MARIA MERIAN: AN ARTISTIC AND SCIENTIFIC PIONEER
Born in Frankfurt in 1647, Maria Sibylla Merian was, from a very early age, fascinated by insects and, in particular, the process by which butterflies and moths made a complete transformation from an egg to a beautiful flying creature. Praised by David Attenborough as being among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology, she was also a gifted artist and the vibrant illustrations of the flora and fauna she studied are now on display at the Queen’s Gallery in London.
Moths and butterflies constitute the order of Lepidoptera, the word deriving from two ancient Greek words meaning scaly and wing. Fossil remains indicate they have existed for at least 130 million years, around the same time as the flowering plants from which they gather food and there are more than 180,000 different species. They start life as an egg then move to the larval or caterpillar stage before becoming a chrysalis in the case of a butterfly and a cocoon for a moth. It is from this stage that the adult, flying insect emerges, living anything between a week or up to nine months for some of the larger species. But during Merian’s era very little at all was known about their life cycle and the changes these insects underwent to become adults.
In fact, it was only during Merian’s lifetime that the first experiments took place to disprove the prevailing theory that insects spontaneously generated from rotting matter. Before the 1660s, there had been a general belief that insects evolved whole from decomposing vegetable matter and that butterflies were generated from the dead bodies of caterpillars. This theory was first promulgated by Aristotle in the fourth century BC but it took more than two thousand years for an Italian biologist, Francesco Redi (1626-97) to disprove the Greek philosopher with a simple experiment.
He simply compared pieces of meat left in sealed and unsealed jars and found that maggots only appeared on the meat left open to the air, proving that insects were not born from rotting matter. In Leiden, Jan Swammerdam (1637-80) used a microscope to demonstrate that metamorphosis represented different life stages of the same insect rather than being a rebirth of a different animal and Swammerdam’s contemporary Jan Goedart (like Merian, a painter) published a book in the 1660s showing the different stages of insect development.
Merian herself was destined to become an artist and illustrator. Her father had been an engraver and book publisher and her stepfather, Jacob Marrel was a flower and still-life painter who encouraged her to draw and paint. She was trained by his pupil Abraham Mignon and painted her first images of insects and plants when she was thirteen from specimens she had captured, an approach she was to follow in later life. As Dr George McGavin, the British entomologist and explorer has said, “Maria Sibylla Merian was an influential entomological pioneer. Merian got the insect ‘bug’ at an early age and never lost her obsession.”
Almost inevitably Merian married an artist, Johann Andreas Graff and had two daughters by him, Johanna and Dorothea. When living in Nuremberg, Graff’s home town, she continued to paint and created embroidery designs. What was more lucrative for her, however, were the drawing lessons she gave to the unmarried daughters of wealthy Nurembergers – whom she termed the Jungferncompaney, or virgin group – which gave her access to their homes and gardens where she found further specimens for her collection. She published her first work on insects in 1679, a two-volume treatise on her favourite subject, their metamorphosis.
Unfortunately, Merian’s marriage was not a happy one and she eventually moved with her mother and daughters to join a puritan Protestant community, known as the Labadists, in a castle in Friesland, in the Netherlands. The commune broke up in 1691 and Merian relocated to Amsterdam, divorcing the following year. Her older daughter Johanna was married that same year to an Amsterdam merchant with business links to the Dutch colony of Suriname, on the northeast coast of South America.
Merian was well connected in Amsterdam and was able to visit the homes of collectors of flora and fauna who would keep cabinets of curiosities, private collections which they had bought from merchants and traders who brought them back from across the world to the thriving Dutch seaport. This only piqued Merian’s interest further, but there was one problem – all the specimens were dead and if she were to successfully attain her scientific and artistic goals she needed them to be alive in order to study their life cycles and behaviour. “She wanted to know how the butterflies and moths that she saw pinned into cases and illustrated in books developed from eggs, through caterpillars and pupae to emerge as the large, colourful winged insects she was able to admire in Amsterdam,” says Kate Heard, the curator of Maria Merian’s Butterflies.
Suriname offered Merian everything she might want in terms of animal and plant life and, thanks to her daughter’s marriage, she would have ready-made connections on arrival. She sold the contents of her studio including 255 of her own paintings and raised sufficient funds to travel, then aged 52, with her younger daughter Dorothea to the colony for what was planned to be a five-year stay. Braving both shipwreck and pirate attack, they arrived there in the late summer of 1699.
They rented a house in the main settlement, the capital Paramaribo, then nothing more than a collection of around 500 wooden dwellings. The heat and humidity were ferocious but this did not stop Merian venturing into the nearby forests to collect lepidoptera, plants and other specimens including frogs and lizards, to study back at her house-cum-studio. She reared the insects there, always careful to provide them with exactly the right host plants and food to study their life cycle in detail and she kept meticulous notes of dates and time, detailing even the smallest changes in appearance of her specimens, just as a scientist would today.
But the process was not without its difficulties, as Kate Heard describes. “Merian kept her chrysalises in wooden boxes but some chewed their way out, others died or were taken over by parasitic wasps which hatched instead of the butterflies she was expecting and her work was continually plagued by ants. And all this done in debilitating tropical heat with the risk of contracting a serious illness at any time.”
Sadly for Merian she did become ill, probably with malaria, after only two years in Suriname, forcing her to leave the colony with Dorothea and return to Amsterdam in 1701. There she began work on her magnum opus,Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, or The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, published by the author in Amsterdam in 1705 and dedicated to ‘all lovers and investigators of nature’.
Kate Heard explains that the detailed, life-size representation of insects “on the correct host plant was ground-breaking, and would be followed by subsequent entomological illustrators. Maria has been described as the ‘first ecologist’, due to her pioneering interest in the relationship between animals and plants, and her work to study insects in their environment.”
This was a work of very high quality aimed at wealthy, specialist collectors. It consisted of 60 large colour plates opposite an explanatory text where Merian described exactly what the lepidoptera were and how they behaved in the wild. And, as Kate Heard emphasises, what was significant was the fact that “in each of the plates depicting a metamorphosis, Merian included the caterpillar, chrysalis and resulting butterfly or moth, the latter shown with both closed and open wings.”
The work was originally published in Dutch and Latin, the latter then still the language of science, and later in French, but there never was an English edition. It was bought by the cognoscenti, learned institutions and Merian’s fellow scientists and artists and Merian also published at least two luxury sets of plates for separate sale. One of these is now in the Royal Collection having been acquired by George III in the second half of the 18th century and forms the basis of the exhibition itself. The copy of Merian’s Metamorphosis on display in the gallery was acquired during the reign of William IV.
Merian died in 1717 and one report suggests she was classified as a pauper. This would seem a very sad end for a woman who is now lauded as a scientific great and who had plants, butterflies and beetles named in her honour. When the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was compiling his taxonomy of living organisms, he cited Merian’s Metamorphosis more than 130 times, so highly-regarded was the work.
As George McGavin says, “what’s interesting about Merian is that she has the eye of an artist, she’s highly skilled, but she has the heart of a scientist. She’s observing, she wants to understand the natural world and she wants to share that….showing this amazing world to an agog audience. And she is a very early pioneer of the science that has kept me going for all my adult career – entomology.”
And by making the short trip from the Queen’s Gallery to London’s Natural History Museum, visitors can see many of the insects that Merian herself witnessed and painted in her famous book. The museum is once again staging its Sensational Butterflies show and it is a wonderful experience for adults and children alike.
Maria Merian would have been overjoyed to see such a display for not only are there lepidoptera here from South America but also from the tropical forests of Central America, Africa and Asia. The museum has set up a butterfly-friendly environment of tropical plants, vines and foliage and visitors can study them close-up with the aid of a magnifier, picking out details of wing structure and features not normally seen by the naked eye.
“Butterflies can see a wider spectrum of colours than us, and have evolved colour schemes to communicate with each other or as a warning to predators as a surviving strategy” says Dr Blanca Huertas, the museum’s Senior Curator of butterflies. “Sensational Butterflies gives you a glimpse of the great diversity of colour and pattern in these beautiful and delicate creatures.”
You need to be very observant to find eggs amongst the greenery but that’s because the female needs to keep them – and the tiny caterpillars curled up inside – from hungry predators. Hairy sensors on her legs enable her to find the best place to lay them and a butterfly’s antennae are more like a nose, helping to detect a wide range of smells. Some butterflies sense sound with a tiny, funnel-shaped organ beneath their wings which is only visible with a microscope.
One fascinating exhibit is the emerging room where chrysalises from the tropical climes hang in species-defined rows until they release themsleves as fully-grown butterflies. Centuries after Maria Merian, it is still a strange and miraculous sight. ”How you suddenly get from a larva that looks like a worm or grub into this winged adult is amazing and it is still a thing that we don’t fully understand today,” explains George McGavin. “But there has to be a stage between the larva and the adult in which all the organs of the insect are transformed. So inside a chrysalis the organs of the larva will be broken down almost into a kind of ‘soup’ and areas in this soup will form a focus from which the adult organs will eventually grow.
“I remember being a kid of eight or nine seeing this happen for the first time and for Maria it would have been just the same…Three hundred years on from her work we’re only now just beginning to understand the hormonal changes, what goes on inside a chrysalis to make that incredible change happen.”
The show is full of amazing facts. For instance, humans have between 640-850 muscles in their bodies, but a tiny caterpillar has around 4,000. They contract and distend their bodies in sequence to push blood from their rear muscles to the front so they can move forward to find new food sources. Some grow so big on their food that they can shed their caterpillar skin up to five times before emerging as a butterfly. And whereas a caterpillar will use its mouth to chew on leaves and plants, a butterfly extends a hidden tube to suck up nectar, the liquid food it lives on.
These are two very different but nevertheless inspiring shows and the Natural History Museum and the Queen’s Gallery are combining to run a two-day painting and sketching course at the gallery in June called Metamorphosis under the microscope. Guided by entomologists and a professional artist and illustrator, the aim is to produce ‘a detailed and unique piece of art, charting stages of [the] amazing process from egg to adult butterfly.’
All the photos of butterflies were taken at the Sensational Butterflies exhibition so to see them in all their glory and to follow in Maria Merian’s footsteps, see the links below and marvel as she did at their fragile beauty.
Queen’s Gallery: Maria Merian’s Butterflies
Natural History Museum: Sensational Butterflies
Queen’s Gallery/NHM creative course weekend:
THE MANY UNIVERSES OF M C ESCHER
Whenever and wherever an Escher exhibition is held it does good business. The public flock to see his mind-bending designs and impossible views; he is favoured by groups as disparate as rock musicians and hippies and by cosmologists and mathematicians. Yet his work has been mostly disregarded by the mainstream art world which has seen him as a mere graphic artist, kitsch and repetitive, lacking in emotion and ultimately not worthy of inclusion within the pantheon of traditional art history. Yet that view is beginning to change and was further reinforced by an extensive new show produced by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and which is now showing at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery.
The gallery’s director, Ian Dejardin thinks part of the problem is Escher’s unique style. “Escher is incredibly difficult to pigeonhole. No one else works like him. I’m unaware of anyone else who works in even a similar style to him. He was a one-man act throughout his life. He never saw himself as part of a movement.” In addition, Escher never aligned himself with any particular art movement. As the exhibition’s co-curator Patrick Elliott explains, “I thought I’d find all sorts of links between Escher and surrealism. He was born five months earlier than Magritte, and I thought I’d find all kinds of references. There’s only one reference saying he admired Magritte but they seem never to have met or corresponded. He seems to have steered clear of all these art groups, so if you open any standard book on European art you won’t find Escher there, or in museums because he’s not a painter, so a real one-off but I think the greatest one-off in 20th century art.”
Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in 1898 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, the youngest son of a civil engineer. When he was five, the family moved to Arnhem where Escher spent most of his childhood and youth. Micky Piller, co-curator of the Dulwich show and who, for thirteen years was Head Curator of the Escher collection at the Het Paleis in The Hague, has written that “he was extremely unhappy at school: he was left-handed, which was regarded as an abnormality at the time, and very intelligent, which wasn’t recognised. Escher had to repeat the second year and failed his school-leaving exam. Throughout his life he described his school days as a period of sheer misery, describing it even years later as ‘the hell that was Arnhem.’ ”
Escher then enrolled in the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem in 1919. His father hoped he would eventually become an architect but within a week his gift for graphic design had been spotted by Samuel Jesserun de Mesquita, the graphic arts teacher, who persuaded his parents to let him switch courses from architecture to graphic design. After a difficult start he had at last found his metier.
His early works give hints of what was to come. For In Mesquita’s Classroom (1920/21) he employed one of his later favoured techniques, screening, as Micky Piller explains: “This early work is intriguing because instead of creating a central perspective, Escher worked with layers or ‘screens’, placing, as it were, the figures and objects one behind the other. The horizontal dividing line on the wall does not function as a horizon, but simply emphasises the wall in front of which everything and everyone else is placed. In Escher’s family home there were examples of Japanese art and craft that his father had brought back from Japan, where he worked in the 1870s. The central perspective is unknown in Japanese art. Instead, artists use ‘screens’ to suggest depth.”
Escher had first visited Italy in 1921 with his parents. He had produced a standard, eye-level woodcut view of the town of San Gimignano on his second visit with friends in 1922 but when he went back again to the city the following year his whole perspective has literally changed. Now Escher employs a view from below bringing the town into closer focus. It was the first time he had employed his ‘worm’s-eye’ aspect which was to become so prominent in his later works.
It was during his 1923 visit to Italy that Escher met his future wife, the Swiss Jetta Umiker whom he married the following year. Her father was a wealthy industrialist and thoughtfully gave them a wedding gift of a simurgh, a mythical birds, probably Persian in origin, which symbolised fertility. This too was to feature in Escher’s work.
Escher had also become fascinated at this time with tessellations, patterns of identical shapes which interlock with each other in a seemingly never-ending process. His first attempt at this was Eight Heads (1922). The artist visited Spain’s Alhambra in Grenada six months later and immediately realised the similarity with his tessellation experiment and the Moorish, tiled wall designs. He became in intrigued by what he termed the ‘regular division of the plane’ in which the outer contour of one object coincides exactly with the contour of the adjacent object, and how, when repeated, the designs create visual puzzles.
Unsurprisingly, at this time Escher, still only in his mid-twenties, is feeling his way through his art. Yet for Patrick Elliott his path is already clear. “All the seeds of his later work are here: the amazing technique for wood cuts and lithographs; fabulous attention to detail; pattern-making which is something he had success with later on in his career; mirror reflections and tipped-up perspective.”
And nowhere is this early experimentation more obvious than in Babel of 1928. Here Escher employs a bird’s-eye view of the tower, yet another perspective essay which he was to employ so fruitfully in his later works. At this stage he is still experimenting with individual perspectival approaches. Later he would use combinations of them within the same drawing.
The Italian landscape captivated Escher and he moved to Italy permanently with Jetta in 1925. Although they lived in Rome he would travel to the most remote parts of the country in search of inspiring views. “So he goes to Italy and goes mountain climbing,” explains Micky Piller. “Don’t forget he comes from a very flat country so climbing mountains in Italy was a new and exciting experience for him and he wanted to show the viewer exactly what he had experienced himself, not with a photo or via a computer but directly in a drawing or woodcut.”
The lithograph Castrovalva (1930) displays Escher’s continuing wonderment at the Italian countryside. This is a mountainous region less than 100 kilometres from Rome but Escher imbues it with a wild, mysterious atmosphere, almost other-worldly. Three villages are depicted here with Castrovalva in the foreground, Cocullo in the distance and Anversa at the foot of the mountain and the eye follows a visual trail from left to right then back to the starting point again, a technique which Escher developed more fully in later years. Micky Piller explains exactly what Escher is doing here: “He exaggerates the scale, making the mountainside steeper and higher, while the unusually large plants placed in the foreground make objects in the distance seem even further away. He has omitted a number of ancient houses to make the village perched on the mountain ridge even more eye-catching. In the print, Anversa clings to the mountainside, drawing the viewer directly into Escher’s perception of the landscape.”
These works all show Escher still finding his way artistically yet with a great mastery of technique. At this stage he is creating topographical works, scenes taken from the landscape or directly representational, yet seen through his own unique eye. However, he is clearly becoming interested in the surreal, if not Surrealism itself, and Still Life with Mirror (1934) is an early work displaying the typical Escherian traits of bending reality and playing with perception. A bedroom mirror reflects not the room in which it is placed but the street outside. The viewer is at first lulled into acceptance of unreality by the – correct – reflection of the toothbrush, but then, says Micky Piller, “he’s sneakily and cleverly taking the micky out of the viewer because he combines two spaces which are actually impossible. These images are frequently found in dentists’ and doctors’ waiting rooms because they want to get their patients and students engaged in something else and thinking about another reality.”
Her co-curator Patrick Elliott continues: “The mirror’s telling a lie, it’s one hundred per cent Magritte or Magritte is one hundred per cent Escher. The mirror should be showing the room interior, a wall or window. But just look at the technique! I think Escher is the only 20th century artist who, in a lithograph, could show you the difference in quality between a hairbrush and a toothbrush. The depth of his craftsmanship is unbelievable. And he has the most extraordinary imagination. There aren’t many artists who combine the two.”
A later work of 1937, Still Life and Street, shows Escher playing with visual eye/brain adjustment, as Micky Piller explains. “[This] woodcut marks the beginning of the transition from the use of ‘screens’ to create depth in a composition, to optical illusion. We are all familiar with the sensation associated with suddenly looking up from close reading: for a second, distance and nearby seem to merge. Escher shows us the pack of cards in equally clear and close detail as the washing hanging far away in the bend of the street.
“On looking carefully, we see that the large book on the left appears to form part of the wall of the house behind it. This is even clearer in the study: there is a logic to the bulge in the book’s spine and in the right-hand side of the house where a trader has set out her wares. The left-hand side of the large book coincides with the edge of the print, and because the other books on this side are smaller, we have the feeling that they are leaning on the large book. This suggests a depth that leads us to perceive it as more than just a row of books: it is also the distance between us and the wall of the house. The same happens on the other side, where the penultimate book creates a visual link with the row of houses. What is more, Escher smoothes the transition from nearby to far away without a middle ground by giving the table surface and the street the same diagonal structure. We neither see nor feel the transition.”
Escher and his family left Italy in 1935 disturbed by the rise of Fascism and because his two sons had contracted TB. It seemed logical then to settle in Jetta’s mountainous, airy homeland of Switzerland but Escher found no inspiration there, producing only one print in the following two years. He needed lush and variegated landscape, not the uniform snow layers of the Alps. The family moved to Belgium and thence to Baarn, south-east of Amsterdam, in 1941 and Escher was energised once more.
He had already returned to the Alhambra in 1936. “When he was there in 1922 it interested him,” says Patrick Elliott, and “when he returned he made lots of drawings in that summer, marvelling at the technical brilliance of the tiling, how their designs interlocked and their intricate geometric patterning.”
In a catalogue essay on Escher’s tessellations, Micky Piller explains how such complex works struck a chord with Escher’s half-brother Berend (Beer) who just happened to be a geologist and crystallographer at Leiden University. “Beer sent him a list of academic publications, including two articles which were to provide the inspiration for a large number of studies. Most influential was the 1924 article by the Hungarian crystallographer George (György) Pólya defining the seventeen plane symmetry groups and showing how crystals divide. The second article was based on research done by the German crystallographer Friedrich Haag…Both offered Escher unexpected ways of making more complex tessellations.
“The tiles in Escher’s prints are always recognisable figures. That is the greatest difference between them and the examples from Moorish art and the patterns in crystallography. Escher’s exercises may begin in an abstract manner, but the coloured studies and the prints that are primarily in various tones of grey feature identifiable human figures, insects, reptiles, birds, angels and other creatures. Over the course of time, Escher played with these tessellations and varied them.”
Escher continued his visually trickery in Day and Night (1938) where the brain can only distinctly make out either the white or the black birds at any one time, as they fly over the polder landscape of the Netherlands towards the sunrise or darkness. The viewer has to make a determined mental adjustment to perceive the separate flocks with the additional idea arising that they could well meet again at the other end of the flight cycle. This theme of infinite possibility in space and its time equivalent eternity is a constant in Escher’s later work.
Day and Night was by far Escher’s most popular print, all of which he produced himself in his studio. Escher made more than 650 copies of the woodcut meaning that he printed it 1,300 times with the help of a small egg spoon for applying the ink. But he wrote to a friend at the time saying “I don’t like it any more…and I can’t start doing something new because of it.” The demand especially came from America and even when Escher raised his prices buyers clamoured for his work, so much so that he compared his printing press to a money-making machine.
Metamorphosis II (1939-40) runs over more than twelve feet in length in a “single, enormous tessellation” as Micky Piller says. Its end is its beginning as Escher takes us on an ironic journey as the word ‘Metamorphose’ itself transforms into black and white squares, lizards, pentagons, insects, fish, birds, even the Italian town of Atrani which Escher knew well and a chess board before returning, via more black and white squares, to its original state, but this time in reverse. Escher was here striving for a visual representation of infinity which he grasped more completely later in his career when he wrote:
“Anyone who plunges into infinity, in both time and space, further and further without stopping, needs fixed points, mileposts, for otherwise his movement is indistinguishable from standing still. There must be stars past which he shoots, beacons from which he can measure the distance he has traversed.”
Reptiles of 1943 displays a never-ending cycle of lizards crawling from one of Escher’s earlier works – Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/Lizards no. 56 (1942) – across various object’s in Escher’s study and then back into his original drawing again. Not only is this a self-contained representation of infinity through perpetual motion and the endless timeframe of eternity, but it highlights another of Escher’s preoccupations, the paradoxical nature of pictures which are flat yet depict three-dimensional objects. Talking of a later work, Balcony of 1945, Escher said: “[In] our three-dimensional space […] the two-dimensional is every bit as fictitious as the four-dimensional. […] curiously enough, we still go on, as we have done since time immemorial, producing illusions of space on just such plane surfaces as those. […] Surely it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim ‘This is a house’.”
Nowhere is this effect better illustrated than in Escher’s lithograph Drawing Hands (1943). Escher depicts a pair of hands simultaneously drawing each other, the drawing drawing itself in fact. As the gallery label states: “The hands appear to break free from the confines of the pinned, two-dimensional sheet of drawing paper to become three-dimensional forms capable of independent movement.”
Up and Down (1947) is the first of Escher’s works to feature a staircase motif. “Here you’ve got the boy looking up at the mother and then this wonderful architecture which then flips,” explains Patrick Elliott, “the ceiling flips into the floor and then here you’re looking up at the boy looking up at the mother and you’ve got the palm tree from different angles. But it’s even cleverer than that because if you get two copies of it the floor forms a perfect whole with the ceiling.”
Staircases were to feature in a number of Escher’s later works such as House of Stairs (1951) and Relativity of 1953, and it had traditionally been assumed that they derived from the Italian architecture he so loved. But Micky Piller discovered their true appearances in Escher’s works just four years ago when she received a telephone call asking her if she would like to visit Escher’s secondary school in Arnhem. “I opened the door and said, ‘it can’t be true!’ It was Escher world. Relativity features people going up and down stairs and that’s what you see there, in the school. And if you go there and look down the stairs, which he used to do when he was bored, you are looking at a space which changes all the time. When you walk up you see the underside of the stairs and House of Stairs is also a pure quotation because when you finish the stairs and turn back you see a hallway like the centre of another world. When I was there it was quiet. But it’s associated with movement in space and time. It would have been full of children going up and down.”
All this while it was as if Escher was attempting to capture the essence of his inner feelings of the limitlessness of time and space. It is perhaps natural then to think of Escher as being religious, but this was not the case. His wife was a devout Catholic and their three sons were baptised as such, but Escher himself actively avoided church and it is thought that his wife’s faith contributed to their eventual estrangement.
