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.
I am a fan of Andrew Graham- Dixon’s television appearances so when the opportunity to hear him speak at a Literature event came up last year I went. His subject was Caravaggio and his paintings. He was fascinating so I was keen to read the book behind the talk.
‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’ is a comprehensive biography, impressive because so many parts of the artist’s life are still a mystery and are likely to remain that way. What makes this book worth reading, though, are the descriptions of the paintings and the explanation of the context in which they were created.
I found myself at the end of a very large room when I heard the author speak. The slides of the paintings were too far away from me to appreciate and I found myself listening rather than looking. It worked for me. In the case of the book, there are photographs of the paintings but they are quite small. I found myself looking up the picture on-line and reading in front of the computer! Andrew Graham- Dixon is very good at drawing your attention to the detail or the item that would otherwise be missed.
The political and religious (pretty much the same thing in this place and time) are explained, especially when they show how creative Caravaggio in this period. Here was an artist who worked for the great and the good of the church and mixed with the poor and down trodden. He painted prostitutes and gay lovers into works of art that found their way to the houses of the rich or the chapels of the princes of the church and subsequently on to the great art collections of the world.
This is a book to take seriously and a book to take time over but it is worth is for the insights from an intellectual.
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 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.
In the Calahorra tower at the end of the famous bridge in Cordoba houses a ‘museum’ or audio-visual display telling the history of the city and its place as a centre of learning where three religions existed in harmony and respected each other. The ‘Museum of Three Cultures’ is a fascinating place. Most of the exhibits are reproductions or models but the story of the city’s past is well laid out.
It was here that I saw the reproduction of a painting by Dionisio Baixeras of Abd-ar-Rahman III receiving at his court in Cordoba, the Monk Nicholas, ambassador of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. The coming together of religions, not to convert but to understand each other, was important then and is important now.
I went to the National Gallery in London to see the exhibition ‘Beyond Caravaggio’. I have tracked down many ‘Caravaggios’ over the years in various places around the world and I recently heard Andrew Graham Dixon give a lecture on the artist so I was keen to see this exhibition which examined his influences on other artists.
The great thing about the major exhibitions that London both generates and attracts is that paintings from global collections all arrive in one location; there is the treat of seeing Caravaggio’s ‘John the Baptist’ from a museum in Kansas City alongside works in the ownership of the Queen.
I knew little of the other artists collected here but Cecco del Caravaggio is reputed to be lover model and student of the famous artist. Then we have the aspiring painters who travelled to Rome to study their hero and those who hated him but were influenced by his style, in particular his use of light and reflection. Matthias Strom was a name new to me but two of his paintings stood out for me. His ‘Old Woman and a Boy by Candlelight’ was particularly striking.
This was an exhibition worth seeing but it will still be worth visiting the great cities of the world to search out individual works by Caravaggio. His paintings are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?