Friday, 29 December 2017

Review: Helen Allingham

Much delayed due to Blogvent, here is my review of the current exhibition on at the Watts Gallery, 'Helen Allingham', the first major retrospective of this much overlooked artist...

Harvest Moon
Helen Allingham is one of those artists you might not know by name but you would definitely recognise her work.  Seemingly responsible for the lid of every damn tin of biscuits my grandma ever owned in the 1980s, her work could be dismissed as chocolate-box, fake cottage chitz, but that is possibly because at the most easily palatable end of the scale, those images of rose dappled cottages all stem from her work on recording rural dwellings in her own way.  However, as this beautiful, powder-palate exhibition shows, Helen Allingham was more than just cottages, and her connections to the cultural heart of Victorian society was enviable.

William Allingham (1876)
To start with, I have to admit I did not connect William Allingham, friend of Rossetti and writer of the diary that was invaluable to me as I wrote Stunner, with Helen Allingham, and actually spent about five minutes stood in the gallery going 'what, the William Allingham?!' in a puzzled tone.  Yes, they were married and her beautiful portrait of him is a mixture of the appropriate and the intimate as the learned chap reads in his tassel-y dressing gown.

A Herbaceous Border
Another thing that surprised me was Allingham's friendship with Gertrude Jekyll, and her colourful images of flowers are a result.  These not only are gorgeous images but record the gardener's experiments in planting which were revolutionary, an exuberant explosion of colour and form.

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
Not only are there exploding flowerbeds but also illustrations, as Allingham was the only female founding members of The Graphic and her early career is seen in the detailed black and white scenes from the serials she illustrated.  I love her Hardy illustrations, such as Far from the Madding Crowd when it appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. All novels should come with images of handsome men carking it romantically in sheds, in my opinion.

Self Portrait (1885)
Her portraits were a revelation, not only her own self portrait, but other images such as Tennyson reading, show the trust and friendship she seemed to have with her contemporaries, many of whom lived nearby her in Surrey.  However, the cottages do catch your eye and imagination mainly due to their familiarity, but what I didn't know before I went to the exhibition was the reason behind them...

Feeding the Fowls
Allingham painted the buildings in their rustic charm as a form of protest.  It was at a time when such buildings were being demolished with no thought to the history they held and so she began to record them, sometimes changing elements to show them in their original glory, undoing change where it had already, un-aesthetically, occurred.  How successful she was, and how far she perpetuated a sort of unrealistic rural idyll is a matter of opinion, but looking again at these familiar images there is much to appreciate.  Each cottage is different, each is 'lived in' in a unique way that does ring true and holds more than just attraction.  Maybe it was not just the destruction of the buildings that Allingham was protesting against but the way of life, a sort of un-industrialist perfection when man, or more often woman, and nature were as one.

Study of Flowers
There is much to see at this exhibition, which almost goes without saying as the Watts Gallery never disappoints.  Helen Allingham is a woman who needs lifting out of the cosy cottage cul-de-sac in which she has been abandoned and just this sort of retrospective does much to reignite interesting in the artist and her life.  I found her work with Jekyll to be glorious and even those cottages have an added depth I never suspected.  And she was married to William Allingham.  Yes, the William Allingham.

The exhibition is on at the Watts Gallery at Compton until 18th February and further information can be found here.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Sunday 24th December: The Angel visits the Marys of Freshwater

No-one had warned him that walking in Freshwater left one at the mercy of sudden interruption and near-abduction, especially if your face was pleasing.  A matter of minutes after reaching the boundary wall of Dimbola Lodge, by Freshwater Bay, he had found himself 'halloo-ed' from above and as he had turned to find out where the call had come from, a woman had appeared, her hands clasped and her face rapturous.  There had been no reasoning with her, no excusing oneself, either politely or otherwise, as she was insistent.  Beyond insistent in fact, tantamount to obligatory.  Before he had known it, he had been snatched from the sunlight and thrust through the doors of a turret that joined to buildings together, and commanded up the stairs, to find ‘the Virgin Mary’. The Lord himself could not have been more compelling.

