Packed with art in St Ives, Cornwall

THE TATE GALLERY has two branches in the picturesque fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall. The artworks displayed at Tate St Ives are contained in a building overlooking Porthmeor Beach, constructed between 1983 and 1993. It replaced a disused gasworks, but I feel that the gallery’s almost fascistic architecture neither does anything to enhance the town or to match the beauty of many of the items displayed within it. The other part of The Tate in St Ives is house and gardens of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A visit to her former home and its garden, filled with her sculptures, is a delightful experience.

 

Barbara Hepworth and her sculpture in the Penwith Gallery

Not far from the Tate St Ives, there is another ‘must-see’ attraction for lovers of modern and contemporary art. This is the Penwith Gallery on Back Road East. Less visited than the two Tate institutions in St Ives, the Penwith is the home of the Penwith Society of Arts, one of whose founders was Barbara Hepworth. The gallery contains one of the loveliest Hepworth sculptures that I have seen to date. Maybe I like it because it recalls the works of the Romanian born sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a sculptor whose works are much to my taste. To be frank, I am not a great lover of Hepworth’s sculpture and this piece in the Penwith is less typical of what I do not like about her work.

Returning to the gallery itself, its website reveals (https://penwithgallery.com/):

“The society was founded in 1949 by Barbara Hepworth,Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Sven Berlin and Wilhelmina Barns– Graham, amongst others. Later members have included Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Henry Moore (honorary member). This association with so many progressive and influential artists has given the Penwith Society a unique place in British art history.

Today the society continues to play a central role in the thriving and vibrant St. Ives art community, exhibiting contemporary art from Cornwall and beyond.”

The gallery is housed in a former pilchard packing factory. Its ceiling is supported with roughly hewn granite pillars, painted white. Part of the ceiling is glass-covered, allowing natural light into the largest of the three main display areas. The rest of the ceiling does not transmit light.

The gallery displays an ever-changing collection of artworks, which are on sale. Created by members of the Society or artists, who have worked in the Society’s studios, they include sculptures, prints, paintings, and ceramics. Some of the works are figurative and many of them are abstract. Some are halfway between the two extremes. I have enjoyed abstract art since my childhood. This is probably because my mother, who was a sculptor who enjoyed creating abstract pieces. The lovely Hepworth piece that stands next to a fine photograph of its sculptor, and several other works, form part of the Penwith’s permanent collection. A small range of books and cards are available for visitors to purchase.

Every time I visit the Penwith, I enjoy the gallery’s spaces and the works displayed within them.  Instead of being packed with pilchards, as it was in the past, and other tourists, as are the two Tate establishments, the Penwith is comfortably packed with pleasing works of art, which you can take home if you can afford them, and some of them are not excessively costly.

A walk in the West End

The largest gallery in the Wallace Collection

BRAVING THE INCLEMENT weather, we walked from Kensington to the Wallace Collection in London’s West End. After walking along the north side of Hyde Park, we crossed Bayswater Road (actually ‘Hyde Park Place’) and walked along the short Albion Street. The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), who was born in India (Calcutta) and the author of “Vanity Fair” lived at number 18. His home was close to the still extant Tyburn Convent (located near the famous spot where criminals were hanged). He wrote of the area where he lived (‘Tyburnia’):

“The elegant, the prosperous, the polite Tyburnia, the most respectable district of the habitable globe.” (www.stjohns-hydepark.com/moreaboutus/2016/4/21/history-of-st-johns)

From Albion Street, we turned right to walk east along Connaught Street, named after George III’s nephew and son-in-law Prince William Frederick, Earl of Connaught (d. 1834), and laid out in the King’s reign (1760-1820). Archery Close leads off the street to a cobbled mews. It is so named because it was next to the former cemetery (now a housing estate called ‘St George’s Fields’) of St George’s Church in Hannover Square, which used to be used as a practice ground for archers. A few yards east of the close, we reach Connaught Square.

The square, whose brick-built elegant terraced houses surround a private garden, began to be developed in 1821. Near to the north east corner of the square, number 14 was home to the Italian ballet dancer Marie Taglioni, Comtesse de Voisins (1804 –1884), who was born the daughter of an Italian choreographer, Filippo Taglioni and his Swedish wife the ballerina Sophie Karsten, in Stockholm. In England, Marie taught social dancing to society ladies and children. The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has also owned a house in this pleasant square.

