Soprano Romaniw Sparkles in Miller’s Revival of La Bohème at ENO

Jonathan Miller was one of the reasons I started to take notice of opera in my early twenties. On camera, Miller spoke impressively of his aims to change opera for the better. Inventor of the time-shift opera, he was bent on creating better, more authentic drama. Out went the kitschy costumes, bad acting and antiquated sets so often associated with the opera genre.

In the 1980s Miller’s cinematic staging drew new audiences and his innovative stage direction breathed new life into iconic opera characters. People wanted to be entertained as well as hear the greats sing but predictably some opera stars were reluctant to change and refused to take orders from Miller. After many successes and a few run-ins with management and stars, Miller announced his departure in 2004, aged 74. Five years later however he was back staging La Bohème for ENO in 2009. His production was repeated a year later and in 2013, with Natasha Metherell in charge of the revival’s direction, the production was deemed flawless on every level by opera critics.

As the curtain went up on the opening night of the fourth revival of Miller’s ‘La Bohème’, I sighed with pleasure as I took in the 1930s artist studio with its high, narrow windows, lit to perfection. Rodolfo and Marcello working at the window in the dwindling light, painted the perfect picture of Bohemian Paris. Marcello, artist, had been stripped of his beret and smock and his thumb was not pointed at an easel. No easel in sight. Miller had spirited away all the embarrassing clichés of previous 19th century-inspired productions.

La boheme - Puccini - English National Opera - 26th November 2018  Conductor - Alexander Joel Director - Jonathan Miller Designer - Isabella Bywater  Mimi - Natalya Romaniw Rudolf - Jonathan Tetelman Marcello - Nicholas Lester Benoit/Alcindoro - Simon But
Nicholas Lester, Bozidar Smiljanic, Simon Butteriss, Jonathan Tetelman (photo by Robert Workman)

The scene with Rodolfo and Marcello and fellow bohemians gently ribbing each other and jokingly bemoaning their fate, was authentic and charming. Comedic moments supplied by landlord, Benoît, were a joy. Simon Butteriss in the role was so close to Leonard Rossiter’s character in the sitcom Rising Damp. His boasts and gripes about the female race: “Skinny women are here to spite us“, elicited laughter from a row of girls seated behind me in the dress circle.

A more serious Jonathan Tetelman in the all important role of Rodolfo was making his European debut. His voice, though sensitive and sweet, especially in the upper register, came across as tight alongside Nicholas Lester, whose warm, more assured delivery was perfect for his Marcello role.

In the interval, my neighbours wondered whether Tetelman should have turned to face the audience more. True – the set may have been a little challenging for him. The Paris studio was set back on the stage and Lester and Tetelman were singing from an upper level. Their voices had to carry across the stage, over the orchestra pit, across to us in the dress circle.

That said, the friendship between Rodolfo and Marcello was artfully portrayed. Tetelman, is potentially good in a romantic role too but with Natalya Romaniw’s soprano, who sang the part of Mimi, mostly to perfection, his voice was not put to full advantage. The all-important moving arias of Act One were however well executed by both singers.

Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s love is subsumed in the hustle and bustle of Act Two. The stage set was striking: a café, with mirrors down one wall, a row of apartment buildings and roof tops disappearing off into the distance to the right of the stage, giving it great depth and breath. This allowed the chorus room to move around in and for the military band to break through the crowd and march off to great fanfare.

If Act Two is all about lightness and movement, Act Three plunges the audience into an atmosphere of darkness, stillness and hell. Miller’s set does this so eloquently. Two prostitutes straight out of a Brassai photograph loiter for business outside a dimly lit bar. Mimi appears from a partially-lit alleyway looking pale and anxious. The quartet when it came, with Mimi and Rodolpho versus Musetta and Marcello, worked quite well, Mimi and Rodolpho’s poignant lyricism piercing through Musetta’s and Marcello’s bickering. Nadine Benjamin, fresh from ENO’s enormously successful Porgy and Bess, where she played the role of Clara, portrayed a rather pared down version of Musetta. She was not as confidently petulant as I would have liked. Her voice was at its best in the final act when she had given up on flirtatiousness and sung movingly around the dying Mimi.

