Friday, 11 November 2016

BILL RICHMOND prizefighter



as evident from the date below, I intended to publish this post in September, but failed, because I intended to write more fully.
Bill Richmond will probably feature in the next instalment of BLACK & BRITISH FORGOTTEN HISTORY on BBC2 on 16 November, so here is a partial preview...
The memorial plaque (alas temporary) is under the black cloth






an unusual gathering at a central London pub on 13 September - although a very apt location, as the Tom Cribb pub marks the district between Haymarket and Leicester Square where pugilists were to be found in the Regency years, when prizefighting and sparring were cross-class [male] attractions.




Sunday, 6 November 2016

BHM

Black History Month, in my recollection, started slowly, then took off and grew vigorously around 2003, with the Great Black Britons list, and 2007 with the bicentenary of the Slave Trade legislation. More recently, it seemed to have diminished, as if the community had found other subjects of interest and concern, while the rest of us had just lost interest.  But this year has witnessed an immense resurgence of Black History events and initiatives, especially at local level, which have evidently been a good while in gestation  - so many that I hope someone is keeping a record of all Black History events in 2016, or some may get overlooked and thus again forgotten.

When I was researching images of Black Victorians many years ago, the message from the Black community was that one can't find what isn't there - and Black History wasn't there for the good reason that Britain had ignored or buried it - that is, absence was the story of Black History.
It still is in many respects.  But the recovery work that has been and is being done demonstrates yet again that [temporarily] invisible does not means non-existent and that almost everywhere one looks historically speaking one finds evidence of hitherto  unrecognised Black presence.

The upcoming four-part series Black and British a Forgotten History, written and presented by David Olusoga on BBC2, is the latest manifestation.  I don't have the full list of the 20 memorial plaques marking Black historical presences and personalities that structure the series, One might think that  some like Sarah Bonetta Davies, Francis Barber and Bill Richmond are in fact pretty well known,  but it's probably true that most audiences will either not have heard of them, or don't recall any details.  Indeed, history of all kinds is so swiftly overtaken  and re-forgotten that everything needs repeating regularly.  Or Black History can vanish again.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Spirit Drawings - by Anna Howitt



I haven’t yet managed to get to the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition of ‘Spirit Drawings’ by Georgina Houghton, link  here but the press and publicity images are to me strikingly similar to those Spirit Drawings produced by Anna Mary Howitt when she fell for the Spiritualism craze.  It’s a long time since I looked at them in the Psychical Research Collection in Cambridge University LIbrary, but the clear bright colours and swirling lines are very reminiscent.

Anna Howitt was one of the original artists who responded to the work and writing of the PRB in 1849-50.   Unlike most of her contemporaries, she obtained some serious artistic training in Munich, along with Jane Benham Hay and back in Britain painted some remarkable scenes, one of a ‘fallen woman’ to set beside Rossetti’s Found, and one of her friend and fellow-feminist Barbara Leigh Smith posing as a defiant, flame-haired Boudicca.

Both are now lost because when Ruskin – pre-eminent avant-garde  critic in the 1850s – responded (allegedly): “What do you know about Boadicea?  Leave such subjects alone and paint me a pheasant’s wing”, Howitt was so devastated that her fragile mental state cracked and she had a major breakdown during which she destroyed all her paintings.  Some while later she retreated into Spiritualism,  producing  scores of vivid watercolour visions, supposedly under supernatural direction.   I recall, when looking through the long-forgotten portfolio of drawings, feeling very sad that Howitt’s talent and originality should have been so diverted. (One can’t blame Ruskin – there were other indications that Howitt was heading for a breakdown, and he did not know her personally.)  But maybe I should not have been.

I see that Georgina Houghton, who was ten years older than Howitt, had a self-funded exhibition in London in 1871, and it looks as if her work was produced in the 1860s, presumably in the same years as Howitt’s.  I wonder if they knew each other through the Spiritualist network, or whether the coincidence of their angelic productions is just that (or evidence of the spirits’ powers, of course)


All suddenly very intriguing. 





Saturday, 27 August 2016

Threat to Royal Exchange murals

Frederic Leighton

These are not well known, if only because so few people visit the Royal Exchange today, but they are a notable sequence, which belong to the Victorian history of public art that includes the major Westminster sequence and Madox Brown's efforts in Manchester Town Hall.

The London series relates episodes from the City's history (naturally)  with some excursions beyond the walls, including the opening panel (top) of Phoenicians trading in Cornwall by Frederic Leighton, and another featuring Magna Carta at Runnymede.

Two by Stanhope Forbes - citizenry taking to the Thames during the Great Fire, and the gutting of the previous Exchange in 1838 - are worth being seen, both for their shared fiery scenes and for their visually effective compositions for tall works to be viewed from the floor.  

