All posts by Geoff

Thames Dreadful

The Illustrated Police News report of the murder of Emily Coombes
The Illustrated Police News report of the murder of Emily Coombes

I am in the process of collecting and collating ideas for a book that will set out to explore the impact of the River Thames on visual culture. Although I am keeping an open mind at this stage, the focus of my research is shifting towards the stretch of the river that flows between London Bridge and the sea. The business end if you like. I am interested in how visual references to the Thames – both its actual physicality and the perception of it, good and bad – have been employed as ciphers for widely held beliefs and notions that have encompassed concepts such as commerce, military power and patriotism to poverty, prostitution and suicide. Here’s something that’s caught my eye [see above]. It hails from the late nineteenth century.

This is the cover of a typical Victorian penny dreadful and it depicts the story of a grisly murder of a mother by her two sons. It’s all a bit grim. There’s a whiff of irony about it too, for when the body was found the police had also discovered a stash of these so called penny dreadfuls, which were to all intents and purposes cheap magazines for boys. However, despite the police and coroner’s agreement that the magazines were at the bottom of the tragedy, there’s something else that might be at play here and I think the illustrator has added a visual clue that has sent me off on a different scent altogether – and this one smells of the Thames.

As Kate Summerscale makes clear in her book The Wicked Boy (Bloomsbury, 2016) it was ‘far easier to blame the penny dreadfuls than to explore the anger and fear that might have prompted a 13-year-old to attack his mother with a knife’. One cause, which emerged in court, was the eldest son’s anxiety about leaving school for a punishing job in a Thames shipyard. Given that the family lived in a small terraced house in Plaistow, east London – just a couple of miles walk from the docks and shipyards of the Thames – this explanation gains plausibility. The shipyards had a terrible reputation and working conditions and pay were dire. Could the model ship on a small shelf above the chest of drawers (which appears in both the illustrated scenes of the murder and the discovery of the body) symbolise this dreaded future employment, the fear of which might have been familiar to boys of a similar age and background at which the magazine was targeted? It may have been a shorthand reference by the illustrator but darker still, if the model ship had actually been there in the room, is it possible the mother had used its symbolic significance to taunt her sons and to threaten them with the kind of maritime future they would be doomed to suffer if they failed to do her bidding? If so, did she push it too far with her sons – aged only 12 and 13? Could they have taken her vivid threats so seriously they believed it necessary to do away with their own mother in order to avoid their perceived fate?

wolfe percival penny B20116 44

London’s river had also inspired stories for other forms of penny dreadful such as this fine tale of derring do published for the London Romance Company entitled ‘Wild Will or The Pirates of the Thames’ (c.1865). Here the maritime protagonist embarks on a series of heroic adventures with his fair maiden in tow.

It’s a million miles from the drudgery of a future condemned to toiling in a Thames shipyard, but another indication of the river’s dominant role in the real and imagined lives of young, working class Londoners in the 19th century.

Exhibitions, Museums & Galleries Visited in 2015

Drawn by Light…back to the Thames

Water Fountains at Crystal Palace (c.1852) by Philip Henry Delamotte
Water Fountains at Crystal Palace (c.1852) by Philip Henry Delamotte

Wherever I go I seem to stumble across stuff that draws me back to the subject of the Thames.  This is especially true right now as I’ve been spending the last few weeks sifting through material and ideas for a Thames-related book, which means I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting riverine images and histories.  Last week I was mooching around Drawn by the Light – an exhibition of historic photographs from The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the Science Museum, when my curiosity was piqued by this photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte (1821-89) [above].  Delamotte was commissioned to photograph the move of Crystal Palace, after the Great Exhibition had closed, from Hyde Park to Sydenham between 1852 and 1854, and this photograph shows the new water fountains laid out at the new south-east London site.

Crystal Palace - lower terrace

These new pleasure gardens were peppered with statuary, and I already knew that an ornamental lake on the lower terrace was embellished with four figures cast in Portland Stone Cement after models by Raffaelle Monti (1818-81).  These were river gods representing the Ganges, Nile, Amazon – and of course, Thames.  On the opposite side of the terrace an identical lake was ornamented with sea gods – Indian, Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific.  The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936 and the site was eventually cleared, with most of the statues sold off in the late 1950s.  It’s difficult to uncover the fate of all the river and sea gods today, but there are three out of eight that I’ve tracked down so far.  First there’s Pacific.  He can be found at the edge of a council estate in Dacres Road, Forest Hill – so he hasn’t travelled too far from his original location.

Pacific

Pacific is the only sea god I’ve located.  Ganges has made a longer journey, but only as far as Blackheath near Greenwich where he reclines unmolested on an island in an ornamental lake at Brooklands Park – previously part of a private garden.

ganges

But most satisfying of all – well, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is the survival of Father Thames.  The Thames Conservancy purchased him in 1958 and sited him at the rather lonely location of Trewsbury Mead, known as Thames Head which is arguably the source of the Thames.  It’s also the official start of the Thames Pathway – ‘from source to sea’.  Unfortunately the statue was the victim of vandalism here – all those overexcited hikers high on Dubbin no doubt.  To put an end to these rude attacks, Father Thames was moved by lorry to St John’s Lock in Lechlade, a town at the southern edge of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire – and the highest point at which the Thames is navigable.  Here he sits today, resplendent and in full view of the lock keeper.