The star of the evening was without a doubt Natalya Romaniw, who was singing the role of Mimi for the first time. Having already been impressed by footage of her singing in the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at Garsington, I knew I would already be in for a treat with La Bohème. Something in that mournful timbre of hers just seizes your heart. Her portrayal of Mimi has still a way to go, but her voice lingers in your head days after you have heard her sing. A true star, Romaniw brings further magic to what is already an arresting production.

KH

La Boheme continues in repertory at ENO until 22 February 2019

Further information


(Header image: Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw)

Britten’s War Requiem finds new life with ENO’s staging

At the Coliseum to watch the first UK staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on its opening night, I was curious to see how Turner prize-winning photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans would tackle this work as set designer.

War Requiem’s reputation has soared since 1962, when it was first performed in Coventry Cathedral. As a choral work, it now enjoys the same popularity as Handel’s Messiah.

The horrors of war remain a compelling theme with modern audiences and Tillmans, who is German and a pacifist, leapt at the idea of staging Britten’s work. It is one thing however to be an edgy artist such as Tillmans, and to stage an opera (plenty do), but War Requiem is hard to define, it is a hybrid choral work drawing its text both from church liturgy, the Mass of the Dead, and Wilfred Owen’s war poems.

So what does ‘staging’ really entail? Isn’t there enough movement and richness in the text and musical score for us to conjure for ourselves the full terror of death and war? The male solo parts are so achingly beautiful and poignant. And if the libretto wasn’t enough, ENO has enlisted 120 singers in the chorus, 3 top soloists and an 85-strong orchestra to hammer the message home. And yet I do understand ENO’s wish to bring another dimension to the work.

I had watched a 1964 black and white BBC film of War Requiem on YouTube. Presented by Richard Baker in clipped British tones at the Albert Hall, it brought back to me how stiff a concert performance could be. The soloists, choirs, musicians all in their appointed place on stage; singers standing to attention when it was their turn perform. I also watched a more recent Festival Hall production, which felt more fluid, less regal and stiff.

ENO’s War Requiem gets off to a terrific start in the opening movement. The pages of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 anti-war book, entitled ‘War against War’ are projected onto two LED screens with the chorus in darkness behind them. The children’s choir starts up – and at the same moment, illustrations of tin soldiers and toy guns appear, the equivalent of today’s computer war games. David Kramer, Artistic Director, dramatises this point later on in Offertorium, when the soprano, the wonderful Emma Bell, is seen leading a young boy to a grave. A funeral is taking place. He breaks away from his mother angrily to play on his iPad, which he inevitably bashes with his little fist.

But back to the opening. The screen slowly parts and little by little the chorus come through to centre stage singing ‘perpetual light shine upon them’ while the audience is presented with photographs of dull-eyed soldiers with monstrous facial disfigurements – a soldier with a badly grafted nose, another with a gaping hole where his mouth should be. But then the projections cease, the chorus plays dead, and the tenor, David Butt Philip, starts singing Owen’s words taken from ‘Anthem for doomed Youth’. Here the poetry does the talking and we are able to fully focus on his extraordinary expressive voice. David Butt Philip was the star of the night for me.

And this is what Tillmans meant in a recent Times interview. He was keen ‘to leave room for the sung word’. For almost a third of the time, Tillmans sensibly chooses to have a blank stage, most notably in the middle section of the last movement, Libera Me, when the ghosts of a British and German officer meet. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, sings Roderick Williams in his gentle baritone.

Although Tillmans is careful not to intrude on our musical pleasure, at times his imagery feels arbitrary, like Tillmans’s photographs of battling football hooligans which although powerful images in themselves, bring nothing new to the equation.

Tillmans is more effective when he focuses his canny photographer’s eye on nature. Branches split in two in the style of Paul Nash, or a giant white chrysanthemum, which might represent a mushroom bomb or be a symbol of regeneration.

I loved the final scene: a lofty, open window suffused with bright green light with a tree filling its frame. Stage lighting moves the audience’s eye to a grave on the stage. The change in emphasis charters the changing mood of Britten’s musical finale.

