The day I met Vincent

I have just come back from visiting the Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience currently open on London’s Southbank behind the National Theatre.  I have been a fan of Van Gogh’s art for years and have visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and last year (2019) I saw the Van Gogh in London exhibition at Tate Britain.  I had seen some reviews of this travelling ‘Experience’ in various Arts news media and it has to be said that not all these reviews were favourable, this is why, when I found out it was coming to London I had to see for myself.

Meet Vincent Van Gogh

The first thing you need to know about this ‘experience’ (I shall continue to call it an Experience for reasons which will become clear later), is that it has been created by the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  This is important because there is also a similar travelling show which is not “official”. Now that we are clear about the research provenance behind the show, let me tell you why I think it is one of the best art shows I have seen for a very long time.

The whole experience takes place in what is really a large and very posh marquee – a big tent pitched on the old car park at 99 Upper Ground behind the National Theatre on the Southbank in London. On entering you are given a headset and a small device which plays the recorded commentary.  It is possible not to use these things, but in my view your whole enjoyment will be greatly impaired if you did not use them.  Visitors are held in a small ante-space until the next full showing of the sound and vision commentary begins.  The first room you enter has fields of grass and corn projected on the walls with the sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the grass, this gives way to a commentary about Vincent VG from diaries kept by his sister-in-law, who was largely responsible for his art being kept together after his death, with family photos replacing the cornfields.  Some diary extracts from Vincent’s own letter to his brother Theo are heard and the family photos are replaced by the cornfields again this time a sudden flock of crows burst forth from the hidden depths up into the sky while the photographic landscape morphs into the famous Van Gogh painting “Wheatfield with Crows”.  It is a very moving moment.

Wheatfield with Crows

Following on through the exhibition space the visitor is confronted by a café style area with objects and diary extracts on the tables, all of which can be touched and interacted with in different ways.  Throughout the whole experience there are drawing stations for visitors to pick up pencils and try their hand at drawing like the great man, looking at landscapes projected on the walls or looking through a replica viewfinder device as used by VVG to help with composition and perspective.  Touch screens offer more information about his work and life, while each ‘room’ offers up commentary on a loop that links to the video projections on the walls exploring different periods of his life. 

Installation view Arles

My favourite of these themed rooms is the shadow scenes where Vincent is in heated discussion with Cezanne at the Yellow House in Arles.  This marks the most significant turning point of his mental decline and a beautifully crafted installation piece featuring sunflowers, easels and chairs is enough to bring a tear to the eye.

Using viewfinders to accurately draw a Vincent’s cottage in perspective
Vincent’s painting of the cottage

Throughout the whole experience there are many video sequences that ‘recreate’ some of Vincent’s paintings.  In addition to this, there are several actual size reproductions of VG paintings displayed on easels.  These have been recreated using the most up-to-date technology – 3D printing!  The best bit about these paintings is that not only are they faithfully reproduced, but visitors are encourages to TOUCH them!  Being able to touch a Van Gogh (even if it is a 3D printed copy) is an almost religious experience, bringing to life the depth of the paint and the intensity of the brushstrokes as laid down on the canvas.

Full image showing textured section
Close up of textured section
Closer still of textured section
Textured paint rendered in 3D using scanned 3D printer technology

Obviously, there will be many people who won’t like or even begin to understand this Exhibition Experience, and disappointingly some of those will be arts and museum professionals.  For me, it is probably one of the best things I have seen recently.  The audio narration is pitched at a level that is accessible to most people, without being overly complex or trying to push a particular curatorial idea.  There is also enough interactivity for both adults and children, again pitched at a level where most people can engage with it.  I did see that some visitors had commented on the Exhibition social media site that there had been issues with the audio soundtrack, when I visited today, I had no such problems, and everything worked very well.  If I had one niggle, it would be that 6 unisex toilets are not enough for the potentially large quantities of people likely to visit, but realistically toilet facilities are often an issue at many heritage attractions.

