An ART LOVER's GUIDE TO CAMBRIDGE
'Dog', 1914, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915)
Kettles Yard, Cambridge
Sometimes less is more. This is certainly true of Gaudier-Brzeska’s 'Dog' which sits at the top of a small flight of steps leading from the Bechstein Room to the Bridge at Kettles Yard. The young sculptor has refined and reduced the animal’s form to its essentials - head, eyes, ears, body and legs. None of these elements are in proportion or depicted in detail and yet the dog is immediately recognisable.
Henri Gaudier was born in France but moved to London in 1911 with Sophie Brzeska, a Polish writer 19 years his senior, whose name he adopted. By 1914, when this sculpture was originally carved, Gaudier-Brzeska was associated with a group of artists called the Vorticists led by Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. Their aim was to create a dynamic form of modern art partly inspired by Cubism but also reflecting the machine age and the urban environment. The sharp angles of the dog’s nose and tail may have a mechanical feel but the curves of the back and ears give the sculpture a humorous realism that make it immediately appealing. The original sculpture was carved in marble but a number of bronze casts were made in the 1960s, of which this is one.
Tragically, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska died aged 24 while on active service in the First World War. He left the contents of his studio to Sophie Brzeska and after her death in 1925, Jim Ede, the founder of Kettles Yard, became involved in the disposal of her estate. Unable to find interested buyers, he bought much of the collection himself and became a champion of the artist’s work, publishing a biography of Gaudier-Brzeska in 1931 entitled “Savage Messiah”.
As with other artists who die young, it is pure speculation to consider what Gaudier-Brzeska would have gone on to achieve. His sculptures, drawings and paintings are at the heart of the Kettles Yard collection. Hopefully, it’s now not too long before we can be back in the House enjoying them. When you are able to visit again, make sure you don’t miss the dog on the step!
'Two girls by a jetty', 1922, Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)
Newnham College, Cambridge
Two girls sit by a jetty together staring into the water, watching the ripples and feeling a gentle sea breeze on their faces. Their bright orange and yellow shirts stand out against the brown brickwork and complement the blue green water below. The girls appear pensive and silent. Time stands still.
This painting is by Laura Knight, one of the leading artists of her generation, who in 1936 became the first woman to be elected a full member of the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768. She had already won the accolade of being the first artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire. More breakthroughs followed after the war. In 1965, she was the first woman artist to have a solo retrospective at the Royal Academy and to attend the Academicians previously all male dinner.
Laura Knight came from a humble background. Her mother was a single parent who taught part time at Nottingham School of Art enabling her to secure a free place for her talented 13 year old daughter. It was there that Laura met her future husband Harold Knight, one of the school’s star pupils. They married in 1903 and initially based themselves at the artists’ colony and fishing village of Staithes in Yorkshire, before moving to Cornwall in 1908. Here they played a key part in the vibrant artistic community around Newlyn and Lamorna.
At the end of the First World War, the Knights moved to London, but they continued to make regular visits to Cornwall. This painting is signed and dated 1922, so it was painted during one of these later visits. The models are thought to be Mornie Birch (right) and Joy Newton, the daughters of their friends and fellow artists ‘Lamorna’ Birch and Algernon Newton. At the time the girls would have been about 18 and 16 years old respectively.
Like some of her earlier Cornish paintings, Laura Knight shows young women outside, independent, unchaperoned and at ease in the landscape. What would the future hold for them? The question is one that the young women studying at Newnham College may ask themselves today. The life and work of Laura Knight should show them that anything is possible.
'The Hairdresser', 2008, Saied Dai (b.1958)
Girton College, Cambridge
“The Hairdresser” seems a particularly appropriate image to share with you this week as hair salons reopen and some of us have finally been able to get a haircut. This painting is part of the People’s Portraits Collection at Girton College which began as a millennium project, initiated by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. The aim of the project was to provide a snapshot of Britain in the year 2000 by commissioning a series of portraits of “ordinary” people going about their daily lives. The collection includes portraits of butchers, postmistresses, motorbike couriers, lifeboatmen and many more and is now on permanent loan to Girton College. Here the portraits hang in stark contrast to those of worthy academics found on the walls of most other Cambridge colleges.
