Sanctions and sanctimony

A gallery of Russian oligarchs. Wikimedia Commons
LAURA GASCOIGNE casts an eye on oligarchs and their arts

The Art Newspaper has published its annual museum attendance figures for 2021. The Louvre is top, 5% up on the year before, followed by the State Russian Museum at + 88%. Really? There are four Russian museums in the top ten: the Multimedia Art Museum at no 3 (+42%), the State Hermitage Museum at no 6 (+70%) and the State Tretyakov Gallery at no 9 (+77%). By comparison Tate Modern lags at no 16 (-19), the V&A at no 24 (-2) and the National Gallery at no 30 (-41).

There was a time when British visitor figures needed boosting to attract government funding. No longer. Now galleries hope desperation will loosen the purse strings: the message being sent out is HELP. So are we really supposed to believe that during a pandemic, with the international tourist industry in meltdown, Russian museums beat the British Museum (+4%) into 11th place?

No. No one is actually meant to believe these figures. Like the Ukrainian Nazi regime with its Jewish President and the Special Military Operation to remove it, they’re a pack of obvious lies. For the Kremlin, lying is official government policy. As our own government is discovering, lying works: if it doesn’t convince, it sows alarm and despondency. In fact, the less it convinces, the more alarm and despondency it sows, by loosening the population’s grip on reality.

However much we now gasp and stretch our eyes at the dreadful lies being told by Putin, we were happy to ignore the truth when it suited us. Western liberal democracies accepted arts sponsorship from Russian oligarchs without ever stopping to ask where the money came from. It’s not as if we didn’t know; we knew all along. It’s only now that we’re faced with the brutal reality of what an authoritarian kleptocracy means in practice that our cultural institutions are responding to Russia’s Special Military Operation with a Special Reverse Ferret Operation.

Western museums have rushed to ‘freeze’ relations with their Russian counterparts, at some cost to their exhibition programmes. It’s more than a case of the National Gallery’s being short of the odd Holy Family from the Hermitage for its Raphael show; the Ashmolean has had to put its summer exhibition ‘Russia! Icons and the Avant-Garde’ on indefinite hold and the National Railway and Science Museums have been forced to cancel their joint Trans-Siberian exhibition. The V&A has brazened it out and hung onto all the eggs in its Fabergé exhibition basket, two of which are on loan from the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg funded by sanctioned oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Still, no British museum has so much egg on its face as the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, which commissioned Putin to pen the foreword to its recent Morozov Collection show.

Now the art market is feeling the pinch. On 15 March, four days after Arts Council England introduced a moratorium on loans, the government banned exports to Russia of all high-end luxury goods including art and antiques. Russian collectors have been sent to Coventry where they can brush up on their knowledge of another English cathedral, hopefully without poisoning any of its parishioners. Like rats leaving a sinking superyacht, Sotheby’s announced that they were shutting up shop to Russian buyers. A spike in sales of high-end art to Russians was apparently recorded in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February as oligarchs rushed to put money into non-seizable assets they could squirrel away in secretive freeports of the sort our tax-paying chancellor is so keen to open on these shores. Fortunately for Sotheby’s, thanks to the use of intermediaries it’s almost impossible to find out whether buyers are Russian, unless they pay in roubles.

The big hit will be to museum sponsorship. Of the big four oligarchs sanctioned by our government, three have been heavily involved in cultural philanthropy and their beneficiaries are scrambling to dump them. On 1 March it was announced that Petr Aven, a long-term trustee of the Royal Academy and a leading donor to its Bacon exhibition, had ‘stepped down’ before being pushed down the Potemkin steps; with some sense of honour, the RA returned the money before painting out his credit at the exhibition entrance. Roman Abramovich’s name has also vanished, without recompense, from the supporters’ list outside the Holocaust Galleries he helped to fund at the Imperial War Museum and Viktor Vekselberg has forfeited his honorary membership of the Tate Foundation. His contribution to Tate Modern’s extension now consigned to history, it was out with the chisels to chip his name off the donors’ plaque.

It’s harder to write Russian money out of museum history when it’s sunk into bricks and mortar. Vekselberg’s 2016 support of Tate Modern’s extension, then called the Switch House, was not as generous as that of his mate from Moscow college days, Len Blavatnik, whose record-breaking £50m donation to the Tate turned the Switch House into the Blavatnik Building. Though not a Russian citizen – he holds US and UK citizenship (bought for a song in 2010) – Blavatnik is a person of interest. A Ukrainian Jew born in Odessa, he emigrated to America with his family in 1978 aged 21 but that didn’t stop him joining the feeding frenzy that followed the ‘opening up’ of the Russian economy in the 1990s. With Vekselberg as a partner, he laid the foundations of his global business empire by buying up state aluminium and oil companies. Last year he topped the Sunday Times Rich List for the second time with an estimated fortune of £23bn; he raked in an extra £7.2bn during the pandemic.

