Vanessa Bell Retrospective

Vanessa Bell, Self –Portrait, 1915, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
Vanessa Bell, Self-Portrait, 1915, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

The first ever retrospective of the important Sussex artist, Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), is the latest exhibition to go on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

This timely exhibition seeks to place Bell’s work in the context of her life with over one hundred paintings on display. The story of Vanessa Bell’s life has often overshadowed the work which it inspired. But throughout her life she devoted herself to her painting which allowed her to voice her belief in the importance of substance and freedom. Her home at Charleston in Sussex remains a moving testimony to her life – a house transformed by her art.

In London Vanessa Bell had married the art critic Clive Bell and was one of the leading members of what would become known as the Bloomsbury Group. She worked in the Omega Workshops with Roger Fry and collaborated with Duncan Grant in numerous decorative projects and artistic commissions. Both men would eventually become Vanessa’s lovers. Many of her designs embraced the new artistic ideas from the Continent. The abstracted fabric design for the Omega Workshops in watercolour seen here is striking in its modernity but maintains a fluidity underpinned by the use of colour in the composition.

Vanessa Bell, Landscape with Haystack, Asheham, 1912, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased with the gift of Anne Holden Kieckhefer class of 1952, in honour of Ruth Chandler Holden, class of 1926. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa Bell visited her sister Virginia Woolf at her Sussex home, Asheham, in 1912 where she painted ‘Landscape with Haystack, Asheham’. Here the influence of the Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, organised by Roger Fry at the Grafton Gallery in London, are readily apparent in the way that she employs light, blocks of colour and bold outlines.

It was Vanessa Bell’s love for Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf which brought about her move to Sussex during the First World War.

Vanessa was living with Duncan Grant, and his friend David Garnett, at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk when Virginia Woolf, wrote to her. In her letters Virginia explained that not only did Charleston house need a tenant but that the neighbouring farmer was short of ‘hands’ to work on the land. Duncan Grant and David Garnett needed to be essentially employed on the land to avoid being called up to fight or the prospect of gaol as conscientious objectors.

Vanessa Bell 1879–1961, Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

As well as covering the walls and furniture at Charleston with painted decoration Duncan and Vanessa portrayed those who visited and the countryside around them.

A number of remarkable portraits by Bell are included in the exhibition. Her paintings of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and David Garnett are revealing and remarkably daring in their execution challenging our perception of the world and beauty. Amongst these is a self-portrait painted in 1915. Vanessa sits in a chair her head averted from us as she stares from the canvas deep in thought. There is a strength and resilience in her demeanour.

Vanessa Bell, Wallflowers, undated, Private Collection. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I have always loved the intimacy of Vanessa Bell’s still lives. The study of wallflowers does not disappoint. The flowers sit in a jug which may well have been decorated by Vanessa at Charleston.

This superb and long overdue exhibition allows us to see Vanessa Bell’s development as an artist and the techniques, themes and subjects which unite her work.

‘Vanessa Bell’ runs at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 4th June 2017 and is one of this year’s must see exhibitions. For more information go to www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Masterpieces of English Embroidery at the V & A

The Syon Cope, circa 1310-20 © Victoria & Albert Museum‘Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Embroidery’ is a remarkable exhibition at the V&A in London which displays the heights of English Medieval and Renaissance embroidery before the Reformation.

Medieval English Christian Art included not only paintings, stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts but also exquisitely produced textiles which we term today as Opus Anglicanum, Latin for English work.

At the heart of the exhibition are an exemplary display of Gothic church vestments and altar fronts.

The Chichester Constable Chasuble, circa 1335-45 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The story told by the scenes on the Chichester Constable Chasuable are pertinent to the Christmas season. The Virgin Mary is depicted crowned and with sceptre as well as in a scene from the Annunciation where she is told by the Angel Gabriel that she will bear a child born of the Holy Spirit. Framed within the tiers of Gothic arches the story of the Epiphany is told where Jesus Christ is revealed to the Gentiles through the Magi, the three Wise Men, who have followed the star to Bethlehem where they find him in a stable. In this scene they kneel before Christ as they offer their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh whilst above them the star and angels can be seen. Chasubles are still worn by Priests today when they celebrate the Eucharist.