If I lived in London I would probably visit again before it closes, but sadly that is not likely to happen.  I can only urge people who are interested in Van Gogh to take the time to visit.  It is an interesting concept, and a brave one on the part of the Van Gogh Museum to invest so heavily in a touring  Experience of this nature. It makes VG and his work more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with him and also for those who may not be able to travel to Holland to visit the museum.  For me, having an interest in VVG and also having been to the VG Museum, it is the innovative use of technology to bring a collection out to a wider audience.

Installation view

Meet Vincent Van Gogh (created by the Van Gogh Museum) is at 99 Upper Ground on London’s Southbank (behind the National Theatre) from 7th February to 21st May 2020.

I met Vincent Van Gogh

Up Close and personal

Another interesting artist who seems to have been relegated to the shadows is Jann Haworth, the American Pop Artist.   Born in 1942 in California, she moved to London in 1961 to study at the Slade School of Art where she quickly enjoyed the reputation as a rebel in a male dominated institution.  She began making soft sculptures such as Cowboy, a life size male figure in cowboy costume that leans against a wall and other pieces such as the Mae West Mirror that reference American popular culture.  She became friends with the other female pop artist (also now largely consigned to the shadows, but one of my favourite artists) Pauline Boty.

The current exhibition at Pallant House Gallery features several large scale and life size soft sculptures including doughnuts, a series of 3D collages featuring Minnie Mouse and her current collaborative piece, with her daughter Liberty Blake (from Haworth’s marriage to artist Peter Blake) a 28 foot mural celebrating women who were catalysts for change in the arts, science and social activism.  This monumental work features over 100 women spanning 3000 years, questioning how many of these women’s endeavours have become marginalised or forgotten through the passage of time.

A smaller exhibition on show explores creativity of female artists from with the collection of Pallant House Gallery, each piece selected by Haworth herself.   Intriguing and timely, it is a bold move by the Gallery to dedicate their entire temporary exhibition space to work by female artists.  It is just a shame that the permanent display collection is still so very male dominated.

Jann Haworth exhibition flyer

All three exhibitions can be seen at Pallant House Gallery until 23 February 2020.

An Avante-Garde Woman

The other day I went along to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to see the exhibition “Radical Women, Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries”.  Now I have never heard of Jessica Dismorr and after seeing the exhibition, I am a little wiser.   

For those who (like me) had never heard of Dismorr, she was a painter and illustrator working mostly between 1912 and 1937 and was a participant in most of the avant-garde groups during that time.   She was one of only two women in the Vorticist movement and exhibited also with the Seven and Five Society, Allied Artists Association and the London Group, as well as contributing to Rhythm magazine, an avant-garde publication founded in 1911 promoting innovative art, music and literature and critical theory.  Dismorr was a devoted follower of radical politics and her close friend Robin Ody (and executor of her Will) described her as being “the Edwardian phenomenon of the new woman”.  During WW1 she worked a s a nurse and later served as a bilingual field officer with the American Friends Service Committee.  After the war she was in the mainstream of the avant-garde world being friends with T S Eliot and Ezra Pound.  In the early 1920’s she travelled extensively through Europe.  In 10920 she had a nervous breakdown and was advised not to paint, although her friend, the painter Wyndham Lewis suggested that painting was exactly what she should be doing.  After this time her work became gradually more and more abstract up to her death in 1939 a few days before the outbreak of WW2.

Other lady artists featured in this exhibition include fellow Rhythmists Anne Estelle Rice and Ethel Wright, Vorticist Helen Saunders alongside Barbara Hepworth and Winifred Nicholson.  It all makes for an intriguing exhibition featuring female artists who, although prominent in their time have largely been forgotten.

