On show at the Walker in Liverpool until June is a tremendous exhibition of photography by Martin Parr and Tony Ray Jones. I first saw the exhibition Only in England when it was on at the Science Museum in London in 2013, and it so captivated me then that I had to go and see it again. Continue reading “Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker”
David Hockney: Early Reflections is a wonderful – and wonderfully concise – exhibition at the Walker exploring the first decade and a half in the ascending arc of Hockney’s career, focussing on his experiences and the work he produced during the period of his growing success from 1960 to the mid-1970s.
In 1959, aged 22, Hockney left Bradford, where he had studied at the College of Art, for London and the Royal College of Art. There, between 1959 and 1962 he would begin to find himself, both as an artist and as a person. In an interview Hockney gave a few years ago on the occasion of a return visit to the RCA he said:
I had only visited London three or four times before that – I was very provincial, and the College was so lively. I’d left home, was living in a room in Earl’s Court and had about £100 a term to live on. You could do exactly what you wanted. You could even smoke. I remember having to sandpaper off the nicotine stains on my fingers before going to visit the registrar to borrow some money. They couldn’t be seen to be lending to fellows that smoked.
Hockney wanted to be modern (intrigued by Abstract Expressionism, he had hitchhiked down to London to see Jackson Pollock at the Whitechapel in 1956), but at the same time, as he explained in the same interview, he was still interested in ‘depicting what the world looks like’. While at the RCA, a fellow student, Ron Kitaj, helped Hockney to get his bearings, telling him to paint what he felt serious about. Hockney felt serious about books, politics and people.
Michael Glover, reviewing the exhibition in the Independent, wrote that:
Hockney’s works from those Royal College years are the products of a mind in turmoil, a talent trying to break through to something authentic. Hockney tries to paint the figure, but it is a figure partly disguised – and even partly explained – by words added to the canvas. […] Many of these early paintings came bearing urgent messages about his own situation as a young gay man in a world that not only found such behaviour inadmissible, but still deemed it illegal. In part, their urgent, heady feel is to do with the fact that Hockney is striving to be a propagandist about his own sexuality. And the coming allure of America, which he first visited in 1961, and which he begins to paint almost immediately … is his recognition that as a young gay man, he would be able to live more freely there, relaxing into his art, relaxing into his own life.
In the RCA interview, Hockney put it this way:
In 1961, homosexuality was illegal, but I never gave it a thought. The first straightforward gay men I met were at the College – Quentin Blake and Adrian Bird. The Bohemian world was different. There weren’t people telling you off because you weren’t prim and proper or respectable. You were a free spirit and did what you wanted to do. Bohemia was classless. It’s kind of lost now. These days, even the gays, they want to get married. I’m glad that I’ve lived when I have. It was freer.
Hockney on a return visit to the RCA
David Hockney:Early Reflections presents work which Hockney completed at the RCA and in the years soon after. Both the Arts Council and the Walker Art Gallery acquired works early in the artist’s career, and the exhibition takes as its starting point a selection of his paintings, drawings and prints held by both collections. The Arts Council Collection holds major paintings, including Hockney’s iconic We Two Boys Together Clinging, and preparatory studies for others. It also holds prints from his series of etchings inspired by the poetry of Constantine P Cavafy, which cemented his reputation as a printmaker. Through the John Moores Painting Prize the Walker Art Gallery was able to acquire one of Hockney’s most famous pictures, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, when the artist won the competition in 1967 at the age of 30.
The exhibition identifies and explores four key themes in Hockney’s work in this period: a growing confidence in expressing his homosexuality; his skill as a draughtsman and printmaker, particularly seen in his responses to Cavafy’s poems; his obsession with capturing the properties of water; and lastly, portraiture, which has continued to play a central role in his output. Let’s take a look at each of these themes.
‘I’m In the Mood for Love’, 1961
In the Mood for Love
The exhibition opens with a section that looks at some of the major early paintings produced by Hockney at the Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962. They are works which still, half a century later, take your breath away with their cheeky determination to challenge a repressive status quo.
When Hockney entered the Royal College of Art in 1959, a homosexual act between two men was illegal in the UK. It was not until 1967 that this was partially decriminalised. Against this backdrop, Hockney pursued his personal and artistic identity as a young gay man. He found acceptance and inspiration within London’s homosexual sub-culture and later the more liberating environment he encountered in New York and California. Alongside his artistic development, Hockney became a pioneer of gay subject matter.
Introducing this section, the curators have written:
As a student, Hockney wanted to develop an individual and modern style in which to express himself and explore the formal concerns of painting. He found inspiration in the visually raw work of artists like Francis Bacon and Jean Dubuffet. Hockney evolved an approach that was part abstraction, part representation, in which the energetic and expressionistic surface of his pictures appeared scrubbed and smeared. Gradually, language also appeared, like the graffiti in public toilets: ‘I still hadn’t the nerve to paint figure pictures; the idea of figure pictures was considered really anti-modern, so my solution was to begin using words. . .’
Text soon became a code through which his gay identity could be both hidden and – to those in the know – revealed. Hockney took risks in expressing his sexuality in this way, but was passionate in his reasons for doing this: ‘What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something I felt hadn’t been propagandised as a subject: homosexuality.’
The work which gives this section its title – I’m In the Mood for Love– was painted in 1961 and is an autobiographical celebration of Hockney’s first trip to New York trip that year. In the format of a diary page open at July 9 – his birthday – he portrays himself as a prowling wolf or devil with the distinctive glasses and recently bleached blond hair. He stands between two skyscrapers whose shapes are sexually suggestive. Hockney’s raised arm signposts the New York district of Queens, which is obviously a pun. It is hot – ‘temperature 96°’ is written across the patch of cloud. This is one of the works acquired by the Royal College of Art during Hockney’s studies, or on graduation, in 1961 or 1962, as an example of his student work.
‘Study for Doll Boy’, 1960, chalk on paper
Doll Boy was a slightly earlier work that similarly contained coded references to Hockney’s sexuality. The oil painting is not on display – instead we see a study in chalk on paper. ‘Doll Boy’ was inspired by that year’s Cliff Richard hit single ‘Living Doll’. Hockney explains:
I’m not a great pop music fan, I wasn’t then and I’m not now. But I’m a lover of music and a lover of songs and I like singing. Cliff Richard was a very popular singer and I used to cut out photographs of him from newspapers and magazines and stick them up around my little cubicle at the Royal College of Art, partly because other people used to stick up girl pin-ups, and I thought, I’m not going to do that, can’t do that, and there’s something just as sexy, and I stuck them up. He had a song in which the words were, ‘She’s a real live walking talking living doll’, and he sang it rather sexily. The title of this painting is based on that line. He’s referring to some girl, so I changed it to a boy.
‘Doll Boy’, 1961
The study, like the finished painting, represents unfulfilled desire. The heavy abstract shape at the top of the canvas suggests a burden carried by the figure.
‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’, 1961
We Two Boys Together Clinging, painted in 1961, references a 19th century poem by Walt Whitman who, like Hockney, was challenging the prevailing social mores in code:
We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going – North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying – elbows stretching – fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning – sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.
The painting was completed towards the end of Hockney’s second year at the Royal College of Art and incorporates two lines of the poem which have been scribbled on the right-hand side to offer a commentary on the men’s activities. The painting also references a newspaper clipping detailing a climbing accident (‘Two Boys Cling to Cliff all Night’), which Hockney interpreted as an allusion to his idol, Cliff Richard.
The two protagonists in this painting are seen exchanging a passionate embrace and kiss in front of a lavatory wall covered in grafitti. The use of an untutored or child-like style was suggested to Hockney by the work of the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Like the graffiti, this style gives the painting a crudity and vigour but also shrouds the identity of the artist in mock-anonymity.
‘Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria’, 1966
Hockney is an exceptionally fine draughtsman, and the second section of the exhibition presents several superb examples of his developing skills in etching and printmaking whilst a student. The curators have married this to an exploration of Hockney’s interest in poetry and, in particular, how he was inspired by the poems of one of his favourite writers, Constantine P Cavafy. Hockney liked his direct and simple poems about doomed homosexual love.
David Hockney started printmaking at the Royal College of Art in 1960 having heard that materials were provided free in the Printing Department. He was a natural draughtsman and the medium of etching in particular suited his love of line drawing. In 1966 Hockney started work on Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, a book of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems.
For inspiration Hockney visited Beirut, then an exotic and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, the setting for Cavafy’s poems. Back in London, Hockney worked from photographs, his own drawings and directly from life onto copper printing plates. Hockney did not have a particular poems in mind when working – they were matched up afterwards, chosen from about twenty etchings made in around three months. Some images visualise incidents in the poems. Others are less specific, reflecting a mood or shared experience. Hockney’s bold images were defiant in their representation of homosexual love. The etchings were published as a limited edition book and loose-leaf portfolios.
‘Two Boys Aged 23 or 24’, 1966
Constantine Cavafy was born in the Egyptian port of Alexandria in 1863 to parents of Greek heritage. His father was a merchant, whose family business had offices in several cities including Liverpool. Cavafy actually lived in Liverpool for a short time after his father’s death, but after further travels he settled in Alexandria, and later in Athens, where he died in 1933. As a young man Cavafy led a mundane existence, working as a civil servant. But he led a double-life, and in private he pursued secretive homosexual encounters. In his youth Cavafy had been tormented by his desire for other men, but as he grew older he came to terms with his sexuality.
Cavafy began writing poetry in his teens. As well as historical poems making reference to Greek history, Cavafy wrote poems set in the exotic, cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, about doomed love between young men. The events in his poems were largely drawn from his erotic imagination rather than from real life. For illustrations for fourteen poems from CP Cavafy, Hockney worked with the poets Stephen Spender and Nikos Stangos, who provided a translation of the selected Cavafy poems.
One of the finest drawings here is Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria, the etching used to accompany Cavafy’s poem, ‘The mirror at the entrance’. The poem describes an old mirror that briefly enjoys reflecting the perfection of a boy’s face as he delivers a parcel to the house. Cavafy’s poetic idea of giving feelings to an inanimate object appealed to Hockney as an artist. Like him, it had the ability to appreciate and reflect male beauty.
In the entrance of that sumptuous home
there was an enormous mirror, very old;
acquired at least eighty years ago.
A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor’s shop-assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package. He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt. The tailor’s shop-assistant
remained alone, and waited.
He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and left.
But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces—
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.
The Beirut seafront provided the setting for this drawing. Cavafy’s portrait was based on photographs Hockney was given.
‘Two Boys Aged 23 or 24’ is an etching with aquatint that accompanies the Cavafy poem in which two hard-up young lovers celebrate a card win by renting a room in a ‘house of vice’:
Their good looks, their exquisite youthfulness,
the sensitive love they shared
were refreshed, livened, invigorated
by the sixty pounds from the card table.
