Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Myths and Morality: two Covent Garden scene painters


At Hampton Court Palace, I once watched a charismatic storyteller make a class of prep-school boys in their caps and blazers all lie down on the floor, to see the mythological characters in the ceiling painting properly.  Was it perhaps this ceiling painting of the Dawn by Sir James Thornhill  in the Queen's State Bedchamber?



Sketch design for ceiling painting in the Queen's State Bedchamber,   James Thornhill 1715
© Sir John Soane's Museum, London

Thornhill was an assistant to Antonio Verrio, and replaced him as Britains' finest native-born Baroque painter.  George I found Thornhill to be better and cheaper: he was paid £3. 11s. per yard, £457 in total for this ceiling, with its classical allegory of Apollo in his golden chariot surrounded by portraits of the Royal family.  He even had to paint scenery for the King's theatre at Hampton Court.

His best known great decorative schemes can be seen in two of Wren's masterpieces, St Paul's Cathedral and the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.  An early commission in his career, beginning in 1708, the Painted Hall at Greenwich shows William III and Queen Mary bringing Liberty and Peace to Europe, celebrating succeeding Protestant monarchs and maritime prowess.  Amazing in Wren's magnificent setting,  the paintings are now undergoing large-scale conservation and close-up viewing of work in progress will be possible for visitors to Greenwich this year.  see ornc.org.uk


The Painted Hall,  the Old Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich  

During the 19 years it took to complete, (at £3 a yard), he worked on many other projects, including his work high up in St Paul's Cathedral, between 1715 and 1717, where his grisaille paintings of St. Paul's life encircling the dome blend perfectly with the interior architecture. A story runs that checking progress one day, Thornhill stepped back perilously close to the edge of the scaffolding; fortunately a quick-witted assistant, afraid of startling his master into falling backwards,  smeared over part of the painting so that Thornhill rushed forward to correct it.  


Sir James Thornhill c. 1712-15    Marcellus Laroon 
© National Maritime Museum, London

At this time, Thornhill was a leading figure in the artistic community of Covent Garden. In 1716 Thornhill took over the first Art Academy,* which he had helped Sir Godfrey Kneller to establish at his premises in Great Queen Street, and moved the classes to his own new painting room in Covent Garden (based approximately where the Royal Opera House now stands). The equipment included " a proper table for the figure to stand on, a large lamp, an iron stove and benches in a circular form". Without charging fees, and no proper financial support from rich patrons, it foundered, but the idea was there and the young artists moved to a St Martin's Lane academy * in the 1720s.  

Among them was William Hogarth, who became an assistant to Thornhill, and later 'eloped' to marry his daughter Jane in March 1729 (he had obtained the licence a year before at St. Paul's,  Covent Garden).  


A happily married Mrs Jane Hogarth,  by William Hogarth c.1730;  she worked closely with William supporting Coram's Foundling Hospital.   © Aberdeen Art Gallery, Scotland

Thornhill would have been dismayed at Hogarth's lack of prospects or family connections, which were then an essential part of financial success. Thornhill himself was from a notable Dorset family - his maternal grandfather was Governor of Weymouth - and a legacy paid for his apprenticeship to Thomas Highmore, also a Dorset man.   Although  Hogarth aspired to be a great historical painter like his father-in-law, he proved to be the coming man, who would outstrip his mentor in reputation,  buying a gentleman's country villa in Chiswick in 1749.  

Thornhill's major paintings were high up in churches and palaces, but Hogarth's paintings,  from his training as an engraver, you could hold in your hand as a print, and understand the emotions of the characters.  


The Lady's Last Stake   William Hogarth  c. 1758
© Albright-Knox Art Gallery,  Buffalo, New York

As Hester Piozzi (Mrs Thrale) recalls a childhood encounter in her memoirs:

 "But the next time we went to Leicester Fields, Mr Hogarth was painting, and bid me sit to him; 'And now look here,' said he, 'I am doing this for you.  You are not fourteen years old yet, I think, but you will be twenty-four, and this portrait will then be like you.  'Tis the lady's last stake; see how she hesitates between her money and her honour.  Take you care; I see an ardour for play in your eyes and in your heart: don't indulge it.  I shall give you this picture as a warning, because I love you now, you are so good a girl' ."  from Thraliana.

But Thornhill and Hogarth were not just scene painters;  both men in their different ways were real scene-changers in eighteenth century art in Britain. 

* forerunners of the  Royal Academy of Art

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Aquarius, the water carrier: "this frosty night"

Aquarius, from a set of zodiac plates, designed by James Thornhill* 1711
© British Museum
(of whom more anon.)

This is the penultimate zodiac sign I have featured, and this poem by Robert Graves brings many of their stars together on a frosty night. The  fishy last verse will lead us into Pisces, the twelfth sign, in February.

Star Talk

"'Are you awake, Gemelli,
This frosty night?'
'We'll be awake till reveille,
Which is Sunrise,' say the Gemelli,
'It's no good trying to go to sleep:
If there's wine to be got we'll drink it deep,
But rest is hopeless tonight,
But rest is hopeless tonight.'

'Are you cold too, poor Pleiads,
This frosty night?'
'Yes, and so are the Hyads:
See us cuddle and hug,' say the Pleiads,
'All six in a ring: it keeps us warm:
We huddle together like birds in a storm:
It's bitter weather tonight,
It's bitter weather tonight.'"

