Swindon Art Gallery & ‘Steam’ Museum – 30 January

Commemorative Bell

It is pleasing to report that our mid-winter half day visit to Swindon proved remarkably popular. An introductory talk by the Museum Curator gave us some insight into the history of the Swindon Collection since its inception, back in 1921, when Jimmy Bomford set the ball rolling with the donation of 21 paintings. The Curator also shared with us useful background information on the key artists represented within the Collection. Works by Alfred Wallace, John & Paul Nash, William Roberts, Frank Brangwyn, George Clausen, and Henry Moore all caught the eye. However, for me, the ‘gold medal’ surely had to be shared between Gwen John (her 1910 Portrait of a Lady in pencil and wash), and John Skeaping (Barbara Hepworth’s first husband) for his drawing ‘Study of Roe Deer’. Oh, that we were all capable of capturing such a sense of movement!

In the 1970s the Gallery started to acquire, again initially via a benefactor, what has since become a fine collection of studio ceramics. Bernard and David Leach, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Ray Finch, Edmund de Waal and Grayson Perry all feature.

There is every prospect of the Swindon Collection being given a new home, on a prime site in the centre of the town, should the anticipated Lottery Funding come to fruition.

For me, the opportunity to re-visit Swindon’s iconic Steam Museum (for the first time in over 50 years!) proved a nostalgic experience. A fair number of our travelling members and friends obviously felt the same way!

Preserved number and nameplates, from legendary Castle, Hall, City and King Class locomotives, brass all beautifully polished, the original eight ft diameter driving wheels of Brunel’s broad gauge Lord of the Isles and a small section of surviving pipeline from his Atmospheric Railway (one of his very few failures!) all feature among the artifacts on display. A reconstruction of the Foundry, Boiler Shop, etc., gave some insight into how tough the working conditions would have been, the majority of the work force being deaf, from the pervading noise, by the time they were thirty.

The prime exhibits, without a doubt, were the fully restored Caerphilly Castle, City of Truro, and the flagship of the GWR fleet, No.6000, George V. 160 Castle Class locos were built, all in the Swindon works, between 1923-50. In 1927 George V (135 tons,

including the tender) was shipped to the USA to spend 22 days, as star of the show, at the ‘Fair of the Iron Horse’, Baltimore, Ohio. Finally retired in 1962, it covered nearly two million miles during its years of service with the Great Western.

A different era, but the Museum still stands testimony to a golden age of British engineering and man’s capacity to design essential, functional objects of enduring beauty.

Bob Williams

The Gothic Revival in Art and Architecture – 7 January

Woodstock Manor

The Gothic Revival usually evokes pictures of 19th century architecture, but the movement actually originated and flourished in the 18th century. For Dr Amy Frost a key building was Woodstock Manor, in what later became the park of Blenheim Palace, whose architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, pleaded with the Duchess of Marlborough to preserve it as a picturesque ornament in the landscape. In this he was well ahead of his classical age. The picture of Woodstock brought to mind the eras of past history with knights in armour indulging in courtly love. Vanbrugh failed to save Woodstock, but built ‘King Arthur’s Castle’ at Cirencester Park (1721-32) and his own house in castle style at Greenwich (1717- c1726). Memories of King Arthur and King Alfred were called up in other monuments such as King Alfred’s Tower at Stourhead, where a nouveau riche banker could pretend to an ancient origin.

Medieval Gothic architecture evolved through the structural development of stone vaulting. The Gothic revival was about aesthetics; it was the appearance that mattered, as seen in Horace Walpole’s papier-mâché fan vaulting in his house at Strawberry Hill (1752-mid 1770s). There, the interior demonstrated the dramatic effect of sudden changes from dark to light. Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto’, followed by many other authors. A delightful cartoon by Rowlandson, ‘Tale of Wonder’ pokes fun at a group of fashionable ladies being fascinated and frightened by the latest novels. Edmund Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful’ (1757) defined Darkness… Obscurity, … Vastness … Loudness… Suddenness … as characteristics of this new aesthetic, as opposed to the calm and comfort of the classical era.

