31 March 2009

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Timing is everything! As noted in Victorian Spiritualism: Arthur & George, I was totally mesmerised by Arthur & George, a novel by Julian Barnes. Now Heritage Magazine (May 2009) has presented an article called The Chronicles of Conan Doyle, based largely on work published by Doyle’s biographer, Andrew Lycett.

Doyle, Boer War doctor

Other than the importance of Sherlock Holmes as a character, several significant issues arose in the article that need attention. Firstly Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) drew upon his experiences as a phys­ician. Murder Mystery blog noted that just months shy of graduating, Doyle made the adventurous decision to accept a posit­ion as a surgeon on a whaling ship heading to the Arctic. Grist for his later mill.

Even when he gave up medicine to write full time in 1891, he was still committed to his concept of national duty. When the chance came for him to join a hospital unit that had been put together by a medical friend in the Boer War of 1900, Doyle jumped at the chance, even though he had to do so at his own expense. At least two significant books came out of his work as a military doctor: The Great Boer War and Great Britain and the Next War.

Doyle, spirit photo

Secondly Doyle turned to spiritualism during very trying periods in his life that were filled with loss and mourning. His first wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1893, forcing them to emigrate so she could receive top class treatment. As the very same time, his own father died. It is no coincidence that Doyle joined the British Society for Psychical Research in 1893.

Then in World War One, his family was again devastated by death. Doyle’s beautiful young son, Arthur, was killed, as was his brother and two of his nephews. The war was a nightmare for all families, but Doyle’s family seemed to lose more than its fair share of young men. Victorian Paintings noted that mediums could call the spirits of loved ones in to sit for a picture, so so-called spirit photos would have been precious.

I haven’t read The History of Spiritualism, a reference book that Doyle wrote in 1926. If he really did dedicate himself to the cause of spiritualism in later life, perhaps he feared he only had a few years of life left. Armchair Travel blog cites Conan Doyle in that that it really matters what people think. Conan Doyle believed that what people think is not just what occurs to them. They can actually direct their thoughts into creative and even inspirational channels.

29 March 2009

Chocolate, Tea, Coffee I

I have read a number of fine histories (see below) of exotic hot drinks being brought to Europe. The dates, source countries and methods of trans­port differ somewhat but we can come to some approximate con­clus­ions. Chocolate was definitely the first exotic drink brought to Europe, by the Spanish from the Americas in 1528. Tea was first sold in Europe in 1610. The East India Company, under a charter granted by Elizabeth I to the Directors, had the monop­oly of import­ing goods from outside Europe; they recorded ships reaching Brit­ain in 1640. The first public coffee house probably opened in Venice until 1640, where the mer­chants imported it from Turkey. The first coffeehouse opened in Vienna in 1683 after a Turkish siege.

Great blogs are River Walk Inn for a history of tea and Gourmet Coffee Zone - Home /coffee history.

Chinese tea cup, handleless, C18th

What connection does the arrival of tea have with the growth of the British pottery industry? The des­ign source for teapots may have come from the Is­l­am­ic cof­fee pots, which were first seen in the popular coffee houses of Europe and England in this period. Earl Cad­ogan, whose estates were located in Stafford­shire, the fut­ure centre of English porcelain production, was the first Englishman recorded to have owned such a Chinese wine pourer. It was gl­obular, predicting the future design of most ceramic teapots produced in Europe. Silver teapots were for the wealthiest.

Lowestoft porcelain, 1762 (L) ..

(R) Silver teapot, ebony handle

Silver chocolate pot with rod (above) ....
(below) Staffordshire coffee pot, mid C18th

Tea was drunk in China from cups without handles. When tea became popul­ar in England, there was a great need for good cups with hand­les, to suit British habits. This made for tremendous growth in the pottery and porcelain industry, and the prosperity of companies like Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton. Worcester was founded in 1751 by a doctor and a chemist: Wall and Davis. They wanted a line of collectibles that would stand out, so they dev­eloped a soaprock porcelain that could tol­er­ate very hot fluids, especially important for cups, tea bowls, saucers and tea pots. Their love­ly blue under-glazing, sometimes combined with blue & white patt­er­ns.

Tea was at first a luxury, enjoyed only by the rich, and for a long time the government imposed a huge tax (up to 200%) on it. As a result, a thriving trade arose in tea smuggled from Europe. Caroline's Miscellany agreed in Tea smuggling in Deptford that England's harbours were rife with smuggling and stealing. Many goods were heavily taxed, meaning that if smugglers could sneak them into the city unofficially, they could undercut honest importers' prices. Except for the state, everyone was happy: the seller made good money and the buyer got a bargain.