Now all joy and vitality, feeling and charm,
they went—not to the homes of their respectable families
(where they were no longer wanted anyway)—
they went to a familiar and very special
house of debauchery, and they asked for a bedroom
and expensive drinks, and they drank again.
And when the expensive drinks were finished
and it was close to four in the morning,
happy, they gave themselves to love.
The drawing was based on a lithograph of Hockney’s friends, the artists Mo McDermott and Dale Chisman, in bed. The striking bed cover was created using aquatint, an etching process that gives areas of softer tone to an image.
‘According to the Prescriptions of Ancient Musicians’, 1966
I’ve selected a third etching from those on display – According to the Prescriptions of Ancient Musicians – that on publication was matched to Cavafy’s poem in which a man wishes for a potion to roll back the years and reunite him with the lover of his youth: ‘bring me back the age of twenty-three again; bring my friend at twenty years old back to me again – his beauty, and his love’.
‘The Sexton Disguised as a Ghost Stood Still as a Stone’, 1969
Also on display are etchings, drawn directly onto copper plates, which Hockney made for Illustrations for Six FairyTales from the Brothers Grimm in 1969. For the story ‘The Boy who left home to learn fear’, Hockney interpreted descriptive passages of text from the sinister story in which a sexton disguises himself to frighten the boy: ‘He stood there like a stone, not making as sound’. Hockney draped a handkerchief over a pencil to use for his model.
This was my favourite section of the exhibition, showing a selection of Hockney’s paintings in which he meets up to the challenge of depicting water. The paintings he made in California of swimming pools are probably the works for which he is best known.
Hockney moved to California in 1964. There, he began to engage with the problem of portraying water – something which has remained an obsession throughout the years as he has sought to capture its constantly changing appearance, whether in the ripples of a swimming pool or the sprays and drops of a shower. He said in 1976 that ‘the idea of painting moving water in a very slow and careful manner was (and still is) very appealing to me’.
Hockney’s submission slip for the 1967 John Moores
Since the Walker owns the most famous example of this obsession, Peter Getting out of Nicks Pool, it’s not surprising that it should form the centrepiece of this section. Hockney made the painting in 1966 and entered it for the sixth John Moores Exhibition in 1967 (his submission slip is on display). The painting won first prize and was given to the Walker by Sir John Moores.
In 1966 Hockney had travelled to Los Angeles for the second time. Attracted by the sunny climate and relaxed atmosphere of West Coast America, he began to record the lifestyle there in his work. He went on to produce a series of paintings based on the theme of the swimming pool. Here, Hockney’s friend Peter Schlesinger is depicted climbing out of the swimming pool of Nick Wilder, a Los Angeles gallery owner. The painting is a composite view. Schlesinger did not actually model in the pool; the pose derives from a snapshot of him leaning against his MG sports car. The white border and square format of the painting are reminiscent of the Polaroid prints Hockney used as studies for the composition.
‘Peter Getting out of Nicks Pool’, 1967
It’s a painting of a dream come true. Since his teens, America had been for Hockney a kind of fantasy – vibrant, rich, unstuffy and full of good-looking young men. California, with its sunshine, blue skies and relaxed gay scene was central to this dream of a place far removed from the dull skies and prudery of Bradford and England at the time. During his first visit in 1961 he found, to his delight, that his romantic fantasy was in fact a reality. In early 1964 Hockney settled full-time in Los Angeles.
David Hockney after winning the John Moores Painting Prize in 1967
The movement of water, and the effect of light upon its surface offered Hockney the opportunity to introduce areas of abstraction within his figurative paintings, and an artistic challenge:
It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything – it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.
To evoke water, Hockney evolved a highly stylised technique influenced by advertising graphics. Hockney used the human figure, whether swimming or showering to produce shape and movement into water.
1972 Munich Olympic poster
There’s a poster here that Hockney was commissioned to design for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. By then his reputation was well-established and prints were an important part of his artistic output. The five artists who were commissioned to produce posters were left free to choose their themes, but encouraged to incorporate a relationship with the Olympic idea. Hockney’s passion for representing water and reflections made swimming an obvious choice.
Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978
For me, though, the work that leapt out from this section (and indeed my favourite of the entire show) was Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), one of 29 experimental ‘paper pools’ made in 1978. This one is owned by Bradford Art Gallery and, like the others in the series is a vast, Matisse-like work made of coloured and pressed paper pulp.
The ‘paper pools’ were made during a six-week period in 1978 with Kenneth Tyler, a well-known New York printmaker. Tyler’s unique, water-based paper pulp technique combined painting and printmaking. He encouraged Hockney to try it. Hockney was enthusiastic about the challenge of a new medium using his favourite preoccupation, water. He liked the pulpy tactile surface texture and irregular outlines. These offered a change from the flat, regular areas of colour given by acrylic paint. Hockney’s subject was Tyler’s swimming pool. To enhance the effects of light and movement in the water, Hockney introduced the diver (le plongeur), his friend Gregory Evans. The large scale of the paper pools creates an immersive experience.
John Edwards, a Liverpool-born lawyer, lent ‘Study for Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures)’ to the Walker for the exhibition
Hung alongside Le Plongeur is a study for one of Hockney’s best-known paintings, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures), that dates from the time of his break-up from his partner and muse Peter Schlesinger in about 1971.
In the finished painting, Peter Schlesinger is the figure looking into the pool. Edmund White told the story of the relationship behind the painting in an article for the Guardian:
In the summer of 1966, Hockney was teaching a drawing course at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he met a 17-year-old student, Peter Schlesinger. They soon became lovers – and Peter became Hockney’s muse. As Schlesinger put it, “On the first day of class, the professor walked in – he was a bleached blond; wearing a tomato-red suit, a green-and-white polka-dot tie with a matching hat, and round black cartoon glasses; and speaking with a Yorkshire accent. At the time, David Hockney was only beginning to become established in England, and I had never heard of him.”
For Hockney, the memory was just as striking: “It was incredible to me to meet in California a young, very sexy, attractive boy who was also curious and intelligent. In California you can meet curious and intelligent people, but generally they’re not the sexy boy of your fantasy as well. To me this was incredible; it was more real. The fantasy part disappeared because it was the real person you could talk to.”
‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)’, 1971
A caption beside the painting tells the story of its creation. It was inspired by two photographs accidentally coming together. One, from 1966, was a distorted figure swimming under water. The other was a boy staring at the ground. Hockney destroyed his first unsuccessful version of the painting. To prepare the second version he photographed a boy, John St Clair, swimming in a pool in southern France. Hockney’s friend Mo McDermott stood in for Peter. Studies like the coloured pencil drawing on paper displayed here, also helped Hockney resolve the finished painting.
‘Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon’, 1978
‘Lithographic Water Made Of Lines Crayon and Two Blue Washes Without Green Wash’, 1978
Hockney explored the swimming pool motif intensively in his work during his time in California in the sixties. Returning to America in 1978, the visual possibilities of the subject still fascinated him. This lithographic print of Water Made Of Lines Crayon and Two Blue Washes Without Green Wash is one of a series in which Hockney experimented with the same image, but added different washes, colours, tones and stylised squiggles to capture shifting colours, depth and reflections in the water. These variations were mirrored in the detailed titles of the individual prints, which were produced in New York by the American printmaker and publisher Kenneth Tyler. The pool was Tyler’s.
‘Man in Shower in Beverly Hills’, 1964
Then there were the showers. Arriving in America in the early sixties from an England where such things were barely dreamed of, Hockney marvelled at the showers, and at the American fondness for them. Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, painted in 1964 in acrylic, explores the artistic possibilities of moving water, shower curtains and glass doors – all of which excited him. He was inspired to update a traditional artistic theme – the bather – saying:
For an artist the interest in showers is obvious: the whole body is always in view and in movement, usually gracefully, as the bather is caressing his own body.
In this painting, the figure and tiles were based on a voyeuristic photograph he bought from the homoerotic Physique Pictorial magazine. Hockney called the painting ‘conceptual’. In it he experiments with pattern, the illusion of surfaces and falling water, and composition. Some challenges were unresolved – he struggled to paint the man’s feet and bent the plant to cover them.
‘Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices’, 1965
The final section of the Walker’s exhibition presents a snapshot of one of Hockney’s greatest achievements – portraiture. Portraits in painting and drawing have always been central to David Hockney’s artistic output and the Arts Council Collection contains a broad range of portraits acquired in the 1960s and 1970s. These demonstrate Hockney’s insight into the characters and lives of his subjects alongside his evolving skills as an artist. The Collection includes Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices, considered one of Hockney’s most complex portrait paintings.
As a young artist in the sixties, Hockney worried that his work was not sufficiently ‘contemporary’. Discussing his early years, he once said: ‘I have never thought my painting advanced, but in 1964 I still consciously wanted to be involved, if only peripherally, with modernism.’ So, briefly, in the mid-1960s, he experimented with ideas about modern painting and these issues are the focus of this painting of his father. Kenneth Hockney is seated amidst ‘artistic devices’- his son’s visual exploration of the way artists create images in two dimensions. Around his father’s portrait, Hockney plays with colour, shape, picture depth and geometry, responding to Cezanne’s innovatory suggestion that all nature could be reduced to cylinders, spheres and cones.
Hockney has always preferred to make portraits of people he knows, and the group on display includes an informal image of Gregory Evans, a companion and model of Hockney’s from the 1970s. Schlesinger had left him in 1971 and by 1974 Hockney had taken up with the younger man. He was hung-over after a night out in London when Hockney drew this portrait.
There are also revealing preparatory studies for some of his famous large-scale double portraits, such as that of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Hockney’s California lifestyle is also never far from the surface, including his encounter with the art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman.
‘California Seascape’, 1968,watercolour and pencil
Tucked away in a corner of this last section is an exquisite watercolour that is not a portrait. On Hockney’s return to California from England in 1968 he worked on three big pictures. One of these was California Seascape,for which this is a study. It depicts the view through the window of the home of fellow artist Dick Smith, who lived in Corona del Mar on the Pacific coast. The picture was Smith’s suggestion. Hockney was pleased with his studies and the unusual ‘picture within a picture’ composition in which the interior is of equal importance to the exterior. The finished painting is in a slick realist style in contrast to the fluid watercolour.
Introduction to the exhibition
This is an excellent introduction by Head of Fine Art at the Walker, Ann Bukantas, to the exhibition which formed part of the 2014 Homotopia Festival.
- David Hockney’s first brushes with genius: exhibition review (Independent)
- Exhibition review: Liverpool.com
- David Hockney: a portrait of the artist as a gay man (Guardian)
- David Hockney’s gay art made a splash when it mattered (Jonathan Jones’ blog, Guardian)
- John Kasmin remembers a trip with David Hockney in 1965 (Telegraph)
- David Hockney: the poets that make me paint (Blake Morrison in the Guardian)
- CP Cavafy: official website with prose and poetry
‘You can now say things about Muslims, in polite society and even among card-carrying liberal lefties, that you cannot say about any other group or minority.’Those were the words of Mehdi Hasan, writing a final comment piece for The Guardian on Tuesday. They came to mind as I stood before the remarkable portrait of an 18th century West African Muslim that is on display for a limited period at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.