Blavatnik likes to splash the cash on cultural causes. He has donated to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the RA, funded a new Blavatnik Hall at the V&A, financed the Courtauld’s refurbished Blavatnik Fine Rooms and in February – just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine – underwritten new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries at the IWM due to open late next year. He was knighted for services to philanthropy in 2017 and in 2020 the Times described him as ‘Britain’s art philanthropist-in-chief’. But in the current mood of sanctimony, with sanctioned friends like Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska, his position is borderline. How long before the Blavatnik Building is switched back to the Switch House? Watch this space.

When our museums took money from the previous philanthropists-in-chief, the Sacklers, they could at least plead innocence of Oxycontin. It’s not so easy to plead innocence of the crimes perpetrated by Russia’s oligarchs on the Russian people. We all know where the kleptocrats’ money came from; in accepting funding from them, Western museums have been knowingly in receipt of stolen goods. Cabbage soup has been taken from the mouths of ordinary Russians so that museumgoers in rich democracies can enjoy blockbuster exhibitions and swan about in overextended galleries. For years our museum sector has been living beyond its means. Who will we turn to for subsidies next? The Saudis? The music changes, but it’s the same old dance with the devil. We can be sanctimonious after the event, but at some point our museums must face the fact that, in the matter of so-called cultural philanthropy, sanctimoney is the exception, dirty money the rule.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

How time flies – British Art Show 9

DAVID LEE attempts to take an interest in a forty-year old artistic institution

Not that it’s much fun remembering, but can it really have been more than 40 years ago that, like a new comet, the British Art Show (Arts Council prop.) first swam into our ken? It’s been coming back to haunt us every five years since, and now here it is again, ninth time round and laden as ever with empty promises and disappointment. Do we mind? No, not that much, for minding even mildly requires the taking of at least a little serious interest in the first place, which no one really does these days, and small wonder. I most certainly don’t – as the blank space in the index to Moping On – the Collected Works (rejection slip pending) amply testifies. I did see BAS8, or was it number 7, but, whichever, only out of convenient and idle curiosity. Remembering the faintest of anything in it is quite another matter: blur doesn’t come near it.

The pity is that it did seem quite a good idea, back in that Golden Age of Wislon, Sunny Jim and Dolly Scargill, oh, so long ago. It was the brainchild of one Frank Constantine, benign and enterprising director of the Sheffield City Art Galleries at the time – and in his youth, a seriously fast opening bowler, I believe, and a stylish middle-order batsman too: though I may be thinking of someone else – who, feeling that too little of the best and brightest of contemporary British art was ever to be seen north of Hampstead, persuaded the Arts Council to commission a major touring show, every so often, of just such stuff but one which – and this is the nub and very heart of the matter – would never, as it were, be seen in Town.

The guiding premise, as I remember, was that it should offer a generous if idiosyncratic overview of whatever of interest or merit, preferably both, had been produced within the previous two or three years, sought across the full field of current engagement in painting and sculpture and allied trades. Furthermore, there were two defining conditions attached: first, that the selection should be entrusted to a single selector; and second, that practical or logistical constraints apart, the choice was to remain a personally accountable judgement quite free of any policy or pressure on the Council’s part. Independence was the rubric, and, mirabile dictu, so it was: Amen to that, I hear you cry.

In the event, work by just over 100 artists was shown, from unabashed representation to abstraction at its most minimal and austere, with a leavening of conceptualism for good measure. There was of course the usual hullabaloo. ‘My child could do better than that, or would be severely punished if he didn’t’, of course, and ‘what a waste of good wood and canvas’. Sheffield’s steel mills closing down on a daily basis hardly helped. Even the Arts Council’s own General Secretary at the time –  a worthy Yorkshireman from Sheffield called Shaw, which explains a lot – after giving it the honour of a single sentence in his annual report, with due emphasis laid upon how much it had cost, a little later condemned out of hand an exhibition he had never seen.

And so of course the Arts Council lost its nerve. A single selector? Goodness no, far too risky. From BAS2 it has always been a committee job, if only one of two or three. And since no self-respecting committee meets without an agenda, so by grandmother’s footsteps themes and policies, the more correct the better, crept in and for many years now the Arts Council’s cold hand has been firmly on the tiller. Which dire conclusion brings me back to how boring and correct in its self-congratulatory diversity it all now is.

BAS9, selected by Irene Aristizaval and Hammad Nasar, began its tour in Aberdeen last autumn, and, having lately closed at Wolverhampton, is now inflicting itself on Manchester before moving on to Plymouth for the coup de grâce. A brief account of its sojourn amongst the Wolverhamptonians may offer the ever-patient denizens of Manchester some idea of what they’re in for.

Irene, now Head of Curatorial and Public Practice at the BALTIC, Gateshead, was until lately Head of Exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary; while Hammad is Lead Curator at the Herbert Gallery, Coventry, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Foundation, and Principal Research Fellow at the University of the Arts (Central St Martin’s as was), London. You have been warned.

Notable amongst Irene’s recent group shows have been ‘Still I Rise – Feminism, Gender Resistance, and Photography from the Civil Rights Movement to the Reagan Era’. And Hammad is known, you may be intrigued to learn, ‘for collaborative, research-driven and exhibition-led inquiry’ so quite the Renaissance Man. His recent successes include ‘Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition and Structures of Meaning / Architectures of Perception’. There was also ‘Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archives of Practice’. And I’m sorry I missed his ‘Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space’. You get the picture, or perhaps not as the case may be.

