Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Charles I - King and Collector

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions

One of the last things that King Charles I saw on January 30 1649 as he made his way through the Banqueting House to the scaffold outside was the glorious ceiling painting he had commissioned in honour of his father, King James. The work of Peter Paul Rubens, it was one of some 2000 works of art in Charles’s collection, and one of the few not sold off after his execution by Oliver Cromwell. This sumptuous exhibition at the Royal Academy reunites 140 of them, including more than 90 pieces rescued and returned to the Royal Collection by subsequent monarchs. Charles acquired a taste for art when in 1623 he visited Madrid to pay court to a Spanish princess. He returned to England without his prospective bride but with a number of paintings, including some by Titian and Veronese. Bitten by the collecting bug, he went on to acquire works amassed by the Gonzaga family of Mantua, who had fallen on hard times. Among them were paintings by Leonardo and Raphael, as well as many from Northern Europe, and some antique sculptures, including this Crouching Venus (2nd c AD).
By now he had married Henrietta Maria, sister of King Louis XIII of France. She had grown up in a court surrounded by art, and her sophisticated tastes are thought to have influenced her husband.
Anthony van Dyck, Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson, 1633
She commissioned van Dyck to paint the triple portrait of Charles (top) that graces the first room of the exhibition. It was to be the basis of a marble bust of the king by Bernini, and was sent to him in Rome. (He was too busy to travel to England.) Sadly, the sculpture was destroyed in a fire in 1698, but the portrait remains.
Anthony van Dyck, Charles I in the Hunting Field c 1636
Three other van Dycks are reunited to form the core of this exhibition – two equestrian portraits of the king, and the celebrated one of him hunting, on loan from the Louvre and back in England for the first time since the seventeenth century. (It’s thought that Queen Henrietta Maria took it with her when she went into exile in France after her husband’s death.)
Interestingly, not all the works reflect the king’s personal taste – many were gifts from ambassadors or other nobles. Mantegna’s monumental series, The Triumph of Caesar c 1484 – 92, which fills a dedicated gallery (below), might have been seen as somewhat old-fashioned when it arrived; it was displayed at Hampton Court, rather than Whitehall Palace.
It also seems Rembrandt was not held in the esteem he is today, which was reflected in the price fetched by an exquisite portrait of an elderly woman, probably his mother, in Cromwell's sale - just £4. However Titian's Supper at Emmaus, (below) went for £600, while Raphael's La Perla, now in the Prado, was valued at £2000.
Titian, The Supper at Emmaus, c.1530
The works the Stuart monarch amassed have been described as “the finest collection of pictures ever assembled in this country,” and are credited with changing the appreciation of art in England. It’s taken five years of planning and international negotiations, aided by the support of the Prince of Wales, to stage this exhibition. As well as the Royal Collection, major lenders include the National Gallery, London, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and Mobilier National, Paris.

Among the treasures from Paris are the Mortlake tapestries of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles, perhaps the most spectacular set of tapestries ever produced in England (above). The curators have been helped in understanding the importance to the king of various items by a working draft of a 1639 inventory (below) by Abraham van der Doort, the first Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.
In it, he describes the works and where they were hung. It reveals that the van Dyck painting in the background, showing the King and Queen with Prince Charles and Princess Mary, was known as the "Greate Peece" and was in the Long Gallery at Whitehall Palace. Sadly, around 1600 of the items listed have disappeared, lost, destroyed, or perhaps lanquishing unrecognised in private collections or archives. The curators are hoping that the interest created by the exhibition might prompt a closer look at works in storage, to see if they bear the tell-tale 'C' and crown.
Charles I, King and Collector. Royal Academy, London, until April 15 2018. £20 (concessions available)