The Day Spring (Mary Hillier and  (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
The young man paused in the doorway of the wide, sun-sparkled room.  He was barely into his twenties, dressed well even in the progressing heat of the July morning, and he gave his collar a slight wiggle out of both warmth and discomfort.  There was barely any furniture where it should be, all of it stacked to the side, higgledy piles of chairs against a table, and books in stacks that tilted precariously.  Instead, a wide white sheet had been pinned out across the chimney breast as if to hide the fireplace out of modesty, and two lone chairs were placed forlornly in front.  On one of them sat a girl of around 16, in a pale grey dress, her hair loose down her back in a cascade of chestnut waves which she was brushing out in grand sweeps. A gentle breeze floated out strands into the air like silks at a tapestry.  For a moment the unreality of the scene caused the visitor to pause, a smile forming on his lips, but time was pressing upon him and so gave a slight inclined bow to the girl.
'Excuse me?  Might you be Mary?'
'Aye, and who might you be?'
The man smiled brightly, 'I'm your Gabriel.'  He cast a look behind him to the stairs, and pulled a slightly apologetic face. 'Well, that was what I was told.'
If he expected her to question him further, he was mistaken as Mary just shrugged and continued her brushing, catching a snag which she viciously raked clear.
'That'll do it,' she murmured and turned her attention back to her newly arrived angel. 'Now then,' she continued, looking the man over, 'where's Mrs Cameron?'
'Oh,' he gestured behind him, but instead another young woman came in, carrying a pile of assorted fabrics.  She left them on the other chair.
'Who's this then?' the new girl asked, her voice rich with an Irish warm.  Her baring was prouder and her manner leasurely, at odds with her maid’s garb.
'He's our Gabriel, apparently.' Mary pulled a face and the other girl laughed.
'Sorry, I'm Arthur,' the young man interrupted, blushing slightly as the Irish girl, who was rather pretty, drew closer, her gaze flitting over his face appraisingly.
'Pleased to meet you,' the girl smiled and gave a little bob. 'I'm Mary.'

After the Manner of Francia (Mary Ryan and Elizabeth Keown) (1865-66) Julia Margaret Cameron
'Oh, but I thought...' Arthur started, and a third girl entered the room, this time carrying a cumbersome potted lily.  She shushed him out of the way as she hauled it to the space between the two chairs, placing it down with a thud 
'I thought she was Mary,' continued Arthur, pointing at the first Mary.
'And so I am,' she retorted in a country burr.
'As am I,' replied Irish Mary.
'And me,' added the third girl, pressing her hands to her back, stretching.

The Three Marys (Mary Kellaway, Mary Hillier and Mary Ryan) (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron
The man pulled his hand through his hair and paused for a moment, assuming it was a joke, but none of the Marys laughed, nor paid him any further attention.  The first Mary, a sturdy girl with an open, pleasant face which rested in an entirely neutral expression, concentrated on draping a large rectangle of cream silk around her face.  Irish Mary continued to regard Arthur with a reserved speculation and humour.  The third Mary puffed out a breath of exhaustion, and she paused only to briefly arrange the drapery around the first Mary's shoulders before briskly leaving the room.  Arthur shuffled awkwardly and edged back towards the door, almost colliding with an older man, watching the scene unfold from the doorway.  He chuckled, placing a hand on the young man's arm.
'A visitor, I see, or should I say a recruit?  I am Charles Cameron and I am assuming you are here at my wife's insistence?'
'I ... yes, I seem to have been recruited for a photograph. I was merely passing, on my way…'
Arthur trailed off as Mr Cameron nodded, his face suffused with wisdom, enhanced by his snowy white hair and beard.
'Press-ganged, I should say.' He gave a chuckle. 'Is it to be Tennyson or Bible?' 
Arthur looked surprised, ‘Oh, how did you know...?’
The first Mary gestured to her head.
'Bible,' she said, drawing a circle in the air above her.
'Am I needed?' The old man asked, his voice a mixture of hope and humour.  Both the Marys laughed at a joke which Arthur couldn’t quite catch.
'No, Sir, not this morning.' First Mary replied, adding, 'leastways, I can't think how.'
'Not even as an angel?'

The Annunciation (Sophia and Mary Hillier) (1864-5) Julia Margaret Cameron
Both girls laughed.  The old man gave them a twinkling smile and turned his attention back to Arthur, who grimaced.
'I believe that's to be me, or at least, that's the instruction I received.' Arthur paused, aware of how he had just obeyed the commands of the woman in the garden, clad in her fine, red silk dress. 'I was told to come here and find the Virgin.'
'Well, that's a bit much,' snapped the First Mary and the second one laughed behind her hand.
'Really, Sir, that's an impertinence...' Mr Cameron began, giving a decent impression of a stern patriarch of the highest order, but at the complete collapse of Arthur's compose, his expression melted into humour again.
'Oh dear no! Oh, that's not what I meant, I only meant ... and they are all called Mary! Sir, really, are they all called Mary?' Arthur flustered, his cheeks burning. 'I only came to visit an old friend, and now I seem to have found myself here, and I really didn't mean...This is not how it was meant to be at all…'
Mr Cameron placed his hand on Arthur's shoulder, his face all kindness.
'I quite understand, there is no offense, really, my dear boy, calm yourself.' At the old man's words, the two Marys allowed themselves a giggle and Arthur settled. 'Now then, where did my wife find you?'
'I was in the lane outside, she appeared from your garden and I couldn't seem to refuse.'
'Ah,' Mr Cameron smiled and nodded, 'yes, I find that often to be the case. And you are to be?'
'He's Gabriel,' answered First Mary and her expression left no-one in any doubt how unconvinced she was of the young man's angelic qualities.
'And he will be simply superb!' Entering in a flourish of skirts and fringed shawl, Mrs Cameron was by the young man's side in a moment. Her neat, dark head nodded decisively and with confidence. 'He was passing and look now at his countenance!   He is just what I need!  That is a face of such gravity and purpose, he will do splendidly.  Did I not tell you this?'
Arthur was left without a reply at the sudden question but could only stammer, 'oh, yes...' as that was exactly what had occurred.  Before he could ask further or indeed excuse himself from the whole situation, Mrs Cameron had summoned the third Mary back, this time carrying a box camera.  He might have imagined it but Arthur felt sure both the Third and Irish Marys gave him a look of almost pity, tinged with relief that it was not them this time.

