Prints at the Courtauld Gallery


BTF4The Courtauld Gallery is currently exhibiting highlights from its print collection, of which the bulk was bequeathed by two of the Courtauld Institute’s founders, Samuel Courtauld and Sir Robert Witt, as well as art collector and scholar Count Antoine Seilern.

Courtauld, whose family wealth derived from the textile industry, was one of the first British collectors to show real interest in the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and built up his collection of their work predominantly during the 1920s.  His prints were selected to complement the paintings he owned by artists such as Manet, Gauguin, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec – each of whom is represented in this show.  Manet’s early etching, ‘La Toilette’ (1862) shows him experimenting with the medium and with the subject of the female nude in a slightly crude sketchy manner that is difficult to tally with the polished dexterity of ‘Olympia’ just a year later.  Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘Jockey’ (above, 1899) is typical of his assured line and snapshot-style view of contemporary life, the horse leaping into the frame with legs splayed like a can-can dancer’s.

article_inset_perl_3Sir Robert Witt, who lends his name to the Witt Library, was more interested in the quality and educational value of prints than the fame of their producer.  Having amassed a vast archive of photographic reproductions that became a hugely important resource for scholars of art history (and still is today), prints were considered by him in a similar manner – as a didactic resource.  Now many of these prints have been transferred from the Witt Library to the gallery’s print collection for conservation purposes.  Among those now on view is Jacques Callot’s etching ‘The Fan (The Battle of of King Weaver and King Dyer)’ (above, 1619) which was designed to be stuck on a static fan and purchased by spectators of these Florentine guilds’ festivities on the Arno.

Giovanni-Battista-Visit-to-Death-Tiepolo-OG-272352 - CopyCount Antoine Seilern was an Anglo-Austrian art enthusiast who studied in Vienna in the early 1930s with Johannes Wilde, and it was Wilde’s appointment as deputy director of the Courtauld under Anthony Blunt which persuaded Seilern to bequeath some of his collection to the gallery on his death in 1978.  The collection was begun in 1931, with the majority of prints being purchased between 1951 and 1966.  Seilern’s interest lay in the Old Masters – especially Rubens – and the prints were often bought alongside a painting or drawings by the same artist, to complement these media or to illustrate the artist’s working methods.  For example, Mantegna’s preparatory engraving for ‘The Flagellation’ (c.1465-70) and Christoffel Jegher’s ‘The Temptation of Christ’ (1633), a woodcut after Rubens’ painting.  Tiepolo’s ‘Death Giving Audience’ (above right, 1743) was bought as part of a complete set of ‘Vari Capricci’.

1._courtauld_prints_-_brueghels_rabbit_hunt__gallery_imageAlso selected from Seilern’s collection (known as the Prince’s Gate Collection) are Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s ‘Rabbit Hunt’ (above, 1560), the only known etching by the artist’s own hand and full of incident as any of his lustrous skating scenes; and Piranesi’s ‘Smoking Fire’ (c.1749-60), an Escher-like architectural labyrinth – on a large scale for a print – the etched lines full of expressive and visionary energy.


This core collection has been added to by many more gifts and bequests over the years.  One of the earliest, in 1933 (the year after the founding of the Institute) came from Henry Oppenheimer, from whose complete set of Canaletto’s Views of Venice is displayed the etching ‘Portico with a Lantern’ (above, c.1741-44), its vibrating lines describing the crumbling plasterwork and the shimmering heat of the Venetian summer.  More recent exhibits include a Lucian Freud etching (‘Blonde Girl’, 1985) from Frank Auerbach, and a Chris Ofili etching of 1996 donated by Charles Booth-Clibborn of print publishers The Paragon Press.

35-blondgirlAs so often, the Courtauld manages to achieve an illuminating and exquisite exhibition in just one small room.  The exhibition reveals not only some of the most accomplished examples of printmaking over almost five centuries, but in doing so illustrates the different techniques as well as the variety of functions these prints fulfilled – from early promotional or educational tools, to a means of conveying information through maps and illustrations.  As Witt anticipated, the collection is an astutely-selected education in Western art history and this show is a perfect miniature.


A Royal glimpse of the Northern Renaissance


The exhibition of the art of the Northern Renaissance at the Queen’s Gallery is subtitled ‘Durer to Holbein’ and it is these two artists who dominate.  Deservedly so – though in this case it ought to be ‘Durer and Holbein’ with other artists’ works shown for contrast or comparison’s sake.  With the chosen title, the gallery has attempted an overview of the Northern Renaissance as a whole, and so  – unsurprisingly – there are gaping holes, a few random additions and arbitrary juxtapositions, and the previously noted bias towards the two eponymous masters.

