Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain

Madam X (detail), c.1884 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A breathtaking array of portraits by the avantgarde artist John Singer Sargent has just gone on show at Tate Britain.

John Singer Sargent was the most successful society portrait painter of the Belle Époque. His portraits evoke wealth, power, status and drama, providing windows into his sitters beyond the fashionable facades of the costumes which he exploited in his pursuit of intimacy, notoriety and an expression of beauty which is particular to this gifted and sensuous artist. Alongside many of the portraits on show are the costumes worn by his sitters and often chosen by Sargent.

Sargent was born in Florence. His American parents have been described as cultural nomads. As children they were exposed to art and culture across Europe by the artist’s mother. Sargent’s experience of art by Velasquez, Goya, Rembrandt and many other artists would prove formative.

In his youth Sargent displayed a precocious gift as an artist. His mother, ambitious for his talent, moved the whole family to Paris. There he would meet and later paint Claude Monet. Carolus-Duran taught him to paint quickly directly from his subject using a heavily loaded brush wet on wet allowing him to mix colours directly on the canvas. There is a brilliance in his fluid, spontaneous brushstrokes.

Today’s actors and celebrities wear costumes on the red carpet from the most famous designers to catch the eye and attention of society. Sargent understood this and was unafraid to court notoriety to gain attention and to promote his art. His upbringing made him a natural outsider at the heart of Parisian and London society. These bohemian qualities proved attractive to his wealthy patrons.

Dr Pozzi at Home (detail), c.1881 © The Armand Hammer Collection

Two of Sargent’s most notorious portraits are united in the exhibition. Dr Pozzi at Home depicts this brilliant gynaecologist, surgeon and prodigious lover not in formal attire but in a sensuous pose wearing a cardinal red dressing gown. Madam X captures Virgine Gautreau’s famous profile in a provocative pose and dress which shocked Parisian society at the 1884 Paris Salon. Gautreau skirted the fringes of Bohemian Paris and like Pozzi was known for her extramarital affairs. Gautreau and Pozzi were lovers.

Both portraits depict vanity and seduction. She is self-assured and commanding, his sexuality simmers in crimson red. He is looking, she is being looked at. Sargent’s virtuosity is apparent in their expressions, posture and costumes.

John Singer Sargent captured the essence of his times with a breathtaking ability to bring his subjects to life on canvas.

Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain runs until 7th July 2024.

The Importance of Tea in the Life of the Nation

A set of four George III silver gilt bachelor’s teapots, London 1806 by Digby Scott & Benjamin Smith II

Tea is very important in our home especially for my wife. No tea no Teresa in the mornings – well a girl must have standards.

It is said that the first tea shop in England was opened in 1706 by Thomas Twining at 216 Strand in London where it remains to this day.

Parliament banned the importation of finished Chinese and other Asian silk and textiles in 1720 and this led to the British East India Company turning its attention to tea. Between 1720 and 1750 the company’s imports of tea quadrupled. Its imports of tea from Canton were some three times higher than any of its European rivals. With tea now its main import and with production rising in India the price stabilised making it less expensive than coffee with an inevitable growth in its popularity. In the 18th century tea replaced beer as our national drink. Much was made of its health benefits and the rise in tea drinking in Britain from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries was matched by a significant fall in mortality rates, though this may have just been a benefit from tea being made with boiling water thereby reducing water carried pathogens.

In the early 18th century tea was hugely expensive and an array of objects were made marking the drink’s new found popularity in Britain’s wealthiest homes. Many were made in silver like the set of three graduated rococo tea caddies decorated with C scrolls and pineapple finials. They were made in London in 1739 by the highly respected silversmith John Pero. Their contemporary sarcophagus shaped casket has a lock to keep the precious tea safe. They sold for £3600 at Toovey’s.

A set of three George II silver graduated rococo tea caddies, London 1739 by John Pero

Teapots, too, were used to serve tea in front of guests and were often made of silver. The exceptional set of four small silver-gilt classical revival bachelor’s teapots, each measuring just 3 1/2 inches in height, were made by Digby and Scott and Benjamin Smith II whose partnership produced some of the finest silver objects of the early 19th century. These elements of the classical revival taste were popular in the late Georgian and Regency periods. The teapots also sold at Toovey’s for £6800.

