Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840–1860 – Tate Britain

The final exhibition I saw at Tate Britain was Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840 – 1860. It was a fascinating exhibition with some of the earliest photographs ever taken on display. William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered a method of taking pictures with salted paper prints in 1839, the same year as Louis Daguerre invented the daguerrotype. Talbot’s images included pictures of china, glass, paper and people – including his daughter – as he explored the potential of the new medium. Other photographs on display include fascinating Paris landmarks including the Arc de Triomphe, images of India and the American Civil War, and the construction of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

Later, Gustave Le Gray improved the salted paper print method by using waxed paper negative proofs. Further images displayed showcase the extra detail this method offered: the pyramids of Egypt, the Crimean war and ordinary life, in the shape of some Newhaven fishwives, are pictured. Early photography was inspired by portraiture when it came to pictures of people: pictures were often posed, but they were unique in being able to capture individuals, particularly children, at a specific moment in time. Most of the pictures are of ordinary people, but there is one notable image of French author Victor Hugo.

A fascinating exhibition, this is a must-see for anyone interested in photography or history.

A Victorian Obsession: The Perez Simon Collection at Leighton House

Last Thursday I went to the Leighton House Museum near Holland Park in order to visit the latest exhibition, A Victorian Obsession. Leighton House is the former home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), a leading exponent of nineteenth-century classical art and one-time President of the Royal Academy. I’ve visited the house, designed and built to Leighton’s requirements by George Aitchison RA, before, and it’s beautiful: a Moroccan-style fountain court and a blue-tiled hallway are just two of the marvellous rooms inside.

Currently the house is home to part of the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican businessman and art collector who holds the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. The pictures cover the period from around 1860 until the start of World War I, and the unifying theme is “representations of female beauty”. It’s easy to be somewhat cynical about this theme, but in fairness all of the artists represented were superb painters and their work encompasses a huge diversity in such representation, from the inspiration of the Greco-Roman period to Arthurian legend. The paintings are displayed throughout the main rooms of the house, which is a perfect setting considering that many of their artists knew this house and its owner well.

The paintings encompass late Victorian art in many forms, including historical painting and Pre-Raphaelite imagery. This kind of art is very much to my taste, so I greatly enjoyed the exhibition. There were paintings by artists with whom I am familiar, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. I particularly like the work of John Everett Millais: his The Crown of Love (1875) was on display here, and I also loved The Crystal Ball (1902), a magical work by another of my favourites, John William Waterhouse. Some of house owner Frederic Leighton’s work made an appearance, several paintings returning to the house for the first time since they were created. Leighton’s Antigone (1882) is impressive, as is Crenaia, The Nymph of the Dargle (1880), modelled by Leighton’s favourite muse Dorothy Dene.

Throughout the exhibition I was introduced to other artists I hadn’t previously been aware of, including Henry Arthur Payne, Arthur Hughes and John Melhuish Strudwick, whose Passing Days (1878) is an allegorical representation of the passage of time. His Elaine (c.1891) is a gorgeously detailed representation of the woman of Arthurian legend who pined away for love of Lancelot.

One artist seemed to dominate the exhibition – Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Famous for painting historical scenes, particularly those inspired by Ancient Rome, he painted several of the works on display, including An Earthly Paradise (1891), a rather sweet picture of a Roman woman with her young child. Alma-Tadema’s couch – the only object in the exhibition which is not a picture – sits underneath this painting. The artist designed the couch himself to use as a prop in his historical scenes, and it even has differently-designed legs – one side of the couch represents Egyptian style, the other, Roman. It’s rather fun to play “spot the couch” with Alma-Tadema’s pictures – it appears in several.

Alma-Tadema’s famous work The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) is the highlight of the exhibition, presented in a room of its own which has been scented with roses courtesy of Jo Malone. The picture shows the young, wicked Emperor Heliogabalus suffocating his guests under a shower of rose petals, and it is beautifully detailed, although I can’t help but concur with the contemporary critics who felt that the victims hardly seemed frightened enough.