William Hoare’s 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is the earliest British oil painting of a freed slave – and the first portrait to honour an African subject and Muslim as an individual and equal. The Museum has given this one-picture exhibition the title, Faith, Slavery and Identity, noting that ‘Djallo had a lasting impact on our understanding of West Afrjcan culture, Black identity and the Islamic faith, but his life raises some uncomfortable questions’.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was born into a family of Muslim imams in West Africa in 1701. In 1731, while on a trading mission to the River Gambia to sell two black slaves to the English ship Arabella, Diallo was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and transported to Maryland where he was made to work on a tobacco plantation. Diallo (known also as Job ben Solomon) escaped, was caught and imprisoned but permitted to write a letter to his father that came to the attention of James Oglethorpe, Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company. Oglethorpe was so moved by the letter that he arranged for Diallo’s purchase and passage to England.
Diallo arrived in London in 1733. Recognised as a deeply pious and educated man, Diallo mixed with high and intellectual society and was bought out of slavery by public subscription. His portrait was painted that same year by William Hoare, an accomplished artist, who painted many members of Georgian high society. Diallo was himself a high-status, educated and wealthy individual from a family of Muslim clerics. He was born in Bundu (now on the Senegal-Mali border) in West Africa, and as well as his native language, was fluent in Arabic and later learned English while enslaved. Hoare’s painting depicts Diallo as a man of intelligence, character and compassion and was made at the time when there was a new interest in Islamic culture and faith in Britain, a reflection, perhaps, of more tolerant values during the Enlightenment.
Through the publication by Thomas Bluett of his Memoirs in 1734, Diallo had an important and lasting impact on an understanding of West African culture, black identity and the Islamic faith. Bluett was on the same ship that brought Diallo to England, and in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, concluded that Diallo was ‘no common Slave’.
Freed from slavery with money raised by public subscription, arrangements were made for Diallo’s return to Africa – a rarity for victims of slavery. Returning to his home town, Diallo learned that during his absence his father had died, the country had been ravaged by war and his wife had remarried.
Despite his own life having been blighted by slavery, Diallo resumed his own slave trading activities. An interpretation plaque at the Slavery Museum comments:
Slaves were an accepted part of most African Islamic societies. Many were prisoners of war, although exceptions could occasionally be made if prisoners converted to Islam. The Koran proclaimed that to free a slave was a most praiseworthy act, but although Islam arguably promoted the more benign treatment of slaves (women were generally not separated from their children, and masters did not have the power of life and death), human rights of Muslims and non-Muslims were sometimes still abused.
Three years ago, the National Portrait Gallery raised £100,000 from private donors and won support from Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund to acquire William Hoare’s portrait of Diallo but were beaten at auction by the Qatar Museum Authority. A temporary export bar prevented the portrait being whisked abroad and now a 5 year cooperative agreement has been reached to lend the painting to the NPG. The Qatar Museum Authority are supporting a programme of conservation and research on the work in London, and the painting will tour the UK before being exhibited in Doha in 2013.
Nearby, the Museum currently has on display this painting by William Windus, entitled Black Boy (c 1844), from the Walker Art Gallery collection. A Museum caption notes:
It could be read as an example of how European artists sometimes treated black people as picturesque subject matter. However, it can also, perhaps more convincingly, be seen as a straightforward realistic portrait. Windus was born in Liverpool and trained at the Liverpool Academy Schools. This poor boy dressed in rags is traditionally associated with a touching story with a suitably happy ending. He is said to have crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway and been found by Windus on the steps of the Monument Hotel in Liverpool. Windus is then supposed to have employed him as an errand boy. This painting was put in the window of a frame-maker’s shop. A sailor relative of the boy saw it, found the boy and took him back to his parents. It is unknown whether this story is true or not.
Windus’ image of picturesque poverty would have had a strong appeal in Victorian England. It is also, however, a strikingly direct picture of a boy, shown in a matter-of-fact pose. It does not have any ‘humorous’ props or symbolic details that often accompanied images of black people from the time suggesting lowly status or social inferiority. It is simply an image of a poor boy, similar in style to many other images of the ‘lower classes’ produced at this time.
The Museum adds these notes about Liverpool’s early Black presence:
There have been people of African descent in Liverpool since at least the 1700s. Some Africans were sold in the town in the 1760s and 1770s but very few enslaved Africans were brought to Liverpool directly from Africa. A number of merchants brought slaves from the West Indies to work as servants in their homes. Some African chiefs also sent their sons to be educated here and in the 1790s over 50 were at school in Liverpool. With the development of the palm oil trade after 1807, African seafarers were increasingly employed to crew the ships. Many of them settled on the outskirts of the town, in the area we know as Liverpool 8.
Passing through one of the rooms of the Walker Art Gallery recently I happened to notice, in the corner, a small display of photographs – some by Henri Cartier-Bresson alongside others by local photographer Edward Chambre Hardman. I was surprised to discover that not only had the great French photographer visited Liverpool in the sixties to make a TV documentary about the north, but that he had taken photographs less than half a mile from where I now live. It seems a little fantastical, the idea that the master of the ‘decisive moment’ wandered along Lodge Lane with his Leica.
But it’s true, as one of the photos on display at the Walker confirms. It’s a picture taken outside Lodge Lane wash-house in 1962. In those days there were still several public wash-houses in Liverpool, where women from the local streets who didn’t possess a washing machine would take their laundry. Most families had an old pram to transport cloths to the wash-house, and in the photo Cartier-Bresson shows the prams parked down the side entrance in Grierson Street. Kids would be ordered by their mums to mind the pram by standing outside for hours.
The Walker has on display five photographic prints the gallery acquired from shots taken by Cartier-Bresson when he came to Liverpool in 1962 as part of a team filming a TV documentary about northerners. Cartier-Bresson came away with a rather dour first impression of Liverpool and the English north. He later commented in ‘Notes from the North’ (now in the Walker archive):
Writing about the same people of the North at work amounts to the same as writing about them at play. Their looks are not so different neither are their clothes. There is no exuberance on their faces nor gestures. They are hard at it but in a resigned sort of way. Their vacationing seems just an occupation as any other. […]
There is still very much a feeling of the dragging of the 19th century … I look at it from the windshield of my camera. In these pictures are the impression I have gained.
As often happens with me,it came to me later I’d seen a couple of these images before – in the wonderful Tate exhibition during Capital of Culture Year, Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Garde. Christoph Grunenberg and Robert Knifton commented on Cartier-Bresson’s visit in their book documenting the exhibition:
Undoubtedly Liverpool in the early 1960s was an austere place, still recovering from the devastation of war and yet to experience the explosion of the Merseybeat phenomenon. Cartier-Bresson’s iconic images stand in a long tradition that has its origins in the activities of documentary film and photography of the 1930s and Mass Observation in Britain in particular and which, with variations, continues to shape conventions until today. This ‘school of miserable realism’ paints an uncompromising picture of hardship, industrial decline and urban deprivation while emphatically focusing on the individual fate and almost heroic resistance in the face of persistent adversity. Cartier-Bresson’s views on the holidaying working class cannot help but call to mind, for example, Martin Parr’s famous series of working-class Scouse daytrippers at New Brighton, The Last Resort 1983-6 or Tom Wood’s night revellers at play in the same location. But as Parr’s title for this memorable series highlights, this was already a vanishing world at the time it was being captured by these photographers.
There are four photographs currently on display at the Walker, in addition to the one outside Lodge Lane washhouse. One is of a group of men moving barrow (above). It was taken by the Wellington Column, near the Walker on William Brown Street. Another image (below) shows two boys playing in a street, possibly taken in Smithdown Lane. There’s a shot of a man and girl outside the Walker (below), and another of shipworkers laying a keel at Cammel Lairds shipyard.
Liverpool, England, 1962 (below) must have been taken during the same visit. The photo featured in an exhibition marking what would have been Cartier-Bresson’s 100th birthday at the International Centre of Photography, New York. The catalogue placed the image in the context of Cartier-Bresson’s career:
Is there anyone unfamiliar with the famous work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the legendary, influential photographer and filmmaker – receiver of many countries’ highest awards?
Born 100 years ago (1908-2004) near Paris, France, Henri Cartier-Bresson found fame with the invention of the tiny, lightweight 35mm Leica camera, replacing heavier bulkier cameras of the day. With the camera fitting in his hand, Cartier-Bresson could work inconspicuously – watching for “the decisive moment”– a social comment, a funny incident, a great scene.
Before he was famous, he’d survived blackwater fever in Africa, and later during WWII, three years imprisonment by the Nazis followed by and escape to fight for a free France. His career began after the war in 1947 with Robert Capa and others founding the Magnum Photo Agency. His assignments led him across the world to land at historic turning points like the making on the new Republic of China, as well as the death of Ghandi in India.
But for the youthful Cartier-Bresson, a camera was not his first choice – preferring a career in painting. Paris in the 1920’s exploded with modern art movements – Impressionism to Cubism. Cartier-Bresson took to Surrealism – learning the power of form and composition. But not content, he left for more studies in England. Later, while in Africa, he hunted – sighting game with a rangefinder rifle.
Back in Paris, inspired by innovative photographers, he trained his sights through a viewfinder camera to shoot photos. Seeking a new realism in the streets, he transformed the imagination of the painter into the vision of the photographer. Instead of a brush and paint on canvas, he clicked the shutter on film. Not interested in darkroom technique, or the manipulations of tones, or of cropping, he composed in the camera viewfinder for the direct-end-result.
He said, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life offers you — and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”
‘Liverpool, England, 1962’, shows 3 little girls wearing white socks, black dress shoes, and Sunday best coats walking soberly in front of a brick shell of a building surrounded by rubble and other gray bombed-out buildings. The contrast of innocent life going forward amidst destruction comments on human durability.
