The Sacred in the Secular, R.B. Kitaj and Barabara Hepworth

Simon Martin, Head of Collections at Pallant House
Simon Martin, Head of Collections at Pallant House Gallery with Kitaj’s painting ‘Juan de la Cruz’

It is always a pleasure to journey with Simon Martin, Head of Collections at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. This week I am joining him at the Gallery’s important exhibition of work by the American born artist R.B. Kitaj. The show, titled ‘Obsessions’, runs until the 16th June and includes many international loans of iconic work from the artist’s extensive oeuvre.

Kitaj is considered to be one of the most significant painters of the post-war period and the last major retrospective exhibition of his work was held at Tate in 1994. Together with his friends Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Lucien Freud, he pioneered a new figurative art, challenging the prevailing trend of abstraction and conceptualism in London.

I have been back to the Kitaj exhibition several times now and on each occasion I am excited by the depth and quality of the work, but it is the large oil on canvas ‘Juan de la Cruz’, shown here with Simon Martin, that arrests my attention. “Kitaj often comments on the politics of modern culture,” Simon explains, “and this work speaks of the Vietnam War and America’s role in global politics.” The young man’s face is exquisitely observed and painted; it has a timeless quality reminiscent of 17th century portraits. I am captivated by the impassive eyes of this African American soldier. His penetrating gaze involves you with the scenes of cruelty and inhumanity that play out around him; we are not passive observers. “There is great ambiguity in this painting,” Simon interjects. “The soldier looks at you on the level. His emotional detachment invites us to question his role in the scenes depicted around him. Is he victim or perpetrator? The young man’s name, ‘Cross’, and the crosses in the centre right of the picture are rich in Christian iconography. Is this serious and intentional or a pun?’ To me, the crosses speak powerfully of Christ sharing our human suffering, united with us by the Cross, involved and not passive, the crosses symbols of hope rather than despair.

It is a remarkable achievement to present an exhibition of such importance in the heart of Sussex and Simon Martin acknowledges the hard work involved. I admire his vision, assuredness, passion and tenacity in all that he does. This is a show not to be missed and Simon deserves our thanks.

Before I leave Pallant House Gallery there is just time to see, once again, the ‘Barbara Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings’ exhibition. Barbara Hepworth embarked on this series of studies of the operating theatre in the late 1940s. They were begun on the invitation of her friend, the surgeon Norman Capener, who had saved Hepworth’s daughter, Sarah, from a near fatal illness. These then are a very personal reflection on the surgeon and theatre.

Barbara Hepworth, ‘Prelude II’, 1948, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, copyright Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Image Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Barbara Hepworth, ‘Prelude II’, 1948, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, copyright Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Image Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The work is figurative with a wonderful quality of light and mass, reminiscent of the early Italian Renaissance artists Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) and Masaccio (1401-1428). Many of the pictures are worked on a gesso-type ground, a kind of fine, dry plaster, which Hepworth rubbed and scraped before applying a thin coloured oil paint wash, which she then scratched through to reveal areas of white ground. The technique was pioneered by Picasso, who shared it with Hepworth’s lover, Ben Nicholson. These studies are filled with narrative and reverence; there is a sacred quality to the figures as they prepare to operate. You sense the sculptor’s affinity with the surgeon’s craft. I share the exhibition curator Nathaniel Hepburn’s fondness for this sacred quality, expressed in ‘Prelude II’, shown here, painted in 1948. At the foot of the bed a woman sits with her hands joined and head bowed in a gesture of prayer. The characters in this story are gathered in the operating lamp’s pool of light. In the centre a man stands with his hand raised, as if in blessing, surrounded by figures whose hands are clasped, as if in prayer. In other drawings the surgeon stands at the operating table, his hands reminiscent of a priest’s celebrating Holy Communion, consecrating bread and wine at an altar.

It has been a privilege to support, through Toovey’s, the Barbara Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings exhibition, which provides such an extraordinary insight into Hepworth’s work and life. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have; it is both beautiful and unexpected.

These two extraordinary artists’ exhibitions allow us to glimpse something beyond our immediate perception of the world and our humanity, something at once sacred and secular. They continue for only a few more weeks, rare treats too good to be missed.