Getting down to brass tacks – for which I believe the town was once renowned – Irene and Hammad said with one voice ‘how thrilled they were to present the second iteration (and how we love that ‘iteration’) of BAS9 in Wolverhampton’, where the focus was to be ‘on an intersectional approach to living with difference’. Their approach would ‘foreground (and here I find myself reaching by reflex for the red pen – Old Beaky would have reached for something else) the contemporary resonance of the Black Lives Matter protests with the historic context of Enoch Powell infamous (notorious?) and divisive “rivers of blood speech”.’ Oh dear: but on we go.

Taken over all, BAS9 ‘explores [of course it does] themes of healing, care and reparative history; tactics for togetherness; and imagining new futures,’ and I can’t wait for the mug of cocoa and a digestive biscuit afterwards, for which I’ve already chipped in my two and six. It ‘showcases [I shall run out of red ink soon] the multidisciplinary work of 47 artists, reflecting a precarious moment in British history, which has brought politics of identity and nation, concerns of social, racial and environmental justice, and questions of agency (??) to the centre of public consciousness.’ Yes, My Dears, so it does, and calm down, as the great Sir Michael might have said: for my part I would remind you this was once, and perhaps still is, supposed to be an art exhibition, not a public meeting in the Islington Oddfellows Hall. Where’s that cocoa, for goodness sake? But there’s no stopping yet.

In Wolverhampton, it seems, the focus was on ‘how we live with and give voice to difference, showcasing [Damn and blast: I’ve now stubbed the nib] only those 34 of the 47 whose work, steely eyed, forensically investigates identity from an intersectional perspective (ouch). By exploring, map and compass at the ready, coexisting identities such as class, [count to ten] ethnicity [slowly] gender [up to 20] and sexuality [now 30], works will be presented in critical dialogue with Wolverhampton’s cultural history shaped by the diverse populations that have arrived since the War.’ Of course they will: but I’m too old for all this. I it is who really must calm down.

This article first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

The sharpness of Ruskin Spear

Ruskin Spear (1911-1990), Patients waiting outside a first aid post in a factory. Wikimedia Commons

Humankind: Ruskin Spear

Tanya Harrod, Studies in Art, The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing and Thames & Hudson, 2022, £35

PHILIP WARD-JACKSON remembers an unpretentious but greatly gifted artist

‘This is not a full-scale biography’ apologizes Harrod, lamenting the dearth of diaries and letters left by her subject, but it is the closest approximation to one that you are likely to get for some time. A huge array of oral and other forms of testimony is deployed to formidable effect and a man who was derided in his final years by some of the movers and shakers of the art-world as a populist and a tabloid pet, stands revealed as a brilliant painterly recorder of the London scene. As a portraitist he was ready to accept sedate formal commissions, but was perhaps happiest capturing his subjects in action, as in his Poet Laureate Afloat of 1974, depicting John Betjeman as a boater-wearing oarsman, or his Brightly Shone the Moon that Night, in which Ted Heath conducting Christmas Carols becomes a cosmic event.

Some of us had known that this book was impending. Its appearance was finally announced by the author herself in a puff which appeared in the Spectator of 22 January under the amusing title ‘Bring me my Spear.’ Like the apology already quoted, this puff seemed to hint at an unwarranted diffidence. Only the baffled response to requests for it from some major London bookshops, happy to fill their windows with the latest products of the inexhaustible Francis Bacon industry, testified to the need for such self-promotion.

It was the Spectator editors who came up with that snippet from Jerusalem. After initially thinking it clever, on further thought it began to look like a misnomer. There is a distinct lack of ‘pleasant pastures’ and ‘mountains green’ in Spear’s world, and none of that mystic pantheism which drew contemporary neo-romantics to William Blake and Samuel Palmer. His world is resolutely urban, including seaside breaks.

Spear was born in Hammersmith in 1911, son of a coach painter and a one-time domestic servant. He was affected by polio in early life, which left him with a weakened left leg, but didn’t deter him from painting at the easel without the mahlstick, an article of faith where he was concerned. Only action painters and chimpanzees mucked about on the floor. He studied at Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts and at the Royal College. In fact Hammersmith and the Royal College, where he was later to teach, are the backdrop to the greater part of his creative activity. 

Spear achieved a degree of public recognition during the 1950s, mainly through his exhibits at the R.A. Summer Show. His son Roger Ruskin Spear, who played in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was one of the people who made London swing. The musical talent was passed down, Spear having been a skilled jazz pianist, but the father’s view of London has a distinctly post-war look. In some details representing London buses, posters, pub brasswork and flowers, and most appositely in the case of one small pub canary who makes multiple appearances, the colours sing out from an overall tonality which is sombre to the point of despondency. The beauty resides in the ways in which the paint is put on, and the variety of Spear’s brush marks is staggering. When it comes to the draughtsmanship, or, as was increasingly the case, drawing in paint, Spear alternates between a strict perspectival rendering of his subjects reminiscent of contemporary Euston Road painters, and a freer, illustrational, at times caricatural style. The latter is much in evidence in the portrayal of his signature cast of seasoned bar-flies of both sexes, street hucksters and assorted Hammersmith denizens.

