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.

Returning to Petworth with Mr Turner

Petworth House and Park © National Trust Images, Chris Lacey
Petworth House and Park © National Trust Images, Chris Lacey

This week I am returning to Petworth House to revisit Mr. Turner – an exhibition, which explores some of the central themes of director Mike Leigh’s remarkable film Mr. Turner. The exhibition adds depth and context to Turner’s relationships, his restless travelling, his interest in natural philosophy and his many visits to Petworth House.

It has often been said that the character of Turner’s enigmatic and enlightened host, George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), informed the artist’s time at Petworth. Certainly, his relationship with Egremont is recorded as being particularly warm, especially in the decade before the Earl’s death.

The 3rd Earl’s independent thought and patronage gave opportunity for artists to develop their talent, qualities described by the Royal Academician George Jones as being profoundly important to the development of English art.

This independent, enlightened and philanthropic landowner was an expert agriculturalist and horticulturalist, an amateur scientist and a breeder of livestock and racehorses. The Agricultural Depression began with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and lasted until 1836. Crushing taxation connected with the post-war national debt, a glut of workers returning from military service and the subsequent collapse in prices came with heavy social and economic costs. The depression’s severity brought financial ruin upon landlords and tenant farmers alike. During this period the 3rd Earl planted different crops, fed and clothed the destitute and provided employment on a mass scale.

A scene from Mr. Turner in the Carved Room at Petworth House, with Timothy Spall, Karina Fernandez and Patrick Godfrey playing J.M.W. Turner, Mrs Coggins and the 3rd Earl of Egremont © Thin Man Films
A scene from Mr. Turner in the Carved Room at Petworth House, with Timothy Spall, Karina Fernandez and Patrick Godfrey playing J.M.W. Turner, Mrs Coggins and the 3rd Earl of Egremont © Thin Man Films

The Carved Room at Petworth House, sometimes called the Long Dining Room, was created by the 3rd Earl from two rooms. It housed the remarkable Grinling Gibbons carvings and work by the famous carver’s Sussex contemporary, John Selden. The room would have appeared very much as it does today, although the panelling was papered and painted white. Lord Egremont held his dogs in great affection and it was in this room that he would feed them at breakfast before setting out each day to hunt and shoot, even in his seventies.

In the 1820s Turner painted four landscapes for this splendidly ornamented dining room. They are quite extraordinary, combining Turner’s strength and energy with the culmination of over thirty years of experience. They capture more than just the Earl’s possessions. The patron’s philanthropic investment in agriculture, industry and the Sussex economy are brought to the fore, diverting our attention as viewers from status alone. One of them, for example, is a pastoral scene with local people playing cricket in Petworth Park amongst an unusual, diverse array of breeds, illustrating the Earl’s generosity and his innovative approach to farming.

J.M.W. Turner – Petworth Park with Lord Egremont and his dogs, oil on canvas © Tate, London, 2014
J.M.W. Turner – Petworth Park with Lord Egremont and his dogs, oil on canvas © Tate, London, 2014

However, it is a preliminary sketch of the same landscape, titled Petworth Park with Lord Egremont and his dogs, which captures my eye. Here we watch Lord Egremont as though from the Long Dining Room. He strikes out walking confidently across the sunlit sward with his dogs, bathed in luminous light, as a herd of deer grazes and looks on. The horizon is marked by the Sussex Downs and a copse broken by the distinctive spire of Tillington Church. Painted in 1828, this intimate picture provides a particular insight into the personal passions and delights of this enlightened patron. There is a spontaneity reflective of these two remarkable men’s good-humoured bonhomie. Turner’s friendship with the 3rd Earl of Egremont was such that he described his patron’s death as his “loss at Petworth”.

Mr. Turner – an exhibition illuminates the life and work of this great artist with many rarely seen works and personal objects on display. Demand for tickets has been high, so I recommend you book yours as soon as possible. The exhibition runs at Petworth House until 11th March 2015. For more information and to book tickets go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house or telephone 0844 249 1895.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 11th February 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Mr Turner at Petworth

Mr. Turner – Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner, paints in the Old Library © Simon Mein, Thin Man Films.
Mr. Turner – Timothy Spall, as J.M.W. Turner, paints in the Old Library © Simon Mein, Thin Man Films.

Mike Leigh’s textural depiction of the life and work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) in his award-winning film Mr. Turner has been brought to life in an exhibition at Petworth House. This fascinating show runs until 11th March 2015. It brings together rarely seen works by J.M.W. Turner with props, costumes and paintings from the film by the actor Timothy Spall.

Andrew Loukes, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Petworth House, is clearly excited by Mr. Turner – an exhibition, which he has co-curated with Dr Jacqueline Riding. Andrew enthuses: “Mike Leigh’s work on Mr. Turner at Petworth is arguably the most significant cultural moment at the ‘house of art’ since Turner himself was a frequent guest here in the 1820s and 30s.” The third Earl of Egremont was amongst the most important English patrons of art in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The film Mr. Turner has provided the opportunity to re-examine the important role that Petworth and the third Earl played in Turner’s later work.