A Christmas Carol (1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
'Now then my angel! Look full of holy purpose! Annunciate dear, annunciate!' Mrs Cameron shouted from behind the camera, under a dark sheet.  Her legs and vast silk skirt were the only thing visible, her body becoming part of the contraption.
'How am I meant to...?'
Arthur looked at the First Mary, now the only Mary in the room.  She was kneeling by the potted lily and her hands were clasped around the stem.
'Look to Mary, filled with her holy purpose.  Have a go at it, dear boy...'
Mary flicked her eyes to him in encouragement or impatience, it was hard to tell, before her face fell back into that wonderful peaceful vacancy she seemed to inhabit at the will of her mistress.
'I'm not sure I know...'
Mrs Cameron emerged from under the sheet looking perplexed, her hands finding her hips.  She considered him from a distance before stalking forward towards him at a terrifying pace.
'Now see here, Angel Gabriel, we need you to project the Will of God upon this your handmaiden who is patiently waiting to hear the Word of her Lord, so let's not keep her waiting, shall we?'
Mrs Cameron spoke with determined emphasis and proceeded to strike a couple of demonstrative poses, her arms raised and her body rising, then curving in a grand gesture of bestowing some invisible present upon the kneeling girl.
'I see, I think.  I shall do my best...'
The young man, frowning his lack of confidence, echoed her poses.  She watched him with a frown.
'Is that not what you meant?' Arthur asked, and Mrs Cameron wrinkled her nose in thought. 'I really do have somewhere I need to be.' Arthur murmured as his photographer seized his left arm and raised it.
'Yes, yes, but that will have to wait. Concentrate upon your holy task!'
Arthur sighed and pulled a rueful face. Below him, the kneeling Mary raised her eyes to him as if to implore him to get on with it and annunciate her already as she had things to do as well.  He raised his head, his hands reaching into the air and allowing the feeling of lightness to infuse his reach, before collapsing back into being a mere man.
'I'm sorry, but I just don't feel I can do this,' Arthur sighed, his hand racking through his hair once more.
'Oh, don't say that!' Mrs Cameron fussed. 'I really feel we were getting somewhere. I had a really sense of the holy from you. Come along, try again.  I shall have my annunciation if it kills me!'

Mary Ann Hillier (c.1865) Julia Margaret Cameron
Mary raised her eyes again to him, narrowing them slightly and Arthur was left with no illusions that if the annunciation was going to kill anyone, he would be first in line. 

Mrs Cameron was muttering in distress from under her camera sheet again about light and shadows, while Mary sat back on her heels, her cheeks puffed out in frustration.  Arthur strode over to the piles of books, just for something to do.  From the top of the heap he lifted a small, dark-bound book and allowed it to fall open in his hands.  The spine was tired and the pages hanging on to each other by sheer willpower, but the text was fresh and clear, even if the edges were slightly foxed.  Arthur turned back to Mary, and read,

‘The time draws near the birth of Christ:
The moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill 
Answer each other in the mist.

Four voices of four hamlets round,
From far and near, on mead and moor,
Swell out and fail, as if a door 
Were shut between me and the sound:

Each voice four changes on the wind,
That now dilate, and now decrease,
Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace, 
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.

This year I slept and woke with pain,
I almost wish'd no more to wake,
And that my hold on life would break 
Before I heard those bells again:

But they my troubled spirit rule,
For they controll'd me when a boy;
They bring me sorrow touch'd with joy, 
The merry merry bells of Yule.’