Painters like Philip de Loutherbourg and Caspar David Friedrich with his ‘Monk by the Sea’ (1810) and ‘Wanderer above a Sea of Fog’ (1818) expressed man dwarfed by the immensity of Nature, seen again with Joseph Wright’s ‘Eruption of Vesuvius’ (c1766-80) and Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ (pre 1844), though here it is the image of the new mechanical era that overpowers one. The painting of the great tower of Fonthill Abby (begun 1796) overawes one with its size. The building, by James Wyatt, was not to be a mere house; its enormous hall was a monument to the middle ages and the name, ‘Abbey’, suggested an origin in one of those granted to the nobility by Henry VIII.

This second period of the Gothic Revival, from Strawberry Hill to Fonthill, was followed by one in which there was a deeper understanding of Gothic architecture. In 1817 Thomas Rickman published ‘An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England’, based on his studies of the dates and designs of a large range of medieval buildings. It was he who named the periods of Gothic as Early English 1189-1272, Decorated 1272-1377, and Perpendicular 1377-1547. The destruction of the Houses of Parliament by fire in 1834 led to the competition for the design of its replacement, with a stipulation that it must be in either Elizabethan or Gothic style. The winning design, by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin, conforms to this, although, looking at the long facade facing the river, one can see the regularity of a classical order. Pugin was a convert to Catholicism and believed that Gothic was the only true style of architecture. In 1836 he published ‘Contrasts: or a Parallel between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and Corresonding Buildings of the Present Day’, in which he compared drawings of an imaginary medieval town, with churches, halls, convents and almshouses with a town of his own time with its mean chapels, factory chimneys, prisons and workhouses.. For him classical architecture was foreign and pagan; Gothic architecture was British and Christian. [His own house, St Marie’ Grange, is at Alderbury in Wiltshire (1835).] The battle between the styles continued through the next seventy years of the Victorian age, leaving behind the original ideas of the Gothic Revival described by Dr Frost.

Gareth Slater

Talboys, Keevil – 11 December 2017

Talboys

What does “Talboys” Keevil conjure up? We had no idea what to expect, but the description in the Autumn magazine did not disappoint. Dating from the 15th Century, it is a timber framed hall house with wattle and daub panels, built of limestone ashlar, the roof stone tiled and gabled. It certainly looked old, but absolutely charming, and is said to be one of oldest properties in Wiltshire.

We walked through the massive entrance door through a passageway into the original gallery with vaulted roof. This is the family home of Mr. and Mrs. Mowbray, and there is all the paraphernalia that children leave around with, in contrast, living side by side, many objects d’art, that have been there for centuries.

On arrival, we were divided into two groups, one going around the house with the owner, and the other to the adjacent St. Leonard’s church built l4-16th Century, which has a Norman Sanctus bell.

You can say that “Talboys” is unique. It was built in two parts, one fireplace has the date AD 1450 and the other 1875 and the window tracery at the front was also renewed at this later time. The downstairs has many large rooms and upstairs 5/6 bedrooms. Log fires burned, while we later sampled a delicious tea of sandwiches and cake, shutting out the cold weather outside.

The village of Keevil is first mentioned in an Anglo Saxon document of 964 and the High Street of old houses would be an interesting place to explore further on a nice summer’s day.

Joyce Shaw

London – 28 November

Modigliani's The Little Peasant

‘You look out at the world with one eye and into yourself with the other’… a quote attributed to Amedeo Modigliani. Choosing to visit the ‘Modigliani’ blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern did not disappoint and proved the veracity of this quotation in more ways than one. Modigliani was certainly a close observer of humankind, strongly favouring the female of the species; the almond – or, occasionally, piercing, blue eyes – of these models were themselves hypnotic to view.

Seeing the Little Peasant, c.1918, (a familiar exhibit on the walls of Tate Britain for as long as I can remember) exhibited here among the nude and portrait paintings, where the artist invariably employed really strong colours, was something of a shock. I think, as a teenager I had come to associate Modigliani simply with the washed out grey/blues of Le Petit Paysan!

