Archive for category Subject: Art History

The Life of Mark Akenside || Barbara C Morden

Throughout history, there have been figures that, while now largely forgotten, were instrumental in oiling the wheels of events and influencing the cultural and political life of their time.

In the Seventeenth Century, John Ogiliby was at the heart of royal events up to the deposition of Charles I and then effectively ran communications, at considerable risk, for those who were planning the return of the monarchy. His chief visible legacy is Britannia, the first road atlas, whose style can be seen to influence most others, right down to the last Ordnance Survey One Inch series. It was in fact a guide for an anticipated Catholic invasion after the installation of Charles II as absolute monarch.

A hundred years later, Mark Akenside, who trained as a barber-surgeon, was one of the formative figures of the Romantic movement. Born in Newcastle, he is commemorated in Akenside Hill, formerly Butchers Bank, where a literary group gathered in 1821 to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Akenside was a poet as well as a man of medicine and his volume The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) was one of the founding works of the Romantic movement which celebrated nature with a spiritual and emotional, rather than a utilitarian, response. Politically a Whig, he opposed and satirised Robert Walpole, along with Alexander Pope (in The Dunciad). Later, his life would be written by Samuel Johnson who, although he disliked blank verse and Whig politics, came to admire the quality of Akenside’s work in spite of those preferences.

Having moved to London, he became part of the circle of Keats and Lamb, both of whom recognised his rejection of classical forms and were influenced in their own writings. He was later himself satirised in Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle – a mark, if it were needed, of his prominence and influence.

This thoroughly readable account of Akenside’s life, work and place in the artistic canon includes much detail without getting lost or bogged down. Barbara Morden goes on to demonstrate Akenside’s influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge, in particular the Lyrical Ballads. The chapters are short, but well organised, and I particularly like the summary at the head of each one, something which would have graced books of Akenside’s time and is useful even today.

Those who operate behind the scenes are frequently just footnotes in histories of their time, but Barbara has rescued a man who deserves to be more widely known and has done him ample justice. The subtitle, Breakthrough to Modernity provides a strong clue to Akenside’s relevance today.

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Me, Myself, I || Tessa Jackson & Lara Perry

You might think that there isn’t much to be said about the self-portrait beyond the fact that’s it’s the artist’s view of themselves and, from earlier ages, often the only image we have.

There is, however, considerable social context and, if the artist worked on other portraits, an insight into how they saw their sitters both as figures and human beings.

Any painting is, necessarily, a reflection of its times and the authors here give consideration to how these works, all by British-based artists, reflect their own era. Robert Home, for example, appears in The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Lieutenant General Cornwallis (1792). It’s a large work of Imperial greatness in which the artist appears at one side, portfolio under his arm to identify him. He doesn’t look over-impressed and you can’t help wondering whether, despite taking the undoubtedly lucrative commission, he wasn’t entirely happy with the scene.

A similar mood continues on the next page, which shows us Pieter Christoffel Wonder’s Study for Patrons and Lovers of Art. Here, three men, who exude solidity and connoisseurship, are examining a work in what we can assume is the artist’s studio (the painting is unhung, unlike others depicted). A classical bust emphasises the seriousness of the scene. From behind one of the patrons, a figure, a palette indicating that he is the artist, leans out and looks straight at the viewer. His expression is best described as sardonic and the message is hard to interpret as anything but “they may be wealthy and I may depend on them, but they know nothing”.

The works cover the years between 1722 and 2022 and it is instructive to see how attitudes have changed yet remained the same. Stanley Spencer’s view of himself is more than a little mocking, Rachel McLean’s a caricature and there is frequent irony across the ages. The one thing none of them do is aggrandise, which is worthy of note in itself.

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Hans Holbein: his life and works in 500 images || Rosalind Ormiston

This series from Lorenz Books has been going for a long time and provides a useful, well-illustrated, way into the works of a great many artists from all periods of history.

Hans Holbein played a central role in the history of Britain, being Court Painter to Henry VIII, creating images of him for which the word “iconic” can never be redundant and, famously, painting the portrait of Anne of Cleves that caused so much trouble for Thomas Cromwell and led, at least in part, to his downfall. A portrait of Cromwell himself is uncompromising and suggests a figure the artist perhaps didn’t like that much. Did Henry reject “the Flanders mare”, or did the reality of his physical appearance disgust her so much that she rejected him? History does not relate, but it might explain Cromwell’s fate. Henry was not a man to cross in any way.

Holbein did, however, have a much broader and longer-sustained career and received commissions form Hanseatic merchants as well as the scholar Erasmus. Details of his early life are sketchy, but Rosalind Ormiston, who has taught art history at Kingston University, provides as much detail as possible. She relates known events from the artist’s life to the chronology of his work and analyses works from the whole gamut of his career, often using enlarged details for clarity and to explain a particular point. The book is large-format and all the illustrations that matter are reproduced at an appropriate size, often full-page. The quality of reproduction is excellent, and certainly remarkable for the price – you get a huge amount, not just of illustrations, but of scholarship, for a ridiculously modest outlay.

Overall, a bit of a tour de force.