Exhibition flyer

Radical Women, Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 23 February 2020

A Seaside Fantasy House

It’s been a few years since I was last at the Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, Dorset and a visit yesterday reminded me of how incredible this place is.  The house was built in 1901 as a home for Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, and was as much a luxurious residence as it was a showcase for their huge collection of art and artefacts.  On the death of Merton in 1921 the house and its entire contents were given to the people of the Borough of Bournemouth.  This amazing fantasy house is now a grade II listed building housing a world renowned collection of art and artefacts from across the globe.

hand painted Peacock frieze

The house itself has a dramatic fantasy exterior, it’s terraces, canopies and turrets a combination of Scottish Baronial, French Chateaux and Italian Renaissance styling, and yet the famous exterior is actually the back of the house, the front and original main entrance is far more understated.

Russell-Cotes Gallery

Once inside, each room is opulently decorated with hand painted wall friezes and ceilings complimenting bespoke printed wallpapers and tiling.  Each room has a different style influence which reflects the art and artefacts within it.  Where else could you find a Moorish fountain and pond in the main hallway?  Above this is a 3 panelled stained glass skylight depicting the daily cycle of the sun from sun rise to sunset surrounded by the signs of the zodiac.  The skylight currently in place is a copy of the original which was destroyed by bombing in 1941.  The Russell-Cotes’ made use of every available space to display their vast collection, including the visitors toilet.  Today this room is the Ladies toilet, and it has to be said is probably the most opulent ‘convenience’ I have ever seen!

Moorish fountain in the main hallway at the Russell-Cotes Gallery
The Ladies Toilet at the Russell-Cotes gallery

In 1916 Annie commissioned a local architect to design a gallery space in which their collection could be seen by the public after their deaths, and galleries 1 – 3 were officially opened by Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter) in 1919.  Due to planning issues it was not until 1926 that a simpler version of gallery IV was completed.

Crocodile Lyre, one of the many artefacts collected by the Russell-Cotes’ on their travels

Merton was a champion of the ‘modern’ British School of Art and was not  a fan of the Old Masters.  Much of his collection features the work of major 19th century artists including the Pre Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Evelyn De Morgan, John Brett and the 20th century painter Harold Williamson.

Hand painted bird ceiling

Galleries 3 and 4 are often used to show temporary exhibitions and on the day of my visit the exhibition was of ceramics by William De Morgan, called Sublime Symmetry.

Sublime Symmetry is a small travelling exhibition featuring ceramics by William De Morgan and exploring the idea that his designs were heavily influenced by mathematics.  William’s father, Augustus, was a professor of mathematics at University College London and his brother George, together with a friend formed the London Mathematical Society, with Augustus being duly elected as its first president.  William was not a member of the LMS, but he did study mathematics for a year while a student at UCL.  While there he learned about Euclid, trigonometry, logarithms and algebra which were all standard fare for college-level study at the time.  Several studies of De Morgan have revealed that he was an ‘accomplished engineer’ and that he had ‘considerable mathematical skill’. 

Symmetrical patterns are evident in much of William’s work.  Indeed perfect symmetry has long been associated with traditional notions of beauty.  In mathematics symmetry is the transformation of a shape by reflecting, rotating or scaling it without changing other properties.  In art the eye is drawn to the central ine or point, through the rest of the design and it is this order and structure that makes the design aesthetically pleasing.  William was greatly influenced by Persian ceramics and it was while working on a commission to install Lord Leighton’s collection of Arab tiles he became entranced by Iznik[i] designs.   An example of this on display is the Floral Ogee Panel.  Here De Morgan has created a particularly intricate design by decorating the wide blue border of the ogee shape with a repeated floral pattern.

Floral Ogee tiles

The exhibition is spread through the two galleries which are, in truth, a little too large for it.  There is a lot of open space with mostly bare walls save for a few text panels which describe ideas about mathematical concepts of shape, symmetry, design and pattern as well as some information about De Morgan and mathematics.  My favourite item on display was the ‘Bulbous vase with Persian Décor’ in the small display cabinet in the far rear corner of gallery 4.  A small but visually stunning vase with a repeating floral design and deep, sparkling blue and blue-green glazes.

