April – Atkinson Grimshaw – Master of Moonlight – Alexandra Epps
The Victorian artist Atkinson Grimshaw can be described as a visual equivalent of Charles Dickens, without the political commentary. He had no artistic background and he worked for a time on the railway in Leeds. However, after studying at Leeds library he experimented with new techniques.
He absorbed many influences even from his early years when he observed nature such as primroses in the woods of the leafy suburb he lived in. Other influences were the Pre-Raphaelites like John William Inchbold so nature was central to Grimshaw’s art. He painted in the Lake District and his art became very atmospheric with the misty tones on Lake Windermere and other landscapes. He worked in the principle of John Ruskin with rainbows and spectrums in the sky. He used photography as an aid to help him paint such as a photograph by Thomas Ogle which Grimshaw used as a basis for his painting but adding lily ponds and a heron. A lone heron is depicted in many of his paintings. His portrayal of Ghyll Beck in Yorkshire brings the scene to life with his water painting and the tiny primroses on the banks. He experimented with moonlight at night as shown in “Whitby Harbour by Moonlight” painted in 1867 where the water seems transparent against the harsh shadows.
He painted lanes, with a lone girl walking down a lane in 18th century dress, where the light leads us into the mist. Grimshaw was inspired by Tennyson’s poetry such as “The Deserted House” when trying to evoke the atmosphere in his paintings. He enjoyed great popularity and painted prolifically so, for a while, he could afford the trappings of wealth. Unfortunately, through a poor investment he was in debt so he moved south to paint London scenes. His use of light in all of these is extraordinary. With the rise in trade, there was a demand for paintings of docks and he produced paintings of, for example, Liverpool Docks, still with glowing moonlight. At the end of his life he returned to drawing the lone figure walking down a road but the person seems to be walking into snow and oblivion. All of his paintings
March – Sir Anthony Van Dyck – Prince of Painters – Adam Busiakiewicz
Adam began by playing the lute whilst showing a slide of a painting of Katherine the Countess of Chesterfield. Both the music and the painting provided the background to what was happening in the art world at the time Van Dyck was travelling through Italy.
Van Dyck’s self-portrait when he was only twenty years old illustrates just how talented he was, and he gave us some of the most important paintings in art history such as his paintings of King Charles 1. He was influenced by Rubens, whose studio in Antwerp he worked in when he was in his teens. Studies of bearded men painted by him when he was 16 capture the soul and expression of the sitter. However, whereas Reubens painted figures with volume, Van Dyck shows the bones under the skin. He had learnt to reproduce a flesh colour from Titian.
He travelled to Genoa in 1622, aged only 23 where he was celebrated as a painter who transformed his subjects by elongating them to flatter them! He reproduced their splendid robes with delicate brush strokes such as can be seen in the painting of Marchesa Balbi where the intricate gold threads are breathtakingly displayed. After his tour of Italy, Van Dyck’s style changed as whilst there he had studied masters such as Raphael and Titian. He came to England after Charles 1 saw a portrait of one of his courtiers – Nicholas Lanier – Van Dyck had painted when he was abroad. Charles wanted the painting for himself! His paintings of Charles hunting and his representation of armour show just how much his styles varied. He died in 1641.
He influenced others in various ways such as in architecture; the Double Cube Room at Wilton House was designed to display family portraits by Anthony Van Dyke. Later painters who followed his style include Zoffany, Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough and John Singer Sergeant. When Gainsborough lay dying he whispered “We are all going to heaven and Van Dyke is of the party.”
February – Lost and Found: The Missing Caravaggio – Siân Walters
Siân explored a fascinating hunt for a missing Caravaggio painting called The Taking of Christ painted in 1602. It was known in the art world that there was an original painting as copies of it had been found.
Although his family was from Caravaggio he was born in Milan on the feast day of the Archangel Michael so he was called Michelangelo. His family moved there because of the plague so he was surrounded by death. He was focused and ambitious but his violent streak can be seen in his paintings such as “Judith and Holofernes” painted in 1598 which dwelt on the ugliness of sin. All of his paintings are difficult to understand, moving and dramatic but were popular at the time.
He studied under Peterzano who influenced him to depict his models looking over one shoulder such as in the “Boy Bitten by a Lizard”. The Mattei family became his patrons in Rome and he painted three paintings for Ciriaco Mattei, one of which was “The Taking of Christ” in very rich colours which focuses on the kiss between Judas and Christ. Caravaggio concentrates in his paintings on an explosive moment in the scenes.