Equally impressive was the calibre of the ENO chorus. Not only was their sound rich and nuanced but the cast moved and lay down well creating the most ghostly of tableaux. One particular picture sticks in the mind; their piled up bodies in the Srebrenica scene. A flyer commemorating the 1995 massacre is projected on a panel. Or in Libera Me, lying down in the snow. Beautifully lit, they brought to mind the painting ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent.

Less well achieved was the Abraham parable section. Too many cast members swirling around on stage. The dramatic moment of Abraham raising a knife to his son is somehow lost in the crowding. There seemed to be timing issues at this point between the singers and orchestra but this is the only time I felt things might have been a little out of synch in an otherwise fluid staging.

Despite this very minor quibble, I left the Coliseum feeling that the bar had been greatly raised in this staging of War Requiem and that the work had received a new lease of life thanks to inspired direction and stage design.

So does this mean the end of plain old concerts? I doubt it. Certainly I applaud ENO for presenting a musical work in a new light, but equally I believe audiences should be given space to ponder the music. Imagination is a dwindling commodity in this world where everything needs to be explained. It will be a sad day when it becomes redundant.


War Requiem has a further 5 performances on 22nd, 27th, 29th November and 4th and 7th December at 7.30pm.
English National Opera

KH

 

 

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

It feels like the right moment to reacquaint oneself with the work of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. In our uncertain times, escapism provides relief and comfort, and when you enter EBJ’s dreamscape world of myth and fantasy, you move beyond the petty preoccupations and ugly politics of our world now.

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Edward Burne-Jones ‘Desiderium’
(1873), Tate, London

This is the first large show of EBJ’s work in a generation and Tate Britain’s new autumn exhibition offers a major retrospective, plus some unexpected delights. Even if you don’t know EBJ’s work, you’ll be familiar with the style and imagery – his pale, elfin, androgynous figures populate the worlds of Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones and his angels regularly grace Christmas cards. This exhibition is a chance to get to know him better.

As an artist, he was an enigmatic figure. A theology scholar at Oxford (where he met his long-time collaborator and friend William Morris), he was largely a self-taught artist (mentored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood); yet looking at his drawings, redolent of Michelangelo and Raphael in their exquisite craftsmanship and elegance, one can only marvel at the mastery and idiosyncratic technical prowess of this auto-didact. He worked slowly and meticulously with an immense level of detail and care. EBJ did not do spontaneity: continually refining and finessing, his work evolved over many years. Regardless of the medium – oil, pastel, watercolour or chalk – his works are sumptuous, with jewel-like colours, gilding and rich textures.

EBJ was not a realist painter: he preferred the world of Bible stories, classical mythology, Renaissance culture, Arthurian legend and the Medieval romances of Chaucer and Malory (which I studied as an undergraduate, often recalling EBJ’s imagery as I deciphered these Middle English texts), but the rendering of detail in his work – clothing, armour, architecture, decorative details, plants – creates a “hyper-realism” which is immersive and mesmeric, and also curiously soporific. One can almost smell the drowsy scent of roses drifting from his great series Legend of the Briar Rose (c.1890, based on Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty fairytale). Somnolent figures are draped over beautifully-executed furniture, the air heavy with deep sleep and a general sense of inertia – we sense their arousal will be slow, a gentle groping into wakefulness. I last saw these paintings as a child, at their home at Buscot Park, a National Trust house in Oxfordshire: I loved them then, and still do. The other great EBJ series, the legend of Perseus (begun 1875), is also here, revealing the artist’s skill in rendering complex imagery and textures within a limited colour palette. These two great narrative cycles are united for the first time in this exhibition.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Portrait of Amy Gaskell. 1893.
Private Collection

Sensuous beauty oozes from every canvas, from the delicate, pale figures in their classical-style draperies to the furniture upon which they recline, or the foliage from which they emerge, insinuating themselves into view. But it was the drawings that were the real revelation of this exhibition, not just the ancillary or preparatory sketches for the large paintings, but  dashed off humorous vignettes, of his friend William Morris, or fat tattooed ladies (a subject of fascination to EBJ). These are charming, witty and personal and offer a glimpse beyond the fantasies and Medievalism. There are also a number of portraits (displayed together for the first time), more traditional in their presentation (EBJ was a reluctant portraitist), though unmistakably EBJ in their palette. Gone are the draperies and foliage, the gilding and the decorative art, allowing us to get closer to the subject – and perhaps their artist.