Stanhope Forbes 
Stanhope Forbes 



Frank Brangwyn

So it is  shame that there are proposals to render them largely invisible in order to fill the space with commercial outlets - cafes and shops.    Even if Frank Brangwyn's panel, Modern Commerce, foregrounds that theme, which is indeed a large element in the City's history and identity.

I'm not sure of the murals' own history except that they must have been projected in the 1890s and continued through to the 1920s, as the later panels feature the Great War.  The list of artists is a roll-call of eminent  and now mostly forgotten late Victorians.


Henrietta Rae
Including just two women: Henrietta Rae and Lucy Kemp Welch, the former depicting Dick Whittington as benevolent Lord Mayor, and the latter an industrious group of Women Workers 1914-1918, with a battleship fleet on the horizon.


More on Kemp Welch's work http://spitalfieldslife.com/


The proposals are for a mezzanine floor halfway up the paintings, obscuring their central sections and frankly making nonsense of the images.  A mock-up of the predicted effect below.

Here is where to register an objection.  Here is the VicSoc's fully itemised objection, which covers more than just the paintings.   And here is the full sequence of images, courtesy SpitalfieldsLife









Threat to Royal Exchange murals

Frederic Leighton

These are not well known, if only because so few people visit the Royal Exchange today, but they are a notable sequence, which belong to the Victorian history of public art that includes the major Westminster sequence and Madox Brown's efforts in Manchester Town Hall.

The London series relates episodes from the City's history (naturally)  with some excursions beyond the walls, including the opening panel (top) of Phoenicians trading in Cornwall by Frederic Leighton, and another featuring Magna Carta at Runnymede.

Two by Stanhope Forbes - citizenry taking to the Thames during the Great Fire, and the gutting of the previous Exchange in 1838 - are worth being seen, both for their shared fiery scenes and for their visually effective compositions for tall works to be viewed from the floor.  

Stanhope Forbes 
Stanhope Forbes 



Frank Brangwyn

So it is  shame that there are proposals to render them largely invisible in order to fill the space with commercial outlets - cafes and shops.    Even if Frank Brangwyn's panel, Modern Commerce, foregrounds that theme, which is indeed a large element in the City's history and identity.

I'm not sure of the murals' own history except that they must have been projected in the 1890s and continued through to the 1920s, as the later panels feature the Great War.  The list of artists is a roll-call of eminent  and now mostly forgotten late Victorians.


Henrietta Rae
Including just two women: Henrietta Rae and Lucy Kemp Welch, the former depicting Dick Whittington as benevolent Lord Mayor, and the latter an industrious group of Women Workers 1914-1918, with a battleship fleet on the horizon.


More on Kemp Welch's work http://spitalfieldslife.com/






The proposals are for a mezzanine floor halfway up the paintings, obscuring their central sections and frankly making nonsense of the images.  A mock-up of the predicted effect below.

Here is where to register an objection.  Here is the VicSoc's fully itemised objection, which covers more than just the paintings.   And here is the full sequence of images, courtesy SpitalfieldsLife









Sunday, 21 August 2016

Mentor to William Morris



As is well known, William Morris began training with architect George Edmund Street in Oxford in 1855, where he met Philip Webb.  Morris’s time in Street’s office  was short – in less than a year he changed  direction in favour of painting and then in 1858 he published his first book of poetry.   But during his time with Street, Morris imbibed the  Gothick Revival passion that  Street held to be superior to all others, and the correct model for his own time, not only for churches but also public buildings, as he would demonstrate with London’s Law Courts in the 1870s.    

Among other writings on architectural principles, in 1855 Street had published a book of architectural and travel notes chronicling a tour of northern Italy, which Morris no doubt read and absorbed.  Following Pugin and Ruskin, Street was already a believer in Northern Gothic or ‘pointed’ principles.  ‘As in the pointed arch we have not only the most beautiful, but at the same time the most convenient feature in construction which has ever been, or which, I firmly believe, ever can be invented, we should not be true artists if we neglected to use it,’ he wrote.  The work of Italian Renaissance architects showed ‘the same falseness of construction, and heaviness, coarseness, and bad grotesqueness of ornamentation … together with the same contempt of simplicity, repose and delicacy which we are so accustomed to connect with them.’

As a result, even when medieval, many buildings described in Street’s book failed to meet ‘true’ Gothic standards, almost as if they were exam candidates. Some passed the test, others were found wanting. This was not chauvinism, for the great cathedrals of northern France and Germany were deemed as excellent as Lincoln, Canterbury and the like,  but it was distinctly partisan, and above all romantic, as is clear in Street’s closing paragraphs:

The principle which artists now have mainly to contend for is that of TRUTH; forgotten, trodden under foot, despised, if not hated for ages, this must be their watchword.’  Whether architects, sculptors or painters, ‘let them remember how all-important a return to first principles and truth in the delineation of nature and natural forms is, if they are ever to create a school of art by which they may be remembered in another age.
    Finally, I wish that all artists would remember the one great fact which separates by so wide  a gap the architects, sculptors and painters of the best days of the Middle Ages from us now – their earnestness and their thorough self-sacrifice in the pursuit of art, and in the exaltation of their faith.  They were men who had a faith, and hearts earnestly bent on the propagation of that faith; and were it not for this, their work would never have had the life, vigour, and freshness which even now they so remarkably retain.  Why should we not be equally remembered three centuries hence? Have we less to contend for, less faith to exhibit, or less self-sacrifice to offer than they, because we live in later days?  Or is it true that the temper of men is so much changed, and that the vocation of art has changed with it?  I believe not.
  
