So with face mask firmly in place I made my way to the Marian Goodman Gallery in London’s Mayfair area. I had a timed appointment to visit, so before going in I locked my bike to a lamppost and sat in a fairly deserted Golden Square enjoying a coffee and soaking up the summer sun. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to see in the gallery beyond photography by a Dutch artist.
The galleries are filled with large format photographic portraits, and nobody is smiling for the camera. I refer to the notes and read that Rineke Dijkstra “is most known for her photographic portraits” and “in particular, she is known for foregrounding the intimacy of the photographic medium: how time is embodied to reveal transitory moments or passages of change; revelation and reflection of the self”. I stare at the people in the photographs, they stare back with blank looks.
It’s the blank stares which are most striking, especially when the subjects are children. This one (above) is from the ongoing Family Portraits series “which began as a series of private commissions in 2012”. According to the handout “Dijkstra directs the children to pose with no particular facial expression, to be natural in front of the camera whilst aware that a portrait is being made”. This I find really interesting, especially at a time when we are so desensitised to photographic portraits by posed selfie culture and the instantly forgettable format of social media. Here, in these photos, nobody is trying to show their best side. Nobody pouts, at least not in a deliberate way. I think this is why these portraits become a challenge to the observer rather than something to stroll/scroll past. I find myself studying other details in the photos for clues to who these people are and what sort of lives they lead. There’s very little to go on and this adds to my fascination.
Upstairs the large, light and airy gallery space is lined with a series of photographic portraits each depicting the same three sisters between 2008 and 2014. As I walk around I see the gradual changes – not so much in their anatomical development but more in their engagement with the camera. It’s a confrontational experience.
For me, the most memorable part of this exhibition is the UK premiere of Night Watching (2019), “a video installation commissioned and first shown at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2019”. This “three-screen video installation features 14 different groups of people observing and speaking in front of Rembrandt’s large iconic painting The Night Watch (1642)”. We watch them as they look back at the painting and discuss their individual responses to it.
The footage lasts for 35 minutes and I was unable to tear myself away. It’s an artwork about how we engage with art – what thoughts it can provoke – connections with our own experiences and reflections on who are are and our place in the world. And that’s what it’s all about. Brilliant stuff.
As galleries begin to open again this week I decided to check out two exhibitions currently on display at David Zwirner in Grafton Street. I booked ahead and cycled from home to Mayfair. Mask in place I made my way upstairs and was very glad I’d made the effort.
Bridget Riley has filled this airy space with her selection of ‘a group of working studies from the 1980s and 1990s that show the movement from ‘stripes’ to ‘rhomboids’.
What instantly appealed to me was the way these studies show how the artist develops an idea by starting off with stripes and then crossing these with diagonals which, to quote the gallery, ‘move the eye around, across and through the pictorial space’ and it’s this that leads to the ‘rhomboid’ paintings. Familiar with both in their finished condition, it is fascinating to see how these were intricate experiments planned out on annotated graph paper.
Riley’s fascination with – and reinterpretation of – the French post-impressionist and pointillist artist Georges Seurat is well known and it is not an enormous leap to imagine these as details from his paintings enlarged and formalised. But for me it’s the colours that aren’t on the paper that dance in the mind’s eye that I try to allow to take shape. The more I look the better the effect, like staring at one of those Magic Eye pictures back in the 1990s, but heaps more rewarding.
It looks deceptively easy. I have a hankering for some graph paper and coloured paints.
William Marlow is probably best known for his views of London and the Thames, but much of his work is influenced and informed by his experiences travelling in France and Italy in the 1760s. In my previous blog post I mentioned the painting ‘The Waterworks at London Bridge on Fire’ (1779) by Marlow bears an distinct resemblance to his earlier painting titled ‘Vesuvius Erupting at Night’ (1768) [see below].
This painting from the Berger Collection of the Denver Art Museum in Colorado. The gallery website states that it is ‘…the first by a British artist to represent the subject. He exhibited the painting at the Society of Artists exhibition in London in 1768, prompting this rapturous response from a reviewer: “A dreadful scene! but so elegant is the execution . . . that while we look with pleasure on its beauties, we cannot help getting into the belief that we are indeed on the spot, and really beholding an eruption of that terrible volcano.”’
The more famous depiction of Vesuvius erupting is by Joseph Wright of Derby: ‘Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples (c.1776-80) from the Tate Collection [see below].
During his lifetime Wright painted more than 30 views of the erupting volcano, despite the fact that given the dates he was in Italy he was unlikely to actually witnessed the event.