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The Real and the Romantic || Frances Spalding

As we move further into the Twenty-First Century, the ability to look back to the previous one and see perspective becomes more feasible. What were once organic developments that were happening around us are now seen as groupings and movements. This look at the period between the First and Second World Wars is therefore much more than a simple, or even simplistic or convenient, chronological slice of time.

The name-checks here are impressive: the Nashes, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer to name just a few. At the same time, women artists came to be recognised as serious practitioners and Laura Knight, Evelyn Dunbar and Barbara Hepworth, along with others, put in more than a fleeting appearance.

The ends of wars tend to engender hope, but also a demand for improvements and new horizons. Although much of the groundwork had been done in the 1920s and 30s, the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 is a case in point, as was 1951’s Festival of Britain. Both of these are outside the scope of the book, but they demonstrate the appetite for renewal as a nation rebuilds.

Frances Spalding’s thesis is that the art world (the book is specifically about English art) was left directionless in 1918. Many of its best known names were either now fading or had simply been killed, but the idea of things being effectively thrown up in the air is a compelling one. Everything was in turmoil and everything was possible as the desire for a connection to the past met the possibilities made available by new directions and the avant-garde. Quite simply, the old world was revisited on the terms of the then present day, with artists, writers and sculptors also open to Continental ideas.

As the skies darkened during the 1930s, the mood became harder and Surrealism, for example, fed into the continuing tradition.

It is Frances Spalding’s contention that the inter-war years saw a fruitful conjunction of forward-looking realism with more backward-facing romanticism to create an art structure that was unique to, but also very much a product of its time.

The writing is thorough and the arguments convincing, with plenty of examples, analyses and histories. The book is also generously illustrated and Thames & Hudson again pull off their trick of getting good colour reproduction on book paper.

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Women in Abstraction || edited by Christine Macel and Karolina Lewandowska

You could, I suspect, be forgiven for expressing surprise at the extent of this very thorough look at abstract art as created purely by women. You might also assume that being selective in this way would restrict the coverage. Are there not styles and movements that are overlooked? Well, no, just about everything you’d expect is included as well as a full range of painting, sculpture, installations and performance pieces. As a survey and history of abstract art the book stands as something as complete as you could wish.

Unless you are a specialist, many of the names will probably be unfamiliar, but one stands out and tells the usual tale. Yes, Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem, of whom you have undoubtedly heard. She was taught by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller and her subjects included Ornette Coleman, Pelé and John F Kennedy, of whom she was commissioned to produce an official portrait. If her reputation has been eclipsed by that of her husband (as so often happens, even if not deliberately), she had an extensive career in her own right. I particularly like her remark, quoted here: “To me, all art is self-portraits”. That’s one I shall reflect on for some time to come.

As well as examples from and short essays about 112 artists (yes, that many) there are further pieces that analyse wider aspects of the subject. Of particular interest is the piece about the roles of Hilda Rebay and Peggy Guggenheim, founders of major collections in what was then an absolutely male-dominated world.

One has to be wary of describing books as ground-breaking, because the truth is they are usually built on work that has gone before and ride a rising tide. This is, however, a major contribution to art history in general and a neglected corner (if that’s the right word) in particular.

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Napoleon’s Plunder and the theft of Veronese’s Feast || Cynthia Saltzman

At the heart of this story, and this book, is the Louvre. It also raises the vexed question of art appropriation and of collections generally.

Napoleon, the Emperor, was widely admired but also feared. His armies swept through Europe and his defeated enemies were required to hand over their most valuable works of art. This was not indiscriminate and, as Cynthia Saltzman explains, the process was done with taste – the commissioners, as we might call them, knew what they wanted and what they were going to do with it. France, with the great man at its head, would become the artistic as well as political capital of Europe and the envy of the world (although that, at the time, mostly meant Europe).

Great taste there may have been, and the artworks may have been valued and cared for, but there was also vandalism. The piece at the centre of this comprehensive account is Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast At Cana, literally torn from the walls of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. Now unframed, the massive work was rolled up for transport. Elaborate art packing cases were unheard of in those days.

Stealing – there’s really no other word for it – a nation’s artistic treasures is to steal its creative heart and demoralise its people. Conquerors throughout history have known this and the elephant in the room is the Third Reich’s Twentieth Century appropriation campaign. That this only gets a mention in the epilogue here is not inappropriate because it’s a whole different piece of history and a tale in its own right. What is worth mentioning is that there was already a fear that Napoleon’s plunder would be eyed up for repatriation by its original owners – you steal my paintings, I’ll steal them back and have some of yours as well.

This is an engaging but thorough account that reads like a whodunit, as good history for the general reader should. It is a wider tale than the subtitle implies, but Saltzman rightly puts a painting that Ruskin said “always makes me feel as if an archangel had come down into the room, and were working before my very eyes” at its heart. Sometimes, the wider perspective is best seen from a central position.

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Illuminating Natural History – the art and science of Mark Catesby || Henrietta McBurney

There was John Tradescant, there was Joseph Banks, there was Robert Hooke and there was John James Audubon.

