NATIONAL TRUST, KINGSTON LACY

The Kingston Lacy guidebook notes that Rubens’ Marchesa Maria Grimaldi (above) is one of the most important works of art in the house, but the painting is not labelled and few of the other many important paintings, which include some by Titian, Jan Breughel the Younger and Sir Peter Lely are labelled either, far less described. There is no description whatever of furniture, ceramics and other items. The volunteer guides are as helpful as they can be but they are not art historians and they are not provided with a catalogue of the works they are looking after and cannot answer every question. In fact, the volunteer I spoke to had ferreted out information for herself, for which I was grateful. Nor is there a  catalogue available to the public.

I was told today that information sheets were removed because the repeated handling was thought to be unhygienic. Museums and art galleries place labels on walls next to each object on display. I don’t understand why the National Trust don’t do it or won’t do it.

National Trust houses are museums with the care of important collections of art, but they are not presented properly. Kingston Lacy, one of the National Trust’s most visited properties, has been in its possession for almost forty years, during which time they’ve made extensive improvements, not least to Henrietta Bankes’s kitchen garden, which it was a pleasure to visit. That surely is enough time to attach descriptions to the works of art they hold.

The entrance fee is £18, roughly the entrance fee to a major temporary exhibition in a London museum, which is thoroughly curated and fully explained. Kingston Lacy only has to do that once, but they haven’t. The artworks are doubtless listed on the Art UK website, but, of course, you have to identify them first.

The Trust’s current strategy doesn’t encourage optimism. Its 10-Year Vision talks of the “loyal but dwindling audience” for their historic houses, and suggests that they distance themselves from major national cultural institutions such as the British Museum, the V&A and the Tate.

THE ADORATION OF THE LAMB

In my A-level art class I studied Netherlandish painting and was pleased to be able to visit and visit again The Arnolfini Portait in the National Gallery, and I hoped one day to go to Ghent to see the Van Eycks’ polyptych The Adoration of The Lamb. As luck had it, in my school holidays I was given a lift by someone who had a friend in Ghent, an Englishman married to a Belgian woman, and we stopped with them for lunch. I looked forward to seeing the Van Eyck altarpiece.

We were given a splendid meal and a lot to drink – an aperitif before and plenty of wine throughout the meal. Then I said I’d like to go to the cathedral to see the altarpiece. “Not before you have a brandy,” my host insisted, and I accepted out of politeness. I wasn’t used to drinking.

By the time he drove me to the cathedral I was drunk. After I’d spent ten minutes squinting at The Adoration and trying to focus on it he became impatient and said, “Let’s go for a drink.”

He drove to an anonymous grey building with closed doors. He rang the bell and someone let us in and led us up a dark staircase to a smart, brightly-lit bar on the first floor. Glamorous and expensively dressed women sat around on sofas. My host seemed to know them and kissed them all. He ordered a brandy and offered me one. This time I refused. He wasn’t in a hurry and he had another. Then another. I couldn’t follow the conversation. My head was spinning and I just wanted the jaunt to end. After about forty minutes he kissed all the women again, lurched down to the street and fumbled for his car keys.

At last I asserted myself.

“You’ve had too much, you’re in no condition to drive,” I said, and tried to take the keys away from him.

“Don’t be such a prissy little ass. Give me my fucking keys!”

A taxi came into view and I hailed it.

“We’re getting a taxi,” I said.

“Don’t be so fucking wet. I can drive perfectly well; I’ve done it a thousand times.”

The taxi pulled over.

“What’s your address?” I said.

“I don’t need a taxi.”

I turned to the taxi driver. “I’m trying to find out his address.”

“It’s OK,” he said quietly, “I know him, I know where he lives.”

So we fell in and went home by taxi.

This year the restored altarpiece was put on display and I thought I should see it sober. But then came COVID-19, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few more years.

ART AND ILLUSION

My old friend Nick Rowling, who corrected the mistakes I’d made about the alleged iconoclasm of the English Commonwealth, suggest I read Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, which he thought was one of the best books on the history of art. I saw that his view was shared by Kenneth Clark, who described it as “One of the most brilliant books of art criticism I have ever read.”

