Tag Archives: British art

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.

Continue reading


Filed under art, London, religion, reviews

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


Filed under art, culture, London

Remembering Mark Glazebrook

It’s a sad thing to learn that Britain’s stable of art writers no longer can boast that marvellous if slightly erratic thoroughbred, Mark Glazebrook, who died earlier this month, aged 73 years.

Glazebrook’s career spanned most possible art-related pursuits. Having hoped to become a major painter, he had instead to make do with serving as director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery (1969-71), selling pictures at Colnaghi & Co (1972-75) and the Albemarle Gallery (1986-93), writing various exhibition catalogues and monographs, as well as producing criticism for, among other publications, Modern Painters, the Evening Standard, and the Spectator.

I’ll miss his writing. His prose was humane, literate, generally quite funny, always conversational. It slipped down easily — so much so, that only in retrospect does one stop to consider how much knowledge, not only of British art itself but of quite a lot else besides, actually informed it.

Glazebrook’s life, at least as detailed in a rather good Times obituary, seems to have been full of ups and downs. Did this contribute to the distinctive tenor of his arts journalism? Certainly, his criticism never hardened into predictability — and what higher praise for a critic is there than that?

Some of Glazebrook’s Spectator writing is, happily, still available online, e.g. here.

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Filed under art, culture, RIP

On Hogarth

The Shrimp Girl

William Hogarth, 'The Shrimp Girl' (c. 1740-45)

There’s an awful lot of error abroad in the world. And although it’s easy enough — sometimes, for practical reasons, even necessary — to ignore the great bulk of it, now and then there’s an instance of witlessness so egregious that swiping back it at somehow feels less like fun for its own self-indulgent sake than something dangerously close to that even rarer treat, an actual moral imperative.

Consider, for instance, Regina Hackett’s condemnation of William Hogarth, to which the wise and sharp-eyed Franklin Einspruch recently drew our attention. In the context of criticising another Seattle-based critic, Jen Graves, Ms Hackett wrote the following on her ArtsJournal-fostered blog:

Graves also wrote Danzker’s exhibit, William Hogarth: Nationalism, Mass Media and the Artist, was “awesome-sounding.” Awesome? Hogarth is an illustrator in the worst sense of the word. He belongs in picture books accompanying stories.

And when Jen Graves replied with a perfectly reasonable retort, ‘I cannot even address a person who dismisses Hogarth’ — returning us briskly to the observation, aired above, that error is often best ignored — Ms Hackett offered up this by way of reply (the links in the quotation are hers, by the way):

Maybe it’s generational. Nobody from my time and place countenances the didactical moralism of Hogarth, the 18th-century’s Norman Rockwell.  It’s hardwired. You can have them both, Jen.

Even in the dog-days of summer, gilt-edged idiocy of this standard simply can’t be left lying around on the internet where anyone might pick it up. Let’s get to work on it. Where, though, faced with such an embarrassment of riches, ought we to start?

‘Didactical moralism’ is, clearly, an invitingly soft target for dissection. Leave to one side, out of pity as much as anything else, a reproach to the sort of critical consciousness for whom ‘didactical’ must sound at least a syllable more impressive than the ‘didactic’ it needlessly replaces. Leave aside also what must surely be the wholly unfair suspicion that, in branding Hogarth an ‘illustrator’, Ms Hackett revealed her ignorance of Hogarth’s many portraits and conversation pieces, the Biblical and historical scenes, let alone his disconcertingly free, almost jarringly immediate studies in oils — not least, the well-known Shrimp Girl shown above, reminding us of de Kooning as much as it does of Rubens or Goya. Continue reading


Filed under art, picking fights

‘Sickert in Venice’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Walter Sickert, The Horses of St Mark's (detail), Birmingham Art Gallery and Museums

Walter Sickert, The Horses of St Mark's (detail), c. 1905-06, Birmingham Art Gallery and Museums

It’s hard to know what to make of Walter Sickert (1860-1942), some of whose Venetian paintings and drawings make up Sickert in Venice, on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 7 June 2009.

Britain typically imagines its art historical tradition to be primarily pastoral, decorative or based in formal portraiture. Sickert scarcely registers on any of these indices. As an artist whose working career spanned seven decades, it’s hard to know where to place him amongst his contemporaries. His cultural identity is also confusing. The son of a Schleswig-Holstein-born artist father and a half-Irish, half-English mother, most of his childhood was spent in Munich; he was entirely at home in Dieppe and Paris, close not only to a mistress and illegitimate son but also to his teacher and mentor Degas; as the present exhibition attests, he lived in Venice, at the time an economical choice, for the better part of several years; his application of paint derived as much from Velasquez and Goya as from the examples of his actual teachers and contemporaries; the semi-American Whistler was variously his studio assistant, colleague and irritating competitor. Yet this most cosmopolitan, ‘European’ of artists nevertheless achieved his most notable success in depicting London — not an imperial, ceremonial or even picturesque vision of London, either, but the grubby unlovely Camden Town, quartier of music halls, bedsits and whores — with the sort of devoted obsessiveness unmatched by anyone else before or afterwards, Hogarth and Auerbach perhaps excepted. Continue reading


Filed under art, London, reviews

Land girls in Lymington: war art fights back

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester City Art Galleries)

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester Art Gallery)

On reflection, the venue for The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait was nothing short of inspired. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, located just off the High Street in Lymington, a modestly pretty market town and port just south of the New Forest, is in essence that very necessary and worthwhile thing, a local history collection — augmented, in this case, with two large rooms turned over to temporary art exhibitions. What more suitable context, then, for this compact yet compelling exhibition, doomed by its subject-matter to operate in the dangerous no man’s land dividing ‘history’ from ‘art’?

The history of the Women’s Land Army is recounted clearly and succinctly, both in the exhibition itself, and in the excellent accompanying catalogue. Other than commending this achievement, however, I don’t propose to say much more here about history per se.

For what clearly fascinated the exhibition organisers is the way in which the work of the Women’s Land Army was portrayed, notably during the course of the Second World War, under the auspices of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, what fascinates me is the present-day predicament of British war art — particularly of official British war art — which, for all its sometimes astonishingly high level of quality, is so rarely and grudgingly regarded as ‘proper’ art at all. Continue reading


Filed under art, culture, history, war & peace

Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape at the British Museum

[This article originally appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Every now and then — probably no more than a handful of times in anyone’s life — one stumbles over the sort of art exhibition to which the proper response isn’t so much respect, or admiration, or polite enthusiasm even, as something far more intense, personal and profound. The British Museum’s Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape is, for me anyway, one such exhibition. As compact, satisfying, modest, original and brilliant as the artist’s own strongest works, the show is at once an absorbing survey of Palmer’s own career, and a window onto nineteenth century British landscape art more generally. But for some viewers, perhaps, it will be even more than that. Put bluntly, I turned up at this exhibition liking Palmer’s work, not least because of its importance for Neo-Romantic artists such as Nash, Sutherland, Ravilious, Piper, Minton and Craxton who already meant a great deal to me — but by the time I left it was Palmer himself who had swept me off my feet.

Life and death
The facts of Samuel Palmer’s life are straight-forward enough. He was born in Newington, South London, in 1805. His father was a bookseller and Baptist lay preacher. A happy childhood ended suddenly, first with a miserable six months at the Merchant Taylors’ School in 1817, and then the death of his mother early in 1818. It was around this time that Palmer decided to become an artist. His family encouraged him, his skill was precocious and at the age of 14 his picturesque landscapes had been shown at the British Institution and the Royal Academy.

By 1822 Palmer had met several of the artists who would play an important role in his development: John Linnell, William Blake, George Richmond. Together with Richmond and others, he formed a society known as The Ancients, which its combination of religious serious-mindedness, artistic endeavour and mutual affection followed the Nazarenes and anticipated the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group centred around Shoreham, a pretty village nestled in the Kent Downs, where Palmer lived, on and off, from 1826 until 1835. In 1837, having moved back to London, he married Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, with whom he had three children, two of whom died young. In particular, the loss of Palmer’s son Thomas in 1861, aged 19, was a blow from which the artist never entirely recovered.

Prior to his son’s death, Palmer travelled extensively — to Rome and Naples, but also within England and Wales — in search of subject-matter for his paintings and drawings. Afterwards, however, he retreated to Redhill in Surrey where he became a virtual recluse, although he continued to work. He died in 1881, at the age of 76, with his old friend George Richmond at his bedside. He is buried next to his wife in St Mary’s churchyard, Reigate.

Palmer’s legacy
The success that Palmer achieved in his lifetime was real but in some ways modest. He was, first and foremost, a ‘painter’s painter’, which is to say, admired more energetically by fellow practitioners than by the market or the critics: in his own words,

designing what nobody would care for, and contracting, among good books, a fastidious and unpopular taste.

Ruskin, at least, wrote warmly about his studies of foliage, and Palmer was elected to the various societies of watercolour painters that flourished during his age.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, he was largely forgotten. Snobbery about the media in which he worked may have played a part, for instead of producing large oil paintings, Palmer focused on creating drawings, watercolours and etchings, occasionally even committing the terrible art-historical faux pas of engaging in commercial illustration. In any event, it was only in 1926, with a massive exhibition of his work at the Victoria & Albert Museum, that he came to be accepted as one of Britain’s pre-eminent Romantic artists, fit to be mentioned alongside Blake and Turner. In particular, his early landscape drawings, executed in brown ink and sepia, coupled with the few remaining gem-like painted panels from his Shoreham days and his moody late etchings, seemed to offer the young British artists of the 1920s — themselves keen watercolourists, graphic artists and illustrators — both a visual language near-magical in its freedom, very surprising but also very English, and perhaps even more importantly, the possibility of re-enchanting a threatened landscape with its cadences.

Not that Palmer’s gift to future generations was anything like a unitary, imitable style. Palmer’s own influences were diverse, the lessons he learned from them highly personal. Relatively unfamiliar figures such as Lucas van Leyden and Giulio di Antonia Bonasone mattered as much to him as did Titian, Durer, Rembrandt and Claude Lorraine — a point developed skilfully in the present exhibition. The collections of the British Museum, located round the corner from his home during his adolescent years, were another source of inspiration. And then there was the gravitational pull of his various contemporaries, including Blake, Linnell and Turner, the force of which can sometimes be seen in Palmer’s art, although never overshadowing his own highly personal line.

Perhaps inevitably, in a working life that spanned six decades, Palmer’s own working practice, subject-matter and mood changed considerably. A crude narrative of this progression might run as follows: precocious but unoriginal picturesque landscapes, followed swiftly by ‘primitive’, visionary and entirely original sepia drawings and small tempera panels, followed by larger, brighter, skilful yet once again more conventional watercolours of ‘romantic’ landscapes, foreign and domestic, followed finally by the late etchings which recaptured a measure of that early strangeness and utter distinctiveness. In other words, it’s a story of youthful inspiration ultimately recaptured in a moving late style infused with private loss. Given that Palmer did not succumb to the Romantic cliché of an early death, it is hard to see how his career could have run on more Romantically acceptable lines.