Joseph Wright of Derby’s paintings of Vesuvius and other subjects are frequently referenced in terms of the age of Enlightenment and the Romantic obsession with the sheer power of nature, but Marlow rarely gets a mention. The Government Art Collection holds a further work by Marlow on the subject titled ‘View of Vesuvius’ and another, ‘An extensive view of the Bay of Naples from Pausilipo, with Vesuvius beyond’ is in private hands [see below].
Interestingly Marlow’s works have often been attributed to better known artists such as Joseph Wright of Derby and Richard Wilson. With so little information available on his life and career, it does rather seem he hasn’t received much credit despite his works being held in such high esteem and in terms of ‘Vesuvius Erupting at Night’, of considerable cultural significance too.
In 1779 William Marlow painted The Waterworks at London Bridge on Fire. The conflagration of the title is captured by the artist in a spectacularly powerful painting, his palette an array of hot colours that range from pearly pinks to searing red hot ochre. It’s an incandescent disaster scene and it’s as compelling as a car crash. But did it actually happen? The answer is yes, during the Great Fire of 1666 – but that was over a century before Marlow produced his painting in 1779 and it would be years before London’s riverside would go up in smoke again in such spectacular fashion.
First, a quick history of the London Bridge Waterworks. In 1582, the Dutchman Pieter Maritz designed a complicated system to supply ‘fresh’ water from the Thames to private houses in the City of London. The resulting apparatus worked so well that in a demonstration to City officials it forced a jet of river water over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr. The original works were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but they were replaced by a new system designed by Maritz’s grandson which remained in use until the early nineteenth century when it was removed as part of the demolition of old London Bridge and the building of its replacement.
So why did William Marlow make a painting of it on fire in 1779? I have a theory that the artist, who had been travelling extensively in France and Italy in the 1760s, was using the familiar view of London and its river as a stage on which to recreate some of the more picturesque and dramatic scenes he witnessed and recorded.
Whether or not there was an actual fire at the London Bridge Waterworks in the second half of the eighteenth century I have yet to discover, but Marlow’s depiction of a Thames-side fire represents an intriguing impulse of artists to paint the combination of fire and water in the recognisable location of London. An obvious later example is by JMW Turner who gave London his impression of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (c. 1834-5).
Some decades earlier, in 1791, a fire at Albion Mills on the south bank of the Thames was depicted in a colour print by Thomas Rowlandson, an artist better known for his satirical works.
Three Thames fires, three artists and three very different representations of riverside conflagrations. Of course, the ultimate opportunity to feel the burn in paint occurred more than a century earlier in 1666 when Marlow’s event is possibly set [I am currently researching this to see if my theory has weight]. This mother of all London blazes was captured by 17th-century artists, probably from abroad, who were creating bird’s-eye views of the capital. Their names have been swallowed up by history and the enormity of the event they described with their brushes and imported landscape techniques. For example, there’s the famous view of the Great Fire taken from a position in the west on the south bank. This fiery view has been dated from around 1675 and it’s to be found, appropriately enough, in the collection of the Museum of London.
This view is very much in the Dutch landscape style, and this can also be found in a work by Lieve Verschuier who painted a similar scene, but this time from the north bank to the east of the devastation. This painting has finally come to rest in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. There are others.
So much water and so many flames. But it’s Marlow I want to return to. His painting of The Waterworks at London Bridge on Fire (1779), I propose, presents a watershed (no pun intended) in British art in terms of the way the capital city was projected to new audiences. It’s a piece of theatre and the raging fire takes centre stage, spluttering flames into the sky like distress flares from a stricken vessel. Smoke billows skyward and drifts to the east, partially obscuring the domed square tower of St Magnus-the-Martyr, a church that had stood since the 12th century and had itself been destroyed by the Great Fire, standing less than 300 yards from the infamous bakery in Pudding Lane. It was rebuilt between 1671 and 1687 under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren. To the lower right of the image is London Bridge itself, not in its 17th-century guise complete with teetering buildings, but a sturdy and solid stone construction. It is in fact that original bridge, but with the improvements made to it by George Dance the Elder and completed in 1762. Under the supervision of Dance the Elder, the roadway was widened and a Gothic-style balustrade was added together with fourteen stone alcoves providing pedestrian shelter. The old bridge would finally be demolished in 1831 when John Rennie’s New London Bridge was built alongside it.
