Tag Archives: Painting

Echoes Across the Century – Guildhall Art Gallery

Echoes Across the Century - Guildhall Art Gallery

The memory of the First World War continues to be hotly debated. From the moment it finished to the present day, just who owns the idea of “true experience” has led to considerable discontent as individuals demanded their chance to be heard. In the immediate aftermath, many veterans felt sidelined by a national female grief – given physical monument in the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – that prioritised the loss experienced by mothers, wives and girlfriends whose menfolk never returned. But the with the proliferation of servicemen memoirs from the late 1920s and its 1960s rediscovery that returned the emotion and sorrow of the First World War to public consciousness, the only truth historians and national ceremonies wanted to tell was that of soldier experience.

Now, a hundred years on, the centenary commemorations have created space for other voices, for the millions of people who were daily affected by a consuming conflict that dominated Europe for four years, and whose impact lasted long after the Armistice. Whether fighting in khaki, in the air, on the sea or enduring the privations of the Home Front, there has been a drive to understand the first total war from a variety of perspectives. Latest among them is Guildhall Art Gallery’s new show, Echoes Across the Century that puts the issue of female grief and loss back at the forefront of exploration.

Jessie Ellman was a nurse whose schoolteacher fiancé, William Hicks, was killed in 1917. Her response was a lifetime of devoted devastation and although she married again, many years later published a death notice in The Times to remember him. Channelling Ellman’s sorrow and lost hopes, artist Jane Churchill had created a number of fantasy artworks that visualise a dream world in which Jesse is reunited with William, and, with no formal grave, Churchill attempts to give him a more fitting and beautiful final engagement with nature. In each 3D box scene, Churchill has cut out various types of landscape using card and plastic, and inserted a small soldier figure – in one she also adds a figurine woman to represent Jessie. These beautiful pieces are both romantic and intensely sad, exploring the personal effect of every single death, and the ways in which women spent a lifetime responding to it.

Jane Churchill - Jessie Ellman's DreamworldWhile each has its own emotional charge, particularly skillful is a three-layered scene of trees cut from single sheets of plastic arranged one in front of the other to give a sense of perspective. In the centre at the back of the box is the figure of William staring up at the moon. It’s wistful and romantic but tries to visualise the nature of grief in the interwar period, the effect of absence in daily life and the ongoing interaction with its collective memory.

Churchill also uses the cut-out idea to create a series of butterflies or moths that look like an anthropologist case in a dusty Victorian museum. But each individual creature is carefully cut from war-related newspapers, maps, photographs or letters, and labelled to represent individual fatalities or particular regions of fighting. The fragility of death is strongly evoked, particularly in the section where Churchill pins a single model soldier into the wings of the butterfly to form the central body – a scathing commentary on the way in which First World War deaths become pinioned and encased, ripped of their original meaning, like specimens to be studied rather than living breathing men whose deaths had consequences for those around them.

Jane Churchill - Butterfly CollectionEmphasising her idea that our connection to distant events comes through the transference of an emotional memory, Churchill also grapples with ideas about grief in more traditional ways. She uses memory boxes and cabinets of tears to think about what mementos and the everyday objects people kept to remember their loved ones, and some of these are on display. Again, in one she uses the story of Ellman and Hicks to visualise the Ellman’s sorrow by bottling her imagined tears as she thinks back to special moments in their lives together, and labels each accordingly. There’s something ritualistic, almost religious, about the type of memorialisation which Churchill is exploring, and asks questions about the comfort these give in the grieving process.

Arguably, as art it’s certainly sentimental and as history it’s presumptive, particularly in the appropriation and supposed interpretation of Jessie Ellman’s private memories – who are we to really know what Ellman felt and imagined in the years after William’s death – but that aside, Churchill’s intent is particularly interesting, and using art to examine complex ideas of remembrance, especially beyond living memory is a successful outcome of this show. How and who we decide to remember is a question that runs through this exhibition and, as the centenary events have demonstrated, after a 50-year focus on soldiers in the national collective memory, so many other aspects of the war had simply been written out of the story.