EBJ’s long friendship and collaboration with William Morris is also celebrated in this exhibition with examples of decorative art produced by the Morris & Co workshop. Like Morris, EBJ valued the applied arts (and craft) and the fine arts equally, and this respect is evident in his work with Morris & Co, most notably the two stunning Holy Grail tapestries. EBJ described the medium of tapestry as “half way between painting and ornament”, and like his paintings, the detail is incredible (Grayson Perry’s contemporary tapestries echo EBJ’s glorious multi-coloured narratives in their painterly style). Their Medieval imagery, setting and composition immediately reminds one of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at Cluny in Paris, which I saw as a student. There’s stained glass too, again all glowing colours and delicate grisaille (a grey painting technique). And in the middle of this room is a Broadwood grand piano, its boxy design suggestive of a harpsichord, covered in illustrations by EBJ, as much a fine piece of decorative art as a musical instrument. Other exquisite decorative items are on display – gifts created for loved ones, including a spectacular painted casket given to Frances Graham, with whom EBJ had a long-lasting and intense relationship.

EBJ shared his friend William Morris’s view that art should be for the people, and his work was, and still is, loved by the people. So ignore the sneering review by one critic of this new exhibition and go and lose yourself in EBJ’s sensuous dreamy world for a few hours.

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019


FW

Header image: Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA. 1873-75. Oil on canvas. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The shudder that counts: ‘Salome’ at ENO

In the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US, and the ongoing MeToo movement, which both raise potent and complex questions surrounding male power and control, toxic masculinity and the male gaze, and whether women “ask for it” by behaving or dressing provocatively, English National Opera’s 2018/19 season opened with Richard Strauss’s dark and disturbing psycho-drama Salome in a visually striking and elegantly-sung new production.

The narrative is well-known, from the Gospels and the play by Oscar Wilde, from which came Strauss’s influential transformation into an opera, premiered in Dresden in 1905 in that heady, decadent era before the outbreak of the First World War. At its premiere, the opera perfectly caught the spirit of its time – the era of Freud and Jung, Beardsley’s Yellow Book, and the art of Klimt and Schiele – and was an instant success. This new “feminist” production, directed by Adena Jacobs, also catches the zeitgeist. Freighted with contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations, the opera offers a warning about the dangers of toxic masculinity and unchecked female desire. The spare modern setting with references to contemporary life, pop culture and gender fluidity further underline this.

Right from the outset, we know that “terrible things will happen”. In fact, we never actually see the head of John the Baptist (or Jokanaan as he is in Wilde’s and Strauss’s versions), but we know it’s coming. It arrives not on a silver salver but casually chucked in a plastic bag such as the type in which one might carry a takeaway curry. Earlier in the play, a pink horse, its cascading entrails represented by pink and red flowers, is brought on stage. Decapitated, it provides a metaphor for the final denouement.

Strauss’s music is haunting and sensuous, pungent and perfumed, and because the work is organised in one act, with an almost continuous flow of action, one has the sense of the tension-laden drama creeping inexorably to its brutal conclusion. Under the baton of ENO music director Martyn Brabbins, the orchestra shone, bold and beautiful.

Salome herself, sung by Allison Cook whose light soprano seems just about perfect for this role, is a pouty teenager who insinuates her way on to the stage and into the action as Narraboth (powerfully sung by Stuart Jackson) extolls her erotic girlish charms. Largely presented in darkness, Narraboth and his cohort are in a roped off area, as if waiting to spy a celebrity at a red-carpet event or queueing to enter an exclusive nightclub, while Salome remains quiet and aloof in the darkness, the light occasionally catching her pale blonde Ariana Grande-style ponytail.