His was a more scientific, objective approach reinforced in 1954 when two great mathematical minds happened to see an exhibition of his work at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum while attending a mathematics conference there. A Dutch mathematician knew Escher’s work and thought its themes of cyclical repetition, tessellation and visual mind games would make an entertaining diversion for the delegates.
Two men in particular were immediately struck by Escher’s approach, as Patrick Elliott describes. “One of them was (Professor Sir) Roger Penrose who was very impressed by Escher’s works, particularly Relativity and another mathematician, a Canadian called Don Coxeter and they both made drawings based on Escher which they sent to the artist.”
Sir Roger Penrose, today the Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford Universoty’s Mathematical Institute and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, recently explained Escher’s motivation. “He was hooked by the challenge of depicting infinity, but frustrated with drawing his shapes into one single point. Fresh inspiration came from one of my fellow mathematicians, Don Coxeter, who’d visited the same exhibition in Amsterdam as had excited me. Coxeter sent him a mathematical diagram which represented infinity – not as a central point – but as a circular boundary…Escher made his own version, but not without transforming the shapes first as in Circle Limit 1 (1958). The infinite world of the fish is completely represented in this picture. In fact, the way the fish are drawn is incredible. If you go right near the edge you can see they’re very, very accurately portrayed which is even better than you see in Coxeter’s picture where the triangles sort of give up close to the edge. But Escher doesn’t give up, he keeps going.”
Nevertheless Escher didn’t feel he had been accurate enough and when he introduced colour in Circle Limit III (1959), “the results were outstanding. Now you see infinity is represented here as this boundary and Escher’s picture goes very precisely right down to the edge…Coxeter commented that Escher got it absolutely right, right down to the millimetre. It’s an amazing thing that someone without any mathematical training had this instinctive understanding of what was going on in the geometry and he portrayed it so absolutely precisely.”
It is truly amazing given the fact that, as Escher himself said, “I never got a pass mark in maths. The funny thing is I seem to latch on to mathematical theories without realising what is happening.”
With the help of his father Lionel, another distinguished mathematician and geneticist, Roland Penrose constructed what he described as ‘problem pictures’ which were actually three-dimensional models made from wood. In a catalogue essay, Patrick Elliott writes that they “produced enough material for a short article and, not knowing what branch of learning it might fall under (it was not exactly mathematics and was not exactly art), submitted it in November 1956 to the British Journal of Psychology, where Lionel Penrose knew the editor. The co-authored article was published as ‘Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion’, in the February 1958 issue. The [article] introduced a perspectival drawing of a ‘tri-bar’, a three-dimensional triangle which looks logical at first glance, but is patently ‘impossible’, and a continuous flight of steps, which seem to go up (or down) forever. The text mentioned the ‘Numerous ideas in this field (which) have been exploited by Escher’.”
Penrose’s father devised the staircase model on which Escher based Ascending and Descending (1960) and Sir Roger himself developed the tri-bar from which he drew Waterfall (1961, see above), taking three impossible triangles to construct the impossible, perpetual water flow of the mill.
Escher was now famous. Kubrick had asked him to collaborate on 2001:A Space Odyssey (politely declined) and Mick Jagger had asked him to design an album cover for the Rolling Stones, but had addressed the artist as ‘Dear Maurits’. For a man who sometimes called even close friends ‘Mr’ this was unforgivably informal and was also rejected. But other bands did use his imagery as did cinema and advertising. Christopher Nolan even recreated the endless staircase in his 2010 science-fiction film Inception.
Rolling Stone magazine carried an article about Escher’s art in 1970 in which the author found a “close parallel of [his] vision to the themes of contemporary psychedelic art” and stated that Escher had anticipated elements of computer design. Escher’s question mark marginalia indicate he had no idea what the writer meant.
“Towards the end of his life Escher was famous,” says Patrick Elliott. “He’d got mathematicians fawning over him, hippies in California thinking he was the greatest thing ever and you can see that people find different things in his work. It’s the mind-bending character that appeals to the hippies and the scientific possibilities for the mathematicians.
“But it’s in the ’60s that his health starts to fade. His wife has left him by now and he’s in and out of hospital all the time, yet all he wants to do is get on with his next print. And so he does his last drawing, Snakes in 1969. It’s the same kind of idea as in the Circle Limit series but instead of a large object in the middle we’ve got a small thing in the middle, it’s not even really an object, more like chain mail and it’s like he’s set himself the most difficult task he could possibly do. And he wrote about it saying that it may look easy but they were very difficult to do. Then it gets bigger, then smaller, and if that’s not good enough he sticks three intertwining snakes in the middle.”
This intricate, seemingly impossible form of working has raised the question in some people’s minds as to whether Escher was actually autistic. Patrick Elliott believes he was, but Micky Piller, who spent many years studying her compatriot, thinks not. “As far as I know autistics have trouble in making and continuing friendships whereas Escher could do this very well. He was witty and able to have different points of view; he was a very liberal and open man. These are not the charcteristics of an autistic person and I was very much surprised when this came up.”
Recent research has portrayed autism in certain forms as a beneficial rather than a problemtic complaint and it is possible that Escher did possess some autistic traits but that they were not extreme and actually helped him creatively.
Micky feels that Escher was marginalised by the art world because he used traditional techniques such as woodblock rather than silk screen printing á la Warhol, and his work too tended to be seen as passé. Additionally, as mathematicians and scientists appreciated what he was doing and gave him ideas, this further defined his approach. As Micky Piller wrote in a personal communication, “I always feel, if you get a response on your work from only one particular group of people, of course your work will be influenced by it. So I presume if Escher had had more input from art historians, we don’t know what [work] would have happened then.”
But one mathematician has reason to be particularly grateful to Escher. Sir Roger Penrose has said that “the idea of a continuing cycle of time is something which has played a big role in ideas which I’ve been playing with recently in cosmology so it’s intriguing that these ideas are related somehow to these concepts that Escher played with and exhibited so dramatically in his art. And it is that insatiable curiosity for finding solutions to problems that might at first be thought of as impossible that is perhaps his most important legacy.”
The concept of a multiverse, that our universe is merely one of an infinite number of identical universes in space and time is now being seriously considered by some of Sir Roger’s fellow cosmologists. Indeed, a mathematical ‘proof’ was devised some years ago by a Russian academic which posited that if the multiverse existed then a contiguous universe should appear at the very edge of our own at a specific point. Deep space telescopes have now photographed just such a spot exactly as foretold so Escher’s constant striving for infinity and endless cycles may be becoming a reality.
When an Escher exhibition was held a few years ago in Brazil it was the highest attended that year in Latin America with more than one million visitors. The show was just as successful when staged at Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Modern Art earlier this year and the public are now flocking to its latest installation in Dulwich, “so the public appreciates him,” states Patrick Elliott, “but it’s the museum folk that don’t and I hope that if this show does anything it’s to put Escher back in his proper place as a proper artist.”
Maurits Cornelis Escher should definitely have the last word. Writing to a friend in 1956 he said: “Maybe I focus exclusively on the element of wonder, and therefore I also try to evoke only a sense of wonder in my viewers.”
[All images, unless otherwise stated, are copyright The M C Escher Company, The Netherlands and courtesy of Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.]
The Escher exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery has proved so popular that there will be extended opening hours on certain dates over the Christmas and New Year period. For information and to book tickets go to:
MAC CONNER – WITNESS TO MAD MEN’S GOLDEN ERA
McCauley ‘Mac’ Conner was one of the original ‘Mad Men’ of New York’s Madison Avenue, the advertising capital of America in the decades which followed the Second World War. He’s been described in the British press as the real Don Draper, but he wasn’t. In the TV series Draper was a creative director, selling ideas for ads to his company’s clients. Mac Conner was the man who illustrated those ads, and was one of the best, as an exhibition of his work at London’s House of Illustration demonstrates.
“I never considered myself an artist, I just liked to make pictures,” said the centenarian Mac Conner in an interview last year. And so he did, hundreds of them for magazines, book covers and company brochures, during a long working career. He has always considered himself a designer. Speaking earlier this year to The Daily Telegraph he explained: “I think the aim [as a designer] is to tell the story. You don’t give a damn whether it’s hanging on the wall or is put into the trash afterwards. The painter is painting something emotional. It’s a point of view, you know? And they rub shoulders once in a while, the artist and the designer.”
Mac Conner was born in Newport, New Jersey in 1913. His father ran the general store and there is an early photo of him standing by the two-petrol pump forecourt, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting Gas. He studied illustration by correspondence course during the 1930s and attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art. His talent was obvious even at this early stage of his career as he became one of the youngest artists ever to have his work appear on the front page of the Saturday Evening Post, the prestigious weekly, mass-circulation magazine for which the older Norman Rockwell, whom Conner greatly admired, also worked.
Conner was drafted into the Navy during the war but his artistic skills meant he stayed in New York, illustrating training manuals for the troops. He stayed in the Big Apple to study under Harvey Dunn at New York’s Grand Central School of Art (literally located above Grand Central Station) and started working for Lawrence Studios as an illustrator. It was here he met Bill Neeley who became his agent and friend. Neeley argued that his clients’ work was their own copyright and insisted on it being returned to them after publication. It is principally for this reason that the Museum of the City of New York was able to stage this show last year. As Conner says, a lot of illustrators’ work was considered ephemera, fit only for the dustbin, so it is remarkable so much of his output has survived. Curator Terence Brown emphasises that “one reason the show came about is because the art existed; it existed because Bill Neeley said ‘we’re getting it back’.”
Conner divided his time between advertisement illustration and work to accompany short stories in the many women’s magazines of the time. Rockwell portrayed Rosie the Riveter in 1943, a tough individual who embodied the patriotic spirit of defiance of women on the home front, doing the jobs that their menfolk had had to relinquish in order to fight. But once the war was over those soldiers needed to come back to work and the US government encouraged women to return to the home, bear babies and buy the goods that the ad men were constantly trying to sell them. America needed to recover economically from the conflict and to this day consumerism is still the biggest driving force behind the US economy.
The women’s magazines contained romantic stories between the ads, known in the business as ‘Boy/Girl’ material, and, as the exhibition states, ‘they conveyed intimacy without directly addressing sexuality, which was off-limits in mainstream magazines.’
Yet the periodicals delivered dreams of happiness to their female readers. The illustrative style of the immediate post-war years has been described as optimistic realism as it attempted to sell this happiness through consumer goods, an approach the Wall Street Journal, no less, has described as ‘a conspiracy, of sorts, between clients, ad agencies, copywriters and the artists to juice suburban desires and ensure that homeowners kept keeping up with the Joneses.’
It’s called capitalism and Conner was one of the best at his job. His ad illustrations were strictly regulated by the art buyers, the men (and a few women), who instructed the artists based on the brief from the agency’s client company. So an art buyer on a Blue Bell denim campaign in 1953, could write to Conner stating: “In connection with the clothes….the plaid lining is always to be the same…and it is the red, black and gray plaid that we want…I am sending you the dungarees.”
While the style of the ads was strictly controlled, Conner found he had more freedom when illustrating the magazine articles. He told the New York Times last year that he would read ‘a two- or three-page synopsis of each fiction article he was to illustrate and then what he drew was “freewheeling” and “completely up to [me].” ’ In a filmed interview to promote the New York exhibition, Conner went on to say “I tried to figure out why they would be appealing, to speak to the story, to explain the story a little bit, to the observer, to the reader of the magazine, it was a challenge to do these. But now if you whipped them there was great satisfaction in doing one.”
The stories were sold to the readers with titles such as The Courtship on Car Sixty-Five for Collier’s or Strictly Respectable for Redbook. But the mood changed as the ’50s wore on, so we find a 1955 Collier’s story called The Good Husband with a strap line saying: “He urged her to have a hobby, an interest outside their marriage. And so she decided to try collecting men.” The artwork illustrating Pilot’s Wife for Woman’s Day in 1957 shows ‘a pale and shaken stewardess stood to one side as the reporters went wild.’ She’s pale and shaken because the dashing pilot with whom she’s been having an affair has just been met at the airport by his wife.