Tea caddies were locked, so servants could not get to the precious tea leaves. In the C18th tea generally replaced the ale that had previously been the English people's basic drink. Finally in 1784 the tax was abol­ish­ed and smuggling ceased. Tea was in England to stay, with coffee only a pale second, at least until recent decades.

Locked tea caddy, mahogany, 1790s

The Chinese, who were making tea services, quickly added chocolate and coffee ceramics to their exports, and silver manufacturers also ad­apted their tea services to the new chocolate and coffee fashions. Chocolate pots quickly became popular. The silver chocolate pot had a hinged lid or a detachable finial through which a molinet/rod was in­ser­t­ed, to stir chocolate sediment. The molinet was generally made of wood, with terminal in silver or ivory. Coffee pots had no such rod. The earliest silver coffee pot I could find recorded was ordered by East India Co. in 1690.

Covered chocolate cup (L)............ (R) Coffee can, C18th

The hot drinks were poured into cups that differed slightly in shape and size. Coffee cans had straighter sides than tea cups which we saw earlier. Chocolate pots seemed to have derived from a custard pot with two-handles and a cover.

My favourite references are:
1.Coe, S and MD The True History of Chocolate, Thames & Hudson, 2007.
2.Cowan, Brian Social Life of Coffee: Emergence of the British Coffee-house, Yale UP, 2005.
3.Ellis, A Penny Universities: History of Coffee-Houses, Secker & Warburg, London, 1956.
4.Ellis, M Coffee-House: Cultural History, Phoenix Lond, 2005
5.Faulkner, Rupert Tea: East & West, Victoria Albert Museum, 1993.
6.Heiss, M & R Story of Tea: Cultural History, 10 Speed Press, 2007
7.Lillywhite, B London Coffee Houses of 17th, 18th & 19th centuries, George Allen Unwin, London, 1965.
8.Moxham, Roy Tea: Addiction, Exploitation & Empire, Constable Robinson, 2003
9.Pettigrew, Jane Social History of Tea, National Trust, 2002
10.Runcie, James Discovery of Chocolate, Harper, 2002

For a history of coffee in London, see the next post.

26 March 2009

Gropius' Bauhaus: manifesto for art and architecture

The Bauhaus, which opened for business in Weimar in 1919, was not created out of a vacuum. Like every other development in the long history of art, The Bauhaus had a history extending back into the C19th.

Walter Gropius

The Bauhaus-Archi Museum of Design noted that Ger­many had rec­og­nised that well-designed industrial products repres­ented a signif­ic­ant economic factor. The British educational system was analysed closely, with an eye to reforming the German schools for arts and crafts. An entire generation of painters understood applied arts to be the major assignment. The Dresdner Werkstätten 1898, with their machine furniture, were the best known examples for the setting up of workshops all over Germany. And 1903 marked the foundation in Austria of the Wiener Werkstätte. The list of precedents goes on.

The Belgian Henry van de Velde had founded the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar in 1907. It was no coincidence that The Bauhaus event­ually based itself in van de Velde's school building. Also in 1907, artists and industrialists founded the Deutscher Werkbund in Munich, aimed at improving Germany's economy by enhancing craft work. Architects Peter Behrens, Adolf Meyer and Walter Gropius and others wanted to capture the spirit of change.

Typically any new style in art and architecture will either develop its own philosophical framework as the decades pass (eg Impression­ism), or will have a phil­os­ophical framework retrospectively thrust upon them by history (eg Art Deco). But in Walter Gropius’ case, the philosophy of his new school was explic­ated and distributed all over Europe, BEFORE the first student even enrolled.

Bauhaus in Weimer, 
designed by Henry van der Velde

Manifesto, 1919
"The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! The dec­or­ation of buildings was once the noblest function of fine arts, and fine arts were indispensable to great architecture. Today they exist in complacent isolation, and can only be rescued by the conscious co-operation and collaboration of all craftsmen. Architects, painters and sculptors must once again come to know and comprehend the comp­osite character of a building, both as an entity and in terms of its various parts. Then their work will be filled with that true architectonic spirit which, as "salon art", it has lost.