The Tate website describes Modigliani’s sensuous and seductive nudes – twelve large paintings – as the highlight of the exhibition. (When first revealed to the world, in 1917, they would have been pretty shocking and rapidly led to police censorship). Personally I felt that the show’s pièce de résistance was, in fact, the room devoted to his superbly carved heads, all beautifully lit. I could have lingered here all afternoon. This relatively brief period of sculptural endeavour (1911-13), together with Modigliani’s ‘Caryatid’ drawings, owed much to the readily accessible visual references available to artists and sculptors in Paris at the time, primarily carved objects from Egypt, Cambodia and the Ivory Coast. Sadly the health issues which dogged him for much of his life were exacerbated by the dust from the stone that he was engaged in carving. It would have been fascinating to see how his work would have developed had he been able to continue with this aspect of his creative output.

Modigliani and his fellow Parisian artists, Soutine and Utrillo among others, were labelled ‘les peintres maudits’ – painters under a curse. Strong drink, drugs and sheer misfortune saw them all off at a relatively young age. Modigliani was only 35 when he succumbed to tubercular meningitis, the tragedy of a talented young life snuffed out compounded by the suicide of his pregnant fiancée and muse, Jeanne Hebuterne.

Those of our travelling members and friends who hiked across to Tate Modern were not disappointed. Others reported of equally enjoyable viewing experiences at the British Museum (Scythians), the National Gallery (Degas from the Burrell), the R.A.(Jasper Johns) and, over at Tate Britain, (Impressionists in London).

Bob Williams

Johnny Cash in San Quentin — 5 November 2017

Sign of California State Prison, San Quentin

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Michael Darlow began his talk to a large and attentive audience with these words of Dostoevsky, and immediately we were made aware of the strong moral sense which underpins so much of Michael’s work.

Johnny Cash had already given concerts in several US prisons, including San Quentin, when Michael was commissioned by Granada in 1969 to make his now-famous film. He prepared the ground by flying out to California, first to get agreement from the governor, and then to meet the leaders of the 10 main prison gangs. They agreed to guarantee the safety of Michael and his crew – in return for ring-side seats at the performance. The deal was very necessary in this most notorious and violent of prisons, with 3,000 inmates.

We watched several excerpts from the film, including the song specially written for that concert which expresses the hatred of the prisoner for the jail – “San Quentin you’ve been livin’ hell to me.” The fervent and raucous response to this looked terrifying, and the guards said that, had a riot broken out, they could not have stopped it.

The concert excerpts were inter-cut with film of the prison and interviews with individual prisoners. San Quentin has the largest death-row in any US prison and a description of the use of the gas-chamber by one of the officers was both disturbing and – in its matter-of-fact delivery – quite unnerving.

The abolition of the death penalty in the UK had only happened four years previously, and Michael and his team were determined that British viewers should make this connection. So it was that, when Granada insisted on taking out the section on the gas-chamber, Michael and others refused to let their names be on the credits of the film. In fact, part of the sequence was left in the final edit and remains as a powerful witness to the inhumanity of capital punishment.

At the end of a most thought-provoking and disturbing evening, one could not help but consider what Guantanamo Bay says about, in Dostoevsky’s words “the degree of civilisation” in the US today.

Megan Jones

Compton Verney — 28th September 2017

Blaze by Bridget Riley

Compton Verney was the home of the Verney family, headed by the Barons Willoughby de Broke, but is now owned by an educational charity. It houses many art collections, including British Folk Art, British Portraits, Chinese bronzes and terracotta horses, Neapolitan paintings and Northern European art, as well as a Women’s Library. Temporary exhibitions are held there and the one that was current on our visit was ‘From Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception.’ After a brief welcome and introduction we were free to wander round these galleries, ‘Capability’ Brown’s lovely parkland and the chapel.

The chapel was designed and built by Brown (1776-9) to replace the one he destroyed because it blocked the view of his landscape from the house. The interior is white throughout and the pews are set along the North and South walls to leave the centre open, producing a wonderful sense of space and light. The high coffered ceiling and the windows are decorated with rosettes and coving and the walls with plasterwork panels. From the West door, the far view is of the East wall and the marble table tomb of Richard and Margaret Verney which stands a little before it. This, with several wall memorial sculptures and brasses, was transferred from the original chapel.