Harrod gives us more of a look at the pre-War period than an earlier biographer, the painter and writer Mervyn Levy, whose small monograph on Spear appeared in 1986, four years before the subject’s death in 1990. Work as a war artist, carried out in defiance of his own pacifism, seems to have brought Spear out of a domestic shell, most of his earlier work having been centred on the family home. These early figure subjects indicate an awareness of the work of the French intimistes, Bonnard and Vuillard. Not a much travelled man (foreign jaunts seem to have been limited to a Mediterranean stag cruise before marriage, and a trip to Russia in 1957, accompanying the exhibition ‘Looking at People’ to the Pushkin Museum), Spear’s knowledge of the impressionist and post-impressionist scene would have benefited from his apprenticeship at the Royal College with William Rothenstein, who had rubbed shoulders with Degas and Lautrec. All of this rather calls in question the assumption of early commentators that Spear epitomised the Englishness of English art.

Another of the book’s strengths is its situating of Spear in the various social and artistic circles, with which he interacted over the course of a lifetime. Some of these are new and unfamiliar. There is fascinating documentation, for example, concerning early patronage by the well-connected Essex dilettante, Jack Brunner Gold, who organised an exhibition of Spear’s flower paintings in his home, Little Codham Hall in 1935. The combination of Spear’s portrait of the man in country-gentleman pose, and the teasingly de haut en bas quotes from Gold’s letters vividly summon up an all too familiar picture of the connoisseur attempting to shape a young protégé. Then there is the colourful network of relationships, sometimes friendly and symbiotic, at others thorny, with fellow-teachers and students at the Royal College of Art between 1948 and 1975. Spear taught such luminaries of the next generation as Peter Blake, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and Ron Kitaj. Alongside the happy memories of some, are those of students who remembered Spear as a bullying bastard. A painting by Spear entitled Young Contemporary, which caricaturally represented one of his students sitting looking confused in front of one of his own action paintings, does seem to infringe pedagogical proprieties. On the other hand Spear’s debunking of art-world pretensions must have come as a relief to many outsiders who felt bamboozled by colour field abstracts and piles of bricks.

The panjandrums of the art world do not take kindly to seeing their hot air balloons deflated. Spear had in 1952 and 1954 depicted public bemusement when confronted by works of modern sculpture by Henry Moore and Reg Butler. Other pictures made plain his sentiments with regard to minimalist and painterly forms of abstraction, leading the future director of the Tate, Sir Alan Bowness, to classify his work as ‘vulgar’. In 1984 came what looked like a particularly brutal act of critical cancellation, when Spear was omitted by Richard Morphet, self-appointed high-priest of post-modern figuration, from his Tate exhibition, ‘The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art’. Tanya Harrod suggests that Spear’s work was excluded because it gave so little indication of struggle. A lifetime of painting and observation had enabled him to achieve a rare degree of articulacy and pleasurable virtuosity, in which he could express his likes and dislikes with regard to the world around him. There is perhaps one thing that needs clearing up here. Was Spear in fact excluded, or, alive and kicking as he then was, did he decline to have his works shown with that rag-bag of figure painters, even though it included some of his own closest friends and ex-pupils?

This is a most attractive book, whose illustrations and text both call for and repay the closest attention.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.

The decadence and darkness of Symbolism

Caresses, by Fernand Khnopff

Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism

Ralph Geis (ed.), Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 336pp, fully illus., €45/£42/$50

ALEXANDER ADAMS immerses himself in disquiet and dreamscapes

Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition of Belgian Symbolists, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism, closed last month. As few were able to attend, for obvious reasons, this article will review the exhibition from the catalogue1.

Symbolism – like its precursor, Romanticism – is a school that thrived, and had its premier exponents reside, in Northern Europe. Belgium produced some of the best Symbolist art in the era 1860-1914. Artists of the new nation of Belgium in search of an identity reached back to the Flemish Primitives as a strong regional model and nation achievement.

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland. In the same way the Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialisation, Symbolism was a reaction against rationalism.

Symbolism had two leading mediums: art and literature. The best Symbolism includes Maeterlinck, Mallarmé, Rodenbach and Verlaine, all of which followed the example of the pre-eminent spirit of Symbolist literature: Baudelaire. For artists, there was a resistance to the domination of portraiture and the preoccupations of the picture-buying middle class, as evidenced in the Salon.