Saied Dai, the artist, was born in Iran and moved to the UK when he was six. He began his training as an architect, before going on to study painting at the Royal Academy School. He describes portraiture as ‘the most complex of the visual idioms, both structurally and psychologically, and consequently the most fascinating, as one is dealing with humanity itself or in mirror reflection, ourselves. It is also a microcosm in which one can explore almost all the problems of drawing and painting.”
The painting turns on its head the traditional portrait composition in which the subject is positioned at the front of the picture plane and looks out to the viewer. Here, the subject stands with his back to us, while his client looks to one side as she views her recently cropped hair in the mirror. The reflected image of the hairdresser himself stands at the back of the painting, job done. These two figures appear in the painting a total of five different times.
Saied Dai ascribes a more universal meaning to the painting: 'The subject of 'The Hairdresser' is in reality a metaphor for the Artist and the Muse. The painting depicts a scene where all activity has finally ceased, but for the contemplation of the artist and his work. A complex composition is set up involving multiple mirror images, resulting in ambiguities between the actual and its reflected equivalent.’ It is these ambiguities that encourage us to look more carefully at the painting and see that this is no “ordinary” portrait. In turn, the People’s Portrait collection as a whole shows us that there are no “ordinary” people. Each portrait in the collection reveals an individual with their own unique and often fascinating life story.
'Study for A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte: Couple Walking', 1884,
King's College Cambridge (Keynes Collection)
The Fitzwilliam Museum is fortunate to have one of only three large-scale oil studies of Seurat’s iconic painting “A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte” 1884/6 (Art Institute of Chicago). Although the painting is usually on display at the Fitzwilliam, it actually belongs to the Provost and Fellows of Kings College and is here in Cambridge thanks to the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). Keynes was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and began collecting art under the influence and encouragement of the art critic Roger Fry. When he died he left 143 works to Kings College including paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso and Braque as well as his Bloomsbury friends Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
The Seurat study is one of Keynes’ most significant purchases. It reveals the way Seurat prepared and planned for his finished masterpiece which caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in May 1886. In the study, Seurat sketches out the forms and colour combinations for the final painting, as well as the passages of light and shade. A number of grid lines are visible under the paint layer which he used to transfer the layout onto the enormous finished canvas. The paint is applied with loose, short brushstrokes that create a patchwork of diagonal marks. In contrast, Seurat’s finished painting is much more precise. In it he perfects the technique that became known as ‘pointillism’ which involved applying small dots of unmixed pigment, often in complementary colours, to create the forms. Seurat was fascinated by colour theories which showed that the eye would then read these dots as blocks of luminous colour.
The scene is a view of Parisiennes at leisure on an island in the Seine. Here we can see the two standing figures who have a prominent position in the finished painting. Their identity has been a subject of much debate. Is the woman a prostitute with her client or a well-to-do member of the bourgeoisie? The study gives us even fewer clues than the finished painting - the man and woman are faceless and enigmatic.
John Maynard Keynes bought the Fitzwilliam study in the early 1920s and it certainly proved a good investment. A recent study by academics at the Judge Business School estimated that Keynes spent about £13,000 on his art collection over his lifetime and that its market value was approximately £76 million in early 2019. I’ll leave the mathematicians among you to do the sums but what money can’t buy is the thrill of seeing the artist’s hand at work in this study as he plans for what is considered to be his greatest masterpiece.
'Sculpture of two double figures and a quadruped', c 1690-1730, Tahiti, Society Islands
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
Two years ago this small sculpture was one of the key works in the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy. The exhibition revealed the creativity, skill and variety of art from the Pacific region, as well as the influence it had on modern European artists like Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse. This wooden carving, from the collection at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, dates from the end of the 18th century and is a lively depiction of two figures with a dog or a pig. The sculpture is skilfully made and designed to be viewed from either side as the figures are double faced and the animal carved in the round. All three are joined together as if part of a chain or procession but the object’s function is unknown. For many years it was thought to be some kind of canoe ornament but recent research has suggested it may have been part of a gateway into a place of worship or prestigious home.