The old art schools were unable to produce this unity; and how, indeed, should they have done so, since art cannot be taught? Schools must return to the workshop. The world of the pattern-designer and applied artist, consisting only of drawing and painting must become once again a world in which things are built. If the young person who rejoices in creative activity now begins his career as in the older days by learning a craft, then the unproductive artist will no longer be condemned to inadequate artistry, for his skills will be preserved for the crafts in which he can achieve great things.

Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts! For there is no such thing as professional art. There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an ex­alted craftsman. By the grace of Heaven and in rare moments of in­sp­iration which transcend the will, art may unconsciously blossom from the labour of his hand, but a base in handicrafts is essential to ev­ery artist. It is there that the original source of creativity lies.

Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith".
April 1919

In my opinion, Gropius’ aim was to bring all the arts together, equally, under one roof and have them merge together with a new architecture. Bauhaus, he promised, would:
1. unify all the arts so that the various craftsmen could work on cooperative projects in which their various skills would be combined.
2. raise all arts to the same honoured level, rather than tradit­ional division between the High Arts and the Decorative Arts and
3. establish close contact with the leaders of the nation’s in­dus­tries, so that all products of the school would be exposed and sold.

The expressionist style of Lyonel Feininger's woodcut on the front of the Bauhaus manifesto brochure, inviting potential students to part­ic­ipate in the new world of art and architecture, seemed appropriate.

Feininger's woodcut, Cathedral, 1919

The Admissions Policy, as set out in the same brochure, seemed very attractive. "Any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex, whose previous education is deemed adequate by the Council of Masters, will be admitted, as far as space permits. The tuition fee is 180 marks per year (It will gradually disappear entirely with increasing earnings of the Bauhaus). A nonrecurring admission fee of 20 marks is also to be paid. Foreign students pay double fees. Address inquiries to the Secretariat of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar".

Gropius sent these brochures to every city and country, advertising the new school in German, Polish and Russian. I would not have ex­pect­ed stud­ents to flock from all over central and Eastern Europe to defeated and depressed Germany, so soon after WW1. But flock they did; 100 fresh faced students arrived on the doorsteps of the Weimar building in 1919. The manifesto seemed like an insp­iring message for young Germans returning from war and for foreign students looking for better careers. They could work to create a new, more humane world.

Bauhaus students 1919

Slow Painting blog asked was it possible to make a viable institution out of a movement that had arisen out of conflict with institutional authority, and which drew its focus, vitality, and sense of purpose from that conflict? They concluded that The Bauhaus, by enforcing no aesthetic conformity and by promulgating no official style, proved to all that a modernist institution need not repeat the failings of its academic predecessors. Such a receptive stance was perhaps only possible in Germany. The Bauhaus demonstrated that modernism could function as a collective enterprise in an institutional setting, and still give the student the widest scope for individual expression.

I wonder if that is so, for all the students, but for the women in particular.

For very useful reviews of Walter Gropius, The Bauhaus and its manifesto, read:
Last.fm Bauhaus - House of Building, and Christa Nwokedi at Helium

24 March 2009

Wolfgang Sievers 1913-2007

Construction Site, 1955

Wolfgang was born into a very clever and creative family in Berlin. His father was an academic art historian and his mother was involved in the film industry. By the time he was old enough to work, The Bauhaus had long closed so he could not have been a student there. But in 1938, he stayed on as a teacher at a School for Modern Applied Arts, an educational organisation sympathetic to Bauhaus philosophy. Since his mother was Jewish, Wolfgang left Germany for ever in 1938 - luckily for photography and for Australia.

Safely in Melbourne, Sievers spent his long life recording industrial and architectural scenes. They covered the gamut from mining, office building, scientific proc­ess­es, light and heavy industries, Olympic stadia to schools. This prolific photographer seemed to find black and white a more fitting medium for his subjects than colour.

Olympic Swimming Pool, Melbourne, 1956

Let me insert a personal note here. My father was the filtration engineer for the swimming and diving pools in the 1956 Olympics, and might well have been aware of Sievers as he moved around the pools.

cedvernay.com blog showed that the ex-pat German citizens who lived in Melbourne tried to help each other out in their new country. In 1946, Helmut Newton set up a Melbourne studio and worked primarily on fashion photography. The exhibition of New Visions in Photography, which was held at the Federal Hotel in Collins St in May 1953, was shared with Newton, Sievers and Henry Talbot, another German ex-pat artist who had also been interned. Three creative, supportive men.