‘R.B. Kitaj – Obsessions’ runs until 16th June 2013 and ‘Barbara Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings’ until 2nd June 2013. For more information about the exhibitions, related talks and opening times, go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 15th May 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Delicacy and Brilliance, Chinese Doucai Porcelain

A Chinese doucai porcelain jar
A Chinese doucai porcelain jar

By the mid-18th century, Chinese porcelain produced for imperial appreciation was at its height. The Qianlong period (1735-1795) overlapped with the reign of our own King George III. As the Industrial Revolution grew under the Farmer King in Britain, the processes and techniques of porcelain manufacture in China reached an advanced stage. This found expression in restrained decoration, characterized by delicacy and brilliance.

Among the favourite wares chosen by Chinese potters of the 18th century for inspiration or copying were those of the 15th century from the early Ming and Chenghua reigns. That they chose to copy earlier styles is reflective of general trends in Chinese art, which display a tendency to antiquarianism. Balancing this was the desire of Qing rulers to validate their own sovereignty and status through associating themselves with earlier reigns by invoking these earlier styles in the designs for their own imperial porcelain.

The Qianlong period seal mark
The Qianlong period six-character seal mark

On my recent visit to China I was fortunate to visit the Imperial Summer Palace, which was reconstructed after the ravages of the Anglo-French invasion of 1860 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The gardens were originally commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1749. Today, the gardens are enjoyed by thousands of Chinese and some foreign tourists. In the palace are rooms furnished with Qianlong period furniture and porcelain of the finest quality. They give an insight to the genius and restraint of Chinese imperial taste in the 18th century.

The piece illustrated is a Chinese doucai porcelain globular jar bearing the six-character seal mark of Qianlong. The body is decorated with slender stems of lotus, alternating with narcissus, over a lower frieze of the eight auspicious Buddhistic emblems, which include symbols representing eternal harmony, knowledge, purity and enlightenment. The third and lower tier is of flowers. All these decorative elements communicate with each other between a frieze of flame-like lappets and a ruyi-encircled rim. All are finely outlined in underglaze cobalt blue.

Rupert Toovey at the Summer Palace in Beijing
Rupert at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Doucai decoration first found favour during the Chenghua reign (1465-1487). The delicate cobalt-blue outline to all the coloured enamels defines doucai decoration and unites them with delicacy and brilliance. It can be difficult to discern the age of these doucai pieces. The specialist and connoisseur will look for differences in the cobalt blue of the outline, which often has a softer appearance on earlier objects. Later examples also fail to capture the charming ivory tint to the glaze of 15th century examples. Qianlong period examples, however, are celebrated for their translucent enamels, alive with colour, which are set off by the precision of the cobalt-blue outlines. We are left with the impression that they are at once fragile and precious.

These qualities are much in demand, particularly in imperial pieces. 18th century examples, like this jar, command high prices, especially when they bear their true reign mark, rather than copying an earlier reign mark. Measuring just 9cm high, this doucai vase sold at auction for £32,000 in a specialist Oriental sale earlier this year.

It is this combination of harmonious design and restraint, combined with the shear quality of the painting and execution, which never fails to delight me. Delicate and brilliant, doucai pieces take some beating in any century!

View Toovey’s Specialist Sales of Oriental Ceramics and Works of Art by clicking here.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 8th May 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

NADFAS & Toovey’s Raise £780 for Mary How Trust

NADFAS Day at Toovey's
Rupert Toovey and Chris Winter with members of the Storrington NADFAS at Toovey's

The monies are now in and Toovey’s Special Interest NADFAS Day in aid of the Mary How Trust has realised £780.

For the second year, fine art auctioneers Toovey’s, on the A24 at Washington, teamed up with the Storrington Branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Society (NADFAS) in March to raise money for the local charity Mary How Trust. Rupert and Nicholas Toovey put on a series of lectures on Sussex as a centre for Modern British Art in the 20th century and collecting vintage postcards. The day also included lunch, a private view of the forthcoming auction and a valuation session of objects brought by the NADFAS members. NADFAS event organizer Chris Winter commented, “This event was oversubscribed last year, so Rupert kindly offered to run it again this year.”