Bulbous vase by William De Morgan

Other notable display items for me were the Peacock Dish and the Bee Plate, both large charger style plates  in a vibrant red lustre glaze.  The Peacock Plate shows a bird displaying its tail to one side which is balanced by its body and head and two opposing lazy S scrolls.  The Bee Plate shows three bees with interlocking wings in triangular formation surrounded by stylised leaf and bud motifs.

Peacock Plate in red lustre
Bee Plate in red lustre by William De Morgan

This exhibition has one of the best children’s activity areas  I have seen.  Billed as “William De Morgan’s Delightful Design Den”  it features a puzzle table with sliding tiles for children to recreate the Floral Ogee Pattern and a rotating cube puzzle which requires the child to match the different design elements to make up a repeating pattern.  A small table is also provided for children to draw and colour their own designs based on what they have seen.  At the time of visiting, several youngsters were making use of it.

Children’s activity area at the Sublime Symmetry exhibition in the Russell-Cotes Gallery

This small, but interesting exhibition has a perfect venue at the Russell-Cotes Museum with De Morgan’s pattern and design influences being evident in many of the rooms throughout the house.

The Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays 10am to 5pm.  Admission fees apply.

Sublime Symmetry is open until 2nd February 2020.

[i] Iznik is a small town in Turkey which became established in the late 15th century as a centre for the production of brilliant blue, green and red ceramics with formalised floral designs, geometrically structured where symmetry is a key underpinning device.

Mr and Mrs De Morgan, a perfect partnership

There cannot be many people who have not heard of William De Morgan, the celebrated ceramics artist and designer of the Arts and Crafts age.  Fewer people however, will recognise the name of his wife Evelyn De Morgan, a celebrated painter of her time.

William De Morgan trained as an artist at the Royal Academy and went to work with William Morris until setting up his own business in 1872, through which his main focus was the creation of beautiful objects to grace the Aesthetic Victorian home.  William met Evelyn at a fancy dress party where she was dressed as a tube of Rose Madder paint upon which William is said to have quipped that he was “madder still”.

The De Morgan Gallery at the Watts Gallery Artists Village, near Guildford, Surrey

Evelyn De Morgan (nee Pickering) was an unusual woman for her age, breaking away from Victorian accepted stereotyping and going to train as an artist at the Slade School of Art (where she met Mary Tytler Fraser later Mary Watts).  Her work is stylistically similar to that of the Pre Raphaelites and also the Aesthetic movement, however her social conscious and deeply spiritual ideals are ever present in her work

The De Morgans married in 1887.  Aside from their devotion to one another, they were each completely dedicated to their work, both were influenced by symbols and motifs from other cultures and reflected these is through their work in markedly different ways.

Evelyn used her painting to express her fear for the increasing secularisation of society.  Her paintings have been referred to as “painted parables” offering spiritual salvation through virtue and devotion.  Women play a central role in many of her works, and she is considered an early feminist.  During 2019, a whole room was dedicated to her work at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of the Pre-Raphaelite Women exhibition.  Although not part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), her style reflects that of the PRB and she and her husband were friends with William and Jane Morris.  Evelyn did paint Jane Morris, Rossetti’s favourite model, as an older woman and this painting can be seen as a comment on the PRB’s objectification of women and beauty such that the ideal of beauty fades with the passage of time.