Although coffee’s popularity is on the rise today these tea related objects and their values still speak of the important place of tea in the life of our nation.

The Artist and Conservationist David Shepherd

David Shepherd’s Siberian Tiger painted in 2000

The Sussex based international artist David Shepherd, CBE, FRSA, FGRA (1931-2017) is still celebrated for his painting and work as an outspoken conservationist. One of the most popular and gifted realist artists of his generation he was famous for his paintings of wildlife and steam locomotives.

David travelled to Kenya in 1949 where he encountering Africa and its wildlife. After failing to become a game warden he returned to London intent on becoming an artist only to be rejected by the Slade. The artist Robert Goodwin took the young David Shepherd under his wing and taught him to paint.

I met David at numerous charitable events across the county over the years and we discovered that we were both Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts and shared a passion for nature and steam locomotives. Despite owning several steam locomotives David was always very encouraging of my daughter and I’s humble model railway which has lift-off landscape so it can be neatly stored. And this was the measure of a man who took great interest in others and the world he lived in. Outward facing and passionate he stood in defence of the natural world and particularly the African and Asian wildlife he captured so beautifully in his paintings.

Tigers feature prominently in his art. The Siberian Tiger painted by David on a small canvas in 2000 captures the nobility of this critically endangered species which is only found in Northeast China and the Russian Far East. The play of light on the undergrowth and fur accentuates the life and movement in the scene. There is an intensity to the tiger’s piercing gaze, alert to the world it inhabits. It sold at Toovey’s for £10,000.

A detail of David Shepherd’s Rhinos in Namibia painted in 1999

Namibia, like so many African countries, is constantly engaged in the defence of its black rhinos against illegal poaching. The country is home to more than a third of Africa’s black rhinos. David Shepherd captures the rare sight of two black rhinos together on the African savannah in his small oil Rhinos in Namibia. The rhinos appear to be moving towards us through the sun-baked sparsely wooded grassland. The heat, light and movement is once again stunningly captured. The painting also sold at Toovey’s for £9000.

David’s love of these wild animals is apparent not only in his painting but also in the work of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation which he founded in 1984 to champion endangered wildlife and their habitats across Africa and Asia.

The Impressionists’ Colour Light and Intimacy on show at The Royal Academy Of Arts

Edgar Degas, Dancers on a Bench (detail), circa 1898, pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Colour, light and intimacy define the collection of works on paper by leading Impressionist are on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until the 10th March 2024.

This exhibition, Impressionists on Paper: Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec, illustrates how Impressionism and Post Impressionism transformed the art of late 19th century France and for the first time gave works on paper, sketches, a status of their own.

The Impressionists were at first derided for their sketchy impressions of scenes but their approach would transform the art world by capturing the colour, movement and life in a landscape or scene. Rather than making sketches and working up a finished canvas in the studio they painted en plein air, outside in the open air. They worked quickly capturing momentary, fleeting effects of sunlight moving over a scene. This resulted in a heightened awareness of light and colour expressed in rapid, broken brushwork, the dabs of paint giving spontaneity and movement to their subjects.

In addition to their radical technique, the bright colours of Impressionist canvases shocked eyes accustomed to the more sober colours of academic painting. The paints themselves were more vivid too. New synthetic pigments provided artists’ with vibrant shades of blue, green, and yellow. This use of colour is also apparent in their works on paper and can be seen in Vincent van Gogh’s graphite, black chalk, watercolour and gouache on paper The Fortifications of Paris from 1887.

Vincent van Gogh, The Fortifications of Paris with Houses, 1887, on paper © The Whitworth, The University of Manchester/Michael Pollard

Edward Degas’ subjects include his famous studies of ballet dancers, figures from the world of theatre and ballet in Paris. He worked in oil, pastel and produced bronze sculptures. Degas was inspired not only by the glamour of the stage but also the domestic aspects of this life which he depicted with intimacy and sensitivity.

The pastel drawing Dancers on a Bench captures a seated young woman exhausted after her performance. Her full-skirted tutu spreads out behind her framing the dancer in this unguarded scene. The palette, too, is arresting and radical with green hues discernible in the dancers’ complexions.

This exhibition offers an insight into the innovations made by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists in their drawings which are no less radical than their paintings.

Impressionists on Paper: Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec runs at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until 10th March 2024.