Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery


Working predominantly in pale hues of pencil and watercolour, Ravilious’ style is precise and architectural yet he has an idiosyncratic vision. The exhibition begins with pictures that reflect this aptitude for homing in on the unexpected beauty and oddness of the ordinary. ‘Talbot-Daracq’ (above, 1934), for instance, takes as its subject a rusting car, the parts strewn across unkempt grass behind a wooden shed: a scene one would pass by without looking twice. Yet the derelict machinery is rendered with the exactitude and aestheticism of graphic design.

Eric Ravilious - Downs In Winter (1934)

Ravilious’ debt to his tutor at the Royal College of Art, Paul Nash, is clear from the start: like Nash, he sees both the geometry in nature and the surreal. The man-made and the natural co-exist in peaceful yet uncanny scenes – most without any living human presence (as in ‘Downs in Winter’, above, 1934). westbury horseAs do the ancient past and mechanised modernity in pictures such as that of the ‘Westbury Horse’ (right, 1939), dominating the chalk hillside with a train steaming along the valley below seeming toy-sized in comparison; or ‘Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck’ (below left, 1940), stranded in a snowy landscape.

eric-ravilious-ships-screw-on-a-railway-truck-1940And, like his tutor, he is a master of his medium. Watercolour (which predominates in this exhibition – his printed work very much sidelined bar an interesting series of lithographs) is a very English technique – particularly well suited to our climate – and often unfairly sidelined, though Tate’s ‘Watercolour’ exhibition in 2011 certainly made a good attempt at rectifying that.  But in the early 20th century, and especially the interwar decades, watercolour made a significant come-back among the British Modernist avant-garde: in addition to Nash, Edward Burra, Graham Sutherland, John Craxton and John Piper, to name but a few, were advocates of this subtle and delicate medium. Ravilious made it his own, and it is to the credit of the curator, James Russell, that the ways in which he did this are represented to the spectator in an understated yet illuminating manner. A small text appended to ‘Vicarage in Winter’ (below, 1935), for example, points out the cross-hatching technique that Ravilious brought from his experience in wood engraving to create the luminescent, pellucid light of an English winter’s dawn.


Ravilious’ career was cut short by his untimely death in 1942 – lost in action in a plane over Iceland – and therefore the exhibition chooses a looser thematic, rather than chronological, structure. The major theme that runs through the exhibition, alongside and in contrast to the timeless landscapes, is that of ships and biplanes preparing for war (‘De-Icing Aircraft’, below, 1942).de-icing aircraft 1942

Ravilious was signed up by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in 1939 and assigned to the Admiralty. His subsequent paintings of ships in dry dock and on the North Sea pay homage to earlier war artists such as C.R.W. Nevinson (especially ‘HMS Glorious in the Arctic’ of 1940, below, with its jagged, jazz-age streak of light across the water) and Edward Wadsworth, whose ‘Dazzle Ships in Drydock at Liverpool’ (1919) appears the Futuristic forerunner of Ravilious’ ‘A Warship in Dock’ (1940).

HMS Glorious in the Arctic 1940

People do sometimes appear in Ravilious’ work – theatrical and puppet-like in the design for the Morley College murals, more serious in the lithographs from the ‘Submarine Dream’ series, but still with the two-dimensionality of story-book illustrations.  More frequently one is struck by the absence of people, especially in the his bedroom interiors such as ‘A Farmhouse Bedroom’ (below right, 1930s).


This painting is deeply unsettling with its weird architectural arrangement – a seemingly dead-end corridor, a ceiling like a gauzy canopy – and de-stabilised perspective that recall Paul Nash’s hallucinatory ‘Harbour and Room’ (1932-6), created during the years that Nash was most closely associated with British Surrealism. The exhibition panel suggests comparison with the interior scenes of Van Gogh and Vuillard; though I can accept the influence of a post-Impressionist predilection for pattern here, Van Gogh connection seems based only upon the subject matter of a bed and wooden chair.