Christopher Allen, writing, in November 2011, a review of an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson photographs at Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane drew attention to this image showing ‘three little girls walking past massive ruined buildings in Liverpool long after the end of World War II’ and reflected that:
Cartier-Bresson’s subject is humanity in the endless diversity he discovers across the world. He has an acute eye for incongruities and ironies but it is invariably a sympathetic rather than a satirical one. … Among the most striking pictures are those of people in very poor countries, eking out a subsistence living in harsh countryside or even harsher city streets. … One feels that Cartier-Bresson was driven to seek out places where life is experienced in a more elemental way than in the sophisticated Parisian world of his youth; and as much as the material conditions of life, it is the psychological or mental life of the people that he glimpses, whether subjects are caught unawares or stare straight at the photographer. […]
Mortality is pervasive and casts a certain melancholy over the images of slum-dwellers. … Life and hope, on the other hand, are repeatedly evoked through images of children. …
Sifting through a selection of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, it is true that many of his most memorable images feature children. He would not be able to walk the streets aiming his lens so casually at children today. Paul Trevor, who spent six months of 1975 documenting life on Liverpool’s most deprived streets, commented in an interview with the Liverpool Daily Post:
To photograph kids today in the way I did is literally impossible. This generation today is the first since photography was invented that is not being photographed in the same way. We live in a very different world and parents don’t feel so safe letting their kids out. Their kids are busy with computer games, there’s a lot of paranoia. I would probably have to discuss the project in advance with police and request permission from parents. Imagine if Cartier-Bresson had to do what students today are being advised to do and get permission first before you take the picture. It’s a great loss to culture but it might be a blip. It might be something we all get over and future generations won’t be so paranoid.
In his latest collection, That Awkward Age, Roger McGough has a poem called ‘Street Urchins’ that combines a personal childhood memory with his imagining of an encounter between Cartier-Bresson and two scouse urchins. This must be another Liverpool image from that 1962 visit of Cartier-Bresson’s to the city – I haven’t been able to identify it.
In the foreground, two boys with dirty faces
snub-nosed and unwashed,
are grinning wildly as they hug each other.
One is bare-footed, his elder brother
wears oversized boots without laces.
Both in ragged matching jumpers.
It is a sunny day, but cold.
A lamp post leans a heavy shadow
diagonally across the pavement.
In the background, the mother
pushing the large hooded pram
is mufiled in headscarfand winter coat.
In black and white, the photograph
could have been taken in any street
in any industrial town not long after the war.
Fade in colour and movement.
The town in fact is Liverpool,
a September morning down by the docks.
After telling the Frenchman to fuck off
the boys, still laughing,
race each other down the cobbled street,
cross a bomb site and turn
into ajigger that runs between
the backs ofterraced houses.
A seven-year-old boy,
unsure of his surroundings,
is taking a short cut home from school.
The boy in boots picks up halfa brick,
his brother, ajagged piece ofroofslate.
They close in on the stranger.
I give them all I have
A thripenny bit and a brand new pencil.
Fade out colour and movement.
While in Liverpool in 1962, Cartier-Bresson also took these photos of dock workers:
- 10 Things Henri Cartier-Bresson Can Teach You About Street Photography
- Henri Cartier-Bresson: From a higher reality to a respect for reality
- Paul Trevor: like you’ve never been away
- Paul Trevor’s brilliant photos of Liverpool in 1975
It’s been on at the Walker since last October, but last week I finally got round to seeing the exhibition of art books by Henri Matisse that comprises 63 original illustrations with text from four of Matisse’s most significant art books, including Jazz (1947), perhaps the most celebrated artist’s books in the history of modern art. In Nice four years ago we were fortunate enough to see a temporary exhibition of Jazz, a complete collection of the one hundred prints that make up the book.
The exhibition at the Walker features just a small selection from five Matisse art books: Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé (1932), Baudelaire’s Le fleurs du mal, Henri de Montherlant‘s Pasiphaé-Chant de Minos (les Crétois) (1944), Jazz (1947), and Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans (1950). All of the images on display are outstanding. There are delicate line drawings, the flowing white-on-black curves of linocuts, and the vivid, colourful cut-out stencils of Jazz.
Artists have been producing finely made books for centuries. The illustration or interpretation of works of literature by artists became particularly popular in France in the early 20th century. This coincided with an expanded market for visual art, especially amongst the educated upper middle class. Livres d’artistes (artists’ books) were characterised by large, sumptuous formats with lavish, original illustrations and were printed in limited editions. Some were bound volumes, others were loose-leaf portfolios. The books sold on the reputations of the artists and writers involved and were often the initiative of opportunistic publishers. As well as Matisse, other artists who produced books included Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst. They were always conceived as original artworks, where the artist exercised a high degree of control. Matisse, for example, managed all aspects of production from selecting the paper to the typeface.
Trained as a lawyer, the turning point of Henri Matisse’s life came at the surprisingly late age of 20, according to the exhibition commentary, when his mother gave him his first paint box:
From the moment that I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.
– Matisse, 1941
Matisse evolved a style that used brilliant, unnatural colours and bold brushstrokes. In his thirties he led the artists’ group branded the Fauves (the wild beasts) owing to their radical use of paint and colour. The art books, though, were created in the last two decades of his life. Over a 25-year period (between 1930 and 1954) he alternated painting with the creation of books in limited editions that make up a body of work with a character all its own.
At the beginning of the exhibition is displayed the one painting by Matisse in the Walker collection. Painted early in his career, around 1898, The Viaduct at Arcueil depicts a scene in the Paris suburb where Matisse regularly painted landscapes during 1898 and 1900.
In creating his art books, Matisse worked with various techniques, employing lithography, linoleum cuts, etching and pochoir, always seeking a simplicity of line and form that is close to calligraphy. In the first room is a display of materials and tools relating to each technique. In the case of Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, Matisse’s line drawings were printed from a piece of etched copper plate like this one. In Poésies Matisse responded to the poet’s stated emphasis on the importance of the white space around the poem by etching ‘an even, very thin line, without hatching, so that the printed page is left almost as white as it was before printing’.
Linoleum (lino) is easy to cut, and was perfect for Matisse’s curving and flowing lines. This technique was used in making Pasiphaé-Chant de Minos.
With Jazz, the printing reproduces the paper cut-outs that Matisse gave to the printer, using the technique known as pochoir, French for ‘stencil’. The stencils used to print Jazz were cut from thin metal sheets. Each colour had its own stencil, with a wooden registration block ensuring accurate alignment. By directly brushing the same gouache paints through the stencils that Matisse had used on the cut-outs , the printers approximated the rich colours and layers in his originals.
Matisse began work on his first art book, Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, following a trip to Tahiti in 1930. In contrast to his pictorial work, drenched with tropical light and colours, Matisse sought out the essence in etchings of fine, regular strokes with no shading, complementing the text displayed on the facing page. The sensuousness of feminine figures, windows and flowers reflect his experience of Tahiti, combined with recurrent images from Mallarmé’s poetry, such as fawns, swans, hair and fans.
This is Sea Breeze’ (‘Brise Marine’) from Poésies, illustrating Mallarme’s poem that speaks of the poet suffering from a weariness of spirit, disappointed hopes and writer’s block. The poet hopes for escape to an exotic land. Matisse would have identified with the sentiments, having travelled to Tahiti in 1930 in search of rest, inspiration and tropical light when he, too, struggling with the commission from the American collector Albert C Barnes to decorate the central hall of his newly-built museum at Merion in Pennsylvania (the work that was to become The Dance).
Both the flesh and the spirit weary me;
I am no longer in love and I have read all my books.
I long to get away, to flee from this world to where the birds are wild with
joy to be flying across unknown seas and skies.
Nothing shall hold me back from my heart’s desire to plunge deep
into the sea and to vanish into the night;
neither the old gardens I see around me, nor the unbroken circle of light
from my lamp, falling on the blank sheet of paper and its
forbidding whiteness, nor my wife suckling her child.
I shall abandon everything and board a steamer with swaying masts
setting off for some exotic land.
For such is my weariness, overwhelmed by disappointed hopes,
that I still cherish the illusion that one can really escape, that handkerchiefs can
wave in a truly final farewell.
Even though these masts may perhaps run into storms
so that my dreams of escape will lead only to the shipwreck of my hopes,
instead of to the welcoming island I visualise,
my heart still finds it hard to resist the idea of escape
and the appeal of sailors’ songs.
Matisse had been commissioned to produce the book by a Swiss publisher, Albert Skira, who chose the remarkably unpromising moment of the start of a global slump to launch two luxury art books (the other was an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, illustrated by Picasso). Matisse’s thin, flowing lines leave the paper, in Matisse’s own words, ‘almost as white as it was before painting’. ‘La Coiffure’ (above) depicts Herodias, Queen of the Galileans, the woman who schemed to have John the Baptist executed.
The next book to be displayed, Pasiphae Song of Minos (The Cretans) is the French author Henri de Montherlant’s
re-telling of the Greek myth of the god Poseidon who cursed King Minos of Crete for refusing to sacrifice a bull.
Poseidon placed Minos’s wife Pasiphae under a spell that drove her mad with desire for the animal. Consequently, she gave birth to the half-bull, half-man Minotaur.
Montherlant proposed the collaborative project to Matisse in 1943, having found someone prepared to publish an illustrated edition despite the wartime restrictions. Matisse’s designs respond not to the story’s tragedy but to the themes of love, desire and feminine beauty.
Matisse had been working on another art book displayed in this exhibition, the Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans (which hadn’t found a publisher). For that he had used ordinary children’s crayons to illustrate Orleans’ poems. For the Montherland project he experimented with another childish medium, using the linocut to draw in dazzling white lines on a ground as black as the night sky.
Each double-page spread was treated as a single unit, intended to be unified by the viewer’s eye. Preparing these linocuts, Matisse gouged into the soft linoleum, ‘drawing’ in reverse, white on black. The process captured the subtle movements of his hand.
One of the most striking images in the exhibition is ‘L’angoisse qui s’amasse en frappant sous ta gorge’ (‘The fear which grows and sticks in your throat’, above) in which Pasiphae is shown with her head thrown back in a silent shriek. Matisse’s friend, the writer Louis Aragon, described this image as ‘a single white stroke against the background, like a jagged flash of lightning’. Aragon felt the image had a resonance beyond anything in Montherlant’s poetry:
Perhaps in reality it was other sufferings, taking place beyond the walls of his house, that turned this ancient story … into a cry, like an echo of things that no-one talked about in Matisse’s presence.
Matisse was ill during the period that he worked on these images. He found it hard to see properly by daylight, and he worked more and more at night or by day withe the shutters closed. Intent on matching the spirit and ambience of the classic tale, Matisse took as the model for his images ancient Greek black ground vase painting.
For each scene, Matisse selected a favorite phrase from Montherlant’s Pasiphaé and interpreted it in several different ways. True to his style, the images respond not to the tale’s tragedy but to universal themes of passion, feminine beauty and love. For the 1944 publication, only one image per scene was printed and additional linoleum blocks were stored for a separate edition that Matisse hoped to publish later.
What became the iconic image of Jazz, Icarus with his glowing red heart, had its origins in the same period. ‘It was in the summer of 1943, the darkest point of that whole period, that he made an Icarus’, wrote Aragon. Matisse was preparing to leave Cimiez, his home in Nice, to retreat inland to Vence as the war intensified. In her biography, Matisse The Master, Hilary Spurling writes:
This Fall of Icarus … led directly to one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary printed books, the triumphant cut-paper inventions of Jazz, which Matisse worked on all through his first winter at Vence.
