön

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Portait of Georgiana Burne-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

 

Art in the Aftermath

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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Original version

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Too Human

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jonathan Jones

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

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