Monday, 26 November 2018

Gainsborough's Family Album

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly. Thomas Gainsborough, c. National Gallery.

Today, surrounded by images of family and friends, it’s easy to forget how rare it was for people in the 18th c to have any form of likeness of those close to them. Royalty and the rich could commission portraits for posterity, but the majority of ordinary people went unrecorded. This is what makes the paintings in the National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition so unusual – and special. Gainsborough’s Family Album brings together for the very first time virtually all of the artist’s images of himself and his extended family across the years – some 50 in all. The curators have gathered them from far and near – one was rediscovered in private hands just weeks ago, having last been seen in public in 1882. We see affectionate portrayals of his daughters Margaret and Mary as they grow from little girls chasing a butterfly, to their transformation into young ladies, sumptuously dressed and ready to take their places in society. His wife, also Margaret, is there, growing greyer over the years, and his brother John, known as Scheming Jack because of his many failed money-making schemes, also puts in an appearance, along with the family’s dogs.
Tristram and Fox, by Thomas Gainsborough, Image c.Tate London
Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 88) was one of Britain’s most successful eighteenth century portraitists, a favourite of royalty,  but in his private correspondence he lamented the need to earn his living from an endless parade of ‘damn’d Faces’ when he’d have preferred to concentrate on landscapes. However, the faces were where the money was. His father, a Suffolk clothes merchant, had been forced into bankruptcy, and had to be rescued by a wealthy nephew. The shadow of this must have played a part in young Thomas’s pursuit of fame and fortune. He began young. Having shown some artistic talent, he was apprenticed when he was 13 to an illustrator in London. By the unusually early age of 16 he set up his own studio in Hatton Garden, and three years later met and married Margaret Burr, the illegitimate daughter of Henry, 3rd Duke of Beaufort, whose family gave her an annuity of £200 for the rest of her life. He celebrates his new family in a rural setting with their first child, who died while young.
The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary, Thomas Gainsborough,c National Gallery, London
The couple returned to Sudbury where two more daughters were born. Gainsborough quickly realised that there were not enough potential customers for his paintings in the little town, and in 1752 the family moved to nearby Ipswich, where he developed a moderately successful practice. He experimented artistically, using the family as subjects.
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough with a Cat c.National Gallery, London
 By 1858 he was running out of potential clients, so spent a trial season in fashionable Bath. The following year he settled there with his family, leasing a house in a stylish part of town. This was large enough to accommodate other members of his extended family, including his widowed sister, Mary Gibbon, who set up a millinery shop in part of the building. It also served as a showroom. Prospective customers could see examples of his work on the walls, including portraits of the artist and his wife Margaret (who acted as his business manager), enabling them to compare art with life. Work prospered and he took on his one and only apprentice, his nephew, Gainsborough Dupont, whom he also painted, looking as if he’d just stepped out of the court of Charles I.
Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist's Nephew, by Thomas Gainsborough Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)
But a serious illness reminded him of life’s precariousness. He arranged for his daughters to have art lessons, not just as a ladylike accomplishment, but to enable them to earn a living if necessary. He captured them practising their drawing, although it seems none of their work survived.
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters, at their Drawing by Gainsborough c Worcester Art Museum
Having been a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768, Gainsborough’s final move was to London in 1774, and a magnificent new residence at Schomberg House in Pall Mall. Here he mixed with the highest in the land – not bad for a provincial painter from Sudbury. This formal, full-length portrait of his girls greeted visitors – proof that they, and their family, had arrived.
Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters, by Gainsborough. Private Collection
His wife, Margaret, was enjoying their new life as well. She's shown dressed in the very height of fashion, wearing an elaborate lace cap and a fur-lined wrap.
Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Wife, by Gainsborough. Courtauld Gallery, London
By now it was time for her daughters to marry, and Mary fell in love with an oboist, Johann Christian Fischer, of whom her father apparently didn't approve. The marriage lasted a matter of months. Mary was having mental health problems, and she moved in with Margaret, who cared for her for the rest of her life. The grand double portrait is the only one of the family paintings to have been completely finished by Gainsborough. As we see in the exhibition, with these he usually concentrated on the face, hands, and garments, and filled in the background with a sketchier treatment. It may have been his way of saying these were private, and not for sale, but perhaps could also reflect the pressure put upon him to get back to the money-making business of commissioned portrait painting. (The freer brush strokes crept into some of these paintings as well, prompting complaints from clients.)
Self-portrait by Gainsborough 1758 - 59 c. National Portrait Gallery
In 1788 he realised he was suffering from terminal cancer, and began to put his affairs in order. He wrote to his life-long rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, inviting him to visit, and confided his great regret of dying before, as he saw it, his talents had reached their full potential. Wishing to control his posthumous image, he identified the self portrait he wished to have engraved as his memorial, and asked posterity to judge him by the standards of the artist he most revered, Sir Anthony van Dyck.  He died with an earlier, unfinished painting of his nephew on an easel by his bed, in the hope that he would be his artistic heir. Sadly, Dupont outlived his uncle by just a decade.
Gainsborough Dupont, the Artist's Nephew, c.Tate, London