This superb exhibition is a must-see for any fans of late Victorian art. It runs until the 29th of March and normally costs £10, or £5 with a National Art Pass. Special late evening openings allow free entry for Art Pass holders between 5.30 and 8.30 on 19 February and 26 March.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain – British Library

Last week I took advantage of the British Library‘s late-night Tuesday opening to visit their latest exhibition, Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain. I am interested in the Georgian era – it’s the age of Byron after all – and I thought the exhibition was fascinating.

The exhibition has been designed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 1714. It examines the Georgian age in all its chaos, innovation, prosperity and poverty. The first section looks at life in Georgian Britain, showing how the legacy of the Georgians is all around us in the architecture, culture and literature of our time. The remainder of the exhibition is divided into sections, looking at the architecture and urban culture of the period, the role of shopping and consumerism, and leisure pastimes including theatre and sport. It is a superbly informative and fascinating exhibition, and I strongly recommend paying it a visit. The exhibition runs until 11 March next year.

7 Hammersmith Terrace

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The front of 7 Hammersmith Terrace

The other weekend I visited 7 Hammersmith Terrace, former home of Emery Walker and boasting an original Arts & Crafts interior. The house is only open at certain times via guided tour, so I booked my visit online and turned up at the house just before eleven. 7 Hammersmith Terrace is on the north bank of the Thames, near Stamford Brook tube station on the District line.

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Emery Walker (1851-1933) was a printer and was a great friend to William Morris, who lived nearby at Kelmscott House. He also had contact with many of the other leading cultural and political figures of the period, including Philip Webb and George Bernard Shaw. His house is filled with authentic furniture and decorations from the period: William Morris wallpaper, furniture left to Walker by Webb, photographs, artefacts and personal items such as a lock of hair, as well as items he and his daughter Dorothy picked up on their travels.

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Back of the house, seen from the garden

This is a beautiful house and well worth a visit – I definitely recommend booking a tour.

FACTS

Address: 7 Hammersmith Terrace, London, W6 9TS

Website: emerywalker.org.uk

Opening Hours: Guided tour only; visit emerywalker.org.uk/booking.

Manet: Portraying Life – Royal Academy of Arts

Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy of Arts was the last exhibition I saw on Sunday. I had originally planned to visit on Friday night a couple of weeks ago, but like so many exhibitions recently, it was sold out so I decided to book in advance for a later date.

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This is the first major exhibition in the UK dedicated to the work of Eduoard Manet (1832-1883). It focuses on his career as a portrait painter. Although I was aware of Manet before the exhibition, I always imagined him as a landscape painter, so this aspect was interesting to me.

Manet came from a wealthy family and didn’t have to live by his art, but he still sought approval from the Paris Salon, which was, however, often rejected. He used elements of the Old Masters and the new Impressionists, creating an art that was different from both with an unique style. Though photographic portraits were growing in popularity during the time in which he worked, Manet still believed that painting offered opportunities that photographs didn’t in evoking the personality of the individuals painted.

Manet painted several portraits, including pictures of his friends and family: his wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, and stepson, Léon, appear frequently, as do a number of studies of friends including Antonin Proust (no relation to Marcel). Some of his pictures are status portraits of political or other celebrity figures; several of these are unfinished as their sitters could not offer the time that Manet required to model for them. Some of my favourite pictures are those of the writers and artists who were Manet’s friends, including Stéphane Mallarmé and Emile Zola.

My favourite Manet pictures, however, were those which included models rather than important or celebrity figures, particularly those of Victorine Meurent, who appears in the fascinating painting The Railway (1873), in which a red-haired woman gazes at the viewer while the child beside her stands facing the other way, watching the approaching steam train whose presence is indicated by a cloud of smoke. Manet’s style is modern but influenced by older painters, striking and memorable.

Manet: Portraying Life is on until the 14th of April.