Train Landscape 1940

‘Train Landscape’ (left, 1940) also seems oddly deserted, as if something has caused the inhabitants of the carriage to flee, the seats still warm.  Again the White Horse appears, a symbol of the historic English landscape that captured Ravilious’ imagination, and which he would revisit in his well-known paintings of the Cerne Abbas and Wilmington Giants.

The Greenhouse - cyclamen and tomatoes 1935

Another empty interior – of flowers on a country kitchen table – is akin to Winifred Nicholson’s compositions, while other images are closer to Ben’s precise linear style.  This geometry combines with Ravilious’ love of natural forms in the wonderful ‘Greenhouse – Cyclamen and Tomatoes’ (above, 1935).  It is a trait that teeters on the edge of surrealism; like Edward Burra, Ravilious paints ‘living landscapes’ with gently slumbering hills or hedges that roll and glower, threatening to submerge the insignificant figure in ‘Wet Afternoon’ (below, 1938).

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture Gallery FOR REVIEW USE ONLY

Ravilious’ ability to portray in watercolour the harsh and brilliant effects of fireworks as well as the shifting and subtle natural light of dawn breaking or the onset of a summer storm is unsurpassed.  Coupled with his empathy for English landscape and history, his work is a transcendent document of a time and place that speaks more forcefully than words.


Ben and Winifred Nicholson

The fifteen years from 1920 (when they met) to 1935 were formative ones for both Ben and Winifred.  The young couple were finding their way in life and in art, travelling to Lugano, settling in Cumberland, then discovering St. Ives; only in 1935 did Ben Nicholson produce his first White Relief which today sums up his art for so many.

1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)The Dulwich Picture Gallery documents their close working relationship with paintings, often of the same subject, placed side by side, and in this way reveals just how considerable was the influence of each on the other.  It is immediately clear that Winifred was the colourist, her combinations of pigments taking precedence over lines and volumes in defining her subject matter; while for Ben the opposite was true – his focus on linearity, form and structure was to the exclusion of almost all colour in some works.  What is so fascinating is to watch how they began to learn from each other, gradually developing a really powerful and individual artistic language.


The Nicholsons, after their marriage in autumn 1920, spent their winters at Castagnola, above Lake Lugano in Switzerland.  ‘1921-c.1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)’ (above left) shows Ben’s reaction both to modern French art – especially Cezanne and Picasso – and to the Italian primitives such as Piero della Francesca.  The two rigidly vertical trees create a structural grid for the composition, while the focus point of the cube-like red house emphasises the otherwise limited palette.

In contrast, Winifred was at this time painting works such as ‘Cyclamen and Primula’ (c.1922-23, above right).  The pots of flowers which Ben gave her became the focus of an exploration of the relationship between interior and exterior, still life and landscape; but foremost was still her joyous use of colour which forms the compositional lynchpin. However, here too one can see the influence of Cubism in the peaks of tissue paper that fuse with the distant mountains behind.


In the second gallery, a display case introduces some of the pottery of William Staite Murray.  Initially it is difficult to see why, apart from the friendship between Ben and Murray, his work is included in this dialogue between Ben and Winifred; but the sympathetic hanging subtly makes this clear.  Murray was a modernist potter who first exhibited with Ben in 1927, and with both Ben and Winifred in 1928.  Their domestic still life paintings, such as Ben’s ‘1926 (Still Life – L.L.)’ (above), perfectly complemented – in fact were interchangeable with – the actual physical pots created by Murray.

winifred-nicholson-flower-table-pots-1927While Ben flattens perspective and reduces his palette almost to monochrome, with the paint scraped back so that the flat canvas base is revealed, Winifred continues to paint with thick, luscious pigments and a more conventional pictorial space (as in ‘Flower Table: Pots’, c.1927, right).  Here too are exhibited some of her figure paintings of home life – ‘The Warwick Family’ (c.1926) and ‘Father and Son’ (1927), a tender portrait, the baby’s eyes wide and curious as it is cradled by its father at the tea table.  There are no outlines; all form is created purely from the colours and textures of the paint itself.

winifred-nicholson-northrigg-hill-1926In 1923 the Nicholsons purchased Bankshead, a farmhouse in Cumberland which thereafter became their base, though they continued to travel constantly.  In 1926 they met Christopher Wood who came to stay with them in Cumberland in spring 1928, and became the third party in this partnership of intense artistic experimentation.

