Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Lewis’s magisterial line

A pity, I feel, when a public gallery crowds out its walls with Victorian junk when it might fill them twice over with wonderful 20th century art that is never or rarely put on show. A good job, then, that a display of drawings from local schools at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (some excellent) gives a pretext to sprinkle in some gems from the vaults that would otherwise never see the light of day.

Including this modest but magisterial pen drawing by Wyndham Lewis, a portrait of Bernard Rowland done in 1921. (Click to enlarge.) I didn’t know that Wolverhampton even had this. The drawing is number 475 in Michel’s catalogue, and came from the Mayor Gallery, London. Lewis’s biographer Paul O’Keeffe mentions that Lewis, then homeless, stopped temporarily with Rowland, a friend, when he parted from Iris Barry in 1921, so this could have been done as a thank you gift and keepsake. Rowland may perhaps have been the fabric designer of that name, though that’s just a guess.

bernard-rowland

Lewis was at the peak of his graphic and observational powers at this period. Each arc here just sings with the confidence of its liberty, all conspiring to lead the eye to the exquisite construction of U’s and V’s forming the upper lip that provides a fulcrum to the image, and this despite (or because of) the prominent pentimento running down the nose and across the mouth, which somehow seems entirely right and necessary, echoing lines of cheek and jaw. And just look at the play-off between the eyes! I could go on.

Sorry about the reflections. I dare say I shouldn’t have taken a photo anyway.

Mercurial optimism in Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton, excuse me for saying so, seems like a city of lost souls these days, and to mark this, much of Wolverhampton Gallery is under builders’ sheets at the moment. Of what was on show today, I couldn’t manage long in David Ward’s desperately quietist (yawn) exhibition “In a Landscape”, but I did enjoy the room of Big Ceramics, though it served to remind me that the Wolverhampton school where I worked till a couple of years ago celebrated my departure by ripping out our ceramics kilns and the whole clay area in order to create a reception desk. Ceramics being too low a material, too grubby on the fingers, to be “innovative” enough for the Design Technology suits anxious to keep Art within limits they could handle.

mercury
Wolverhampton has a lost history of voluminous sculpting, as exemplified by Robert J Emerson’s Mercury frieze on the Express & Star building, which hailed me in passing, camera in hand, on my way back to the bus station. This cracking piece of Blakean muscular deco was done in 1934 for the opening of the newspaper’s new premises. Emerson was close to the editor, and had even had a studio on the site. According to one source, a local doctor’s son was the model (blimey, steady on ladies), and the piece is not carved but actually cast in reconstituted “Vinculum” stone. Now there’s an innovative technology for you.

The beckoning forefinger risks misinterpretation these days, and I feel that Emerson might have compensated for the foreshortened view from street level by stretching the legs, but otherwise it all works pretty well. He managed to avoid Epstein-type controversy by inserting a teeny fig leaf, and as far as I know, no fundamentalist Christians have yet objected to his inclusion of a pentagram.

Though the Express & Star, I have to say, is now well beyond its years of greatness and a poor excuse for a newspaper.

While sat in the Gallery café I spent a while making notes towards a review of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel on Louise Michel, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. The problem terms here, of course, are “vision” and “utopia”. If we wished to disable radicalism one sure means would be to invest it in a utopian vision, and to confine that vision in the cultural game reserve of comic books. Is Emerson’s god of communications a utopian image? For sure, it’s brazenly optimistic, and as historical utopias of both left and right are reduced to a residue of steampunk gameplay, such public optimism looks rather out of kilter in today’s Wolverhampton.

Moppets, muffets and the perpetuation of Penelope Boothby

“… kitsch is the distorted copy, or brilliant shadow, of a unique original that it transforms while replicating … Deprived of supernatural immunity, the shaken-down aura falls prey to the vicissitudes of earth bound things: it can be touched, traded, copied and tampered with; it is but a fragment of its former existence. It is kitsch.”

(Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience.)

In among all the Georgian and Victorian lumber, sorry – legacy, on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, there is at least a good big Fuseli. Meaning Henry Fuseli, painter of extremes, connoisseur of fetishistic coiffures and prolific purveyor of mad stuff to the gentry of the Enlightenment.