It’s also one of the hardest. Gombrich studied at Vienna, where art historians were steeped in philosophy that they often took for granted, and without a knowledge of which it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying. Although Gombrich lived most of his life in England, and although he wrote Art and Illusion in English, he thought it in German. His idea of the way that mental structures or “schemata” shape perception comes from Kant, and the “mythological explanations” of history that he deprecates (explanation in terms of collectives like “mankind”, “races” and “ages”) come from Hegel. Most of his antecedents are German: Konrad Fiedler, Adolf von Hildebrand, Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Franz Wickhoff, Hans Sedlmayr, Emanuel Loewy, Julius von Schlosser, Aby Warburg, Rudolf Arnheim, Ernst Kris and Karl Popper.

I went online to look for cribs but found that some of them understood even less than me – saying, for example, that the idea of “schemata” was invented by Gombrich, or attributing to Gombrich an opinion of Herbert Read’s that Gombrich dismisses. But that’s how difficult the book is.

TULLIO CRALI, THE LAST FUTURIST

Self Portrait (1935)

We went to the Estorick Collection’s postponed exhibition of the art of Tullio Crali A Futurist Life, the first devoted to him in the UK. Crali was a key figure in the second wave of Futurism, to which he remained attached with idealistic devotion, and the major proponent of aeropittura, painting inspired by aerial flight.


The Force of the Bend (1930)

Crali was born in 1910 in Montenegro and spent much of his life in Gorizia, near Trieste. He developed an enthusiasm for Futurism as a schoolboy and taught himself to paint in a Futurist style. Marinetti wrote to him in 1929, “Dear Futurist, Delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle.” Meeting Marinetti, who favoured him with a smile, was the high point of his life.


Cosmic Maternity (1960)

This remarkable exhibition gathers works from the Crali family collection that span the artist’s long life (he died in 2000), many unseen for decades. His most famous painting Nose-Diving the City (which the Estorick included in its 2005 exhibition Painting the Skies) is not included, but his intoxication with flying is well-represented.


The Forces of the Infinite (1931)

After the war the position of Futurists became difficult in Italy. Crali never had much interest in politics and engaged as a naïve patriot – “acquiescence”, the word the curators choose to describe his relationship with the regime, is accurate. In 1942 Crali and Marinetti produced a manifesto (always a manifesto!) about the potential artistic contribution to the war effort, Plastic Illusionism of War and Perfecting the Earth, whose ideas about camouflage did not appeal much to the military mind:

“Spiritualise materiality and vulgarity by means of gigantic winged colourful transparent free-word compositions in such a way that a smoking factory might metamorphosise into an evanescent mystical chapel fringed with angels and bells.”


Vegetable Volumes (1948)

Unlike Depero, who had to emigrate to the USA to continue as an artist, Crali survived with a teaching job in Italy. His post-war still lifes (above) gained in depth and subtlety.

Futurism was a way of life to Crali, not to be abandoned when circumstances changed. At a meeting of Futurists in 1950 – and I was surprised to learn that there was still an organised Futurist movement after Marinetti’s death – Benedetta Marinetti dissolved the movement, a decision Crali refused to accept, and in his own mind he remained a Futurist.


Lights at Sunset in Ostia (1930)

Teaching posts in Paris and Cairo introduced Crali, ever curious about his world, to new scenes, new people, new shapes and new possibilities. His late embrace of found art from rocks, the Sassintesi (“Stonetheses”) was, in his mind, still a Futurist enterprise.


Crali with his wife Ada Savelli in Paris, 1950s

HEINRICH WÖLFFLIN

karlskirche
Photo: Johannes Rottmeyer

When we were in Puglia in September, I noticed that high baroque churches and palazzi were placed in narrow streets, making it impossible to get a proper view of them. The grand duomo in Gallipoli was a case in point, so were the houses in Martina Franca.

Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.

The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:

Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality  and the central dome is cut across.

For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.

HERBERT READ’S ‘ART AND INDUSTRY’

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Herbert Read’s book Art and lndustry, which I’ve been reading, was a major influence in the interwar debate that constructed the notion of “good design”. Read had worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1920s and was professor of fine art at Edinburgh university and editor of The Burlington Magazine in the early 1930s. It was during that decade that he published his best-known books, Art Now (1933), Art and Society (1937) and Art and Industry (1934).

His ideas about design are underpinned by an aesthetic theory similar to Roger Fry’s and Clive Bell’s formalism. In Art and Industry he divides art into humanist art, by which he means European pictorial art and ornamentation from the Renaissance onward, and formal art, which is pure shape and colour without content or reference. He fiercely deprecates ornament in similar terms to Adolf Loos, says little about humanist art and is strongly biased in favour of abstract art.