What are the themes of Symbolism? Eros and Thanatos: sex/love and death. These are frequently mingled in art which plays on the fear of venereal disease (the prostitute as Death) and death and the maiden. One also finds an attraction-repulsion complex regarding death, wherein artists fear death but seek the endless slumber of oblivion. Others? Vanitas and memento mori, the supernatural, primal fear of night, dreams, the grotesque, the outcast, criminal, flanêur. Deviant social, political and sexual behaviour – often in a context heroizing or celebrating it – becomes a key feature of the Decadent Movement, a sub-group of Symbolism. States of narcolepsy, hypnosis, hysteria and ecstasy, all beyond conscious control and revealing the darker urges and hitherto hidden truths. Unorthodox approaches to religion meant that Symbolists were involved (on levels superficial and profound) with occultism, Theosophy, Satanism and Paganism and fringe sects of Catholicism. Non-Western and non-Abrahamic religions are subjects of interest.

In other words, it was a hugely diffuse movement. One can spot it easily enough, even if one has trouble pinning down all its qualities, and finds it impossible to identify a unifying principle. 

Featured artists include Félicien Rops, Jean Delville, James Ensor, George Minne, Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery, Léon Spilliaert and Léon Frédéric. Prints were important (especially those of Ensor and Khnopff). Sculpture – especially polychrome stone carving and stone-metal busts – by Minne, Khnopff and Charles van der Stappen confirmed the breadth of Symbolism’s versatility. Symbolism found channels to intellectuals and public through exhibiting associations Les XX (1884-93) and La Libre Esthétique (1894-1914). Symbolist art frequently appeared in art journals and had wide currency through book illustrations, not least for Baudelaire’s books. Many public commissions required symbolism, even though the art that derived from such public schemes is a touch generic and has little to distinguish itself from standard academic and civic art.

Nocturnal interior by Xavier Mellery

William Degouve de Nuncques’s moonlit views of Venice and Bruges are atmospheric and less familiar than Spilliaert’s nocturnal street views of Ostend. Mellery’s dim nocturnal interiors of churches and house stairwells are masterful scenes of crepuscular tension. They have a dreamlike quality and beautiful finish – detailed enough to be immersive, but not so polished as to lose their liveliness of facture. The low-key disquiet of these scenes is very effective. Mellery’s public commissions include images featuring rather lumpen angels against gilded grounds, which are illustrated but excluded from the exhibition, happily.

Ensor is represented by works from his youthful and mature periods. His painterly approach marks him out from his compatriots. Ensor’s skeleton and mask pictures are very appropriate for this exhibition, even though Ensor as an artist is very mixed and individualistic. 

Khnopff is the dominant presence in this selection. His paintings and drawings are well known. Caresses (1896) is the classic oddity of Belgian Symbolism. A cheetah with a woman’s head nuzzles a male warrior, who has a female face. It is absolutely ridiculous, yet iconic. Two scenes of satanic manifestations by Rops, featuring female nudes, are complemented by prints from the suite Les Sataniques (1882). Rops’s imagination attains the perversity of a true libertine in the latter. Von Stuck’s women are generally types – with the exception of a portrait of actress Tilla Durieux in character – and perform the role of dangerous seducers. In Berlin, his work is usefully paired with that of Böcklin. Here we see him near Khnopff’s eternal woman, based on his sister. Art by peripheral artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites shows how Belgium (a geographical and intellectual hub) was connected to other countries’ art scenes. Spilliaert’s nocturnes, marines and figure pictures (as seen recently in London) are excellent and ambitious, as a whole.

Supplemented by classic Symbolist paintings by non-Belgian artists, including Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (1883), Edvard Munch’s Jealousy (1913), Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus the Traveller (c. 1888), von Stuck’s Tilla Durieux as Circe (c. 1900), as well as paintings by Klimt and others. There are mistakes. Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Interior Strandgade 30 (1901) is a nice painting but it does not carry the charge of Mellery’s interiors, which was clearly the comparison the curators were making. A mysterious atmosphere is not enough to make a piece of art Symbolist. Belgian Antoine Wiertz’s La Belle Rosine (1847) is a foundational work and perhaps the best proto-Symbolist paintings, as haunting as anything made later.

The art selected is excellent and a tour de force of Symbolism’s highlights, as well as including lesser known artists. The sculptures – principally busts of young women as enigmatic allegorical personages – remind us of the importance of that medium in 1900. The catalogue includes short essays and many comparative illustrations, as well as full-page illustrations. The biographies of more obscure artists are welcome; there is no bibliography.

  1. This article first appeared in The Jackdaw, and is reproduced with permission. []

English impressions

The Wilton Diptych

SELBY WHITTINGHAM looks back on a life in the arts, from the New Elizabethans to Generation Z

The latest bout of iconoclasm has produced renewed demands for a statue of Cecil Rhodes to be removed from a building built with his money at his and my alma mater, Oriel College, Oxford. The protesters claim that he was an imperialist and racist, though some authorities say that the charge of racism is partly misplaced. At least one protester was under the misapprehension that he was a slave owner.

At the same time, the BBC has been showing programmes on the history of Persia, reverently admiring its emperors, whose images are set amid the figures of the tributary peoples whom they had conquered. Of course the Persian empire belongs to the distant past, while the British one is more recent and its misdemeanours still a live issue for some of its subject peoples. Other bouts of iconoclasm are also now remote, such as the Protestant destruction of Catholic images. Today no one is very concerned about those disputes, but art lovers deplore the loss of works that once adorned our churches.