The voice of Jokanaan is heard first via a loudspeaker. David Soar’s baritone is rich and declamatory, and when the scene shifts to the cistern in which he is imprisoned, strikingly lit from above suggesting a prison grille, we get a close up projection of his mouth forming dark prophecies and stentorian outpourings. Presented initially in monochrome, it changes to colour as the heat of Salome’s desire increases. It’s moist and plump and when the camera turns 90 degrees, it looks like a vagina….. All this, appropriately, while Salome sings of her lascivious desire to kiss Jokanaan’s lips. Narraboth, meanwhile, is voyeuristically filming the proceedings on a hand-held video camera, hardly able to contain his base urges before he kills himself.

salome

The ensuing banquet scene presents Herod (Michael Colvin) as a bumptuous prancing clown, luxuriating in Narraboth’s gore which puddles on the stage. While he drunkenly cavorts, his wife Herodias (Susan Bickley) looks on, haggard and tight-lipped with disapproval. In contrast to the salacious action on stage and the decapitated My Little Pony with its spewing entrails, a giant image of a beautiful blindfolded boy – somewhat androgynous – fills the backdrop. Caravaggio-like, it was, for me, one of the most striking visuals of this visually-arresting production.

Salome’s girl-gang of maidservants perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Béyoncé lookalikes – all swinging ponytails, golden leotards, face masks and chunky trainers – their dance is a mixture of aggressive pelvis-thrusting body-pump and sensuous masturbatory writhing. While this goes on, Salome tugs her long hair away, revealing a boyish cropped cut, perhaps signalling her appropriation of masculine powers.

And so to that denouement……You know full well what’s in the plastic bag – it has a horrible dread weight about it, palpable even from the Dress Circle. It’s like that scene in the film ‘Seven’, when Kevin Spacey appears before Brad Pitt with the closed cardboard box… We don’t need to look inside to know that something terrible, horrible, and disgusting is in there. The fact that Salome hardly looks at the bag containing the Baptist’s head lends an equal sense of disgust, as if she is cannot bring herself to look at the thing she thought she most desired. This recalls her first encounter with Jokanaan, where, despite her lascivious obsession, she never actually looks at him directly. The kiss, when it comes, is not placed upon Jokanaan’s dead lips but those of Herodias, Salome’s mother (who wanted Jokanaan dead all along). So “the shudder that counts” (Wilde) – maybe it was all in Salome’s head?

Salome continues at English National Opera until 23 October


FW

(Header image: Allison Cook as Salome; Jokanaan in his cistern by Catherine Ashmore)

 

Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts

Oceania, the Royal Academy’s new survey of Pacific Art,  opens with a 35 ft. cascade of polyethylene sheeting, which sweeps through the central octagonal hall like an azure wave. It’s been sewn using traditional techniques by the contemporary Māori women’s collective Mata Aho. An adjoining roomful of seagoing paraphernalia continues the watery theme; here you can marvel at the achievement of the ‘voyagers’ who set out in their double-hull outrigger canoes to colonise 20 million square miles of ocean. Objects range from the utilitarian – elaborate prows, paddles, fishing tackle – to bizarre jeux d’esprit like the extraordinary vessel crewed by carved fish and turtles, all bending to the oar. Navigation charts formed of twisted twigs and shells, beautiful in themselves (move over, Andy Goldsworthy), helped perform feats of seamanship that boggled Captain Cook in 1774.

The RA has divided the show up thematically, and after the initial scene-setting you get sections covering the role of ceremony and ritual, the importance of ‘gifting’, the first encounters with Europeans and so on. There’s a surprising congruence among the exhibits, despite the vast distances involved, so that a decorated beam from Palau, say, or a patchwork quilt from the Cook Islands, might bear remarkable similarities to examples from far-off New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. The aesthetic co-exists with the functional: battle armour may be stitched from coir, with a helmet of fish-skin that is as comical as it is conical, but things don’t get much more badass than a trident studded with shark teeth.