Gainsborough's Family Album is at the National Portrait Gallery until Feb 3 2019. £12.50 – £16.00

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Peter I, Tsar of Russia. Royal Collection Trust

This sumptuous new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery covers some three hundred years during which Great Britain was linked to Russia's ruling Romanov dynasty through exploration and discovery, diplomatic alliances and family ties. It begins with a monumental portrait by Sir Geoffrey Kneller of Peter the Great, who in 1698 was the first Russian ruler to set foot on English soil. He stayed for three months at the home of diarist John Evelyn in Greenwich, using paintings as target practice and wheelbarrows as go-karts but in between soaking up knowledge about shipbuilding and navigation that enabled him to build a mighty Russian navy from scratch. This portrait (above) depicts him as a young and vibrant ruler, looking to the West and hoping to establish a new, ‘open’ Russia. When he left, he presented it to the King, William III, beginning a tradition of gift-giving and exchanges that continued through the centuries.
Franz Kruger Emperor Nicholas I 1796 - 1855. Royal Collection Trust
After the defeat of Napoleon by allied forces, including those of Britain and Russia, a steady stream of Russian emperors, empresses, grand dukes and grand duchesses were entertained in Britain. The future Emperor Nicholas I (above) visited in 1816 – 17 and was guest of honour at a banquet of more than 100 courses, hosted by the Prince Regent at the Brighton Pavilion.
After George Dawe, Princess Charlotte of Wales.  Royal Collection Trust
As a thank you, his mother, Empress Maria, sent the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, the insignia of the order of St Catherine, the most prestigious award for women in Imperial Russia, and she was painted wearing it on a Russian-style dress (above). Later, two daughters of King Christian X of Denmark married into the Russian and British royal families, creating a close familial link.
Laurits Regner Tuxen, The Marriage of Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia. Royal Collection Trust
This bond was strengthened by a number of marriages. One of the rooms in this exhibition is devoted to these family links and portraits, displayed in opulent frames.
Laurits Regner Tuxen, The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887.  Royal Collection Trust
To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, a detailed painting of her surrounded by her extensive family was commissioned, emphasising how personal the political was.
Fabergé, Mosaic Egg and Surprise. Royal Collection Trust
The Royal Collection also includes a number of works by Carl Fabergé. On display is one of the famous bejewelled Easter Eggs, with its 'surprise' beside it. It was confiscated after the 1917 revolution and ended up in Cameo Corner in London, where it was bought by King George V in 1933, probably as a birthday gift for Queen Mary.

Fabergé Chrysanthumums. Royal Collection Trust
The exhibition also includes some exquisite lifelike flowers, crafted from precious and semi-precious stones – just the thing to brighten up a long, dark Russian winter.
Cossack uniform belonging to Tzarevich Alexei. Royal Collection Trust
As in all families, things did not always go smoothly. There's a poignant reminder of the fate of the Romanovs after King George V declined to rescue them during the revolution – a little Cossack uniform once worn by the Russian heir, Alexei, who, with the rest of his family, was shot dead in a cellar. It was later found in a government shop in Leningrad. And in the mid 19th c, Britain was at war with Russia, trying, along with the French and Ottomans, to stop its expansionism in the Crimea. The stark realities of this conflict were captured on camera by the enterprising early photographer Roger Fenton when he visited the area in 1855.
Roger Fenton, Cossack Bay, Balaclava. Pioneering nurse Mary Seacole had travelled there on one of these ships.
His images of exhausted troops and desolate landscapes – including the scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade – brought the impact of war into public consciousness for the first time. An exhibition of these photographs, Shadows of War, runs alongside Royalty and the Romanovs, providing a stark contrast between the two worlds.  
Fabergé, Basket of Flowers Egg, 1901 Royal Collection Trust

Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs, Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 28 April 2019, with Shadows of War: Roger Fenton's Photographs of the Crimea, 1855. £12 (concessions available).