Among the last I count myself. Believing that everyone suffers from prejudices in varying degrees and that I too am a product of my background, I feel I should state what that was. I was brought up by my mother, who was a Conservative, an historian, a barrister, a journalist and a lover of the theatre. Those interests led to my being taken to see the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard IIHenry V, at Stratford-upon-Avon put on by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1948, John Harvey, the promoter of Perpendicular Gothic as a great English stylistic invention, had had published The Plantagenets, which began with a paean in praise of monarchy and continued by emphasising the biographer’s need for authentic portraits of his subjects. That led to my helping my mother with the task of finding such for her history and then to my doctoral thesis. Harvey’s royalism was matched by my mother’s. She would stand when the national anthem was played, even at home.

In 1953 I witnessed the preparations for the coronation, which seemed like some glorious pageant, a fit opening for the New Elizabethan Age. At the same time was performed at Stratford Antony and Cleopatra with Michael Redgrave as Mark Anthony and Peggy Ashcroft as Cleopatra and directed brilliantly by Glen Byam Shaw. The French were rather rude about Redgrave, comparing him with a Scottish highlander rather than a Latin lover. I was particularly captivated by Ashcroft, and avidly eavesdropped – not quite the word to describe listening to her declamatory style of talking – when my mother and I sat at the theatre restaurant table next to hers. That was the closest I got, whereas in 1951 Richard Burton had shown us round back stage and we got reluctant permission to attend a rehearsal taken by Redgrave.

The schools which I attended conventionally prized the classics most highly and at university I continued to study them while pursuing my mediaeval interests. Visits to the Mediterranean had complemented that. In 1948 we stayed at the seaside villa of an anglophile Italian family at Sta Margherita Ligure. Being covered in oil discharged from an Italian warship into the sea, to the indignation of our Italian hostess, who said the British navy would never do such a thing, did nothing to diminish the shock of delight after the bleak 1947 winter and rationing in the UK. The fresh food by itself was a revelation. And the unaccustomed brilliance of the scene enhanced by the colourful cafe umbrellas at Rapallo, which my mother and I tried to catch in chalk sketches (now lost), created an indelible impression.

I made many visits to Italy later, partly in pursuit of mediaeval portrait sculptures. At university I twice joined parties visiting Greece, and was delighted both with the classical sites and the Byzantine churches. I was already in agreement with those who believed that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens, not so much on national or moral grounds, but because I thought that they could be much better appreciated there than in the British Museum. This contributed to my long-held view that art should generally remain in its original situation. Once the British had returned works to Italy that Napoleon had taken for the Louvre, but that of course was different! Curators have a similar Napoleonic urge to amass and centralise and to set up the Universal Museum as the great desideratum, though the public does not altogether share that view.

On the return from Italy we stopped briefly at Paris and visited Versailles – my mother wanted to show me the Galerie des Glaces – where guided parties of different nationals followed closely one after another. The following year my father, on leave from Malaya, was nostalgic for England and as a compromise we stayed on a farm on Guernsey. But in 1950 my mother and I went to a small village on the Normandy coast. We combined that with a day excursion to Rouen, the cathedral blackened by war, and then took a bus to the 18th century Chateau du Grésil where my mother had stayed with a family, which I think had a South American business association with her grandfather, when she was a teenager and was the commencement of her Francophilia. She wrote an account for Blackwood’s Magazine under the title of “The Adopted Son”, in reference to an Argentinian boy and now in 1950 an elderly man and sole family survivor at the house. Later for a while it served as a research centre for Shell.

The article followed immediately on an hilarious contribution by a British army officer who had been invited to stay with the 7th Raja of Poonch (1) in the 1930s, an example of the friendly relations that often existed between the British and Asiatic rulers in their colonies. However, the British were never so sentimental as to prefer these ties to realpolitik and in a postwar treaty partly dumped the Malay sultans, an act deplored by my mother in 1946 in an article “Malaya Betrayed!” for the World Review, edited by Edward Hulton (2) – who incidentally had an address in Cromwell Road when I first came to live there, and whose nephew, Jocelyn Stevens, was the partner of Sir Charles Clore’s daughter, to whom I come later.

Like Hulton, my mother had been an active Lancashire Conservative in the 1930s, supporting Randolph Churchill’s doomed attempt to be elected an MP and then his father’s opposition to Appeasement. She embarked on a history of Liverpool politics, in which figures such as Canning and Gladstone’s father had played a part. In her time, it was divided into two cultures, Protestant English and Catholic Irish, not reconciled until Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Warlock (whose parents, later neighbours of my father, I knew). My grandfather and mother, part of the Anglican tradition, already favoured greater unity, but the local Conservative party was strongly Protestant and tolerated with difficulty one of its MPs who, following a long Lancashire tradition of recusants, was a Roman Catholic. This made my mother both a constitutionalist and a rebel.