To reinforce this idea that art can help to create and embed memories, even other people’s, the second part of Echoes Across the Century hands the baton to over 200 secondary school pupils who have developed their own responses to Churchill’s work and assumed memories of the First World War. This room, designed like a trench, is broken up into various segments that display the art by category, and for the first time takes the viewer into wider and unexpected aspects of warfare. Primarily concerned with the supply chain, there are paintings, models and sculpture that think about the concept of total war and the variety of supporting mechanisms that kept the show on the road.

Above all, war is a system, and while we continue to prioritise the experience of soldiers who by far bore the brunt of fighting and loss, this part of this exhibition gives a much broader picture, even for those who know the subject well. In the first section, pupils have created some memory boxes, like Churchill’s, to commemorate Hospital Ships with pill bottles, tins and stained bandages, each with an explanation of the artist’s intent to understand what inspired their choices.

Most fascinating is a section on spectacles, supplied to some soldiers to keep them fighting, but here take on a sinister aspect. One A-Level pupil from Dunraven School has painted a headshot of a soldier with what from a distance looks like dark round sunglasses. But as you move closer you see that his entire eye-well has been cut out entirely and all that remains are the frames and arms of the glasses. Instead at the back of his eyes, looking through layers of cut out card that link to Churchill’s dream boxes, are a scene of smoke and destruction in his right eye, and one of calm moonlight in the left. It’s a bold and unusually sharp piece about the vast difference between men’s noble expectations of war and the grim mechanised reality.

Horses, the air force, rations tins and saddlery all get the artistic treatment, and while not explored in much depth are a worthy reminder that the provision of basic necessities to every man fighting was a huge industrial process that had to be managed and controlled. It concludes with hundreds of individually created butterflies in cases that echo Churchill’s focus on personal memory and returning to individual impacts of warfare. Echoes Across the Century may not always reflect the bigger-picture history as carefully as the individual stories, but it does remind us that while the First World War may feel remote, its emotional impact continues to be felt. And in a period where we’ve begun to think about the war from multiple perspectives, restoring the expression of female grief to the story helps us to understand why this is a war that, as a society, we will not forget.

Echoes Across the Century is at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 16 July. Entrance is free and the gallery is openly daily. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion – Two Temple Place

Sussex Modernism, Two Temple Place

What inspires an artist has long been one of art’s most interesting questions. Two Temple Place think they have the answer – Sussex – at least for some of the leading proponents of modernism in the early part of the twentieth-century. Much of this was a reaction against the exigencies of modern life with numerous well known creatives including Vanessa and Julian Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lee Miller and Salvador Dali decamping to Sussex to escape the industrial crowding of London, seeking a more relaxed, nature-led and sometimes communal form of living.

This new exhibition celebrates the influence of one of England’s southern-most counties with its combination of seascapes, countryside and peaceful living. Two Temple Place is a rarity among London museums, not only limiting its public opening to a two month period each year with a chance to see its new show, but also the beautiful Thames-side building that once served as the Estate’s Office for the Astors. The exhibitions, now in their sixth year, have covered an interesting variety of topics ranging from last year’s Egyptian definitions of beauty to the art and curio collections of leading industrialists, all beautifully curated and uniting fascinating objects. While many London galleries tend to circulate their objects and paintings amongst themselves, Two Temple Place have developed a reputation for bringing high-quality material from Britain’s regional museums, uniting pieces that have never been seen side by side and, chances are, not seen by Londoners in their original homes.

With pieces from Sussex museums including Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Hasting’s Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery as well as the De La Warr Pavillion and Farleys House and Gallery, this exhibition is an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, gardening equipment, and arts and crafts. Sussex Modernism argues that London was not the only cultural centre in the first half of the previous century and in fact the villages and coastal towns of Sussex were a hotbed of innovative thinking and the development of radical technique, attracting some of the UK’s most experimental artists whose domestic unconventionality was then reflecting in the work they produced.

