Category Archives: art

Restorations: on the sadness of the Ashdown House sale

 

Ashdown House, near Lambourn, Berkshire

 

Rather a long time ago now, early in the 1990s, walking along the ridge of a hill in Berkshire, I more or less stumbled across Ashdown House, that famous collision of classicised architecture with historical melodrama, now owned by the National Trust, some of the contents of which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in London in a couple of weeks’ time.

At this distance the context is hard to recapture. Looking at the online map today in the hope of reconstructing that journey, I suppose we must have been walking from Ashbury to Lambourn. Certainly, I remember climbing up to see the bell tower of Lambourn’s ancient parish church, assisted in this project by a similarly ancient sexton seemingly on leave from a Thomas Hardy novel. Reconstructing further, I suspect the reason we were in the area in the first place was to visit the White Horse of Uffington, Wayland’s Smithy and other prehistoric sites. The Berkshire Downs are, after all, a part of England at once casually beautiful and imaginatively liberating. One gets the sense that man and nature have operated there for so long together, working in such close proximity, that the boundaries which elsewhere separate their legacies start to blur a little. It’s an enchanted landscape.

In any event, I certainly shan’t forget the shock of rounding a bend onto the top of that chalk ridge and then seeing — with all the weird emphasis of an hallucination — the tall trim cupola, detached flanking pavilions and formal parterres of Ashdown House laid out in the valley below me. What could this apparition possibly mean?

The conventional thing to say about Ashdown House is that it looks like a dolls’ house — a comparison made by Pevsner, amongst others. Yet this hardly does justice to the force of its formidable strangeness.

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Heritage under the hammer: the Crosby Garrett Helmet (re)visited

Later this morning, the Crosby Garrett helmet, about which I have written here, will be put to auction at Christie’s South Kensington, London, where the estimate stands at £200,000-£300,000.

On Monday, I made my way up the Old Brompton Road to see this much-publicised item at first hand. What I encountered was not entirely what I had expected — or, rather, the experience of viewing the Crosby Garrett helmet seemed to fling two different worlds into jarring, distressing collision.

The context framed the problem. Although no stranger to Christie’s, virtually all my previous visits to South Ken have been consecrated to the pursuit of examining, and sometimes even acquiring (very much at the modest end of the spectrum — no £300,000 parade armour for me!) either furniture or pictures.

Here, well-established conventions apply regarding provenance, condition and authentication. Continue reading

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Mark Alexander’s ‘Red Mannheim’ at St Paul’s Cathedral

Two new works by contemporary British artist Mark Alexander are currently hanging on either side of the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral this summer, selected as a part of the Dean and Chapter’s ongoing Cathedral Art Programme.

The Red Mannheim is composed of two sets of screenprints — nine panels in each, hung in a grid, about four metres tall once grouped — the palette sharply limited to black and a visceral, super-saturated red. Non-identical, the paired works are based on an altarpiece originally created for the choir of the Sebastiankirk in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, by that master of Rococco woodcarving, Paul Egell, c. 1739-41. (A photo of one of the sets of panels appears at the bottom of this post.)

The history of the Mannheim altarpiece turns out to be a story of loss, transposition of meaning and woundedness.

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Christen Købke at the National Gallery

When I set out to see Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery recently — on the day before it closed, in fact, although it’s now moving to Edinburgh, where it remains until 3 October 2010 — the name ‘Kobke’ rang no loud bells, so I assumed that I’d never seen this early nineteenth century artist’s work before.

So much for the reliability of memory, eh? Although I didn’t post about it at the time — although I can’t quite reconstruct the crisis of confidence that prevented that 10,000 word draft getting as far as actual publication, unpublished it remains — in truth I could hardly tear myself away from the Royal Academy’s extravagant, eye-opening Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, the late Robert Rosenblum’s final major gift to art-historical revisionism. I know I must have visited that show half a dozen times, perhaps more. And while the the slightly disorienting array of treasures there included work by David, Reynolds, Houdon, Zoffany, Goya and Ingres, as well as dozens of less stellar figures, one of the pictures that really stood out was, of all things, a portrait by Christen Købke himself.

Painted when the artist was only 22 years old, Købke’s Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sodring (1832) is an extraordinary, lucid, arresting little work. Across its surface, the oil has been applied as thin as tempera. The details of that pot of trailing ivy, the enamel snuffbox, upturned brush, oh-so-practical improvised chair-cover and meticulous sketches of the Roman Forum are all so ‘real’ as to seem almost hallucinogenic. None of this, though, is achieved at the expense either of warmth — the coolness of those blue-grey tonalities notwithstanding, could anyone doubt that these two young men were friends? — or indeed of structure. Everything in the relationship between the panels of the door behind the figure, the round mirror over his head, the sheets of pinned-up paper and the slope of that resting body, all apparently so casual, even proleptically ‘photographic’, has surely been calculated with precision. For how else could it be the case that the viewer’s glance runs round and round, weighing up this and that, wondering at the balance of colour and tone — not really caught by the digital image to which I’ve linked above — incredulous that this initially rather informal-looking keepsake should, in fact, turn out to be a work of such slightly weird, distinctive brilliance?