It’s not Fuseli’s finest moment by a long chalk, but any Fuseli is better than none, and this one has particular interest for its part within a cultural narrative of tragedy, morbidity and sentiment that takes us from the Age of Reason to the Age of Kitsch and beyond …

Sir Brooke Boothby, Bart (1744-1824), was very much Enlightenment Man – landowner, poet, Lichfield intellectual and a mate of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here is the Nature Boy himself, as portrayed by Joseph Wright of Derby, pretending to browse Rousseau and looking natty but philosophical in a sylvan setting – both noble and savage, in fact. (Is it just me, or is this one of the most absurd images ever conveyed to canvas?)

But Nature turned very savage on Sir Brooke when in 1791 his only child Penelope died at the age of five, a tragedy from which he never recovered. His wife left to live permanently with her parents, he neglected his estate and his financial situation went into terminal decline. He died in Boulogne as a genteel but impoverished ex-pat.

Boothby’s grief was inconsolable, and Reason succumbed to Sensibility’s iron grip. In 1796 he published a collection of 24 sonnets, Sorrows: Sacred to the Memory of Penelope, more notable for the intensity of their emotion than for the quality of the verse. He commissioned from Fuseli the painting now at Wolverhampton, and from the sculptor Thomas Banks (a member of the “Fuseli circle” in 1770’s Rome) a marble memorial which was installed in St Oswald’s church in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Its plinth is inscribed, heart-breakingly: “She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate parents ventured their all on this frail bark. And the wreck was total.” Boothby is said to have interrupted Banks’ carving of the effigy frequently, sitting weeping in his studio.

Fuseli’s The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby shows the dead girl’s spirit hoisted skywards by an angelic figure towards a non-specific, Deist eternity. As her father versified it:

Lo, the mild angel to receive her bends!
From the dark disk of this terraqueous ball,
The spotless shade to her own heaven ascends.
The towering Day-star, smiling points the way
To glorious regions, bright with cloudless ray!

The angel’s wings do not fit accurately on her back, the five year old is presented unconvincingly as a species of miniaturised adult, the broken urn and butterfly at the base are pedestrian, and the puckish features of the cherubic “Day-star”, though typically Fuseli, strike the wrong note here. On the credit side, Fuseli breaks all the rules by using a risky vertical composition similar to his ground-breaking The Death of Dido of ten years earlier, successfully relying on dramatic and technically demanding foreshortening. But the toning down for the occasion of Fuseli’s normal theatrical strenuosity has drained the work of conviction. The painter of a thousand bloody murders was unable to visualise effectively the death of a small child.

Hugely more successful was Banks’ sculpture, in which the life sized figure, beautifully carved with remarkable virtuosity, appears to be sleeping. It combines romantic sensibility with a quite modern directness, and notoriously affects visitors to the church even today. (A later lithograph fails outrageously to do it justice. As it happens, the theme of dead daughters, a little disturbingly, is continued in St Oswald’s by a fine window of 1905 by stained glass artist Christopher Whall, in late Arts and Crafts style, commemorating the three young Turnbull sisters, killed in a fire.)

An engraving of Fuseli’s Apotheosis and an image of Banks’ sculpture were bound into Boothby’s Sorrows. Also reproduced there was an existing portrait of Penelope, aged four, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This was most definitely not Sir Sloshua’s sharpest effort: the child’s face does not sit well within her curls, nor her head on her shoulders. The hands are almost entirely hidden and the legs buried under a shapeless lump of frock. Even so, this modest little portrait came to take on a life of its own that even Sir Brooke could not have anticipated.

Recycled and commodified through numerous print versions, the image seems to have acquired and accumulated a new currency through the Victorian period. It may have merged in the public mind with similar (though superior) Reynolds portraits of little girls – Simplicity and Innocence – and seems sometimes to have been known popularly as “The Mob-cap”.

     
     

It clearly had recognised potency as an icon of sentimentalised innocence when Lewis Carroll used it in the late 1870’s as a point of reference for photographs of Xie Kitchin (pronounced Exie, and short for Alexandra), a “young friend” whom he photographed repeatedly – obsessively, even – throughout her childhood years in assorted costumes. In the “Boothby” poses the sitter is specifically described as impersonating Penelope; the costume is a little approximate, but the mob-cap and gloves are clearly the identifying features.

Even when they don’t topple over, Carroll’s photos of children always wobble on the edge of uncomfortable. On this occasion, there is, thankfully, nothing even subliminally sexualised; Miss Kitchin merely looks well bored with the repeated indignity of posing in stupid costumes for this annoying family friend, though by virtue of the situation Carroll exercises a degree of fantasised ownership that we would certainly want to question. But did he use the Boothby reference with full conscious knowledge of the premature death of the original Penelope? That would add a whole extra layer of creepy oddness … Propping up a dead family member for a “post-mortem” photograph was a common Victorian practice, as documented on numerous websites.