As we walk up the Old Library staircase in conversation, I remark on one of my favourite scenes in the film, in which Turner stands painting at his easel in this library with three ladies, bathed in light from the arched window. As we reach the landing, we are greeted by the very same scene and light. Andrew smiles and explains, “Mike Leigh wanted to recreate some of Turner’s iconic pictures. Turner painted several sketches of this room.”

J.M.W. Turner – The Old Library © Tate, London, 2014
J.M.W. Turner – The Old Library © Tate, London, 2014

The Old Library is often called ‘Turner’s Studio’. This particular scene is taken from Turner’s luminous gouache of 1827, titled The Old Library: The Artist and his Admirers. Here three ladies watch as the artist paints. Turner’s delight is obvious in his depiction of light, colour and movement. It provides the viewer with a remarkable impression of a particular moment in time. The sketch is one of a number produced by Turner in the autumn of 1827. Painted for his own pleasure, they illustrate life behind the scenes at Petworth House.

Timothy Spall studied under London artist Tim Wright for two years as part of his preparation for the role of Turner. His vigorous performance in the film convincingly reflects something of the practical physicality of creating art and it is surprising to see the level of accomplishment in his paintings and drawings first hand. Spall depicts J.M.W. Turner as an artist consumed by his art, confident, eccentric, prosperous, forthright, both detached and tender in his personal relationships.

Like the film, the exhibition offers a revealing and very personal insight into the character of this great artist. Andrew reverentially shows me Turner’s leather watercolour pouch, which is one of the objects on display. Although worn, it shines, displaying the patina of years of use and handling by the artist himself.

As Andrew and I continue around the exhibition into the Carved Room with its Turners, Grinling Gibbons carvings and costumes from the film, it becomes apparent that I am in the company of a man whose depth of understanding and love of the collections he curates at Petworth House have rooted him in this place in a very particular way. He remarks, “I am excited to be able to expand the exhibition offer at Petworth, based around the remarkable collections here.” Andrew Loukes’ quiet passion, vision and dedication are bringing life to this important house and its collections and he deserves our thanks.

Demand for tickets for Mr. Turner – an exhibition at Petworth House is expected to be high, so book your tickets early! For more information go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house and to book tickets telephone 0844 249 1895.

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

William Blake, Exhibition Unites Sussex and Oxford

William Blake (1757–1827), ‘Newton’, 1795, large colour print finished in watercolour © Philadelphia Museum of Art

An insightful exhibition has just opened at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It focuses on the life and work of the remarkable romantic, visionary artist and poet, William Blake (1757-1827). The exhibition ‘William Blake Apprentice and Master’ explores the artist’s formation as he became one of Britain’s most important poets, artists and printmakers. Although the importance of Blake’s work was not wholly understood during his own life-time it inspired a new, younger generation of visionary artists which included Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert, who called themselves ‘the Ancients’.

William Blake’s artistic promise was apparent at an early age and he was apprenticed to James Basire aged fifteen. Basire was the official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries and sent Blake to study Westminster Abbey and other gothic churches in London. In 1779 Blake joined the Antique School of the Royal Academy. These early experiences would inform William Blake’s unorthodox approach to the depiction of both the gothic and the human form.

William Blake (1757–1827), ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, circa 1795–1805, colour print, ink, and watercolour on paper © Tate, London

By 1789 Blake was at the height of his powers, producing work of extraordinary originality. It was during this period that the artist began experimenting with new printing techniques including relief etching. His technical innovations included developments in colour printing, a method he referred to as ‘Illuminated Printing’. Examples in the exhibition include the book ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. Its theme reflects the common Romantic narrative of the human journey from protected childhood innocence, to the effects of engaging with the world, leading to adulthood. The large colour print ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ highlights Blake’s visionary and romantic reinterpretation of Biblical subjects. Here this ruler, described in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, is depicted as half-human, driven mad by his excessive pride and self-confidence. The large colour print ‘Newton’ is a favourite of mine. It depicts the famous scientist at work. It was reinterpreted by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi in the late 20th Century for his sculpture of the same title outside the British Library.

Joseph Johnson published William Blake and many leading writers. These includied the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the theologian and scientist Joseph Priestly, the artist John Henry Fuseli and the philosopher Richard Price. Blake became acquainted with these radical figures at Johnson’s gatherings.

William Blake (1757–1827), Frontispiece and facing title page from ‘Songs of Innocence’, 1789, relief etching printed in brown ink with watercolour © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

William Blake spent most of his life in London. However, for a number of years he lived in Sussex. In 1800 he moved to a cottage in Felpham, West Sussex, to illustrate work by the poet William Hayley. During this period William Blake wrote the poem titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’. It formed part of the preface to his epic work ‘Milton a Poet’. The title page is dated 1804 though Blake continued to work on it until 1808.