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On Tate Modern’s first ten years

There are times when art matters a lot to me, but also times when it hardly registers. Over the past few weeks, for obvious reasons, politics has engaged, entertained and enraged in a way that art has not. It turns out that the end of an era, when viewed in the right sort of light, trumps even a very good picture. Who knew?

Of course, there have been exceptions. The magisterial Paul Sandby show at the Royal Academy, the important Paul Nash exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the happy rediscovery of Rupert Lee (one of Nash’s less well known contemporaries) at Gallery 27 in Cork Street were each as distracting as art ever can be, although of course not without their own various penumbras of political content. Who, for instance, could glance at Rupert Lee’s hurried, inelegant yet startlingly honest sketch of a dead fellow soldier without reflecting that for us, as much as our Great War predecessors, this remains a forbidden image — that during an election campaign in particular, there are some truths about conflict judged a little too ripe for consumption by the voting public? And by the same token, who can view Paul Sandby’s cool evocations of well-ordered, civilised, richly productive landscapes, or for that matter his vicious attacks on Hogarth, without wondering at the distance that Britain has travelled in a mere two centuries when it comes to making political arguments by means of popular culture?

So perhaps the distinction between art and politics isn’t as firm as that first sentence might have implied. All of which brings us to another topical matter — Tate Modern’s tenth birthday. Can it really be right that a decade has passed since those days when the atmosphere in the Turbine Hall was all but literally electric with the buzz of novelty, controversy and Cool Britannia ambience? Continue reading

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Remembering Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland, 'And Half' (1959)

It’s sad to learn, as I did here, that Kenneth Noland died at his home in Maine on 5 January, at the age of 85 years.

For those who like reading the labels before scanning the pictures — and also, perhaps more to the point, for the substantial majority of readers who’ve doubtless never heard of him — perhaps I’d better explain that Noland was one of the last surviving giants of colour field painting, a major figure surviving from the age in which the United States produced some of the greatest art it’s ever likely to produce.

Yet if Noland’s critical reputation has, over the past few decades, suffered from the mainstream conviction that, in order for the Next Big Thing to be any good at all, whole categories of older things must be deemed to be dated and silly, if not downright malign — a sloppy way to construct art history, admittedly, yet so much less risky than taking the time to look at individual works and evaluate them both with honesty and a degree of humility — well, then, this surely says more about the blind-spots of present-day connoisseurship than it does about Noland’s paintings. Deceptively simple, their surprising conjunction of incandescent Magna colour with cool-headed formal rigour ensured that they always added up to considerably more than wan illustrations of someone else’s theory or whim, spectacularly illuminated now and then by the blaze of critical cross-fire, in the same way that they always felt like more than potential historical relics, flat surfaces tinged with thinned-down nostalgia for yesterday’s more hard-edged hegemonic certainties.

Or so, anyway, it seems to me today, prompted by the news of Noland’s death to recall my single moment of real contact with the artist’s work.

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‘Earth: Art of a changing world’ at the Royal Academy

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

‘Brave’ contemporary art or climate change agit-prop — which is more tiresome?

Such is the quandary with which, at least in theory, Earth: Art of a changing world presents visitors to the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens site, in the second of three annual GSK Contemporary seasons. If, in the event, Earth turns out to be something rather different from what either climate change sceptics or enthusiasts might reasonably have expected, the result is, nonetheless, revealing.

Don’t get me wrong. Earth isn’t without the odd pleasant surprise. For one thing, low expectations do pay good dividends. It’s still simply not that easy to gather together work by 34 artists without stumbling over something that merits at least brief consideration, perhaps even a degree of visual interest.

And then, even when faced with the reliable disappointment that is our contemporary art scene, there’s a point at which basic human sympathy starts to assert its own modest if stubborn demands.

Consider, just for a moment, the plight of the exhibition’s organisers. Faced with the need to bundle together a disparate job-lot of contemporary art in a manner unlikely to repel the out-of-town Christmas-shopping crowd who constitute so lucrative a slice of the RA’s winter audience, the Earth theme was, all things considered, a perfectly rational choice — capacious enough to include pretty much anything, of course, but also right-on enough to cast a flattering glow of moral rectitude across faces long since hardened by the rigours of several hours’ of full-throttle seasonal consumerism, while at the same time not excluding at least the possibility of ‘edginess’, that sparkling decorative flourish without which no contemporary art exhibition could ever be complete. Comprendre, c’est pardoner, this being the season of goodwill and everything. Continue reading

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