Unsurprisingly for a London exhibition, the Bloomsbury Group features front and centre with their time at Charleston near Lewes in Sussex recorded in a series of paintings and crafts by Duncan Grant and close friend Vanessa Bell which link classical mythology with modernist expression. Grant who was famously a conscientious objector in the First World War, evolved as a painter with a fairly traditional early style into something more playful, experimental and with a bolder approach to colour. The exhibition includes his Seurat-inspired ‘Bathers by the Pond’ from c.1920 which uses a pointillist technique and shows several naked or partially dressed young men, an expression of the freedom that the immediate post-war period brought but also a sense of calm.

Equally interesting is ‘Venus and Adonis’ [1919] which depicts a cartoon-like and voluptuous female nude which is fully in this new modernist style. It suggest Venus looking over her shoulder at the distant also nude figure of Adonis, the man she loves, with an ambiguous expression that could be regret, concern, longing or even indifference. Bell’s work exhibited alongside includes a late self-portrait which has a delicate feel, alongside simple cover designs for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – books.

But there’s also plenty to see in room one with a pair of enormous garden rollers dominating the central space, as well as a statue. Work from Ditchling by the now controversial sculptor Eric Gill is included which is sure to reopen debate on whether art should exist on its own terms and whether it can be divorced from its creator, while one of the highlights is David Jones’s 1924 painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’, a vibrant and troubling image of kissing lovers who look less than thrilled with each other as they embrace in front of the stylised trees that lead to their home. As the exhibition argues, it is nature that dominates here with the couple relegated to the bottom corner, but as a First World War veteran, it’s difficult not to see the ongoing effects of the conflict in the emotional ambiguity and sense of challenged domesticity the painting evokes.

Into the beautiful stairwell of Two Temple Place, and a key attraction is Edward James and Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa famously inspired by Mae West in 1938. Its vibrant red colouring and plump aesthetic make it look much newer than it is, with almost a Pop Art aesthetic that was still 30 years way. It looks particularly striking against the buildings high gothic wood panelled interior and is worth making the trip just to see the contrasting styles side-by-side.

Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the architectural development of the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea which transformed the Edwardian seafront into a controversial modernist paradise and a scale model of its sleek and simple shape is on view. Built in 1935 following an open competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion was home to a variety of cultural events and a social space that emphasised the aesthetic and practical purpose of modernist buildings and, as the exhibition argues, showing that the creation of cutting-edge and long-lasting modernist work was taking place outside of London.

The final room is an eclectic mix of painting sculpture and photography with the work of surrealists in particular taking precedence. Roland Penrose and wife Lee Miller – who had her own exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year dedicated to her war photography – feature as life at Farley Farm welcomed a community of leading artists to the Sussex countryside. Penrose’s vivid coloured portrait of a pregnant woman – presumably Miller – and Edward Burra’s work is also worth the trip with three large paintings including The Churchyard at Rye but particularly Ropes and Lorries which hints at a carousel with a knight in armour in the foreground. There a couple of photos from Paul Nash but most of his stuff is still at Tate Britain, but considered side-by-side the true surrealist work on display here it only reinforces my previous argument that Nash’s experiment with modernism was pretty unsuccessful.

As ever Two Temple Place has delivered an exhibition of interesting objects and a persuasive argument that many radical and influential artists sought inspiration from the peace of the Sussex countryside and coastal towns. While some may be sniffy about the limits on the works included here, it certainly demonstrates the breadth and value of local collections along with the encouragement to visit more of the donor institutions to see the work in situ, which is certainly at the heart of Two Temple Place’s annual outreach activity. Of course, Dulwich Picture Gallery will have snaffled plenty for its upcoming Vanessa Bell show while the Tate has most of the Paul Nash pieces but there’s plenty to see here. And if this exhibition is anything to go by, with innovation, creativity and plenty of domestic experimentation going on, Sussex is certainly worth a visit!