The sculpture is considered a masterpiece of oceanic art but, aside from its artistic merits, it has a fascinating story to tell. Most significantly, it was one of the artefacts collected by Captain Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific in 1769 which makes it the earliest piece of figurative sculpture to be collected by a European from any part of Oceania. It arrived in Cambridge in 1771, just three month’s after the Endeavour’s return to England. Cook had given the sculpture to his patron at the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, who immediately presented it to Trinity College where it was kept until transferred to the museum in 1914.
Recent analysis of the wood has dated the sculpture to between 1690-1730 revealing that it was a historic piece when Cook acquired it. He probably did so in Tahiti, even though the sculpture is thought to have been made in the Austral islands, some 355 miles further south. This discovery raises questions about whether it was traded, looted or gifted between the peoples of Polynesia?
One side of the sculpture appears to have been broken off. What would have been there? Would the line of figures and animals have continued? Double figures like these ones are thought to represent divine power but what else might have been carved alongside them? We may never know. The sculpture retains its secrets, while the open mouthed protagonists speak across space and time of our common humanity and artistic endeavour.
'Gimcrack with John Pratt up on Newmarket Heath', George Stubbs, 1765
How many horses do you know who have a club named after them, an annual race run in their memory and were painted by George Stubbs? It’s Ascot week and here is Gimcrack, with his jockey John Pratt, standing on Newmarket Heath. The painting is thought to have been commissioned shortly after the horse’s first victory at Newmarket races on 9th April 1765.
Stubbs shows horse and rider standing against the wide East Anglian sky, gazing confidently across the gallops. Behind them is the rubbing down house, where horses would be taken after a race to cool down. Stubbs, the great horse painter, shows his skill. The horse is painted with remarkable anatomical accuracy, the sheen of his coat accentuating the muscles underneath, while his face is alert and full of character.
Gimcrack became a racing legend, winning 28 of his 36 races. He was relatively small for a racehorse, standing at just 14 hands, but what he lacked in stature he made up for in bravery and determination. Together with his winning record, this endeared him to the racing public. Lady Sarah Bunbury, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, was one of his many admirers, describing him as “the sweetest little horse .. that ever was”.
While Gimcrack was the most successful racehorse of his day, John Pratt was the most successful jockey. Pratt is shown wearing a red jacket and black cap, the colours of Gimcrack’s owner at the time, William Wildman, the Smithfield meat salesman who commissioned the painting. Today we are used to seeing jockeys wearing coloured silks, but they had only just been introduced when Gimcrack was painted. Racing, which had been the preserve of the aristocracy, became more democratised and professional in the eighteenth century. As more horses took part in each race, it was important to be able to differentiate between runners and riders as they came thundering past.
Wildman was one of Stubb’s most regular patrons. After his death in 1787 this painting was sold at auction, together with sixteen other works by Stubbs from Wildman's collection. Having changed hands several times, the painting came up for sale in 1982. To prevent it being sold abroad, the Fitzwilliam Museum launched a public appeal to buy it, receiving support from their Majesties the Queen and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, together with other funders. To boost the appeal, the museum’s director, Professor Michael Jaffé, went to Newmarket races where he stood at the turnstiles shaking a bucket to encourage race goers to contribute to the purchase. His efforts paid off. The painting now hangs in the Fitzwilliam, just a few miles from Newmarket, immortalising horse, rider, patron and artist. Perhaps another victory for Gimcrack?
'Cambridge Upper River', Gwen Raverat, 1955
A punter navigates his way quietly along the still waters of the River Cam in this atmospheric painting by Gwen Raverat. Although the bare branches of the tree suggest that it was painted in early spring rather than summer, the scene evokes memories of lazy student days and the May week celebrations which would have been taking place in Cambridge this week. There is a stillness in the air as the sunlight falls on the buildings and creates sharp reflections in the water, interrupted by gentle ripples. The composition and colours are as beautifully balanced as the punter himself.
Like punting, Gwen Raverat is something of a Cambridge institution. A painter, illustrator, print-maker and writer, she was born into an eminent family. Her grandfather was Charles Darwin, the famous biologist, and her father Sir George Darwin, a fellow of Trinity College and Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge University. Her memoir, Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, published in 1952, describes her early life in an Edwardian academic family with humour and affection, the text interspersed with her lively illustrations. In 1908 Gwen Darwin left Cambridge to study at the Slade School of Art in London alongside artists such as Stanley Spencer, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg. She embraced the bohemian life, becoming an accomplished artist and pioneer of modern wood engraving.