Number 1 Connaught Street, which is on the corner of Edgware Road is now a branch of the Maroush Lebanese Restaurant chain. It is housed in an attractive building whose facades are topped with balustrades. On a map surveyed in the 1930s, which also shows St Georges Fields still as a disused cemetery, marks this building as a bank (Westminster Bank).  After traversing the busy Edgware Road, formerly the Roman Watling Street, the continuation of Connaught Street becomes Upper Berkeley Street, named after Henry William Berkeley (1709-1761), who was part of the Portman family who developed the area.

Number 33 Upper Berkeley Street has a distinctive neo-Byzantine frontage and looks like the entrance to a religious building. It is an entrance to the West London Synagogue whose main entrance is nearby on Seymour Street. This synagogue was established on its present site in 1870. Its congregation is allied to Reform Judaism. Its architects were Messrs Davis and Emmanuel (https://archiseek.com/2013/the-new-west-london-synagogue/). Rabbis, who have served at this synagogue have included a Holocaust survivor, Hugo Gryn, and Julia Neuburger.

Number 20 Upper Berkely Street was home to the first British woman to qualify as a medical practitioner, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). She lived (and practised briefly) at number 20 from 1860 to 1874. She established her practice around the corner at 69 Seymour Place, which opened as the ‘St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children’. Nearby at number 24 (‘Henry’s Townhouse’), we reach the house where the banker and clergyman, Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), brother of the novelist Jane Austen, lived between 1800 and 1804 (http://jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number20/caplan.pdf).

After passing Great Cumberland Place and Wallenberg Place (created in the 1780s and badly damaged during WW2), an elegant crescent on the east side of the road, we pass Montagu Street that leads north to Montagu Square where my father’s colleague and co-author, the Hungarian born Peter Bauer (1915-2002), used to live.  Further east, Upper Berkeley reaches the northwest corner of Portman Square.

Opposite this corner is Home House, once the home of the Courtauld Institute (for history of art), now the home of a private club. It was built in 1773-76 for Elizabeth, Countess of Home (c1703-1784), a Jamaican born English slave-owner, and designed mainly by Robert Adam, who also created its beautifully decorated interiors and a fantastic helical staircase. A block of flats called ‘Fifteen’ with art deco front doors is next door to Home House and opposite an entrance to the square’s private gardens. This gate, normally locked, happened to be open. So, we snuck into the garden to take a brief look. As we emerged, and slammed shut the gate, a man emerging from Fifteen, noticed us and told us that it was good that we had closed the gate, because he said:

“It’s good to keep the riff-raff out of our square.”

I replied:

“We are the riff-raff.”

He laughed and we began conversing. He lives in Fifteen, which was built in the 1930s, and told us that its interior is decorated like the original ‘Queen Mary’ liner, in art deco style. He confirmed my memory that the store front that houses Air Algerie  and the National Bank of Kuwait on the east side of the square used to be part of the shop front of the Daniel Neal children’s clothing store, which closed in 1977. My late mother always pointed it out when we drove past it in the 1960s, but I cannot recall ever having entered it.

Continuing east from the square along Fitzhardinge Street, we pass Seymour Mews. A plaque on the corner of these two roads commemorates the site of the birthplace of Captain Thomas Riversdale Cloyes-Fergusson who was awarded a Victoria Cross medal posthumously after dying, aged 21, at the Battle of Paschendaele on the 31st of July 1917 during WW1. His medal is currently on display at Ightham Mote in Kent, the former home of his parents. Incidentally, the well-preserved Tudor Ightham Mote house is a lovely place to visit.

Walking another 200 feet eastwards brings us to our destination Manchester Square. Before describing its main attraction, let us look at number 14, now called ‘Milner House’. This was the home of Alfred Milner (1854-1925), who was an important colonial official in southern Africa. He was Governor of the Cape Colony from 1897 to 1901, a period that included the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. Then, he was successively Administrator of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony (1901-1902), Governor of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony (1902-1905), and then Secretary of State for the Colonies (1919-1921). Milner was in no little way responsible for the outbreak of the conflict between the British and the Boers that began in 1899, one of whose aims was to establish an unbroken British corridor that ran from Cairo to The Cape. Another of its aims was to have the gold mines of the Rand and other parts of the Transvaal under British rule.