get_img.phpDuring the late twenties all three attempted the same scene of of the farmhouse, showing their differences of style as well as how closely they worked together.  In ‘Northrigg Hill’ (c.1926, above centre) Winifred focuses on colour, the only definition to the undulating tones of green and brown, blue and grey, being the dark ribbon of the hedges and the flash of pink on the lane (a colour she recommended to Ben, who used it in a still life – ‘1925 (Jamaique)’).  Wood’s ‘Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill)’ (1928, above left) uses gestural, directional brushstrokes and is perhaps the most detailed of the three – although he was increasingly influenced by Ben’s simplification processes.

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThese are demonstrated in ‘1930 (Cumberland Farm)’ (right) which reduces the foreground to almost geometrical lines and planes; the house and trees on the horizon line are symbolic focal points of colour and substance amidst the severely rubbed-down canvas.  Another technique Ben developed at this time is seen in ‘1928 (Walton Wood Cottage No.1)’ where he uses great sweeping brushstrokes of a thin pale wash as a background, with faux-naif trees and a horse painted on top with precision.

wn-summerIn summer 1928 the Nicholsons were invited to stay with friends at Feock on the south coast of Cornwall, where they were joined by Wood and his muse, Frosca.  They painted views of Pill Creek, Winifred letting her vivid sense of colour run free – as in ‘Summer’ (1928, left), in which the turquoise water seeps into the background of the floral display to the fore and between the trees and cottages on the far bank.  Ben sketched the scenes of boats and harbours, but was unable to render convincing movement; he finally achieved this in his painting of the same spot, ‘1928 (Pill Creek)’.  This is a sombre and mysterious scene, and uses his characteristic techniques, with swirling brushstrokes of wash animating the background, then extensive rubbing-back to the pale gesso ground, and the shadowy trees and boat simply delineated in pencil.


This painting was probably done from memory back in London, by which time Ben had met Alfred Wallis – as is suggested by the primitive representation of the sailing boat.  All three artists moved on to St. Ives in September 1928, the Nicholsons overlooking the harbour, and Wood on Porthmeor beach.  Their work from this period shows the decisive influence that Wallis had, to a greater or lesser extent, on them all.  For Winifred, this is most evident in ‘Boat on a Stormy Sea’ (1928, above right).  The waves rendered in loose watery brushstrokes shows a wonderful freedom of handling, while the spray of the breakers and around the little boat is thick and opaque, yet with a wonderful sense of movement.

ben-nicholson-porthmeor-beach-st-ives-19281Ben, too, began to use more impasto paint against his spare backgrounds, thus anchoring and defining his boats so that they seem to move believably through the water – for instance in ‘1928 (Porthmeor Beach, St. Ives)’ (left).  He also includes Godrevy Island with its lighthouse in the top centre-right, which was a distinctive feature of Wallis’s compositions.

The final room is a hurried epilogue describing the separate paths that the artists took after these fruitful years of mutual exchange and inspiration.  ‘Le Phare’ (1929) and ‘Zebra and Parachute’ (1930) show Wood developing a surrealist approach, using increasingly odd juxtapositions, before his suicide in 1930.  ac7d48b038a250bb59f5ba3df1872e3b

Winifred, whose personal style was defined from early in her career, continued to produce her exquisite flower paintings.  But ‘Winter – Fishbourne’ (1931-2, right) and ‘Autumn Flowers on a Mantelpiece’ (1932) – if anything more accomplished and refined than ever – are a little pale and melancholy, for Ben had left her in the autumn of 1931 and moved in with Barbara Hepworth.

Interestingly, after moving to Paris in 1932 and befriending such avant-garde artists as Mondrian, Gabo and Helion, Winifred turned to abstraction, again inspiring Ben in his transition to abstract relief paintings – the first was made while staying with her on the Quai d’Auteuil.  It seems unfair that Winifred, who earlier in her career gained more acclaim, and supported and encouraged Ben until the point when his career took off, should be allowed to slide into the shade, eclipsed by the ‘St. Ives group’ that Ben and Barbara Hepworth became associated with.  It is a great relief that the Dulwich Picture Gallery gives both an equal voice.