It was at the Slade that Gwen also met the French artist Jacques Raverat and they were married in 1911. Their circle of friends included the intellectual group known as the “Neo-Pagans” centred around Rupert Brooke, as well as members of the Bloomsbury Group such as Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey. After the war, the Raverats spent most of their time in France, but sadly Jacques was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and died in 1925. Now a young widow with two small children, Gwen moved back to Cambridge and, with great determination, made a successful career for herself as an art critic, book illustrator, wood engraver and painter.
Examples of Gwen Raverat’s work can be found in several Cambridge collections, including the Fitzwilliam Museum and the New Hall Art Collection. This painting can be found at Darwin College, which was founded in 1964 and named after Gwen’s family. At the college's centre is Newnham Grange, the house where she grew up and returned to in the last years of her life. Sadly, this year’s May Ball at Darwin College has been cancelled but I am delighted to see that from today you can once again hire a punt on the River Cam.
'St Luke', Edward Burne-Jones, 1872
This striking image is a detail of a stained glass window designed by Edward Burne-Jones for the chapel of Jesus College. St Luke is easily identifiable by the winged ox, his traditional symbol, standing behind him. His long, elegant hands hold his gospel book and a quill pen. The detail is from the central panel of a window in the South Transept which is shown in full below. St Luke is flanked, on either side, by two elegant sibyls and underneath are scenes from the Passion of Christ, designed by Ford Madox Brown.
Burne-Jones, like the earlier Pre-Raphaelite artists and his lifelong friend William Morris, looked back to the medieval world and the Italian Renaissance for inspiration. Burne Jones has visited Rome the year before he created the figure of St Luke. While there, he spent a day lying on his back in the Sistine Chapel looking at Michelangelo’s painted ceiling through his opera glasses. Michelangelo’s influence is clearly seen in the sculptural folds of cloth and St. Luke's strong, androgynous facial features.
Edward Burne-Jones played a leading role in the revival of the stained glass tradition in Britain during the second half of the nineteenth century and his designs are found in churches all over the country. Having met William Morris at Oxford, he was one of the founding partners and the leading stained glass designer of Morris’s decorative arts firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co, which was later to become Morris & Co. The eleven windows he designed for Jesus College Chapel are considered very fine examples of his work and some of the designs were reused in other churches.
The commission for the Jesus College stained glass windows came through the architect George Bodley, who was called in to do repairs to the chapel in 1864. Bodley initially employed Morris to decorate the chapel's ceiling. Morris created the designs but then outsourced most of the decorative painting to the Cambridge firm of FR Leach*. At the time, this caused some consternation to the College Dean, Edmund Henry Morgan, who wrote to Bodley saying that: “Some astonishment was felt at the employment of a Cambridge workman in the execution of a work that was entrusted to Mr Morris, on the very favourable recommendation given by you”. Bodley was quick to reassure his client, replying: “I would say that Morris finds Leach a very capable and able executant …..he is doing it quite as well as Morris’s own men would”.
This may have been one of the reasons that it took Bodley a little while to persuade the college to commission the stained glass windows from Morris’s firm a few years later. Luckily for Cambridge, Bodley had his way and the chapel's sumptuous windows and beautifully decorated ceiling can still be enjoyed to this day.
'Paeonia Suffruticosa', Pierre-Joseph Redouté, 1812
Private gardens are bursting into colour and with the National Trust and RHS preparing to reopen some of their gardens next week, it is time to turn our art lovers’ eyes to flowers. What better way to do this than to return to the Fitzwilliam Museum which boasts one of the most important collections of flower paintings and drawings anywhere in the world.
Here we see the beautiful Paeonia suffruticosa by the French artist Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), one of the finest botanical draughtsman of his age. Born in Belgian into a family of artists, Redouté moved to Paris in his early 20s where he learnt the art of flower painting. He became known for his botanical accuracy as well as his balanced compositions and subtle variations of tone, all of which can be seen in this painting. Look at the lush pink petals of the flower, the perfectly gradated green leaves and the placing of the flower on the page. It is little wonder that he has been called ‘the Raphael of flowers’.