Cyberslacker wrote that in the 1950s, Wolfgang Sievers was hired by the Australian Government to help change the image of Australia from rural and agricultural, to industrial and manufact­uring. And he was clearly hired by private companies as well. What was he doing? Seeking out gritty photos to show progress, modernity and indust­rialisation on behalf of his patrons? Examine Mrs. Deane who has a wonderful wolfgang sievers’ archive

Pulp Mills, Burnie 1956

Apparently not. Alert and Alarmed (24/4/2005) wrote: The photography of Wolfgang Sievers allows us to become aware of ‘the dignity of man as a worker’. The dirt, noise and danger of the machinery may not always be visible but the worker is aware of his personal vulner­ab­ility. The nation might need to show physical exertion, skills and initiative; the nation might need the collective effort of the working population. But the worker himself is entitled to respect and industrial support.

Paint testing, 1961

Of course Sievers chose subjects that lent themselves to impressive and monumental photographs. He specialised in mining, geological exploration and the oil industry precisely because the tasks were bigger, more dangerous, more mechanised and more cutting edge. He could have photographed people gardening or waltzing, but neither of those occupations was gritty or cutting edge. Even his passive, sedate images had fascinating patterns within.

In Siever’s view, the Australian workplace was far more egalitarian and open than in other countries, allowing more scope for his determination to portray the dignity of labour. But how do we know about Sievers sympathy for the working people of this nation, other than by “reading” his images? Because he went outside his briefs, even at his own expense. “Often controversial, his strong beliefs, intolerance of racism and increasing concern at the dest­ruct­ive practices of capitalism also led him to question the morality behind many corporate entities, in many cases his clients.” And because Sievers donated $1 million worth of photographs to raise money for social justice.

Gears for Mining Industry, 1967

There are tens of thousands of Sievers photographs in the Digital Collection of the National Library of Australia. Sign Language reported that some of the best were shown at a major retrospective of Wolfgang Sievers’ work, held at the NGV. Thomas Ryan has superb Sievers photos of the Burnie Paper Mill, back in the days when the mill provided employment to so many Tasmanians.

20 March 2009

Emanuel Phillips Fox - an Australian Impressionist

Emanuel Phillips Fox 1865-1915 was born in Melbourne in 1865. He began to learn art at  Melbourne's National Gallery Art School.

Whistler, Symphony in White 

In 1887, at 22, he moved to Par­is to learn at the Academie Julian and the Fine Arts School with the masters, and was lucky enough to study with the French master artist Jean Leon Gerome. So who were Fox’s role models? James Whistler and John Singer Sargent had also been trained in Paris and were also clear­ly infl­ue­n­ced by impressionism, espec­ially Claude Monet. Consider one of Whistler's earliest portraits, Sym­phony in White 1862. And consider a Sargent portrait of The Dau­gh­ters of Edward Darly Boit, Am­ericans living in Paris 1882. Phillips Fox would have loved these works to have been his own.

Sargent, Daughters of E.D.Boit

We can also com­p­are the subject matter of the young Australian man with that of Mary Cassatt, Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot eg Reading 1873. You can smell the fresh summer grass in all the paint­ings and feel the dap­p­led sun on the women’s dres­ses. Str­o­k­es of light filled colour flitted on the canvas Impressionists’ surface, as they did for Phillips Fox later.

Morisot,  Reading

Fox returned to Aust­ralia in 1892 and although he was still young, an exhibition of his art was well received. Luckily for Australian art, Fox founded the Melb­our­ne Art School in Bourke St in 1892 with fellow art­ist, Tudor St Geor­ge Tucker (d1906).

Dur­ing 1894 they held a summer school at Ch­arter­is­ville, an old mansion in Heidelberg, modelling their teac­h­ing on Fr­en­ch st­udio and plein-air painting practices. This property had be­l­onged to another Australian painter who had studied in Paris, Wal­ter With­ers. But whereas Charterisville had been used prev­ious­ly for week­end paint­ing camps by the men, Fox opened a perm­an­ent sum­mer art school for women.

Fox,  Art Students

Of all the artists painting in Melb­ourne at the turn of the cen­t­ury, Phillips Fox’s work came closest to the style and tech­n­ique of Fren­ch Impressionism. And even more, the subject matter he selected. A sen­sitive and subtle painter, he was best known for large images of col­our, sunlight, pretty girls and the good life. He painted Orientalist scenes and landscapes as well, but I am more interested in his pretty girls in this posting.

He had plenty of opportunity to depict the lovely young women he taught. Phill­ips Fox and his student Asquith Baker respected each other, so much that he dedicated a large painting called Art Stud­ents 1895 to her. Not only did he enjoy women’s company; women enjoy­ed his. Vi­o­let Tea­gue’s letters included comments about Fox's love for art and for teaching, and the students’ enjoyment in lear­n­ing from Fox. I wonder why he didn’t marry until 1905, when he was already 40.