Yet what this sort of narrative never captures, with its tidy but false discontinuities, is the silver thread of individual sensibility running through all the phases, connecting them together with unmistakeable, sparkling coherence. Thus in bringing together such a large and varied collection of the artist’s work, the present exhibition, arranged by the British Museum in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not only provides a rare opportunity to experience the breadth and variety of Palmer’s achievement at first hand, but also to see his best-known work in the context of a long, fruitful career. Or to put it another way, if some of the more florid or cosy watercolours of the ‘Victorian’ Palmer have proved harder to love, either for us or for our grandparents, than either the early or late work, we can at least take pleasure in scanning them for sublimations of earlier obsessions, adumbrations of future concerns. Finally, the opportunity to see the works in the context of the life — for the exhibition is arranged along chronological, biographical lines — yields generous rewards. The Shoreham scenes start to mean more for what one can learn of Palmer’s idyllic early days there. The lonely tower — that haunting leitmotif of Palmer’s last work — means more when one understands its connection with the death of Palmer’s beloved son.

Doing justice to Palmer
The organisers of Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape, a event timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Palmer’s birth, deserve unbounded praise. It is, I imagine, harder than it looks to arrange an exhibition so that the subject stays in the foreground, with the organisers’ labours firmly in the background. Yet that is very much the case here. For while the exhibition provides a richly informative account of Palmer’s career — including, as we have seen, the artistic and literary sources that mattered to him, the media in which he worked and the reaction of his contemporaries — curatorial cleverness never gets in the way. The exhibition space — a curving, partitioned room suspended within the British Museum’s Great Court — works surprisingly well, both in terms of directing the flow of visitors, and in providing a warm, rich, sympathetic environment for the work. Perhaps basic professionalism should insist on both these things. But then there are lovely touches, too, like providing photos of Palmer’s various houses, or showing his old spectacles and engraving tools, which are so replete with sympathy for the subject as to transcend plain old competence altogether. The organisers have also secured some amazing loans from within Britain and from around the world, ensuring that the view of Palmer’s art is a comprehensive, virtually definitive one.

Meanwhile, the catalogue (William Vaughan, Elizabeth E. Barker and Colin Harrison, with additional contributions) is a model of its type, full of incisive essays addressing various facets of Palmer’s achievements, followed by full descriptions and illustrations of all the works on show. For those who come to Palmer knowing virtually nothing, it should provide an excellent introduction, while have much to offer even long-time Palmer enthusiasts. The bibliography is helpful, too. It is also a great relief to handle a catalogue that is so thoroughly practical, informative and illuminating, rather than bulked up with pointless theoretical padding and huge empty margins. It’s hardly surprising that the British Museum seem to have sold out of their first printing within a few weeks of the show’s opening.

Picturing Palmer
I started this review by writing that the effect of the exhibition had been not simply to make me appreciate Palmer’s art and his ongoing influence — which, to some extent, I did already — but rather, to make me feel drawn to Palmer himself. But although this may sound odd, is it really so unusual to think about artists in such terms? I once knew, for instance, an intelligent woman who couldn’t stand Picasso’s work because, as she told me more than once, she considered him an evil misogynist, and indeed I have to admit, oddly or not, that I disagree more with her account of Picasso, and perhaps with her intolerance of misogyny, than I do with the underlying logic of her position. From Vasari to the makers of every silly High Art biopic, the impulse expressed in such judgements is, if nothing else, a very human one. Ultimately, few of us are formalists of sufficiently robust and icy austerity to ignore the artist himself entirely when sizing up his work. And when the work is as intensely personal — informed by personal vision and personal experience, as well as by more public concerns — as is much of Palmer’s, ignoring the man behind the vision runs a real risk of ignoring the vision itself.

Practical difficulties, needless to say, often intrude here. Especially as one goes further and further back in time, it’s hard to get a very accurate sense of what an artist was actually like as a person. In the case of someone like, say, Uccello or Bosch, there’s not much to go on besides a trickle of stories, accurate or otherwise, heard inevitably in the shadow of the work itself, from which we are left — for such is the rather circular nature of this project — to conjure up a three-dimensional living human being. For more recent artists, in contrast, there’s much more biographical material to provide evidence, more divergent points of view, more exposure to present-day controversies. But then there are clearly fine critics out there who claim to be able to consider, say, Diego Rivera’s art without reference to his politics. At some level I admire the amount of rigid mental and emotional categorisation it must take to make this sort of self-denying ordinance work in practice. Oh, I know — there’s nothing very grownup or clever or elegant about what is, in effect, ad hominem art criticism. Needless to say, though, I couldn’t begin to stand back from it myself.

Palmer’s politics
As it happens, it is possible to know quite a lot about Samuel Palmer — and not just the subjective impressions one can glean from his magnificently luminous Ashmolean Self Portrait, either, with which the exhibition begins — although, having said that, there is nothing intrinsically offputting in the discovery that Palmer may have had tousled hair, lean yet handsome features, thoughtful, kind, slightly sad dark eyes and a rather lovely mouth. No, the real treasure as far as knowing Palmer is concerned lies in the letters that survive from him. They allow us to come very close indeed to hearing the artist’s voice, almost as one can in the letters of that other Christian artist with mystical inclinations, Vincent Van Gogh. As well as appearing elsewhere, including in at least one full collection, Palmer’s letters make up the heart of Geoffrey Grigson’s important biography, Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years (1947), a fascinating book not just for what it tells us about Palmer, but for the degree of distance its various obsessions, prejudices and elisions demarcate between Palmer’s times and those of Grigson himself — the Romantics versus the Neo-Romantics, as it were — as well, now, as the distance between Grigson’s times and our own.

What, then, do we know about Palmer? His Dissenting background and a long-term obsession with Sir Thomas Moore notwithstanding, his religion was Anglican, serious and more insistently orthodox as the years passed. His politics were High Tory. He distrusted ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’. He was capable of being earthy, playful, funny and downright silly. He was also capable of enthusiasms, evasions, irony, kindness, conviviality, loneliness and real sadness. He was, to all appearances, an affectionate husband and father. He was neither particularly desperate for worldly success, nor in any way dismissive of it. He enjoyed music and poetry. He loved cats. ‘Nature’ per se didn’t interest him so much as did landscapes that were tilled, grazed, built upon and peopled — a prejudice he would bequeath to his Neo-Romantic heirs and epigones. Warm-hearted good sense shines out everywhere from his letters. In short, as far as I can see, he was a very likeable man.

Reading backwards from this knowledge, our understanding of Palmer’s art alters slightly — but in all honesty, I do think it is possible to intuit a fair amount about Palmer from his pictures, too. Of the Shoreham period, we should know more, perhaps, had Palmer’s surviving son Herbert — the person, I should add right away, who probably did more than any other to conserve Palmer’s legacy and to make the 1926 exhibition possible — not chosen to burn so many of his father’s works in 1909, ‘knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt; I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate’. Possibly the dreams of a young Romantic were too challenging for an ageing Victorian to decode; alternatively — and with an eye, for instance, on the overt eroticism of fellow Ancient Edward Calvert’s drawings — perhaps decoding the work was all too easy. It’s a shame, though, not only because the panels that survive are, with their golden-honey surface and half-familiar, half-mysterious imagery, amongst the most arresting works of their period, but in particular, for the window they appear to offer into Palmer’s inner world.

And yet, as both the exhibition and the catalogue make clear, Palmer’s Shoreham paintings and drawings may speak as much about the public affairs of Britain in the 1820s and 30s as they do about Palmer’s private universe. Indeed, at some level the two are impossible to distinguish. Coming from Evening Church (1830) sums this up. The little painting shows a pastor and his flock of parishioners leaving their tall-spired parish church and stepping out into a landscape of cosy cottages, trees forming Gothic arches and an enfolding circle of curving hills, all awash with golden moonlight. The figures, many of them bearded, are dressed in timeless flowing robes, as if they had just come from one of Blake’s drawings. Yet the meaning could hardly be more alien to that other visionary painter’s enterprise, for what Palmer evokes here is not some abstract cosmic saga known only to a inspired Dissenter, but rather an ideal of Anglican community created at a time when both parish and community were seen to be under threat.

We know, too, that these threats mattered to Palmer. The concerns are present in his letters, but perhaps most spectacularly manifest in the pamphlet he wrote during the general election of 1832, in which he endorsed his local Tory candidate and denounced the recent Reform Act, ‘the importation of Yesterday, from poor, degraded, dishonoured, Atheistical France,’ whose supporters were, as Palmer put it, ‘Jacobinical hyenas’. There were more observations in a similar vein condemning the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and defending the preservation of the tithe system. Palmer had held these views, as far as we can tell, consistently, but the immediate circumstances of life in rural Kent in the late 1820s and early 1830s brought them to the very much to the fore. These were, after all, the days of the ‘Captain Swing’ riots, the burning of barns and hayricks, the destruction of threshing machines and genuine fears of widespread, French Revolution type insurrection. Palmer’s criticisms, incidentally, are never levelled against the agricultural labourers themselves, but rather, against the Radicals who were manipulating them into calling for ‘reforms’ that would, as Palmer correctly intuited, do little or nothing to ameliorate their circumstances.

It is against this background, then, that a work like Coming from Evening Church starts to make sense as what it must have seemed to contemporary viewers, which is a combination of personal revelation and public exhortation. My companion at the exhibition has compared this little painting to an icon. The comparison works, I think, on several levels, for while there is something very icon-like about the intimate scale and the golden glossiness of the surface, there’s also a strong sense that the work condenses into simplified visual form a whole universe of belief, hope and faith, and that at some level what one is being asked to do is less to admire the skill and imagination behind the creation of the little image, than to respond directly to what the image instantiates. And to do this latter thing, I suppose, requires both a little knowledge of the world within and against which Palmer was painting, and also a little sympathy with Palmer himself. In that sense, of course, Coming from Evening Church is a very English icon indeed, insisting as it does on its own particularism and localism and unwilling to disentangle itself entirely from issues of personality, of politics, even private eccentricity. Yet if the Anglican tradition had ever encompassed the making of icons, might they have been so very different from Palmer’s mysterious, hieratic yet generous Shoreham works?

