‘Art in Paris 1850-1900: The Most Decadent City in the World’ – Linda Collins
The can-can girls, the cabarets, the absinthe, the Expositions and of course, the artists provided the context for a lively lecture entitled, ‘Paris 1850-1900 – the most Decadent City in the World’ given by Linda Collins at the Courtyard Theatre on March 20.
Huge changes took place in art production in just fifty years as the mannered art of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts, recognised as the benchmark for good taste, gave way to the daring and experimental, playing boldly with colour, light and movement. Some five hundred artists settled in Montmartre for cheap rent and shared ideas and with them came the cafés and the dancing girls who inspired their posters and paintings.
Consistently rejected by the Paris Salon, the artists set up rival Exhibition in 1863 and found a ready market for their works, especially in the USA, provided they could keep producing art which was different. Their work still shocked the conventional art world; the term ‘ Impressionist’ was first used as an insult by critic Louis Leroy who asserted that they didn’t know how to draw but gave a mere impression of their subject.
Debate continues as to who was the first modern artist, though Delacroix, Courbet and Manet all painted pictures which were considered modern in content and technique.
Only Monet stayed true to Impressionism; before the end of the century his fellow artists had moved on and the energy and eccentricity of Paris was inspiring a new generation which included Pablo Picasso.
‘Viking Art and Poetry’ – Speaker: Dr Sam Newton
Were they fearsome invaders or consummate artists, poets and story tellers or, more likely, something of each? This exploration of the art and verse of the Viking Age examined artefacts from ship burials and shows how the sagas, Iceland’s great contribution to world literature, cast light on our own early history and culture. The lecture complemented a major exhibition at the British Museum, to which STRADFAS paid a visit.
‘The Changing Faces of London’ – Andrew Davies
The ever practical Romans sited their English capital on solid clay by a stretch of the tidal Thames. How London then changed over two millennia was the subject of a fascinating talk by Andrew Davies on May 15.
When the Anglo Saxons invaded, they lived in small villages leaving only the names of their chieftains behind in well- known place names. The Normans however, dominated by Sword, the Tower of London, and the Cross, splendid city churches.
By Shakespeare’s Day commerce was thriving and the rich built great houses along the river for easy water transport. Double disaster – plague then fire – struck in the seventeenth century. Some four fifths of houses and churches were destroyed to be replaced by the great buildings of Christopher Wren.
As the Victorian population grew, the rich moved West to fine houses and leafy squares and the poor crammed into the East End around the busy docks serving the lucrative trade with Empire.
In the modern era railways and the tube took city workers out into the rapidly spreading suburbs, but there was ever more need for space so building grew taller and the great department stores were opened. After the destruction caused by the blitz, re-building was again rapid, encouraged by the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s.
Now iconic buildings vie for attention on the skyline. Not for us the grid pattern of most modern cities. For London, creative chaos has always reigned supreme!
‘Shock! Horror! Probe! The Art and Artifice of Fleet Street’ – Dr Geri Parlby
England’s first printing press was set up there in 1500 followed in 1702 by the first newspaper, the Daily Courant, since when the term ‘Fleet Street’ has been synonymous with newspaper journalism. The ups and downs of this notorious street of shame were explored through the art which illustrated its stories.
‘Nicholas Hilliard and the Art of the Miniature’ – Dr Gillian White
What did the Elizabethans look like? In this lecture Dr Gill White demonstrated how much we could learn from the exquisite miniatures painted by Nicholas Hilliard, a contemporary of Shakespeare. These tiny portraits were a private, intimate form of art to be given as a gift between lovers or family members or by the Queen rewarding a favourite with her likeness. In their highly decorated cases they might be worn as jewels or hidden away to be enjoyed in private.
Unusually for an English artist, Hilliard left a written text, The Art of Limning (he called himself a limner, not a miniaturist) in which he describes the pursuit of perfection. So delicate was the work, which often included real gold and silver, that the artist should wear silk and take care not to breathe or, worse, spit on the portrait in progress. In fact, declared Hilliard, the craft should only be pursued by gentlemen who were clean in their habits and person and able to mix with the royalty and nobles they painted. Alas, he never achieved the knighthood he craved. Amazingly, though the miniatures are rarely more than two inches high and depict glowing jewels and intricate lace ruffs, there is no evidence that the limners used any magnification other than spectacles.
Eventually, a fickle public favoured newer limners and Hilliard had to innovate to survive. The sitter’s elaborate costume became more important than the face, perhaps a wise move as Queen Elizabeth aged.
Careless Talk Costs Lives: Art of the Home Front – James Taylor
The Artshouse resounded with laughter as James Taylor illustrated his lecture “Careless Talk Costs Lives: Art of the Home Front”. One of the most important artists, who created a series of propaganda posters for the Government during World War II, was Fougasse (the pen-name of Cyril Bird). He used the strapline “Careless Talk Costs Lives” at the bottom of many cartoons featuring ladies at lunch, men in clubs, couples on trains – yet every single picture had a background image of Hitler listening to their conversation. There was even a picture of two people chatting as they walked their dog – but the dog had the face of Hitler! Fougasse believed that humour opened the mind far more than negative war images, and his combination of simple words and minimal cartoon drawings certainly proved his point.
