Wednesday, 19 July 2017

John Blanke project

I've finally made my contribution to the JOHN BLANKE PROJECT initiated by Michael Ohajuru.
This is the site

The image is tiny, but so eloquent!

Portraits of non-noble sitters in Tudor Britain are very rare, because this new form of visual art in the sixteenth century was aimed at sustaining the fame and power of high-status individuals. Lesser folk might have pictorial images in woodcuts or manuscript illustrations, but these were often crude and typically generic representations, not recognisable figures. The Black trumpeter in the 1511 Tournament Roll is therefore amazing on many levels.  
As the earliest depiction of an individual of African ancestry in British pictorial culture it demonstrates how in recognition of his unique or at least special qualities he literally stood out from his fellow trumpeters, shown as a team of look-alikes in the yellow and grey livery worn by all attendants in the procession.   They are bareheaded, too, whereas he wears a turban, which indicates the personal appearance of a known individual,  just like the dark skin carefully delineated alongside dozens of white faced figures.  As it happens, the Roll’s illuminator forgot to colour in his visible right hand holding the trumpet, which remains as pale as the others’.

This is more of a ‘thumbnail’ image than a carefully observed portrait in the classic manner  exemplified by  Holbein’s drawings of Tudor courtiers, but it is a likeness which contemporaries would recognise, of a known figure in the musical retinue.
Even more remarkably, it has proved possible to name this exceptional musician using Court records.  Or at least find the name given to him at the courts of Henries VII and VIII.   It’s too bad there is no surviving record of his real, or original name, which might have pointed to a country or region of birth.  ‘John Blanke’ has the hallmark of official convenience,  although one wonders whether it derives from a functionary entering the name of ‘John Black’, a common way of registering dark-skinned foreigners, or from ‘John -----’, a literal blank line in the absence of a familiar cognomen.

One can  assume he came as an immigrant to England, presumably in the entourage of Katherine or Catalina of Aragon when she arrived to marry Arthur Tudor in 1501.  Following Arthur’s death, she married Henry VIII in 1509, and the Westminster Tournament was held to mark the birth of their son, who sadly died within six weeks.  Katherine’s later life was no happier,  but John Blanke evidently throve as a court musician, and may well have had numerous British descendants. 
Tudor portraiture also flourished, on a rather grander scale than this tiny image – tiny, but invaluable as both portrait and history.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

May Morris exhibition from WMG

Message from Rowan Bain  WMG 

THANK YOU for helping us reach 67%
11 July 2017
For May Morris: Art & Life by William Morris Gallery, London
Thank you to everyone who has helped us get to 67%, which, has unlocked the last £5,000 of match funding we needed to get us to our target! This means our landmark exhibition to give May Morris the recognition she deserves can go ahead.

However, there are four days of our Art Happens campaign left to go and still time to get one of the exclusive rewards - can you help us go even further? For every £100 extra we raise, we can conserve and prepare another of May’s works for the exhibition allowing even more of her work to be seen and appreciated.

As part of the exhibition, some of May’s work will be exhibited publicly for the first time since her death and will need careful preparation to ensure they can be enjoyed for generations to come. We will be working with skilled conservators to make sure that May’s works look their very best for the exhibition’s visitors, and for the future.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Alma Tadema at Leighton House

 Like most ambitious 19th century artists, Lourens Tadema began as a history painter.  Born in the north Netherlands, he studied in the great Flemish art city of Antwerp and with Henri Leys, from whom he took the idea of incidents from the early medieval Merovingian period of Clovis, Clotilde, Fredegonda, etc.   Visits to Rome and especially Pompeii in 1863-4 changed his trajectory towards visual re-imaginings of Antiquity, a genre he specialised in following his move to London and marriage to Laura Epps, a student of Ford Madox Brown, who was similarly drawn to dramatic historical scenes.   Lawrence Alma Tadema, as he now styled himself perhaps in emulation of double-barrelled Brits, then carved out a distinctive career blending classical settings  familiar to Englishmen from their schooldays with domestic activities that featured throughout British genre painting. 

In his work, history painting ignored heroic themes in favour of household events, albeit in exotic homes and gardens furnished with fountains and marble terraces warmed by Mediterranean sun.   Some are simply stunning, others quite comically extravagant.   They catered for male and female clients together, wives and husbands imagining themselves lounging in such high-culture environments, far from everyday London life.  Punch punningly called him a ‘marbellous painter.’