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men – Museum of London

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On Sunday I visited an exhibition at the Museum of London, entitled Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men. It explores the relationship between the trade in dead bodies and the study of anatomy in the early 19th century, and was inspired by the 2006 excavation of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital, in which evidence of dissection, amputation and anatomical examination was found. I am rather squeamish and was worried that the exhibition would be a bit gruesome for me, but despite a few icky bits I was fine. The exhibition was sensitively arranged and the bones and anatomical models on display were generally presented from a scientific point of view.

Surgery during this period was difficult and dangerous, made even more risky by the lack of anaesthetic. Surgeons needed to develop their knowledge of anatomy and disease, and the best way to do this was by examining and dissecting real bodies. However, demand far outstripped supply. Religious beliefs, superstitions and personal feelings meant that the vast majority of people were terrified at the prospect of their bodies being cut up after death. In addition, they did not want to be equated with murderers, whose corpses were habitually donated after being hanged.

The ‘resurrection men’, or ‘body snatchers’, stepped in, raiding churchyards to provide the surgeons with the corpses they required. They were feared by the population at large: the exhibition displayed an iron coffin used to protect its inhabitant from being removed, and other artefacts designed to prevent grave robbery. This fear is understandable, especially given the publicity surrounding those body snatchers who did not stop short at robbing graves, but actually resorted to murder. Still, the bodies were necessary to the surgeons in order to broaden their knowledge of anatomy, and thus enable them to save lives.

I was interested and surprised to learn, at the end of the exhibition, that there is still a shortage of bodies for dissection at the beginning of the 21st century. Maybe there needs to be some sort of campaign?

Socialism and wallpaper: the home of William Morris – Red House

Bank holidays, for me, are times to go out and visit places, experience something new. Red House, the former home of William Morris (founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, famed for his socialism and wallpaper designs), has been on my list for some time. I decided to organise an outing and got some of my librarian friends to come along this August Bank Holiday.

Red House was occupied by William Morris and his family from 1860 until 1865, when financial difficulties unfortunately compelled him to leave. He commissioned, created and lived in the house, which was built by Philip Webb and described as ‘the beautifullest place on earth’ by Edward Burne-Jones, who also contributed wall paintings and stained glass to the project.

Red House is located in Bexleyheath, easily reached in half an hour via train from London. A short walk takes you to the house, which is well signposted, even for pedestrians. In the morning the house is open only for guided tours, and I timed our visit so that we would arrive just as the self-guided visitors were being allowed in.

Red House is beautiful and rather unusual, with a large garden comprising grassy lawns, rose bushes and a vegetable patch complete with sinister scarecrow. I liked the well built in front of the house, which was rather medieval in style – I believe this was the point.
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Inside the house, the first room you come to contains a new exhibition of the original house plans and architects’ drawings, a fascinating insight into how the building was constructed. The route through the house covers the entrance hall (where Morris often ate, in the manner of medieval halls of old), dining room, sitting room, bedroom and study. There was much to admire including beautiful wallpaper, not all of which is original to the house, but all of which was designed by Morris. Much of the furniture was designed by Morris and Webb and there were several examples of embroidery by Morris’ wife Jane and her sister. I loved the details such as the round windows and the stained glass. The house had a number of exciting hidden treasures, such as the mural painted on the back of the cupboard by Lizzie Siddall (wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), and the smiley face painted in blue on the corner of the ceiling of the upper landing – author unknown. Newly discovered wall decorations, hidden behind panelling for years, were also on display. The study was light and airy, and it was pleasant to imagine William Morris working on his designs. Looking out of the window, it’s hard to imagine you are in a built-up residential area and not the middle of the countryside, although of course in Morris’ time the area would have been much more rural than it is now.

Touring the house didn’t take a great deal of time, and it was a shame some areas were cordoned off as ‘Private’. Still, I’m glad I visited, if only to experience the atmosphere of somewhere my favourite Pre-Raphaelite artists visited.

FACTS

Address: Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, London, DA6 8JF

Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house

Opening Hours: Open Wed-Sun in summer; guided tours only from 11am-1pm then standard admission from 1.30.

Prices: £8 adult, £4 child; free admission to National Trust members.