Blaze by Bridget RileyMany of us enjoyed a conducted tour of the temporary exhibition, a brilliant demonstration of the difference between what we are looking at and what we see. From Chevreul’s book on the organisation and perception of colour, opened at his 72-section colour circle, we passed to Seurat’s pointilliiste ‘La Luzerne’ and ‘The Morning Walk’ in which neighbouring spots of colour leave the viewer’s eye and brain to mix them. From there we moved through the angular Vorticist works to the Kinetic and Op (optic) art of Bridget Riley and Vasarely. Riley’s ‘Achaean,’ a panel of vertical coloured stripes, stems from Seurat’s technique in that the perceived colours of stripes depend upon their neighbours. In her black and white design, ‘Fall,’ waves appeared to be three dimensional and when we moved from one side to the other they rolled. In ‘Blaze 4’ a circular pattern of black and white chevrons led the eye to a blank circle through which light seemed to shine, as if from a lamp; but it was only white paper. Vasarely, like Riley, was a driving force in Op art. His ‘Zebra’ was clearly three-dimensional despite consisting only of black lines on flat white paper. We saw colour where none was painted in another black and white design. The blues in Peter Sedgley’s ‘Suspense’ changed hue and his still, concentric, coloured circles spun. In the works of Gotz, solids could be seen also as voids, and steps went both up and down. In Escher’s ‘Day and Night’ we saw white birds flying into the darkness on the right while the black space between them formed birds flying towards the light on the left. In Lambie’s ‘Sun Visor’ thin triangular strips of colour converged on a blue circle that throbbed, but only in our mind’s eye. Liz West’s installation, ‘Our Spectral Vision’ summed up our experience of the exhibition: it definitely consisted of vertical, illuminated tubes of different colours and the colours definitely changed when we walked from one side to the other. Then we were told that only white light was used. It was a dazzling exhibition and our guides, Steve and Emma, played a most important part in our appreciation of it.

Thank you, Claire, for arranging such an enjoyable visit and for booking the finest weather of the week for our journey.

Michael Sandilands

Worcester — 27 July 2017

Worcester Cathedral, on a clear blue-sky day

Worcester is a Roman town dominated by the truculent and longest river in England, the Severn, so, with its ancient history, our first priority was to set about learning more about this important city and, after the obligatory coffee break, we set off towards the Information Office. This is contained in a part of the Guildhall, a famous Queen Anne style civic building of 1721 designed in wonderful red brick by a stonemason called Thomas White. The City Art Gallery is further north along the pedestrianised main street but, unfortunately, the permanent exhibition of paintings and sculptures had been stored to accommodate ‘Celebrity’, a collection of film star icons. It included a pair of Fred Astaire’s two tone leather shoes, a ‘little black dress ‘ belonging to Marilyn Monroe and given to her sister, who couldn’t get into it, a pair of earrings worn by Elisabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra where she first met her ‘double indemnity’ Richard Burton, and a signed Chuck Berry guitar. Whist viewing this I was engaged by a local who enthusiastically told me that a host of great sixties popular musicians, including Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Holly, the Stones and Beatles played in the city.

Approaching lunchtime we walked to the river’s edge for a place to sit but were caught out by a prolonged shower which necessitated snuggling under a lime tree and a very small umbrella! Continuing south along the river path we climbed up to College Green, an open space adjacent to the Cathedral. We entered, gratefully free of charge, through the cloisters to the east end of the nave. Looking up into these spaces always induces a feeling of wonderment at the precise geometry, dexterity with materials and sophisticated construction with basic tools. Worcester, a Benedictine foundation, was built between 1084 and 1374 in the Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular Mediaeval styles. It has the only circular Chapter House in England and houses the tomb of the notorious King John.

We were able to eavesdrop on and enjoy a rehearsal by the polyphonic Cardinall’s Musick who were to give a concert later in the day.

After a cup of tea and a cake in the Chapter House cafe we went into the tented crafts exhibition on College Green, which was displaying pieces by local Art Associations. These included glassware, pottery, ceramics, oil and watercolour paintings, beadwork, textile and stomp work plus a few items of furniture. Well worth the long browse.