There was a pause as Mrs Cameron slowly emerged from under the sheet, uncharacteristically speechless.  Mary’s vacant expression had changed, to one of astonishment, her lips parted and jaw hanging.  Arthur gently closed the book and placed it back on the stack before striding to his mark in front of the kneeling Madonna. He tapped Mary under her lowered chin gently so her mouth shut and then place a hand on her head.
Mrs Cameron glided out from behind the camera and snatched the cap from the lens, her face enraptured.
Time ticked in golden seconds, the air thick with the honey scent of jasmine and cumin from both indoors and out.  A bird called from the garden and softly, in the bay, the waves rolled onto the beach, in happy shushing sighs.
The lens clipped back smartly and there was a pause as Arthur lowered his hand from Mary’s head.
‘Excellent!’ Mrs Cameron exclaimed, ‘and our first try!  We shall see how it develops and try again.'
Seizing the slide at the back of the camera and briskly whisking it clear like a reverse guillotine, Mrs Cameron strode away with the first Mary hastening to take off her headress in order to follow.
'Again?' asked Arthur meekly, and Mary grinned.
'I shouldn't move if I was you, we shall return in a moment for you to bless me again.'
'Yes, but I have somewhere else I should really be...' 
Maid and mistress had already busied away, leaving the young man gazing after them.  Mary turned in the doorway with a word of consolation on her lips but the man's expression was hidden, the light from the window so bright behind him for a moment that his expression was entirely hidden.
'Sharn't be a tick, Sir,' she replied, apologetically, and for a moment the curtains flapped behind him, almost like wings.

‘A disaster!’ Mrs Cameron announced striding back into the room, but found only her husband sitting in the chair by the window, reading from a small, tired book.
‘Disaster?’ Mr Cameron looked up, concerned. His wife stopped abruptly, her hands on her hips.
‘Now, where is my angel gone? I need him back immediately!  Mary is preparing the glass as we speak, he must be back in position again!’ Mrs Cameron turned on her heel, striding through the adjoining rooms in desperate search, before returning.
‘I assumed he had escaped your clutches…’ Mr Cameron chuckled, and his wife frowned indignantly.  The old man gave a self-admonishing cluck, before tapping the chair beside him.
‘He was just perfect, Charles, he turned into the most appropriate angel.  I was so sure it would be a triumph, but try as we might the fluid just would not find him on the glass.  We tilted and were so careful but there must have been drying or a hair or something, and he remained stubbornly undeveloped.  Only Mary remains, gazing at an empty space.’
‘As she often does,’ murmured Mr Cameron, although not unkindly.
Mrs Cameron huffed, examining her black streaked fingers, stained from the developing fluid.
‘I thought I had captured something in truth holy, dear one, but it has vanished, as has my angel.  It is all so disappointing.’

The Holy Family (1864) Julia Margaret Cameron
The First Mary appeared at the doorway, a wooden sleeve containing a prepared glass plate in her hands.  She looked as confused by the lack of her angel as her mistress.  The second and third Mary appeared at her shoulder, eager to see the young man again but equally as crestfallen by the sight of the employers, sitting by the window.
‘Never mind, M’am,’ offered Irish Mary brightly. ‘We’ll keep an eye out for him, he’s bound to return this way.’
‘He’s only gone as far as Farringford,’ added the third Mary, and the rest of them turned to look at her.
‘Farringford?’ asked Mrs Cameron sharply.
‘Aye, the butcher’s lad said a stranger asked him the way.  A young man, he said, and he purposely sent him by us to see if you fancied him for a picture.’ The third Mary paused, as Mr Cameron chuckled.
‘You bribe that boy too much to procure your models…’ he murmured, and his wife pointedly ignored him.
‘He’ll have to pass by, we’ll catch him again,’ repeated Irish Mary and Mrs Cameron nodded in resignation.
‘Well never mind,’ she sighed and waved the first Mary into the room with the plate. ‘Quick then, before it dries and another plate is wasted. You’ll have to be annunciated on your own, Madonna.’
The spare Marys bustled out again and Mr Cameron rose, leaving the scene that was being constructed.  He placed the small volume of verse on the top of the camera box, regarding his wife with fondness and a glimmer of something curious, something so preposterous that it drew a smile to his lips. With a slight twinkle of mischief, he called across to Mrs Cameron who was hurriedly draping and arranging her Madonna.
‘Dear one, what was the name of Alfred’s friend, the one who was to marry Miss Tennyson but who died so unexpectedly young?’
Mrs Cameron turned, frowning at having to pause while racking her memory.
‘Hallam,’ she replied, turning back to the drapery, but the turned back sharply. ‘Arthur Hallam,’ she repeated, and gave a little exclamation of disbelief.  Mary Madonna made a timid little sound of awe, and Mr Cameron chuckled tapping the copy of In Memoriam resting on the roof of the camera.

‘Only you could delay an angel, dear one…’ he intoned with affection before leaving the two women gaping in astonishment as he left the room.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Saturday 23rd December: Mary

Goodness me, we are very almost there and tomorrow I will be delivering to you a Christmas-y story, apparently.  So here is the last of the Virgin-vent images of the year and it's a sweetie...