Other renowned artists during the war included Abraham Games, who introduced a poster of a surreal ‘blonde bombshell’ for the ATS, as well as graphic posters with slogans like “Grow Your Own Food”. Henry Mayo Bateman designed pictures with straplines we still use today such as “Coughs and Sneezes spread Diseases”, while Bert Thomas created “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?”
Female artists were represented primarily by Laura Knight, whose eye-catching poster entitled “Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring” showed that women were capable of managing complex machinery in factories.
“Dig for Victory”, with its equally unforgettable image of a foot pushing a spade into the earth, is one of the most memorable war slogans, and it remind us how important these eye-catching pictures are.
Without television, posters were the most effective way for the Government to spread messages, so the importance of these images, which appeared all over the country, on the walls of buildings, in pubs and cafes and even in the home, cannot be overemphasised.
Caravaggio: Rebel on the Run – Sian Walters
Caravaggio was the definitive bad boy of art history – irascible, swaggering and violent, always in trouble with the law: he was also a great artist. In a warmly appreciated lecture, Sian Walters explained that, while his pictures fell out of favour for some two hundred years because of the horror and ugliness in many of them, that powerful approach to storytelling, along with his skill in capturing a single dramatic moment, is what appeals to us today. Realistic, almost photographic, his paintings have influenced film makers such as Derek Jarman and Martin Scorsese.
Many of his commissions were from the Church, anxious to make bible stories more accessible to a largely illiterate congregation. Ironically his models were often taken from the streets of Rome – swaggering gamblers, thieves, prostitutes and urchins.
His life changed forever in 1606 when, following a brawl in which he killed a rival gang member, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome for a life on the run. He found refuge with the Knights of St John in Malta but after another brawl he was imprisoned, escaped, and was on the move again leaving behind some remarkable paintings. His style was now more reflective, more sombre, yet more theatrical in his use of darkness contrasting with light. He painted straight onto the canvas, memorising the faces of his Rome models and often using his own saturnine features.
Rich and famous and for all his turbulence, charming, he died of fever at 39. Today he is a romantic hero – the artist rebel.
Inn Signia: Pub Signs, the artwork and the stories behind their names.
Inns and public houses are a rich part of our heritage, their signs providing an illustrated guide to our history and culture as well as a large and diverse art gallery. John Ericson’s sweeping survey of pub signs from Roman times showed us that whilst they may not be ‘fine’ art, they can be wonderful illustrations and social history commentary. John also gave us some fascinating stories behind the origins of some of those peculiar names.
Death on the Green Carpet – Sarah Lenton
Why would actors at Covent Garden Theatre 250 years ago aim to die on the green carpet? The answer, along with other fascinating facts about plays and opera were provided by Sarah Lenton, who has worked at the Royal Opera House for many years, in a lecture to Stratford Decorative and Fine Arts Society at Stratford Artshouse.
Since actors had to provide their own costumes and relied on garments donated by wealthy theatregoers they could afford to damage them on the filthy stage. So as they began a death scene, stagehands would rush on with the green carpet. When a number of actors died, as in Hamlet, there could be fierce jockeying for position on the precious baize.
Acting was stylised by gestures which were graceful and never extravagant. Tragedy was about kings and heroes so tears and tenderness, though permissible, must always be decorous and gentlemanly. Women were forced to maintain a dignified distance because of their enormous skirts. Since much stage business and gesture was prescribed, audiences became upset if it didn’t happen. Indeed audiences could be very rowdy and drunken brawls were not uncommon.
As theatres became so large in the nineteenth century that it was not easy for an audience to see, acting also became enormous. We may not expect this melodramatic style from the RSC but it still flourishes in Opera and Pantomime. Great singers can join the cast only at Dress Rehearsal and know just what to do, while we have known from childhood what to expect and when to join in the Christmas Panto!
The Day Parliament Burned Down – Dr Caroline Shenton
The Houses of Parliament are probably London’s most widely recognised buildings yet they only date back to the middle of the nineteenth century. In her lecture Dr Caroline Shenton, until recently Director of the Parliamentary Archives, told the exciting but little known tale of ‘The Day Parliament Burned Down’.
On October 16 1834 two workman were ordered to burn tally sticks, once used to confirm tax payments but now obsolete, in the furnaces which served the central heating system of the House of Lords. The wood burned more fiercely than the customary coal, melting the copper in the flues so that smoke began to leak through the crumbling brickwork.
Amazingly, staff who worked in the chaotic jumble of building which made up the old Palace of Westminster carried on regardless as smoke filled the Lords’ Chamber and the floor was hot enough to burn boot soles.
At 6.30pm a huge ball of fire exploded through the roof, creating a blaze so enormous that the King and Queen could see it from Windsor. Turner made several paintings of the conflagration and the young Charles Dickens wrote an account for his newspaper. All the ancient buildings and their contents were destroyed. No one was killed but many were traumatised by the enormity of this national catastrophe.
Yet the old buildings were, by any reckoning, not fit for purpose; the way was now clear for Barry and Pugin to create the iconic structure which symbolises London; the good news is that Caroline Shenton’s next book, ‘Mr Barry’s War’, will be published in Autumn 2016 and her lecture to accompany it is already booking so we will be able to find out what happened next!