From here we walked the short distance to the two Tudor town houses in Friar Street. These both date from the time of the Plantagenet Tudor dynasty change in 1485 and reflect the accelerating shift in influence from the aristocratic and religious to the mercantile. Indicating the status of their trading owners they were built on the town wall near the monastery, with timber frames and wattle and daub infill, housing units on the ground floor for weaving and brewing with living accommodation above. Both had external corridors at street level leading to the rear of the property, the Greyfriars House with a beautifully designed and planted walled garden which provided a wonderful time for some welcome contemplation.

Then, after some shop browsing and another cup of tea, we returned to the pick up point for our journey home.

Ian Stevenson

Some of the group were fortunate to obtain passes for the rehearsal for the evening concert, part of the Three Choirs Festival. We sat for an hour listening to the ravishingly beautiful Faure Requiem and a lovely newer choral work (2009) by Jonathan Dove ‘There was a Child’. In the fine acoustic of this magnificent cathedral the sounds from the singers and the excellent Philharmonia Orchestra were sublime. An added feature was observing the art of the conductor. We heard music that we thought was perfect but then listened when he stopped the action and gave his comments, advice, and sometimes admonishment, to the choir and the orchestra. We marvelled at the noticeable improvements that he managed to elicit. A wonderful bonus to our day.

David Beniston

Another of our group was fortunate to attend a concert by The Cardinall’s Musick, a renowned early music vocal ensemble, who performed four magnificent Tudor ‘symphonies’ in one concert. This included Gaude gloriosa by Tallis and Vox patris caelestis by Mundy. Jean Stevenson’s comment: “most beautiful polyphonic singing in the wonderful setting of the Cathedral.”

Tintern and Symonds Yat — 19 June 2017

The ruins of Tintern Abbey

On what proved to be the hottest day of the year, we were grateful for Chandler’s air conditioned coach on our hour long trip to our first venue, the old station at Tintern, via a short detour through the car park at Tintern Abbey. Our other committed times prevented a tour here but one interesting fact that John Salvat provided for me was that the abbey was practically rebuilt in Victorian times. Dating from 1131, sadly it fell foul of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1540s. It now comes under Cadw, the historic arm of the Welsh Government

The old Tintern station is a delightful place providing a welcome coffee, tea or local ice cream for some and a walk along the Wye with its butterfly strewn meadows for others. The sculptures all derived from old tree trunks were superb. Tintern station closed to passengers way back in 1959 before even the Beeching cuts and was on the 15 mile line from Chepstow to Monmouth. Traffic to the local quarry lasted until 1981, but thankfully the station buildings didn’t suffer the demolition fate of many across the country. Trains will never again grace the platforms but two modern coaches with a shop and display area show what might have been.

Our next port of call, literally, was at Symonds Yat where we boarded the Lady Christina for a 40 minutes trip up the Wye. Beforehand John Salvat provided a brief talk on the geology of the area and our first mention of Christmas! Apparently, the glaciers of old created a Christmas pudding effect on the geology to the extent that the local minerals and coal were very close to or on the surface. All such industries and their supporting railway and canal infrastructure is long gone except for the preserved Dean Forest Railway from Lydney to Parkend. Our boat trip took us past the local church dedicated to St. Dubricius, who dates from the time of Tintern Abbey. This proved to be a shady and quiet haven to eat our lunch in the churchyard whilst Canada geese and swans with their cygnets glided gently by. Further downriver the last remaining ferries using punts were passed whilst we turned near the rapids that denoted the three counties of Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire and Herefordshire.

We returned on a more scenic route back to Lydney via Ross-on-Wye and ended up at Taurus Crafts. On this site are a number of artisan craft shops and garden centre but the highlight for many of us was the tea, cakes and scones and some very welcome shade from the incessant heat. There was plenty for everyone to savour on this outing, and our leader Rosalind kept us all in order throughout the day!

John Baxter

Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery — 23 May 2017

Painting of flowers in a vase: Flowers by Vanessa Bell

Our journey began on a bright summer morning, crossing Salisbury plain and giving us a brief glimpse of Stonehenge on route, then on through Hampshire and leafy Surrey into picturesque Dulwich Village.