In 1902 Fox decided to return to Paris where some of his most re­f­ined works were painted. Here he used another student, Ursula Foster, as the model for A Love Story 1903, one of the art­is­t­'s earliest works to incl­u­de elegantly dressed women enjoy­ing leis­ure time, a theme he ret­urned to often. The long white Ed­wardian dress, lounging diagon­ally across the can­vas, exactly capt­ur­ed the light and atmosphere of a summer's day.

Fox married the artist Ethel Carrick in London in 1905. They then lived in Paris until 1913, travelling widely in Europe and northern Africa. I must return to Ethel Carrick Fox's splendid art in a later blog article.

Fox,  The Bathing Hour

In The Bath­ing Hour 1909, Fox depicted the tender relationship bet­ween a mother and her child, long a favourite theme of Impres­sion­ists. Like Mary Cassatt (The Bath 1891; Mother and Child c1905), Phillip Fox appar­ently never tired of the very tender mother-child bond. However there was a diff­er­ence. Cassatt’s matern­al im­ag­es were not sentimental; her subj­ects were normal peo­ple in domestic settings, busy with the daily tasks. Phillip Fox’s mother, ob­s­erved directly from life, was also adoring her toddler.

The Arbour c1910 was another lan­g­uid view of a middle class fam­ily at leisure, this time painted while he was in France. Cont­em­porary critics praised this image for its fine com­position and admired Fox's ability “to create poetry, vag­ue­ness, airiness and space" in his works. Like the French Impressionists, Fox had no major social or political theme that he wanted to analyse in The Arbour. The da­p­­pled light, fine clothes and pleasant fam­ily relationships were enough. Remember Monet’s lad­ies in long white dresses called Women in the Garden 1867, sim­il­ar in feel to The Arbour.
Fox,  The Arbour

Another work to note was The Lesson c1912, a Phillips Fox image that could have come straight out of the studio of Cassatt or Morisot. Th­is time an interior scene, the long soft dresses of the women were soft­en­­ed still further by the dappled summer light, stream­ing through the window. The strongest colours inside the room were creams, whites and subtle pinks. Like The Bathing Hour, this image foc­us­sed on close family relationships.

So of all the artists painting in Melb­ourne at the turn of the cent­ury, the work of Phillips Fox came closest to the style, subject matter and tech­n­ique of French Impression­ism. His paintings were not ident­ifiably Australian; they were more concerned with women and family life than they were with gum trees, gold miners and drovers. He was a very popular teacher, focusing on light, col­our and spontaneous painting, not just on drawing. But 100 years later I found few blogs discussing his contribution to Australian art except artwall & ImHaute in English and Thé au Jasmin: oct 2008 in French).

Fox,  The Lesson

15 March 2009

Ned Kelly, Sidney Nolan and Australian heroes

Ned Kelly, Australia’s most famous bushranger, was part of a Irish- Catholic-Australian family who lived in the North East of Victoria. The entire extended family was constantly in trouble with the police and courts, usually over low level crimes like cattle-duffing. Most people then (and since) believed the police were more corrupt than the criminals.

(top) Old Melbourne Gaol
(centre) Ned Kelly, day before he was hanged 1880.
(bottom) Kelly home, Glenrowan

That changed in 1878 when the Kelly Gang’s low level crimes changed to bank robberies, hostage taking, derailing trains and killing of policemen sent to capture them. In response to these killings the Victorian parliament did two things. Firstly it passed the Felons' Ap­prehension Act which outlawed the gang and invited any­one to shoot them. There was no need for an arrest and trial. Sec­ondly they posted a £8000 reward in Feb 1879 for the capture of the gang!

Since the Kelly Gang’s rampage of 1878-80, Ned Kelly has been de­scribed by many, especially the police and courts, as a crim­inal, thief and killer. For fewer people, he was seen as an oppressed, impoverished family man who railed against colonial authority and colonial injustice.