Palmer past and present
Even today, set against the towering reputations of Blake, Constable and Turner, Palmer’s name is still too little known even in his own country, let alone further afield. Maybe the present exhibition will change this, although it seems quite possible to me that it will not. Perhaps there will always remain something of a beautiful, precious secret about Palmer’s finest work. Perhaps the secrecy resides in the intimate scale of the sheets and panels, the necessity of drawing very near in order to see what’s going on in those strange, dark landscapes, the fields and folds lit only by the light of a low-hanging crescent moon. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

Alternatively, though, perhaps this sense of a shared secret is somehow tied up with the nature of Palmer’s vision. His world is at once safe and weird, domestic and haunted, comforting and uncanny. Disregarded details — the moss on the roof of a rotting byre, the bark of an old oak — suddenly assume that stark lucidity only possible in dreams, while whole hills and forests drop away into black-shaded nothingness. Who else in this country has ever painted darkness so well? Palmer’s is an England of deep lanes and soaring church-spires, sheep in full fleece clustered together for company, tall corn the colour of gold or flames and hares casting shadows like sickles. It’s timeless, which is to say, it was perhaps no easier a fit with the age in which it was created than it is with our own.

Yet for all its peculiarity, Palmer’s vision has a way of seeping out into our world, as it did into world of the 1920s and 30s where its influence upon the Neo-Romantics was so formidable and important. Palmer’s ability to work on the viewer’s eye and heart is still very real. Emerging from the British Museum, having submerged oneself in the exhibition then surfaced again into the ordinary world, suddenly, at least for a little while, spires and skies and shadows really do all look different — richer in meaning, both more magical yet at the same time more real.

And that is, I suppose, why I ended up warming not simply to Palmer’s work, but to Palmer himself — or at least to the Palmer I think I met amongst the pictures, the biographical facts and the old correspondence. So much more than that of many artists, his work makes sense to me. I don’t think Palmer ever saw in art a substitute for religion, nor a way of changing the world, but rather, a talisman to be held up in the face of a life where change too often meant the end of something that mattered to him followed by the long slow adjustment to the fact of its unrecoverability. People he loved fell prey to death and disagreements, the England he loved was vanishing under the heavy-shod advance of industrialisation and commercialisation, and few seemed to understand the desperation these changes aroused in him. The religious faith, the friendships and family bonds that sustained him seem, for all the good they did, never entirely to have reconciled him to any of these things.

Art, though, may have helped a little. In his art — not just the Shoreham work either, but the caliginous ink drawings and late etchings, even the sweet-coloured watercolours – he conjured up a land beyond of all such deterioration. It wasn’t quite Heaven, because it was too much like England for that. All the same, it was a place exempt from the everyday tragedies of change and decay, bathed in a light that was kindly as well as strange — a landscape enchanted by Scripture, poetry and remembered happiness, peopled with timeless beings as much at home in the world of Virgil or Milton as in the Shoreham of the 1830s, their faces usually averted, as indeed the faces of the dead so often are in dreams.

This is, I suppose, precisely the sort of project that will bore, confuse or annoy at least as many viewers as it comforts or delights. Of course, people who wish their art to be ‘about’ light, or colour, or form, or meticulously literal verisimilitude, or a dozen other things along those lines may well find something that draws them to Palmer’s work. Palmer was, after all, an artist of considerable breadth, whereas in framing one particular view of an artist, as I have done here, with an emphasis on one particular period of a long working life, breadth is the first casualty. This account also suffers from something approaching a failure of tone, always threatening to impose on Palmer a nostalgic, faintly depressive seriousness which was really only one strand of a complex, dynamic, resilient, often endearingly playful personality. To that extent it’s inadequate. But then it’s never really easy to explain why one set of drawings and paintings and etchings strikes right at one’s heart, while another leaves one cold, any more than it is easy to explain the equivalent attraction when it happens with places or people. The only easy part is knowing that it’s happened. So in a world where it’s all too possible to feel a bit jaded about visual culture, a bit impatient with the claims that are made for it and the tiresome ritual trappings that surrounding it, the organisers of Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape are to be congratulated for reminding me, and perhaps others too, of what drew us to art in the first place.
Dr Bunny Smedley lives in London with her husband and young son.

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Filed under art, religion, reviews, Tory things

The BP British Art Displays 1500-2006 at Tate Britain

[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

There are plenty of British institutions which, having developed out of some unrepeatable melange of historical contingency, accident and the arbitrary whims of those long dead, and having acquired over the intervening years the inimitable patina of fond familiarity, are now, in their haphazard, unselfconscious perfection, the wonder of rationalists, systematisers and foreigners more generally. One thinks in this context of our great unwritten constitution, our legal system, the structures of our established church, even the rules of cricket.

And then — well, there is Tate Britain.

Not a pretty picture
The history of Tate Britain can be read as the story of many successive attempts to sort out a perceived problem, where the unifying theme is that all too often, the attempted solutions just make everything worse. The first such problem was the fact that the National Gallery, founded in 1824, tended to treat British art as the dowdy poor relation of its Italian, French and Low Countries holdings. Private bequests of British art to the National Gallery — or to South Kensington, Dulwich and regional collections — were all very well. So were the regular, enjoyable and sometimes even productive displays of contemporary art at the Royal Academy. As the century wore on, however — and as other countries began to showcase their own national art ever more aggressively, almost as if making claims for their generalised validity as nation-states — the cries for a purely British collection became increasingly difficult to ignore.

So it was that in 1897, built on the site of Millbank Penitentiary through the generosity of a Liberal autodidact sugar-magnate, the National Gallery of British Art — or, as it everyone had taken to calling it within a couple of months, the Tate Gallery — first opened its doors.

Even from the first, the Tate’s mission was a bit confused. In order to avoid clashing with the National Gallery, it undertook to show contemporary British art — but what was to happen once the new art grew old? No one was quite sure. And this was a problem that continued to avoid solution. Instead, what followed, for about a century, was a complex narrative of directors often incompetent and sometimes frankly deranged; administrative arrangements combining eye-watering complexity with incoherence; a lot of money frittered away not always to great effect; the acquisition of a strange and gappy body of work which included enough non-British art to thwart the founders’ intentions whilst at the same time never adding up to anything like a decent survey collection; floods and bombing raids; feuds and follies; Munnings’ half-cut after-dinner oratory and Carl Andre’s ‘bricks’; and, perhaps inevitably given all the rest, a confused and problematic relationship with the Royal Academy, National Gallery, the Treasury, commercial galleries, publishers, patrons, trustees, civil servants, critics, artists and the viewing public. If, in other words, the late 20th century Tate had not existed, it seems safe to assume that no one would have been in any rush to invent it, at least in its contemporary form.

But aren’t the old ones are supposed to be the best ones?
All of which discouraging stuff came to a head in 1997, a century after the Tate was founded. This was the year in which Nicholas Serota oversaw the quickie no-fault divorce between the two halves of the Tate’s operations — its collection of increasingly historic British art and its collection of international modern art — and the subsequent decampment of Tate Modern to its glamorous bachelor pad south of the river, while Tate Britain brooded mournfully on the old Millbank site. Tate Modern’s star-studded, hysterically-hyped launch in 2000 may yet prove to have been the swan-song of Cool Britannia. Meanwhile, Tate Britain was — what?

Alas, the sloppy dialectics practiced by the stupider sort of cultural critic meant that if Tate Modern, as visited by Kate Moss et al, was new and hot and exciting, then by rights Tate Britain had to be old, frumpy and — most culpably of all, apparently, for a major cultural institution — ‘not sexy’. But the saddest thing about this perception was less its intrinsic unfairness than the reaction it seemed to occasion within the institution itself. Vesti la guibba! Like a bereft Other Half putting on a brave show after being dumped for someone younger, Tate Britain began to commit embarrassing acts of would-be trendiness that in fact just reeked of desperation: the commissioning of a not very festive Christmas tree from Tracy Emin, say, or showing video art of absolutely cosmic dreariness, or simply failing to see that the increasingly silly Turner Prize really didn’t suit it any more.

The result of all this was a perverse situation where British art from every era was attracting interest in seminar-rooms and sale-rooms here and abroad, but where the institution responsible for displaying the last five centuries’ worth of British art seemed rather dismissive of any works older than the memories of its most junior curators. What, then, was to be Tate Britain’s equivalent of Botox, collagen lip injections and a slavish addiction to Fabric? One solution was to emphasise present-day art at the expense of the older stuff, so that the 1960s, for instance, would loom much larger than the entire sixteenth century. Another was to ‘sex up’ exhibitions with references to nudity, celebrity and so forth, as if such rhetoric were central to the reasons why the ordinary punter should wish to spend his or her time contemplating art. Finally, another related, yet slightly more subtle approach involved re-casting the older work in terms more acceptable to contemporary preoccupations. Why attempt a straight-forward, chronological presentation, when pictures could be re-framed in terms of gender, race, class or whatever sub-Marxist vocabulary came to mind? Why fulfil the role of a useful old text-book when the role of trendy, tie-less, Groucho Club-haunting media don was there for the taking?

All change
Such questionable expedients have, however inadvertently, been facilitated by the generosity of BP. The relevant grant, which dates back to 1990, funds the periodic re-hanging of the Tate’s displays of British art. The most recent such re-hanging was officially launched recently, with the usual well-orchestrated if generally pianissimo media fanfare.

Now, here’s a confession for you. Tory distrust of change notwithstanding, I always view these events with a degree of excitement, even enthusiasm. For in principal, there is a lot to be said for regular re-hanging. For one thing, human nature dictates that familiarity breeds, if not contempt exactly, then a certain lack of interest — whereas to shake up the familiar at least invites an element of freshness and engagement. And then there’s the sad fact that for reasons of space, much of the Tate’s collection lives in storage. What wonders will emerge from the vaults this time? Finally, there is always the happy possibility that a different sort of hang will throw up some new relationship between artists, some new revelation about influences or innovations, some new flash of understanding, whether at the historical level or at a purely aesthetic one. The rewards are, then, at least, potentially, there for the taking. So as I made my way down to Millbank, I did so hoping that on the way back, my mental map of British art would somehow have been improved with better standards of detail, accuracy and complexity — or, at the very least, that the new hang would be better than the old, which was not without its irritations.

So it’s sad to report that the 2005 displays are, with a handful of exceptions, rather disappointing. The first problem is one of coherence. The decision, more than a decade ago, to reject a faceless, chronological, would-be authoritative scheme of organisation in favour of personalised, rather subjective, thematic ones carries with it a heavy burden of implications. Not least, it puts great pressure on curators to make their chosen themes work, both intellectually and aesthetically. The trick here is to find strong, important paintings that fit in with the theme — and it’s not an easy trick to pull off. This sort of display scheme also demands something by way of shared approach, shared tone and shared assumptions about the interpretive capabilities (or otherwise) of the average viewer. Otherwise the result is a bit too much like some sort of nightmarish art-historical shopping-mall, its various concessions all waging style-wars against each other, the upmarket boutiques wedged in uncomfortably amongst their more demotic neighbours, the competition more confusing than enabling for the poor wretched consumer. Finally, a degree of enthusiasm for the works in question is, while hard to measure objectively, all-important. For if the curators’ sympathies don’t really run alongside the art in any evident way — shared delight in the subject-matter, admiration for the technical qualities of the work, a sympathetic understanding of the period in which the work was produced — the result invariably has something sour and sneery about it. Well, enough people have a poor opinion of British art already, without Tate Britain struggling to make them value it still less.