This chimed with Morris’s youthful idealism, even if he had already  cast off a good deal of Street’s religious faith.  And it certainly coloured his own response to medieval buildings when he came to defend them against restoration in the 1870s. 

In like manner, Street’s critical assessment of Italian architecture surely fed into Morris’s prejudice, no doubt later augmented in reaction to Janey’s predilection for the land and the language during her infatuation with Rossetti.  When obliged to escort his family home from Italy, Morris developed a severe attack of gout, which prevented him from sightseeing, and no doubt soured his mood also.

As a coda to his Italian survey, Street wrote positively of the use of brickwork and polychrome, two features seldom seen or admired in Britain.  'It has been by far too much the fashion of late years to look upon brick as a very inferior material, fit only to be covered with compo, and never fit to be used in church building, or indeed in any buildings of any architectural pretension’, he declared.  In the Netherlands, south--west France, Northern Germany, large tracts  of Spain and throughout northern Italy, however, brick was ‘everywhere and most fearlessly used.’  And as a result of his observations, Street hoped that ‘the ignorant prejudice which made many good people regard stone as a sort of sacred material, and red brick as one fit only for the commonest and meanest purposes, is fast wearing out, and that what now mainly remains to be done is to shew how it may most effectively be used, not only in external, but also in internal works.’

This sounds like the challenge taken up by Webb, designing Red House for Morris, all in fearless red brick, including internal arches, window surrounds and fireplaces.

Street remained a friend to Morris and Webb, and one would love to know if he ever passed an opinion on his proteges’ building in Bexley.


   

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Foundlings and Finds


Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition for the Foundling Museum in Coram Fields by inviting [and presumably paying, thanks to the Arts Council and other donors] sixty fellow artists to contribute a work of modest size loosely on the theme of ‘found’, and distributing the objects and videos through the rooms of the Museum, which are decorated and furnished to evoke the eighteenth century Foundling Hospital on the site, which was supported by several contemporary artists including William Hogarth.

Alison Wilding Cellar Frog 
Most artists are magpies, it seems, amassing studios full of found objects that may or may not relate to art works. So some of the contributors have unearthed such finds, like a collection of dirty playing cards picked up in streets over many years, or bottle tops from more recent gutters.  Others have submitted old pieces.  Others have made or displayed new/old objects, bought from flea markets.  Some have created wholly new works.  Alison Wilding shows the petrified corpse of a flattened frog found in her cellar, 



Anthony Gormley, Iron Baby
The result is an eclectic mix held together only by the theme and the fact that most are small  – which must have been quite hard for some contributors, accustomed to working on an outsize scale.  Many are necessarily solipsistic: ‘my’ objet trouvĂ© from the beach, this reminds me of my grandmother, I made this a long time ago, etc.  For once, Anthony Gormley has not offered an ‘everyman’ version of his own body, but a touching cast of one of his own babies, aged six weeks, apparently asleep on the cold floor of an empty side room, as if somehow forgotten.

Elsewhere there is an uncomfortable, unspoken equivalence between the long-ago children who were ‘given’ to Captain Coram’s charity by mothers who could not support them, and discarded pieces of flotsam haphazardly found in the street or seashore.   Despite the title, the Hospital infants were not ‘found’ like Mike Nelson’s battered roadsign or Ron Arad’s string of unredeemed pawn tickets.  In some respects, there is too much rubbish on view.

Foundling tokens
Nonetheless, there are resonances even in these bits of detritus.  The roadsign is to a now-abandoned village, the pawn tickets are for never-claimed items, most frequently wedding rings. And the majority share a loss of identity that mirrors the anonymity of the foundlings who, once admitted, were re-baptised with new names, to recover their own only if their mothers came to reclaim them.  To this end each infant was identified by a maternal token, many surviving in the Museum’s collection, poignant mementoes of children who never knew their parentage.

The most eloquent art works reflect this anonymity and erasure, like Parker’s own contribution, an unfinished painting attributed to Alfred Munnings, of two well-off girls who lack features, maybe because the parents refused to pay the requested fee?  Or had not the means to support such an expensive portrait, in a symbolic echo of the foundlings' mothers.   This is also an 'orphan' work in art historical terms - a painting that has lost all identity, as there is no proof it is by Munnings, and like their faces the sitters' names will never be known,
Attributed to Sir Alfred Munnings