As we near the end of 2014, the centenary year of the start of the First World War, it is poignant to reflect that in 1916 Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, edited a patriotic anthology of poems titled ‘The Spirit of Man’. Amongst these was the little known poem ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ by William Blake, better known to us today as ‘Jerusalem’.

In 1916 Bridges invited Hubert Parry to set ‘Jerusalem’ to music and it became a national anthem. In it Blake articulates the triumph of our green and pleasant land over the enslavement of our island’s peoples by the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. At the heart of this poem is a questioning of the myth that Jesus Christ visited these Isles with his Uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, a tin dealer. In Blake’s poem heaven and earth are to be united in a perfected creation. The New Jerusalem is to be built here in England. Blake uses this story from the Book of Revelations as a metaphor for social justice in his own times.

The exhibition provides a very human insight into William Blake placing him in the context of his times and contemporaries. The recreation of his London studio, now lost, brings us an opportunity to connect with William Blake’s life and work in a particularly personal way.

This fine exhibition provides a reminder of William Blake’s artistic talent and strong moral vision. An important artist who has an important place in the story of Sussex as a leading centre for artists over the centuries.

‘William Blake: Apprentice & Master’, runs until 1st March 2015 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. For further information go to www.ashmolean.org. The Blake Society are campaigning to buy his cottage at Felpham and preserve it for the nation, for more information go to www.blakesociety.org.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 10th December 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Golden Age of Model Railways

Bassett-Lowke O gauge
A Bassett-Lowke O gauge electric 4-6-0 locomotive

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the Brighton Toy and Model Museum in Brighton. It was founded in 1991 by museum director Chris Littledale, whose passion for model railways is at the heart of this extraordinary, jewel-like museum. The museum’s centrepiece is a working, 1930s O-gauge railway layout.

From left to right, Alan and Rupert Toovey, directors of Toovey’s, and Chris Littledale, founder of Brighton Toy Museum

Chris Littledale describes his interest in trains as a lifelong passion, which he traces back to a live-steam model railway which he visited in Southsea with his uncle. “I still remember the smell, the steam and the noise,” Chris enthuses. “It seeded a lifelong passion for trains, which has never left me. When I was at boarding school, I found a second-hand O-gauge model railway for sale – it was beautiful!” Chris recalls that he so loved the set that he even tried to acquire a loan from the headmaster’s wife to purchase it, but was unsuccessful. All collectors have a list of the things which they have missed or failed to buy and it would seem that Chris is no exception. In his teens and early twenties, as his friends turned out their railways, he was on hand to buy their unwanted trains and accessories; they were wonderful things to his eyes. In those days just a pound or two would buy something lovely. By his twenties he was already restoring and repairing these childhood treasures. This collecting passion continued until one day there was model railway everywhere. “It was in cupboards, kitchen cabinets, even under the bed,” he acknowledges, “and I decided that I needed to share it all with others.” Collectors like Chris are often defined by this sense of custodianship, rather than ownership. Their delight in the acquisition of knowledge is frequently as strong as acquiring the object itself, and once we have acquired knowledge, we want to share it and our excitement with others.

Out of Chris Littledale’s generous desire to share his collection, the Brighton Toy and Model Museum was born. It fills a number of railway arches under the forecourt of Brighton railway station. The collection has many exhibits of national and international importance to the history of toys. On display are collections of Steiff and other soft toys, Meccano, Dinky, Tri-ang and Corgi vehicles and, of course, the trains. Today it draws people of similar passions from all over the world and is mostly run by volunteers.

A passion for trains is something which speaks into my own childhood. They say that the memories of those we love are as real to us as if they are our own. I grew up enthralled by Dad’s memories. My father, Alan Toovey, recounts, “I still remember vividly the noise and smell of the streamline L.M.S. Royal Scot express, liveried in blue and silver, coming at full tilt through Hatch End station, near Harrow, as I stood as a young boy on the footbridge, on my way to primary school.” This passion for trains has never left him. Enthusiasm for trains is something I have been rediscovering with my daughter, Emma, who you see here driving the rare Bassett-Lowke model of the Royal Scot with Chris Littledale.

A Hornby Trains No. 2 Special Pullman set
A Hornby Trains gauge O clockwork No. 2 Special Pullman set

This year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Hornby. He invented Meccano in 1901 and went on to make model trains after the Great War. The appeal of Hornby trains remains undiminished almost a century later. Many model trains are still affordable. Emma’s and my Hornby OO-gauge railway layout, with landscape and even a beach, is on a much more modest scale than Chris’ magnificent set at the museum, but it still delights. If you want to share in a passion for trains with fellow enthusiasts or relive childhood memories, visit the Brighton Toy and Model Museum. This is a place filled with life. The trains are not just static exhibits but are often run.

The museum is open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm and Saturdays 11am to 5pm. To find out more, go to www.brightontoymuseum.co.uk or telephone 01273 749494.

More information on Toovey’s Specialist Sales of Toys, Dolls and Games can be found by clicking here.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 22nd May 2013 in the West Sussex Gazette.