Ned Kelly, 1946
by Sidney Nolan

In the arts, we find the same div­ide. Anderson Brown's Literary Blog responded to Peter Car­ey’s novel: “The Irish identity of Kelly and his family, and the economic and le­g­al injust­ices to which poor transported Irish were subjected by the col­onial authorities, are among the real subjects of the book. Ned is a stub­born enough force of nature to hold our symp­athy without hero­ics”. Stephanie Trigg at humanities researcher was working on Ned Kelly’s associations with Robin Hood. She felt the pres­erv­ation of Kelly’s last boot spoke volumes about the iconic status of Kelly, and the myst­ique and veneration in which he is held. It looked very much like a saint's relic. Bartlett’s Blog suggests that the Kelly saga was a story which showed how one injustice can breed another, and how systemic oppression often begets violent responses. According to Bartlett, this is a lesson we still seem not to have learned 130 years later.

Over the decades the change in community perceptions about Ned Kelly has been slow but constant. Now I am suggesting that Sidney Nolan’s most famous art work, a series of stylised descriptions of Ned Kelly in the Australian Outback 1946-7, played a very important role in the change. I am not inter­ested in issues of connoisseurship here; just in Nolan’s iconography.

Nolan’s Ned Kelly series followed the main sequence of the Kelly story. However Nolan did not intend the series to be an authentic history of these events. Rather the series became the setting for the artist’s thinking about family, loyalty, injustice and betrayal. Because the tragic Depression and WW2 had just finished, Nolan had a challenge. He wanted to create and de­fine episodes in Australian nationalism, to retell the story of a hero. I would not have chosen Ned Kelly as a national hero, but Nolan’s Kelly became a man who resisted tyranny and pursued freedom at any cost.

Death of Constable Scanlon, 1946
by Sidney Nolan

The iconography was simple and powerful. In Ned Kelly 1946, the sim­ple geometry of Kelly’s armour suited modern art. Nolan just placed a pair of eyes into Kelly’s helmet which added life to its austere shape. The Death of Constable Scanlon 1946, now in the National Gal­lery Canberra, showed a somersaulting police trooper, a startled horse and a tent. The Trial 1947 depicting Ned Kelly in the court room, surr­ounded by the judge, police and jury.

Nolan clearly wanted to give his audience an insight into Australian history. His series created an artificially simplistic picture but either fostered or created the view that Ned Kelly, in his abstracted armour, was an Australian icon.

Above all, he considered that it was ‘a story arising out of the bush and ending in the bush’ eg matthewham discussed the complete fusion of Kelly with his horse, something I had not thought of myself. Remember that the Kelly story did not belong in Australian cities. Instead it was a way for Nolan to paint the Australian landscape with new eyes, with the story creating a special awareness of NE Victoria’s landscape.

Nolan himself acknowledged that his depiction of Kelly, with a black, square and impenetrable mask was difficult. But for some reason, he supposed to do with the nature of the century or with modern art, it worked out well. Nolan realised this was a story he could put into the landscape by investing the human psyche in a very simple shape.

The Trial, 1947
by Sidney Nolan

Heide in Melbourne was where Nolan painted the first canvasses in his Ned Kelly series. Eventually, in 1977, the series was given to the National Gallery of Australia. Heide Museum of Modern Art also has examples of Nolan's work.

13 March 2009

House for an Art Lover by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

One Charles Rennie Mackintosh building is particularly amazing, but not because it was designed 108 years ago and later rescued and renovated. Rather because it was designed 108 years ago and only built very recently.

In 1901 Charles and Margaret entered a competition in a German de­s­ign magazine to design a House for an Art Lover that had to be in a 'thoroughly modern style'. Their entry was disqu­al­if­ied on the grounds of late submission, yet it was awarded a sp­ec­ial prize by the jury: for "the pronounced personal quality, the novel and austere form and the uniform configuration of interior and exter­ior." The drawings were published in the magazine Deutsche Kunst while the full portfolio was published under the title Meister der Innenkunst. Then the designs submitted to the competition were exhibited at the International Exposition in Turin.

Mackintosh’s designs for the House remained just that: plans on pap­er. Decades later, in 1988, someone in Glasgow had the idea of con­structing the Art Lover’s House, of bringing Mackintosh’s plans to fruition.

White house with low relief decoration

As envisaged on the original documents, The House for an Art Lover is large and rect­ang­ular. The external walls are painted white and the main facades are decorated with a few Art Nouveau low relief sculptures, created in sandstone.

Hall and stairs

The front door leads into the grand but rather dark double-height hall. The visitor can look from the main hall into the dining room, a room with very high dark panels that follow the style of the darkish hall. The black table with the black high-backed chairs stand in the centre of the dining room, and dominate the space. Clover Signs Blog asked “have you ever wondered what inspired, or possessed Charles Rennie Mackintosh?” This is a question I have asked myself often. Two rooms are so dark and masculine.