After the visit to Stratford in 1951 we toured the vineyards of the Rhone, on which my mother wrote several articles, at the invitation of Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié, who had been a French fighter pilot in World War I, winning the Croix de Guerre, and had set up the system of Appellation d’Origine Controlée. My mother had had the option of writing about the Rhône wines or those of Languedoc, staying at Perpignan. She was torn between the two and left the choice to me, and I plumped for Provence because it seemed more historic. This showed that I had already developed a taste for the past, perhaps encouraged by the Shakespeare history cycle seen a few months earlier. My mother too was more interested in history than in wine, and her account of Rhône viticulture was mostly about its Roman past and its being prized by the English, first under Queen Eleanor of Provence and again in the 18th century. The 19th century phylloxera outbreak was devastating (a company started by my great-uncles, McKechnie Bros, exported sulphate of copper to spray on the vines, and a photograph exists of their stand at the 1919 Lyons Fair). In 1951 Rhône wines were again at a low ebb, despite the efforts of Baron Le Roy, and in need of publicity.

From an historical point of view, the trip was partly disappointing. Avignon, where we spent the first night in a small modern hotel, was unexciting, and the Palais des Papes was closed to visitors. The Roman remains at Vaison-la-Romaine and theatre at Orange left me rather cold. But the romance of the vineyards, which suggested to my mother the idea of a film about the oldest, Chateau de la Nerthe, was different. I had not read then the memoirs of Captain Gronow (3), who was equally at home in London and in Paris, a fact appreciated by Winston Churchill when preparing to meet De Gaulle. One of his most entertaining anecdotes was about General Palmer, who bought a fine Bordeaux vineyard (still called Chateau Palmer), whose wine he ruined after taking the advice of the Prince Regent, who shared the English preference for fortifying claret with the more robust Hermitage, where we were the guests of Louis Jaboulet, whose firm was founded by his ancestor in 1834. Its labels depicted the hermit’s chapel, while those of Le Roy showed Chateau Fortia on labels unchanged down to the present. However, under the pressure to appeal to non-Europeans unconcerned with history some Bordeaux vineyards have jettisoned the chateaux for silly names and trite designs. This dumbing down was in contrast to the commissioning by a Rothschild of designs from the leading artists of the 1950s, an example of innovation which is fruitful rather than destructive or decadent.

Then in 1957 I followed my mother’s teenage experience by staying with a French family at their Angevin chateau which had the ruins of a mediaeval castle in its grounds (they had advertised in the Times for an exchange with their eldest son, whose English needed improving). Three years later, before entering Oxford University, I spent two terms at the Sorbonne studying the course for foreigners on French Civilisation. A popular lecturer on French 19th century literature, Antoine Adam, declared that there were two types of Frenchmen, ‘Franks/Germans’ and ‘Gauls/Latins’. He was the epitome of the second, while his fellow lecturer on literature epitomised the Frankish strain.

The contrast between the English and French has been endlessly drawn. It was shown in stylised fashion in the cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson, and later in Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, to which we took my French teenage exchange. Often, of course, people do not conform to these stereotypes and one needs to regard people as individuals. However, the generalisations remain, though in the case of the English (sent up by our neighbours, Flanders and Swann (4), in their song, The English, The English are Best, which they performed to the slight bemusement of an American audience) the image with which I grew up, of the stiff upper lip and either bowler hat or cloth cap, has now gone, though the reluctance to make a fuss remains. It is a nice philosophical question how far such generalisations, whether about race or tradition, are ever valid. What many hold as tradition only goes back a few generations or, with regard to the fine arts, to the Renaissance, whereas my mediaeval and classical perspectives are different.

In a stay on a farm at Coniston with my father in 1956 among the places visited was Brantwood, the last home of John Ruskin. I was then more in tune with Wordsworth, one of whose descendants, with a marked resemblance to his ancestor, was the only other visitor to Dove Cottage when I entered it. It was only some years later that I began to read Ruskin’s works that I found I had an affinity with him. This began with his championship of Gothic and contention that all portraiture is essentially Gothic, while the Renaissance sculptors “rounded their chins by precedent” (5). This view appealed to me because it suited my thesis, and for its contrarian nature.

In 1975, when I started a campaign to honour Turner’s testamentary wishes to have his works displayed in a special Turner gallery, I had Ruskin again as on the whole a support. This campaign naturally met the opposition of the three (now two) museums between which Turner’s paintings had been split. But it had the support of leading panjandrums in the art world and of some politicians. Decades later, Boris Johnson wrote that the continuing failure to observe Turner’s last wishes merited an enquiry, but latterly there has been silence. Various Conservative politicians have expressed an admiration for the work of Turner as well as for heritage, and some even for honouring conditions attached to gifts and accepted with them. But, despite the Turner wing at the Tate given by Sir Charles Clore’s daughter being an additional failure, they have latterly shown no concern. The Conservative Party, as Matthew Parris has written, has no set beliefs, and today is more the heir of Gladstonian liberalism than of the conservatism of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (6).