Promoted by successful dealer Ernest Gambart, Tadema’s works were so popular that in less than twenty years he was able to build a large studio house in the wealthy artists’ quarter of St John’s Wood, and to live a life of luxurious industry and sociability.  He was knighted as Sir Lawrence in 1899 and nominated to the Order of Merit by Edward VII.  One might have expected a long list of pot-boiling variants on the same theme, and to an extent this formed his oeuvre.  He was and is admired for historical accuracy, in that his settings are based on the archaeology and scholarly research then available, although any hint of Roman realism in the style of Sickert is extinguished by the techincolor glow: no slavery or cloacae maximae here.  But the paintings' chief merits are visual - the often oblique or canted viewpoints with dramatic  foreshortening and cropping, in spatially innovative compositions that give the viewer a cinematic sense of being right there  This Tadema perhaps borrowed from both photography and French painting, creating a view of classical life as if seen by Manet or Caillebotte. He also put himself into numerous pictures, his round Dutch face instantly recognisable among  the togas; a provisional list of such self-portraits is in the NPG’s online Later Victorian Catalogue 

The current exhibition Alma Tadema: at Home in Antiquity, fills Leighton House with scores of canvases by Sir L and a few by his family and friends.  There is also a great video show of movie clips from Quo Vadis and Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii (both 1913), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Gladiator (2000)  which show how strongly Tadema’s influenced visual ideas of Rome for a century and more.
Below is a nice, modest study by his daughter Anna Alma-Tadema, from the Ashmolean Museum.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Zanele Muholi in London

Zanele Muholi self 2015

I first saw Zanele Muholi and her work in Cape Town about a dozen years ago  -  with a sequence of sepia close-ups of dark skin, arresting and beautiful images set beside terrible accounts of attacks on LGBTQ individuals.   Since then, her work has been seen internationally, as I glimpsed in Johannesburg last year.  It's an ongoing, ever-developing project entitled Somnyama Ngonyama,  the latest phase of which is  on view at Autograph ABP,  Rivington Place, EC2A 3BA  Tues-Sats 13 July till end October

"I’m reclaiming my blackness, which I feel is continuously performed by the privileged other. My reality is that I do not mimic being black; it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear." - Zanele Muholi 

Interview with Muholi and more pictures  here

Friday, 2 June 2017

Ras Mäkonnen (Wäldä-Mika'él)

The Archive of the Lafayette photographic studio in London has some splendid portraits of Ras Makonnen (1852-1906).  and the delegation from Ethiopia who attended the coronation of Edward VII in summer 1902.  What's more the images are fully annotated, not just with details of the individuals seen but notes on their honours, garments and accessories, with extensive bibliographic references.  Some welcome research there, apparently by the V&A  which now manages the Lafayette Archive.

Together with the  Spy portrait of Ras Makonnen in Vanity Fair, (above, which now looks as if it may have been 'assisted' by the Lafayette images)   the photos testify to the newsworthiness of the delegation in 1902.  I don't know  why the Ethiopians sat to Lafayette Ltd rather than to Benjamin Stone, who photographed many coronation-visiting dignitaries and entourages at the Palace of Westminster, but possibly Lafayette saw Makonnen and his colleagues as greater celebrities.  The group is posed on a carpet and in front of a scenic backdrop more usually seen in publicity images of showbiz stars.

I wish I could have included these pictures in Black Victorians, but as far as I know they exist only as photographic negatives, not prints.  Maybe some other archive has contemporary prints?  The images are of stunning quality as well as historical interest and deserve to be well known.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Art students 1894

Women  studying at the Colarossi atelier, Paris, 1894, drawn by Bertha Newcombe, artist and suffragist

evidently exhausted by concentrating on that male anatomy all day....

Monday, 22 May 2017

Martha Ricks

On 8/9 June, the BBC World Service will broadcast a radio documentary about Martha Ricks,

18 July 1892
who travelled from her home in Liberia to London, bringing a silk embroidered 'Coffee Tree' quilt as a gift for Queen Victoria.    The cabinet photo above was taken by one of the two photographic studios to produce and sell images of the celebrity visitor, whose trip and reception at Windsor Castle attracted public and media interest.
The Republic of Liberia, established by African-Americans in 1830,  was recognised by Britain in 1847.  Throughout the transatlantic world, Victoria would later be honoured for opposition to slavery and personally credited with having made British territory such as Canada a refuge for those escaping enslavement.  On this occasion, Victoria relaxed diplomatic protocol to receive Martha Ricks as an individual, graciously welcoming her to Windsor, together with the widow of Liberia's first president,  and formally accepting the gift.

The public attention may have facilitated this audience so soon after Ricks' arrival in the UK, as her visit was widely reported.   It must also have  been assisted by the equivalent of the Palace's press department, as the Graphic newspaper was allowed to send  illustrator Reginald Cleaver to record the event, his image of the Court looking on as Ricks and Victoria shook hands being printed on the front page of the Daily Graphic, and a second view, from the opposite angle - where  Ricks is shown from in front - on the weekend edition.
.Much more on Martha Ricks from Jeff Green here

The BBC World programme is made and presented by Penny Dale.