Conner’s personal life during these years was as good as the images he created. “I was very involved with my work, the lifestyle, the whole thing, just sort of appealed to me, I loved to do it….It was a way of speaking, a way to get your feelings out, and so it was a happy journey doing these paintings.” He didn’t marry until the late 1950s, and then to a Vanderbilt.
However, by the end of the 1960s television was beginning to usurp the place of the magazines in delivering ads and entertainment to a much bigger audience. Feminists such as Betty Friedan had attacked the women’s journals for stultifying women’s brains and brainwashing them into a passive acceptance of materialism. As the exhibition also points out, ‘the Civil Rights struggle made the all-white world of the magazines look increasingly dated and irrelevant.’
Conner found new work in educational publishing and cover illustrations for romantic novels. He had used models before as the basis for much of his work and continued doing this in his book illustrations, until they too were overtaken by cost-cutting and simply appeared as cover photographs, still the norm today.
Today Mac Conner sits in his 5th Avenue apartment in New York, surrounded by his life’s work, a contented old man. No wonder he says, “it was a very happy life, very successful, I think as lives go, I think it worked out pretty well.” And at 101, death holds no fears: “I’m just coasting, waiting for the big scythe to come along.”
(All images courtesy of McCauley Conner unless otherwise stated.)
Mac Conner: a New York Life is at the House of Illustration until 28 June 2015.
You can read more about Norman Rockwell, one of Mac Conner’s major inspirations as an illustrator, in Norman Rockwell – does it matter if it’s art?
GOYA’S ENTRANCING SORCERY – THE WITCHES AND OLD WOMEN ALBUM
The great Spanish Master Francisco Goya was no stranger to dreams and, perhaps more frequently, nightmares, judging by his works. From the terrifying Saturn Devouring his Son to the horrific scenes depicted in his portrayal of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain in The Disasters of War, he seems to have lived in a shadow world of despair. But the troubled artist also produced albums of drawings for his own private use and now London’s Courtauld Gallery has, for the first time, assembled all the known drawings of one of these works in its original sequence.
The late art historian Eleanor Sayre, an expert on Goya’s prints and drawings, first suggested the idea of a series of albums by the artist in a ground-breaking essay of 1958 for the Bulletin of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She identified eight albums executed in chronological order and labelled them alphabetically from A to H. This was no easy task as the works had first been disassembled by Goya’s own son after his death in 1828 and then sold to numerous museums, galleries and private owners by the artist’s grandson.
However, after four years’ work, a team from the Courtauld has brought together all the known pages of Album D, called The Witches and Old women album, in a feat of academic research of which Eleanor Sayre herself would have been proud. By scientific and stylistic analysis, the curators of the exhibition have managed to arrive at a logical and near-complete replication of the original album, in the order in which Goya compiled it. There is only a slight element of doubt over two leaves and one page, probably numbered number nine by Goya, is missing. Yet there must be hope that even this will one day re-appear as did the first drawing in the album, as recently as 2007.
It is believed that Goya compiled the work around 1819 and the presence of witches and old women in so many of the drawings appears to have been an attempt on his part to critique and undermine the Inquisition, which by this time had relinquished its violent past and had become more of a censorship body. So, as the excellent catalogue points out, he could “fuse humans and demons in extraordinarily compelling and realistic images” in order to subvert the status quo. As Juliet Wilson-Bareau notes, “witchcraft had been a major part of Goya’s visually symbolic ‘Universal Language’ and was often used to attack an ‘unholy’ Church, seen by enlightened believers as having failed in its moral and religious obligations. Goya followed established practice in presenting witchcraft scenes as inversions of traditional religious imagery.”
Nevertheless, the artist had to take care not to overtly offend the Spanish establishment. He did not find favour with the reactionary Bourbon Ferdinand VII who had returned to the throne in 1814 and had suspended the liberal constitution of 1812. In 1799 Goya had published a series of 80 aquatint etchings – Los Caprichos – which foreshadow many of the themes of the ‘Witches’ album, featuring as they did hags, broomsticks, flying in the air and falling down again and the theme of old age and decrepitude.
The publication of Los Caprichos was announced in an advertisement in the Diario de Madrid and, according to a catalogue essay by Mark McDonald, it appears Goya was attempting “to mitigate the potentially offensive meaning of the prints and state[d] that the author did not ‘have the intention of mocking the particular faults of one or another individual’. The wording is significant because it suggests a tension between public and private forms of expression: [it] can be understood as an admission that the prints did indeed intend to mock particular faults of particular people by virtue of pre-emptive denial. For Goya, the prints were a personal declaration of attitudes towards subjects that he shared with like-minded liberals, determined to fight against ignorance, stupidity and intellectual oppression. Goya was free to devise witty and satirical captions on the drawings since their audience was limited to people chosen by him, but once the images entered the public realm in the form of prints, their potential to offend or criticise in a society that was hostile to liberalism had to be taken into account.”
By the time Goya compiled Album D, it is clear that he had no intention of publicly exposing the work. This can be seen from the ink stains and accidental brush strokes which were never corrected. The conclusion is that this work, along with others, was not for general circulation but private consumption, no doubt among a circle of like-minded friends, an early form of samizdat.
At first sight, the drawings can seem mysterious and impenetrable to the modern eye. But the catalogue explains how, as Reva Wolf writes, “many of the drawings in Album D can be linked convincingly to literature that was either censored, or else forcefully condemned, by the Inquisition. Significantly new editions of several of these writings appeared in the first three decades of the nineteenth century during brief periods…when the Inquisition was temporarily abolished.”
The works in question included Fray Gerundio (a well-known satirical and anti-clerical novel first published in 1758) and La Celestina, which dates from 1499 and concerns a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and is persuaded by his servant to use the old brothel madam Celestina to help gain her hand.
A third work which has been cited as an influence on Album D is an official account by the Inquisition itself of a trial of alleged witches in 1610.
For example, Locura (Album D, page 11) shows a declaiming figure wearing a long robed garment at the top of some steps and behind a barred area, representing a type of pulpit or dais. The person resembles a priest or preacher until one sees the clown-like hat with three bells, more reminiscent of a court jester. This is actually a subtle dig at the clergy because the word locura, madness or insanity, contains the Spanish word – cura – for priest. The book Fray Gerundio, itself written by a Jesuit priest, was a contemporary satire on preachers whose verbose sermons were all style and no substance. Today the Spanish even use the verb gerundiar, derived from the book, meaning to speak meaninglessly.
La madre Celestina (Album D, page 22) depicts the old bawd showing off what is most likely a gold chain while holding a wine bottle. This was the role played by the original Celestina character in the 1499 work by Fernando de Rojas and Goya here shows her, legs splayed apart recalling her own early life as a prostitute, her pills and quack remedies resting on the table beside her, all necessary tools of her trade.
The key, unifying element in both Fray Gerundio and La Celestina is the abuse of clerical power. Gerundio, the eponymous priest, is a charlatan whose smooth tongue has gained him wealth and prominence within the church. Celestina has many clients from the clergy and even boasts about being famous among her fellow churchgoers.
The account of the trial of two supposed witches in Logroño, northern Spain, in 1610, being an official document of the Holy Office, could only be published when the Inquisition itself was suspended. “The two drawings of Album D that clearly depict witches,” writes Reva Wolf, “Wicked woman and Dream of a good witch can…be paired with gruesome passages of the Logroño report describing the killing, sacrifice and eating of babies and children. In addition, Goya’s caption for the latter, Sueño de buena echizera, echoes the words “echar sueño”, used repeatedly in the Logroño report to describe casting a spell…what is ‘good’ as a witch is ‘wicked’ or ‘bad’ as a woman. The play of opposites is a key feature of Album D – and of Goya’s work generally.”
The Logroño report also mentions witches flogging each other and the Devil and Inquisitors flogging witches. The subject of Dream of flogging (Sueño de azotes) (Album D, page 6), may relate to these stories. The fall in the first drawing of Album D could also refer to the Inquisitorial belief that the Devil would punish a witch who dared to say the word ‘Jesus’ while airborne by causing her to fall to earth.
The flying figures of album D, unlike those in other of Goya’s works, have no obvious witch-like accoutrements, such as broomsticks. This omission was almost certainly deliberate as the figures also resemble clergymen and nuns with their voluminous robes and gestures. The enlightened view of the time, as shown by Goya’s friend, the playwright Leandro de Moratín, in the annotations in his own copy of the Logroño trial, indicate that the ludicrous superstitions and paranoiac delusions of the Holy Office were as bad, if not worse, than those of their victims, the ‘witches’ themselves.
As Reva Wolf’s invaluable essay points out: “The idea that those persecuted by the Inquisition were heroes and the Inquisitors demons had been a leitmotif in Protestant writings of the 16th century onwards. Such inversion is also a subject of Goya’s art and central to the criticisms of the Inquisition that led, finally, to its permanent abolition in 1834 (six years after G’s death).” It had endured in Spain for 376 years.
There is a general sense in Album D of discombobulation, of the world turned upside down. The phrase was coined in England during the Civil War in a ballad protesting against the Puritan attempt to abolish Christmas celebrations and, by extension, expressed a sense of fear and trepidation at the momentous and frightening changes which were taking place across the land. The first three decades of the 19th century in Spain were similar in terms of general upheaval so it is no surprise that the English phrase – everything’s up in the air – finds an echo in the Spanish estar en aire.
The show is rich and detailed and demonstrates, as ever, the Courtauld’s rigorous approach to original research and exposition. I am only sorry that time is now short to view the display, for which mea culpa, but I urge you to go along as soon as possible to see some of the lesser-known works of one of the greatest artists who ever lived and view them in the way he himself would have seen them. The aim now is, according to the luminaries at the Courtauld, to undertake the analysis and assembly of all seven other albums. As Goya himself might have said – ¡muchísima suerte!
JOHN LEWIS: HOW WE LIVE TODAY
London’s Design Museum currently has a pop-up exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of John Lewis in Oxford Street, a company which has now grown to be one of the most successful retailers in Britain. JL’s approach is to combine style with practicality, giving its customers what they want at a fair price. The museum has displayed a wealth of everyday objects sold by the JL Partnership in order to make us think about the relationship between design and public demand and the way people relate to the objects they use and how they buy them.
More than a hundred objects are displayed in the exhibition which is split into four sections, the first being Design Archetypes. Some products are so well designed – and have been ever since their inception- that it is difficult or impossible to improve on them. They do the job perfectly. Design archetypes also provide the customer with a sense of reassurance and confidence in their purchase.
There are obvious examples such as a sewing machine, hair-dryer and even the humble corkscrew. Each one has been worked on and re-designed hundreds of times, but the basic design stays much the same.
As the show points out, design archetypes transmit a sense of immediate recognition and time-tested reliability. Even the humble toaster is here, exemplified by the famous Dualit. Originally marketed only to the catering trade when first designed in 1952, they were put on sale to the public later that decade and proved a steady seller. But an updated re-design in the 1980s raised Dualit’s international profile and the toaster is now sold in 54 countries.
More than 2,000 toasters are made each week at the company’s Crawley factory in Sussex, with only one assembler allocated to each individual toaster, so providing continuity of quality. For the popular four-slice machine that means 168 components, although an experienced worker can make around five an hour. As a recent article on the company said, it ‘is a classic: built to last, nice to look at, simple to use and effective.’
The average person spends more time in the home than anywhere else and Keeping House shows how the necessary but tedious tasks of washing, cooking and cleaning have been aided by design. As the introductory label to this section says, ‘by understanding our needs and providing products that respond to them, retailers like John Lewis play a vital role in this process. And what may seem like trivial incremental changes in the products we use around the house, can make lives easier and eventually lead to profound changes in society.’
This last is a moot point as the section displaying washing machines highlights the controversial claim that the advent of the automatic washing machine did more for women’s liberation than abortion or the pill. Whether men or women do the weekly wash, however, there is no doubt that the step change from what was often a task which took a whole day to complete, involving as it did numerous processes and pieces of equipment, can now be done in a fraction of the time by an electronically-controlled device.