The intensity of the blaze is emphasised through Marlow’s masterful use of chiaroscuro, the dark – almost blackened – shadows to the right of the painting contrasting with the reflected light from the flames. But within this darkness, and also in the left foreground are small boats supporting onlookers who direct our own gaze towards the burning waterworks. The river is studded with such spectator boats. Closer still to the conflagration are the hoards of thrillseekers who spill out onto the riverside forecourt of Fishmongers’ Hall, itself not long for this world at the time. It was designed by architect Edward Jerman and opened in 1671. It’s fate was sealed alongside that of London Bridge when it was demolished to facilitate the construction the new bridge in 1827. To emphasise this architectural impermanence – St Magnus, London Bridge and Fishmongers’ Hall were in this present incarnation all less than a century old after all, Marlow’s fire not only dominates the scene, it and its smoke obliterates the view of the Monument – a memorial to the Great Fire – which would have otherwise attracted the eye to what was potentially a problematic anachronism.
Or was there really a fire in the 1770s? I’ll get back to you on that.
As commercial galleries gradually begin to reopen in London, I booked an appointment to visit the sculpture exhibition at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill.
After donning a face mask and rubbing my hands together with a healthy blob of antibacterial hand-gloop, I was immediately attracted towards three giant sculptures. These aluminium pieces which dominate the gallery space are by the artist Urs Fischer. According to the gallery information, ‘Each sculpture began life as a small mound of clay that was squeezed instinctively in the palm of the artist’s hand. The resulting shapes were then scanned, refabricated as models over three meters high, and finally cast in aluminium, the prints of Fischer’s fingers engrained on their giant surfaces.’ It really is the fingerprints that are the thing here. These seemingly random shapes are strangely compelling when you appreciate the scale from the impressions of the artists fingers, and I found myself circling each of them several times.
In the next gallery space is a single work by Charles Ray, but what a work it is. ‘Tractor (2003-4) is a re-creation of a rusting 1938 farming vehicle, which had become a playground for local children when the artist discovered it in a backyard in San Fernando’. What Ray then did was to remove the disintegrating tractor to his studio and dismantle it piece by piece. He made a replica of each component part by creating first a mold and then a wax version of it and casting it in aluminium before finally assembling the whole thing as a facsimile of the original, turning a rusting wreck into a beautiful, shiny object – a work of art.
For me, knowledge of (and wonder at) the painstaking process enhances my response to this. Without any mechanical knowledge on my part I still found myself staring intently at the gubbins and guts of the motor – stuff I would not usually take any interest in but here taking on new meaning and significance in terms of the relationship between the mass-produced and the handmade.
But I thought there were three artists represented here? I must have missed one – and I had. When I wandered straight to the Fischer monoliths I had not noticed the artwork on a plinth in the entrance gallery. This is by John Camberlain and his piece represents the ‘crushed’ part of the exhibition’s title.
‘Between1967 and1969, John Chamberlain produced a group of sculptures using galvanised steel […] Starting with fabricated boxes – some made and discarded by Donald Judd – Chamberlain crushed each hollow pack, compressing the sculpture into a new form’. So this is, in effect, the crushed work of another artist. It has layers, both physically and metaphorically. The material is not insignificant – galvanised steel is a manufactured metal covered in a protective layer of zinc so for Chamberlain it was ‘devoid of narrative or history’.
Lockdown has left many of us feeling a bit crushed. Perhaps we can take inspiration from these artworks and use the opportunity to recast or reconstruct ourselves.
For the first time since early March (nearly four months ago) I’ve visited an art gallery. There were several differences to the usual experience. (1) I had to pre-book a timeslot. (2) I had to wear a face mask – which made my glasses steam up. (3) I had to follow a one-way system around the gallery. Apart from that it was business as usual and the restriction on visitor numbers meant the gallery was much quieter than usual – not a terrible thing.
This is an exhibition of new work by Cerith Wyn Evans, the Welsh conceptual artist, sculptor and film-maker. The show opened way back on 7 February but, like all London galleries, was shut down just a few weeks later. It was scheduled to close in April but it has been extended to August.
So what’s it all about? The first gallery space has four black and white abstract works on paper on the walls and two rotating trees, their moving shadows projecting in overlapping discs of light on the wall (see photo above). The second gallery contains a vast installation – ‘a celebration of aerodynamics in neon’ – and the largest gallery space is filled with smaller neon sculptures, a suspended wall of neon lettering (see photo below) and glass flutes playing random sounds that seem to emanate from sheets of actual glass that hang from the ceiling. The final gallery is filled with panels and screens (in some cases literally windscreens suspended from the ceiling) all artfully shattered to greater or lesser degree (see photo below).
