Friday, 6 December 2019

George IV: Art and Spectacle

Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV 1821 Royal Collection Trust (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
When George IV died in 1830, he was not widely mourned, thanks to his over-indulgence, womanising and extravagant spending at a time when the country was suffering from economic hardship and political turmoil. The Times obituary said “there was never an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King”. But there was another side to his character – that of a connoisseur with intellectual interests whose endless acquisitions made him one of the most important figures in the formation of the Royal Collection. This exhibition in the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace (below) brings together more than 300 of the treasures he collected.
George was living at a time when upheavals on the Continent following the French Revolution flooded the market with works of art. Although he never travelled beyond Europe, he spent freely and frequently, indulging his passions for 18th-century French decorative arts, 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters and of course Asian porcelain and oriental decorations, many of which found their way to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. He transformed Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace and was also among the patrons of British artists of the day such as Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and Richard Cosway. The Duke of Wellington described him as “the most munificent patron of the fine arts” and “the most accomplished man of his age”.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Shipbuilder and his Wife: Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans, 1633 Royal Collection Trust (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Among the many art works on display is his most expensive painting, Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife, which cost him 5,000 guineas. He also  managed to acquire a painting by Rubens of St George and the Dragon, which had belonged to Charles I but been sold off after his execution.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape with St George and the Dragon, 1630-5 Royal Collection Trust (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The exhibition also showcases the most spectacular moment of George’s life – his coronation, which came at a cost of more than £240,000. He orchestrated the whole event, overseeing the design of his sumptuous coronation robes and staging a banquet that featured the Grand Service, a 4,000-piece collection of dining and buffet silver-gilt that is still used today at state banquets.
Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, The Diamond Diadem, 1820-1  Royal Collection Trust  (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Also on display is the glittering Diamond Diadem he commissioned for the occasion and wore in the procession to Westminster Abbey, atop a black velvet hat. It's remained a royal favourite, and appears in the image of Queen Elizabeth on postage stamps. She also wears it to the State Opening of Parliament.
Red and yellow feather cape ('ahu'ula), 1824 Royal Collection Trust (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Oposite the diadem is one of his most colourful coronation gifts – a red and yellow feather cape from the rulers of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Sadly, they both died of measles not long after their arrival in England, but the cloak was still presented.
Jane Austen, Emma: a novel in three volumes, 1816 Royal Collection Trust (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

George was also a voracious reader. His tastes ranged from geography and military history to the works of Jane Austen – he had a set of her works in each of his homes. (Although not a great fan, she was persuaded to dedicate Emma to him.)
Robert Seymour, The Great Joss and his Playthings, c.1829 Royal Collection Trust (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Many satirical prints and caricatures circulated during his lifetime, mocking his excesses in food, fashion and sex and surprisingly, he collected a number of them. One, The Great Joss and his Playthings, pokes fun at his interest in oriental style. Perhaps the most touching among the numerous portraits he comissioned of his family and friends is a delicate pencil and watercolour sketch by Richard Cosway of Maria Fitzherbert, “the wife of my heart and soul” whom he secretly married in 1785.
Maria Fitzherbert by Richard Cossway c.1789. Royal Collection Trust/ (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The wedding was illegal as his father had not given his consent. Later George was married to his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, but it was an acrimonious relationship and they soon separated, causing scandalous headlines. When he died in 1830 he was buried with a miniature portrait of Maria around his neck.
George IV: Art and Spectacle is at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until May 3 2020.
Details at