The painting was sold for 125 scudi originally and disappeared for hundreds of years until two female art historians helped discover it. They found two versions of the painting from a 1743 inventory where it had been attributed to a more popular painter of the time so it would sell! It had been bought by William Nisbit and his descendants tried unsuccessfully to sell it to The National Gallery in Scotland. It was then sold to an art dealer in Edinburgh for eight guineas. A devout Catholic lady called Marie-Lea Wilson bought it as “a nice religious painting”. After her husband had been killed by the IRA she left the painting to a Jesuit priest who had helped comfort her at that time. He hung it on the wall of the dining room in the Jesuit Seminary where it was discovered after the seminary was cleaned. The Jesuits gave it on long term loan to The National Gallery in Dublin where it hangs today.
January – The Dancing Faun – Bertie Pearce
Bertie Pearce entertained us with the extraordinary and hilarious tale of a bronze sculpture from around 1615 which sat in his grandfather’s garden for years. Amongst the slides we were shown were portraits of his grandfather and grandmother, the Duke of Savoy, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf 11 and bronzes by Gianbologna and Van Tetrode .
On passing Christie’s on his way to the Law Courts where he sat as a judge, Bertie’s grandfather saw a bronze statue only 38 inches high and thought it was so beautiful that he bought it with other pieces for seven guineas in the 1950’s. He placed it in his garden for 30 years not realising just what a valuable sculpture it was. After the garden itself had been filmed for television the sculpture was identified as an original piece by the Flemish artist Adriaen de Vries who had carved beautiful bronzes for his patrons such as the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf 11 of Prague in the late 1500’s. De Vries had been apprenticed to several sculptors after training as a goldsmith and one of his teachers had been a pupil of Michelangelo so after gaining experience in places such as Florence, Vienna and Rome, he created beautiful statues. He eventually made a sculpture of Rudolf himself and lived in the Castle in Prague. He became the leading sculptor in Europe at this time.
We learnt about the complicated and very precise process which de Vries used to create his individual sculptures which involved clay, coloured beeswax and molten bronze. His skills as a goldsmith helped him craft dazzling bronzes such as the fountain in Augsberg and The Dancing Faun in the garden. The Faun, now known as the Juggling Man, was sold in 1989 at auction by Sotheby’s for £6.82 million and is now the poster boy in the East Wing of the New York Getty Museum!
December – Who is Santa Claus – Christopher Bradley
Christopher Bradley began his Christmas lecture with a slide of a left pelvic bone which had been bought on e bay! It was purported to be a bone of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and sailors. The lecture traced the history of Saint Nicholas and showed how this could possibly be a genuine claim.
Saint Nicholas was born in Alyssia and came from a wealthy Greek family. He quickly rose in the ranks of the church. He went to live in Myra at a time when it was a centre for trade by sea from all parts of the world. The talk was illustrated with beautiful slides throughout including paintings by Raphael, Canaletto and stained glass windows. One was of the church of St. Nicholas in Myra. During his lifetime the Roman Empire declined and Christianity flourished. In the late third century when Emperor Diocletian was in control of the territory including Jerusalem, Ephesus and Antioch, Saint Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured by the Roman and we were shown stunning mosaics of the time depicting Christians fighting lions and bears.
A beautiful Renaissance panel depicting three virgins illustrates St. Nicholas had a generous and kind reputation as he is seen in one painting giving marriage dowries to three girls who would otherwise had a life of prostitution. He became the patron saint of children after many good works. Later, he also became the patron saint of sailors after he supposedly saved three sailors. He was buried in his church in Myra but in 1087 Italian sailors stole some of his remains and took them to Bari in Italy and various fragments have been acquired by others around the world so that bone fragment for sale on e bay may be genuine.
After the Reformation, the Dutch, who had adopted Saint Nicholas as their patron saint of the sea and named him Sinterklaas, took this legend to America where he became known as Santa Claus. His legend of a very kind man who rewarded good children with presents was combined with Norse legends of a magician punishing naughty children. These ideas resulted in St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, becoming Father Christmas.
November – Dazzling Dufy: Invitation to a Luminous Feast with Raoul Dufy
Mary Alexander lectured about the polymath Raoul Dufy who felt “Art is a creation like poetry and music.” He developed blues in his paintings to depict dream-like images and these images have often been shown on Penguin book covers. He also used red and painted against the light and in one image we were shown that he had captured the exact colours of anemones.