The Jesse Cope (detail), circa 1310-25 © Victoria & Albert Museum
The Jesse Cope (detail), circa 1310-25 © Victoria & Albert Museum

Copes are worn by Bishops and Priests for processions. Two Medieval copes can be seen here. The Jesse Cope unites Jesus with the line of David and the design incorporates statuesque angels and saints as can be seen in the detail illustrated here. The embroidery on The Syon Cope is worked in silver-gilt and silver thread in split, cross and plait stitches. Once again scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary are told within borders decorated with winged seraphs and angels bearing crowns.

These early 14th century textile vestments allow us to glimpse the beauty of the arts in pre-Reformation England. Indeed, the quality of English needlework was highly prized throughout Christendom. It is surprising to observe so many rare masterpieces of early English needlework and to reflect upon how many examples survived the turbulent Tudor Reformation in this country.

Epiphany marks twelfth night, the end of the Christmas season. The New Year and Epiphany will be celebrated in churches across Sussex in the coming Sundays. Priests will be robed in Chasubles, as they have been since the earliest times, as they celebrate the Eucharist marking these important stories which are common to us all.

‘Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Embroidery’ runs at the V&A in London until Sunday 5th February 2017. For more information go to www.vam.ac.uk.

The V&A is to be congratulated on this jewel-like exhibition and it should definitely be one of your New Year resolutions to see it.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Cabinets of Curiosity

A Peruvian Chimu effigy vessel painted with a face and decorative collar, circa 1100AD to 1450AD, with a Mexican Nayarit figure and a Mexican Veracruz pottery head
A Peruvian Chimu effigy vessel painted with a face and decorative collar, circa 1100AD to 1450AD, with a Mexican Nayarit figure and a Mexican Veracruz pottery head

The latest exhibition at the Horsham Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Curiosity: A Tale of Quirky Collecting’, combines the delights of the Renaissance cabinet of curiosity with the enquiry of the 18th century Enlightenment. It charts the questioning journey of a 21st century Sussex antiquary. The objects form part of his private collection and have never before been seen together in public.

Between 1680 and 1820 the imaginations of some of Britain, Europe and America’s leading philosophers, scientists and writers were inspired by a new age of reason and learning which became known as the Enlightenment.

During the Renaissance rooms and cabinets of curiosities housed encyclopaedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined. They were often known as wonder cabinets and rooms. Similarly 18th century collectors, antiquaries and travellers brought together, but also sought to classify, objects from the world around them. Many of these objects were categorised according to the seven major new areas of enquiry during the Enlightenment. These included: natural history, art and civilisation, religion and ritual, the birth of archaeology, discovery and trade, the translation of ancient scripts and classification.

These areas of enquiry are abundantly displayed in this exhibition’s cabinets of curiosity filled with wonder and learning at the Horsham Museum. The objects’ stories are bound together with their custodian’s very personal journey of discovery through collecting.

An incunabula, ‘Chronicle of the World’, printed in 1493
An incunabula, ‘Chronicle of the World’, printed in 1493

The story begins with geology. Encouraged by his mother, when 11 years old, he began to collect geological specimens. He would eventually amass more than seven hundred examples. From geology we move to the natural world and a Christmas gift of an antique taxidermy red squirrel given to our enlightened collector as a boy of fourteen. And then to books, not just as documents of learning but as aesthetic objects, like the ‘Chronicle of the World’ seen here which was published in 1493. It is an incunabula, a term given to any book which was printed rather than handwritten before 1501. It means cradle of printing. The printed words seem to lead us into the marvellous woodblock illustration which depicts a bustling harbour filled with trading ships and a city beyond. I share this collector’s fascination with books. They have been collected for millennia. The libraries of the ancient world must have been wondrous.

This gifted antiquarian writes how one day, feeling flush, he purchased a Chinese Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD) pottery figure from a shop near the British Museum in London and his journey of discovery through antiquities began.

Ten ancient terracotta figures from the Indus Valley, circa 3000BC to 2000BC
Ten ancient terracotta figures from the Indus Valley, circa 3000BC to 2000BC

There are some truly ancient objects in this exhibition. Look at the remarkable group of ten terracotta figurines from the Indus Valley which date from between 3000BC and 2000BC. It is thought that might they might be emblematic of fertility. The Bronze Age, Harrappan Civilisation (3300BC to 1900BC) of the Indus Valley extended from what is now northwest India through Pakistan to northeast Afghanistan. It flourished on the banks of the Indus River. This important civilisation was lost in the mists of time until it began to be rediscovered during the Archaeological Survey of India instigated by the British Raj in 1861. There is something remarkable in these figures being displayed against the backdrop of Horsham’s Causeway.