Yet as far as these issues are concerned, the present rehanging is all over the place. There are some rooms — and it’s worth stating this immediately — where the commentary is attentive to the subtleties of contemporary art history while at the same time genuinely helpful at the level of helping the viewer to understand and appreciate the art itself. “William Blake and John Flaxman” is one of these, “Edward Wadsworth” another. I learned a lot from each, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

But there are others where the wall-texts read like outtakes from My First Big Pop-Up Book of Arnold Hauser. In “The British Landscape”, for instance, faced with Stubbs’ formally brilliant, emotionally engaging The Reapers (1785), we are cautioned by the curator that ‘This picture greatly idealises physical labour …’ Leave aside, out of charity, the fact that most viewers probably could have worked this out for themselves. Since, actually, most pre-modern painting idealised pretty much everything — and, indeed, since the most gritty documentary footage of rural life in our own times rarely ventures out without its own raucous little brood of tiresome polemical grievances — one struggles to work out what the point of the curatorial comment could possibly be. Should we like Stubbs more because he painting something other than literal reality? Or like him less? Or what? If there was the germ of a worthwhile comment here, it got lost somewhere between the banality of its expression and the superficial level of the overall discussion. And the sorrow here is that the painting in question one of the greatest works by — to my mind, anyway, if not that of Prof. Christie Davies — one of Britain’s greatest artists.

The dog that isn’t allowed to bark
Meanwhile, nearby hangs another striking painting by Stubbs, Ringwood, A Hound. Here the commentary goes on for lines and lines, yet fails to mention one central feature relating to the reasons why someone might wish to paint, or commission, or indeed preserve a painting of this particular creature. Was Ringwood, well, a domestic pet? Or was this handsome painting simply some sort of ironic send-up of the portraiture conventions of its own time? Alas, though — and despite an excitable reference to ‘blood sports’ (not ‘field sports’) on a general panel nearby — that shocking four-letter word, ‘H-U-N-T’, may actually be one outrage too far for present-day Tate curators. It wouldn’t do, would it, to admit that the art of the countryside, exactly at the points where it seemed to give most respect and esteem to individual quadrupeds, is also the art of a hunting tradition dating back to the dawn of mankind? Or that “The British Landscape” (the theme of the room) would be hard to imagine without reference to the field? In the event, though, the effort to escape the world-view of a certain sort of metropolitan liberal elite never really gets off the ground. We end up learning far more about the blind spots of at least a few of the curators than we do about the art of the period.

Never mind. One might be tempted, at this point, to fall with some gratitude upon that familiar refuge of the cultural conservative hemmed in by flawed and foolish commentary, and to advise all visitors simply to ignore the comments and admire the art. But this raises another problem. The hang itself is, alas, startlingly ugly.

What’s wrong? Where do we start? The pictures are hung far too low — and since I’m only 5 feet 7 inches tall, if I had to look down a few times too often, heaven help the taller type of arts enthusiast! Worse still, the intervals between the works seem completely arbitrary, as if little human agency had been involved in their hanging. Given how well the recent Reynolds exhibition was presented, for instance, it’s amazing that no one seems to have noticed how bad all this looks.

Put out more paintings
Most regrettable of all, though, is the fact that that the works are hung very sparsely indeed. I’ve seen galleries in Eastern Europe where the ghostly marks of missing paintings — rectangles of faint colour punctuating the faded brocade on the walls — hint at losses through war, pillage, expropriation, institutional poverty and a catalogue of natural disasters, which at the same time give a greater sense of generosity in their hanging-schemes than does the present-day Tate Britain. What’s happened? The curators may feel that giving paintings a lot of (oddly proportioned) wall-space allows them to ‘breathe’ — this is, I think, one of those sub-Greenbergian tics still afflicting plenty of people who can hardly hear the words ‘formal values’ without coming out in a rash — to which I can only say that the paintings at the National Gallery, the Louvre, Dulwich, the Wallace Collection and so forth all seem to make do with the smaller amounts of wall-space surrounding them. And then there’s the practical point that if there were less space between paintings, more of the collection could be kept on show. All of which raises a few larger points about the purpose of Tate Britain, to which we’ll return shortly.

In passing, though, it’s worth singling out one of the sadder rooms, where there was much evidence of a good concept gone mysteriously, lamentably wrong. The room in question is the one titled “Romantic Painting In Britain”. Here, in a long gallery of typically over-the-top Duveen-funded proportions, the paintings had, up to a point, been double-hung — but apparently, by someone unwilling or unable to enter fully into the conventions, let alone the spirit, of an early 19th century hang. How, though, can that be possible, after the Courtauld’s brilliant Art On The Line show of 2001-02? Here, though, a few paintings drifted pointlessly above their marginally larger peers, as vast acres of pink space separated each work from its nearest neighbours. There was none of the exciting jostling, the competitive brio, the serendipitous cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions that ought to be shocking, delighting and amusing the crowds. There was no real additional information being generated about the context in which these paintings were meant to be viewed. The hang itself could have said something about how Romantic painting differed from what came before and after — but it didn’t. The opportunity came and went.

And it was a pity, because as well as the usual stars of the collection — great Constables, Gainsboroughs, Turners — there were some fascinating, even surprising works on show, both in this room and in others. It was good, for instance, to see Hogarth as the creator of unfashionably Baroque, ‘foreign-looking’ paintings in the room titled “In the Grand Manner” as well as the author of his more familiar works; good to see such splendid work by the still-underrated William Dobson in a “Civil War and Commonwealth” room (where, in fairness, the commentary could have been a good deal worse); easy to be stopped in one’s tracks by stray marvels such as Holman Hunt’s Cornfield at Ewell. These are the kind of thrills that Tate Britain can, and ought to deliver, breaking through the familiarity of British art and showing us how wrong we are in those moments where, consciously or not, we dismiss it as dull, invariably derivative or second-rate. It’s only a pity that there are not more such experiences to be found at Tate Britain right now, and that the heavy haze of irritations, slights and misjudgements does so much to take the shine off them whenever they occur. British art is, at its best, brilliant. Surely a better case can be made for it than this?

Why it matters
All this criticism may sound heavy-handed and a bit unnecessary — rather like firing off a cross 2,500-word letter to The New York Review of Books because you don’t really like the way your maiden aunt has redecorated the second guest bedroom — but there are, in fact, important issues at stake.

The first concerns the level of esteem expressed towards Britain’s art history by one of the major national institutions charged with conserving and displaying examples of historic British art. Put simply, there are reasons for thinking that recent or contemporary art is being ‘foregrounded’ (this hideous word is, sadly, so appropriate to the whole project described here that one can hardly avoid employing it) at the expense of older work. And yes, I know — this is a jeremiad dating back to the great days of Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters — but as is the way of jeremiads, repetition in no way softens its tone or curtails its terrible urgency.

One sort of evidence for this tinkering with priorities can be found — where else? — in an >interview that Sir Nicholas Serota recently granted to The Guardian. Many of his pronouncements were notable chiefly for their eye-watering banality:

”One of the most important things that has been happening in British art over the past 25 years is the way it has been steadily infused by artists who were perhaps not born here, but are working here, or perhaps who are second generation — such as Mona Hatoum, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Veronica Ryan,” he said.

Presumably the novelty of this situation would have astonished older British artists such as Holbein, Gheeraerts, Eworth, Mytens, Van Dyck, Hollar, Zoffany, Benjamin West, Sickert, Sargent, Wyndham Lewis, Epstein, Auerbach, Kitaj and Freud, to name but a few, and is in addition a good reason for assuming that the art of the future will be far more culturally complex, exciting and relevant than the art of the past. Happy days! But Sir Nicholas has broader ambitions for the institution entrusted to his care (and it’s quite clear he’s talking about Tate Britain at this point every bit as much as Tate Modern):

Sir Nicholas told the Guardian that in the future the Tate should be dramatically recast to integrate “graphics, film, photography and performance. Visual culture is so much more complex than painting or sculpture.”The big idea,” he said, “is that the old hierarchies between painting and sculpture and other forms of expression have evaporated.

“Artists are reflecting on the culture around them — club culture, or whatever it is — and the institution needs to reflect that in the way it shows, presents and buys art.”

Again, once one has recovered from the breathtaking revelation that artists are ‘reflecting on the culture around them’ — clearly an improvement on whatever solipsistic malingering they were getting up to in the past — one is left pondering the practical implications of Sir Nicholas’ remarks. Does this sound like the words of a man who burns with a desire to fill in the blank spots in his institution’s collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century works? Who wakes every morning pondering how best to fix the gaps in the early twentieth century collection? Or, alternatively, does it sound like the sort of man who wants to spend £600,000 on recent work by Tate trustee Chris Ofili, presented in a purpose-build ‘architectural space’ (aka ‘partitioned area with over-emphatic lighting’)? Doubtless Victoria Miro, at any rate, must think he’s getting the balance about right.

Less spiritual than a roomful of monkeys
A word, though, in passing, about Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room, the Tate’s acquisition of which would perhaps have attracted more notice, had Mark Quinn’s grotesquely out-of-scale, slimy-looking Alison Lapper Pregnant not distracted the attention of the small minority who care about these things — and which has, even so, attracted some well-aimed criticism from the even smaller minority willing to speak out against polite consensus.

Now, as it happens — and as much as some readers of this publication may find this admission alarming — I am not someone who thinks that everything Ofili produces is nasty, attention-grabbing, sacreligous rubbish. He may not be the most profound artist ever, but at least at the time of his big 1998 Serpentine show, there was more than a little charm, playfulness and originality there to be seen in his work, so that one came out of the gallery into Kensington Gardens slightly happier, less earnest and more aware of the glitter and sparkle that’s there to be found in the world if one makes the effort to look for it. True, it wasn’t the Arena Chapel — but one can’t go through life expecting that level of soul-stirring impact from every passing work of art. I didn’t find Ofili’s use of elephant droppings particularly shocking. I didn’t even find his contribution to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensation’ completely without merit, as unlike so many of his coevals there, he had clearly showed some interest in the aesthetic qualities of his efforts, rather than simply focusing on self-promotion and a desire to annoy. And when he represented Great Britain at the 2003 Venice Biennale, I found the result strangely sensitive to its Venetian surroundings, yet still blessed with a fundamental lightness of touch, a refusal to take itself too seriously. So really, by the standards of conservative art critics anyway, I actually quite like Ofili’s work.

The problem I faced at Tate Britain the other day was, then, less some sort of outrage at the content or presentation of The Upper Room itself, than an increasingly queasy suspicion that the Tate now believes it has acquired, in this work, an Arena Chapel pour nos jours. Some of the claims made for this installation — the phrase ‘profound spiritual qualities’ has been used by the Tate Press Office itself — would almost be funny if they weren’t so, well, wide of the mark.