But in any case, distance alone was enough to grant the image a measure of morbidity. The Victorian era, that age of mourning, multiplied and commodified memories as souvenirs at the same time as a “progressive” sense of discontinuity with the past redefined all its inhabitants as separate in their deadness. Divorced from actual, personal grief, such an image of “Penelope Boothby” embodied, as a false or appropriated memory, as a kitsch object, a thinned and generalised version of that sentiment.

Carroll was not the only Victorian retailer of images of childhood who was alert to the value of this one, and shortly afterwards in 1879 it was cleverly recycled by John Everett Millais, who had long since sold out on his earlier Pre-Raphaelite values. He had already used the mob-cap and gloves in his Early Days of 1873, which kept something of the matter-of-factness of the original. This time Millais retained and amplified the core values of the image, while astutely addressing the limitations of the Reynolds by unfolding the legs, feet and gloved forearms. He also replaced the open and direct gaze of the original with a subtly downcast coyness, which has, to my mind, an unpleasant hint of adult guilt and guile. Millais plonked the child on a log next to a few cherries and titled the finished article Cherry Ripe. He was onto a winner here, and the image achieved popularity alongside Bubbles on merchandising for Pear’s Soap, where it presumably served within the Victorian mind-set as a signifier of purity.

     
   

A few years later Millais cranked out a Little Miss Muffet, in which the child wears a bonnet rather than a mob-cap. But at this point a strange conflation seems to have occurred, with the majority of stock images of Ms Muffet thereafter featuring mob-caps and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Penelope Boothby and/or Cherry Ripe. Many still do, over a century on, and in the fancy dress trade, a mob-cap is known today as a “muffet hat”. (As Google-image will bear out, this is even true of some of today’s mildly pornographised adult-ironic costume versions, which serve to reinforce the disturbing notion that there is something sexy about a frightened girl. But this may be as far as we want to go in that direction …)

   

There is an uncanny appropriateness about the conflation of Penelope Boothby and Miss Muffet, given that the spider – unexpected, dark, descending, perceived as deadly – is a clear symbol of sudden death. In a thousand modern nursery rhyme images, mob-capped shades of Penelope confront the announcement of their imminent decease; this moment of knowing, perpetually re-lived, confirms with hindsight the invisible but tragic irony of Reynolds’ original image. And yet, in an extraordinary kind of inversion, this happened precisely at the historical point where the original Boothby identity, mediated via Millais, became lost to public awareness. It is as if the image of the dead child has taken on a life of its own, one of purely private self-awareness concealed within a public, but ignorant, visibility. Or rather as if the unbearable truth could only be released within the unconscious life of the image.

Meanwhile, hovering above the minimalist furnishings of phantom penthouses in digitally generated mock-ups on Chinese “custom oil painting” websites, Penelope Boothby continues to replicate herself, a revenante exiled in a post-modern afterlife of diminishing quality, perpetually in search of new meaning.

     
   

Harry vs Gary: difference and indifference at Wolverhampton Gallery

A telling juxtaposition currently at Wolverhampton Art Gallery: downstairs, by municipal beneficence, a modest display of etchings and banknote designs by Coseley boy Harry Eccleston OBE (died 2010); upstairs, by Arts Council munificence, yards of giant paintings by Saatchi boy Gary Hume, YBA, RA and bar. (Brief write-ups on the Gallery website, but – as usual – no pics to speak of.)

Hume’s-eye view of a hermaphrodite polar bear. Hilarious.

Pardon me if I’m succumbing to age-related Victor-Meldrew-ish bafflement, but what’s the big deal about Gary Hume? I don’t believe it. Humungous pieces that can’t justify their scale, hastily walloped in household gloss with random, reductionist, pointless little jokes that might just about look appropriate on a quirky greetings card. But only on a greetings card. Hume has famously described himself as “indifferent”. Quite so. But then, indifference provokes indifference. (Though upstairs, there’s also a room of bits and bobs chosen by him from the Gallery collections. These are way more intriguing. He has chosen well. He may be cynical, but he’s not daft.)