Whistler and the Thames

We made a last minute dash to Dulwich Picture Gallery on Sunday afternoon to see ‘Whistler and the Thames’- with just two hours left until the exhibition closed. A long trail of latecomers snaked through the gallery and, once in, queued to peer at each exquisite etching in turn.  Whistler’s etchings and aquatints are comparable to those of Rembrandt or Durer in my view, but deal exclusively with contemporary, secular life; in this case even more specifically with the river Thames and the teeming maritime commerce of London.  The characters, their activities, the boats, the taverns and


warehouses – all are represented in minute detail, even the names painted on the shopboards or advertisements on warehouse walls are legible, giving a sense of just what a different, almost alien world much of London was, even in the late nineteenth century.  The techniques Whistler used are described, and we are shown the lengths that he went to in altering and correcting the plates to finally get his desired effect, with five or six proofs of a single image displayed together.


Throughout the exhibition, alongside Whistler’s prints or paintings, are shown contemporaneous photographs of the sites depicted as well as maps of the relevant parts of London.  These testify both to the accuracy of Whistler’s hand, and to how utterly different London looked, aesthetically and topographically – Fulham was still a patchwork of green fields, ‘New Brompton’ a scattering of newly-built suburban villas.

Then the focus homed in on one of Whistler’s enduring subjects: Old Battersea Bridge.  Some early paintings were in a ‘traditional’ Impressionist style, with naturalistic colours (predominantly brown and grey – of mud and mist and wooden piers), and though recording atmospheric effects, still rooted in the real, if mundane, activities of the metropolis – like Monet’s paintings of the Bridge at Argenteuil as it was rebuilt following the Franco-Prussian and civil wars.


Gradually the detail disappears and Whistler seems to favour more and more the ghostly light of dawn or dusk.  The misty stillness gives the water a looking-glass effect and obscures the functionality of the bridge and the factories on the far side in Battersea, reinventing them as pure architectural forms, in a hauntingly beautiful harmony of  colour and composition. Simultaneously, Whistler starts to explore the technique of lithography and lithotints, reiterating his increasing preference for the indistinct and suggestive as opposed to the clarity and factual qualities of etching.


The extraordinary change comes when Whistler discovers Japanese art.  How immediate the effect actually was is hard to know, but from one room of the exhibition to the next we leap from the grey reality of London to a dream-like floating world of Europeanised geisha and cherry-blossoms.  Could such a scene as this really depict the Embankment?! It could just as easily depict the Bosphorus or the South China Sea.


The examples of Japanese prints displayed show just how uncannily similar their depictions of bridges are to Whistler’s vision of Battersea – whose piers from this point on become gradually elongated as the low viewpoint exaggerates them and distorts the scene.  It is easy to imagine how the increasing focus, first on one archway of the bridge, then on just one pier stretching up into the sky, confounded


audiences – to the extent that the infamous ‘Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge’ (below) caused Ruskin to sue the artist for ‘throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public’.  It wasn’t a portrait, a genre scene or even an architectural study  – the subject of the painting was, it appeared, nothing at all, and this seemed subversive to Victorian traditionalists such as Ruskin.


That Ruskin brought the issue to court in 1878 is less easy to understand; Whistler’s work did not stand entirely alone, for Monet had created ‘Impression: Sunrise’ in 1872 and Turner’s ‘Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ had been exhibited in 1842.  Both were equally concerned with atmospheric effects at the cost of identifiable subject matter.  So perhaps it was his title – ‘Nocturne’ – which grated, rejecting even the suggestion of narrative in favour of musical connotations.

In Whistler’s words:

“By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”

This painting serves as a triumphant finale to the exhibition – the culmination of almost two decades studying, sketching and painting the Thames.  It is also breathtakingly beautiful – serene, luminous, mysterious and timeless, with a firework that seems to symbolise the brief, vain spark of each individual human life in contrast to the eternal river and the endless night sky.  Perhaps that was the thought that subconsciously troubled the London public who, when the painting came up for auction in 1886, hissed.