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Winter Lights at Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf's annual celebration of light technology and art is back, cheering up London's dark January evenings. More than 30 installations and artworks are dotted around the estate, both indoors and out. They range from small intimate displays to impressive interactive artworks you can enter and explore. So much to see - just remember to wrap up well. Here are some of the highlights:
This 6-metre wide Sonic Light Bubble greets you as you emerge from the Jubilee line tube's west entrance. It pulsates with light and sound when you approach or touch it, and constantly generates new visual patterns to a unique soundtrack.
Abstract, in Montgomery Square, is inspired by the concept of time and relativity. The lights move up and down five-metre poles, interweaving in an almost balletic mode.
Nearby is Intrude -  two huge inflatable giant rabits, their ears twitching in the breeze. They may look like something from a fairytale, but the environmental message is that in Australia, they are an out of control pest, leaving a trail of ecological disaster in their wake.
There's fun for all ages with the Luma Paint Light Graffiti. You can instantly create your own art on the wall of the Roof Garden, using a special light tool. When you're finished, the wall becomes blank again.
The giant Dazzling Dodecahedron invites you to step inside and bathe in the glow of the jewel-like colours from the panels, made of iridescent acrylic. In effect, it's a giant disco ball.
Future Fashion takes garments into the digital age. The panels react to audience input by changing colour, animating and displaying text.
Of all the displays, Reflecting Holons was to me the most magical. Long strips of oil-like transparent foil combined with spinning motors create ever-changing bubbles that look like drops of water.
This being Canary Wharf, what better to light up a dark corner than this rainbow lamp, a tribute to the estate's iconic central tower?
And if you are tired, take a break on the illuminated colour-changing benches in the Columbus Courtyard. They are now a favourite part of Canary Wharf's permanent collection.

Winter Lights runs until Saturday, January 27, 1700 - 2200. It's free, and relatively uncrowded.
You can download a map of the installations from, or pick one up when you arrive.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait 1434 ©The National Gallery, London

Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait is one of the most famous paintings in the National Gallery in London, and this new exhibition shows how it inspired a generation of artists after it was first displayed there in 1842. Until then, few examples of Early Netherlandish painting had been seen in Britain, and van Eyck’s exquisite oil technique and luminous colours captivated the Victorian audience, among them the young artists studying at the Royal Academy in the Gallery’s East Wing. Disenchanted with the contemporary academic approach to painting, they founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and began painting with the clarity and precision they admired in van Eyck. In this exhibition, the Arnolfini Portrait takes centre stage, hung at eye level and without the barriers that normally keep the public at a distance.
William Holman Hunt Il Dolce Far Niente 1866 Private Collection
Works by Pre-Raphaelites and their successors are in the surrounding rooms, shedding light on the different ways these young artists responded to the painting and one of its most distinctive features, the convex mirror at its centre. They adopted this device as a means of exploring ideas of distortion and reflection, but also as a way of conveying complex psychological drama.
William Holman Hunt The Awakening Conscience 1853 ©Tate London
In William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a woman and her lover, the mirror, this time rectangular, reflects a view out of the window, alluding to the woman’s possible redemption from a life of shame.
William Holman Hunt The Lady of Shalott 1886 - 1905 Manchester Art Gallery
Other motifs from the Arnolfini portrait appropriated by the Pre-Raphaelites include a pair of pointed slippers and a silver samovar topped with candles in Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott (above) and the hanging bed drapery, carpet, dog and oranges in William Morris’s La Belle Iseult.
William Morris La Belle Iseult 1858 ©Tate London
By 1860 the orginal Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had disbanded as the artists began to diversify their interests. However, van Eyck's convex mirror remained an important source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, such as William Orpen (below).
William Orpen The Mirror 1900 ©Tate London
As well as highlighting links that might not have been immediately obvious, the exhibition is imaginatively designed so that everywhere there are mirrors to reflect both paintings and visitors.
There's even a convex mirror owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which featured in many of his paintings. It is one of several that adorned his house at Chelsea. His studio assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn recalled: "..whichever way I gazed, I saw myself looking at myself".
Convex mirror owned by Rossetti. Society of Antiquaries of London (Kelmscott Manor)
Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites runs until 2 April 2018. Tickets from £8.