Both Marina Vaizey and Edward Chaney have reminded me of the writings of William Gaunt. As a teenager, I remember reading his books about Victorian art, particularly The Aesthetic Adventure, which was a pioneering and extremely well written account of the aesthetic movement, and Victorian Olympus about Victorian classicism, both written at a time when Victorian art was still deeply unfashionable. He was, as Marina has pointed out, representative of an era when studies of British art were written by men of letters, rather than academics. Gaunt was the child of a chromolithographer, fought in the first world war, and then studied modern history at Oxford where he was a friend of Cyril Connolly and John Rothenstein. He then went to the Ruskin and worked as a freelance artist. Unlike Whitley, he doesn’t get an entry in DNB, presumably because he was an amateur.
I have been at a workshop held by the Paul Mellon Centre on the history of the Summer Exhibition. What was clear is how important it has been to the history of British art: a place for professionals and amateurs to show work from the first exhibition in April 1769 (and presumably to sell it, although the mechanism for sales in its early years is unclear); also, the first place where architecture was exhibited, possibly in Europe, as an art form instead of a trade. Landscape was exhibited as a genre from the beginning and the work of women artists, with up to 10% by 180o. Only sculpture was relatively neglected, with no space for it to be displayed until Flaxman was elected as Professor of Sculpture in 1810 and the Model Academy was set aside for sculpture in 1811.
The move of the Academy to its new building next to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square in 1837 may have made it possible to show larger and more monumental paintings in juxtaposition with the Old Masters next door, as well as having a larger dedicated room for sculpture (I think on the ground floor behind the entrance staircase). Continue reading
I have always wanted to know more about William Whitley, a pioneer historian of British art, whose book Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799 is often written off as antiquarian because it is so obviously based on primary sources, but not footnoted because he wanted to be cited, rather than the original from which he drew his information (there is apparently a footnoted copy of the book amongst his papers in the British Museum). I have discovered that he trained as a painter, submitted works to the Royal Academy, and only later turned to writing about British art, publishing a biography of Gainsborough in 1915 and his series of books about British art in the late 1920s, when he was in his seventies. He was awarded a pension, but died destitute in Farnborough.
Occasionally, I am an unabashed tourist as when tonight, after the private view of Antony Gormley’s new exhibition, where I was not allowed to take photographs, I walked across Tower Bridge and saw the whole city laid out in front of me, with every light blazing from the Shard to the Walkie Talkie:-
I have just been to the launch of James Stourton’s biography of Kenneth Clark. I was told by someone who had read the published version (I only read an early draft) that his great achievement was to convert a view of Clark from being arrogant to being shy; but the answer surely is that he was both – a classic Wykehamist, knowedgeable, intelligent, bookish and oddly diffident.
I went to a pre-preview of Tony Cragg’s exhibition at the Lisson Gallery: full of grand, sensuous and organic forms in beautiful materials hovering in the space between the mechanical and the vegetal, what Cragg calls ‘threatening energy’.
Nicholas Logsdail spoke about how he had first met Cragg. When he was having his car fixed in Uxbridge, he went to visit an exhibition Cragg had organised at Brunel University while still a student at the Royal College of Art. His first exhibition at the Lisson Gallery was held in 1979 and he helped Logsdail make the transition from the minimalism and conceptualism of the 1970s, as represented by Richard Long, Donald Judd and Carl André, to showing a new generation of young sculptors:-
We just had an event to celebrate the loan of Blue Poles by the Trustees of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, an act of extraordinary generosity because it is such a key work in their collection. David Anfam spoke brilliantly about its importance to any understanding of Pollock’s career and scotched the various myths surrounding its creation – that it was painted in a single night when in fact it was painted over three months, that Barnett Newman painted the poles when he was nowhere in the vicinity, and that the painting incorporates Lee Krasner’s blood when no blood has been discovered in its conservation.
I went to hear Yinka Shonibare discuss the new exhibition of his work with Duro Olowu at the Stephen Friedman Gallery just along the road from his Royal Academy wrap. He did so extraordinarily knowledgeably and thoughtfully – about the influence of postmodern theory, the need to preserve time in his life for looking at the sky (he only works at his studio three afternoons a week), his interest in pattern and fabric, and his knowledge of, and interest in, different languages, including yoruba:-
I was asked last night about the origin of the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’. I knew the straightforward answer to the question, that it was first used in 1946 by Robert Coates to describe the work of Hans Hofmann. But I couldn’t answer the second question. Who was Robert Coates ? Peter Mayer, who republished some of his experimental fiction, knew the answer. He was the ballet critic for the New Yorker, a protégé of Gertrude Stein and author of books, now not much read, including The Eater of Darkness (1926) and The Outlaw Years (1930). He described the works of Jackson Pollock as ‘mere unorganized explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless’.
Writing about the misericords in St. Katharine’s made me want to know more about M.D. Anderson, who published a King Penguin on misericords, following her earlier Animal Carvings in English Churches. In looking her up, I saw her wrongly described as a man. In fact, she was the daughter of a Master of Caius and married Trenchard Cox, who succeeded the alcoholic Leigh Ashton as Director of the V&A in 1955, supposedly only to keep the seat warm for John Pope-Hennessy, who patronised him. There must be people who remember her, as well as Cox, who according to his obituary, resembled Lewis Carroll’s Dormouse. Maybe she was similarly self-effacing.