For in truth, this is just more of the usual Ofili output, arranged slightly differently, with extra added hyperbole. Thirteen of the usual person-sized panels, propped up with the usual elephant dung, have been painted in the usual garish colours and flecked with the usual high-camp glitter. But this time, we are forced to make a short journey down a darkened corridor in order to see the result, which I guess is supposed to remind us of every penitential journey on the way to enlightenment — the way into the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, for instance, or the long journey down to Houston to blink and yawn in the dusky depths of the Rothko Chapel — any anthropology textbook could possibly muster. And once we are in the room, standing amongst these objects, the most striking impressions are those made by the harsh, aggressive lighting, the over-generous spaces between the works, and a generalised impression of pomposity veiling emptiness. Under the circumstances, it would be easy to lose patience with Ofili’s demi-vierge teasing at blasphemy, except that the work just isn’t strong enough to be blasphemous — which is to say, with its rather pointless Christian allusions and total lack of visual charge, it couldn’t possibly hope blaptein anyone’s pheme, except perhaps that of the institution which spent so much to acquire and display it.

Present imperfect
But then that’s the thing about Tate Britain’s emphasis right now: all too often, sparkle seems to matter far more than does quality. For instance, in the context of the current rehang, I imagine that the treatment of F. N. Souza, who is given a room of his own, benefited from Sir Nicholas Serota’s self-proclaimed interest in immigrant artists. Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with Souza’s work, it’s far from clear why it should be where it is, displacing work that is both more central to the traditions Tate Britain exists to curate, and also, well, by most standards, simply better. And by the same token, offering John Latham his own large room seems a rather strange decision. We are told by the Tate Britain Press Office that Latham is ‘perhaps one of the most influential figures in post-war British art’, but it is hard to think who, other than the less successful sort of GCSE at student, has been deeply influenced by the facile symbolism of charred books, or of piranhas representing politicians and the press — not that this stopped the Tate from getting into a mini-row with the artist, who was left calling them ‘cowards’ and crying ‘censorship’. My advice to the Tate is this: when you’re engaging in special pleading, stick with dead artists. At least they can’t answer back.

Meanwhile, how many good Sickerts, Spencers, Spears, Sutherlands, Bacons, Weights, Bratbys and so forth are there to be found in the 20th century displays? At Tate Britain, rehangs are, ultimately, a zero sum game — every decision to display a work is, implicitly, a decision not to hang quite a lot of other works. Every decision to purchase a work is, implicitly, a decision not to purchase something else. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the would-be trendiness mentioned above — evident here as a desire to spice up press releases with lots of references to contemporary or otherwise right-on work, to display such work disproportionately on the Tate’s website or to flag it up in interviews to the exclusion of all else — is, in one form or another, governing too many of the decisions at Tate Britain, whether with respect to acquisitions, display or publicity. We can all see what Tate Britain is trying, so desperately, to look like. But isn’t that fundamentally in conflict with what Tate Britain is, and ought to be?

Mistaken identities
All of which takes us back to the beginning of this essay. The oddities of Tate Britain’s history have bequeathed to it a series of unenviable burdens and sporadically painful paradoxes. Not least, its central responsibility — the care and display of the national collection of British art, 1500-2005 — overlaps, sometimes maddeningly, with those of other institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, regional collections the length and breadth of the land, and perhaps most of all with its old ex, Tate Modern, which of course still has some remit to deal with contemporary British art. (And let’s leave aside, for today, the whole issue of whether Tate Britain actually functions as ‘Tate Britain’ at all, or whether ‘Tate England’ would be more to the point.) Tate Britain’s collection includes masterpieces and irrelevances, curiosities and lacunae, the fruits of vanity and short-sightedness as well as generosity and inspiration. Looking to the future, Tate Britain obviously needs to continue to acquire new art, as well as to make the best of what it possesses already. And it needs to convey the excitement, enthusiasm and expertise that many of its staff virtually radiate in the presence of the art they are charged with displaying and interpreting. No one ever said that running Tate Britain was an enviable job. In some ways it’s a wonder that the place gets things right as often as it does.

Yet in order to overcome its many present-day problems, Tate Britain must, first and foremost, sort out the vexed issues of its own institutional identity. What’s the point of that bijou little jewel-box of a building, perched daintily above the Millbank foreshore, and of its contents? Titillating the jaded sensibilities of London’s gallery-going subculture may seem sometimes like the smart option, even the ‘sexy’ option — but when it comes to pleasing Sarah Kent, attracting the same crowds as a Haunch of Venison private view or, heaven help us, replicating the better club-nights of Ibiza in England’s green and pleasant gallery spaces, someone else is always going to be able to do it better.

In the long run, the wiser strategy may well be to embrace the Tate’s original remit, and try to act a bit more like an old-fashioned, historical, didactic, sometimes even flag-flying art collection — a well-thumbed reference work rather than an over-designed style-mag, as it were. Indeed, the time may have come to bring back more clearly chronological, art-historical displays, to put the emphasis on the strongest works rather than the weirdest novelties, to give space to demonstrably ‘important’ art rather than taking expensive punts on fashion trends that may not in fact wear very well. And embarrassing as it may sound, Tate Britain could well find a role for itself in trying to make a case for the international, ongoing importance of British art — the British art of the past, as well as the present, as the two lines of argument are more closely connected that some at Tate Britain seem to think.

To be fair, of course, there are countless cases in recent history where Tate Britain has done just that — in the excellent Michael Andrews exhibition of 2001, for instance, or even the recent Reynolds show, which is far richer and more rewarding than its slightly silly ‘Creation of Celebrity’ subtitle might imply. And there are also displays that work extremely well, and many generous loans to exhibitions and regional galleries, and much else to praise. But at the same time, as this most recent rehang suggests, there are other moments where Tate Britain seems almost embarrassed by some of its holdings, displays and responsibilities. All too often — and here the parallels with that bereft Other Half, trying to pass herself off as someone much younger and wilder and sillier than she actually is, come once again to mind — too many attempts to camouflage a sagging midriff or insufficient knowledge of grime, instead of obviating the central problem, actually draw attention to it.

Learning to love Tate Britain
My prescription, then, for Tate Britain’s next rehang is drawn less from the language of curatorial professionalism, than from the world of self-help literature. First of all, the apologies have to stop! For isn’t that what Sir Nicholas has been doing? Have another look, if you can bear it, at that Guardian interview. He’s sorry that Tate Britain’s artists are mostly white, male — British, even. He’s sorry that the past wasn’t always as right-on as the present. He’s sorry that Tate Britain’s paintings and sculpture are — well, paintings and sculpture, rather than video installations or performance pieces. He’s sorry Tate Britain is what it is.

But it is what it is, and that’s all there is to it. Here’s the bottom line. Self-pity is not an attractive vice. Like the best of us, Tate Britain has its historic strengths, as well as its flaws and limitations. Well, it should play to its strengths. Its strange collection includes startling gems as well as duds; many of its staff possess not simply great enthusiasm for the material with which they work, but unparalleled expertise too; its building is beautiful if sometimes intractable; it tells a story that no other institution could tell in the same way, and believe it or not, that’s a story that many of us are all too anxious to hear. At the same time, though, it should be quiet about its weaknesses. True, it needs to continue to collect relatively recent art, if only for the sake of its collection a century hence. But here, it should play it cool. It should try to look confident. If Tate Britain is a seriously important institution, surely young, healthy, living artists should run after it, begging to have their donated works included amongst Tate Britain’s collections, rather than vice versa? Surely, to do anything else only smacks of a desperation that is not only slightly embarrassing, but also counter-productive?

Most of all, though, Tate Britain should stop pretending to be the über-trendy thing that it so clearly is not. And anyway, who cares what Tate Modern thinks? Once upon a time — and a very short time ago it was — Tate Modern looked like London’s most exciting art space; these days, it’s a little bit too much like one of 2001’s hot ‘see and be seen’ rendezvous, now fallen out of favour with everyone except those who travel on the basis of out-of-date style guides. Because that’s the curse of trendiness — it always goes off in the end. Whereas true individual style, as any dreary, nannyish, unarguable summary of such things will tell you, never ages much, and self-confidence goes a long way towards being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tate Britain must, in other words, start being itself, and being happy with itself, and must proceed on that basis. For until Tate Britain learns to love itself for what it is, how can it expect the rest of us to follow suit?

Bunny Smedley was co-founder and sometime Arts Editor of electric-review.com.

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Green and pleasant land: A Picture of Britain at Tate Britain

[This review originally appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Each of us has, for better or worse, his or her own secret picture of Britain — the dog-eared mental snapshot we pull out when far away and slightly homesick, or the accidental vision that flashes across our thoughts whenever by the word ‘Britain’ appears in print or conversation. In a sense it doesn’t really matter whether we’ve even visited these islands.

Growing up in America in the early 1970s, long before I’d ever set foot on British soil, my own mental image of Britain was as compelling, to me at least, as it was eccentric. It was an odd confection, cobbled together from old children’s books, pictures in our local art museum, the odd BBC costume drama and who knows what else. Particularly significant, though, were two books, one produced in the late 1930s and the other in the early 1950s. They were titled, respectively, Romantic Britain and Literary Britain. My ignorance of photography is such that only a few minutes ago, seeking accurate titles, did I discover that the latter of these was largely the work of Bill Brandt. But in any event, far too many were the scorching North Carolina summer afternoons that I preferred to spend inside, pouring over those fading black-and-white photos of holy wells, Saxon chancels and lichen-spotted dolmens of mysterious origin. In Britain, I learned, there was no old tree so ordinary as to lack some heart-stopping literary reference, no old bit of masonry so dreary as to have avoided the historically-important siege or Cromwellian slighting, no rolling tree-lined lane that would not culminate in a sublime pairing of parish church and manor-house if one cared to follow it long enough. And so that, strange to say, became my image of the country in which, a little later, I would make my home. Nor am I certain that all those subsequent decades of British reality have provided me with anything as weirdly persuasive, as intuitively functional, as that initial vision.

Doubtless there are also clear-eyed, unsentimental folk out there whose vision of Britain is made up of nondescript suburbs or council estates, out-of-town super-stores and the grim strips of highway that connect them, or perhaps simply the vista stretching all the way from couch past curtained windows out towards the television set as it blares out yet another low-quality US sitcom — who can say? In keeping with our present-day prejudice that the more unpleasant a thing is, the more true it is, they would doubtless congratulate themselves on the unsparing, illusionless qualities of their vision. Well, they may possibly be right.

Up from realism
Such people will, in any event, sneer mightily at A Picture of Britain — a Tate Britain exhibition linked with the six-part BBC television series narrated by David Dimbleby and the obligatory spin-off book. It isn’t so much that the Dimbleby-inflected vision of Britain seems far more similar to Literary Britain and its 1950s ilk than to the contemporary world inhabited by the people who stay in a lot, watching Big Brother, although there’s certainly an element of that. Rather, it’s the fact that A Picture of Britain blanks the Big Brother world entirely.