Sunday, 18 November 2018

I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria

The title of this fascinating new British Museum exhibition comes from the claim of Assyria’s last great ruler, Ashurbanipal (reigned 669 – 631 BC). To say you are king of the world might seem like an exaggeration, but this man ruled an empire that stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran. As we see in the more than 250 exhibits, some never seen in the UK before, he expanded by treaty and conquest what had been inherited from his forebears. He ruled from his massive capital at Nineveh, in present-day Iraq, where temples and palaces were adorned with sculptures of lions and human-headed winged bulls, such as this one from the palace of Nimrud (above) and an elaborate system of canals brought water to his pleasure gardens and game parks (below).
The lighting of the exhibits is imaginative. Special effects are used to project colours on reliefs, picking out the details and showing how they first looked. These three gods (below) once decorated the throne room in Nineveh.
Ashurbanipal's empire was highly organised and efficient, arranged in provinces, each administered by a governor he had appointed. A system of royal roads criss-crossed the territory, allowing a sophisticated mail system to deliver orders swiftly. Obedience was rewarded, but there were brutal punishments for those who disobeyed; in one relief a surrendering general is about to be beheaded and in another, prisoners have to grind their fathers’ bones before being executed. His older brother, given the province of Babylonia to govern, rebelled against him and died in the attempt. Lord Byron painted a picture of the regime’s fearsome war machine in his poem, The Destruction of Sennacherib. (Ashurbanipal was Sennacherib’s grandson.)
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold...
Ashurbanipal was ruthless. Millions of displaced people were forcibly resettled to cultivate barren land, build cities and produce luxury goods. But unlike his predecessors, he didn’t go into battle himself, instead sending a general to command his forces. He preferred to display his bravery and skills as a warrior in carefully organised lion hunts (where there was plenty of backup) and had them recorded in wall reliefs (above.) He prided himself on being literate and cultured, and is portrayed with a stylus tucked into his belt. On display is a practice letter to his father, composed in cuneiform on a clay tablet while still a boy. Elsewhere, he boasts about his achievements: “I am able to recognise celestial and terrestrial omens and can discuss them in an assembly of scholars ... I have carefully examined inscriptions on stone from before The Flood.” 
He created a huge reference library in Nineveh, aiming to unite under one roof all the traditional knowledge inherited from earlier times. This covered instructions for contacting the gods, letters, historical texts and administrative matters – all things he believed would help him rule. The exhibition has a whole wall of surviving fragments (above).  It must have helped – he held the throne for almost 40 years, longer than any of his ancestors. In later life, he enjoyed banquets and relaxing in his garden. Here, servants bring snacks of grapes, pomegranates and dates to a feast.
After he died, his son took over, but the empire began to fall apart with civil wars and invasions. In the ensuing battles, the palace was systematically demolished and the library burnt down. However, 30,000 clay tablets survived in the ruins, baked hard by the flames. The exhibition displays a whole wall of them (above). Their cuneiform writing, giving a detailed picture of life and beliefs in the ancient world, was first deciphered in Victorian times; researchers continue to study the fragments.
Nineveh was rediscovered in the 1840s. A young British explorer, Austen Henry Layard, began excavations with initial financing by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then occupied the area. The Ottomans authorised the Ambassador to export some of the sculptures found to England, and the first of these arrived at the British Museum in 1847. A sketch of this event appeared in The Illustrated London News on 28 February 1852 (above). The finds sparked a fashion for Assyrian designs in painting and art. The winged bull and the lion hunt even found their way on to Victorian jewellery.
In recent years, many archaeological sites in Iraq have been systematically targeted and destroyed by ISIS, including those where exhibits were found. The final section of the exhibition highlights the challenges faced in protecting Iraqi cultural heritage, and outlines the British Museum’s scheme for training 50 Iraqi archaeologists in rescue archaeology. At the same time, the cuneiform tablets are being digitised, which will enable their closer study and ensure that they are available to all to see.

The BP exhibition – I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria. British Museum to Feb 24 2019. £17 (concessions).