They are all names to conjure with and they are all broadly familiar. Mark Catesby is perhaps less so, but he belongs in the same canon. His working period (his dates are 1684-1749) coincides with the development of the scientific method and from amateurship to professionalism in natural philosophy.

Catesby was widely travelled (at a time when this was difficult, dangerous and expensive) and spent two extended periods in the New World at a time when it was just being opened up, producing the two volumes of the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands – the scope of the title alone gives an idea of his achievement.

The significance of this, apart from the scientific work, is the role of the artist. Two things had happened. Firstly, descriptions of distant lands were now first rather than second or third hand, with fantasy having no further place in travellers’ tales. Secondly, printing had advanced sufficiently that detail was possible and the idea of the illustrated book became a possibility (as opposed to the woodcuts that prevailed only a short while before). Colour had to be inserted manually, of course, meaning that books such as this were anything but mass-market, but we should perhaps see publications from this period as distributable reports rather than marketable books.

Henrietta McBurney is thorough. Her account tells the story of Catesby’s life and work, of course, but also deals with the history of science as well as the techniques and materials of illustration and the development of books and printing. All of these are integral to the development of the scientific method and the transmission of discovery and information. Although this is nominally a book about a figure most people will not have heard of, it is also, as it should be, a comprehensive history of the development of ideas that has echoes to this day.

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The Book of the Tree || Angus Hyland & Kendra Wilson

Trees, you love them, don’t you? Majestic beings that are at the centre of the countryside or indeed any landscape. Books have been published celebrating them ever since people started chopping them down to make paper. Oh.

I’m being unfair. This is an absolute delight and includes paintings and photographs from mostly Twentieth Century artists with nicely-judged explanations of how arboreal subjects fit into their work and life. Some, such as Claude Monet, get several pages and in these cases, the specific focus provides a fresh perspective on their work. You also get, of course, a variety of different styles and once again the single-subject approach allows for comparisons to be made that a wider view tends to obscure.

The result is a fascinating and enjoyable book that works whether you take an extended tour, concentrate on a specific theme or just dip into it at random. The authors never lose sight of the fact that the images are the most important thing and keep the words to the minimum required to complement them, but without leaving you wishing they’d said a bit more.

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The Whole Picture – the colonial story of the art in our museums || Alice Procter

This is about as timely as it gets and is certainly woke. Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours around museums in London were born out of a sense of frustration at a lack of acknowledgment of colonial history in art galleries.

This is only partly true, as any historian worth their salt knows about the role of colonialism in mainly the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. I would like to think that an image such as The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia, painted for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, could not fail to make any viewer feel at least a little uncomfortable. Images of kangaroos, however, perhaps more simply educate a willing public about the fauna of distant lands – even if they were invaded and their indigenous populations subjugated. Dürer, of course, famously drew a rhinoceros probably only from a description. It would not be unfair, I think, to say that George Stubbs was not quite so well-informed. And then we have the famous Tipu’s Tiger, an automaton that mauls an unfortunate British soldier. The point that Procter makes rather eloquently here is that while the original is in London, only a rather poor plastic copy exists in the original location.

This, of course, raises the perennial question of whether all art should remain where it was created, or whether it can be moved about the world. It is inevitable that such moves will involve a degree of plunder and this is not limited to a single place or civilisation. Sometimes, the very movement becomes the story itself and history can lend an awful lot of perspective – we can marvel at a Roman statue of a legionary dominating a subjugated Celt without feeling the need to ask for the whole of modern Italy to be cancelled.

To be fair to this book, and its author in particular, this is neither preaching nor a rant, but rather an examination of a subject that is very much to the fore. Should we pull down statues of slave traders or let them stand and tell the story of how they came to be there? Which one illuminates history and which consigns it even further to the dark recesses of memory than it already is? If you want information that will help you think, it’s here.

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Spirit of Place: writers and the British landscape || Susan Owens

It’s hard to know where to file this. Is it art or literary criticism? (A British Library cataloguing in publication record is available for all you perplexed librarians out there.) I write about art, but my background is in English literature and I only narrowly escaped librarianship, so I suppose I ought to be qualified to have an opinion.

It’s an intriguing concept. The idea of British (for which, read mainly English) landscape painting has been described as an Eighteenth Century invention, which is also conveniently about the same time that modern literature came into being. No, you shut up, I’ve read Beowulf, Chaucer, Malory, Defoe and even Thomas Nash – I’m perfectly well aware of how we got to the modern novel.

The principal idea in this genuinely intriguing book is that the British Landscape is a construct, a quasi-romantic ideal that exists chiefly in the mid of its creators. Susan Owens looks as far back as Bede and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the latter, the concept of redemption through a green world progression is one that finds echoes later in Shakespearean comedies, as eloquently exemplified by the critic Northrop Frye. Into this, she weaves Gainsborough and Austen – the former’s landscapes certainly informing our mental images of the latter’s settings.

The narrative continues as the whole concept is refashioned by succeeding generations to reflect their own concerns, obsessions and preconceptions as much as representations of reality itself. I shall close here, merely pausing to say “Mervyn Peake” and leave you to think.

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