For although the pictures that make up A Picture of Britain span the eighteenth century to our own, the Britain depicted, even when it’s being depicted by Richard Billingham or Richard Long, is very much the land of Wordsworth and Rupert Brooke, Constable and the old Shell Guides, Turner’s skies and the coolly denatured forms of the St Ives School. Rural labour is assumed to be natural, organic and largely agreeable. Industrialisation, out of vogue at the moment, is nonetheless allowed to show its most handsome face, revealing itself in the celebratory canvases of Joseph Wright of Derby or in Lowry’s cheerfully demotic, nostalgic daubs, as well as in Edward Wadsworth’s Vorticist Black Country. Modernity, when it can no longer be ignored, surfaces in Charles Cundall’s cheerful crowd scene of Brighton day-trippers, or Paul Nash’s haunting Totes Meer where the mangled Luftwaffe aircraft glimmer in the moonlight like the bare bones of ancient yet dangerous monsters.

Admittedly, Britain is not always presented as uncomplicatedly beautiful. What one is not shown, however, is a single towerblock or call centre, or the sprawl of cheap identikit postwar housing lapping now over so much of what used to be the countryside, or those antiseptic successions of shops that could be anywhere or nowhere. This, clearly, is a Britain of blue water, not of Bluewater. Go ahead, then, sneer if you like.

Postcards from the past
All of which means that there are moments where this exhibition reads like a flashback to a different age. This is much an issue of aspiration as it is of achievement. For whatever else it may set out to do, A Picture of Britain does not attempt to expose, reveal, disillusion, disturb, deconstruct, demolish, shock, critique, interrogate or transgress — except, perhaps, in the sense that to avoid setting out to achieve any of these now-conventional ends may well strike contemporary audiences as a slightly risky proposition. Instead, the tone of the exhibition, where not gently didactic, is rarely less than celebratory. At its heart there is a calm assumption that Britain’s historic landscapes are still a source of interest, wonder and delight, both to the British people and to visitors from abroad. On the day I visited the exhibition, it was not only rather crowded but evidently very popular too, generating plenty of conversation and close looking. So perhaps that assumption wasn’t so very far off the mark?

And if it is possible to detect, here and there, a fairly broad hint of anxiety about the survival of these landscapes, it should be remembered that it is exactly in the throes of such anxieties — in the depiction of monastic ruins, in the context of enclosure or creeping urban sprawl, in the leaping shadows of the fires of the Industrial Revolution or of the Second World War — that the greatest British landscape art has been produced. And if Britain is always at her most beautiful in the moments just before she might be expected to vanish forever, it is no wonder that a gloss of Romanticism coats these pictures as thickly as restorers’ varnish. Hence, perhaps, its obsessions and its blind spots. Why dwell on the begrimed and depressing suburban railway platforms, the interchangeable English high streets, the sad stretches of motorway or the unloved and forgettable urban spaces, when they are hardly likely to disappear any time soon? And indeed, why not treat our working country churches, water-meadows, field verges, mossy weirs, seaside resorts and unselfconscious rural architecture as timeless and eternal, especially as their time may well all too soon be up?

Landscape into art
Sharp-witted readers may, by now, have realised how very much I liked this exhibition and how I warmed to what reads in places as a considered, toughly reactionary stance. All the same, more or less anyone ought to find something of value and interest here, if only because of the astonishing diversity of the exhibition’s contents.

Organised thematically, the various rooms are filled not only with obvious ‘masterpieces’ — Gainsborough, Constable, Turner — but also with plenty of deeply unfashionable or forgotten works, each selected to make a point about the ways in which their creators and collectors imagined Britain. For landscape, it transpires, always speaks about something beyond the literal facts of topography. Its learned vocabulary, inherited in large part from the seventeenth century Low Countries and France but also receiving periodic boosts from other schools and individuals — everyone from Titian and Rubens to Corot, Cezanne and Picasso — carried along with it a heavy freight of associations and inflections. So did its history — for landscape is by no means ‘natural’. The habit of seeing the vista before us as a coherent and significant whole, worthy of comment and record, was a learned one, in which Romanticism, the cult of the Picturesque, the Napoleonic Wars, tourism and the railways, among dozens of other factors, all played a part. A Picture of Britain plays out these various strands with elegance and subtlety. It’s a reminder, among other things, of the complicated role that landscape still plays in everything from advertising to daydreams.

And then, of course, there’s the whole issue of content. Envisioning the British landscape could be a way of talking about the most public and general of concerns. More or less chief amongst these public concerns was religion — not just the pantheistic understanding of ‘the sublime’, either, or its bastard offspring, as seen in William Hague’s inability to distinguish between walking in the hills and believing in the risen Christ — but Christianity itself, whether Anglican or otherwise. (Not that this is any surprise — Dutch landscapes were always about Protestantism and nationhood, too.) Samuel Palmer, whose tiny and gem-like works, luminous and visionary, are still less appreciated than they ought to be, painted reports back from the frontier separating heaven and earth, which is to say from his local parish church and the land around it. To study these little paintings is to watch England’s religion of the Word struggling to develop a visual equivalent to George Herbert, and only just failing. Yet religion also permeated even apparently straight-forward works. The most feverishly mimetic of Pre-Raphaelite canvases, such as William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts, turns out to have been less a painting about ‘nature’ than a polemical essay on the dangers of heterodoxy and secularism.

Later, as the distinction between nation and confessional community continued to grow ever more self-conscious and less comfortable, the project of re-enchanting the environment with some sort of numinous quality, and not asking too many questions, became ever more urgent. Sometimes, as with Eric Ravillious’s Long Man of Wilmington, the line between public and private meaning disappears, so that the old chalk figure’s mythic and psychosexual significance becomes indistinguishable from the roles of genius loci, guardian of a besieged isle and psychopomp, capable of guiding modernity’s lost souls to some ultimate fastness, half-recollected yet urgently required. And it works, too. Anyone who’s caught an accidental glimpse of the Long Man from a train window as the railway sails past, down towards the South Coast, will realise how effectively the artist, whose father was a low-church lay-preacher, packed all of this into his vision, and how powerfully the resulting image — in the original watercolour, flanked with wartime barbed wire — now infuses its real-world referent.

Where has all the landscape gone?
By the same token, war turns out to have been another preoccupation of British landscape painting. The Napoleonic Wars forced a discontinuation of Grand Tours, encouraging the British aristocracy and their hangers-on to discover, inter alia, the Lake District, North Wales, the Highlands of Scotland and the romantic potential of Britain’s indigenous Gothic ruins. Soon a regular itinerary of picturesque and sketchable stops had been drawn up, complete with guide-books and on-site amenities. What began as an elite preoccupation soon permeated genteel society. As British landscape began to interest an increasingly broad swathe of the British people, its central images became familiar ones halfway around the world, too, so that knowledge of these, and enthusiasm for them, became yet another facet of British cultural identity. And so it was that daffodils, chaffinches, medlars, hedgehogs, willows, apples, loughs, burns, banks an’ braes became part of the inheritance of millions of children who might go on to live long lives without in fact seeing, hearing, tasting, climbing or otherwise interacting with any one of these things. The literary inheritance was followed up with the visual, aural and even sensory one. Britain had escaped its own geographical limits.

This was landscape in expansive mode. It prevailed for about a century after Waterloo. The 20th century, however, brought about a notable shift in inflection. The brilliant landscape art of the 1920s and 30s was both a response to Continental art movements, and an increasingly precarious appreciation of the beauties of islands under threat. The post-war period, however, saw pervasive high-cultural suspicion of romanticism, mysticism, sentimentality, figurative painting styles and anything that looked remotely like pre-war nationalism. And since landscape painting couldn’t, for perfectly good reasons, entirely extricate itself from any of these things — except perhaps in the abstractions of St Ives, where landscape was sublimated effectively if, it must be said, at the cost of quite a lot of intrinsic interest, or when caked in enough heavy irony — it fell out of fashion. So it’s to the credit of the curators of A Picture of Britain that they have managed to include in the exhibition enough striking, relatively recent offerings — works by Michael Andrews, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and so forth — to invite informed speculation about landscape’s future within the visual arts. There’s at least the implication that landscape has an awful lot of life in it yet. The means of expression may change, and the preoccupations and elisions will inevitably shift with the passing of generations, but the urge to look around us and make something of what we see is probably an innate one. We haven’t seen the last of the land we inhabit, or its scope to stand in as metaphor for something else..

Missed opportunities?
And so we move through the various thematically-organised rooms winding across Tate Britain’s low and windowless ground floor: the Romantic North, War and Peace, the Highlands and Glens, the Heart of England, the Flatlands and the Mystical West. The content shifts and swells and eddies, just as radically as does style or indeed basic painterly competence. Yet despite the rather uncharismatic setting, the hang has been carried out with a real feeling for atmosphere, humour and revelation. It may sound a stupid thing to say, but I do wish a version of this exhibition could be kept at Tate Britain permanently. As it will not, however, I shall just have to visit it as often as possible over the coming months.

A Picture of Britain is not, however, a perfect exhibition. It has three flaws, one of which matters much less than the others. The least important flaw involves the catalogue. As mentioned above, A Picture of Britain is a tripartite enterprise: Tate Britain exhibition, BBC television series, accompanying book. Unfortunately, it is not quite clear whether the book accompanies the exhibition or the television series. Since there is inevitably quite a lot of difference between the former and the latter, the confusion soon starts to tell.

As it happens, the television programme is a delightful business. In six episodes, it chronicles veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby’s barely sub-regal progress through a succession of beautiful and deeply emotive places, in which he is able to exude a mild beneficence undercut with the tiniest, if most necessary sliver of self-knowledge. In any event, the result is perfect. The production is flawless, the humour gentle, the coherence of the project absolute. If I say that during each of the episodes I have seen, I have, in fact, dozed off, it will sound like a criticism. But I don’t mean it that way! I mean it, rather, as an expression of trust, agreement and contentment — rather like motoring through the countryside in a well-conditioned Bentley driven by an old friend in whom one has the most complete confidence. Well, why not nod off occasionally?