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April and entrance is free. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Artist and Empire – Tate Britain

Edward Armitage's Retribution, 1858Empire is a bit of a dirty word and something we don’t really like to think too much about. But in the last ten years historians have increasingly turned their attention to reconsidering the Empire and its meaning in an attempt to understand what Britishness means in the twenty-first century. In effect the British Empire began in the sixteenth-century and fell into decline after the First World War as countries won their independence. Our modern perception is that Empire meant slavery, subjugation and looting of other countries but as with most historical events it is never as simple as it looks, and while it existed for more than 350 years, it also led to cultural exchange, technological advancement and engagement with the world that benefited both Britain and its conquered territories. Tate Britain’s big winter exhibition Artist and Empire tells this story through painting, sculpture and map-making, and while it doesn’t decide whether Empire was ultimately good or bad, it has brought together one of the most fascinating collections about this defining era in British history.

Thematically arranged, it begins with cartography, because the first thing you need to do when you conquer somewhere is make a map of your new territory, and this initial room contains some fascinating examples of early scientific exploration from as long ago as the sixteenth century accompanied by enormous portraits of explorers including a fine centrepiece of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins painted in the 1600s. There are also examples of original maps made within Britain including siege plans for Enniskillen Castle by an English soldier called John Thomas, which may explain where this love of capturing and subduing lands came from. From the start it’s clear that this show will take a multi-country perspective and pieces depicting Ireland, America, Africa, Australia and India sit side by side as astonishing examples of the Britain’s reach at any given time and the millions of people it affected.

Eddie Izzard would tell you that claiming ownership of somewhere also requires that you stick a flag in it – “no flag, no country” – so the exhibition also brings you right up to the twentieth-century with some handmade Asafo Flags from West Africa designed by the Fante a Ghanaian people showing collaboration between local culture and the British invaders with some incorporating elements of the Union flag. As they hang from the ceiling they seem to entirely represent the contradictory thoughts about Empire, hinting both at tales of repression, occupation and acquisition, as well as the development of local alliances that led, for a time at least, to mutual systems of government.

One of the major consequences of the Empire was its scientific output and the second room considers its effect on the collections of natural history, art and literature. From exploratory voyages which recorded new species of animal and plant life to the development of the ‘Grand Tour’ for aristocratic young men around Europe, the engagement with the effects of Empire was considerable. This room includes beautifully detailed botanical drawings such as those by Lady Anna Maria Jones who collected and drew Indian plants while stationed there with her husband in the late 1700s. This is brilliantly balanced by related bird drawings by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din who was commissioned by Lady Jones among others to add to her collection, and this is another fascinating aspect of this exhibition, it’s not just the British perspective on foreign lands but the increased appetite for locally produced works of art and cultural objects.

The interest in new species is an opportunity to show Stubb’s superb painting of A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Attendants which became part of the Duke of Cumberland’s menagerie and took part in stag hunts at Windsor.  There’s also the Stubbs Dingo, as well as John Lewin’s Tasmanian Tiger, placed alongside discussion of Joseph Banks who voyaged with Captain Cook. The trafficking of goods and animals (as well of people) back to Britain was part of a cultural influx at home too, meaning it wasn’t just the people who travelled around the Empire who experienced its effects, signalling a huge shift in the movement of goods around the world.

No study of Empire is complete without mention of the military campaigns that effected the subjugation of other lands, and the next room considers the grandiose, and often misleading, statements about the heroism of the army. From virtual nonsense including Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe which falsely imagines the great leader succumbing on the battlefield surrounded by his men and a Native American, to George William Joy’s depiction of the death of General Gordon, military heroes are given a saint-like composure, likening their demise to religious imagery of sacrifice – essentially rewriting history and the nature of conflict to suit the iconography of the Empire.

In the following rooms, the merging of British and local cultures becomes more apparent as several portraits show the exchange of costume, with famous faces such as T. E. Lawrence in tribal wear and John Foote in beautiful India muslins painted by Joshua Reynolds. But this influence worked both ways as British style portraits and customs were adopted. We can see this in Simon de Passe’s portrait of Pocahontas in European dress. Ethnographic studies of different cultures also became increasingly popular and many of the pictures in the final rooms document the nature of tribal life including portraits of Maori chiefs, the King of Matabeleland and leather goods from Nigeria. This again implies the dual nature of Empire, both as a scientific and cultural exploration of the rest of the world leading to the exchange of knowledge and experience for all involved, but still with the knowledge of Britain as an invading force detailing the wonders of its new territories.