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art

School of Veronese. Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I. c.1580. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Western artists have long been intrigued by the Islamic world. This sweeping new exhibition at the British Museum covers more than five centuries of artistic interaction, beginning with portraits such as this depiction of a Sultan and continuing through the tradition known as Orientalism to the present day. The earliest European interest in the Middle East was religious, focusing on pilgrimages to places mentioned in the Bible. Jerusalem was the most important, and was shown in great detail on a pull-out map in a book dating from 1486 that recounts the visit of a German knight to Palestine and Egypt. Diplomats established embassies, and there was much interest on both sides. One, in the Austrian service, wrote in 1581: “The Turks were quite as much astonished by our manner of dress as we at theirs.” Their presence provided work for both European and local artists, keen to portray the exchanges.
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Dinner Given by the Grand Vizier ©Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
The exhibition has two fascinating paintings by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, who arrived in Constantinople in 1699 and remained there for the rest of his life. In 1725 he recorded a procession and the subsequent dinner given by the Grand Vizier for a European delegation (above). (The ambassador, in a bright red coat, has his back to the viewer.) Other travellers stocked up on Ottoman artefacts, which were seen as exotic luxuries and much admired.
Glazed and gilded pottery, Iznik (Turkey), 1600–25.© Trustees of the British Museum
By the 1600s, Western craft workers were trying to imitate items such as this Iznik plate, but found it difficult to match the delicacy and vibrancy of colour of the originals. From the 19th c onwards, as travel became easier, goods were more available – some imported, others copied. They were displayed in homes and artists’ studios, which often included tiled “oriental” interiors.
Among them was Leighton House in London, the home of the Victorian painter Lord Leighton, who commissioned these Islamic-style tiles from the British ceramicist, William de Morgan. But the real boom was in paintings.
Charles Theodore Frere, Great Pyramid of Giza, ©Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia
Recurring images included famous sites such as the pyramids, glimpses of everyday life and religious devotions.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman, The Prayer. 1877. © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia
Some artists, such as John Frederick Lewis, donned “Middle Eastern” garb and included romantic self-images in their pictures. (His wife later left the colourful sash he wound around his head in this picture to the Victoria and Albert Museum, describing it as from Constantinople, and about 1000 years old. It was, however, both contemporary and Indian.)
John Frederick Lewis, Portrait of a Memlook Bey, 1863 ©Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Orientalism is its imaginary scenes of the harem, often used as an excuse to portray nude women. These had to be invented – harems were private, domestic spaces, and outsiders were not admitted.
David Wilkie, A Circassian woman, 1840 ©British Museum
One British artist, David Wilkie, was allowed to sketch a young Circassian woman in the harem of an exiled Persian prince, but he recorded she was fully dressed, with no expression, and silent – no titillation there. So the exhibition – perhaps because many of its items are from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, where it will go on show next year – is rather short of the latter. The fascination with a highly fantasised Orient also found its way into books such as the Arabian Nights, and operas, films and even pantomines like Aida and Aladdin. To balance this, the exhibition has a section showing how some artists from the Islamic world turned the Orientalist gaze back on itself, with photographs and even maps, reusing such imagery for their own ends.
Raeda Saadeh (b.1977), Who will make me real? 2003. Courtesy of the artist and RoseIssa Projects / © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
While interest in these arts and crafts has declined, the show concludes with four contemporary reactions to the imagery of Orientalism. Most striking is a self-portrait of artist Raeda Saadeh, reclining like an odalisque, but dressed in Palestinian newspapers, perhaps to draw attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All in all, an informative and visually arresting look at a cultural relationship that has endured for more than five hundred years.

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art. British Museum, London, to Jan 26, 2020. Entry £14 (concessions available).

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Gauguin Portraits - National Gallery, London

Vahine no te vi (Woman with a Mango)
Paul Gauguin 1892© The Baltimore Museum of Art / Photo: Mitro Hood