The Mary How Trust, based at Pulborough, was set up in memory of Mary How by her husband and doctor in response to her battle with cancer. Today the charity screens around a thousand people a year, saving countless lives. Rupert Toovey, director of Toovey’s, said, “I am proud to be a patron of the Mary How Trust. The work its dedicated team does saves countless lives. It receives no funding from the NHS, though, so it is terribly important that we give generously to this exceptional local charity, especially in its Silver Jubilee year. I would like to thank the members of the Storrington NADFAS for their generous help.” The talks and lunch were given free of charge by Toovey’s so that all the proceeds could go to the Mary How Trust. Chris Winter concluded, “I would like to thank Rupert, Nicholas and all the team at Toovey’s for a memorable day.”

For more information on the Mary How Trust and how you might get involved, visit www.maryhowtrust.org

The Revival of a Golden Age, Edwardian Jewellery

Pink Beryl Brooch sold at Toovey's
An Edwardian diamond and pink beryl pendant brooch, circa 1900

At the beginning of the 20th century, England had never been more prosperous. The English purchased more jewellery in the early years of this new century than in any other period in history.

The popularity of Art Nouveau and Revivalist jewellery continued in the spirit of the 1890s as people looked back to late 19th century tastes. The influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement was again felt as a demand for handcrafted jewels grew among this affluent society.

At its best, Edwardian jewellery interprets earlier styles with a lightness and delicacy of ornament and manufacture. The fashionable Edwardian lady wore her diamonds, pearls and precious gems with restraint, avoiding the Victorian tendency for ostentation. Restraint and exuberance marked out tastes in the light-hearted first decade of the century. Stones of intense, yet soft colours were favoured. Take, for example, the exquisite Edwardian jewel illustrated. This diamond and pink beryl pendant brooch, circa 1900, beautifully illustrates the appeal of an Edwardian Revivalist jewel. It measures 2cm x 1.7cm, this smaller size reflecting changes in women’s fashion. At the centre is the large pink beryl, claw-set in a surround of sixteen pinched collet-set, old-cut diamonds. The term ‘beryl’ covers a range of mineral-based stones, including emerald and aquamarine. The cut and setting of the diamonds also add to the air of restraint and softness of the piece. The pendant was owned by a continental lady, who had lived through the tumult of 20th century European history and had made her home in the heart of Sussex. At a recent specialist jewellery sale, its understated quality attracted the attention of contemporary connoisseurs of jewellery and it realised £15,500.

An Art Nouveau silver and enamelled bracelet by Charles Horner, Chester 1909

Less expensive examples from this period can still be found, like the Arts and Crafts-style bracelet in silver with blue/green enamelled rectangular and Celtic pierced-scroll panel links, also shown here. It was made in 1909 by Charles Horner, who manufactured this type of work in his Halifax factory in relatively large quantities, in response to fashion and demand. A bracelet like this would realise around £700 at auction today.

A gold, plique-à-jour enamel and rose diamond-set pendant in an Art Nouveau design

The gold, plique-à-jour enamel and rose diamond-set pendant illustrated is a delightful example of Art Nouveau design. It is decorated with the portrait of a maiden between two rose diamond-set flowerhead motifs above a cultured pearl drop. Plique-à-jour is a technique where enamel is applied to cells without backing; it gives the impression of miniature stained glass windows. The Art Nouveau seeks not to slavishly depict nature but rather to capture something of its essence. This appeal helped the pendant to realise £680 in spite of faults to the enamel.

All these pieces reflect the joy and light-heartedness of a new century, a punctuation mark in the procession of history before the tragedy of war and revolution broke upon Europe. The first decade of this new century was filled with expectation. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 brought this extraordinary and particular period of patronage and manufacture to an abrupt close. Jewels were locked in security vaults or sold for survival.

Today this jewellery attracts attention and competition from across Britain and from around the world including the USA and, increasingly, China. Its quality of design, material and manufacture places it out of time and its continued appeal, it would seem, is as assured at the beginning of this new century as it was in the last.

Toovey’s specialist jewellery auctions can be viewed here.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 1st May 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Inhabiting Medieval Art, St Botolph’s, Hardham

The medieval frescoes at St Botolph’s, Hardham
The medieval frescoes at St Botolph’s, Hardham

I have been thinking about St George, the patron saint of England, whose life is celebrated this week, and I was reminded of the frescoes at St Botolph’s, Hardham. These beautiful wall paintings include a series of panels devoted to St George. The simple church with its exterior lime washed walls lies just to the south of Pulborough. It is one of my favourite places to stop and pray when I am working.