As you leave this exhibition, which took me about two hours to see everything properly, it’s difficult to form any certain conclusions on the experience of Empire. The Tate has been very careful not to take a clear line on this and while it had terrible consequences for many, this is a fascinating and revealing walk through its history. Somewhat unintentionally, by placing so many pieces from around the world next to one another so that you move from the Caribbean to Australia from South Africa to North America in a few steps, you can’t help but be a little bit awed that Britain managed to keep control of all of that simultaneously and for so long. The rights and wrongs aside, the very fact of its existence is overwhelming. As much about scientific exploration as it was about subjugation, the concept of Empire is one that will continue to trouble us, and as this fascinating exhibition makes clear, the British Empire was far from black and white, it was full of people, cultures and colours that tell us so much about being British in the twenty-first century.

Artist and Empire is at Tate Britain until 10 April. Tickets are £16 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse – Royal Academy

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1903

It may be a wet and cold winter in London beset with traffic jams and seemingly endless darkness, but inside the Royal Academy’s glorious new exhibition it is high summer. Abundant flowers bloom all around you, bright green leaves and grasses almost escape their frames and the sun burns down on almost every image of verdant splendour. The British love of garden aesthetics dates back hundreds of years, from formally designed ‘classical’ styles at great stately homes beloved of monarchs and aristocrats, to the romantic wildness of later years, the opportunity to own, shape and grow our own gardens has become a widespread leisure pursuit. Napoleon may have thought us a nation of shopkeepers but we are also a nation of gardeners.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse exploits this brilliantly, bringing together the biggest artistic names in the period of Monet’s life all of whom were inspired by and painted garden scenes – Van Gough, Renoir, Singer Sargent, Klimt and Matisse (an art heist’s dream), alongside other artists representing Spain, England and Italy. The Monets, of course, are the big draw for anyone visiting this exhibition, and they are extraordinary, but don’t let them entirely distract you from everything else. This is not an exhibition to rush around but take you time, relax and enjoy every carefully chosen piece.

The exhibition is arranged thematically starting with an introductory section on Monet and Renoir who took inspiration from their gardens. Largely these are domestic scenes, not quite on the scale of the water lilies (be patient they do come a bit later) and certainly not the extensive formal gardens of stately homes. Instead we have Renoir’s charmingly meta depiction of Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil in 1873, in which the man himself stands to one side of an overflowing rose bush painting the scene ahead of him, while his friend Renoir paints him painting. This sits beside Monet’s own view of his garden from a different angle but with a similar burst of foliage and flowers drawing your eye away from two strolling figures at the back. Another domestic scene, Lady in the Garden by Monet is also exquisite and, as the exhibition argues, neatly depicts the middle classes increased pleasure in their gardens as a place of retreat and relaxation.

Cleverly, having given you some Monet’s up-front, the rest are confined to two separate rooms, one in the centre, before building to the news-worthy pieces at the end. It’s an excellent approach allowing the viewer to see chronological shifts in Monet’s work in the context of artists and movements that influenced him. It also means these other pieces get the fair deal they deserve because people aren’t just rushing to the Monet in each room and then leaving. Sticking with him for the moment, his early years at Giverny are given an entire room to themselves with several of his most famous water-lily scenes. We’re told more about his plans to divert water from a nearby stream to create the water garden and in it breed new species of lily which he went on to paint – here the use of original letters and photographs make a great addition. The influence of Japanese styles can be seen in the bridges included in some of his most famous pictures spanning the water way as cascades of lilies float on the water. My favourite, Water Lilies, painted in 1903 beautifully combines pearlescent pinks, whites and blues as reflection of the sky in the water as patches of lilies float off into the distance while a single branch from an overhanging tree peeks down from the top. It’s perfect.