I am not complaining.  We begin by meeting the intellectual luminaries of the day by way of a woodcut of Luther by Lucas Cranach the younger, a portrait of Erasmus by Quinten Massys, and Holbein’s preparatory drawings of Sir Thomas More and his family.  The drawings, in black and coloured chalk, are beautiful character studies; less harsh than the oils they convey the subtleties of skintone and texture.  Most avoid catching one’s eye, except for Thomas More’s father, whose pale blue gaze is arresting for this sudden human connection.  Thomas More senior was a judge, described as ‘virtuous’ and ‘merry’, though one barely needs this descriptive aid to perceive these traits in the wise, incisive, yet kindly eyes and the mouth with just a glimmer of a smile.


Strangely, these drawings are detached from the rest of Holbein’s work on show, perhaps so that the intellectuals are considered separately from the royalty and courtiers, who are given more space in the third and central room.  This room juxtaposes the drawings and paintings, often directly so that one can compare the study with the finished work and so gain an understanding of Holbein’s very precise and measured methods of working.  The paintings themselves remain intensely powerful in their simplicity of design, their vivid colours, and the force of character that they convey.  The subjects appear almost tangibly alive, their individuality emphasised by their wrinkles, scars, pallor or accentuated bone structure – or a slight tilt of the head that contains the hint of ruthlessness and arrogance in an ambitious courtier.


The drawing of a baby Prince Edward bears an uncanny resemblance to his father, but the ethereality of its execution simultaneously recalls a sickly life that would be cut short before he was fully grown.

Durer was represented almost solely by his etchings, engravings and woodcuts, which are unbelievably detailed and accomplished – but it was still a shame not to see more of his paintings, if only to compare to Holbein and Cranach, and to show off the full range of his talent (though perhaps the portrait of Burkhard of Speyer is the only Durer painting belonging to the Royal Collection, in which case the oversight is explained).  Particularly in contrast with Cranach the elder next door, who seems oblivious to human anatomy – though his golden-haired putty figures are key to his charm and shouldn’t really be compared, it would be like Gauguin compared to Manet, coming from different poles.  If Durer is an arch Realist (or sur-realist when it comes to the bible), Cranach is the Symbolist.  But I digress.  Durer created a diverse range of etched Virgins with Child – which struck me as odd; I had always imagined that an artist would have their own defined view of the how the V & C should appear and would stick to that, the variations from skinny to obese showing up the differing tastes and traditions between individual artists, if not whole different societies.  The disparity between Christ child images is far greater than that of Christ the man – here there seems to be a consensus, the differentiating factor being instead how graphically to display his wounds on the cross.


St. Jerome in his study – with lion and corgi happily asleep in the foreground – shows off Durer’s mastery of etching, from the grain of the wooden ceiling to the reflections on the window casement of sun through bottle-end glass panes.  The interior is full of the minute domestic detail that typifies the Northern Renaissance.  Likewise, St. Anthony at prayer is situated within a typical northern landscape of Bavarian hilltop towns with long steep roofs, crenellated towers and impregnable walls.


The series of woodcuts illustrating the Apocolypse are full of strange beasts, which must have really sparked Durer’s imagination as they are all – down to each separate head of the Hydra-like creature – individualised in their grotesqueness.  His joy in personifying Death and the vices, and all the terrors of Revelations reminded me (almost blasphemously) of Terry Pratchett.  But the most beautiful Durer was his brush-drawn study of a greyhound, as seen in the completed engraving of St. Eustace and the Stag beside it (Note to gallery: No postcard. Disappointing).


There were little diversions throughout the exhibition – a chalice here, a statue there, a suit of armour in the corridor – that I imagine were intended to broaden the perspective, acknowledging that paintings and etchings were not the only products of the Northern Renaissance.  Yet they were a little too random.  They might have fitted in better en masse, along with the spectacularly large Brussels tapestries in the final room, in an examination of the craftwork of the period.  This room instead tried to fit in all the other artists who weren’t Holbein or Durer or Cranach, but were considered jewels of the collection.  It was a fine collection of gems certainly, albeit in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ style.  ‘The Misers’ by a follower of Marinus van Reymerswaele (above) must take the prize – what characters!  One can just imagine the same petty-minded types today, only no-one would be interested in painting them because they would be wearing Sensible Clothes (in grey or beige) rather than red turbans.  The sad little portrait by Jan Gossaert of Christian II of Denmark’s children deserves a mention too.  They are all three quite chubby but pale as ghosts, painted after their mother’s death – what a moment to choose.


And ‘Jonah and his Gourd’ was an oddity too.  Very prettily painted, a sun-drenched evocation of Mediterranean climes by a northerner, with a pale ghostly city framed by the first arch of the viaduct, yet its subject was wholly ludicrous.  Why does Jonah need a gourd – and a very puny one at that – to shelter under when there is a good sturdy bridge, or a rather cosy-looking cave on the far side?!  One cannot sympathise.  Artistic licence getting carried away again.