The gallery was designed by Sir John Soane to house a collection of European art (1600-1800) that had been bequeathed to Dulwich College. Opened in 1817 and visited by many famous artists of the day, including Van Gogh, Monet and Constable, it was the first gallery designed to display art for the public; its simple interior and top-lit galleries give a sense of space and light.

Vanessa Bell

Photograph of sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell playing cricketBrought up surrounded by artistic talent and overshadowed by her sister Virginia, Vanessa at an early age was encouraged to express herself though many art forms and trained at the Royal Academy Schools, one of her tutors being John Singer Sargent. His influence could be seen in an early portrait of Saxon Sydney-Turner at the Piano.

We perhaps know her work best as a leading light within the Bloomsbury Group of artists. Portraits of these friends and family showed her great skill in capturing the essence of character, with bold colourful brushstrokes, in a few cases reducing facial features to a bare minimum or non existence, but still retaining the inner strength of her sitter.

In 1913 Bell, along with Duncan Grant, became a director of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops and contributed numerous designs for interiors, clothing, rugs and fabrics that were striking in their modernity and chromatic combinations. The designs on display would not have looked out of place today.

Widely travelled throughout Europe Vanessa became an avid collector of ceramics and textiles; these formed the backdrops and settings for most of her still life studies.

Painting of flowers in a vase: Flowers by Vanessa BellEarly examples of these had a quiet ethereal beauty about them, as in the unusual composition, Iceland Poppies 1908-9,  a cream and fine detail study. Four years later in an explosion of colour, Oranges and Lemons, vibrant yellow, green, blue and orange, had the feel and flamboyant style of Van Gogh about it, again beautifully observed. Throughout this exhibition one got the sense of a lifetime experimenting with style and colour to make it uniquely her own.

Also around this period she was producing dust jacket designs for The Hogarth Press; her sister Virginia’s publications were on display.

A keen photographer (her great-aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron ) she recorded everyday life with family and friends and many of these photo albums were on show as well as her detailed interior paintings of her home.

Painting landscape was one of Bell’s favourite pursuits, whether in Sussex or whilst travelling in France and clearly influenced by Bonnard, Picasso and Matisse whose work she knew at first hand; she adapted her own unique style using intense earth colours, formal simplification and bold geometrics, coming together in the lovely, The Pond at Charleston.

This was a diverse and well curated exhibition with many facets and giving some insight into the life of a notable 20th century artist.

Janette Sawyer

Oxford — 26 April 2017

Writing this article today, I reflect that two days ago I didn’t even know I was going and that somehow it has happened and I feel satisfied as one does when waking from a lovely, deep sleep full of sensory images which make one feel restored and relaxed.

The drive to Oxford was great. What a wonderful time of year to travel. The colours of the countryside were vibrant and gleaming new. To pinch an adjective frequently attached to ‘Isle’, the grass really did look emerald and lush, and all the bushes and trees painted by nature in many other harmonising greens: a verdant therapy. Interspersed, as we sped up the M4, were the new rapeseed crops.

Their colour seems to me to be almost unreal: a sort of mustard crossed with sunshine. The fields of these crops are huge and from our heightened stance, one could see
them stretching over the undulating hills for miles.

Added to this were the most beautiful cherry trees, full of blossom, appearing as Roy, our driver, turned off onto smaller roads. The lacy pink and white petals stood sharp against the morning’s poet’s-blue sky. It was just as well, I mused, that I was on my way to view an art exhibition because I felt like I was in a moving painting.

People disappeared into the city on arrival in Oxford but a number of us just crossed the road to The Ashmolean Museum. Aim for the day: to visit the exhibition about the rise of Modernism in France, entitled ‘From Degas to Picasso’. I was delighted by the ease of this trip: no driving, no parking and being deposited just where I wanted to be, fantastic.

The exhibition starts roughly at the Napoleonic Wars and ends roughly at the Second World War. That’s 150 years with 100 works representing 40 artists. I spent four hours enjoying this but it would equally take me 40 pages to describe even some of it, so I’ll outline a few things and hope to capture the gist of this excellent (though foot and back wearying) exhibition.