Mary (1918) Dorothy Webster Hawksley
From Bramwell Bronte's early Victorian nativity, I now bring you a very modern Mary from the last year of the First World War.  That's what I love about doing Blogvent; I can spend a month just rambling back and forth in time looking at how different artists saw the same things at different ends of a century and beyond.  I really love the delicate watercolour of this image and Mary's reflection in the puddle is far more lovely than necessary.  The blue, the traditional colour for the Virgin Mary due to the cost of lapis lazuli, ground up for paint, just leaps forward as it is so clear and vivid in among those dull browns and greens.  The red inside her cloak reflects the red flowers in that wooded bank behind her and she and Jesus just blend together beautifully.

The Nativity 
Dorothy Webster Hawksley (1884-1970) is my favourite artist, well at least for today.  The airy beauty of her work brings light and colour to her religious images.  Look at the colourful choir of angels up on the rickety roof!  Gorgeous! It makes a nice change for the Three Kings not to be the only pretty things in the image because everyone has dressed up for the occasion.  Splendid!

Mary and Elizabeth (1939)
Even later in her career, her use of colour is sublime.  The contrast between her Mary and Elizabeth and Evelyn de Morgan's version of the same scene is interesting.  Hawksley uses blue as a link between the women, one old, one young, both expecting babies.  There is a look of concern from Elizabeth to Mary and they join hands in sisterhood.

Summer (1920s)
Hawksley's father made surgical instruments, and admired the works of John Ruskin.  Her grandfather, Samuel Walters, had also been a painter and so when little Dorothy decided she wanted to become one the family didn't oppose her.  She studied under the watercolourist Edward Clifford who had been a friend of Burne-Jones and Hawksley attended the Burne-Jones Memorial Exhibition in 1898 so it is tempting to see her willow-stem female figures as evolutions of Burne-Jones' own pale maidens.  In the little I find written about her, comment is made about her unmarried state and female-centric scenes which may or may not be relevant but what is evident in her work is an appreciation for the beauty of the female figure, especially one with a dutch-doll black bob which I also appreciate. Whatever her reasons, I would like to find out more about the work of Dorothy Hawksley in 2018...

See you for the finale tomorrow...

Friday, 22 December 2017

Friday 22nd December: The Virgin with a Kiss

I can't say I'm looking forward to today's tasks.  I have to do the food shopping which is always a scrum but as I am a vegetarian it will involve a lot of unChristian hair-pulling over a red cabbage.  I will try and control my rage, I promise.  In the meantime, here is today's painting...

The Virgin with a Kiss (1919) Maurice Denis
I really like this one, not only for the gorgeous colours but also the title.  It reminds me that possibly I shouldn't be hobbling anyone over brussels sprouts, I should be spreading peace and love because that is somewhat more in keeping with the season.  As I am preparing to head-lock some bloke over the last jar of redcurrant jelly I should think of this lovely Mary and her happy little Jesus in their pretty garden of flowers.  Such glorious colours!  Ah, that's better...

The Annunciation Under the Arch with Lilies (1913)
At the age of 15, Maurice Denis wrote in his journal 'I have to be a Christian painter and celebrate all the miracles of Christianity, I feel it has to be so.' Flipping teenagers.  However he did hold true and produced some beautiful Biblical images including The Annunciation Under the Arch with Lilies which is a wonderful indoor annunciation in dappled colours.  He also did this very positive number...

The Annunciation (1913)
This is quite a rare annunciation (and heaven knows we have seen quite a few this month) - for once the angel is not intimidating and is actually kneeling in front of Mary who looks well chuffed with the whole situation.  Well, that's just splendid and its nice to see Mary get a bit of respect in the whole matter rather than having her heavenly duty thrust upon her whether she likes it or not.

Madonna of the Blooming Garden
Denis goes even further than most artists in his association of the Madonna with flowers.  There aren't just lilies in his images, often entire gardens such as Madonna of the Blooming Garden and The Madonna of the Eternal Spring (1908).  For Denis, the Virgin Mary is all about flowers and kissing babies and I'm okay with all of that.

Self Portrait (1916)
He was a busy chap, Maurice Denis (1870-1943).  He provided a bridge between Impressionism and modern art, associated with the art movement Les Nabis and the Symbolists, and founded a workshop of religious arts.  He designed murals and stained glass and through his workshop designed art for churches, which was an important part of his work from the First World War all the way to his death during the Second.  He wrote extensively about art, both publicly and privately and I find his writing very interesting, for example 'Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.' (Art et Critique August 1890).  You can't argue with that. Maurice Denis seems an eminently sensible chap and he is welcome to come round mine for Christmas dinner, just as soon as I have wrestled it out of the hands of someone in Sainsburys.

See you tomorrow...

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Thursday 21st December: Holy Night

Today is the shortest day of the year in terms of actual daylight, but as I don't have to go to work today I will be spending most of it in my fox pajamas under a duvet, probably knitting.  As it is currently as black as pitch outside, that course of action seems the most sensible, but in the meantime, here is today's picture...