A Crisis of Brilliance in Dulwich

a-crisis-of-brilliance-L-Slh71eIn 2009 David Boyd Haycock wrote a book entitled ‘A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War’.  The five artists referred to are Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Dora Carrington, and the title is quote from Henry Tonks, Professor of Drawing at the Slade during the crucial decades which saw the emergence of some of the greatest British modernist artists. The Dulwich Picture Gallery has now brought this narrative to life in an exhibition that traces, through paintings, drawings and prints, the development of these five friena-crisis-of-brilliance-L-GWolOuds from their Slade training, through their disparate responses to the Great War, and leaving them post-war with a nod to their future careers.  We are introduced to the five central characters, along with a few of their lesser-known contemporaries, in 1910-1912.  Portraits of themselves and each other show the emphasis on the traditional skill of draughtsmanship that the Slade was renowned for – though the school otherwise had a fairly avant-garde reputation.  More interesting are two drawings from the imagination; Spencer’s ‘Fairy on the Water-Lily Leaf’ combines the strange and fantastical cast of Richard Dadd or Arthur Rackham with the solid, down-to-earth mien of the women who peopled his beloved Cookham.  Nash’s ‘The Combat’ (above) illustrates a poem written shortly after his mother’s death in a mental asylum; an angel stands on a hilltop fighting a winged devil that has flown down from the star-speckled sky.  The combination of religion and poetry seems indebted to Blake, or perhaps more immediately to the Pre-Raphaelites, while the detailed – and very English – landscape recalls the etchings of Samuel Palmer.  It is the latter element that would come to define the artist’s future career.

Bomberg_David_Racehorses_©Ben_Uri,_The_London_Jewish_Museum_of_Art._©_The_Estate_of_David_Bomberg._All_Rights_Reserved,_DACS_2012The introduction to the following sequence of paintings describes the impact of Roger Fry’s exhibition, ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, in 1910.  The pictures, however, tell a different story.  Though this exhibition undoubtedly had a pivotal effect upon the consciousness of the British art world, the immediate reaction among our protagonists appears more ambiguous, and the insistence on its impact therefore misplaced.  On the one hand we see Dora Carrington continue to produce accomplished studies of Renaissance-style nudes, as well as a charming scene of Bedford market in pencil, ink and watercolour – a far cry from Parisian modernism.  On the other, we see Nevinson and Bomberg charge ahead towards abstraction, but in apparently the opposite direction from the French avant-garde – Nevinson embracing the dynamic and fractured Futurist aesthetic promoted by the Italian Marinetti, and Bomberg striking out on a totally individual path with ‘Racehorses’ (above, 1913), an almost unidentifiable mass of sharply angled, tubular limbs. Despite the clear disparities, Spencer’s ‘John Donne arriving in Heaven’ was included in the following Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1912 – a painting less Post-Impressionist, or more steeped in English landscape and culture, is hard to think of.

war-5The divisions only become deeper as the bond of the Slade is broken and each artist moves forward in a different direction.  The London art world at this time was fraught with factions. The Bloomsbury critic and painter Roger Fry set up the Omega Workshops in 1913, keen to attract new talent; but soon after its establishment, Wyndham Lewis fell out with Fry and set up his own Rebel Art Centre, more avant-garde in its aesthetic links to Futurism (though Lewis repudiated any association with Marinetti’s movement by announcing his own: Vorticism).  Gertler and Carrington remained with the Bloomsbury circle; Nevinson joined the rebels.  In addition, the Camden Town Group continued to show their work together, and, attracted no doubt by the emphasis on landscape (and townscape), Nash exhibited with them in Brighton in 1913-14 – though so did the Vorticists, so no real oppositionary stance can be concluded from so catholic a show.  These two groups, Camden Town and the Vorticists, combined to exhibit as The London Group after 1913.  Such a plethora of new styles and artistic theories, into which the five young artists were thrown, can only result in a confusing and eclectic array of pictures.  Those exhibited certainly show the variety and extent of experimentation, but fail to maintain any real unity between the protagonists.