Evelyn De Morgan’s work on display at the Watts Gallery Artists Village

William however, was not concerned with such high minded ideals.  His work was concerned with the creation of beautiful objects and he was greatly influenced by symbols and iconography from other cultures. He is probably most well-known for his ceramic tiles which used to adorn many a fire surround in middle class Victorian homes and interiors.  He was asked to assemble a large collection of tiles owned by Frederick, Lord Leighton, and where some tiles were  missing or damaged, De Morgan made replacements.  He was asked to design schemes for and provide the tiles for twelve P&O liners between 1882 and 1900.  These depicted landscapes that the ships visited, but none are known to have survived.  Williams passion was the development and perfection of lustre ware, and he was asked to create several tiles in red lustre for his friend Charles Dodgson (the author Lewis Carroll) which had fantastical animals on them.  These decorated Dodgson’s fireplace in his rooms at Christchurch, Oxford. 

Cabinet of red lustre ware by William de Morgan at the Watts Gallery Artists Village

The De Morgan Foundation Trust has it’s offices within the Watts Gallery Artists Village, and in a separate gallery inside the main building there is an excellent display of the work of this unusual husband and wife. 

Decoration or Devotion is on permanent display at the Watts Gallery Artists Village, Compton in Surrey and is open 7 days a week.

Watts the big secret?

Deep in the Surrey countryside just off the North Downs Way is  the village of Compton and a house called Limnerslease, home to the Watts Gallery (Artists Village), the home of renowned Victorian portrait painter, George Frederick Watts and his artist wife, Mary.  After their marriage in 1886, the Watts’ moved to Compton in 1891 into their newly built home, Limnerslease where they were to spend 13 happy years until G F Watts’ death in 1904.  On taking possession, the Watts’ led by Mary, decided to build a gallery to house the work of G F Watts (known to his friends as ‘Signor’); this gallery opened a couple of months after Watts’ death in 1904.  It remains one of only a few galleries dedicated to a single artist and is often hailed as “a national gallery in the heart of a village”.   On her death in 1938, the house and contents were sold but the gallery remained open under the auspices as a Trust.  It wasn’t until 2016 that the site reopened in its current form.

Entrance to the Watts Gallery in Compton
lead door opposite the main entrance to Watts Gallery

Their old home is now small museum housing works by Watts, as well as a few artefacts belonging to the artist including and easel, paint storage carousel and pigment paint.  In an adjacent gallery room there are on display 3 of the four rescued relief frieze panels made by Mary Watts for the old Cambridge Military Hospital Chapel in Aldershot. (The fourth is in storage). Alongside these are various items made by Mary and the Compton Pottery which she started for local people and other personal items such as diaries and notebooks. 

Mary Watts was a remarkable woman and artist in her own right, attending the Slade School of Art (at the same time as the painter Evelyn De Morgan) where she studied sculpture.  She was a firm believer that anyone, given the right opportunity could create something beautiful, and that everyone should have a craft through which they could express themselves creatively.  She designed and oversaw the construction of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, which was a gift to the people of Compton to afford them a place where they could lay out their dead prior to burial so that others could ‘pay their respects’.  She designed, made and instructed others in the making of the terracotta tiles that cover the outside of the building and was responsible for the design and making of the internal relief work.

terracotta bust of Clytie by G F Watts outside the Watts Gallery
winter view of Clytie by G F Watts

In addition to showing artwork by G F Watts, the gallery holds four temporary exhibitions a year by artists connected to, or contemporary to Watts.  Connections are not always obvious which makes for surprising and interesting exhibitions. 

the Watts Contemporary Gallery

During 2019 temporary exhibitions have been about the moon, called moonscapes this exhibition celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings through artworks and artefacts by artists contemporary to Watts’ lifetime.  The summer and early autumn showcased the work of the Orientalist painter J F Lewis, showing his keen eye for minute detail, outstanding skills as a draughtsman and colourist.  The late autumn and winter offering was devoted to the portrait painter and WW1 war artist, William Orpen.