St-Johns-Lock-Lechlade-Father-Thames-1

Delamotte’s albumen print of c.1852 clearly shows Father Thames’ original location, taking pride of place among the world’s greatest rivers, seas and oceans.  If anybody has any idea of what became of Nile, Amazon, Indian, Atlantic and Arctic – please let me know.

Shame about the boat race

Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day (c. 1862) by Walter Greaves
Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day (c. 1862) by Walter Greaves

I was surprised to come across this canvas by Walter Greaves in the current Tate Britain exhibition: British Folk Art.  Greaves was the son of the Thames Waterman who had been responsible for ferrying J. M. W. Turner up and down London river while the artist sketched.  When the American-born artist James McNeill Whistler moved into the street where the Greaves family lived, Walter and his brother Henry performed the same task as their father, by rowing Whistler around while he worked.

walter_greaves_portrait_of_james_mcneill_whistler_d5405288h
Portrait of James McNeill Whistler (undated) by Walter Greaves

Whistler recruited Walter and Henry as his minions – they prepared his canvases and frames and ran errands for him.  Walter showed his own artistic talent which Whistler encouraged, but when Whistler moved house,  he dropped his pupil unceremoniously.

Walter Greaves (1917) by William Nicholson
Walter Greaves (1917) by William Nicholson

Greaves has been ‘discovered’ on more than one occasion in the past, but his works are often dismissed by critics as poor copies of Whistler’s nocturnes.  This disapproval on the basis that Greaves was influenced by his tutor is reductive as works such as Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-race Day (c. 1862) [above] and Old Battersea Bridge (1874) [below] demonstrate.  I have since discovered a great many more works by Walter Greaves, mostly featuring the Thames, that are stashed away in national and private collections – and they deserve more attention.

Old Battersea Bridge (1874) by Walter Greaves
Old Battersea Bridge (1874) by Walter Greaves

I think I may have stumbled upon a whole new Thames research project!

 

 

Under the Influence

Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho, The Photographers’ Gallery until 13 July

John Deakin, contact sheet of self-portraits, for Vogue (1952)

I first came across the photographer John Deakin through the various memoirs of Daniel Farson.  Back in the 1960s, Farson was quite a celebrity and made the unusual move to the East End, taking a house on Narrow Street (near the famous Grapes pub).  He then bought a pub on the Isle of Dogs (now one of my local watering holes) and turned it into the place to go – regulars included visiting Hollywood stars like Clint Eastwood and performers included Shirley Bassey and even Judy Garland.  Farson was also known for hanging out with the Colony Room set – a group of heavy-drinking artists, musicians and writers including Francis Bacon, George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard, Michael Andrews, Lucian Freud – and John Deakin.  Farson and Deakin were close mates, although Farson introduces him in his memoir sponging money in the French House, another Soho pub popular with artists and writers.

George Melly described Deakin as a ‘vicious little drunk of such inventive malice and implacable bitchiness that it’s surprising he didn’t choke on his own venom’.  Barbara Hutton said he was ‘the second nastiest man I’ve ever met’, which baffled Deakin’s friends because they couldn’t figure out who could be nastier.  Born in Bootle in 1912, Deakin learned photography in Paris and was assigned to an army photographic unit during the war.

He worked for Vogue twice, but on both occasions he was sacked for losing his equipment.  He washed up in Soho where he wanted to become a painter, but it was as a street photographer he produced his best work.

Portrait of an unknown girl in a café, 1960s
Portrait of an Unknown Girl in a Café by John Deakin

The results offer a uniquely unguarded glimpse of the past, framed by the familiar outline of a wonderfully seedy Soho.

Lunch at Wheelers by John Deakin (1962)
Lunch at Wheelers by John Deakin (1962)

Deakin, a chronic alcoholic, thought little of his photographic talents and was careless with his archives.  Much of what remains of his work was pulled from underneath his bed in Soho after he died in 1972, or found, splattered with paint, on the floor of Francis Bacon’s studio.

Francis Bacon by John Deakin for Vogue (1952)

But it was not by chance that they ended up there. Bacon thought extremely highly of Deakin’s photographic work and some of the artist’s most successful paintings are derived from Deakin’s images. In 2012, Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963) sold for £21.3 million.  In 2013, Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) sold for $142 million, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.

Both pictures were  based on photographs by John Deakin.

I’ll be discussing John Deakin and his work on John Stanford’s radio show, The Serendipitous Compendium, on Sunday 8 June.

 

About me…

My specialism is eighteenth-century images of London and the River Thames, although my interest in art history is not confined to this subject. 

Not by a long chalk.

On this website I will be sharing my interests in art history with anybody who might be interested.  I will publish details of my research and current projects, the discoveries I make and the theories I have about them along the way.  I will also review and promote current exhibitions and keep track of what’s on and what I think is worth visiting.  In addition, I will make recommendations about those things that interest me across the arts.

Feel free to comment or to make suggestions.