The final sections of Monets are at the end, painted after the death of his wife and during the period of the First World War when he refused to leave his beloved garden. Here the tone has shifted considerably and the lightness of the early images is replaced by darker autumnal tones and heavily textured brushwork which actually reek of impending death and decay – a fitting comment on the heavy loss of life experienced by soldiers in those years. These are stunning images and seeing them together starkly underlines Monet’s style shift. Saving the best till last the RA’s exhibition packs an almighty punch on the way out – the Water Lilies (Agapanthus) triptych from 1915-1926, displayed together in Europe for the first time as each piece belongs to a different gallery. Fitting seamlessly together, the whole thing which dominates the final room is an almost overwhelming experience and almost defies description – beautiful, radiant and a privilege to see.

But Monet is only the half of it, and this splendid exhibition has plenty more to say. In room two it looks at Impressionist interpretations that rage against growing industrialisation and attempt to document a growing interest in horticultural science. Caillebotte’s The Wall of the Garden is in stark contrast to the exuberance of other works, being much more restrained, and paler than his counterparts. Meanwhile Jeanne in the Garden, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro is somewhere between the two, a more self-possessed garden with a wistful figure in the shade. This leads nicely into the International Gardens room which combines a variety of approaches including Max Liebermann’s impressions of his garden at Lake Wannsee which were not really to my taste, while Laurits Tuxen’s image of a figure consumed in an abundant sea of flowers and Peder Koyer’s charming painting of Marie in a deckchair under a white rose bush are delightful. There are a few Singer Sargent gardens although his masterpiece Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, remains firmly in the The Tate, but there is room for Van Gough’s Daubigny’s Garden at Auvers which has a textured swirly quality familiar to the artist, while Klimt’s stunning Flower Garden is a shining inclusion.

A more eerie interpretation of gardens occurs in the final rooms, looking at them in different stages of light and entirely devoid of people which changes them from places of happiness and colour to areas of shadow and fear. Artists like Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard encourage us to think more about the cycles of nature in the garden, while Santiago Rusinol’s empty gardens are unsettling, yet they are the perfect pre-amble to viewing Monet’s final works, setting the tone as you approach the last rooms. This is clever curation by the RA who use these pictures to walk you through notions of youth and bloom, before the inevitable aging that follows. As you walk this path through the gallery your mood becomes more contemplative allowing you to view these final Monet’s in the correct state of mind – brilliant stuff. Arguably the RA could’ve got into the spirit a little more with some simple stencil decoration on the walls or around the rooms, other than the park benches, but nonetheless it’s a bright and enticing show.

Amazing too how diverse this collection is and clearly the RA has put extraordinary work into tracking down and borrowing these pictures from galleries across the world and, surprisingly many from private collections. That alone makes this a rare chance to see so much work in one place, but also stunning pictures usually reserved for the pleasure of their unnamed owners. The thematic structure works well but honestly it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d just thrown everything up on the walls, the pictures are so beautiful I would’ve wandered round happily anyway. As with many high profile exhibitions, the weekend viewings are densely crowded and you must fight for space at first, but as you walk through the rooms the beauty and serenity of the pictures has a calming effect till you barely notice anyone else because you’re so drawn into those wonderful gardens, dreaming of the summer that still seems a long way off.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy until 20 April. Entry is £16 for adults (without donation) and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery

Exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery have taken an interesting turn lately and while a show is dedicated to the life of one individual, you leave having learned a huge amount about the times in which they lived and the interaction of various different groups within the cultural world. Last year the Gallery successfully staged a major David Bailey retrospective that told us a lot about his origins in the East End, his travelogue years and the host of artistic figures with whom he spent his time. This year, it uses his portraits to shine a light into the world of painter John Singer Sargent.

Sargent is an artist I know best for his First World War paintings including the stunning Gassed which is on permanent view at the Imperial War Museum, although Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth have long been highlights of Tate Britain’s freely available gallery selection, both of which have made the journey up Whitehall to this exhibition. His Great War paintings are beautiful and complex, mixing seemingly opposed ideas such as the disaster of war with a hint of hope and safety, but this exhibition focuses on the years until 1914. The way he paints light and the seemingly glamorous sheen of his subjects mean he’s often unfavourably compared to seventeenth-century master Van Dyck, court artist to Charles I, but in painting friends and fellow artists Sargent’s skill at capturing personality and surroundings becomes clear.