According to Read, formal beauty in art, nature or everyday objects, is either rational or intuitive. Rational beauty consists in conformity to rules of harmony and proportion, which were understood in the Renaissance but which have deeper and more ancient roots and which are to be found in nature. Read does not explain why proportions found in nature should be beautiful and others not. Intuitive beauty is that which deviates in some way from strict rules of harmony but which is recognised in an unconscious process that is not fully understood and cannot easily be explained. Apart from a few comments, Read does not explain it.

Objects that possess intuitive formal beauty can be illustrated, and Read has many such illustrations in his book, but this quality cannot be “rationalised” (to use his term). It can, however, be identified by noting what persons of taste recognise as beautiful. For example, he shows an ancient Greek drinking bowl and a Sung dynasty vase, and says that, although the former conforms to rules of proportion and the latter deviates from it, those who know about this kind of thing have no doubt that the Sung vase is better. Read implies that there is an aesthetic elite who possess the ability to intuitively recognise formal beauty, and although he says that the average man is capable of it, one suspects that Read thinks the average man must submit to the guidance of the elite. Read does not explain in what way the discerning person differs from the undiscerning, except in the objects he chooses. Read thus follows the same circular route as Fry and Bell: formal beauty is that which produces a response in people whose discernment can be identified by the objects they they choose. This kind of elitism may have been formed in his career as a curator at the V&A. Today it is clear that his argument is a way of defining cultural capital.

Like other writers of the period, Read appeared to believe that beauty is a quality of objects, like colour, that can be perceived, and that is not just a matter of personal preference. That implies that aesthetic appreciation is a cognitive ability and that those that lack it have a defect like colour-blindness. Read thinks that, by and large, the British manufacturing class lack it, and he expresses disdain for their supposed philistinism.

British manufacturers produce inferior goods, says Read, not only because they cannot tell the good from the bad, but also because they are motivated by purely commercial considerations. Because their goods are inferior, they have to demand tariffs to protect them from better-designed Continental goods, but Read does not really explain why the Continental capitalist produces better goods than his British counterpart, or why, if well-designed goods sell better than badly-designed goods, the profit motive does not generate better design. Because of this perceived incapacity in the British manufacturing elite, Read is compelled to advocate a cultural elite who have the ability to intuit formal beauty and, if who if they were given half a chance, could reform industry.

Like so many writers on art with a programme or manifesto, Read is immensely irritating. Although he was interested in mass production and took a left-wing position in politics, his ideas are snobbish and elitist. He talks about the “average man”, but is uninterested in what he likes (in contrast to pioneering curators of popular art, Barbara Jones and Enid Marx). He has a psychological theory of aesthetics and leans on a sketchy Freudianism, but cites no psychological research. Had any been done at that date? The new discipline of neuro-aesthetics is now making it possible to understand what is happening in the brain when people respond to art works and it may even be able to help designers and manufacturers.

WILD BEASTS AND TAME


We rushed to watch Becoming Matisse on BBC TV the other day because of his association with Colliure, the seaside town in the southeast corner of France that we like so much.

The programme made much of Matisse’s 1905 portrait of his wife (above), which caused a stir because of its wild colours and introduced fauviste into the vocabulary. Matisse was irritated by the incomprehension he’d caused but sort of enjoyed it.

I said earlier that 1905 was the high tide of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England. The difference between London and Paris at that date was great. Arts and crafts in the continent were straining towards modernism but the followers of William Morris had become timid now he wasn’t there to shake them up. The Studio magazine was comfortable with the paintings of the New English Art Club but not with the new French art. Fry’s Fauvist exhibition revolutionised the style of his little Bloomsbury circle, but they too became stuck and didn’t change in forty years. The art schools were stuck in arts-and-crafts mode right up until 1945, when Britain finally woke up to the need for competent industrial designers.


It wasn’t until the Tate’s retrospective in 1960 that Picasso ceased to be regarded as a charlatan in Britain and began to be taken seriously as an artist. But Matisse, whom Picasso admired, was ahead of him: in 1905, when Matisse was sticking up two fingers with his Woman in a Hat, Picasso was still in his Rose Period.

ANITA BROOKNER

Jean-Antoine_Watteau_-_Fêtes_Venitiennes_-_Google_Art_Project detail

I’ve just read Anita Brookner’s wonderful monograph on Watteau, her first book (1967), published before she published her first novel. It’s written with a novelist’s insight into character and is beautifully expressed, perfectly scholarly (French 18th century painting was her specialism), but it draws you in to the subject.