LCM129344Nevinson visited Paris, where his nascent Futurism became more Cubist – especially in ‘Le Vieux Port’ (above, 1913-14) where typescript appears in fragments across the facetted surface, as it was doing simultaneously in synthetic Cubist works.  Meanwhile, the statuesque figures of Spencer’s ‘Apple Pickers’ and Gertler’s ‘The Fruit Sorters’ (right) start to show an appreciation of Gauguin.  But each remains idiosyncratic, with Gertler returning to his Jewish East End heritage, and Spencer’s work forever rooted in Cookham.

The war presented a decisive moment in all these artistic careers, establishing some, unravelling others, and bringing many to an untimely end.  Nevinson, who volunteered as an ambulance driver in France, produced perhaps his best and most memorable work in response to his experience on the Western Front, and later on the Home Front too.

cec13172726817His study for ‘Column on the March’ (left, c.1914) shows just how successfully he adapted the dynamism and sharp lines of his Futurist/Vorticist aesthetic to the subject of war, causing the Times to observe that “Mr Nevinson gives you the black gloom, the horror, the feeling of despair that make even death and mutilation seem trivial incidents in an epoch of horror.”  Nevinson taught Nash various printing techniques, resulting in lithographs such as ‘The Pill Box’ (below, 1918); typically of Nash  – and most famously in paintings such as ‘We are Making a New World’ – all human life is absent, its destruction and mutilation signified by that of nature in the amputated tree trunks and disfigured, pock-marked earth.  Bomberg, like Wyndham Lewis and William Roberts, was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund; his first response and the one exhibited here, ‘Sappers at Work’, was dismissed as a ‘futurist abortion’, forcing him to return to a more recognisable figurative and narrative style.  This reaction was necessitated across the board in order to fulfil the documentary requirements of war commissions, as can be seen in Nevinson’s official war paintings such as ‘Southampton Docks’ (below) and ‘La Patrie’, depicting wounded French soldiers lying in rows in a barn.  This enforced adaptation of avant-garde tendencies at such a formative stage would alter the course of modernism in Britain; Lewis, Roberts, Nevinson, Bomberg – all came closest to abstraction in the years immediately preceding the war with the encouragement of their peers, and all essentially returned to figuration and relative isolation afterwards.


In contrast to such paintings are Gertler’s and Carrington’s; from those represented one would never know there had been a war at all.  Gertler was a pacifist and joined the conscientious objectors of the Bloomsbury group at Garsington, painting the gardens and literary friends such as Gilbert Cannan.  Carrington met Lytton Strachey and her portrait of the writer with whom she became obssessed (below) is the only example of her work shown in this section.  This total dislocation from world events is misleading, however, as Gertler’s ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ is a powerful and unsettling attack on the futility of war and arguably his most famous work.  Its absence is inexplicable.


After the war the artists were even more literally divided; Nevinson went to New York, Bomberg to Spain and then Palestine, Nash to Dymchurch on the Kent coast.  Dora Carrington visited Spain with her brother, but lacking confidence in her abilities exhibited little, and committed suicide after Strachey’s death in 1932.  Gertler, having been regarded at the Slade as the most talented of his generation, rejected the lucrative career of portraitist and gassed himself in 1939.  The most successful career in terms of longevity and status was that of Spencer who, after his stint in the RAMC – to which the Sandham Memorial Chapel stands testament – remained for the rest of his life in Cookham, gaining a knighthood in 1959.  The final room does little to sum up the show, but its muddle does at least adequately represent the chaos of the post-war British art world.  Carrington’s portrait of the farmer’s wife, ‘Mrs Box’, is majestic and one mourns the loss and lack of recognition of such a timeless talent.  But it is the odd-one-out among its companions, which maintain in their many incarnations a dialogue with their time and place.  The final, monumental, painting – Spencer’s ‘Unveiling Cookham War Memorial’ (1922) – provides a much needed sense of an ending.  Like a Renaissance fresco in its scope and subject, it shows middle England coming to terms with the recent war, human emotions existing side-by-side with a religious sense of redemption.


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.