It is beautiful and immersive. I’ve been deprived of art for so long it’s hard to know if that explains why I liked it so much. The suspended neon sculptures are filled with hard lines and soft curves, complex shapes and zigzags. There’s plenty of references to Duchamp here I think – his Bicycle Wheel and The Large Glass play a role, and I later discovered that the neon curtain made of Japanese kanji is a translation of a Proust description of a fountain – which itself is a reference to Duchamp’s famous urinal. The sound of the glass flutes creates an eerie yet compelling contrast to all this. The apparently randomness of shattered glass takes on an intriguing ‘designerliness’. I’ll never look at a broken window in the same way again. Maybe I should examine the chip in the car windscreen more closely.
But it’s the abstract ‘indeterminate paintings’ that have remained with me. Like a Rorschach Test I can stare at them and find familiar shapes and contortions, even murmurations. For the art-starved this is balm for the soul,
My current research focuses on the interconnected careers of Samuel Scott and William Marlow, two 18th-century artists known for their painted views of London and the River Thames but whose contribution to British art remains relatively unexplored.
Following a theme from my PhD thesis (‘A Forest of Masts: The Image of the River Thames in the Long Eighteenth Century’), this project is centred around paintings of the Thames by Scott and Marlow and their contemporaries. I am interested in how representations of London’s river appear to form a distinct category within eighteenth-century visual culture and how artists set out to capture the significance of the burgeoning port city. For example, Scott and Marlow both produced London views featuring such improvements as the building of Westminster Bridge and the construction of the Adelphi Terrace. I will consider how this magnificence is sometimes set against tantalising glimpses of workaday maritime activity in the wharves and dockyards.
Samuel Scott was described by George Vertue as among London’s ‘most elevated men in art’ and by the 1730s he was England’s leading marine artist whose associates included Thomas Hudson, George Lambert, Horace Walpole, Marcellus Laroon and William Hogarth; his friendship with the latter enshrined in Ebenezer Forrest’s famous account of ‘The Five Days’ Peregrination’. Evidence of Scott’s contemporary reputation beyond his involvement with the Society of Artists, Vauxhall Gardens and the Foundling Hospital is evidenced by the prestigious commissions from clients that included Sir Robert Walpole, the East India Company, the Duke of Bedford and Admiral Vernon. My research will closely follow the shape of Scott’s career through a close reading of key works and the historical significance of the events they represent. Furthermore, research into Scott’s biography will seek to shine light on how his relationships with fellow artists and patrons influenced his choice of subjects, from famous naval engagements to Thames views.
William Marlow’s tutelage under Scott in his Covent Garden studio in the 1750s extended into a lifelong friendship and both artists eventually moved to the fashionable upriver Thames location of Twickenham. I will examine his career from membership of the St Martin’s Lane Academy, friendships with Sawrey Gilpin and Joshua Reynolds, and promotion to Vice President of the Society of Artists. Above all, I will follow Marlow’s extensive travels through France and Italy to ascertain how his experiences abroad relate to his celebrated views of the Thames.
Walter Sickert was a pioneer in terms of British art, bringing his version of Impressionism to London. At this time there was much resistance towards the new styles and subjects of painting emerging from Paris, with the exception of more open-minded artists and intellectuals, including a group of forward-thinking people who were embracing these new developments in art. When Walter Sickert was inspiring London artists and encouraging the Camden Town Group to paint real life in working-class London, the Bloomsbury Group who were pushing the envelope in terms of what was acceptable in British art. Among their number was Roger Fry, an artist and connoisseur who coined the term French Post-Impressionism when he organised two enormously influential exhibitions in London.
Roger Fry’s exhibitions included work by artists such as Manet, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. Vanessa Bell was inspired by these artists. She believed this new art came from ‘the self’ rather than being what people were told to paint.
The impact of Fry’s exhibitions can clearly be seen in Bell’s work which become less formal and more abstract. There’s less realism – these paintings are more about how they make you feel, rather than what they show you.
During the Second World War, some of the members of the Bloomsbury Group moved to the countryside near the coast in the south of England where they lived in an old farmhouse called Charleston. While they were there they were employed to paint murals on the interior walls of a local church.
This leads us to the next artist, Stanley Spencer. There’s a double connection here: Spencer’s work featured in Roger Fry’s Post Impressionist exhibitions and he is known for his church murals at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere.