It took me two minutes to take in the Hume room (a few nanoseconds per painting is all they are calculated to require), but I lost track of time in the Eccleston corner. Apart from the banknote bits (you’ll recognise his version of Her Maj), there are smoky etchings of Black Country blast furnaces, Sickert-inspired interiors of the Theatre Royal in Bilston, and – best of all – some wonderfully stark, stately, rhythmic prints of industrial structures – entirely observational, but, in their selection of forms, entirely informed by post-war hard edged abstraction. (Like wandering into a landscape constructed by Franz Kline.) Eccleston’s studies of power cables and insulators come across like graphic music scores. Admittedly, everything here is retro-industrial, technical, black and white, introverted, very small scale, and frighteningly obsessive. But inside the anal-retentive designer, you can sense an expansive artist struggling to burst his skin. If only he had broken free and gone on to work on the scale of Gary Hume … But it was against his nature, I suppose.

An Eccleston view of Caponfield Steel Works

The pairing of Hume and Eccleston says an awful lot about our era. Not just about the impoverishing influence of Charles Saatchi, but more broadly about the impoverished condition of capitalism. An important difference may be to do with integrity. In Eccleston’s banknotes the standing of the currency of the realm is stated in gravure and with gravity. Whereas a Hume abstract would look undemandingly in place on that big bare wall in the Barclays boardroom. In fact, there’s probably one hanging there already. If not, they can still afford it.

A bit more of Annesley Tittensor

Some new material added to the page on the neglected but highly talented Wolverhampton sculptor Annesley (Andy) Tittensor, from a scrapbook archived at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. (Scroll down to the lower half.) Many thanks to his daughter Rose for spotting this and pointing it out to me.

The invisible sculpture of Annesley Tittensor

Wolverhampton Art Gallery currently has a semi-permanent exhibition (till January 2012) of work by luminaries of the Wolverhampton School of Art in its various incarnations between 1850 and 1970. The prevailing feel, as is only to be expected, is competent, distinguished, but bland, and until we get to one or two of the most recent items it’s hard to detect any impact of Modernism. In the 3-D, the dominant feel is that of establishment sculptor Sir Charles Wheeler, alleviated a little by the slightly Deco classicism of Robert Jackson Emerson. All a bit Royal Academy. But then there’s this –

Dharana (in yoga, a state of concentration) is a slender 70 cm wood carving, dated to 1936, by the mysterious Annesley Tittensor. Compared with everything else around it, this is self-consciously of its time. The curved, extended neck, and the tilt of the elongated oval of the face show clearly the influence of Modigliani, maybe even a hint of Brancusi, and behind that an awareness of non-European art. The very economical attention to the draperies of the clothing relieves the overall minimalism, as do the curls of the hair, though to my mind these are a small but unnecessary concession to the decorative. But anyway, this is a beautiful piece, and the stock gallery image doesn’t do it justice. Neither do my phone-snaps, but they may help to give a fuller idea.

But what do we know of Annesley Tittensor? Remarkably little. Googling his rather splendid name will give you the info on this one sculpture, plus a single source at Glasgow Uny’s “Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951database. Born in 1916, he studied under Emerson at Wolverhampton from 1935, proving an “exceptional” student, and went on to the Royal in 1938, graduating in 1940. After the war he was still in London, and had one piece (“Angel Musician”) accepted at the RA in 1948. Later he returned to the West Midlands to teach at Walsall School of Art. He died in 1991. That’s about it. On the strength of this piece, you’d expect Tittensors to be lying about all over the place. So where are they? And are they as good as this?

Follow-up page to this, with many more images of Anneseley Tittensor’s work, here, or click on “A better view” above.

Humphrey Spender’s ‘Atomic Flower’ and the New Apocalypse

(Since this was first posted, a larger image of this painting has become available at the ‘Your Paintings’ site, here.)

The release of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s (PCF) volumes of Oil Paintings in Public Ownership, and the development of the “Your Paintings” website, gives us all, at long last, a chance to see just what’s hidden away in the vaults of our local galleries that rarely or never comes out into the daylight.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery (my local) devotes whole furlongs of wall space to its unrivalled collections of Georgian and Victorian sepia mediocrities (the Fuseli excepted), justified by a display policy focused around social and historical content, a policy which also drives their recent purchases and contemporary collection. This doesn’t allow too much of an airing for the very decent 20th century material they mostly keep under the carpet.