Of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes (detail above) she writes:

As the Grand Turk can be identified as Vleughels, a perceptive scholar has suggested that the bagpipe player may in fact be Watteau himself. Underneath his obviously borrowed (or hired) costume, he appears to be rougher and lumpier in texture than his fellows, and is wearing an expression of haggard benignity which betokens both physical exhaustion and social strain. The implication are obvious and acceptable. The man wearing a cloak  and tricorn hat in the background is caught in a deeply theatrical attitude; though nobody is looking at him, he is about to make a resounding exit. Odd items of Comedia del’Arte costume can be detected here and there in the audience – a hat, a ruff, a green satin doublet – but the setting has been turned into something totally straightforward: a clearing in one of the allées of any of the great woods around Paris.

 

ROBIN WELCH

robin welch

I was sad to hear of the death of Robin Welch, one of the finest studio potters in Britain. In recent years he exhibited at Art in Clay, Hatfield, and I looked forward to chatting to him in his regular place at the show and buying some of his pots.

Robin was born in in 1936 and studied at Nuneaton and Penzance schools of art, receiving his NDD in sculpture and ceramics in 1953. He spent time at the Leach pottery in St Ives and he told me that, when he began exhibiting, Leach didn’t like his work (which some might take as a commendation). From 1956 he did his national service with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, taking the opportunity in the Middle East to visit peasant potteries. He then went on to do a postgraduate course in ceramics at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

The Central was led in the post-war years by William Johnstone, who had moved it away from the arts and crafts (it later changed its name to the Central School of Art and Design) and introduced a design training based on the Bauhaus system and a collegiate style of teaching which exposed students to a variety of disciplines. Ceramics students were aware of the new American painting and in Cornwall Robin himself had already been inspired  by Terry Frost, John Tunnard and Barbara Tribe. They were taught by William Turnbull, Alan Davie and Eduardo Paolozzi (who, typically, was based in the textile department). Ceramics was led by Gilbert Harding Green, a man of wide culture who encouraged innovation, assisted by William Newland, Nicholas Vergette, Ian Auld, Dan Arbeid, Kenneth Clark and Gillian Lowndes.

After leaving the Central, Robin set up in London and got his first break from Henry Rothschild, who gave him £100 and carte blanche to make pots to be sold at the Primavera gallery. He spent three years in Australia, establishing a pottery with Ian Sprague, and returned to England in 1965 to set up the pottery at Stradbroke, Suffolk, where he worked until his death. At Stradbroke he launched high-volume production with half a dozen assistants, using industrial machinery which he’d been taught to use in Stoke-on-Trent. He spent twenty years in this sort of work, selling kitchen ware in interior design stores, but from the 1980s he made large, individual pieces like the one shown in the picture, for which he’s now better known.

A nice pamphlet about him, full of photos, Robin Welch – A Life, was produced by his granddaughter for a school project, but Robin told me he was sorry that no-one had wanted to write a full biography. Perhaps someone will now.

WHAT IF GROPIUS HAD BEEN DIRECTOR OF THE RCA?

I’ve been reading Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth’s thesis on the Royal College of Art and was intrigued to discover the British response to Bauhaus teaching and to Gropius, who came to England in 1934.

The RCA under Rothenstein had undergone radical change since 1920, when it was primarily a teacher training college. Rothenstein had brought in professional artists who were to have studios in the college and he encouraged the professional art teachers to leave. In 1924 he visited art schools in Prague, Berlin and Paris and saw that the work being done there surpassed anything to be found in England. His visit persuaded him that the College should neither be a teacher training institution nor offer vocational training for specific industries but that it ought to be delivering a high standard of general education to intending designers and artists. Weimar was not on his itinerary so he didn’t see the Bauhaus. Although he took pains to get more government money for the design department, his main achievement was in the fine arts – Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilous and Edward Bawden were products of Rothenstein’s RCA.

There had been nagging discontent with the college’s failure to produce enough industrial designers more or less since it was founded in 1896, and these criticisms surfaced again during Rothenstein’s tenure. But the methods of the Bauhaus were never seen as as an alternative. It was thought by some in the Board of Education to be a fine art school and its socialist phase under Hannes Meyer frightened them.

When he came to England, Gropius was consulted on design education and his lectures were well attended, but on Rothenstein’s resignation he wasn’t considered as a successor. It’s fascinating to speculate what might had have happened if he had been. The revolution that occurred under Robin Darwin would have taken place ten years earlier. As it was, the Bauhaus system wasn’t fully applied in British art schools until the Coldstream Report in 1960. What if there had been a Gropius Report in 1935?