Holy Night Hugo Havenith
This is a very sweet depiction of the Away-in-a-Manger moment of the Christmas story, with a glowing baby Jesus being coo-ed over by his Mum and some little cherubic kiddiwinks.  I wonder if they are supposed to be little angels?  Or does it show 'the little children' going to see Jesus because little kiddiwinks are meant to be able to be able to see the wonders of the Holy Spirit and all that jazz?  Either way, I hope they stay quiet because Mary's only just got him to sleep...

In the Manger
This variation makes it a little clearer as the kiddiwink nearest us has a pair of wings.  They are definitely little baby angels with thin golden halos and gossamer floating behind them as they peek at the holy glowing baby.

Now this is getting a little ridiculous.  I'm sure Hugo Havenith (1853-1925) did other pictures but he seemed to return to the image of Mary at the manger a few times, probably because it sold well, or maybe because he was never satisfied with how he portrayed it.  Having a good Christmas image in your collection might have been like releasing a good Christmas song - at least it's popular once a year.  I suspect that my curator-husband, Mr Walker, has image envy if he see another museum with a corking Christmas scene as that can be slapped on a Christmas card and sold, thus earning its keep.  Presumably a nice romantic picture is also good (Valentines Day), a good wedding scene and baby picture likewise.  If only museums in the past had devised their collecting policies around what would look good on a tote bag...

The Cellist
Despite being born in London, Hugo Havenith spent his life in Germany, studying and living in Munich.  His sisters also married painters as did his mother, for her second marriage.  There's a family that enjoy the smell of turps....

An Attentive Audience
Not a great deal seems to be available for Havenith, but possibly Munich has more information in the Neue Pinakothek.  Despite his manger fetish, his work is charming and I really like his Cellist.  This is a short post for the shortest day but hopefully the sun will come up soon.  Stay warm m'dears and I'll see you tomorrow...

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Wednesday 20th December: The Adoration of the Shepherds

Blimey, we really are on the last few now!  It's my last day at work today, and Lily's last day at school for this year and so I'll be glad when I don't have to get up tomorrow morning.  Of course I will get up as Blogvents don't write themselves, and on that note, here's today's offering...

The Adoration of the Shepherds (c.1834-8) Patrick Branwell Brontë
Today's painting comes from everyone's favourite wastrel-of-a-brother, Branwell Brontë, sibling of Emily, Charlotte and Anne and proof that even really talented families have someone who you don't really want to invite over at Christmas (or at least hide all the sloe gin before he arrives).  He's probably best known for the portrait of his sisters, which he removed himself from...

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë (1834)
I feel a bit sorry for Branwell as he didn't seem to have the confidence or ability to apply himself to work or opportunities.  His sisters were prepared for jobs (which were horrible jobs, the best sort of motivation you need to get on with stuff that get you out of those jobs, in my experience) but Branwell really wasn't and was left to float along trying to become successful without putting effort into it.  If only he could have become famous and well paid for drinking and sleeping with ladies, his problems would have been over...

The Lonely Shepherd (1838-9)
The frustrating thing about Branwell's art is that some of it is intriguingly good and shows real potential.  I love the use of light and darkness in his nativity, a sort of chiaroscuro of holy glow, which is very effective.  The smudged colour of The Lonely Shepherd gives the impression of everything blowing in the night air, a wildness in the moonlight, with some colour picked out in the bracken.

Hot, French Branwell from Les Soeurs Brontë (1979) in your actual French and everything
I see Branwell is having a bit of a revival this year and is being promoted as not 'the least useful useful Brontë' as he has previously been known, but as an interesting man of promise.  Thinking about it, I suppose the question shouldn't be why did the isolation make Branwell drink and put it about, but maybe why did it not make the girls go barmy too?  Possibly Bramwell's reaction, whilst not exactly helpful, was honest because anyone who has been to Haworth could appreciate how gloriously cut off it was from life.  It could be that the girls expressed their wildness in words, writing some of the most compelling literature in the English language, which to my mind is the preferable way to go.  You're less likely to end up with a rash, that's for sure.

See you tomorrow...

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Tuesday 19th December: The Nativity

It's so dark this morning, it's ridiculous.  Roll on the shortest day because although I'm not a fan of the summer, I would appreciate actually seeing some daylight somewhen soon.  As it is, I shall have to suffer in the dark for a while longer, but in the meantime, here is today's painting...

The Nativity (1872) William Bell Scott
We've arrived at the main event, much like the shepherds here - it's the nativity!  We have choirs of angels, a baby and a bunch of well-wishers all turning up with gifts to welcome the baby.  Actually, having had a baby in December, this is pretty much what it looks like when you have a baby around Christmas.  Only we didn't have a choir of actual angels, there were less cows in our front room and well-wishers tend to turn up with Boots vouchers rather than lambs.  Otherwise, it's spot on.