An early example in the exhibition features one of the first machines to have wash, spin and dry cycles. The Hoover Keymatic of 1961 was controlled not by a rotating dial as in other models but by an indented plastic disc which was placed into a slot. Different ridge patterns controlled different operations. I can personally remember this machine coming on to the market, looking like something from a science fiction film compared to the more functional models of the day.
Choice by Design is about giving the customer what they want. Consumers display design preferences by their choice of colour or style in addition to ease of use. John Lewis’s consumer experience over the years has given it a high success rate in judging public opinion as regards consumer goods but there are no guarantees and this section poses the chicken-and-egg question: in constantly offering new products and ideas, do retailers shape our desire for choice or reflect it?
Here there is, for example, a bewildering array of coffee-makers from a humble one-cupper to a machine costing more than £2,000. For many, the morning coffee before leaving has become a ritualised start to the working day and John Lewis, picking up on this, provides multiple consumer choice for lovers of the fruit of the evergreen shrub Coffea.
There is also a display of a multitude of different kitchen utensils. As with the vast choice of coffee-makers, John Lewis recognises that these have to be both practical and stylish. The wide range may seem off-putting at first for a consumer, but by offering a multiplicity of choice, John Lewis is aware of the importance of cooking as a vital function of everyday existence and the many ways this task can be performed.
Whereas most of these utensils can be traced back to individual designers, there is such a thing as anonymous design, as exemplified by the Tala Lancashire potato peeler. This humble object is an archetype in itself in that it does the job perfectly and is still on sale after many decades. It is cheap and functional and although the contemporary designs can be traced back to the 1950s, the Tala origins are lost in time. But as the exhibition points out, ‘the traditional handcrafted wooden handle and grip made from wound orange string is almost certainly based on an older design. While this is often referred to as anonymous design, no piece of design is truly anonymous. The Tala did have a designer, but this is a design without a signature.’
The final section – Evolution of a product Type – uses home audio equipment to show how technological advances have translated to consumer goods to alter their size, shape and performance over the years. Audio and hi-fi equipment is deemed a distinct product type in its own right and this typology needs careful tweaking and upgrading in order to satisfy the consumer while not overwhelming them with too much complexity at any one time. This form of graduated advance helps all but the dedicated aficionado to make a considered purchase choice, rather than making no choice at all due to over-engineering.
So we move from huge radio sets and bulky television units – a necessity of their time due to the non-miniaturisation of valves and tubes – to today’s chip-based technology and its ever-increasing innovations.
The exhibition succeeds in imparting a great deal of fascinating information in a short and succinct form and is genuinely stimulating in that it makes you reflect on consumer attitudes and thereby the human psyche in terms of needs and desire. But best be quick. As a pop-up it finishes on September 21 and if you do visit the Design Museum be sure to take in the current Designers in Residence show which gives four young designers their own space to fill with what the museum describes as ‘their most disruptive ideas’.
THE YEARS OF LA DOLCE VITA
The Estorick Collection in London usually specialises in exhibitions of modern Italian art, yet its current show contains 80 photographs portraying the period of la dolce vita, literally the sweet life, and the title of Federico Fellini’s famous 1960 film, shot in and around Rome.
Its anti-hero, Marcello Mastroianni, plays world-weary journalist Marcello Rubini and his snapper sidekick is called Paparazzo. Fellini apparently took the name from a man he met in Calabria and it is still used in one Italian dialect to mean ‘sparrow’. Fellini himself explained that the photographers hopping and scurrying around celebrities reminded him of the small birds.
The bulk of the exhibition contains the work of one of the foremost paparazzi of the era, Marcello Geppetti, who would race up and down the classy via Veneto in Rome on his trusty Vespa, Rolleiflex slung over the shoulder, in search of film actors and celebrities to snap. The Hollywood stars were usually in Rome to film at its famous Cinecittà Studios where set time was cheaper than in the USA and the crew just as talented. Italian celebrities had become used to being papped by the likes of Geppetti and his colleagues as there was a ready market for the pictures in Oggi, the best-selling gossip mag of the day, and so the two worlds of Hollywood and the Italian paparazzi came together in the Eternal City.
And there to capture it all was Geppetti. He left an archive of more than one million images and if the selection at the Estorick is typical, he was clearly more than a mere paparazzo. He made his name in serious photojournalism and American Photo magazine has described him as “the most undervalued photographer in history”. This show lends some weight to that view.
He captures a joyful and stunning Rita Hayworth in 1960; a cheeky Brigitte Bardot the following year faced by a sea of snappers as her attention is caught by a remark to make her turn round and face Geppetti’s camera. And Jean-Paul Belmondo and Ursula Andress, eating together in a quiet trattoria, probably never imagined they would be papped that night by Geppetti.
A few of the photographs in the exhibition were taken by Arturo Zavattini, Fellini’s camera operator on La Dolce Vita. These are obviously staged to a degree and therefore less spontaneous than Geppetti’s smash-and-grab style but his image of Mastroianni exhaling smoke on set, his black quiff stretching over his forehead, is memorable and evocative of the era.
BB was always up for the snappers, smiling and graceful at all times and one particular snap of her leaving a Rome restaurant in 1967 oozes star quality and sheer sexual aura.
But not everyone was pleased to see Geppetti and his colleagues. Audrey Hepburn always appeared a reluctant subject, caught wide-eyed and startled by Geppetti’s flash in a Rome street as she walks her dog, pursued on another day into a grocery store and then followed shortly after into a bakery where she seems resigned to her fate, gazing down wearily at the counter, her right arm coming up to rest on her cheek.
Occasionally, anger tips over into something more such as Franco Nero delivering a slap to Rino Barillari in 1965. But Anita Ekberg, the Swedish actress and model seen cavorting with Mastroianni in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita, is either icily furious or absolutely outraged. She is seen in a series of shots taking on the paparazzi gathered outside her house in Rome in 1960. In one she grabs a snapper by the head and attempts to knee him in the groin and in others she is even seen wielding a bow and arrow at them at point blank range. Geppetti, ever the pro, calmly snaps away at his fellow papps’ discomfort.
Geppetti must have had paid contacts in restaurants and hotels to tip him off as to where the celebs were; scooting up and down the via Veneto on the Vespa probably gave him an edge on his rivals. Either that or he paid more.
The fascination of the show is that it displays the origins of modern celebrity culture and the continuing fascination with film stars, seen as supra human in some way. Just as Fitzgerald’s rich are not like us, so neither are the creations of the film studios and they are not meant to be, for once the mystique is stripped away, they are just people and it is partly to protect this mystique and their privacy that not all snatched photos are welcomed. Some are staged for publicity purposes but many of Geppetti’s were obviously hard-won. However, if you believe that by putting themselves in the public eye and reaping all the benefits that fame can bestow on them, celebrities also have to accept that their private lives may not be so private any more, then this exhibition is a real gem.
JOSEPH WRIGHT OF DERBY: BATH AND BEYOND
The eighteenth-century artist Joseph Wright of Derby had, in the words of one eminent critic, “an almost preternatural ability to render the effects of artificial light in darkened spaces.” Influenced by Caravaggio and de la Tour, he demonstrated this ability in such works as The Orrery and Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Yet a working stay in the fashionable spa town of Bath, unsuccessful as it was financially, seems to have set him on a different and much more rewarding artistic path, as a new exhibition in the town demonstrates.
Joseph Wright came to stay in Bath in November 1775 having spent the previous two years painting in Italy. He was well known and respected in art circles for his ‘candlelights’, paintings where different sources of light illuminated an otherwise dark interior and had also had a successful spell in Liverpool as a portrait painter. Indeed, so well had he done there that a rival complained he “swallows up all the business…a portrait painter of the first class.”
Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by a fine example of one of Wright’s ‘candlelights’ in the shape of The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (exhibited 1771, reworked 1795), which portrays the accidental discovery of phosphorous, the bright stream of gas shooting out of a hole in the alembic. It is ironic since the alchemist, who is attempting the forlorn act of turning base metal into gold, has actually made a true scientific discovery yet does not realise it.
However, despite his flourishing career in England, according to Wright’s niece Hannah, the artist “determined to go to Italy” at the end of 1773 because he was “not satisfied with his own performances, & anxious to acquire all information in his power respecting his profession.” When there, Wright buried himself in the country’s classical culture, a professional’s grand tour as he worked constantly, sketching the ancient sites and attempting detailed landscapes for the first time in his career.
Wright had taken his new wife with him to Italy and, although the two years there had been mostly enjoyable and productive, they were also costly and his absence from England meant his name had already faded among the artistic cognoscenti. So, armed with a letter of introduction from Erasmus Darwin, his physician and the grandfather of Charles, he left Derbyshire with his wife, daughter Anna Romana, and sister Anna Elizabeth, known as Nancy, to settle in Bath for the season, with the aim of earning portrait commissions.
Portraiture was a lucrative but highly competitive business in Georgian England and Bath had been the preserve of Thomas Gainsborough since 1758. He was in high demand and the quality of his work and personal connections saw him become an RA and then decamp to London in 1774. Therefore, as Hannah was to write in 1850, “it was thought there was a good opening for a Portrait Painter.” It is also possible that Wright had chosen Bath for its health benefits. His wife had suffered two miscarriages while in Italy and he himself was always complaining of physical ailments.
The family took up residence at 30 Brock Street, a busy thoroughfare between The Circus and the recently built Royal Crescent. Visitors to the town would promenade along the road and it was fashionable to view the work in artists’ studios en route, so Wright’s position should have been advantageous. Yet within months he was complaining in a letter about a lack of commissions: “You’ll scarce believe I have not had one Portrait bespoke, they one and all say it is a pity I should paint Portraits [rather than landscapes]. Should they continue in that way of thinking, they will either pity me or starve me to death.” (January 1776.)
His frustration only increased when he was commissioned to paint what he hoped would be a full-length portrait of the duchess of Cumberland, sister-in-law to the King. But the painting shrank from a full-length to a head only which, as Wright said, “has cost me much anxiety…. the great people are so fantastical & whimmy [i.e. capricious], they create a word of trouble.” (February 1776.) It seems that even the head portrait was not completed and Wright discovered from speaking to one of the Duchess’s servants that word had spread about him in Bath to the effect that he was a fine painter of ‘fire’ – his astonishing scientific subject paintings which displayed his brilliant mastery of light and shade, but was viewed as a risk as a portraitist, and this despite his earlier success in Liverpool.
Wright decided upon a different course and had by now made the acquaintance of Dr Thomas Wilson, a wealthy Bath resident, noted for his charitable works, and very well connected. “The D.r is a very popular Man & is fighting in my Cause stoutly,” wrote Wright in a letter of April 1776 where he states that he is painting “a half length of D.r Wilson & his adopted Daughter Miss Macaulay, this is for reputation only, but you must not say so.” In other words, Wright was not being paid for the work but he hoped it would act as an artistic calling card to advertise his skill. Given a place of prominence in the Reverend Wilson’s house in Alfred Street, it would be seen by the most fashionable – and wealthiest – of Bath society who might then be inspired to commission the artist themselves.
Wilson was a clergyman who had been visiting Bath to take the waters since 1743 and settled there permanently on the death of his wife in 1772. The adopted girl in the work is Catherine Sophia Macaulay, daughter of the eminent historian, Mrs. Catherine Macaulay. She was a radical and early feminist who, between 1763 and 1783 wrote, in eight volumes, The History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line, four volumes of which had appeared by the time she moved to Bath in 1774 with the aim, as for so many others, of improving her health at the spa. Wilson was then 71 years of age, but the couple began co-habiting the following year at his house in Alfred Street along with Catherine Sophia, who was only 18 months’ old when her father, a physician, died. Wilson is said to have adopted the young girl in April 1775 when she was ten years old and the family were living in Alfred House by the autumn of 1776.
Wilson was himself childless and had lost his own mother at 18 months of age so the portrait of the two has a particular poignancy, the old man having found a family for the first time at what was then a very advanced age and the young girl, looking expectantly at the kind gentleman who had given her and her mother a home. However, Wilson’s domestic arrangement with Mrs Macaulay was seen as scandalous at the time and the London satirists mocked them remorselessly.Wilson was besotted, however, with his much younger lover, so much so that he handed over the deeds of Alfred House to her and left her an annuity in his will of £400.