The problem here, however, is that the exhibition and the television programme aren’t identical. How could they be? The images are different, the pace is different, some of the interpretation of specific works varies a bit — and the role of our genial host is rather greater onscreen than it is at Tate Britain, at any rate unless one visits in rather more exciting company than I did. The catalogue, however, attempts to span both. It does not entirely succeed. It isn’t that it is bad, exactly. It’s a handsomely-illustrated book featuring stimulating essays by Tate curators David Blayney Brown, Richard Humphreys and Christine Riding, as well as thoughtful and entirely enjoyable commentary from Mr Dimbleby himself. Although the book would make an excellent gift for aged relatives of nervous or liverish temper, it’s actually a far better piece of writing than this suggests. And in a sense, that’s the problem. Given the amount of unfamiliar, unfashionable or simply stunningly re-contextualised work on show in the exhibition itself, I do wholeheartedly lament the lack of a fully-illustrated, serious exhibition catalogue — complete with proper notes on each work — existing alongside this more popular, ‘accessible’ offering. The financial reasons why this didn’t happen are too obvious, and also too sad, to invite explanation. Still, it’s a pity. The result might have been a significant reference work that would give this important exhibition a half-life stretching on for decades. And if the organisers are serious about what really does look like a strong, positive message about landscape, the missed opportunity is a poignant one.

The British Problem
That, though, is simply a question of art and publishing, neither of which matters much. The second flaw is far more significant. It hinges on the whole concept of ‘Britain’. As those who are alert to issues of this sort may have noticed, in a few of the paragraphs above I was struggling slightly. When I wrote ‘Britain’, were there occasions when what I really meant was ‘England’ — or England with Wales and Scotland — or perhaps even a Britain that takes in Ireland too? Undoubtedly so. The exhibition organisers have chosen to call their creation A Picture of Britain. But it’s a picture with a very particular vantage-point. At the centre is England. Wales figures not much at all. And while Scotland looms large, and is the focus of much very interesting discussion — notably, the creation of the Highlands as a place as rich in myth as it is bare of much else — that’s about it. Insofar as Northern Ireland is concerned, it is at best treated as a sort of disreputable extension of the Scottish Highlands and at worst, as something so alien and discouraging as to merit averted eyes and richly meaningful silence.

So this is very clearly ‘Britain’ in the small, geographical sense, meaning the biggest of the British Isles. But if the Britain mentioned in the title means anything, it surely ought to mean ‘Britain’ in the big sense — the Britain that wins wars, built an empire and continues to disseminate its cultural and linguistic heritage across the face of much of this planet. It cannot, in any event, just mean England, which still gets the lion’s share of attention here. Obviously, the question of where England fits within an understanding of Britishness is a huge, serious, messy and contentious one. To do justice to its complexities would have required another whole exhibition — not an easy one to curate, either. But at the same time, there was no way of arranging the present exhibition without taking at the very least some sort of implicit stance about the place of England within Britain, and about the Britain projected out into the world.

So my complaint, in essence, is that the stance taken is the wrong one. If part of landscape painting is always about painting what ought to be — reforming the world to suit a particular vision — then A Picture of Britain should have squared up to the whole question of what its content says about its avowed subject-matter. Instead, those Scottish discussions notwithstanding, it implicitly underplays both the role of landscape art in creating national identities within the British Isles, and the role of landscape art in providing a shared identity that transcended local particularism just as it transcended topographical literalism. Both these strike me as important. Both are underplayed. Yet I am not sure the curators really fully made up their minds about these issues, since the inclusion of work by Sligo-born Jack Yeats (or ‘Jack Butler Yeats’, as it is strangely rendered in the exhibition catalogue) rather brings them to the fore again. And indeed, if you click ‘Belfast’ or ‘Londonderry’ on Tate Britain’s interactive map, you end up in ‘Highlands and Glens’. Enthusiast for the Union though I am, surely there are some basic geographical limits? Seriously, is that rather odd, or what?

It isn’t banned in galleries, you know
Let us move on rapidly. The third flaw is one that has become all too common these days — c.f. the forthcoming Stubbs exhibition at the National Gallery. Here, though, at A Picture of Britain, it is possibly even more upsetting. How can a show so blissfully free of political correctness in most aspects of its organisation have fallen so catastrophically at, as it were, the last fence?

For there are no hunting images in this exhibition. The longer one pauses to consider this omission, the more curious and regrettable it becomes. Hunting is, after all, one of the central ways in which individuals have, for centuries, experienced and understood the land around them — walls, coverts, hills, hedges, copses, brooks and banks. Its rhythms and rituals are almost impossible to disaggregate from certain areas of the British countryside. The hunting print was not only a mainstay of Britain’s imagined landscape, but also a visual form produced more effectively here than anywhere else. This is why from Paris and Amsterdam to Prague and St Petersburg and Kuala Lumpur, any English-themed space can easily broadcast its identity through the use of hunting imagery. Yet in A Picture of Britain, while farming, tourism, industry, recreation, worship and warfare all feature, the mounted hunt does not. So the silence of the hunting horn turns out to be the one of the few false notes sounded in this otherwise intelligent, delightful and inspiring exhibition.

Blue remembered hills
We all think we know what Britain looks like. Some, oceans away, will benefit from a vision unclouded by the annoying interventions of real life. Others, surrounded by the realities of Britain on a day-to-day basis, may find their vision cluttered with ill-considered light industrial premises, petrol-station forecourts on the journey in from suburbs now bled dry of even their faint Edwardian charms, or the unsubtle promptings of a thousand corporate logos shining out against a wet grey sky. Yet whether you are the sort of person who believes that art reveals hidden truths, or alternatively, the sort of person who believes that art exists to protect us from the truth, A Picture of Britain is an exhibition not to be missed.

Landscape painting’s relationship with realism has always been a sly and surreptitious one. Not least amongst the wonders of A Picture of Britain is John Crome’s Mousehold Heath (c. 1818-20). It shows that famous hill, bald and bare, upon which Kett’s rebels camped and campaigned for various rather inchoate demands before the full force of Tudor central government descended upon them. The handling is all Dutch — Ruysdael seems to hover over the landscape, waiting only to apply a flash of his signature gold before soaring away again — but the local appeal to a Norwich audience would always have been strong. The oddity, though — brought out well in the exhibition — is that by the late 18th century Mousehold Heath had been enclosed with fences and carved up with roads. It couldn’t have looked remotely like Crome’s version of it at the time he painted it. So what Crome painted was doubly a fiction. It’s a Netherlandish account of an East Anglian place that no longer existed other than in history and dreams. It’s a magical painting. Much of its magic resides in the pure fact of its freedom from real life. Crome was both recalling and creating a landscape. What he was not doing was recording topography. Topography, after all, changes as much as we all do, with results that invite regret as much as hope. Crome’s painting captures this well, giving his work the qualities both of an incantation and a lament. Landscape painting is, after all, at its best, generally both these things — acknowledging loss as much as dreaming fitfully of a happier, less precarious future. This is why we will always need it, all of us, whether we realise it or not.

Bunny Smedley was one of the founders of Electric Review. She lives in central London.

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The Westminster Retable at the National Gallery

[This article was written for the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

The British people do not love their own visual culture as much as they might. All the clichés of our national identity tell us to look elsewhere for Britain’s greatness. Ask a thousand people what it is that Britain has historically done as well or better than any other nation on earth: the answers, though plentiful and various — language, political institutions, legal systems, written literature, engineering, industry, empire-building, choral music, children’s television, self-deprecation, irony, whatever — will not include the visual arts. We are aware that our most feted artists — from Holbein and Van Dyck to Sargent and Freud — were born elsewhere, have rightly or wrongly regarded most of our native-grown products as mad or silly or both, and look out towards Italy, France or points farther west, our faces creased with a mixture of anxiety and condescension, for our measures of visual achievement. It is as if we still, at some level, need to define ourselves as a people of the Word rather than the Image — of reality rather than imitation — and are never really comfortable unless this is seen to be the case. Hence the jealous husbanding of ‘our’ second-rate Raphaels, the assumption on the part of the media that every arts story is humorous, and an ongoing inability to get to grips with even the most modest of public commissions — except, oddly, in wartime, when we do this rather well.

Ruined choirs, reused retables
These, anyway, are the reflections prompted by the Westminster Retable, just back from six years’ worth of painstaking conservation work and currently on show in the basement of the National Gallery. For most of its 750 years, this extraordinary object could be found about half a mile south, in Westminster Abbey. For although its history is more a matter of learned conjecture than of certainty, the best guess — and much has apparently been learned in the process of conservation — is that the Retable was created by Anglo-French artists around 1260. It may well have been commissioned by Henry III in the course of the pious project of rebuilding and decorating the Abbey as a fitting shrine to his royal predecessor, St Edward the Confessor, whose body was interred behind the abbey’s High Altar. The Retable’s dimensions, sophistication and splendour suggest that it could well have formed part of the High Altar itself. And if this were true, what we see before us in the National Gallery today was once a focal point of one of pre-reformation England’s most opulent and famous devotional destinations.

Less than three centuries after it was set in place, however, the Retable fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which in 1540 transformed the Benedictine abbey into the cathedral church of the new Diocese of Westminster, and then in 1560 refounded again as a collegiate church. Like other popular pilgrimage sites, the Shrine of the Confessor was largely demolished. Although there was a brief restoration of St Edward’s cult under Mary, Elizabeth’s reign saw a reorganisation both of St Edward’s Chapel and of the Choir, where the High Altar stood. As so often was the case in the English reformations, however, this reorganisation was the stuff of matter-of-fact bureaucracy rather than hot-blooded iconoclasm. Some unknown administrator’s practical streak ensured that the Retable, rather than being tossed onto the bonfire or smashed into a thousand pieces, ended up, by the late seventeenth century, serving as part of a cupboard in which the wax funeral effigies of monarchs were stored. In 1778, the disregarded cupboard was modified once again so that an effigy of William Pitt the Elder could be displayed more attractively for paying tourists — a project that involved scraping down some of the surfaces and repainting part of the Retable in fetching shades of green, white and grey. More damage was done to the wretched object at this point than in the course of its entire previous history.

Only in 1827 did anyone apparently realise that the Retable was of any interest whatsoever — and needless to say, this being Britain, the ‘interest’ was antiquarian, rather than aesthetic. Nevertheless, a rescue was executed. The Retable then survived in varying degrees of general obscurity until 1998, when the Dean and Chapter sent it off to Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for cleaning and conservation. And now for four months the Retable — Britain’s oldest major altarpiece, and undoubtedly one of the most significant survivals from the medieval art of the British Isles — is on display in the National Gallery, before returning to the Abbey. Public display may, perhaps, raise this magnificent, ruined treasure to a more elevated place in our national consciousness. More likely, however, indifference will prevail, followed swiftly by oblivion, if only because the object on show in the National Gallery constitutes, at some level, such an alarming departure from what we believe to be the truth about British art. Or to put it another way, while our seventeenth century forefathers recast the Retable as a cupboard and did so quite successfully, there are all sorts of reasons why our own attempts to remake it again as ‘art’ may prove a good deal less effective.