I like the fact the angels are up in the rafters, it's so sweet.  There is always a problem what you do with the angels in the nativity set.  The Playmobil one we have is fine as she can stand up, but with my French set, you have to either lean 'Gloria' as she is called against something or (as we used to do when I was a child) blue-tac them rather unceremoniously to the stable.  It's nice to have them tucked out of the way in a sort of heavenly-shelf affair, it reminds me of old paintings where the cherubs look down from clouds.

Holy Family!
May, Joseph and the little Baby Jesus are at the back in the stall, with a very nice potted plant.  The lily is a tad incongruous but for symbolism sake we have to put up with it.  I think a mini-fridge would have been more welcome by the holy family but I guess they just have to lump it.  Joseph looks very decrepit in this one, more like Mary's Grandpa than her boyfriend, but we'll gloss over that...

Shepherds!  Lady Shepherds!
The well-wishers I suppose are the shepherds as they don't look much like Three Kings.  And look!  There is even a lady shepherd complete with baby strapped to her back. I never really gave any thought to the gender of the shepherds but there is no reason that even if they were chaps they couldn't have turned up with their good lady wives.  Everyone needs an excuse to get out of the house at Christmas.

This bloke...
There's always one, isn't there?  Who turns up to see a new born baby with a set of bagpipes?  Plus, is he in a kilt? I think I can see a bit of tartan, but I might be mistaken.  Either way, turning up with bagpipes is possibly the worst idea ever, even if that is the son of God and probably has a nice sleep pattern all sorted out already.

You know William Bell Scott; he's the third wheel in the photo of Rossetti and Ruskin above, and the brains behind the nut-spitting story to do with Fanny Cornforth.  Swine.  It all began with Fanny loudly pointing out that she didn't recognise him at a dinner party as he'd lost his hair while ill.  He is obviously a man who doesn't forgive as he made up that story presumably to get his own back.

The Eve of the Deluge (1865)
William Bell Scott (1811-90) was a painter and poet from Edinburgh and taught art in London and Newcastle upon Tyne.  He's probably best known for his depictions of the new industrial landscape and processes as well as more traditional subjects such as Biblical and literary scenes.

Iron and Coal (1855-60)
He had an unusual private life, running some sort of menage a trois with one of his pupils, up in Penkill Castle and back at his home in London.  For someone with such a flexible approach to private life, he seems to have been quite judgmental in the case of his handling of Fanny but in that he was not alone, showing how hypocritical they were.  His art is now largely unknown, despite residing in major collections and being of interesting and unusual subjects.  Iron and Coal for example is unusual, bearing a comparison to Work by Ford Madox Brown in the treatment of heroic-looking workmen.  His nativity is both traditional in setting but the emphasis on the shepherds, the working men, is a change and makes it a different and somehow more realistic depiction of the scene.

Apart from the bagpipes, obviously.

See you tomorrow...

Monday, 18 December 2017

Monday 18th December: Arrival at Bethlehem

Here we are then, just a week from the big day! My cold is on the wane so I am slathering on 'Happinose' (a sort of menthol paraffin wax with geranium oil in it, that softens sore skin and clears your nose, I can't recommend it enough) and swigging back cough syrup as we crack on with the last few bits.  I have done my Christmas shopping so am now concentrating on knitting Mr Walker a scarf and getting to the end of Blogvent.  Onwards!

Arrival at Bethlehem (1897) Luc-Olivier Merson
We are pretty much past all that annunciating stuff now and we have made it to Bethlehem which is rather full.  I've been in a few nativity plays in my time and I have to admit the most disappointing role I ever had was 'Inn Keeper'.  I wasn't even the nice Inn Keeper who let them stay in the shed.  I was a rubbish one who said 'There is no room here' while trying not to knock over the precarious set.  I had to wear an ugly kaftan thing too.  Anyway, enough of my acting career, today's image is that moment when the holy couple turn up and try and find somewhere to stay.  I have a few problems with this painting...

Let's start with Mary.  I'll start with the positives.  Nice halo.  Right, now on with what is wrong - why is the Mother Of Our Lord Jesus Christ sat on the floor?! Where is her donkey? I thought for a moment this might be her donkey...

...but that is obviously a Great Dane or something.  As far as I know, Mary and Joseph did not travel all the way from Nazereth to Bethlehem on the back of Scooby Doo.  Oh and going back to Mary, I noticed a little something missing...

December 2005
That is what a massively pregnant lady looks like.  That's me, on my due date, with eight pound of blonde baby on board.  No amount of careful draping of cloaks is hiding that, but Mary is definitely not carrying a baby in any visible way.  That's holy pregnancies for you, far more comfortable than conventional, that's for sure. Mind you, I didn't have to sit in the dust outside a pub (if I had, I probably would not have been able to get up), so it's all swings and roundabouts.