Fascinated by Matisse’s Icarus, the publisher Tériade proposed he create a book ‘on Matisse colour’, a ‘manuscript of modern painting’ that would revive the splendour of medieval illumination. What with the war, Matisse’s poor health and painting commitments, it was seven years before the book became a reality. The result was spectacular: images mainly inspired by the circus painted with gouache then cut out and combined to create collages of exuberant beauty. On the facing page, the text in Matisse’s own calligraphy, expresses the painter’s observations on life.
Matisse started working on Jazz in 1943, inspired by his experiments ‘drawing’ with scissors and sheets of
pre-coloured paper. He worked day and night, covering his walls with the designs from which the final 20 plates were chosen. The intense colours and the rate at which he worked worsened his eyesight. The imagery came from his memories of the circus, folklore and travel.
The title ‘Jazz’ does not relate to the content of the images, but to the manner of their presentation. Matisse explained:
True jazz has a number of excellent qualities: the gift of improvisation, of life, of harmony with the listening audience.
It’s Matisse’s technique that reflects the energy of music and dance. When asked where the idea for Jazz came from, Matisse said he looked to the rhythm of music and dance. He added:
It’s not enough to place colours, however beautiful, one beside the other; colours must also react to one another. Otherwise you have cacophony. Jazz is rhythm and meaning.
The book approaches naive, spontaneous folk-art, drawing its inspiration from folk tales, circus performances and travel. The images of circus life are usually angular, while the lagoon images are flowing and rounded.
The lagoon compositions recall Matisse’s trip to Tahiti in 1930. He had travelled widely on the island, swam and used a
glass-bottomed viewing box to see beneath the water. Tahiti enchanted him and had a major influence on his use of colour and form, as seen in other work in this period, such as Polynesia, The Sea and Polynesia, The Sky.
One of the images displayed in the exhibition probably has darker origins. It has been suggested that this nightmarish image. ‘Le Loup’, symbolises the German secret police, the Gestapo. Whilst Matisse was working on Jazz in 1944 his daughter Marguerite, who acted a s a courier for the Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in Rennes. She was brutally tortured, but survived.
The exhibition also includes images from Le fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire, illustrated by Matisse in 1947. Instead of attempting to illustrate the texts he chose directly, Matisse drew 33 portraits, including one of himself, one of Baudelaire, three of young men, and 29 of women.
Typical is the two-page spread above, an excerpt from ‘The Midnight Enquiry’ . This translation is by Roy Cambell:
The clocks strike midnight one by one
Ironically to remind us,
And ask what profit we have won
Out of the day we’ve left behind us.
The Thirteenth, Friday, as it chances!
A fatal date; when all is said,
In spite of all we know, we’ve led
The most heretical of dances…
Another of the poems in the collection is, aptly, ‘Plaint of Icarus’:
Lovers of prostitutes, in crowds,
Are sated and content and cheery,
But as for me, my arms are weary
Because I have embraced the clouds.
Thanks to the stars – O peerless ones! –
That flame deep in the boundless sky,
My burned-out eyes can now descry
Only the memories of suns.
In vain I sought to trace and fit
Space in its mid and final stance
I know not under what hot glance
My wings are crumbling bit by bit.
The love of beauty sealed my doom,
Charred, I have not been granted this:
To give my name to the abyss
That is to serve me as a tomb.
The final selection pf pages in the Walker exhibition is from Poèmes, by Charles d’Orléans, published in 1950. Matisse had developed an interest in the ballads and songs of the medieval troubadour, Charles d’Orléans (1394-1465) who specialised in songs of courtly love and separation. Matisse made a selection of the poems and wrote them out in black pencil, surrounding them with colour friezes. He created the author’s portrait (above) from a number of images of other members of his family, (there being no extant image of d’Orléans ) and composed 48 lithographs that feature fleur-de-lis designs and handwritten transcriptions of the verses copied by Matisse using coloured crayons with the same spontaneity and fluidity that he demonstrated with scissors in his cutouts for Jazz.
For the past year or so the number of paintings you can view on the Your Paintings website has been growing steadily. This joint initiative between the BBC, the Public Catalogue Foundation aims to make all 2000,000 paintings in the UK national public collection available to view online.
Your Paintings is a work in progress, currently just over half way through the massive digitisation programme needed to photograph and document all the paintings in the national collection. Recently the entire collection of paintings held by National Museums of Liverpool went online, joining paintings held by other galleries and public institutions on Merseyside.
The brilliant thing about this project is that at any one time only around 20% of the paintings in a gallery’s collection will be on public display. They might be being conserved or repaired, or in storage (because of limited display space). In addition, many paintings in the public collection are on display in buildings not open to the public.
As far as Merseyside is concerned, works from the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the Walker Art Gallery, Sudley House, The Museum of Liverpool, the International Slavery Museum, Merseyside Maritime Museum, and the UK Border Agency National Museum are now online, as well as items from places like Liverpool Magistrates’ Court, Merseyside Police Headquarters, the Pilkington Glass Collection, the Philharmonic, Tate Liverpool, Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool hospitals, and art from galleries on the Wirral and in Sefton. Here’s the full list:
You could spend a long time browsing just the Merseyside collection, let alone paintings from other parts of the country. These are just a few of the paintings that I chanced on as I sifted through the works held locally.
I haven’t been able to find any information about Charles Trevor Prescott other than his dates: 1872–1947. There are five paintings held locally, all of them paintings of Liverpool scenes in the last decade of the 19th century. They include views of St John’s Market and the Liverpool Underground Railway.
Amongst the fine paintings in the Walker Art Gallery collection is ‘Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase’ by Paul Nash and Holland, Cold Holland by Albert Richards, both painted in 1944. Richards, who was born in Liverpool in 1919, was a British War Artist at the time of this painting. After attending the Wallasey School of Art and the Royal College of Art he joined the Royal Engineers in 1940. On D-Day he landed in France by parachute with the 6th Airborne Division and was killed when his jeep ran over a mine on 5 March 1945. There are pictures by him in the collections of the Walker Art Gallery , the Imperial War Museum and the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead.
Another local artist was Richard Young. Once known as ‘ Liverpool’s best kept secret’, Young was a private man who largely worked alone – both as an artist and electrician – and who was not given to blowing his own trumpet. Once asked what was his great achievement, he replied, ‘rewiring the Midland Bank, Bootle, in 1962′. The painting below (which is mis-titled on Your Paintings), is held by Sefton Council and, like all but one of his seven paintings in Merseyside collections, is not currently on public display. For more on Dick Young, go to my blog dedicated to his life and work.
Two more paintings from the Walker Art Gallery: Winifred Nicholson, ‘View through a Window with Blue Curtains and a Chair’, is fairly typical of her impressionistic style that tended to concentrate on domestic subjects and landscapes, often combined in a view out of a window; and Augustus John’s ‘Two Jamaican Girls’, painted in 1937 .
Augustus John came to Liverpool at the age of 23 John came to Liverpool to work as an art instructor. He was only in Liverpool for eighteen months in 1901-1902, but it was during this time that he first embarked on official portraiture with pictures local dignitaries, including senior members of the University Council. By the end of the First World War, John had built a reputation as a painter of celebrities. The portrait of the Jamaican girls is radically different.
At Sudley Art Gallery in Liverpool’s Mossley Hill suburb there’s a brilliant late Turner, ‘Margate Harbour’, painted around 1835. It was acquired by George Holt, who had made his fortune as a cotton broker in early 19th century Liverpool. He made his home at Sudley in 1884, where his daughter Emma lived until her death in 1944. She bequeathed the house and the collection of paintings assembled by her father to the city of Liverpool. George Holt’s sister Anne noted in the family diary in March 1872 that her brother had ‘purchased a nice small Turner at Mr. Leyland’s sale’. It was almost certainly this atmospheric late canvas, whose subject is probably emigrants embarking for new lives abroad.
Across the water, at the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, one of the popular items in the collection is Scottish painter Joseph Farquharson’s ‘The Shortening Winter’s Day is Near a Close’ from 1903. Farquharson is best known for his paintings of winter landscapes, usually snowy scenes featuring sheep and with poetic sounding titles. Walter Sickert wrote of Farquharson’s ‘extraordinary virtuosity’ and praised his lightness of touch as ‘the mark of the real painter’. But The Magazine of Art suggested that Farquharson was guilty of ‘turning out year after year what seem to be stereotyped repetitions of old effects’. The soap magnate William Hesketh Lever added the painting to his personal collection and it hangs in the gallery that he founded in 1922.
The picture at the top of this post is by local artist David Jacques. Entitled ‘Irish Emigrants Entering Liverpool’ it was painted in eight weeks in 1990 at the Kirkby Unemployed Resource Centre and is now on display in the new Museum of Liverpool.
Just over a year ago, I wrote about the sale of the derelict pub that Banksy was commissioned to paint as part of the Liverpool Bienniel in 2004. Since then work renovation work has slowly been progressing, and Banksy’s rat has not been compromised. Now comes news, first reported on the local Seven Streets blog, that Banksy is back in town. A new work has appeared, sprayed on the side of a building, next to a car park on Rumford Street, between Tithebarn and Water Street.
The mural (above) is of a biplane, its trail leaving a huge, joyful heart shape. Seven Streets was very happy:
The stencilled art might not be as political or brutally satirical as some of Banksy’s other stuff, but it’s no less wonderful, and we’re ridiculously chuffed he’s decided to revisit Liverpool again. Feel the love.
Later, Liverpool council said they have no plans to remove the work of art. A spokesperson said: ‘We are not taking any action. It’s on private property and there have been no complaints about it. We would only normally remove it if we had complaints about it’.
However, yesterday Seven Streets were not so happy. After only 24 hours, Banksy’s mural has been defaced:
An art terrorist? A political statement? A drunk? Or just a twat? Either way the new Liverpool Banksy … has been somewhat altered by a rather underwhelming addition. The picture of a biplane looping the loop to draw a heart with its vapour trails now has the words ‘Bank”sy 4 Robbo’ (sic) intertwined among the white heart. The last ‘o’ is a CND symbol. Turns out the defacing might have been done by a follower of Banksy’s rival King Robbo, who had a bit of a graffiti war with Banksy back in the day. Robbo himself is currently in a coma, but has many spraypaint-wielding sympathisers across the globe.
- Banksy in Liverpool: more images of Banksy’s work in Liverpool, including the Duke Street rat.
- Banksy donates art work to Walker Art Gallery: so that’s why he was in town!
- Banksy sparks row with Catholics: they don’t like his comment on the cover-up of child abuse.
‘Anarchy in the paint pot, mutiny in the brush’, fulminated a certain Reverend Lund, speaking in a debate in March 1911 following the opening of a ground-breaking exhibition held in Liverpool which displayed international Post-Impressionist artworks alongside the work of local radical artists.