One of Milner’s neighbours on the square was Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), who, unlike his neighbour Milner, did much good for mankind. He was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford and educated in Paris, where he also worked. In 1870, when his father died, Richard inherited his collection of European art. Wallace added greatly to the collection, often purchasing fine works of art. During the Siege of Paris (September 1870-January 1871), Wallace, who was living in the city, performed many acts of charity including contributing much money to the needy of Paris and organising two ambulances. In 1872, he paid for the erection of fifty public drinking fountains, which are now known as ‘Wallace Fountains’ and can be found all over Paris. One of these distinctive fountains stands outside the entrance to Hertford House, his London home on Manchester Square where his art collection is now housed in what is called ‘The Wallace Collection’.

From the outside, Hertford House is imposing rather than attractive. It was built between 1776 and 1778 for the 4th Duke of Manchester. In 1797, the 2nd Marquess of Hertford acquired the building and modified it considerably. Richard Wallace and his wife, Julie Amélie Charlotte (daughter of Bernard Castelnau, a French officer), lived there whenever they were in London from 1870 onwards. The Wallace Collection contains over 5500 works of art collected by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Richard Wallace. These include more than 6 paintings by Rembrandt, and others by great names including Vermeer, Bols, Poussin, Frans Hals, Canaletto, Velasquez, Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard, Lawrence, Hobbema, Cuyp, Maes, and many others equally well-known.  Richard’s widow bequeathed it to the nation in 1897.

I first visited the Wallace Collection with my father when I was less than ten years old. I remember being extremely bored by the huge numbers of Paintings on display but fascinated by the large collection of weapons and armour that occupies several rooms. Now, many years later, I am thrilled by the wealth of paintings that can be enjoyed in the beautifully decorated rooms of the house. The splendour of the interior décor of the rooms contrasts greatly with the exterior of the building that gives no hint of the treasures within.  Along with the collection of artworks at Kenwood House in Highgate, the Wallace Collection is one of the finest (formerly) private art collections open to the public in London.

After seeing the collection and having coffee in Hertford House’s vast covered internal courtyard, we retraced our steps by walking back to Kensington. We felt satisfied that we had had a good walk along streets and through parkland after having enjoyed an enriching artistic experience at the Wallace Collection.

The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.

African Art Fair 2018

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“The Contemporary African Art Fair (1 – 54)” is held annually at London’s Somerset House. This year it was a very exciting show full of vibrant, creative artworks mainly, but not exclusively, created by Africans with little or no European ancestry.

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Many of the works use recycled waste materials such as bits of paper, engine parts, spent bullets and retired armaments, electronic components, and so on. Almost every art work is a fine aesthetic object when seen as a whole. Looking into any of these works in detail is like beginning to explore Africa, its troubled past and challenging present.

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Africa is beginning to emerge from its colonial past. Africans are taking control of their destinies. Yet, at this exhibition, which is where a series of galleries display thier wares, mot of the dealers, who earn considerable commissions are ‘White’ Europeans. Maybe colonialism is not quite dead yet!

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The tests of time and taste

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Is it fair to juxtapose works of modern or contemporary art with great masterpieces, which have stood the test of time?

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We were fortunate to have been given (by our daughter) complimentary tickets to the 2018 Frieze Masters exhibition held in Regents Park. It is part of a larger art fair, Frieze, held in London annually.

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The Frieze Masters show contains stalls set up by art dealers, displaying only works made no later than the year 2000 AD. I must admit that I was expecting to see works of art only made during the 19th and 20th centuries. To my great delight, the artworks on display were made anytime between ancient times (several centuries BC) and 2000 AD.

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Although the more recently made (i.e. 20th century) artworks are of the highest quality, they are often on display close to artworks made many centuries earlier. Some of the gallery stalls contain a mix of modern art and much older works. Placing some 20th century works (e.g. Calder) near to older classical works (e.g. Brueghel and Cranach) is not fair to the newer works.

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The older artworks, which have stood the test of time and satisfied the tastes of many generations of viewers, make the nearby contemporary works seem weak in comparison. This is not always the case. Some small sculptures by Barbara Hepworth seemed very comfortable next to their far more venerable neighbours. Also, to my surprise some ancient classical carvings stood harmoniously close to some abstract art works made in the second half of the 20th century.

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The older works of art on display have been treasured for many centuries. Probably, what we see today is the best of what was produced long ago. Even at the time when they were made, their excellence must have been obvious when seen beside other works, now lost and long-forgotten, which were created at the same time.