Yet he was stunned in December 1778 when he wrote that: “To the great surprise of the world Mrs Macaulay without giving me the slightest notice at the age of 52 [she was then actually 47] married a YOUNG SCOTCH LOON of 21.” William Graham was mate to a ship’s surgeon of the East India Company and younger brother of Catharine Macaulay’s quack doctor James. There followed an unseemly episode in which Mrs Macaulay refused to hand back the deeds to the property which Wilson had transferred to her and rejected his demands to forego the annuity. The Reverend Doctor then threatened Mrs Macaulay with blackmail as he had in his possession letters between her and Graham which “would have blasted her honour for ever.” A pamphlet was being prepared to publish the correspondence and it had already been advertised for sale. Edmund Rack, a Quaker and writer, acted as intermediary between Mrs Macaulay and Wilson with her brother representing her interests. A deal was eventually made whereby Wilson agreed to pay Mrs Macaulay £800 and she would “deliver up all the securities that Dr Wilson had given her, and the manuscript of the narrative, with all the letters and papers relative hereto, should be burnt.” Amusingly Rack adds: “I am sure [Dr Wilson] ought to give me 100£ in his will for it is a very good bargain for him – the house alone being worth 1400£ – but I don’t expect anything.”
The portrait of John Milnes came about through Wright’s Derby connections, the artist having painted his brother some years earlier. John Milnes came from a wealthy West Yorkshire merchant family, dealers in woollen cloth, silk and cotton, and he was everything Wright could wish for, struggling as he was at this time to gain commissions in Bath. Milnes was, as exhibition curator Amina Wright (no relation) says, “a young bachelor with money to spend, contacts to make and polite tastes to cultivate.” His portrait shows a finely dressed young man, gesturing, long cane in hand, towards a sailing ship in the bay behind, a possible allusion to the family trade in importing raw cotton from the colonies for production in the mills. It is a fine work in Wright’s ‘small full length’ format as he described it, first seen in 1771 with the painting of Mr & Mrs Thomas Coltman (NG). Milnes bought it on completion and it is estimated that he spent more than £1,000 on landscapes and subject paintings by Wright until his money began to run out in the late 1780s.
However, as Amina Wright points out in the exhibition catalogue, “as a slow meticulous worker, Wright would have been hard pressed to satisfy those passing through Bath for a month or two. The ability to produce impressive results quickly was a speciality of the spa’s portrait-makers…. As an artist whose particular gifts were for perceptive character and beautiful effects of light, [he] was not suited to quick-draw commerce.” Wright was also blunt with his subjects and would not tolerate flighty clients such as the woman who turned up for four sittings wearing a different dress each time. But while he may have lacked Gainsborough’s effortless charm with his subjects, he was considerably cheaper, charging 20 guineas for a three-quarter-length portrait for which Gainsborough would have demanded three times as much.
Whilst Wright may have struggled as a portraitist in Bath, he made money by exhibiting other paintings in Brock Street such as The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome (1775-6) and Vesuvius in Eruption (1776-80), both works from his Italian sojourn. Yet this must have been a bittersweet achievement for him as he was only able to work on such pieces due to the fact that he had not succeeded in gaining portrait commissions. And Wright himself knew early in his stay in Bath that he had made a mistake in moving there. Writing in January 1776 he states, “I believe I am come to the wrong place” and the following month he was complaining: “I much repent coming here.”
Wright’s wife was pregnant with their second child in the spring of 1776 and the cost of hiring a doctor in Bath would have been far higher than the care his surgeon brother could provide back home in Derbyshire. In addition, Wright was himself suffering from a variety of ailments including “rheumatism in my head & bowels”, “trembling & great weakness in my Knees” and poor vision, possibly from applying himself too assiduously to his work in overly dark, candle-lit rooms.
After the birth of the child, a son also named Joseph, the artist returned to Bath in the autumn of 1776, moving to cheaper premises next door in Brock Street. His second stay in Bath was even worse than the first from a financial view. The American War of Independence had badly affected the British economy. With less money available to spend, art suffered disproportionately as a luxury item. It was even rumoured that Gainsborough had himself left for London due to a lack of commissions, so perhaps Wright was pursuing a lost cause form the start. He was, nevertheless, not a poor man. His family was well-off and, as Amina Wright states he “had enjoyed a private landlord’s income since the death of his father in 1767, and…was already earning good interest on loans and mortgages.” But none of this was sufficient to maintain Wright in the lifestyle required of a gentleman in Bath and it is also interesting to note that whereas Wright had only one sister, Nancy, in tow with his wife and daughter on first coming to the town, he now had his wife, two children, Nancy and her older sibling Hannah with him. He presumably also employed servants in Brock Street and all this in a smaller property. Given his precarious financial situation there, it seems a triumph of hope over experience on his part.
Wright himself was not a political operator when in Bath, or by nature. Unlike his more successful contemporaries or near-contemporaries such as Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, he failed to mix in polite society, probably not finding it to his liking, was unable to ‘sell’ himself sufficiently to the wealthy clientele who frequented the town, and never found a wealthy local patron to support him when he was residing there. Lack of commissions in Bath finally forced Wright and his family to leave Bath for good and they returned to Derbyshire on 13th June 1777. Yet, as Amina Wright succinctly puts in it her catalogue “the fallow months in Bath after the exhausting Italian tour enabled him to review and assimilate what he had seen abroad, to become aware of his social, commercial and physical weaknesses and explore his artistic and creative strengths.” It was as if Wright needed to be back in the healthy Derbyshire air to refresh his artistic palette. Bath may have proved a salutary lesson for Wright, yet, as Amina Wright says, the artist “built a new identity for himself as a landscapist that gradually gave his career and income a new lease of life. Thirty or more views of Vesuvius contributed to the comfort of the growing Wright family well into the 1790s, and Derbyshire’s landscape, so rich in minerals, also became a source of wealth for the artist [which] assured him regular commissions.” Indeed, Wright had become increasingly tired of portraiture in later life as had his Bath predecessor Gainsborough, who had himself written that he was “sick of portraits, and wish very much to….walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.”
On occasion, Wright would combine an element of portraiture within a landscape, such as his majestic Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of her Deceased Husband of 1785. The idea is probably based on a contemporary non-fiction account by James Adair (1775) in History of the American Indians where he states that the widow of a “war-leader” is “obliged for the first moon, to sit…under his mourning war-pole, which is decked with all his martial trophies.” Her calm, mournful pose is in contrast to the furious reaction of nature itself in the background with an erupting volcano, forked lightning and fiery cloud formations. It is an extraordinary work which was exhibited at a one-man exhibition in Covent Garden in 1785 and as Wright himself wrote: “I never painted a picture so universally liked.”
Although Amina Wright does not agree with the perceived view that Wright’s Bath episode was “a disaster, a mismatch of ‘solid’ provincialism bewildered by the expectations of an intellectually shallow elite,” it is difficult to see it in any other light. If anything, the exhibition and his letters back to friends and family while in Bath indicate this very clearly. However, perhaps it is true that without this experience Wright would not have become the highly successful artist who found peace during the last two decades of his life in his home county, among the friends and family members who had always supported him. For Wright, this was his natural state rather than trying to establish himself in the often meretricious and impermanent world of Georgian Bath.
The exhibition continues at The Holburne Museum, Bath, until May 5 and then moves to Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Links:
1963: THE YEAR OF THE REVOLUTION
I have already written about the momentous year of 1963 (http://www.culturevoyage.co.uk/books/) and make no apology for doing so again as it was so important for British society. Some argue that ‘Swinging London’ was just that, a musical and artistic frenzy fuelled by drugs which was limited to the capital and ignored by the rest of the country. But the sociological changes it helped bring about were widespread and the more liberal and open life we Brits enjoy today would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. For example, in 1963 in the UK, homosexual acts between men were illegal and the idea that same-sex couples could marry and adopt children was literally unthinkable. Personally, I can’t get enough of that annus mirabilis and Proud Chelsea are hosting a show of photographs by some of the most famous snappers of the era, including Terry O’Neill, Brian Duffy and Eric Swayne, featuring many of the stars and personalities of the time.
O’Neill’s photographs are well-represented in the display which is no surprise given that the National Portrait Gallery holds 75 of his original prints in its collection. Less well-known, perhaps, is Eric Swayne who had no formal photography training but picked up a camera at the age of 29 and started to shoot his friends on the scene. The results are still fresh to this day.
The exhibition also ties in with the publication of a new book – 1963: the Year of the Revolution: How Youth Changed the World with Music, Art, and Fashion – by Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan, an oral history of that year and the ‘Youthquake’ brought about by a group of teenagers and young musicians and designers who helped bring about a radical change in society.
1963: The Year of the Revolution, Proud Chelsea, 28th November 2013 – 19th January 2014
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Eric Gill, the famous sculptor and calligrapher, cast a very wide shadow over all who came into contact with him, not least his younger brother MacDonald, known as Max. Although a highly accomplished architect, graphic designer and letterer in his own right, Max’s work is still often mistaken for that of his brother’s. But a new exhibition in London devoted to him is helping to redress the balance and demonstrating that Max’s emergence from his brother’s shadow is long overdue.
Max is today most famous for his pioneering and intricate designs of decorative maps on the London underground and the exhibition, in Ealing’s PM Gallery, has much of his original artwork on show, discovered by Andrew Johnston and his wife Angela as they rummaged through wardrobes and tallboys in the cottage he inherited from his aunt Priscilla, Max’s second wife. They found rolls of maps, plans and drawings that had not seen the light for decades and this makes for an especially vibrant display as the colours appear so fresh.
Born in Brighton in 1884, one of eleven surviving children of a non-conformist minister, Max trained as an architect and joined the London firm of Nicholson and Corlette which specialised in ecclesiastical works. At the same time he was also taking night classes in calligraphy at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he was taught by Edward Johnston, also Eric’s tutor.
He set up in private practice in 1908 and it was not long before he was approached by the eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to paint a wind dial panel map for a country mansion. Wind dials gave a bird’s eye view of a house with a compass design, usually over the main fireplace, and an indicator showing the wind direction as it was connected by a series of rods and pulleys to a vane on the roof. Dutch merchants first used wind dials in the 17th century to see when their ships were approaching port and Lutyens, of Dutch origin himself, had no difficulty in selling the idea and Max’s designs to his wealthy clients.
Max’s great calligraphic skill and his fine attention to detail soon won him the first of his seven decorative map commissions for the UERL – the Underground Electric Railways of London, as the system was then known. Frank Pick, UERL’s commercial manager, and later its managing director, was seeking ways to boost passenger traffic on underused, off-peak services. Although he would later deal directly with the artists who worked for him on poster designs and maps, at this stage he was still using his printers to contract them.
Gerard Meynell of the Westminster Press employed Max to design a poster originally called By Paying Us Your Pennies (1914) but which grew so popular that it became known as the Wonderground map. As Claire Dobbin writes in her book London Underground maps: Art, Design and Cartography (2012), the work is now seen as a ‘cartographic masterpiece’ which lay the ‘stylistic foundations for a distinctive new genre of poster and [opened] the eyes of advertisers to the power of maps in promotion and publicity.’
Max’s great niece Caroline Walker took me on a tour of the show and explained that Wonderground, like a number of other map designs, contains “lots of references to family, friends and clients. We can find Gerard Meynell on the map in Harrow Road where the Westminster Press was and he’s sitting on the roof of his press with a copy of the Wonderground map with the first pull or impression saying ‘Quite a good pull this’. Or we’ve got Frank Pick himself at the ‘Head Office of the Underground’ clearly marked with a man holding a pickaxe saying ‘My pick cannot be surpassed.’ And we have Max himself holding a hare and the caption saying ‘one hare caught in the temple’. It’s a visual pun because Max’s studio was at No. 1 Hare Court in the Temple.”