He believed that “Design and painting quench their thirst from the same spring,” and he was asked by Paul Poiret, the couturier, to design fabric for him. He produced the most extraordinary coat with bold shapes. This led to him being commissioned for textiles with designs for chairs and wall hangings.
In the 1920’s Dufy spent a lot of time in the Cote D’Azur and he designed a mural for a villa there. A patron in Paris wanted his journey from Paris to the coast at the weekends depicted in one of his rooms in the capital and Dufy showed the evening and moments in Paris from different viewpoints, gradually his perspective is drawn to cornfields and then at his destination by the sea there are many details, even Venus in a shell beside
He is also renowned for his depiction of racecourses and one of Epsom Race course is made up of blocks of colours of purples and reds where, Dufy explained “There is no ground, no distance, and no sky!” He used oil and water to give a shimmering effect in his wall painting for the 1937 Paris Exhibition and Mary concluded with a quote from David Hockney, “It takes time to see, to look and understand him.”April – Peggy Guggenheim
October – Behind the Walls – Sarah Dunant
We were treated to a humorous and fascinating talk by the novelist Sarah Dunant based on the research for her novel “Sacred Hearts.” The glorious art images she showed were numerous and varied. She opened with a painting by the Sicilian artist Antonella da Messina of the Virgin Mary in blue which she used for inspiration for the cover of her novel. She argued that the world of convents was a rich and dramatic world.
Expensive dowries in sixteenth century Italy meant that respectable families could not afford to allow more than two daughters to marry so the others became nuns. The life of women outside the convents was very much one where men dominated which Sarah illustrated with paintings such as
one of a holy procession across St. Mark’s Square where women are only shown in windows. Of those who were sent to convents, Sarah found that behind the forbidding walls was beautiful architecture enclosing enriched lives. The nuns looked after the sick, learnt how to paint and there is even evidence that they brought in lovers as she found a reference to a gardener who came into a convent in April and left in September!
The nuns governed themselves in a kind of republic and she used the example of Ferrara where there were two massive enclosed convents which were self sufficient. Sarah stayed in one of these convents and showed us images of a large, beautiful courtyard with flowers, a beatified tomb and the convent chapel where the walls were adorned with many paintings; some were by Giotto. The convent needed a nun to organise the dispensary and so she was running her own medical establishment. In society no woman would be allowed to do that at that time. The Abbess was well
bred, well educated and could be a patron of the arts and we were shown two paintings which had been commissioned by the abbess. The nuns also wrote manuscripts and plays, played music and sang madrigals which were enjoyed by the public through grills. They also shared an intimacy with Christ, their husband, as is shown in the sculpture of “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” by Bernini.
September – Vivaldi in Venice – Peter Medhurst
The opening video and a recording of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” transported us on a trip on the Grand Canal in Venice. The music was the unmistakeable sound of Venice as the city had an influence on Venetian music. There is a lilting effect which may have been used because it was written for children at the orphanage at The Doges Palace called the Pieta.
Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 and wrote music which paralleled aspects of the city. The music was as important as Canaletto paintings and Peter illustrated similarities between the paintings and the music by playing on the piano sections which showed that the music seemed to know exactly where it was going just as Canaletto shows strong direction in his depictions of Venetian architecture. Peter played Vivaldi’s music whilst we were shown details around St. Mark’s Square painted by Canaletto.
Canaletto understood form and perspective in Venice just as Vivaldi understood form and perspective in his music. There is not too much embellishment in either. He gained the maximum effect with the minimum means. In Venice there are patterns repeated on many buildings such as the winged lion and similarly, in Vivaldi’s music there are musical patterns based on the repeated scales.
Paintings such as those of the Piazza San Marco by Canaletto illustrate the colour, display and spectacle in Venice and then we were shown the colour, display and spectacle in Vivaldi’s music. Vivaldi taught strings and he composed pieces for his pupils which included variations on a theme such as a series of eight notes or arpeggios repeated but slightly different each time. The sounds were designed for young girls to perform. The whole population benefitted from Vivaldi; the girls wanted to sing, the people wanted to hear them and so Vivaldi wrote for them. He wrote 600 concertos but after 1720 he fell out of favour and he died penniless and alone in Vienna. However, he is now the most recorded composer and all his music seems to bridge time.