Daughters of Theia by Mary Branson, created as part of the community programme connected to the Moonscapes exhibition in 2019

The Watts Gallery Artists Village offers a very pleasant day out in beautiful, tranquil countryside with the opportunity to see some incredible art by one of the greatest painters of his time.  The site also boasts an excellent gift shop selling interesting, high quality gift items and cards and an excellent tearoom.  Coffee and cake definitely recommended!  Above the visitor reception and shop is a contemporary gallery space which hosts rotating exhibitions by selected artists and groups relating to the Watts programme or the wider Artists Village.  There is plenty of free parking on the site.  A varied and extensive programme of community-based activities runs all years round, together with several ‘special event’ weekends.

Physical Energy by G F Watts
Alfred, Lord Tennyson by G F Watts

The Artists Village is open 7 days a week from 10.30am to 5.00pm.

Don’t try to find a picture…

This may be a strange title for a blog post about art, but they are wise words from the sketchbook of British painter Ivon Hitchens.

Hitchens career spanned 6 decades and a large part of it was spent painting the landscape around his home deep in the trees in West Sussex.  His early output couldn’t be further removed from his last paintings as he developed and refined his style and technique from pure representation to abstraction.  Hitchens was influenced by and an admirer of the late 19th and early 20th century French painters, but it was the writings of Clive bell and Roger Fry about “significant form” which was to become his moment of epiphany, and caused him to create my favourite early work “Curved Barn” painted in 1922.  While still very much a representational image of a barn in trees, the stylised forms and flowing curves highlight his awareness of shape and form, something that was to become increasingly important during his career.

Curved Barn by Ivon Hitchens (1922, oil on canvas)
Postcard published by Pallant House Gallery

One of the things about Hitchens’ work that appeals to me, is the draughtsmanship evident in his paintings.  At first glance some of his paintings can appear to be the result of random and sometimes haphazard placing of a colour on a canvas, yet on closer inspection these images reveal themselves to have the depth and structure brought about by careful planning.  Much as I love Hitchens’ work, I have to confess that I do find much of his mid-career work to be a little on the drab side colour-wise.  He seems to have had a fixation with the most hideous ‘hospital green’, often teaming it with other equally drab greens and greys tempered with sienna, umber, ochre and ultramarine, which dominate his landscapes of the mid 20th century.  His floral works are a complete contrast, and are my favourite genre in Hitchens oeuvre. Hitchens said about his floral painting “one can read into a good flower picture the same problems that one faces with a landscape, near and far, meanings and movement of shapes and brushstrokes.  You just keep playing with the object.”

Flower Piece by Ivon Hitchens (1943, oil on canvas)
Postcard published by Pallant House Gallery and Museums Sheffield

The current exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex is the largest retrospective of Hitchens work since 1989, showing over 70 works, covering most subject matters from his well known landscapes, flowers and interiors to some figure studies which show a strong influence of Matisse ‘Odelisques’.  Personally, I don’t think figurative work was Hitchens’ forte.  Moving through the exhibition rooms the works chart his progress on the route from representation to abstraction, with a group of 3 paintings being the perfect illustration of this being ‘Outflow’ from 1961, ‘Divided Oak’, 1958 and ‘Spring Millpond’ from 1950/51.  I have listed them as they are hung on the gallery wall, but really they should be hung with ‘Outflow and ‘Millpond’ reversed so the viewer can get a real sense of the move from the representational to the abstract.

Hitchens painted the same scenery for decades, not to achieve the perfect representation, but to express the feeling and spirit of these places.  During the 1960’s Hitchens bought a seaside home in Selsey and this was to rejuvenate his palette, casting aside the drab blue-green-greys and introducing vibrant blues, yellows, red and white.  Huge blocks of spectacular sumptuous colour now filled his canvasses.  The exhibition closes with a quote from T S Eliot which acknowledges Ivon Hitchens’ singular vision through the decades – “in my end is my beginning” and chimes perfectly with Hitchens’ own words from one of his sketchbooks –

Don’t try to find a picture.  Find a place you like and discover the picture in that”.

Publicity material for the exhibition
‘Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour’ at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex, UK
29 June to 13 October 2019