 Constellation of Aquarius  (from Secrets of Space)


'What do you hunt, Orion,
This starry night?'
'The Ram, the Bull and the Lion,
And the Great Bear,' says Orion,
'With my starry quiver and beautiful belt
I am trying to find a good thick pelt
To warm my shoulders tonight,
To warm my shoulders tonight.'

'Did you hear that, Great She-bear,
This frosty night?'
'Yes, he's talking of stripping me bare
Of my own big fur,' says the She-bear.
'I'm afraid of the man and his terrible arrow:
The thought of it chills my bones to the marrow,
And the frost so cruel tonight!
And the frost so cruel tonight!'

'How is your trade, Aquarius,
This frosty night?'
'Complaints are many and various
And my feet are cold,' says Aquarius,
There's Venus objects to Dolphin-scales,
And Mars to Crab-spawn found in my pails,
And the pump has frozen tonight,
And the pump has frozen tonight.'"

Star Talk  Robert Graves


The stars of Aquarius  (from ScienceandArt.com)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The ship's concert 2: "What happened on the Ark"



Noah's Ark and the animals  Aurelio Luini c. 1556, in San Maurizio, Milan

 I don't think holiday cruise ships or ocean liners have passengers'  concerts any more, though it was common decades ago, to break the monotony of long stretches at sea. (I have taken part in one myself).
As the cruise ship catalogues land on my doormat this winter, I turn to a childhood favourite, The Log of the Ark, written and illustrated by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey back in 1923.

When Kenneth Grahame was asked to write a story about "Big Jungle Animals",  he passed the task back to his friend, Kenneth Walker, who had really "been inside a jungle".  Kenneth Walker was a distinguished surgeon, as well as a journalist, popular with Picture Post readers, and his colleague
Geoffrey Boumphrey, who drew the cartoon-like pictures (restored from Japhet's cave drawings in ancient Armenia), was an engineer, writer and broadcaster, now best known for his Shell guides to the countryside.


A medieval view of  the  story of the Flood

Their tongue-in-cheek children's tale of Noah and the voyage of the Ark is also an allegory of the Fall, with extinct animals like the Clidders, the Wumpetty-Dumps and the Seventy-sevenses; also on board is the insidious Loathly Scub, who converts the once vegetarian big cats into predatory carnivores.

Noah's Ark   Edward Hicks, 1846    Philadelphia Museum of Art

Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher,  painted a whole series on this theme, entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom", showing the enlightened interaction between humans and animals.

 On a lighter note, The Log of the Ark includes a chapter on the ship's concert, organised by Ham to cheer up all the animals after weeks of rain (and only porridge to eat).  Each performer acts in character - the bat's song was particularly appreciated by all the crickets and grasshoppers, as only they could hear it.  But it is the Hippo's song, redolent of music hall favourites or old drinking songs, which sticks in the memory -- with a good roll of the R on "number".

"Num-ber-r ONE, num-ber-r ONE,
Some weighs a pound but I weighs a ton,
Chorus: (repeats after every verse)
Hip-po-potamus, What-a-lotamus
Oh, what likely lads us be!

Num-ber-r TWO, num-ber-r TWO,
Some walks round, but I busts through.

Num-ber-r THREE, num-ber-r THREE
The Lark can sing, but not like me.

Num-ber-r FOUR, num-ber-r FOUR
Some likes less, but I likes more.

Num-ber-r FIVE, num-ber-r FIVE
The tide comes up when down I dive.

Num-ber-r SIX, num-ber-r SIX
I likes bathing, but some just licks.

Num-ber-r SEVEN, num ber-r SEVEN,
You must wait till Number Eleven.

Num-ber-r EIGHT, num-ber-r EIGHT
Some likes looks, but I likes weight.

Num-ber-r NINE, num-ber-r NINE ,
Blest if I ain't forgot this line.

Num-ber-r TEN, num-ber-r TEN
I ain't sung this since I don't know when.

Num-ber-r ELEVEN, num-ber-r ELEVEN,
That's the same as Number Seven.

Num-ber-r TWELVE, num-ber-r TWELVE,
If you wants any more you can sing it yourself.
Chorus: Hi-po-potamus, What-a-lotamus;
Oh, what likely lads us be!"

The Log of the Ark  Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey
Dedicated to the Very Old Tortoise at the Zoo, with cave wall drawings restored in this book by Geoffrey Boumphrey with the assistance of Juliet Renny,  1923.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

January at West Wycombe Park



"Thursday, 1st January, 1942

West Wycombe Park is a singularly beautiful eighteenth-century house with one shortcoming.  Its principal living-rooms face due north.  The south front is overshadowed by a long, double colonnade which induces a total eclipse of the sun from January to December.  Consequently we are very cold in the winter, for the radiators work fitfully these days.  Our offices [of the evacuated National Trust] are in the Brown Drawing Room and Johnny Dashwood's* small study beyond it.  Matheson, the Secretary, Miss Paterson, Eardley Knollys and I work in the latter room;  Miss Ballanchey, a typist and the 'junior' (aged 15) in the bigger room with all the filing cabinets.  Matheson, Eardley and I are seldom in the office together. Nearly always one and often two of us are away visiting properties."
* Sir John Dashwood, 10th baronet

Ancestral Voices  James Lees-Milne


Lord and Lady Dashwood at West Wycombe Park   Nathaniel Dance-Holland, c. 1776