It is of course the humour of a gentler and far less cynical age and it gives a very good indication of Max’s own personality. One of Max’s three children, Mary Corell, is still alive at the age of 95 and Caroline Walker has spent many hours with her discussing her father. “She just bubbled away about him, what a wonderful man he was, how funny he was. He would relish playing mischievous, rather impish and enigmatic practical jokes. He was a gifted linguist and would often mimic foreign accents in mock foreign languages, like gobbledegook Italian or French but it sounded authentic. So he would approach absolute strangers in the street and strike up an absurd conversation with them. A picture emerged of an incredibly humorous, lovely man.”
What is clear from the Wonderground map, the humour aside, is Max’s intense eye for detail, his passion for London and his erudition. Claire Dobbin quotes Max as stating that he applied himself to his art with what he called ‘sincerity of purpose’ and it took him seven months to complete the commission. Oliver Green, in his new book on Frank Pick – Frank Pick’s London: Art, Design and the Modern City (2013) – asserts that the Wonderground map ‘was far and away the most popular of the early Underground commissions with the public. It was the first UERL poster to attract enthusiastic and widespread press interest, and Pick decided to make it available in a folding presentation format as a decorative item for home or office use. Gill’s ‘Wonderground’ and subsequent Underground poster designs started a fashion for illustrated maps, pioneered by him but picked up by many other designers, which spread well beyond printed posters to wall decoration in stations, hotels, galleries and other public spaces in the 1920s.’
When the Westminster Press quickly produced the smaller fold-out version for personal use, it was sold with the catchy line: ‘You have no time to admire it all? Why not take a map home to pin on your wall?’ The public duly did and it also featured prominently in schools and nurseries as an entertaining teaching aid.
The fascination with Wonderground was so great, wrote The Daily Sketch in May 1914, that ‘people spend sometimes twenty minutes examining it, so entertainingly does it parody the names and characteristics of the different districts of the metropolis…People watch so long they lose their trains – and yet go on smiling.’
Max’s next major UERL commission was Theatre-land of 1915. His diary relates: ‘Called on Pick…at 5.30:wanted to draw another map – this time of theatre-land. Jolly job!’ This ‘jolly job’ took nine months to complete and the final version is another complex Gill tour-de-force. “The map is ingenious,” says Caroline Walker, “because it’s not just an ordinary map but created on what appears to be the theatre curtain. So there is a stage and we have the names of the theatres and their nearest tube stations adorning the sides and the top of the proscenium and at the bottom the orchestra pit. The map itself is the curtain so we’ve got the folds of the curtain at the bottom as it collapses down on to the stage because it has been broken and we’ve got the actors trying to escape down into the orchestra pit, causing immense confusion and chaos. Gerard Meynell is the conductor and he’s trying to control the orchestra which is descending into chaos.”
Intriguingly, Max has included a Zeppelin air ship in the top right corner flying over Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A late addition to the map, not in the original artwork, is the speech bubble of the Zeppelin pilot who asks ‘What about the censor?’ Zeppelin raids had begun over London in May 1915 and, just days before Max completed his design in October that year, an air raid had killed 17 people near the Lyceum Theatre in Wellington Street, Covent Garden, so this may be why he added the wording. Air raids had never been experienced by the public before 1915 and were still seen at this stage as something of a curiosity as the giant bags of gas floated silently above the night sky. Those feelings later wore off as the death toll mounted and around 200 people were killed in London alone as a result of Zeppelin raids during the war.
Caroline Walker believes that “the map was commissioned in order to keep people in London and not panic into leaving the capital because of the threat of Zeppelin raids. So the message was keep going to the theatre and enjoying yourself, life goes on as normal.” This may well be the case as leisure travel in the capital was only discouraged from 1917 on when the war began to have a greater effect on daily life.
Max also did his bit for the war effort, although his task was tinged with sadness. Lutyens was a member of the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and asked Max to join him in 1917 to sit on the sub-committee to design lettering for the headstones. The exhibition actually includes one such headstone and Max also designed more than 200 badges which designated the dead soldiers’ regiments. Most people still assume the alphabet font was designed by brother Eric, an understandable mistake perhaps as Caroline Walker points out. “Both brothers were taught lettering by the same man, Edward Johnston, so it’s not surprising people presume Eric did this but he didn’t.” The font that Max designed was not only used on the headstones but also on all official war memorials including Lutyens’ Missing of the Somme (1927-32) and the Cenotaph itself in Whitehall (1919-20).
The exhibition includes a vast array of Max’s work over the years including more decorative transport maps such as the Peter-Pan Map of Kensington Gardens of 1923, the Country Bus Services Map of 1928 and Max’s 1920 design for a pocket tube map which for the first time had no topographical or surface detail. But the show also demonstrates his breadth of skills including completed house projects, book covers, paintings for the transatlantic liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and designs for tapestries in South Africa House and Coventry’s 14th century Guildhall. The Coventry tapestries actually disappeared in the early ’80s but were found, thanks to Caroline Walker and Angela Johnston’s endeavours, perfectly preserved and stored in the nearby Herbert Art Gallery.
Max’s design for the Empire Marketing Board map poster of 1926-27 – Highways of Empire – was the largest ever produced for a street hoarding, measuring 20 by 10 feet, so large in fact that it stopped the traffic in the Charing Cross Road when it went up on New Year’s Day 1927.
Finally, there is a more intimate room which includes Max’s baby shoes, his schoolboy drawings of the trains which ran at the bottom of his garden on the London-Brighton line, and a diary noting the death of his beloved sister Cicely, aged only twelve.
Max married his first wife, Muriel Bennett, a vicar’s daughter, in 1915 “on the rebound,” as Caroline Walker says. “They’d had a relationship since about 1902/3 but he’d had a number of other relationships in between. And when one of these finished in November 1914, within a few days he was writing to Muriel again and within a couple of months they were engaged. He was working down in Dorset, he was lonely, he wanted a companion and he could see his friends getting married and having children.”
Max was always in demand and rarely turned down a commission, particularly as he had large overheads. All three children were at boarding school, he had designed and built his own house and was a member of many groups and societies, each with a hefty subscription but which he judged important for his career. However, the combined stress of running a constant overdraft and Muriel’s dislike of their new home, added to Max’s worries and his unhappiness with the marriage.
In 1931, Priscilla Johnston, the daughter of Max’s former tutor Edward Johnston and Max’s own goddaughter, paid a surprise visit with a friend to the Gill family home in West Wittering, Sussex. Angela Johnston has studied Priscilla’s diaries closely from this time and describes her as ‘an attractive and confident young woman of 21[who] became fascinated by Max’s work and his elusive personality.” She was also already the author of two published novels. Max was by now spending more and more time at his London studio, away from a wife who had no interest in or sympathy for his work, unlike his artistic and literary-minded goddaughter. Max and Priscilla next met in January 1933 at a talk in London given by Eric Gill. Despite the 26-year age gap between them they fell in love, and in 1938, Max separated from Muriel who was devastated and refused him a divorce. Max and Priscilla eventually set up home together in a cottage near Midhurst, west Sussex but it was not until 1945 that Muriel finally divorced Max and he married Priscilla in May 1946.
These were happy times for them both and Priscilla kept a diary of their life together. She describes him at work – “the real thrill was to watch him doing it in an old green smock with a pipe gripped between his teeth, horn-rimmed glasses and one small vertical line between his eyebrows, revealing a complete and serene concentration” and there are scenes familiar to any married couple: “When I got into bed with him at night I sighed and relaxed and curled up against him contentedly and I said ‘Being in bed with you is my favourite thing.’ He said ‘My favourite thing is custard.’ ”
But their life together was cut short. Max, like his brother Eric, had always been a heavy smoker and he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 1946, dying just months later in January 1947. He was buried in Streat churchyard, his grave overlooking the Sussex Downs of his childhood.
Priscilla was later to write: “When he was sick I sat behind him and held him in my arms and he said ‘it’s all right because you’re there.’ I would have been there for ever if it could have made it all right.”
“Gill’s work was commissioned almost exclusively commercially which may in part account for his relative obscurity,” explains Claire Dobbin, “although his creations were no less original or influential because of it….His many masterpieces may have served the specific requirements of businessmen, the Church, government agencies and private individuals, but their art was his own.”
Now there is a determination that Max’s life work should be seen for the remarkable achievement it is. Thanks to the efforts of his admirers, this immensely talented yet deeply modest man can finally take his place in the light.
Official MacDonald Gill site: http://www.macdonaldgill.com/home
Frank Pick’s London is due to be published on 4 November 2013 by V&A Publishing: http://www.vandashop.com/Frank-Picks-London-Hardback/dp/1851777571
Out of the Shadows was first hosted at the University of Brighton in 2011 when a symposium took place on the life and work of MacDonald Gill. More information can be found here: http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/collections/design-archives/projects/digital-resource
THE DISCOVERY OF PARIS
Before the Impressionists, relatively few artists bothered painting urban views of Paris – except for the British, that is. They were charmed by picturesque streets, some dating from the Medieval period, the grand buildings by the Seine, and the lively, bustling atmosphere. However, even then sanitation was a cause of complaint as a wonderful new exhibition at London’s Wallace Collection reveals.
Although the French had depicted their capital city to some extent prior to the advent of the British in the nineteenth century, there were very few pictures of quality, certainly none to match the beauty of the city itself. It was the generation of Turner and his contemporaries who initiated a genre which was then taken up by many artists of all nationalities in later years. As curator Stephen Duffy writes in the catalogue: “It is doubtful if, before the nineteenth century, Paris as a subject for view painting had been of such interest to artists as it was to the British in the two decades after Waterloo, and certainly never before had it been depicted by so many painters of such high standing in their own country.” Indeed, the exhibition features four artists who were or were to become RAs, two ARAs and other artists such as Girtin, Bonington and Cox who were judged to be highly important by their fellow artists and critics.
The exhibition itself is entirely loaned, all 60 watercolours, preparatory drawings and prints. This may seem strange given the artistic sensibilities and acquisitive tastes of the 4th Marquess of Hertford – whose collection formed the basis of the Wallace Collection itself – and his son, Sir Richard Wallace. Both men spent most of their lives in Paris and it was perhaps too familiar a locale to be of interest to them as collectors. In addition, many of the works displayed were not aimed at private collectors but were used as book illustrations, feeding the burgeoning tourist industry that began after the fall of Napoleon.
Perhaps another reason why artists did not paint Paris more often prior to the nineteenth century was that it had too much pictorial competition. It was seen primarily as a staging post for young men about to embark on the Grand Tour and the sites of Classical and Renaissance Italy. It offered neither the views of Venice nor the light and sights of Rome, and for the British in particular, its weather and atmosphere were not markedly different from that found in London.
That view changed, however, with the short-lived Peace of Amiens of 1802-03. Britain had signed a treaty with France which temporarily ended hostilities between the two powers and thousands of well-heeled and influential British visitors took advantage of this to marvel at a great exhibition of French products at the Louvre (plus art works looted by Napoleon during his wars) and, in the case of Wordsworth, walk the boulevards with his illegitimate daughter Caroline, whom he had never seen before. Turner was also an interested visitor, filling a sketch book with drawings which were later turned into lucrative engravings. Indeed as Stephen Duffy states, “if it had not been for the demand for book illustrations, driven partly by the interests of tourists to the city, Paris would probably have registered very little on the consciousness of British watercolourists.”
British visitors were constantly struck by the fact that Paris retained so much of its Medieval flavour. For example, even in the early part of the nineteenth century, the French capital was still a closed city with fortified gates and customs posts. The famous French post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau was called le douanier, the customs officer, because for many years he worked at a customs post collecting taxes on goods brought into the city. These gates and post were a constant fascination for the British artists and featured prominently in their work.
While the early British tourists swooned in wonder at the grand Parisian boulevards and impressive state monuments and government buildings, they found domestic housing less to their taste (we are only talking here of comparing stately town houses) and a general comparison was frequently made of London being a huge commercial and industrial metropolis whereas Paris, smaller in scale, concentrated its energy on fashion and food, with pleasure the principal aim.