It was 1957 and Ursula from Germany met Stanley Johnson from America when they were both art students in Paris. In the 1960s they began to collect art and the senior curator of European Art for The Ashmolean Museum, Colin Harrison, flew to Chicago to view their collection, much of which has not been seen in public before.

Colin Harrison carefully selected 100 works to ‘plot the course from neoclassical and romantic artists such as David, Ingres and Delacroix to impressionists and post-impressionists such as Degas, Monet and Seurat and then on to the wild and game-changing experiments of Braque and Picasso’.

Today we are familiar with the technology of enhancing or touching up images of all sorts and I enjoyed looking at Ingres’ ‘Odalisque’ which features a beautiful woman with an unnaturally long back, expanded buttocks and long, unboned arms. Nothing new there then. I loved the comment by Chasseriau, Ingres’ favourite pupil, that he was fed up with his master’s conservatism in style (Ingres was horrified by his pupil’s use of white highlighting) and he thought that Ingres should ‘move with the times’. Again, there is a ring of familiarity about this: doesn’t it happen in every generation?

When Paris’ famous ‘Salon’ rejected the ‘plein air’ work of the group we now know to be The Impressionists, they set up their own and became famous and loved in their own right. (I think I read that John Lennon said that once about the advent of The Beatles.) When photography was invented in the 1830s, it
was no longer necessary to reproduce exactly pictorial images so Manet and his followers were ‘free to be free’, as it were. I marvelled at Seurat’s use of dots
(pointillism) and had to have explained to me how it’s possible to sharpen a crayon or chalk to that degree of finesse. Fellow viewers at exhibitions are
very useful!

Just recently Prince Harry has been much in the news highlighting mental health. When I saw Van Gogh’s etching of his doctor, (May 1890), Dr Gachet, Iwas surprised by the power of emotion I felt. Pissarro, who had been a patient of this doctor, recommended him to Van Gogh. Dr Gachet, a psychiatrist, was interested in working with artists. He gave Van Gogh some copper plate to etch, the first etching the artist had ever done. Van Gogh was apparently delighted and produced this beautiful, soulful work of the doctor. I could imagine this man sitting down with Prince Harry in a room and saying, ‘Tell me all about it son’. Unfortunately Van Gogh was so ill that his death came not long after this work so it remains Van Gogh’s only etching.

Usually I read a child’s book to inform me about subjects before I venture into more sophisticated information. From this source I had understood the idea of the move from Impressionism to Cubism and the desire to show things from many different angles rather than just 2D. Cezanne illustrated this beautifully with his still life in that the vase is seen from above, the pitcher from the side, the orange by segment and so on. I particularly enjoyed Fernand Leger’s painting from 1913 entitled ‘Contraste de formes’. The write up describes how
this is a visual and auditory delight and I agree. You can really hear the tambourines and drums playing whilst marvelling at their shapes drawn from all angles which appear to come out of the surface of the painting. I noted also the remark that the colours (red, white and blue) are patrioti, given the date of the painting and the growing tensions of imminent war.
There is so much more to say and I haven’t even mentioned Degas or Picasso but there is no room in this article. It is a rare and well notated exhibition, if not a little tiring!

After four hours I headed off into Oxford city and came upon ‘The Art Cafe’, not unlike our local one in Melksham. Heaven. I enjoyed a meal of homemade soup, warm bread and coffee and wondered if the cafes of Montmartre had looked a bit like this one. Was that a modern day Renoir or Monet sitting in the corner? Did I pass Albert Gleizer on the rickety stairs?
Our coach arrived punctually and I got out my knitting for the journey home. Blue skies had turned to a moody grey and the mood on the coach was quiet. Snatches of conversation entered my head as I concentrated on plains and purls: ‘We hitchhiked to Denmark in 1961’, ‘ We were going to have lunch by a tree; I don’t know which tree’, ‘She discovered that the deer was eating the camellia’. Maybe a poem I mused? After all, this is the Arts Association of Bradford on Avon. What fun!

Julie Hewson