Moving images
What is there, then, to see in that rather dingy Trafalgar Square basement? At first glance, not much. The Retable is, at some level, even after all that restoration, a wreck. Over three yards long and perhaps a yard high, shaped like a long rectangle divided into five panels, the initial impression is of a mess of damaged gilding and missing inlay, blank surface where there should have been line and colour, omission and loss where there surely ought to have been something else. It’s hard not to wince a little as the reality sinks in. But then, stepping closer, some of that remaining line and colour starts to resolve itself into meaning. Yes, there’s damage and chaos and pointless violence. But here and there, fading in and out of sight like a vision on the point of embodiment or disintegration, there is also — one gradually begins to see — the most astoundingly intricate, delicate, elegant painting, executed in rich and jewel-like pigment on gold ground. This isn’t just a ruin — it’s a wonder, too.

Before discussing its significance, it’s worth spelling out the subject-matter of the work. The first panel, on the left, depicts St Peter. Moving from left to right, the next panel contains three damaged yet largely legible compartments featuring scenes of Christ’s miraculous interventions — The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (Mark 5:22-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:41-56), The Healing of the Man Born Blind (John 9), and The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14:14-21, John 6:3-14). Finally, the middle panel — the last in which any painting survives — shows Christ standing under an intricate Gothic tabernacle, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Christ is shown, not crucified, but rather standing whole before us, dressed in magnificent robes, one hand raised in blessing, the other gracefully supporting a tiny globe representing Creation, guarded and guided by His might.

Needless to say, the Westminster Retable was never meant to be a work of art. It was meant, instead, to do its job, which was to provide a fitting setting for the miracle of the Eucharist which took place daily before it. Perhaps, given its proximity to St Edward’s shrine, it also provided some sort of commentary on God’s ability to work wonders with the dull stuff of everyday life. For the imagery of the Retable is extremely unusual. So, too, is its opulence. It is, after all, a good deal more than just a painting, which is what most of us tend to think of anyway when confronted with that word ‘art’. Elaborately carved and gilded, some of the surfaces were once set with stained glass, while elsewhere glass has been placed over oil-based paint in order to simulate enamel. Originally the Retable would also have been decorated with simulated gemstones and cameos. When trying to reconstruct the impact the Retable must have made when new — its sheer visual firepower — it is worth thinking not just of the various thirteenth century altarpieces we now know as isolated panels, stranded in the secularising limbos of galleries and museums, but also of garish, exciting confections such as San Marco’s Palla d’Oro, which in terms of sheer magnificence is perhaps not unlike what Henry III might have wished to achieve, had he possessed the wherewithal to do so.

Get thee to the V&A
For we can’t escape those international comparisons, can we? Not least, conventional wisdom tells us that there’s far too little extant medieval British art with which to construct some sort of frame of reference. And when it comes to painting — ‘art’ in the sense of something that can be seen, looking through the appropriately teleological lenses, to develop over the centuries into museum-quality easel painting — this is, of course, true. How typical was the quality of, say, the Thornton Parva retable, stranded in rural Suffolk? How typical was the Coventry Doom? How mutually comprehensible, let alone consonant, were the visual rhetorics of the court painters and their country cousins? We’ll simply never be sure — and since these wall-paintings, by their nature, are scattered across all sorts of unlikely locations, we are unlikely to be troubled overmuch by such questions.

What we do know, however, is that English embroidery, stained glass, manuscript illumination and, in particular, the alabaster devotional sculptures produced in Nottinghamshire were at various points considered sufficiently desirable as to flow steadily into continental Europe. Unfortunately, however, we are particularly likely to ‘know’ this fact if we spend a lot of time poking around the museums and galleries of continental Europe. For what it’s worth, my first encounter with a Nottingham alabaster carving was at the Musee Cluny in Paris — and my first run-in with a really handsome set of English vestments may well have been in the museum of the Cathedral Chapter House in Siena, if not in Padua — certainly, though, Italian regional collections are full of the stuff.

The point, though, is this. Here in London, panels from altarpieces by Giotto di Bondone (maybe), Duccio di Buoninsegna, Hans Memlinc and dozens of others take pride of place in our National Gallery. At the same time, if you want to see medieval British art, you need to travel down to South Kensington to a museum which, for all its glories, was explicitly created to improve the quality of contemporary design and manufacture, rather than to display ‘art’. And there is, alas, still enough life in those old snobberies to provide a persistent undercurrent of commentary on the relative quality of home-grown visual culture, past and present. Or to put it another way, it’s possible to get rid of potentially troublesome objects without actually smashing or burning them.

Art and the Absolute
So, how to regard what’s left of our pre-reformation visual heritage? Stranded somewhere between art and objecthood, these relics — to use a loaded word — challenge us to categorise them.

In the finest British tradition, I was expecting the Westminster Retable to be — what? Interesting, maybe — or better still, to use that good seventeenth century word, ‘curious’, in the sense that I hoped the Retable might somehow tell me something about the devotional practice of 13th century Anglo-French court culture. What I wasn’t expecting, because we are not really accustomed to thinking of British medieval art in these terms, is the degree of aesthetic shock it would confer. The Retable’s beauty — and this time there isn’t really any other word that will do — literally made me catch my breath. The play of blood-bright reds against the dark greens and lapis lazuli blues is delicate, lyrical, intelligent. The flow of line is sinuous, playful, surprising. There is evident love for detail — the curl of a lock of hair, the twisting contours of outstretched fingers — but the demands of that love are never allowed to interrupt the formal imperatives of whole panels, or of the overall composition. There is sweetness in the faces, but also real vigour in the sway and balance of the figures. Naturalism isn’t the really point — but I can never for the life of me understand why anyone looks for ‘naturalism’ in a depiction of Christ in Glory.

Those who enjoy seeking some putative Englishness of English art in anecdote, decorative qualities and an ineffable yet present sweetness will find much to enjoy and recognise here. They may smile particularly on the tiny landscape — the most English, apparently, of artistic endeavours — captured, in schematic miniature, in the tiny orb Christ cradles in His hand. But anyone who might wish to move on from the Westminster Retable to, say, the work of Duccio or Simone Martini may be taken aback by the Retable’s sheer quality. No, it wasn’t meant to be ‘art’ any more than Duccio’s panels were — but there can be little question, even in its current, mangled form, that it can hold its own against the best products of contemporary Siena, Dijon or Paris.

The painted Word
Finally, those who suspect that a rather gentle, low-key, regretfully nostalgic Romanticism was always the authentic mode of English (in this case, not British) visual culture will perhaps suggest something further, which is that the terrible, ravaged nature of the surface of the Retable cannot honestly be disaggregated from our reaction to it. They would, of course, be correct. The chips, the yearning gaps, the achingly empty panels and the pointlessly brutal excisions underlie a thick varnish of known history, for which no degree of wilfully anachronistic aestheticisation is an effective solvent. The work might as well have ‘protestant reform woz here’ scratched across its damaged gilding. To that degree it is now poignantly about loss, change, unrecoverability. Those two long Tudor reigns which made ours a different country likewise made their marks, literal as well as figurative, on the Retable. All of which means that the post-Christian poetry of lost or failed beauty is powerful here — although it is by no means the only possible response to the Retable’s unmistakeable aura. It’s worth noting that both Paul Binski, the Cambridge University art historian who wrote the explanatory notes for the work, and a spokesman for the National Gallery have described the survival of the Retable as ‘miraculous’. Whether this strikes you as to any degree an odd choice of words is, if nothing else, a reliable index as to the subtle secularisation of your own intelligence.

All of which is quite a lot of reflection for quite a small area of extant pigment. Do, though, if you are in London over the next four months, do your best to visit the Westminster Retable in its dun-coloured, ill-lit, slightly depressing basement. It is not well sign-posted, and since the inexpressible delicacy of the brushwork requires extremely close-up viewing, there’s a certain amount of time spent standing behind dreary and self-important fellow Retable-spotters, craning for a glimpse of this extraordinary thing itself and often failing to achieve that glimpse. But it’s worth every bit of trouble you put into it, if only because viewing the Retable is sure to be so unlike any other gallery experience you will have had before, or are likely to have any time soon. There is, quite simply, nothing like it. For that reason alone, it deserves far more interest and engagement than I imagine it will receive.

No art, please, we’re British
Britain’s casual disregard for her nation’s artistic achievements is, no doubt, a sign of strength. Not for us the wistful resignation of the Italians or the Dutch, always looking back to an increasingly distant Golden Age when everything was so much better — nor the assertive boosterism of anxious places like Catalunya or Eire, or for that matter the USA in the mid-20th century, labouring under the historicist delusion that a strong artistic past might somehow imply an even stronger geopolitical future.

Britain, in contrast, is always wondering, admittedly without any great sense of urgency or seriousness, why her own art isn’t something else. We, for instance, have Hilliard and Oliver — instead of Tintoretto or El Greco. We have Dobson and Lely — rather than Watteau or Poussin or Claude. We have Thornhill — yet who visits the Painted Hall at Greenwich? Meanwhile our Reynolds kept talking to us about the sublime delights of Italy, and our Turner just swore and whored and kept on painting, and our Sickert was half-foreign anyway. By the time we come to the 20th century, what is there to say about British art? Picasso didn’t happen here, nor Matisse, nor Malevich. While the watery lager was flowing in the Cedar Tavern and America was lost in the throes of creating its own high imperial style, British artists were patiently adumbrating kitchen gardens, chalk figures and parish churches. The heroes of Abstract Expressionism played out their various drunken, messy endings with self-indulgent grandeur; in contrast, when our best artist of the 1930s died young, it was because he was shot down over Iceland while serving as an official war artist. We more or less invented Pop Art — a movement hard to read as anything other than commentary not on our own culture, but on someone else’s. And so on, and so on. Art history can be seen to move first in one direction, then another. Quite rightly, we are ambivalent about where we stand, as a nation, in regard to such movement. It must also be said, we also don’t really think it matters that much one way or the other.

On one hand, we do not see ourselves as successes in the field of art. On the other hand, we know perfectly well that political stability and mercantile success has ensured that Britain has better holdings of Italian, French and even Dutch art — let alone that of ancient Egypt, Greece or the Far East — than any other single nation on earth. We may have destroyed, in a low-key way, most of our own medieval art, but we’ve collected an awful lot of everybody else’s. We have provided a safe working environment for Warburg and Gombrich, although we have also nurtured Blunt and T. J. Clark. We would rather have launched the YBAs through the agency of a lazy sort of dole than any sort of concerted patronage of the arts. We quite like Tracey Emin, if only because she lives up to the sort of drunk, promiscuous, shambolic frivolity we’ve expected of artists, from Whistler and John to Bacon and early Hirst and beyond. And for that reason — to protect our sense of who we are, and what matters to us as a nation — we’d probably rather forget the aesthetic claims of the Westminster Retable, and what this strange, sad, horribly abused object says about us. Soon, of course, it will be back in the Abbey, which without doubt is a very good thing. That’s where it belongs. But for the next four months, we are going to have to work harder than usual to ignore the full complexity of Britain’s own visual inheritance.
Before she started writing about art, Bunny Smedley’s doctoral work at Cambridge University addressed the tensions between popular piety and official policy in the course of the Tudor reformations.

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