Redouté not only possessed extraordinary artistic skill, but he must also have had great powers of tact and diplomacy as he had the distinction of working for both Marie-Antoinette, as Draughtsman and Painter to the Queen’s Cabinet, and for the Empress Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, as her official artist. The latter commissioned Redouté to paint the flowers grown at her chateau at Malmaison where she had an extensive collection of roses, lilies and rare plants including this Paeonia suffruticosa.
The watercolour is from an album of 72 works by Redouté bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam in 1973 by Henry Rogers Broughton, 2nd Lord Fairhaven, whose family once owned Anglesey Abbey. The museum director at the time described Lord Fairhaven’s gift as an act of “breathtaking generosity”. Having already given 37 valuable flower paintings to the museum in 1966, on his death seven years later Lord Fairhaven left the museum another 82 oil paintings, 38 albums and about 900 drawings of flowers on paper and vellum. It was a legacy that transformed the museum’s collection and which will last long after the summer blooms are over.
Book of Canticles, Hymns and Passion of Christ, Old Library, St John's College
MS K 21 detail from folio 61v
This small illumination is from a manuscript made in England in the late 13th and early 14th century and is found in the Old Library, St John’s College, Cambridge. At first glance it’s quite easy to miss the narrative. A woman stands in the centre surrounded by a group of men wearing brightly coloured robes. Her hands are held together in prayer, while others gesture in surprise and amazement. What are they all doing? The answer is at the top of the image where we can just see two feet and the bottom of a blue robe disappearing into a cloud. It is, of course, the Biblical story of the Ascension and the two feet belong to the risen Christ.
The original narrative is told at the beginning of the Book of Acts and the illuminator seems to have followed the biblical text closely: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). By showing only his feet, the artist captures the exact moment when Christ vanishes from the earthly realm into the presence of God. This particular iconography is found in other medieval depictions of the scene and is rather aptly referred to as the ‘Disappearing Christ’.
Like many medieval manuscripts, the colours of this illumination are vibrant and well preserved. The figures stand gracefully in their flowing garments, their feet almost floating above the ground, echoing the feet of the ascending Christ. The cloud, into which he disappears, is an abstract pattern of white, orange and green. Colours held meaning in the medieval world and the green may be used here as a symbol of resurrection and new life, rather than as a reflection of a physical reality.
Ascension Day, was celebrated this year on May 21st and has its own particular tradition at St John’s. Every year, the college choir climb up to the roof of the 163ft chapel tower and sing an Ascension carol. It all started in 1902 after a discussion between the college’s director of music, Cyril Rootham and one of the fellows, Sir Joseph Larmor. Sir Joseph insisted that a choir singing from the top of the tower would not be heard by those standing on the ground below and Cyril was keen to prove him wrong. Without telling anyone, on Ascension Day, the choir climbed the tower and as the clock struck noon, they sang an Ascension Day motet. To Cyril’s great delight, Sir Joseph opened his window in the courtyard below to hear where the music was coming from!
Sadly, the choir were not able to sing from the tower this year, but we are still able to enjoy the treasures of the college’s extensive manuscript collection and look forward to hearing the choir sing on Ascension Day in 2021 - a date for the diary.
Mary Beale (1633-1699),
Portrait of Benjamin Whichcote, 1682
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
You will find a great many half length male portraits like this one on the walls of Cambridge colleges. Here we have the clergyman Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), a fellow of Emmanuel College, who became Provost of Kings College, Vice-Chancellor of the University and leader of a group of religious thinkers called the Cambridge Platonists. He lived through turbulent times, navigating his way through the political and religious upheavals of the English Civil War, the Interregnum and the Restoration. However what is unusual about this portrait is not the sitter but the artist. It was painted by Mary Beale (1633-1699), Britain’s first professional woman painter.