A thumb through the PCF Staffordshire catalogue reveals quite a bunch of modernist and English surrealist items at Wolves: John Armstrong, John Banting, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, John Selby Bigge,  Duncan Grant, Tristram Hillier, Thomas Esmond Lowinsky, Augustus Lunn, John and Paul Nash, John Piper, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer, John Tunnard, Anthony Twentyman (six canvases), Edward Wadsworth, Alfred Wallis and, last but not least, Christopher Wood. Most are not often seen on the walls, and some never. They would make a good roomful, and a nice change from all those dull Georgian worthies and Victorian farm girls.

And in the Wolverhampton basement there is also this: Atomic Flower by Humphrey Spender. (This small image here will have to do for the time being.) Yes, that’s Spender the photographer, Mass Observationist, textile designer and brother to poet Stephen. His paintings (a bit of a sideline) tended to follow prevailing styles, which in the late ‘thirties for him meant surrealism, though Michel Remy carefully excludes him from his 1991 study, Surrealism in Britain. This canvas is dated to 1939-40, and is not among his most technically accomplished, even for that relatively early date. But to me it seems of unusual interest.

The collection catalogue describes it as an “open interior of a room in a landscape. Inside the room is a giant flower with a colourful fiery centre. There are scientific/mechanical objects placed in the landscape.” The “room” is perhaps better described as a box-like building with the near wall and roof missing. A front door is left hanging in space above the steps, and a window has clearly been blown out. The walls appear black and charred.

Distant mountains are fronted by a flat plain punctuated by receding poles or fence posts in the manner of Paul Nash etc. The foreground objects clearly owe a great deal to Edward Wadsworth’s semi-surreal marine still lives, a couple resembling ship’s screw propellers in a non-specific way. In the corner of the room sits a metal object composed of three elliptical loops around a central axis.

At the heart of the building, and of the composition, a huge dark textured flower unfolds, its five molten petals surrounding a centre of orange and blue flames – the atomic flower of the title. Despite the naivety of its execution, the image achieves a disquieting and threatening quality.

Given the dating, we are likely to take this for a Blitz image, a surrealist variant of the bombed street ruins made iconic, in a neo-romantic way, by John Piper, John Minton et al. On the other hand, given the title, this does look uncannily like a premonition of nuclear warfare – gleaming scientific instruments creating a mushroom-like exploding fiery form that devastates the landscape. And where is this landscape? (New Mexico? Los Alamos?) How likely is any of this for 1940?

Nuclear fission was discovered on the eve of World War two, and a practicable atomic bomb was still widely considered impossible in 1940, the Manhattan Project not getting under way until 1942. Could the dating of the painting be wrong? Or the title have been adopted at a later date?

The term “atomic flower” is now sometimes colloquially applied to the familiar stylised  “atom symbol” representing electrons circling the nucleus. Variants show either three or four ellipses, making six or eight “petals”. Remarkably, a three dimensional version of this symbol is present in the painting, in the shape of the scientific object on the corner of the floor. The symbol may have been known to Spender at this time in some diagram form, but the term “atomic flower” is a recent coinage, making his prescience even more striking.

The term has lately acquired a different connotation. As a contribution to the work of the US Human Interference Task Force, charged with devising “nuclear semiotic” warnings against contact with stored radioactive waste that will remain intelligible for the next 10,000 years, the SF writer Stanislaw Lem has proposed the development of “information plants” or “atomic flowers” that would grow only in the vicinity of terminal storage sites. Spender’s monstrous flower lends itself well to this scenario.

Though the fear of “nuclear apocalypse” was not born until 1945, the catchphrase “Apocalypse” or “New Apocalypse” was coined in 1940 as an umbrella for the vague coalition of philosophical anarchism, “personalism” and neo-romantic tendencies in the arts, loosely related to surrealism, promoted during the war years by Henry Treece, J F Hendry, Stefan Schimanski, Robert Herring and others in reviews such as Transformation and Kingdom Come. It seems ironic that at the end of the war, just as the coherence, such as it was, of the New Apocalypse movement was unravelling, the prospects for nuclear apocalypse suddenly drew terrifyingly close. A real New Apocalypse!

The poetry of the Apocalypse movement has since been largely discredited in critical terms, though British neo-romantic painting has enjoyed a re-evaluation over recent years. The quality of the Apocalypse poets and writers was variable, to say the least. But the movement is not without interest, and I aim to consider some aspects in the future on this site. Spender’s Atomic Flower would have made a fine poster image for the New Apocalypse.