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I question how many of the more recent (19th and, especially, 20th century) works of art, which I saw at Frieze Masters, will still attract both interest and high prices in, say, fifty or a hundred years’ time. And, I also ask myself how many of the newer works will be able to evoke the feelings of aesthetic wonder that, say, a Brueghel or a Cycladic sculpture have been able to do for so many centuries.  

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Summers in Florence

I hope that this piece will not sound ungrateful, dear reader.

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When I was a child and in my early teens, my parents, who were art-lovers, took my sister and I to Florence every summer. As a child, I failed to appreciate what a treat these visits were. At the end of the summer when school recommenced, my friend N and I would compare notes about our holidays. N visited Llandudno in North Wales every summer with his parents. He would relate how they had climbed the Great Orme, travelled on a special tramway, and stayed at a marvellous hotel overlooking the sea. What was I able to tell N? Well, nothing that I believed would rival the exciting things that N had experienced. What, for example, was the Uffizi art gallery in Florence when compared with the Great Orme in Llandudno? I mention the Uffizi in particular, because our annual visits to this treasure house of art filled me with despair. I wrote of this place in my book “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” (available from Amazon and Bookdepository.com) as follows:

The aforementioned Uffizi was another of the places that we often visited in the morning. I used to dread having to walk through its seemingly endless series of inter-connected galleries filled with masterpieces. The only thing that sustained me during this ordeal was the promise of an ice-cream afterwards or the promise of the opportunity to buy a paper cone filled with corn to feed the pigeons in the Piazza Signoria outside the gallery.

One of the first pictures that we always used to stop and admire was the Portinari Triptych painted by the Flemish painter Hugo Van der Goes in about 1475. That was during the time when the Florentine merchant Portinari, who commissioned it, was living in Bruges in the building which became the hotel in which we often stayed. My father, who is fascinated by the iconography of Renaissance art, explained to us the meanings of everything in this beautiful picture. My very young sister absorbed this information so well that year after year she could explain to us, and also to other tourists, who gathered around to listen to her, the reasons that particular things were depicted in it. For example, she could relate why there were a certain number of lilies in the vase near the bottom of the central picture; and why there was a barely visible devil’s horn at its top left, just above the horn of a cow grazing in the holy manger. This horn only became apparent after the picture was cleaned in the early 1960s.

The museums and my late mother’s seemingly endless visits to the dress-maker and countless shoe shops added to my lack of enjoyment of Florence. However, it was not all gloom and doom. The food we ate was lovely and there were some cultural sights which I enjoyed. And, Florence did hold some mysteries, one of which was solved between two successive annual visits. Let me quote from my book again:

The River Arno flows through Florence. It is traversed by a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Ponte Vecchio. This is covered, like the mediaeval London Bridge used to be, with buildings and shops. The most interesting feature of this old bridge was the‘secret’ corridor that ran along its buildings just beneath their roofs. This, so my father often told us, linked the Uffizi on one side of the Arno with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side, the Oltrarno. Thispassageway, which must be about almost half a mile in length, allowed Florence’s rulers to move between these important buildingsunobserved by the public. It was closed to the public when we used to visit the city.

When the Germans retreated at the end of WW2, they demolished all of the bridges across the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. They decided that as its carriage way was far too narrow to accommodate military vehicles and large troop movements, it could not have been used by the Allied armies chasing them. My father said it was a tragedy that this bridge was saved whereas its neighbour a few yards downstream was demolished. This bridge, the Ponte Santa Trìnita, was a masterpiece designed by the renaissance artist Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-1592). His Fountain of Neptune is an important and much photographed landmark in the centre of Florence.

When we first visited Florence, the bridge, which was painstakingly reconstructed after the war from the fragments found scattered about under the waters of the Arno, had two statues at each of its ends. Three of these were complete, but one of them was missing its head. This was the only bit of the bridge that had not been recovered. One summer, when we were visiting the city, my father pointed at the bridge and asked us if we noticed anything different about it. We discovered that the missing head had been found, and was back in its rightful place; the bridge was complete again. This must have been in 1962, as the head was only recovered late in 1961.

Most people reading this blog article, will probably think that I was so lucky to have visited Florence so often, and they would be justified. However, to a young boy as I was, I could not appreciate it properly. Now, many years later, I realise that my exposure to the arts at such a tender age was a great gift bestowed by my parents, even if it meant that I never saw the Great Orme.