And it wasn’t just radicalism in art that came to Liverpool in 1911. That year was one of massive social unrest in the city, culminating in the General Transport Strike which lasted for 72 days during that summer. Seamen, firemen, dock labourers and railwaymen joined the strike for better wages and conditions. The Lord Mayor, the Earl of Derby, sent a telegram to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, stating that ‘Revolution has broken out in my city’. Churchill responded by sending troops to the city with and gunboats up the Mersey.
Now the Walker Art Gallery has recreated the exhibition that rocked the Liverpool art world and outraged the likes of Rev Lund and the rest of the city’s bourgeoisie. Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911, which I saw yesterday, is an exploration of the relationship between that pioneering exhibition 100 years ago and Liverpool’s radicalism. It features work by Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and Signac, as well as local artists who had founded the radical art organisation that mounted the exhibition at the Bluecoat.
Some of the most dramatic events in the cultural, political and social history of the city happened during 1911, which were to challenge the assumptions of cultural and civic life. In March that year the Sandon Studios Society at the Bluecoat buildings hosted what can probably be considered the most ground-breaking art exhibition held in the city in the 20th century: An exhibition so far ahead of its time and so unusual that in some ways it occupied a place almost beyond expectations or perceptions.
– David Bingham, 1911: Art & Revolution in Liverpool – the Life and Times of Albert Lipczinski, Nerve 17
Post-Impressionism was the term invented by the writer and artist Roger Fry to describe a group of mainly French artists. They rebelled against the style of the earlier Impressionists. From the 1880s, the Post-Impressionists sought to express themselves in a variety of styles. The leading Post-Impressionist artists included Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Serusier and Signac. Fry first used the term Post-Impressionist when he organised the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists in London in the winter of 1910. The London exhibition – the first of its kind, containing more than 250 paintings – caused a scandal but was also a success. Although the press were outraged, it won admirers and among writers and artists. Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’.
Inspired by Roger Fry’s exhibition of 1910, the Sandon Studios Society brought about 50 paintings and drawings from the show to Liverpool the following year. The society’s exhibition was the first time that such a large number of Post-Impressionist works were shown in the UK outside London and the first time they were displayed alongside their British counterparts.
Curator Xanthe Brooke explains the significance of the event:
The works by the European Post-Impressionists represent a momentous shift in the Western art world, which served to encourage radical British artists like those of The Sandon Studios Society to champion their work and try and emulate it. The inimitable style of Gauguin continues to fascinate audiences today but in the early 20th century it was a brave and startling sight. The Sandon Studios Society showed considerable foresight in bringing his work and others like him to wider public attention.
The Sandon Studios Society was founded in 1905 by a group of Liverpool artists. They had all been students at Liverpool University’s School of Architecture and Applied Art (the ‘Art Sheds’) until it established a more traditional syllabus that year. Before that, the department had flourished, with tutors like Augustus John inspiring students to push for a revolution in art. The founding members of the Sandon were united in their desire to change the landscape of art in Liverpool. They wanted to establish an alternative art school in the city to encourage creativity and innovation rather than the restrictive learning of the municipal art schools. They wanted Liverpool to become a centre of art in its own right, free from the dominance of London. For the Society, the 1911 exhibition was an opportunity to assert their own artistic values and distance themselves from the ‘art establishment’ and possibly even be the catalyst for an ‘art revolution’.
A section of Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 focuses on the work of members of the Sandon Studios, including and several paintings and prints by James Hamilton Hay, Enid Hay, Francis Dodd, Albert Lipczinski, Henry Carr and Gerard Chowne. The relationship between the Walker Art Gallery (the ‘establishment’ of the time) and the Society is also explored.
Featuring six of his works, there is a special focus on Albert Lipczinski, a German-born Polish emigrant who was taught by Augustus John at the Liverpool University Art Sheds around 1902. Lipczinski’s, ‘Portrait of Dorothy Reilly’ (above) is a a painting of the wife of Charles Reilly, who held the Roscoe Chair of Architecture at Liverpool University from 1904. Despite ideological differences between the Sandon Studios Society and the University, Reilly became a member of the Sandon. He and his wife were close to a number of the Sandon artists, including Lipczinski.
Lipczinski’s bohemian lifestyle and political connections make him an interesting member of the group and a symbol of their rebellious nature. The German-born artist arrived in Liverpool in the late 1890s and soon became a fixture of the city’s artistic scene, living a bohemian lifestyle in a squat in an old school in Roscoe Street, where his friends and acquaintances included the trade unionists and syndicalists, Tom Mann and Fred Bower, who played a key role in the strikes of 1911.
We know from Bower’s autobiography that the most prominent of the political figures Lipczinski painted included Tom Mann, who had been the first general secretary of the newly created Independent Labour Party and that he also painted a ‘larger than life’ portrait of … Jim Larkin. … In the aftermath of 13th August, when police brutally broke up what was a huge but peaceful demonstration, it appears that the Lipczinskis allowed their home to be used as a temporary refuge where injured strikers could be brought to safety. As for Lipczinski’s artworks, it is not known what happened to his portrait of Tom Mann but it will probably be still hanging on the walls of a more obscure union hall somewhere.
– David Bingham, 1911: Art & Revolution in Liverpool – the Life and Times of Albert Lipczinski, Nerve 17
The First World War created problems for foreign nationals in Britain and in 1919 Lipczinski was deported to Gdansk where he spent the rest of his life, producing portraits to commission and landscapes in Sopot, a small Polish resort on the Baltic coast. He continued painting until he was in his 70s, despite the difficulties of working under both a Nazi and a Communist regime.
Lipczinski showed his work in a variety of local exhibitions and the Birkenhead Art Gallery was the first to buy a picture from him. Coinciding with the Walker’s display, the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead, in partnership with the National Museum in Gdansk is presenting an exhibition of the work of Albert Lipczinski.
This Self Portrait by Albert Lipczinski dates from around 1911 and is a highlight of the Birkenhead exhibition, featuring also on the posters for the show. The Walker exhibition also includes a portrait of Albert Lipczinski, painted by Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot. Lipczinski and Lightfoot had been students together at Liverpool University. Lightfoot’s talent was recognised by their tutor Gerard Chowne, one of the founders of the Sandon Studio (Chowne travelled extensively in Spain and France and there’s an impressive watercolour of his, ‘Cliffs at Grasse, Provence’, in the exhibition. He was killed in the First World War in Macedonia in 1917).
At Chowne’s suggestion, Lightfoot enrolled at the Slade School of art in 1907. Lightfoot became one of the founder members of the London-based Camden Town Group in 1911. After their first exhibition critics commented that his work showed ‘extraordinary promise’. Not in the exhibition is this powerful drawing by Lightfoot, ‘The Rag-Pickers’ (c. 1910), reminiscent of the work of the German artist, Kathe Kollwitz.
Another local artist featured in the exhibition is James Hamilton Hay. Works on display include ‘Lady with Japanese Gown’ and ‘The Falling Star’ (below), and a watercolour of Heswall Beach. Hamilton Hay co-curated the controversial Sandon exhibition of 1911, but that same year his wife Enid died suddenly. In his grief, Hay destroyed many of his and his wife’s paintings.
‘The Falling Star’, painted in 1909, escaped that fate as it had been bought by the Walker in 1910.
This portrait of James Hamilton Hay was drawn by Francis Dodd, another member of the Sandon Society.
There is one painting by Enid Hay in the exhibition – ‘Interior’ (above), one of the paintings exhibited at the Sandon Studios Society exhibition of 1911. It’s a painting that reveals her understanding of the Post-Impressionists before their work had been widely seen in Britain. Enid was the subject for his Whistler-like painting ‘The Lady in the Japanese Gown’ (above).
Another member of the Sandon group was Henry Carr, represented in the exhibition by a watercolour, ‘The Mersey’. Carr believed that the Walker should be collecting and exhibiting work relating to the local area.
The curators of Art in Revolution have worked hard to track down bring together a fair proportion of not only the works of Sandon Studios Society members displayed in the original exhibition (particularly difficult as there were no illustrations in the original 1911 catalogue) but also the works of continental Post-Impressionists from the Roger Fry exhibition. In some cases they have filled gaps with similar works – or reproductions where continental Post-Impressionist paintings are too fragile or expensive to move.
It’s difficult now, looking at works on display by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Derain or Signac, to appreciate the degree to which Edwardian viewers were appalled and angered by the expressive simplicity of these images. André Derain’s ‘Trees Near Martigues’, for example, provoked the Rev Lund to thunder: ‘nature should be painted realistically, otherwise it will be necessary to write underneath ‘this is a tree’. The painting below is the similar ‘Landscape near Martigues’ (not in the exhibition). There’s another Derain in the exhibition – ‘Church near Carrieres sur Seine’ (top of page).
Highlights of this section include works like ‘Sister of Charity’ by Paul Gauguin (above), ‘Saint-Tropez: le Sentier de Douane by Paul Signac (below) and ‘Purple Beech Trees near Melun’ by Henri Matisse (who wrote in 1908, ‘What I am after is expression’).
There are two highly expressive drawings by Vincent Van Gogh – ‘Corner of Garden at St Paul’s Hospital, St Remy’ and the pencil/gouache, ‘Oise at Auvers’ (below, both on loan from the Tate). Van Gogh arrived at Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890 and immediately asked his brother to send him paper as ‘there is lots to draw here’. He drew this view while standing on a railway embankment. He wrote to his brother: ‘Here in Auvers we are far enough from Paris for it to be real countryside, … there is so much wellbeing in the air… no factories, but lovely, well-kept greenery in abundance’.
Cezanne is represented by ‘Bathers at Rest’ and there is a second Gauguin, ‘Bathers at Tahiti’ (below). The radical art critic Frank Rutter wrote in Revolution in Art, published in 1910 in support of Roger Fry’s exhibition: ‘These two deceased painters, Cezanne and Gauguin, are to their younger comrades what Marx and Kropotkin are to the young socialists and reformers of today’. The book’s title was itself derived from Gauguin’s statement that ‘in art there are only revolutionists or plagiarists’. Rutter wrote in his book’s dedication: ‘To Rebels of either sex all the world over who in any way are fighting for freedom of any kind I dedicate this study of their painter-comrades’.
One of the most striking revelations of the exhibition for me was a painting by the French painter Auguste Herbin, ‘Landscape near Cateau-Cambrésis’. A much less well-known artist today, Herbin (1882-1960) was recognised as being at the forefront of radical art at the time.
Xanthe Brooke, curator of the exhibition has spoken of the thrill of discovering the visual power of his work:
When Herbin’s landscape painting was first shown in Liverpool, in the spring of 1911, its radical simplification of forms was compared to another painting in the exhibition Copper Beech Trees near Melun, by Herbin’s contemporary and native of Cateau-Cambrésis, Matisse.