The exhibition begins with Sargent living in France and Italy, containing four rooms of portraits he composed from 1874-1885. The signs next to the pictures only tell you the name of the person but all the information about them and their relationship with Sargent is contained in the detailed guide given either at the ticket desk or exhibition entrance. I really like this touch and it shows a gallery that’s in tune with its audience. So often now guides are only available via app and for those without smart phones (and given the age demographic of the people I saw there that’s going to be an awful lot of people who go to art exhibitions) we miss out on this information. And in a packed space it also reduces the queuing time to read it on the sign, this way you can look at the picture and then move away somewhere quieter to read the background without holding everyone else up.

Anyway back to the work in Paris, there are a lot of notable pictures here, not least the theatrical Dr Pozzi at Home, a well know gynaecologist seen here in a bright scarlet dressing gown which has shades of Philippe de Champaigne’s portrait of Cardinal Richlieu, and Sargent’s first work at the Royal Academy. As well as the central figure, Sargent also uses the background and light in his work to interesting effect to create atmosphere and tone; a perfect of example of which is Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola which is most interesting for the formal looking man against the beautiful reflective quality of the water.

For many the portraits of Rodin and Monet will be most fascinating, both of whom Sargent admired and tried to emulate, creating a strong impression of the world in which these artists lived and worked together. Yet, quite another picture catches the eye, one which has a style rather different to those around it and showing the rehearsal of the Cirque d’Hiver orchestra. I liked the mix of impressionistic style and the sense of dynamic movement the painting has, like you can feel them performing. It also felt more modern than those around it.

Leaving the continent behind in the mid-1880s, Sargent came to England where he painted what is for me his most beautiful non-war picture, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose inspired by a scene he witnessed from The Thames, combining all his skills for painting people with enchanting backgrounds and depiction of light. Especially lovely is the way the lanterns illuminate the children’s faces showing a particular moment of dusk-light as the sun sets, while the floral backdrop has an English country garden meets oriental effect. Monet’s painting outdoors influence is evident. Even better you can usually see this painting for free at Tate Britain any time you like. But it’s from this point that I realised that the really fascinating part of Sargent’s work is not the people necessarily but the context in which their painted, which becomes even more apparent in the next room.

The paintings of Boston and London all have one thing in common – the sitter is almost invariably shown against a dark or opaque background, and as you wander around these pictures you get a feeling of stifling nineteenth-century city life, in cluttered rooms, smoky cities and somewhat oppressive society – in fact these portraits look exactly how reading a Henry James novel feels (and James himself is one of those on show in this room). From the haughty looking dancer La Carmencita to the actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and fellow artist W. Graham Robertson, the backdrops are gloomy to make you focus on the personality of the sitter but also imply something of the nature of Victorian city-life. In a lovely contrast, this room also displays a few incredible charcoal sketches which are so skilful they look as though someone has drawn over a photograph – particularly the one of the poet Yeats and actress Mary Anderson.

In the final room, Sargent escapes the repressive atmosphere of the city and returns to light openness of countryside and seascapes in Southern Europe. His Group with Parasols shows intermingled friends contentedly asleep on the grass, while The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy is a similarly relaxed scene of a female artist at work as her husband snoozes beside her. These are a lovely end to the exhibition taking you up to 1914 and hinting at the some of the incredibly evocative work Sargent would produce of people and desolate landscapes in the Great War.

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is a brilliant insight into the work of a skilled and varied artist, one whose talent was dismissed in the early part of the Twentieth-century. As with their previous shows, the key here is not just being able to see around 70 paintings but the way in which these chart both the life Sargent was living in terms of his location and progression as an artist, but also the nature of the world he inhabited – one full of artists, musicians, actors, dancers and patrons. This exhibition reminds us that not only could Sargent paint accurate portraits of any sitter but brought to them a sense of personality and multiple references to the lives they lived.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is at the National Portrait Gallery until 25 May. Tickets are £14.50, although the concession prices are not much less. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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