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Ahu ula (feather cloak) belonging to Liholoho, Kamehameha II., Early 19th century Feathers, fibre, painted barkcloth (on reverse). 207 cm Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Wandering through the exhibition and admiring the idols, deities and ancestor figures with their stylised, geometric features feels a bit like snooping around a Modernist’s studio. I gave up bothering to tick off the endless borrowings by the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Giacometti. At this juncture, though, you might be tempted to get a bit worked up, as I did, about the questionable blessings of Western civilisation: Captain Bligh, Paul Gauguin and STDs, Margaret Mead, mushroom clouds at Bikini Atoll, to say nothing of Rogers & Hammerstein or Elvis crooning Aloha ‘Oe. Before railing against cultural appropriation, however, it’s worth remembering that a sizeable proportion of the objects on show here – which are predominantly drawn from European collections – were, in essence, the first tourist souvenirs. Made to order by wily Islanders to satisfy the vogue for ‘artificial curiosities’, nowadays they occupy half-forgotten cabinets of regional museums in places like Maidstone or Exeter.

‘Oceania’ ends on a melancholy note, evoking memory and loss. In a short film clip, Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijine urges her fellow Islanders to ‘tell them/we don’t want to leave/we’ve never wanted to leave/and that we/are nothing without our islands’. But as a nearly caption tersely points out: ‘rising sea levels threaten to make further voyages of relocation inevitable’.

NM

Oceania at the Royal Academy 29 September-10 December 2018

Header image: Female tattooed figure, eighteenth or early nineteenth century, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Wood, pigment, height 58 cm. (c) Five Continents Museum, Munich; photo: Marianne Franke

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Canoe prow figure nguzunguzu; wood, pigments, resin, shell; 16,5 x 9 x 15,5 cm; Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia Archipelago, Solomon Islands; collection Eugen Paravicini 1929; (c) Vb 7525; Museum der Kulturen Basel; photo: Derek Li Wan Po; 2013; all rights reserved

 

Last chance to see ‘Augustus John: Drawn from Life’ at Poole Museum

Venture out of the metropolis for the day (or longer) to the small seaside town of Poole, next to Bournemouth, for a small but perfectly formed exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by Augustus John, at one time considered one of the most famous British artists of the twentieth century, though his sister Gwen is now considered the greater talent.

John had a connection with Dorset from his time as a student at the Slade School of Art in London and in 1911, he set up home at Alderney Manor, in Poole, before moving in 1927 to Fryern Court, near Fordingbridge, on the Hampshire-Wiltshire-Dorset borders. This remained his main residence for the rest of his life.

The exhibition at Poole Museum is the first major exhibition focusing on John’s work since ‘Gwen John and Augustus John’ at Tate Britain in 2005. It’s curated by David Boyd Haycock, who has also curated a companion exhibition in Salisbury on John’s contemporary Henry Lamb, and which opens in Poole in 2019.

Already famous by the time he moved to Dorset, John sought solace and inspiration in the countryside around Alderney Manor. The pinewoods and beaches found their way into his paintings, rendered with a vibrantly-hued palette redolent of the south of France and the work of the Fauves. The portrait ‘Dorelia Among the Pines’ could easily be set in Provence.

Other works in the exhibition feature John’s children, rendered with tender affection. The drawings reveal John’s greatest artistic skill – as a draughtsman – and his famous sketch of T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) is here along with a rapid pencil drawing of Lawrence made in Paris*, strikingly spare and personal. John’s oil portrait of Lawrence in his Arab robes is also included.  (Visitors may be inspired to follow the “Lawrence Trail” – as we did – a short drive from Poole to Lawrence’s house Clouds Hill near Wareham, and thence to his grave in the pretty little village of Moreton; take in the Laurence Whistler engraved glass windows in the church as well.)

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T.E. Lawrence
by Augustus John
pencil, 1919 (National Portait Gallery)

This is a very fine exhibition, at least equal to a similar presentation at the Courtauld Gallery in London, revealing a more personal, intimate facet of John’s work at the mid-point of his career, while also confirming his status, at the time, as a leading artist.

We will be returning to Poole Museum in 2019 to see the Henry Lamb exhibition.