Annunciation (1908)
Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920) was an academic painter in France who seems to have followed the traditional path of religious art.  I like his annunciation, with a roof-top angel doing her annunciating by a chimney.  That makes a nice change.  Merson's work became largely forgotten because, as you can see, when his fellow countrymen were going all avante-garde in the face of a new century, he was still producing old fashioned, if beautiful paintings.  He also designed stamps and currency, so he was not short of work.  

Angel's Greeting (1890)
The Arrival at Bethlehem is a very odd picture from an artist who produced such beautiful and accomplished works.  The sandy desolation of the street gives the impression of the lack of welcome they were being offered and Mary's dejected state shows her vulnerability but I am not convinced by the fact that she is sat on the ground.  Where's her donkey?  The donkey is key!  There is even a song about him, and that's how the donkey got the cross on his back.  It is a mystery that will endure. Also, I understand this is over a hundred years ago and pregnant women were not seen as aesthetically pleasing as we consider them now, but really Merson's Mary is either carrying so low that it is out of frame or Jesus was an extremely small baby.  Either way, that is not a pregnant enough Virgin for my liking.  That's not a phrase I get to say very often...

See you tomorrow...

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Sunday 17th December: Madonna

Okay, the penultimate Sunday before Christmas, and only a week before Christmas Eve: I think I need a Sunday to relax.  I've seen Star Wars (which I predictably loved) (I was wearing my Princess Leia knitted hat and my AT-AT poodle skirt) (I regret nothing) and my cold has decided to freshen up again due to the racing around yesterday, so today I am going to take it easy and snooze.  First of all, here is today's blogvent image...

Madonna (1894) Edvard Munch
I'm not a big fan of Munch, not specifically out of taste but our paths don't really cross very often, however when I was searching for images of the Virgin Mary this came up and I immediately recognised it.  Together with The Scream, this is probably what people know him for, mainly because a copy got pinched a couple of times years ago.  To be stolen twice is definitely working in her favour, if you ask me...

1895-1902 lithograph including frame design
There are quite a few versions of this unusual portrayal of the Virgin Mary (if by 'Madonna' that is specifically who we mean).  For starters, she turned up without her vest on, which is not how the Bible worked when I was younger and also can't be advisable in Norway, not even in the summer.  Maybe she can't afford a vest - the tax in Scandinavia is so punishing.  Anyway, you can imagine it raised a few eyebrows, and the subject matter was disputed , not least because Munch gave his many versions alternate titles like 'Loving Woman'.  Some argue that it is a picture of a tempting and debauched woman who is to be adored.  Nevertheless, she does appear to have a halo and in the above lithograph, the border (which reflected an actual frame of one of the versions, now lost) there is a little fetal figure and some elongated sperm. Well, that's one way of showing the annunciation...

Dagny Juel-Przybyszewska
Obviously, because of who I am,  I'm fascinated by the model, and it's hardly surprising as Dagny Juel-Przybyszewska is an awesome woman with a bit of a tragic end.  Model and lover to Munch, her private life overshadowed her work as a writer (t'uh, typical).  She also had a relationship with Norwegian writer August Strindberg before marrying Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who allegedly had her shot in 1901, either because she was seeing other men or because he wanted to marry one of the two other women he was seeing.  Flipping heck!

Ashes (1894)
I think the character and perceptions of Dagny are key to Madonna: Dagny modelled for Munch from around 1890 when she and her sister moved to Oslo (then called 'Christiana' - Oslo, not her sister) and Dagny threw herself into the artistic, bohemian lifestyle of the city.  She travelled to Berlin to continue her studies and possibly to continue seeing Munch, and appeared in his paintings of this period including Ashes and Jealousy. Whilst in Berlin, Dagny had other relationships, including one with Przybyszewski, who left his mistress, Martha, and their children to marry Dagny.  When Munch painted Dagny as Madonna she was pregnant with her first child, which may have been what prompted the subject matter.

Dagny Juel Przybyszewska
I may well pay a bit more attention to Munch now because I rather like Dagny and her story - it has resonance with models such as Elizabeth Siddal - women whose personal lives overwhelm their contribution to the arts.  Also, as Martha killed herself, I immediately thought of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, another writer whose life is compared back to Siddal. There are a couple of biographies about Dagny, and her poetry seems to be available, although I'm not sure if all or some have been translated into English.  I think it is very telling that while in a relationship with the writer August Strindberg, his friends referred to her as 'Aspasia', a classical Greek woman whose home was a centre for intellectual life but who was also suspected to be a prostitute.  That sums up how women who attempted to play by the same rules as the men in their lives were treated.

See you tomorrow...