While at university I became a supporter of the Liberal party and have remained one of its successor. This is mainly because of its emphasis on individualism and free choice, but also because influences were the party’s colour, yellow, the colour of Turner and Van Gogh, and the fact that some of my forebears and cousins were Liberals on free trade or other grounds. That may seem a trivial reason, but others were Liberals by heredity as well as belief, and the same goes for other parties, which all are conscious of their traditions. Bertrand Russell, though not a member of the Liberal Party, was conscious of his Liberal heritage. He regarded doubt as essential and that addiction to certainty as the cause of the world’s ills. Today he would surely condemn the epidemic of wokeness, puritanism and illiberalism masking as liberalism, a distinction made recently by among others Tim Farron, who was pilloried for his evangelical beliefs, regardless of his liberal voting record.

Memorial to Byron, Walter Scott & Thomas Moore, by J M W Turner

If the arts in England, especially the fine arts, are now at a low ebb, there are many causes. Traditional Englishness has been diluted by foreign influence, notably from America. Of course English art has always been subject to foreign influence, from France especially. But it evolved some distinct traits in the Middle Ages, as Nikolaus Pevsner traced in his now unfashionable 1955 book The Englishness of English Art (7) (my copy of which a young, non-English architectural student stole!). I found this useful in my analysis of the style of the Wilton Diptych, with its puzzling portrait of Richard II, on which my mother had started me. While looking at popular books on Gainsborough and his contemporaries on the bouqiniste stalls by the Seine I was struck by how they had an English air distinct from that of French portraits. But Pevsner’s rules only hold good so far, and in the end artists are individuals and go off in all sorts of directions. That is especially true of Turner, who early on captured the Englishness of the Thames and Medway valleys, and also was steeped in tradition and the past (Lady Eastlake commented how knowledgeable he was about the history of all the castles he depicted). However, in his later works he moved on and prompted commentators to call him un-English, Germanic, a proto-French-Impressionist and so on.

In the Turner campaign one of our supporters, the late Dr William Allen, a scientific adviser to the National Gallery, discouragingly cited the law of physics, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, as also a law of society. That is certainly true in history. The enthusiastic admiration for British imperialism has given rise to an equally passionate denunciation. Lenin acted partly in reaction to the Tsarist execution of his teenage brother, and liberals have then reacted violently against him, whereas I would keep some of his statues as being of historical importance. Of course Africans had not done anything to cause them to be enslaved, but those today demanding extreme measures in recompense risk provoking a violent counter-reaction.

Unfortunately, academics have too often failed to be more objective than their students. When I was an undergraduate at Oriel, it was a notably conservative college, with Hugh Trevor-Roper a hovering presence. Today the enlarged body of fellows has few historians but a number of colonials (as has the university), and few are former alumni. The Provost (8), however, is one, and has just been ennobled as a Conservative peer ostensibly for his involvement in the museum world. Will he be willing or able to direct the college to keep the statue of Rhodes in line with the opinions of the Chancellor of the University and the Prime Minister? I have tried to show why my bias is in favour of retention.


  1. Both India and Pakistan have districts named Poonch, parts of the disputed Kashmir region (Editor’s note)
  2. Sir Edward George Warris Hulton, 1906-1988, chiefly remembered now as founder of the Eagle comic and The Picture Post, whose name is perpetuated in Getty Images’ Hulton Archive (Editor’s note)
  3. Captain Rees Howell Gronow, 1794-1865, who served in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, dandy, debtor, briefly an MP, and author of four volumes of justly highly-regarded reminiscences (Editor’s note)
  4. Flanders and Swann, British comedy double act, made up of Michael Flanders, 1922-1975, and Donald Swann, 1923-1994 (Editor’s note)
  5. “You may understand broadly that we Goths claim portraiture altogether for our own, and contentedly leave the classic people to round their chins by rule, and fix their smiles by precedent” (The Art of England, III, “The Classic Schools of Painting”, 1873, pp.72-3;  Works, ed. E.T.Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 1905, XXXIII, p.316). Also “Some Characteristics of Greek Art in Relation to Christian”, (Works, XX, p.409). I returned to this question in “The Face in Mediaeval Sculpture”, ArtWatch UK Journal, 32, Autumn 2019, pp.12-17 (Author’s note)
  6. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 1830–1903, three times Conservative Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902 (Editor’s note)
  7. London: Architectural Press, expanded and annotated version of the 1955 BBC Reith Lectures. Pevsner says “the English portrait keeps long silences, and when it speaks, speaks in a low voice”. He goes on to say English painting is characterised by an interest in the everyday world and the observed fact, by “temperance, smoothness, judiciousness, moderation”, a consequence of “a decent home, a temperate climate, and a moderate nation”. He goes on, “There is no Michelangelo, no Titian, no Rembrandt, no Dürer or Grünewald… but there are exquisite water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale, and there are in the Middle Ages exquisitely carved bosses and capitals…The amateur is altogether characteristic of England, and not the specialist. This has much to recommend it.” He also cites the understatement of Perpendicular architecture, and feels England has contributed more to architecture than to either painting or sculpture (he does not discuss music) (Editor’s note)
  8. Neil Mendoza, Provost of Oriel since 2018, also Chairman of the Landmark Trust, and the government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal (Editor’s note)