   

Kent-ish Town

William Kent (1685-1748) was the leading architect and designer of early Georgian Britain.  A polymath, he turned his hand to everything from painting to designing sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration and landscape gardens.  Kent’s life coincided with a major turning point in British history – the accession of the new Hanoverian Royal Family in 1714.  This exhibition at the V&A, London, reveals how William Kent came to play a leading role in establishing a new design aesthetic for this crucial period when Britain defined itself as a nation.

An assembly at Wanstead House, William Hogarth, 1728-31

In this painting, Hogarth exaggerates Kent’s interior décor at Wanstead House.  The exhibition contains the actual sofa alongside Hogarth’s painting (from the Philadelphia Museum of Art) so you can make your own comparison.

The Bad Taste of the Town, William Hogarth, 1724

In an earlier work, The Bad Taste of the Town, Hogarth has already taken a swipe at the cult of Italian and classical art and architecture being fostered by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, and his protégé, William Kent, whose stone figure towers above the ludicrously downgraded figures of Michelangelo and Raphael.  A closer inspection will reveal his name below the statue written ‘KNT’ – try saying that out loud!

I’ll be discussing William Kent and his enormous influence on John Stanford’s The Serendipitous Compendium on Radio Crackle this Sunday 1 June 2014.

Greenwich Riddle

Engraved by John Rogers after George Bryant Campion, pub. 1830
Engraved by John Rogers after George Bryant Campion, pub. 1830

A good friend of mine from Brühl in Germany has just given me this picture, having come across it in an antique printshop in Cologne. It’s a view of Greenwich Hospital – later known as The Royal Hospital for Seamen – which was designed by Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712.  The hospital closed in 1869 and the building became the Royal Naval College in 1873.  This view is taken from Island Gardens on the south-east tip of the Isle of Dogs, which is very near to where I live – ah!

This is a steel-line engraving by John Rogers (c.1800-1882) from an original study by the English watercolour landscape painter George Bryant Campion (1795-1870) – who incidentally was Drawing Master at the Military Academy in nearby Woolwich.  I think the engraving was originally produced for the England’s Topographer series of Kent Views published in London from 1828 to 1831, although it may have also appeared in T. Allen’s Panorama of London (1830) and W. H. Ireland’s The Country of Kent (1832) – but I’m going to check that next time I’m in the British Library.

Anyway, besides all that – and the very intriguing question as to how it ended up in Cologne – is the mysterious juxtapositioning of four handwritten lines above the picture of Greenwich.

Greenwich Hospital 1830 cropped poemIn a slightly unsteady copperplate style, these words are written on the sheet of grey paper to which the print of Greenwich has been messily glued after removal from whatever publication it appeared in.  Has the whole been removed from  a nineteenth-century scrapbook?

The earliest record I can find of this epigram in print is in The New Foundling Hospital for Wit published in 1786, but it subsequently appears repeatedly in other collections of funnies, for example in Elegant Extracts (1816) and The Tickler (1819).   But what is the connection with Greenwich Hospital?  Here’s a scan of the whole page:

Greenwich Hospital 1830Could it be something recorded by a Greenwich Pensioner?  Suggestions on a postcard please!

The Eastenders that time forgot

The East London Group of ArtistsLast year David Buckman published his extensive research on the East London Group of Artists in his fascinating book From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group.  Now here’s the exhibition to accompany the book – and it’s a corker.

The East London Group of Artists were a very successful gang of painters which existed for over 10 years from the late 1920s.  In their day they were both an innovative and popular artistic movement – but they have subsequently (and very sadly) been passed over by art history.  In their heyday there were about 35 members of the group, mostly working class, realist painters who progressed to phenomenal critical acclaim by chronicling life in east London between the World Wars.

Harold Steggles, Old Ford Rd, c.1932
Harold Steggles, Old Ford Rd, c.1932

The majority of them came from humble beginnings, but their artistic talent was to flourish under the mentorship of Slade School of Fine Arts trained artist John Cooper, and the Camden Town Group member, Walter Sickert.  Their success led to artists from the group representing Britain, alongside such luminaries as Barbara Hepworth and Gilbert Spencer, at the 1936 Venice Biennale.  This is the first time their pictures have been displayed publicly for over a generation.

Sunday Morning Farringdon Rd (c.1929) by Cecil Osborne
Sunday Morning Farringdon Rd (c.1929) by Cecil Osborne

Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with this part of London, but I found these paintings of eerily empty streets both haunting and poignant.  The paintings convey a tender affection for the area and recognise beauty in the urban milieu.  Reminding me of Edward Hopper’s American townscapes – although these artists are unlikely to have been aware of their US contemporary – this exhibition of coolly atmospheric paintings is well worth a visit.

‘The East End Group of Artists: From Bow to Biennale c. 1928-1936’ is currently showing at the Nunnery Gallery, 181 Bow Road, London E3 2SJ, until 13 July, open Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm.  It’s totally free and there’s an excellent independent café attached.

I’ll be talking about the East London Group of Artists and discussing this exhibition on the Serendipitous Compendium hosted by John Stanford broadcast on Radio Crackle on Sunday 25 May.