The rooms may have been elegant, full of beautiful objects and of huge historical importance but I was most impressed by the corridors of Osborne House. The bronze statues were great with Fredinand Barbedienne’s statue of Silenus and the infant Bacchus a favourite. This was a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria.
The head of Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia fascinated me. I read Elizabeth Laird’s fictionalised life of the young boy who was taken into exile by the British when the empire was at its height. Yet again we have a young man, supposedly taken under the wing of the Queen when he should have been ruling in his own country. In this case the bronze by Francis John Williamson was commissioned by Victoria after the death of the prince at a young age.
To be surrounded with such opulence must be an assault on the senses but maybe you stop seeing them after a while.
Walking through Osborne House recently, I was impressed by the number of art works that were gifts from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria, bought by the Queen or, as is the case with this picture, commissioned by Prince Albert.
‘Cardinal Wolsey at the Gate of Leicester Abbey’ was painted for the Prince by Charles West Cope. It depicts the downfall of the once powerful Cardinal who was Henry the Eighth’s right hand man until he fell from grace. He was ordered back to London and passed through Leicester on his way. The painting shows the diminished health and status of the man.
The painting is dated 1847 and it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1848.
In (or on) the Isle of Wight so I visited Osborne House for the first time in about thirty years. I remember parts of my previous visit but did not remember the Durbar room, the most impressive addition to the house in Queen Victoria’s time!
I was on the lookout for the portrait of Duleep Singh having read the novel based on his life by Navtej Sarna. The location of this painting by Winterhalter is significant as the boy Maharajah was taken under the wing of the Queen when he was taken away from the Punjab and his mother at the age of ten.
The painting was commissioned by Victoria using the services of German artist Franz Xaver Wintherhalter, a court painter who worked for European royalty. This work is dated 1854.
Surrounding the portrait were other paintings of Indian people, mostly men, collected or commissioned by the Queen for her house. Her status as Empress of India is reflected by the fact that India came to her; she never visited India herself. There are princes, military types and servants represented here with little differentiation by rank. Their position is all due to ethnicity.
As is usual on visits such as this, I came away wanting to know more about the unsung parts of history. The painting of the man with the long hair was intriguing because he was shared a name with Duleep Singh. Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh was his son and the godson of the Queen. It was painted by Sydney Prior Hall and presented to the Queen by Duleep Singh at Christmas 1879. Apparently, Her Majesty was much taken with the boy’s long hair but he had been given a short back and sides before attending school. The painting was created with the help of a photograph that had been taken of him before his hair cut.
In Bath, so off to the Holburne Museum to see their exhibition of paintings by artists associated, by marriage or birth, with Pieter Bruegel. I have seen several Bruegel’s in galleries in different cities over the years but it was a treat to see these paintings collected together. The connections between father, sons and others were well made.
The museum is rightly proud of its collection of works by Pieter Breughel the younger. ‘Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ has been restored and now firmly attributed to the artist. The work that captured my eye the most was ‘The Procession to Calvary’. This was a painting to spend time in front of… lots of time to take in the detail and wonder at the way
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ has long been one of my all time favourite paintings and this work is similar in the way the import of one event is shown in contrast to the fact that most people are oblivious or disinterested in it. Two paintings: one by the father and one by the son. They both resonate.
In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
In London at Tate Britain to see an exhibition so I took the opportunity to re-visit some of my favourite works of art on display in the ‘Walk Through British Art’ galleries. The room I love most of all, in this chronological arrangement, is Room 1900 where the end of the Victorian and start of the Edwardian age is celebrated.
There are many works here that I admire but, on this occasion, I was keen to see a sculpture by James Havard Thomas, a sculptor active from the 1880s onwards until his death in 1921. The particular work is called ‘Lycidas’. It is a life-sized nude sculpture of a young man. His model was Antonio, his Italian servant from the time when the artist lived in Southern Italy. The work was rejected in 1905 by the Royal Academy as being too life- like and ordinary. What Antonio made of this rejection is not known!
In London, so off to Tate Britain to see the exhibition ‘Queer British Art: 1867- 1967’, held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of legislation to partially decriminalise homosexuality. The gallery was heaving with visitors heading for the major David Hockney show; somewhat telling that a gay artist drew bigger crowds than this attempt to show how being gay influenced the art.
I had a few problems with this exhibition, the largest being that not all the artists featured were known to be gay. The suggestion that he or she might have been is just a posh version of what the awful tabloid newspapers do when they want to ‘suggest’ a person’s sexuality.
Having grown up in the 70s when being thought to be gay by others was enough to bring around the abuse, it was a bit disappointing to see the same (but more refined) approach being used on people who are long dead and cannot speak for themselves. Lord Leighton’s work is here which seems to be enough to decide he must have been gay. I take the point, made by the curator, that many paintings were coded to convey messages that would have been picked up by gay people but that does not mean that all the Victorian artists here were gay themselves.
The two paintings I loved rose above the rest, with only the door of Oscar Wilde’s cell from Reading Prison of equal poignancy. Lord Leighton’s ‘Icarus and Daedalus’ and Henry Scott Tuke’s ‘The Critics’ were stunning.