Alongside objects from Europe, the Indus and China are pieces from the ancient Aztec, Inca and Mayan civilisations of South America. These include the Picasso like Peruvian Chimu effigy vessel painted with a face and geometric collar which dates from between 1100AD and 1450AD. Beside it is a marvellous Mexican Nayarit red pottery figure wearing a bird headdress. It dates from 100BC to 250AD. The Mexican pottery Veracruz head, circa 400AD to 800AD, has wonderfully expressive features.

The romance of history and a curiosity about the past is often bound up with the joy of owning and observing objects. I love the qualities of an enquiring and learning journey expressed in this very personal exhibition of eclectic items. The displays in these wondrous cabinets of curiosity and discovery give us an insight into how human achievement has evolved over the centuries. They allow us to glimpse the 18th century age of Enlightenment’s spirit of enquiry which, it would seem, is alive and well in 21st century Sussex!

‘Curiosity: A Tale of Quirky Collecting’ runs until 5th March 2016, at the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery, The Causeway, Horsham, RH12 1HE. Entrance to the Museum and exhibition is free. It is the perfect half-term outing! For more information go to www.horshammuseum.org or telephone 01403 254959.

By Rupert Toovey,  a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Capability Brown

Capability Brown’s rarely seen design for Hills Place Garden
Capability Brown’s rarely seen design for Hills Place Garden

2016 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Britain’s most influential and famous gardener, Capability Brown. This remarkable English landscape gardener’s life and work is being celebrated in the latest exhibition at the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery. ‘Capability Brown in Horsham: Discovering a Lost Garden’ runs until the 12th March.

The landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown by Richard Cosway © Bridgeman images
The landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown by Richard Cosway © Bridgeman images

The exhibition tells the story of how Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) designed and constructed a landscape garden around the Jacobean mansion Hills Place for the Ingram family. Brown also worked for the Ingram’s at their Yorkshire home, Temple Newsam, where his gardens can still be seen. The Hills Place gardens were located on the outskirts of Horsham, but were lost when the Duke of Norfolk ploughed them up to turn them into farmland some 50 years after the garden’s completion.

The exhibition includes Brown’s original designs for the garden, together with the survey conducted by his assistant, Lapidge, some two years earlier in 1766. The story is told in the context of the time with costumes, porcelain and objects from the period alongside botanical paintings and letters relating to Brown’s work. The letters reveal Brown’s uncompromising, ambitious nature, and relationship with his clients as he produced his landscape art.

A rare depiction of the lost garden at Hills Place, Horsham
A rare depiction of the lost garden at Hills Place, Horsham

I ask exhibition curator Jeremy Knight what the designs tell us about Capability Brown’s work. He replies enthusiastically “I love that he knew what trees he was going to plant, and where, to create his landscape theatre. He often planted willows, spruce and cedars – cedars were his favourites.”

Brown’s clients and patrons came from the most notable families in England. Between 1751 and 1783 Brown and his team dealt with over 170 commissions and changed the face of Georgian England. Given the stature of his clients I have often wondered how Capability Brown managed their expectations, after all trees and woodland can take generations to establish. Jeremy Knight explains “He would have planted mature and young trees so that the picturesque would be there for the patron and subsequent generations. Often his designs include features like the water cascade at Hills Place. His landscape gardens were like a hyper-reality – nature perfected.”

The qualities of the picturesque are alive in Capability Brown’s landscape gardens. He composed and constructed vignette views onto sweeping lawns, curving lakes and beautifully conceived woodland clumps of trees. It is as though they are in a painting. These features are apparent in his landscape garden at Petworth House and Park, preserved and maintained by the National Trust. It continues to delight and inspire visitors through the seasons of the year.

This aesthetic was born out of the rococo in reaction to the formal straight lines and topiary of the French royal gardens designed by André Le Notre (1613-1700), which had been made popular in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by George London (d.1714) and Henry Wise (1653-1738). Together they had created the parterres at Hampton Court Palace, Chatsworth and Longleat.

Petworth House set in Capability Brown’s landscape garden
Petworth House set in Capability Brown’s landscape garden

In early 18th century England there was a political desire, held by both the Whig government and Hanoverian King George I, to distance themselves from the excesses of the French Court at Versailles. This combined with a fascination for ‘unbounded nature’. In this climate Capability Brown’s park landscapes evolved in dialogue with his patrons. Perhaps this is why his idealised landscapes speak into the hearts and imaginations of the English and, in part, define us. Today his work can still be seen at Stowe, Blenheim Palace, and elsewhere, as well as at Petworth in West Sussex.