Brueghel’s ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ was the finale – standing entirely alone in style and subject, its biblical narrative translated to a wintry Flemish village in the 1560s, pillaged by the Spanish army.  Not a sign of a murdered baby, however, just mothers, mourning loaves of bread; a skilful rewriting of history by a Habsburg emperor.  THere was much missing – where was Rogier van der Weyden or Van Eyck? – but as a selection of masterpieces from the Royal Collection it was a treat.  However, as a show of this kind it would have followed to give the history of the collection priority, using stories of a painting’s patronage or purchase to highlight the changing tastes and politics of our past rulers, especially in the erratic final display.

Culture & Anarchy

On Wednesday I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum.  I began at the end, with British Modernism.  With the voices of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant still chattering in my head, I admired the small bronze figures of Frank Dobson, and rather less so the Epstein busts which manage to look scarily emaciated and overly sentimental at the same time.  And Stephen said to Cecil:  “I’m so glad Dobson wants to do us – what excruciating fun it’ll be!! – visiting each other’s bust & commenting cattily, – I want to be a voluptuous skeleton, – just cheekbones & a navel really … My “Epstein” bust is at the London Group show now.”  I want to be a muse.  Where are the sculptors?

I like the Sickerts – especially the Mornington Crescent Nude – and the Vuillards – especially one of a woman reading among the reeds, and another in which a large round dining table dominates the small canvas, with a rotund grandmother trapped on one side of this expanse, and a toddler on the other, its head only just peering over the edge and a small fist outstretched; the tea cups and the biscuits are neatly arranged in the middle, appearing beyond the reach of either.  One can only imagine the frustration of posing for that one.  I would rather model for Degas, ensconced in a Paris cafe with a glass of absinthe.

There was a balcony encircling the third room, high up, which looked tantalisingly unreachable.  A door opened onto a tight spiral staircase and led up to an intriguing display of small canvases hung in a line all the way round at eye level.  It started at Brueghel (school of) with some curling being played in a dark blue wintry landscape, and a gathering of tiny birds who were considering the bird trap with contempt.  It continued round to some portraits and self-portraits of British modernist luminaries such as Lytton Strachey by Henry Lamb (he has such a funny long, bearded, melancholic face.  Why was Dora so in love with him? It must have been his mind.)  Then I came across this extraordinary picture of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints by Edmond Dulac, whom I knew only as the creator of such ethereal and bewitching illustrations as the Ice Maiden, accompanied by polar bears and carrying a human heart in her delicate hands – a highlight of the Age of Enchantment exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago.

Ricketts and Shannon were artistic and personal partners throughout their adult lives, the Fitz website helpfully informs me.  They look and sound strikingly like a previous incarnation of Gilbert & George, although – thankfully – did not consider themselves ‘living sculptures’, and produced some really rather beautiful work.  Shannon (on the left) looks rather maudlin, caught perhaps at the very moment that he discovers his kingfisher has a terminal illness; Ricketts, meanwhile, with his neat pointed beard and self-satisfied hint of a smile, looks as if he is hatching some furtive scheme.  Having illustrated Wilde’s The Sphinx and designed the first British production of Salome, his reverently held peacock feather perhaps suggests that he holds a flame for Oscar, to his partner’s deep distress…  What gossip and scandal.  Must find out more.

The anarchy broke out as darkness fell and I returned to a London populated by diminutive demons wielding plastic buckets.  And then this appeared in our sitting room….

I’m sure Matthew Arnold would never have predicted an anarchy such as this.

Apsley House

Today I visited Apsley House.  How many times, I thought, have I passed this splendid building by in full knowledge that I could wander in and have a look?  But as so often happens, when you live in a city, there is no urgency and it has been endlessly postponed – until today when it began to drizzle slightly after brunch, and the lurking thesis guilt suggested that I ought to look at some paintings rather than shop or have a nap.  It is a perfect small museum – a manageable bite of the National Gallery, but with the history of a family – or rather one man, the Duke of Wellington – to lend a narrative and sense of historical context to the collection of stunning paintings.

Those that stood out for me were the Breughels – tiny, detailed and luminescent – and the Spanish masters: Velazquez’s Water-Seller of Seville, Murillo’s St. Francis, and Ribera’s St. James the Great, with such character etched in their faces, or even just in the lines on a forehead or the gnarled, wrinkled hands.  In the dining room, the monarchs of early C19th Europe surrounded a dining table with the most elaborate centrepiece I have ever seen, celebrating the Wellington’s victories in the Peninsular Wars.  In the long gallery, added in 1828 to hold the annual Waterloo dinners, mirrors, reflecting the candlelight at night, slid across to reveal windows in daytime.  Genius.