Dining room

On the other hand, there is a very light and feminine space: the music room. The sun streams into the music room, beaming on the light colours of the walls and the decorative elements. Note in particular how luscious the piano, chairs, light fittings and murals look. I don’t know anything about Japanese design, but I am relying here on Daithai C Apparently CRM liked the fact that Japanese arts furniture and design focused on the quality of the space, which was meant to evoke a calming and organic feeling to the interior. I hope that is so because the Music Room is spacious, light filled and calming. Not PC rightly said that Glasgow has never looked so sunlit, or so alive.

Music room

The Art Lover’s House at Bellahouston Park was opened in late summer 1990. The built house and gardens are now an essential element in the Mackin­t­osh heritage trail.

04 March 2009

Victorian Spiritualism: Arthur & George

Arthur & George, a novel by Julian Barnes

In late-Victorian Britain, I read the interwoven tale of two very different young men: George, the son of a Midlands vicar and Arthur, growing up in well-mannered Ed­inburgh. George, determined to make his life’s work in Law, accidentally became involved in a series of nasty and cruel tricks played by local lads. Arthur studied medicine and made his mother happy, while eventually finding out that medicine wasn’t what he really wanted to do.

I am passionate about Barnes books, although in this book I found the two concur­rent-but-not-intersecting stories frustrating. It took a very long time before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dealt with his wife’s illness and his would-be lover, and was available to move to the very heart of the job in hand. Finally the unrelated lives started to dovetail. George’s family - caring, moral, passive, foreign, fatalistic and in the end inept - could do nothing to save their beloved son and brot­her. Only the author of the world’s most famous detective could save Innocent George.

By the time I had finished the book, I still had no idea if the story was totally fictional, a fictionalised version of a real court case or a well researched, unsensationalised version that really did mes­merise Britain at the end of the C19th. Only when I read the Baby Got Books blog and the dylanwolf reviews did it become clear that the events referred to the infamous Great Wryley Outrages.

Since the story was a fict­ionalised version of actual events, all the more credit to Barnes for handling the big issues of the day: coloured migration, life in the Church of England, increasing role of women in society and British system of justice. Even with these big issues, a summary of the book looks pathetic: Sir Arthur Conan Doy­le, inventor of Sherlock Holmes, lived in Undershaw in Surrey. Doyle met and assisted George Edalji, a small town lawyer in Staffordshire convicted of a crime he didn't commit. End of story. Spiritualism was almost an afterthought in the book, not tackled until the protagonist died.

We need to note that while mediums and magicians might have been fascinating to ordinary families, a surprisingly large number of Victorian scientists and literary figures also became enmeshed in the spiritualism controversy. On the side of the sp­ir­itualists were famous names like Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and George Eliot; Charles Darwin remained a sceptic.

Victorian Spiritualism struck me as somewhat unlikely concept, giv­en the Victorians passion for science, , progress, classification and rat­ion­alism. But The Haunted History Blog suggested that the two were not really incompatible in the Victorian mind. Like many other scien­t­ists in the Victorian era, Spiritualism proved to be an att­ractive opport­un­ity for a particular intellectual (Alfred Russel Wallace) to ex­pl­ore his scientific inquiries. His theory on evolution included the notion that the higher facul­ties of man need more than just Nat­ural Selection for develop­ment. A divine presence was behind Natural Selection, so Spiritualism was where an intellectual could search for answers.

Andrew Lycett, in the The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, agreed. The central paradox of Arthur's life was that this trained doctor and inventor of the super-rational Sherlock Holmes fell completely in thrall to spiritualism. Séances, spirit photos and other weird phen­omena that Holmes would dismiss as mumbo-jumbo proved an endless fascination. Conan Doyle regarded spirit­ual­ism as "a natural exten­s­ion of science." Both Conan Doyle and Holmes personified the Vict­or­ian ethos that sent forth reason to make sense of a confusing and newly godless world.

By the way, the film Dean Spanley (2008) covered the same territory with the same elegance.


Since this post was written in March 2009, David Edgar has adapted the novel Arthur & George for the stage. First shown at the Birmingham Rep and then to the Nottingham Playhouse, the strange but true story was apparently much easier to tell on paper than it was to produce for theatre-going audiences. A review in Country Life (31st March 2010) said "the stage adaptation is an awkward mix of detective story, psychodrama and comic pastiche, with a dash of courtroom drama thrown in." Just so!