Looking at this Landscape, painted in 1908, its jagged-edged trees appear as though electrified with a force-field of vibrant shocking pinks, greens, reds and lilacs. It makes you realise why visitors to the Liverpool exhibition in 1911 were so outraged and disturbed by the Post-Impressionist styles – they seemed to destroy all artistic conventions. In 1909 Herbin moved into share studio space with Picasso and by 1917 he had turned to abstraction.
Even though this landscape was painted by an artist who is not a household name to me, it epitomises what was considered so radical and subversive about Post-Impressionist art.”
Summer 1911 witnessed some of the most tumultuous events in Liverpool’s political history, with dock and transport strikes. Huge mass rallies were broken up by police and soldiers, leading to deaths on the streets of Liverpool. King George V cabled his Home Secretary, Winston Churchill: ‘Accounts from Liverpool show that situation there is more like revolution than a strike’. The exhibition explores the reaction of Liverpool’s artistic and political establishments to the major unrest in the city, and includes photographs and documentary film footage.
The photo above shows crowds on Lime Street surrounding trams during ‘Red Sunday’ on 13th August 1911. The Walker Art Gallery can be seen in the background. For more remarkable photos of the 1911 Liverpool strikes, see Colin Wilkinson’s always-excellent photo blog, Streets of Liverpool.
- Walker revisits Liverpool’s controversial Post-Impressionism exhibition 100 years on: Daily Post
- Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot: biography (Tate)
- Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot: biography with images (Spartacus)
I’m just back from visiting Like You’ve Never Been Away, the exhibition of Paul Trevor’s joyous photographs of working class kids and families taken in Everton and Liverpool 8 back in 1975. It’s on at the Walker Art Gallery until 25 September and forms part of Look 11, the first Liverpool International Photography Festival. These may be images of poverty and inner-city deprivation, but they also sing with a sense of freedom and shared happiness.
Paul Trevor came to Liverpool in 1975 as a member of the Gulbenkian Foundation Survival Programmes project, which set out to document aspects of inner city deprivation. With two other photographers, he spent several months recording family and community life in Granby and Everton, capturing glorious images of a community defiant and proud despite a backdrop of high unemployment and poverty. The results were published in 1982 in an Open University book, Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities, though only a fraction of the Liverpool photos were featured.
The Gulbenkian project set out to document what it meant to be poor in Britain’s inner cities at the start of the 1970s. What Paul Trevor’s photos brilliantly reveal is that alongside the material hardship and deprivation these families endured (just look at the photo below to see that), they also shared a conviviality that enriched their lives in non-material ways: children played together in the streets and back alleys, neighbours nattered and shared a joke at their open front doors.
It’s very difficult to write a sentence like that without seeming condescending or naive. But these photographs reveal that – while Liverpool’s working class districts may look better now than they did, and though poverty may not be as obvious as it was when children went barefoot and wore holes in their socks – something has been lost. These are images of Liverpool waiting for the hammer to fall: the next twenty years were to be the worst in the city’s history, and its working class communities were to be hammered and smashed, firstly by the planners who advised the demolition of streets like Mozart Street off Lodge Lane, where many of Trevor’s photos were taken (like the one at the top of this post) and the dispersal of their inhabitants to wastelands like Netherley. Then the effects of deindustrialisation, made ten times worse by the spite and class hatred of Thatcherism, would take their toll, leaving a generation on the dole, as the docks replaced men with containers and places where families had found work closed – Meccano, Tate & Lyle, Lucas, Triumph, and so on, ad infinitum. Finally, into these blasted zones came drugs, bringing crime, fear – and death.
That last point was brought home poignantly to Paul Trevor when he returned to the city last year to identify the locations where he made his photos, and to try to trace the children he photographed. He discovered that the boy in the photo above was no longer alive – he had died of an overdose in his early twenties, one of the many of his generation swept into the black hole of drug addiction.
And there’s something else that hits you hard looking at these images: you don’t see street photos with children these days. For one thing, social panics mean that photographers can’t take such pictures any more; and, anyway, the kids aren’t playing out much any more. Trevor’s photos brilliantly capture children doing just that – playing, with whatever is to hand. Today, parental fears keep kids indoors.
There’s a brilliant photo (above) that captures the resourcefulness of the kids in Mozart Street back in 1975. They’ve found an old concrete garage and turned it into a den, furnished with car seats and bits of old household furniture. They’ve found a battery-operated record player with some 45s and some candles for atmosphere, to make a great place for a snog.
The kid in the Bay City Rollers tartan cap turns out to be responsible for this whole bloody exhibition, and Paul Trevor’s succesful attempt to identify all the people he photographed back in 1975. His name is Ian Boland, and in early 2008 he wrote to Paul Trevor wondering if he was the same Paul he remembered taking photos of himself and his friends. The two exchanged emails and Ian began identifying some of the people in Paul’s pictures. Their correspondence forms the backbone of the exhibition at the Walker.
Paul managed to track down most of the people in the photos by posting them on Flickr, then found more through community events in Everton and Granby in summer 2010, and with the help of a BBC North West documentary presented by Stuart Maconie.
Paul Trevor told the Liverpool Echo last month that Everton and Liverpool 8 were two very different areas to work in:
Everton looked like how the housing had gone. You could see the slope to the Mersey and could imagine all this terracing down to the river, and there was this big empty space with these high rises. The other end was how I imagined it might have been with terraced housing, long streets, doors open, kids in the street – I was really just comparing those two environments.
In the long term Paul Trevor wants to make new pictures of the people who appeared in his photographs and hear from them about their lives since they last met. He says: ‘The image freezes the moment but life goes on. And I’m keen to make fresh photographs of those kids as adults wherever they are today’.
- Exhibition highlights: a selection of the 58 photographs that can be seen in the exhibition (Walker Art Gallery).
- Paul Trevor’s Liverpool 1975 photos on Flickr
- BBC Inside Out North West: film about Paul Trevor’s return to Liverpool, introduced by Stuart Maconie
- The kids are alright: Guardian video
- Paul Trevor’s website
- Look11 Liverpool
There’s an interesting exhibition currently showing at the Walker: The Rise of Women Artists consists of works by celebrated and less well-known women artists, all from the Walker’s permanent collection. The Walker was ahead of its time in collecting works by women artists, and this is reflected in the scope and diversity of the works on display.
There is a rich variety of work on show, ranging from recent and contemporary painters and designers such as Paula Rego, Helen Chadwick and Louise Bourgeois to historic works by artists such as Marianne Stokes and Laura Knight. Paintings, works on paper, textiles, ceramics and sculpture are all featured in the exhibition, which also includes work by local artists such as the Singh Twins.
One of the first works encountered when you enter the exhibition is an exquisite miniature by Sarah Biffin (1784-1850), who was born without arms or legs. There is incredible detail in this Portrait of an Elderly Woman painted by Biffin using only her mouth to steady the brush. The portrait was painted by Sarah Biffin in 1846, when the artist was living in Liverpool. The identity of the sitter is unknown but it is likely to be a member of Liverpool’s wealthy middle class. The portrait is painted with incredible detail and the artist has provided an inscription “painted by Miss Biffin, without hands”. An information sheet ftrom the gallery tells us that Sarah Biffin was a popular and well known national figure during the early Victorian period. She was born in October 1784 in Somerset, the baptismal record stating that Biffin was “born without arms or legs”, a condition which today is known as phocomelia. Biffin taught herself to sew and then to write principally using her mouth.
At the age of thirteen, Biffin entered into a contract with Mr Emmanuel Dukes, who was a traveling showman. Mr Dukes’ motivation for this was financial. He toured Bifiin at county fairs as an object of curiosity. He advertised her presence at the fairs on handbills as an attraction and charged visitors to see Miss Biffin at work. An original handbill from this time is in the collection of documents relating to Sarah Biffin in Liverpool Central Library. Despite this evident exploitation, Biffin later in her life insisted that she had been treated with kindness by the Dukes and certainly they provided her with a means of making her own living. In 1808 Biffin met the Earl of Moreton who was so impressed with her skill as a miniature painter that he provided her with contacts that helped her to develop her career. By 1819, Biffin had been released from her contract from the Dukes and with support from the Earl of Moreton became an independent painter of miniature portraits with a studio in the Strand, London.
In 1842, she settled in Liverpool, and lived at addresses in Duke Street and Bold Street. She held a number of exhibitions at the Liverpool Institution and was patronized by the local middle classes including Joseph Mayer. Despite initial success and popularity in Liverpool, it is evident that towards the end of her life, Biffin, was in an increasingly precarious financial position. As a result of her financial troubles, Richard Rathbone raised a subscription by Public Appeal for Sarah Biffin “prompted alone by the feelings of respect and commiseration… it is not easy to imagine a more affecting case, nor one more deserving of sympathy”. The Public Appeal guaranteed a degree of financial stability for Bifiin. She died in Liverpool on 2 October in 1850.
The miniature shown above is not the one in the exhibition – sadly, despite the significance of this exhibition in drawing attention to neglected female artists, very few of these artists are represented on the gallery website’s A-Z of artists. Strange.
Among other paintings that caught my attention were Laura Knight’s Spring in St Johns Wood (1933), the view from the window of her studio, and Blackberry Gathering (1912) by Elizabeth Forbes; both were members of the Newlyn School in the early 20th century.
In the first half of the 20th century Laura Knight was one of the most highly regarded of British artists and in 1936 she became the first woman to be elected a Royal Academician since the two original women members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. She won great popularity for her colourful scenes of circus life and the ballet, but recently her early Newlyn School landscapes and beach scenes have come back into favour (she lived in Newlyn 1907–18). Some of the work she did as an Official War Artist during the Second World War is also now highly regarded. In 1946 she went to Nuremberg to make a pictorial record of the War Crimes Tribunal; she made scores of sketches from which she produced a large painting (The Dock, Nuremberg, 1946, in the Imperial War Museum, London).
Elizabeth Forbes was born in 1859 in Ontario and came to England to study art at South Kensington School of Art. She went on to paint in Brittany, Zandvoort in Holland and then Newlyn. There she met the painter Stanhope Forbes, and they married in 1889. She is best known for her portrayal of children. In her lifetime, she exhibited more paintings than her husband and was acclaimed in her obituary as ‘the Queen of Newlyn’.
Also represented are female graduates from the Glasgow School of Art -Frances Macdonald Macnair, her sister Margaret and Annie French. There are beautiful art noveau brass panels for a wardrobe in the house that the sisters shared on Oxford Street and a delicate painting by Annie French, Sleepless Daisy.