*Recently acquired by Poole Museum

Augustus John: Drawn from Life is at Poole Museum until 30th September


FW & NM

 

Header image: Augustus John, An Hour at Ower, 1914 © The estate of Augustus John / Bridgeman Images

 

Fortune’s Favours: ‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ at the Wallace Collection, London

Two people I would very much like to have been born as – either one of those majestic 19th-century American wives, the type who married multi-millionaires and set about shoe-horning culture and art into their husband’s lives, whether the husband liked it or no; or, Sir Richard Wallace. If neither of those is possible, I’d like to be reincarnated as the director of the Wallace, one fine day. I once had the delight of listening to Rosalind Savill talk about her years in charge there, and no talk by any ex-director could have been more unexpected or inspiring. The affection with which Dame Rosalind regarded her ‘charges’ in the collection, as she spoke of making them ‘happy’, is something Sir Richard, the collection’s founder, would have understood perfectly.

How to typify the Wallace? Can you, indeed? In spirit it’s maybe close to the passion of a collector such as Sir John Soane, who also founded his own public museum (there is something very English about this kind of obsession – think of the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge). It’s something like the Frick in New York, only bigger, better, wider-ranging. There’s not an item in it that doesn’t have some claim to be exceptional – rare beyond belief if not unique, superlatively made, exquisitely beautiful. Just a few snapshots: the paintings include Hals’ Laughing Cavalier and Rembrandt’s portrait of his one surviving son, Titus, which is literally so lovely and painted with such love as to bring tears to the ears; the furniture includes masterpieces of the cabinetmaker’s art that would have had George IV weeping too, with envy. There are exquisite objets d’art from almost every country on earth, including in the current exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of Wallace’s birth, a gold mask from the Asante kingdom of Africa, which must have survived God knows what rude passage to find a resting place here, seconds from Oxford St. There is porcelain, armour, weaponry, maiolica, glass, bronzes and jewels. If you took the top 10% say, from the V&A, the Metropolitan in New York, the Frick itself and the Louvre, you might make a rival to the Wallace, but not otherwise. It takes more than money to be a collector at this level; it takes knowledge, taste; the passion that, now so few make or inherit money on that insane 19th-century scale, has transmogrified itself into the sensibility of the best museum curators or directors. And they still want the things in their charge to be happy.

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I think anything collected by Richard Wallace must have been very happy. Wallace had something of a charmed life of his own, to begin with. Born in 1818, and educated by the 4thMarquess of Hertford at his own expense, Wallace was then employed by the Marquess as his private secretary, and on the Marquess’s death in 1870 inherited a sizable chunk of the Hertford fortune, and all the Marquess’s own art collection, thus confirming every single suspicion that had ever been entertained concerning Wallace’s own likely parentage. Not that he and the 4thMarquess were that similar – the Marquess was the kind of skinflint-ish collector who one imagines rubbing his hands together as he locked his collection away and pocketed the key, hissing ‘Mine, mine, all mine!’ while Wallace himself was open-hearted and open-handed too. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, this globally minded soul contributed 2.5 million francs to relieve the suffering of the wounded and of those Brits the siege had trapped.

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The bicentenary exhibition is down on the Wallace’s sunken ground floor, past what may be one of the pleasantest places to sip coffee in London (yes, this really is a rather nice museum with an ace caff attached). It’s not large, it’s not boastful, but it is endlessly intriguing. It’s set up as a sort of catwalk of the pieces Wallace himself most loved and prized, including a diddy little French gold and enamel cutlery-set, too pretty to be used for eating anything beyond the odd macaroon, which Wallace bought as a very young man, then had to sell after he had over-reached himself as collector and before he came into the Hertford fortune, and hunted down anew and bought back, twenty years later. One of the joys of a collection such as this is the chance to play detective, linking together the separate treasures within it and providing your own psychological infill. The exhibition concludes with the last piece Wallace every bought, in 1888: a 17th-century bronze of an acrobat, 40 cm high, walking on his hands, muscles in his back tensed and ridged as he tries to bring his waving legs under control. He might be falling headlong; he might have conquered and suspended time. As the embodiment of the collector’s mentality, it’s all that needs be said.

JCH

‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ is at the Wallace Collection until 6 January 2019.

Rembrandt: Titus, the artist’s son, c.1657

Asante trophy head, 18th or 19th century

Barthélemy Prieur, An acrobat, c.1600

All images © The Wallace Collection

https://www.wallacecollection.org