01 March 2009

The Migration Experience in Art: James Tissot

The 2006 Exiles and Emigrants Exhibition in Melbourne was set up to tell the emot­ional stories of the greatest Diaspora in Western history; it was the first time art and objects produced in Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) were used to tell the story of the unprecedented exodus of c15 mill­ion people from Britain. The exhib­ition traced the reasons that drove people from their homeland, their long and diff­ic­u­lt voy­ages, and their struggle to settle in the harsh and often unforgiving Australian climate. The feelings of fear, pain and displacement at leaving one's homeland for a country so foreign and far away were re­v­ealed in these paintings, the National Museum dir­ect­or said.

So why am I interested in a non-British, non-Australian artist who concentrated on society portraits?

Tissot, Goodbye on the Mersey, early 1870s

James Tissot (1836-1902) was born in Nantes. He was raised in a French seaport city and throughout his career, he impressed with his painting of ships, rigging, ports and water. He studied art at Beaux-Arts in Paris and following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Tissot chose to move to London. There he paint­ed highly finished, beautiful paint­ings of London society.

Many bloggers have turned their attention to Tissot. Scholars and Rogues blog in ArtSunday: love among the ruffles noted that until his lover’s death by suicide in 1882, Tissot was a society painter exiled from high society, who worked for and sold to the successful merchants, bank­ers and brokers of London. “Paint­ings of vulgar middle-class boating parties, port­raits of overdressed ironmongers’ daughters and their pomaded swains in brand-new suits”, sniffed Ruskin.

Still Tissot worked, in constant demand, and in doing so created a marvellously detailed record of a very specific time and place, a can­vas history of dress, manners and values. As Cris, Artist in Oregon noted Tissot’s parents had run a clothing business in his youth and he was something of a dandy himself.

Hollister Hovey found fine portraits of men by Tissot. Not male partners and staff, helping women in their activities, but men as the sole focus of portraitly attention.

Tissot, The Emigrants, c1875

Lines and Colour blog noted that Tissot was also an accomplished etcher, having learned much from Whistler.

Mardecortesbaja was particularly on-topic for me for since the blog focused on Tissot’s attraction to the Port of Lon­d­on and the river Thames. Tissot loved the Thames, its ships and bustle. It may have taken him back to his youth. The blog’s example, Two Friends, was especially dynamic, with its small boat moving forward into a space in front of the picture plane as the taller ships lead our eye backward into the space of the painting, rein­forcing the sense of movement. His paintings with the river as the back­ground have an evocative atmosphere. I agree that a viewer could almost smell the smoke, and hear the shouts of the dockers and watermen.

In my pursuit of emigration art, Tissot’s dockside pictures were an important part of his desire to paint a unique­ly British subject: the Victor­ian problem of emigration. And, it should be noted, all the emigration paintings were created during Tissot’s 11 years in Britain.

They pointed to the sad rest­less­ness of the people waiting on the docks with steamer trunks in By Water/Waiting at the Dockside 1881 and to the tearful waves of those left behind on Goodbye on the Mersey. The central theme of this painting was the leave-taking of a loved son and fiance.

Tissot, Waiting at Dockside, 1881

View the woman climb­ing aboard the ship in The Emigrants c1875. The image showed a woman carrying a small child and a bundle on her left arm, standing on the deck of a ship looking down. There were men in front and behind her but the woman seemed to hover, perhaps because her husband had gone on ahead of her to ? Australia. While she and her child were emig­rating to find a better life, the voyage itself was both dangerous and lonely. Tissot maximised the dramatic backdrop of masts, ropes and flags.

As difficult to find as these images are, the theme of emigration and the conditions that forced people to seek a life overseas fascinated Tissot. Clearly he was interest in the drama of severing ties with one’s native land. In The Two Friends c1881, a man stretch­ed to shake hands with a soldier who leaned out from the rigging of a steamer that was about to pull away from the dock. Other figures engaged in leave taking remained along the edges.

Tissot, The Two Friends (etching)

I value Patricia Tryon Macdonald (ed)'s work Exiles and Emigrants: Epic Journeys to Australia in the Victorian Era, the well written, well produced  catalogue of the exhibition held in Melbourne (from late 2005) and then in Canberra (in 2006). Other recommendations, which I have not read myself, include Eric Richards' Britannia's Children (2004) and David Fitzpatrick's Oceans of Consolation (1994), and Jordana Pomeroy et al., Journeying Women: Victorian Women Artists Travel, Lund Humphries, 2006.