Frances Macdonald, like her sister Margaret, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair (whom she married in 1899), belonged to the group which pioneered the Glasgow Style. She trained at the Glasgow School of Art, where she met MacNair. Her work and development has much in common with those of her sister, although her figures tend to be more emaciated and anguished. Like Margaret’s, her work is characterised by an interest in symbolism, mythology and fairy subjects. In 1900 she moved to Liverpool, where MacNair was Instructor in Design at the School of Architecture and Applied Art, but they returned to Glasgow in 1908. She had little success as a watercolourist and life for the couple was difficult. Such late works as Man makes the beads of life but women thread them (below, not in this exhibition) and Tis a long path which wanders to desire may be a reflection of this.
Frances MacNair died in 1921 at the age of 47, reportedly of a cerebral haemorrhage, although rumour persisted that she had taken her own life. After her death, Herbert MacNair destroyed most of her work, as well as his own.
The daughter of a metallurgist, Annie French was born in Glasgow and studied at the Glasgow School of Art under the Belgian Symbolist, Jean Delville. She was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, Aubrey Beardsley (as can be seen in the image above, not in this exhibition), and developed a style combining vivid colours, curvilinearity of form and almost confetti-like textures. Her watercolours and drawings are mainly in the form of illustrations, and she designed a number of postcards and greetings cards. Following her marriage to the artist George Woolliscroft Rhead, she settled in London, and became a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy, until the mid nineteen-twenties. She appears in the photo below of a group of female painters in the Drawing and Painting class at Glasgow School of Art.
From the Daily Post review:
The female painters and sculptors featured in the Rise of Women Artists had to smash deep-set prejudices to win recognition for their work, and many of them did it with at least a couple of kids in tow. Take Lavinia Fontana, considered to be one of the most talented altarpiece painters of the late 16th century. Taught the craft by her artist father, Prospero Fontana, alongside her brothers, she commanded large fees for her works and even painted Pope Paul V. Along the way she gave birth to 11 children, although only three of them outlived her. Fontana, with a supportive father and born into a culture that expected girls showing talent to join the family painting business, was more fortunate than many female artists who came centuries after her.
Yet, this exhibition, made up of works from National Museums Liverpool’s collection, would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the foresight of the Walker’s founders. “There’s been a lot of focus on women’s contribution to art lately including an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris,” says Laura MacCulloch, curator of The Rise of Women Artists. “But whereas the Pompidou has had to recently buy works by women, we started collecting them in 1871.”
That year, the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition was founded as a rival to the London-based Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. With a future gallery in mind, its committee bought three paintings from those on display. Thanks to their farsightedness, the Rise of Women Artists exhibition is rich in treasures, from intricately stitched 17th century samplers, through Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, to 20th century abstract works. It also takes in decorative arts, including pottery that women excelled in painting, though were paid less than their male colleagues…
Nor were women admitted to the Royal Academy Schools until 1860, when Laura Hereford entered a painting marked only with her initials. The selection committee assumed it was the work of a man and were put out when they discovered the truth, but by then it was too late and nothing could be found in the organisation’s constitution to invalidate her tutelage. For another 30 years female students were not permitted to draw from life and were taught in separate classes with chaperones.
Many women found greater opportunities in Europe, and chose to study in Paris or Rome, but even in Britain there were movements towards equality. The Glasgow Girls, among them Jessie Marion King and Frances Macdonald MacNair, who spent several years in Liverpool, were trained by male teachers who encouraged them to strike out in new directions.
“The Pre-Raphaelites, such as Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown, were also very good at taking on female students,” adds MacCulloch. “Ford Madox Brown had two daughters who he taught alongside his son in his studio. “We also have a work by Emma Sands, who was Frederick Sands’s sister, on display.”
And when there were few opportunities for women to exhibit their work to potential patrons, they formed their own versions of the Royal Academy, including the Society of Female Artists in London and a Manchester version for the North West. In Liverpool, the creation of the national John Moores Prize in 1957 bypassed prejudices as all paintings had to be submitted anonymously.
The final section of the exhibition, which is displayed in chronological order, is dedicated to contemporary artists and asks whether the art world’s glass ceiling has truly been demolished. It includes photographs by Linda McCartney, Louise Bourgeois’s Ears painting and a metal sculpture of two monkeys by Wirral artist Emma Rodgers. “There’s more equality today,” says MacCulloch. “But there are still female artists who find it hard to get recognition, and they are still finding inequalities that inspire them in their art.”
Fantine by Margaret Hall, the daughter of a Mayor of Liverpool: This is a portrait of the literary character Fantine, who featured in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Dismissed from her job because of her illegitimate child, she is soon forced into prostitution to survive. This striking and sympathetic image shows Fantine protectively watching over her sleeping daughter. The dark surroundings and empty bottle hint at the dangers and troubles that await both mother and child in the future.
– gallery note
Old friends are staying this weekend and we embarked on a cultural perambulation this afternoon, beginning with a visit to the Bridget Riley Flashback exhibition at the Walker. It tracks her career from the early 1960s to more recent works, some of which are exhibited for the first time. In a sense, this is a return to the Walker for Bridget Riley, since it is almost 50 years since she won a John Moores Open Section prize back at the start of her career in 1963.
Bridget Riley came to symbolize the sixties, her optically vibrant paintings that generated sensations of movement, light and space epitomising the op-art of the decade (the term first appearing in a Time magazine feature in October 1964, two years after her first solo show in London). The exhibition includes eight large scale paintings, four from Riley’s personal collection. Alongside these are around 30 drawings and studies that illuminate her working methods over her five-decade-long-career. There’s also a really informative video, made by the Arts Council in 1979, in which Riley discusses and explains her techniques and you get to see how she and her assistants developed the images and created the optical effects.
A key work in the show is ‘Movement in Squares’, which was purchased by the Arts Council collection in 1962, the year after it was made.
Riley’s mature style, developed during the 1960s, was influenced by a number of sources. She studied the pointillism of Georges Seurat which introduced her to optical effects. The paintings of Victor Vasarely, who had used designs of black and white lines since the 1930s, had a strong influence on Riley’s early works; as did the Futurists. From her black-and-white paintings, Riley moved to studies in greys, and in late 1960s, she began to ‘draw with colour’. As she explains ‘you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours’.
Alongside the paintings in the exhibition are 30 drawings and studies that illuminate her working methods over her five-decade-long-career. In her review for the Echo, Catherine Jones wrote:
In some ways the early career section is the most interesting, not simply because of the finished works on show but also the deconstruction of the artist’s thought processes evident in the sketches which accompany them. Here we see, in Riley’s own neat handwriting, her drive for momentum within her work. Thus on one set of graph-based technical drawings she pens “white slow – grey fast – black” and makes notes about tonal and structural movement.
In his review in The Guardian, Alfred Hickling makes this perceptive point:
There’s a revealing collage study that suggests a clear link to the greatest cut-and-paste artist of all time. Riley will forever be associated with Op-art, but her unerring sense of rhythm and colour makes her the closest thing we have to a contemporary Matisse.
The Walker Art Gallery also displays their own Bridget Riley painting; ‘Sea Cloud’ painted in 1981 and purchased in 1987.
The caption reads:
‘Sea Cloud’ demonstrates Bridget riley’s long-standing interest in the relationship between colours and the optical and sensual effects of regular and rhythmic hard-edged patterns. It was inspired by underground tomb paintings at Luxor in Egypt that she visited in 1981. She was struck by the way they created feelings of great richness and light despite their environment and the limited number of colours employed. She used the same palette to search for similar effects. While working on these ‘Egyptian’ paintings, Riley was commissioned to decorate two corridors in the Royal Liverpool Hospital. Her decorations no longer survive, but the scheme again employed the Luxor palette to suggest, in her own words, ‘feelings of light and sun and all the pleasurable sensations associated with them’.
- Flashback: Gallery of images (Guardian)
- Bridget Riley: last of the modernists: Jonathon Jones (Guardian)
- Exhibition review: Guardian
- Bridget Riley versus the Old Masters: a survey at the National Gallery of Bridget Riley’s abstract art draws parallels between her bold graphic style and classic works from the museum’s collection (The Observer,21 November 2010)
We’ve been to see Ben Johnson’s Liverpool Cityscape 2008 at the Walker, a fantastic panorama of the city and its buildings, and the perfect artwork for the year of Capital of Culture.
The Cityscape is huge: it depicts nearly 1,000 of the city centre’s major buildings and some of those further afield such as the football stadiums, is the result of three years of work. In recent weeks he has been completing the piece and we were able to go along and watch him and his team of assistants at work in the Walker.
Johnson told the Daily Post: “In the last two weeks I put in the new Museum of Liverpool, finished off the Pier Head and put back some of the statues I thought people would like to see – just pulling it all together. Almost the very last thing I did was the Liver Birds. It was always my intention that would be the last thing, because they are so symbolic of Liverpool because of the mythology of the birds that if they ever leave the building the city will disappear. I wanted to make sure that if ever the paint were to fade, the last thing to fade would be the Liver Birds.”
An incredible 45,000 people went to the Walker to see Johnson work on the Cityscape. He said: “I have had such wonderful responses from people who just really feel something for the painting. There was hardly any antagonism or questioning it. Most people realised what it was – a celebration of the city of Liverpool. It confirms my own belief that art is not a selfish activity, and is something that belongs to the wider community.”
The work took Johnson and his seven full-time assistants three years to complete. The complex process used precise stencils of intricate computer-generated drawings of buildings to mark the canvas. In making The Liverpool Cityscape he took more than 3000 reference photographs, considered alternative viewpoints, consulted architects and historians, as well as the people of Liverpool, and absorbed the city’s atmosphere. Thousands of detailed drawings were produced before the execution of the image in minute detail.
As well as Johnson’s work, the exhibition includes a small selection of historic views of Liverpool, demonstrating the long-standing tradition into which the new cityscape fits. On display as well are other Johnson panoramas of Zürich, Jerusalem and Hong Kong created using the same techniques.
After the exhibition, the Liverpool Cityscape will go on permanent exhibition in the new Museum of Liverpool now taking shape at Mann Island.
Ben Johnson was born in Llandudno, north Wales in 1946. He studied at the Royal College of Art, London. His first solo exhibition was held in New York in 1969, and since then he has shown widely in Britain (including twice at the John Moores exhibitions of contemporary painting at The Walker Art Gallery Liverpool), the rest of Europe and the USA.
Ben’s paintings are concerned with architecture. Although they are very detailed and appear realistic, he does not regard himself as a photorealist. He represents cities from viewpoints that it would not be possible to see in reality, sometimes subtly manipulating their topography to create an ‘ideal’ view. In the case of Liverpool, for example, the Goodison Park and Anfield football grounds have been brought closer together so that both appear in the painting. The cities in Ben’s paintings also appear quite still, shown without dirt, traffic or people.
He was made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1990, the only contemporary painter to be so honoured, for his contribution to the public understanding of contemporary architecture. Indeed, much of his work has been commissioned by architects.
For several years Ben has been working on a series of paintings of cities. Those completed so far included representations of Paris, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Zurich and Chicago.