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) painted people throughout his career – from his own family to the Polynesian beauties he found in the South Pacific. This sweeping exhibition brings together more than fifty works from museums and private collections throughout the world, showing how the French artist revolutionised the portrait with his intense use of colour, unconventional symbolism, and lack of flattery or marks of social standing.
Mette in Evening Dress
Paul Gauguin 1884 © National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo
As a young man with a lucrative job as a stock broker he collected art, got to know the Impressionists, began painting and was invited to exhibit with them. His early portraits were mostly of family and friends – we see his wife, Mette, in an evening dress, surrounded by the trappings of a comfortable life. When the Paris stock market crashed in 1882 he lost his position and decided to paint full time. Having largely abandoned Mette and their five children, he began exploring his own, highly original ideas about art. Part of his childhood had been spent in Peru, the home of some of his mother’s relatives, and this left him with a fascination with societies that to him seemed close to nature. In the years that followed he was constantly in search of such cultures. The exhibition starts with a room of self-portraits.
Christ in the Garden of Olives
Paul Gauguin 1889 ©Norton Museum of Art
One of his favourite subjects was himself, usually showing the aquiline nose of which he was very proud. (He claimed it was a sign of Inca blood through his mother’s side, though in fact her grandfather was not Peruvian, but a Spanish colonial.) We see him in various guises, even as Christ (above), mostly reflecting his feelings of isolation as an outsider, and the way his lack of commercial success made him a misunderstood martyr to his art.
Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin
Paul Gauguin 1889 ©Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
In 1886 in search of a more ‘primitive’ and ‘pure’ society, he moved to Brittany on France’s north-west coast (above). However all was not as it seemed – fast trains had made the area popular with artists and the ‘peasants’ were happy to dress up in traditional costumes and perform dances in return for cash. Eventually he moved to the more remote village of Le Pouldu where he formed a close circle of fellow artists, including the Dutch artist, Meijer de Haan, whom he portrayed many times. He also met Theo van Gogh, who in 1988 persuaded him to move to Provence in an attempt to found another artists’ community there with his brother, Vincent.
L'arl├ęsienne, Mme Ginoux
Paul Gauguin 1888 ©Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California
In Arles, the two artists worked intensely, often side by side with the same subjects. Gauguin gave this sketch of Marie Ginoux to Van Gogh, who later used it for a series of portraits. But after three months the experiment ended badly and Gauguin returned north. Still in search of an ‘unspoiled’ culture, his next move, in 1891, was to the French colony of Tahiti. The trip was funded by the French government, for whom he was supposed to be recording local customs. There’s little evidence of this, apart from an invented scene where he painted the recently-deceased king as a trophy head.
Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)
Paul Gauguin 1892 ©Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

He did, however, enter into relationships with young teenage girls, marrying two of them and fathering children. One 'wife', Tehamana a Tahura, may have been 13 when they met. Christian missionaries had been at work there for decades, compelling the women to wear ‘modest’ dresses based on European models. Gauguin was outraged at this, but featured them in several portraits, including this one of Tahura, which mixes the colonial present with a background of a mythic past.

The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana)
Paul Gauguin 1893 ©The Art Institute of Chicago

In 1893 he went back to France with a trunkful of exotic clothes and full of his experiences. He painted his studio bright yellow to evoke the atmosphere of the South Seas, and on a return visit to Brittany portrayed a peasant girl at prayer, wearing a brilliant yellow ‘missionary’ dress. But his paintings were not a success, and in 1895 he returned to Tahiti. By this time he was in poor health and had financial worries. In 1901 he moved to Hiva Oa in the Marquesan Islands, where life was cheaper. Here he painted what the exhibition terms ‘Surrogate Portraits’, evoking the memory of  friends such as Van Gogh with a still life of sunflowers, and de Haan as a grotesque devil-like figure beside a serene Polynesian couple.
Contes barbares
Paul Gauguin 1902 ©Museum Folkwang Essen / ARTOTHEK
Gauguin died in 1903 at the age of 54. His last self portrait is very different from his earlier creations – simple, without symbolic objects or inscriptions.
Paul Gauguin 1903©Kunstmuseum Basel
His legacy is complicated. He seems to have been a difficult person – self-obsessed, restless, short-tempered, and quick to exploit his position as a privileged Westerner to make the most of the sexual freedom available to him in Polynesia. The exhibition doesn't ignore this, but puts it in context, and invites you to enjoy the explosion of colour he brought to portraiture.

Gauguin Portraits is at the National Gallery, London until 26 January 2020. Admission charge.