On then to Walter Sickert, Whistler’s pupil and etching assistant. We need to keep in mind that late 19th-century Britain is characterised by the art of genteel retreat. It was French art that saw the densest flowering of artistic innovation in history – Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Bonnard, Vuillard and Matisse. These were the great visual philosophers – reflecting the new conditions of a new age and embracing the difficult, differing and perplexing life of the city, new technologies and potentialities of man. But these new styles were unwelcome in Britain because they went against moral principles and met with emotional disgust.
British art at this time was slick, emotionally and intellectually vacant. Even Whistler, an American in London, was producing aesthetically pleasing night time views of London and the Thames in the abstract style developed by Turner. Roger Fry’s pioneering London exhibitions of French Post-Impressionism in London in 1910 and 1912 were described by one reviewer as ‘part of a widespread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting’. So, into this arena enters Walter Sickert…
Sickert is one of the most imaginative British artists who captured a low-life, late Victorian world of music halls and shadowy interiors – one of the most compelling artists in the history of early modern British art. He wasn’t afraid to put sex and sleaze into his art when most British artist were timid and repressed in terms of their subjects. Sickert dared to depict the radical urban danger that artists in Paris were so alive to.
Sickert was born in Munich, Germany in 1860. In 1868 the family settled in Britain where the young Sickert first sought a career as an actor. He took up art in 1881 at Slade School – after a year he left to become a pupil and etching assistant to our friend, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In 1883 he travelled to Paris and met Edgar Degas – and he was especially impressed by the urban realism developed by Manet and Degas. He valued the haphazard and impure texture of modern city life. He cultivated a style of painting with that glancing, snapshot quality which produced the most extraordinary art of the early modern period in British art. Sickert frequented London’s music halls, especially The Standard where George Leybourne sang Champagne Charlie and his favourite – The Old Bedford and the regular performed Minnie Cunningham. He also painted the audiences which have a ghostly quality – rapt monkeys in the dark – a flickering, gaslit human zoo.
Sickert used the popular theatre as a metaphor for existenceHe said he wanted his pictures to be like ‘pages torn from the book of life’. There’s a melancholy combined with ragged vitality.
In 1905 Sickert settled in Camden, North London – and lived among the navvies, shift-workers and prostitutes who also became his subjects. His Camden Town Nude series depicts prostitutes, liverish green in colour and sprawling on unmade beds in dark, dingy rooms. It’s another side of Edwardian life to the society portraits being produced by successful portrait artists like Whistler and Sargent.
In late 1920s and 30s he pushed painting into places it hadn’t been before by using photography and other media anticipating the art of the 1970s. His chief legacy is his realism – he gave British art back its British temperament.
So, Sickert, influenced by Degas and Monet, introduced a sense of realism into British art. I mentioned Roger Fry’s exhibitions of French Post-Impressionism that were a desperate attempt to get London interested in the innovations going on in Paris – well somebody who was taking notice was another member of the Bloomsbury Group of which Fry was also part – Vanessa Bell.
Last week on the Serendipitous Compendium we talked about Pierre Bonnard, painter and lithographer. Bonnard is likely to have been acquainted with Whistler around 1898. His painting has been compared to Whistler’s, in its suggestion of uncertainty. Ideas on the vagueness and incompleteness of consciousness were popular at the time in the literature of Proust and the major French symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé.
James Abbott McNeil Whistler was an American born in Lowell, Massachusetts – about 100 miles from Portland, Maine. He lived in Paris in the second half of the 1850s and London in 1860.
In the 1870s he painted a sequence of evening views, mostly along the Thames in London at Battersea and Chelsea, which he called ‘Nocturnes’. They are still, minimal evocations of twilight, the broad sweeps of the brush interrupted only by spots and sparkles of yellow light, or the silhouette of a distant building
But he was interested in subject matter – his early pictures of the Thames waterfront at Wapping are full of local incident, and he was a prolific etcher, making prints that record the life of the riverside.
Some are in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art, and his portrait Miss Florence Leyland (c.1873) is currently on display.
One of his most famous portraits: Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871) is in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Whistler made a point of acting out his opposition to the establishment, he dressed as a dandy and wrote and spoke provocatively on art. When Ruskin accused him of being a ‘coxcomb’ who had asked ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ when he exhibited his Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket (1875), [Detroit Institute of Arts]. Whistler took offence and sued. He was famously awarded a farthing (one quarter of an old penny) damages, but he was financially ruined by the costs.
In the 1880s, Whistler’s pupil and etching assistant was Walter Richard Sickert, an artist whose later association with Degas brought to the London art world his own form of Impressionism and equally importantly, the introduction of ordinary people and urban scenes as subjects, and so it is to Sickert that we will turn next time for Part 10 of the Doctor’s Dozen.