Saturday, 28 February 2015

Tobias and the angel

Tobias and the Angel Raphael  Studio of Andrea Verrocchio, c.  1470-75
© National Gallery, London

Book of Tobit, Ch. VI.  " Now as they went on their journey, they came at eventide to the river Tigris, and they lodged there. But the young man went down to wash himself, and a fish leaped out of  the river, and would have swallowed up the young man.  But the angel said unto him, 'Take hold of the fish,'  and the young man caught hold of the fish, and cast it upon the land."

In this story from the Biblical Apocrypha, young Tobias is sent by his blind father Tobit on a long journey from Nineveh to Media to collect some money. Unknowingly, he hires as his companion the angel Raphael.  Instructed by the angel, the heart and liver saved from his adventure with the fish, have magical properties, which help Tobias to drive away the demon haunting Sarah, a kinsman's daughter, and win her as his bride.  On his return home the fish-gall heals his father's eyes and Raphael the angel reveals himself.

The story treats the struggle with the fish - which was probably a crocodile - very matter of factly, and in the painting from Verrocchio's workshop it is shown as quite small. I have always liked the idea that
the guardian angel does not leap into the river to help Tobias, but shouts instructions at him from the bank, so that he is able to save himself and catch the giant 'fish'.  This painting is a visual feast of colour, with its  repeating patterns of curves and angles, a wonderful Renaissance image of Tobias in contemporary dress and an Italian landscape behind, accompanied by the winged Raphael, and Tobias' faithful dog.  (Angel wings were a Christian convention derived from the winged Victory images of the classical world.)  Although a workshop piece,  it is thought that the young Leonardo painted the fish and the dog.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

"The Horse's Mouth" illustrated

    John Bratby is known for his energetic and crowded "Kitchen sink" paintings.  His work reached a wider popular audience throughout the 1958 film of Joyce Cary's novel, The Horse's Mouth. Alec Guinness played the reprobate London artist, Gulley Jimson, and Bratby provided Jimson's paintings for the film.  They were far more in character and believable than is usual in many films.

David in the Kitchen, with Thistles Hartlepool Museum & Heritage Service © artist's estate

Jean and Still Life in Front of a Window Southampton City Art Gallery © artist's estate

In this next work, Bratby has taken an unusual moving viewpoint, a self-portrait of the artist in his workshop: both looking down from a high angle at the seated figure's hands and looking forward into the room, with two other oddly cropped figures holding paintbrushes, multifarious equipment, and the view out of the window.  The green trousers suggest that all three figures are the artist. His paintings, as well as presenting aspects of everyday life with bold colour and strong line, are also full of intriguing content.  

The Artist Painting a Picture 
Museums of Sheffield © the artist's estate

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Caesar in Rome

Triumphs of Caesar: VII the Corselet Bearers  Andrea Mantegna, 1485-95
© Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace

My first encounter with  Mantegna's work was an engraving from his Triumphs of Caesar series, reproduced on the cover of an Italian exercise book in a department store in Rome in 1960.   In provincial England much of life was still utilitarian: everyday stationery and exercise books were undecorated, and notebooks had plain paper or card covers.   I was also amazed to buy my postage stamps over a formica counter printed with Italian Renaissance drawings,  and brought back these lovely laminated  notebooks with their art pictorial covers as souvenirs.   This one shows Trajan's column in Rome in the background, with its equestrian statue of Trajan on top, not as either Julius Caesar or Mantegna would have seen it, but as it would have appeared after Trajan's death in AD 117. Mantegna would have been recreating this view from historic accounts and surviving antique sculptures, for Trajan's statue disappeared before he was born. (It was replaced by a statue of St. Peter in 1587.)

These world famous paintings were bought by Charles I for the Royal Collection, along with other great Italian Renaissance works of art, in 1629, and their home has been at Hampton Court Palace since.  They are displayed separately from the other art treasures in the Palace, in triumphal sequence in the Orangery, and should not be missed.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

George Herbert in his garden

George Herbert at Bemerton,  William Dyce 1860
© Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London

Here Dyce presents the 17th century religious poet as a parson in his garden at Bemerton, Wilts., communing with God through Nature, as the trees are painted with all the accurate observation of the Pre-Raphaelites; for Herbert is not looking towards the distant spire of Salisbury Cathedral, but at something we do not see as he does.

Although Dyce is probably best known for his painting of Pegwell Bay, in the Tate Gallery, he also painted many religious subjects, often putting Biblical figures in a British landscape.  Here the carefully detailed lute and the fishing creel may refer to earthly pleasures left aside, (Herbert was reputed to have 'a very good hand on the lute') but the scene seems more in accord with the character of Herbert's biographer,  that 'compleat angler', Izaak Walton, who could take the poet's place in the composition with a change of costume.
An odd way of portraying George Herbert,  for the composition could almost stand without him,  but Dyce was a High Churchman, and does capture that sense of stillness in the landscape which accords with Herbert's metaphysical poetry.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

"With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain"

' The Rain it Raineth every Day'  Norman Garstin 1889
Penzance promenade, © Penlee House Museum and Gallery, Penzance town council

Is walking by the seaside in the rain a peculiarly British pastime?   I have a youthful memory of seeing "Room at the Top" on holiday in Calabria, where the Italian cinema audience erupted in laughter as the lovers Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey walked on the beach in pouring rain, (or am I perhaps recalling a scene from "Cinema Paradiso"?).

Norman Garstin was a prominent member of the Newlyn School.  Here, the light on that film of water is the heart of this painting; the black umbrella'd figures serve only to frame it and suggest a mood.  The whole effect is so convincingly real, tranquil and evocative, no wonder that this is one of Penzance's best-loved paintings.

"With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain"  William Shakespeare, Clown's song, Twelfth Night

Thursday, 12 February 2015

In Trafalgar Square

London Visitors,   James Tissot 1874
(now in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio)
Two boys from Christ's Hospital (the Bluecoat School) guiding visitors on the steps of the National
Gallery, London.  St Martin-in-the-Fields can be seen behind.  Tissot creates an odd tension in this painting, with its dominant architecture and the disposition of the figures.  The boys are a long way from their school in Newgate Street, where in their archaic Tudor uniform and distinctive yellow stockings, they were one of the sights of the City.  Present-day pupils (girls and boys), still give visitors engaging tours of their school, now in Horsham, Sussex.

Friday, 6 February 2015

"And When did you last see your Father?"

William Frederick Yeames 1878    © Walker Art Gallery, National Museums of Liverpool

"I had at the time I painted this picture living in my house a nephew of an innocent and truthful disposition and it occurred to me to represent him in a situation where the child's outspokenness and unconsciousness would lead to disastrous consequences, and a scene in a country house occupied by he Puritans during the Rebellion in England suited my purpose."  W.F. Yeames 

In the story I was told as a child, the boy answers truthfully, 'Last night, sir,'  --- 'in a dream'.