In celebration of Capability Brown’s 300th anniversary Visit England has declared 2016 as the Year of the English Garden. Sussex has much to celebrate in her gardens. Jeremy Knight has once again delivered an extraordinary and timely exhibition. Jeremy and the Horsham District Council are deserving of our thanks. ‘Capability Brown in Horsham: Discovering a Lost Garden’ runs at the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery, The Causeway, Horsham, RH12 1HE, until 12th March 2016. I am delighted that Toovey’s are supporting this revealing exhibition. Entrance to the Museum and exhibition is free. For more information go to www.horshammuseum.org or telephone 01403 254959.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 27th January 2016 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Portraying the Poor

‘A Girl feeding Pigs’, a watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson
‘A Girl feeding Pigs’, a watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson

The Horsham Museum and Art Gallery’s latest exhibition ‘Portraying the Poor and Industrious in the age of Waterloo’ seeks to tell the story of the rural and urban poor, and societies changing attitude towards them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

A pencil and watercolour sketch titled ‘A Fishing Trip’ by George Morland
A pencil and watercolour sketch titled ‘A Fishing Trip’ by George Morland

The Industrial Revolution in Britain had seen a mass movement of people from the countryside to towns and cities across the country. There had been a long tradition amongst artists of depicting hawkers and the poor in urban settings. However, with increasing fears of revolution at home as well as on the Continent, artists began to draw and paint the rural poor. The timeless social order of the countryside seemed safe against the perceived threats of the urban poor. English print makers reproduced and distributed these images very successfully placing them in the nation’s consciousness.

The 1790s saw two years of appalling harvests leading to starvation. Horsham had bread riots. Events like these led to the enclosure awards which were designed to enable efficiencies in farming. For example the Duke of Norfolk enclosed Horsham in 1813. But enclosure awards did not benefit everyone. Many of the people whose lives were bound up with agricultural land were profoundly affected.

The Agricultural Depression continued after the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo of 1815 until 1836. Crushing taxation connected with the post-war national debt, a glut of workers returning from military service, and the subsequent collapse in food prices came with heavy social and economic costs. The depression’s severity brought financial ruin upon landlords and tenant farmers alike.

Jeremy Knight with mezzotint engravings of rural scenes after George Morland and William Redmore Bigg
Jeremy Knight with mezzotint engravings of rural scenes after George Morland and William Redmore Bigg

Exhibition curator, Jeremy Knight, stands next to a colour mezzotint print titled ‘The Rapacious Steward or Unfortunate Tenant’ after William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828). In this scene a tenant farmer is being taken from his family as the steward looks upon their distress dispassionately.

Jeremy Knight draws my attention to the charming sketch ‘A Fishing Trip’ by the artist George Morland (1763-1804). He comments “This sketch was almost certainly drawn on a visit to the Isle of Wight whilst the artist was avoiding his creditors in London”. Morland is well known for his rural landscapes, but he also painted coastal scenes like this one depicting fishermen and the poor. He employed a spirited technique producing a large body of work despite his own dissolute life which was often defined by drunkenness.

The artist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) knew George Morland well. Jeremy enthuses “Thomas Rowlandson is probably one of the best known illustrators and caricaturists of the Regency period. When depicting the poor he often draws our attention to the activity and not the actual portrait.” I comment on the charming watercolour ‘Girl feeding Pigs’ by Rowlandson and Jeremy replies “Pigs were very important to the poor. Morland kept pigs in his house and often painted them being fed. Who knows, perhaps Rowlandson might have painted this picture in jest thinking of his friend.” Certainly Rowlandson is famous for caricaturing people’s vanities, eccentricities and hypocrisy.

These depictions provide a softened, romanticised view of the poor. A revival of the Church in England together with fears of revolution brought the plight of the poor to the public’s attention.

Jeremy Knight has once again placed our local history in the context of British art and national events in this imaginative exhibition. He is deserving of our thanks. The majority of the works on display are from private collections and are rarely seen. I am so glad that Toovey’s is supporting this fine exhibition. Admission is free and there is much to delight the visitor!

‘Portraying the Poor and Industrious in the Age of Waterloo’ runs until 28th November 2015 at the Horsham Museum & Art Gallery, 9 Causeway, Horsham, West Sussex, RH12 1HE. For more information visit www.horshammuseum.org or telephone 01403 254959.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 14th October 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.