The first time you encounter the medieval frescoes of one the five Lewes Group of Churches, you cannot fail to be moved by the clarity and beauty of these late 11th/early 12th century wall paintings. The frescoes at St John the Baptist, Clayton, St Botolph’s, Hardham, and Coombes at Lancing are still visible and alive in their predominantly russet hews. They were first termed the Lewes Group in the early 20th century, reflecting a consensus of academic opinion that these pictures reflected a school of monastic artists from the powerful Cluniac Priory of St Pancras at Lewes.

The style of these wall paintings is influenced by both the Byzantine and the Romanesque. The Byzantine Empire developed out of the Roman and they never forgot their classical heritage in respect of art and architecture. There was, however, a conscious movement towards the more abstract and less representational with elongated stylized figures. It was as though the artists were seeking to allow us to see beyond our immediate perception – to glimpse the glory of God and inspire us to devotion.

Frescoes are wall paintings painted directly on to the plaster while it is still wet. The artist has to work quickly and as the plaster dries the pigments and image are fixed. This technique was used throughout the Renaissance in Italy and elsewhere.

While the work at Hardham is less refined than the painting at Clayton, it is equally engaging, embodying the clarity and directness which defines the Lewes painters. Some of the figures at St Botolph’s reflect the Romanesque figures of the French Tradition. Take, for example, the famous depiction of Adam and Eve with their elongated bodies and small heads. It is these characteristics which set them apart from earlier paintings. But at Hardham there is play and movement in the drapery of the clothes, which, to my eye, highlights the characteristics and influence of the earlier Anglo Saxons in the painter’s hand.

This was certainly the considered view expressed by patron and art critic Clive Bell when he wrote about the medieval church frescoes at Clayton and Hardham for the Miller’s Press, Lewes, in 1947. Clive Bell’s opinions on art were influential. He championed Picasso and was married to the artist Vanessa Bell of Bloomsbury and Charleston House fame. Using the methods of contemporary art criticism, he disputed whether all the Lewes Group paintings were united in their stylistic qualities and influences. He did not, however, question the artists’ association with the Cluniac Priory at Lewes.

Rupert Toovey at Hardham
The Revd. Rupert Toovey viewing the fresco panels at Hardham

When you arrive at St Botolph’s, sit and rest a while. Open your heart to a millennium of layered love, prayer and worship. Allow your eyes to adjust. Take time to stop and stare and, as you do, you become aware of the extraordinary frescoes painted in those russet hews so typical of the Lewis group of Churches to which Hardham belongs.

Since the Renaissance we have become used to viewing art in frames. While the work may invite us in, we nevertheless remain the viewer. The painted medieval church is different; here we inhabit the piece of art, joined with the narratives displayed all around us.

In viewing art, the qualities of the aesthetic and the religious are held in tension. Where there is a shared religious heritage, visual art can inspire a vital, living religious experience. They can, however, be viewed purely as a process of rational thinking, a form of teaching, at once experiential and contemplative. Above the chancel arch at Hardham, for example, Jesus is depicted as the sacrificial Lamb of God (the Agnus Dei). In the chancel, the painting of Adam and Eve seeks to allow us to comprehend our free will as creatures created in the image of the God, who knows us completely, delights in us and invites us to accept His love.

On the lower tier of the north wall, you will discover a series of depictions of St George. In the first section he is on horseback bearing a lance. It was originally thought that this depicted our 4th century patron saint slaying the dragon. Little is known of his life but it is thought that he was a Christian Roman soldier, who defended his fellow believers against persecution and was martyred for his actions. In the 1960s it was discovered that the dragon was in fact a slain figure with a kite-shaped shield. It is now thought that this scene relates to descriptions of the Battle of St Antioch in 1098. The battle was part of the First Crusade. Accounts of the battle describe how a later St George and two other saints, mounted on white horses and bearing white banners, came to the relief of the crusaders. Further scenes at Hardham show him being held captive, tortured and martyred on the wheel. It is remarkable to reflect that these pictures were painted shortly after the Battle of Antioch.

These stories reflect the courage and bravery offered by these soldier saints in defending the people they served. Their examples of selfless love and service to others is as resonant today as it was then as our armed forces seek to bring peace, to make lives better through their courage and sacrifice, wherever they serve around the world.

St Botolph’s, Hardham, is open daily with regular Sunday services.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 24th April 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.