One Medieval legacy which found less favour with the British were the less-than-quaint sanitary arrangements. “Hazlitt complained,” writes Stephen Duffy, “that ‘in winter, you are splashed all over with the mud; in summer, you are knocked down with the smells’ and for Bonington, a long-term resident, it was ‘this city of mud and dirtiness’. The channels in the middle of many streets for rain and effluent were the subject of particular complaint – ‘a monstrous barbarism’, according to Fanny Trollope, ‘expressly formed for the reception of filth, which is still permitted to deform the greater portion of this beautiful city’. Their prominence in some watercolours by British artists is perhaps surprising, but they were certainly regarded as quintessentially Parisian until they were nearly all replaced in mid-century by new sewers and side gutters.”
The British watercolourists largely concentrated their attentions on the Seine itself and the magnificent buildings such as the Louvre which bordered it. The Left Bank was largely avoided with the exceptions of the Panthéon and the church of Saint-Sulpice. The typical British traveller was also likely to take in an abattoir, a prison and even the city mortuary on their visit. Tourism was then very much seen as including an element of moral and intellectual uplift and a study of such sites was viewed as essential to a better understanding of French social practices. Ever the romantic, Thomas Hardy actually took his first wife Emma Gifford to the Paris mortuary where he viewed several dead bodies. His new wife found the scene ‘repulsive’ and it is perhaps not surprising the marriage was not a happy one.
While on the subject of necrolatry, Père Lachaise Cemetery was a favourite with British visitors. Opened in 1804, it was set away from the city for reasons of health and propriety, a model which was later copied by many Victorian cemetery builders in Britain. Yet for many visitors it was an integral part of their tour, as Stephen Duffy explains: “Marianne Baillie, a poet as well as a travel writer, thought that, together with the Louvre and ‘one or two other interesting spectacles’, it was the only thing worth seeing in the city… In part the appeal of the cemetery was a reflection of the widespread interest in matters of social economy – the health benefits of locating it away from the centre of the city were immediately understood by foreign visitors…But its popularity was also due to the views of Paris which were possible from its hilltop setting and the opportunities for poetic and philosophical ruminations on death and mortality which were offered by its location and its elaborate monuments.”
The great flowering of British watercolours of Paris occurred between Bonington painting his last views in 1828 and the return of Thomas Shotter Boys – an undoubted star of this show – to London in 1837. By then, many more people had been able to see the great Parisian sites for themselves and the novelty of European views in general had dissipated. Watercolour had long been associated with city views and its perceived decline as a medium by the mid-nineteenth century brought its urban subject matter down with it. Photography had arrived and became a wonder of the Victorian age. It seemed more real and immediate and it was not until the Impressionists later in the century that Paris again became a subject worthy of artistic portrayal, although by then it was a very different city from that depicted by the watercolourists.
Having become industrialised and with much of its ancient streets and buildings swept away by Haussmann’s great rebuilding of the 1860s and the devastation wrought by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, old Paris had gone forever.
What is most fascinating about this exhibition, however, is to be able to see Paris as it appeared in the decades of the early nineteenth century and as it had appeared for many centuries before that with very little change.. The show offers us a glimpse of a world which would otherwise be lost for ever and which can now only be seen through the medium of art.
DAVID INSHAW – A TRUE ROMANTIC
The artist David Inshaw has been described as ‘perhaps the greatest living proponent of the English Romantic tradition’ in direct line of descent from Blake, Palmer, Spencer and Nash and it is somehow fitting that I am writing this on St George’s day as no other current artist seems able to express the essence of Englishness as he does.
His latest show is at London’s Fine Art Society, held to celebrate the artist’s 70th birthday this March, and the gallery is keen to stress that this is not just a retrospective as it also contains new work made expressly for the exhibition. It has been curated by the eminent art historian Robert Upstone, for 23 years Curator of Modern British Art at the Tate, who have lent Inshaw’s most famous work – The Badminton Game (1972-73).
This is the picture that brought Inshaw to public attention after it was displayed at the ICA Summer Studio show in 1973 and it is a good place to start viewing his work in the gallery. It shows two young women playing badminton in the garden of an imposing, Georgian red-brick house. All the elements in the painting existed near Inshaw’s own house in Devizes, but the artist has described how he changed them “in order to increase the mystery and wonder I felt all around me in this magic place.”
Inshaw was in love with both the women at the time and says he only realised in retrospect the phallic implications of the topiary in the background. He has since stated, “it’s a very hopeful picture and only slightly disquieting because I was discovering all about Wiltshire (but not so much about women).”
His process was to dress the girls in then-fashionable Biba clothes, photograph them and use these shots to produce drawings for the final work. He used extremely fine sable-hair brushes and the viewer can almost make out individual leaves, so precise was his eye. And, as Upstone points out, for a short period of time the pubic will be able to get very close to the canvas and study the artist’s technique in detail.
Michael Palin is a fan. Writing in the catalogue foreword he says: “It was The Badminton Game that did it for me. I was a big fan of Magritte at the time and here he was in an English country garden. There was something very satisfying about the way the elements of the painting – the trees, the house, the hedge – were all crisply outlined and grouped together like pieces on a board game.”
Inshaw has himself said that his main aim “was to produce a picture that held a moment in time, but unlike a photograph, which only records an event. I thought a painting could give a more universal deeper meaning to that moment, by composing one instant from a lot of different unrelated moments.”
However, this is not just Magritte in a Wiltshire garden but a Renaissance master is present as well. One of the principal influences for this work came from an early Italian panel Inshaw had always admired in London’s National Gallery, The Combat of Love and Chastity (probably 1475-97) by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1444/5-1497).
“It has,” Inshaw recalled, “the quality I was seeking to bring to my own work. It is the moment held in time, as if you are aware of before and after, as if a film had stopped on a single frame, and you are aware, in that instant, of the emotion of all time. This is very difficult to explain. It’s what I still try to do now, because I think it is everything in painting pictures, and I look for it always. To isolate in time and space things that would normally disappear under the awful impact of other values. I wanted to pin down a moment, make it go on living, I wanted to be particular and yet general. I wanted to be excessive and yet modest. I wanted the picture to contain all my feelings and thoughts, happy thoughts as well as sad, full of waking dreams and erotic fancies. I wanted the painting to be of this world and of the world of daydreams.”
Inshaw still lives in Devizes and finds his inspiration in the local landscape and that of neighbouring Dorset, birthplace of Thomas Hardy, who has also been a great influence on his work. “I loved the way Hardy used landscape as a way of expressing human emotion,” he says, “and Hardy’s dictum that ‘the beauty of association is far superior to the beauty of aspect.’ You can find beauty almost anywhere really but if you have an association with a place or a person the beauty is increased.”
Inshaw’s landscapes are magical places, seeming to symbolise the power of the earth, with its unchanging elemental forces which resist the passing of time, unlike man. Oak Tree, a recent work on show dating from 2011, depicts a giant tree hit by lightning, its upper branches already white from earlier strikes but still proudly standing. The artist has previously said that he feels “happy surrounded by trees, trees inspire me very much and fill me with wonder.” This giant oak also seems to signify indomitable strength through the ages, rooted firmly as it is in English soil, a symbol of permanence while all else fades and dies.
Inshaw also tackles the inevitability of death by portraying women, symbols of creation and fertility since ancient times. And what women. Rosie shows a naked girl in all her glory, standing before an open window, a city view behind her. The moon, another common Inshaw image and a Roman symbol of fertility, rises above her left breast. She stands arms akimbo, confident, fully in control, the viewer perhaps slightly daunted by her relaxed gaze and posture.
In his book on the artist, the critic Andrew Lambirth has described Inshaw’s female nudes as “naughty and voluptuous, well aware of their sexuality. Provocative but decorous…they are very much of the here and now, unidealised and prepossessing.” Inshaw himself explains how they are the intersection of many things— “allegory, eroticism, ideal; but also reality.”
Many of Inshaw’s paintings also portray fireworks and bonfires, not easy to paint, as Robert Upstone points out, and which, as he writes in the exhibition catalogue, “contain the awe and magic of our own childhood experience of Guy Fawkes’ night and the deeper primal human response to the elemental sensation of fire and darkness.
“More formally, flames and the night are an extremely challenging subject for an artist to paint, and Inshaw successfully pulls it off with a convincing record of the impression of how such things look and feel.”
Yet here again there is a highly personal subtext because the artist has written previously that his first amorous encounters occurred on bonfire night, so landscape and symbolism combine once more in an (almost!) virtuous circle of meaning.
Miss Campbell’s Shoes (2012) are exactly that, a pair of no-doubt highly-desirable Maud Frizon high heels. However, Michael Palin’s Magritte reference is once again pertinent as the image recalls the Belgian artist’s work of 1935, Le modèle rouge with its human feet morphing into a pair of lace-up boots. Inshaw’s imagery is far more gentle and again there is a sensuous, faintly erotic element, although more playful in style.
Had I the money I would be buying the likes of Oak Tree and West Wood (2010), (pictured on my Home page), the latter a far more subtle and controlled portrayal of a woodland scene than Hockney’s overblown and garish attempts at a similar subject in last year’s Royal Academy show.
There is also Coast Path, Dorset of 2012, in which Inshaw takes another seemingly prosaic subject, a finger post on the coastal walk, yet invests it with an intense clarity, as if discovering the sublime in the everyday. But if I could select any one work, it would be the understated yet beguiling Coast Guard Station, St Ives (2012). Sat two-foot square, it contains a wealth of detail about a commonplace building, its structure half-hidden behind a grassy mound, the Union Jack fluttering above its roof. It has a timeless air and a mysterious charm.
Since David Inshaw moved to the countryside in the 1970s, his style of working, including the physical way he paints and the brushes he uses, has altered. But his thematic approach has never wavered. Hardy possessed a fatalistic outlook about the evanescent human condition and our inevitable demise, yet Inshaw is, in his own way, displaying his love of life and raging, albeit quietly and in an understated English manner, against the dying of the light.
CANDIDA HÖFER – A RETURN TO ITALY For the past two years, German photographer Candida Höfer has been shooting the interiors of public buildings in northern Italy and ten of these works are currently on display at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London. Höfer visited Mantua, Venice, Sabbioneta, Vicenza and Carpi in a continuation of her previous studies of architectural treasures of central and southern Italy. She photographs the interiors of palaces, opera houses, libraries and theatres, with an eye for the smallest detail and an intense clarity. Yet people are absent from her photos. They reveal the sumptuous interior of a Renaissance palace or the sweeping colonnades of a theatre, but always empty, with no action or activity of any kind. In this way, they oddly resemble the work of the British studio of Bedford Lemere. Founded in the Victorian era, the firm specialised in shooting the interiors of great country houses and town mansions, obviously in black and white, unlike Höfer’s own stunning colour photography, but again always devoid of people, so emphasising the spaces themselves.
There is undoubtedly something atmospheric and mysterious about large, empty interiors, especially when they are so sumptuous and architecturally magnificent. There is a mood here which was also captured in Resnais’ L’Anée dernière à Marienbad, where the camera tracks endlessly through empty corridors and rooms, leaving an almost dream-like impression. Höfer herself came to photograph empty spaces after spending around a decade taking pictures of Turkish immigrant workers and their families in Cologne and Düsseldorf, yet, as she explained in a recent interview, it was this invasion of people’s space which led her to her later architectural studies. “I felt uncomfortable disturbing people, making them an object of my photographic work…Also it showed me how important spaces were in which people lived, worked, went to shop, passed their free time. This then brought me to spaces.”
Höfer progressed from smaller public areas such as railway station waiting rooms to the grand spaces she pictures today, each with an imposing sense of gravitas but which at the same time speak of entertainment, enjoyment, erudition and the natural human hunger for knowledge and self-improvement. These are not sad or depressing photographs. Höfer herself says that she seeks a sense of what the Germans call stimmig – “that the image has a sort of balance in itself” – and this she conveys by the angle she uses, straight on and sometimes from a slightly elevated position in order, she says, “to share the character of the space as comprehensively as possible with the viewer.” The photographs themselves sit grandly on the gallery walls, some as big as six feet by six, and this is necessary in order to study them in all their fine detail. A highly recommended exhibition. http://www.benbrownfinearts.com/exhibitions/65/overview/ http://www.benbrownfinearts.com/artists/34/publications/