We could claim Mary Beale as a local girl. She was born about 9 miles east of Newmarket in Barrow, Suffolk, where her father was a clergyman and an amateur artist. Aged 18 she married Charles Beale, a miniaturist and artist’s colourman (a person who supplied and prepared artists’ paints) who encouraged her talent. Theirs seems to have been a harmonious, affirming and surprisingly modern relationship. In 1667, Mary wrote a “Discourse on Friendship” which argued for the equality of husband and wife in marriage, a radical concept for the time. A decade later Charles abandoned his personal ambitions in order to devote himself to organising and supporting the career of “My Dearest Heart”.
By the time she painted this portrait of Whichcote in 1682, Mary Beale was one of the most celebrated portraitists in London with a busy studio on Pall Mall and a clientele that included aristocrats, leading intellectuals and clergymen. The studio was a family affair. Charles ran the business, keeping notebooks that recorded sitters, payments, pigments and materials.Their two sons, Bartholomew and Charles, helped to paint backgrounds and drapery.
Mary Beale doesn’t flatter her sitter, stating once that "flattery & dissimulation... is a kind of mock friendship". Whichcote is painted with a long nose, bumpy chin and watchful eyes. From his collar hang two preaching bands which identify him as a member of the clergy. The trompe-l’oeil oval frame was a common device in seventeenth century portraiture which Mary may have learnt from her mentor Sir Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II.
There has been renewed interest Mary Beale’s work in recent years with several exhibitions and a biography but she was not the only woman artist to be working in Restoration London. Records show that there were over a hundred women who were members of the Company of Painter Stainers but Mary Beale was certainly the most prolific and thanks to her husband’s meticulous notebooks, her work is well documented. Almost three hundred years before women were admitted to Emmanuel College as students, her portraits in the college’s Long Gallery blaze a trail that other women would follow.
Four-Square (Walk Through), 1966
Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)
Churchill College, Cambridge
As we prepare to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, it seems appropriate to look at an iconic sculpture at Churchill College. Barbara Hepworth’s Four-Square (Walk Through) dominates the landscape beyond the college’s main concourse and is a focus for the college community, as well as a number of student pranks!
Churchill College on Madingley Road was founded in 1960 as a memorial to Britain’s great wartime leader, in part inspired by a post war visit that Sir Winston Churchill made to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949. Churchill’s vision was for a similar institute in Britain, dedicated primarily to science and technology. In a speech made on the site of the new college ten years later, he reflected on Britain’s global position: “Since we have neither the massive population, nor the raw materials, nor yet adequate agricultural land to enable us to make our way in the world with ease, we must depend for survival on our brains”.
The modern, Brutalist design of the new college was complemented then, as it is now, with contemporary sculpture. Barbara Hepworth, Britain’s leading sculptor and a friend of a college fellow, agreed to lend art work Squares with two circles, 1963. When it was subsequently sold to a private collector and removed, the students created their own 'Hepworth' on the plinth of the missing sculpture. The ongoing building work meant that there were plenty of bricks around. The story goes that Hepworth was delighted by the students' tribute and promptly offered to provide the college with another sculpture: "I have just had cast a new work which I feel would be even better for your wonderful site. You can walk through it. It has no front and no back! Walking through is lovely as one can lean out through the lower circles & survey the landscape, or look up to the high circles & see the clouds, the sun, moon & stars.”
Four-Square (Walk Through) is one of Hepworth’s most monumental sculptures standing over 4 metres tall. Before she started working in bronze in the 1950s, the scale of her work had been limited by the physicality of carving in stone or wood. Bronze allowed her to create large scale works which coincided with prestigious international commissions and increased demand for public art. In Four-Square (Walk Through), she invites us to question how and what we see - "you can't look at sculpture if you don't move, experience it from all vantage-points, see how the light enters it and changes the emphasis". Are the squares really square? Where do the circular voids lead the eye? How do these shapes speak to the architectural forms around them?
By engaging and interacting with this huge sculpture, walking around it and through it, we are encouraged to see the world in different ways, explore different viewpoints and reflect on different perspectives. It is a lesson in looking and thinking as relevant today as in the 1960s.
The David Parr House,
186 Gwydir Street, Cambridge
When is a home a work of art? In Cambridge we are fortunate to have at least two examples of houses which fit that description: Kettles Yard, “a masterpiece of curatorship”, and the David Parr House, an unprepossessing terraced cottage with an extraordinary interior. The front room of the latter is shown.
David Parr (1854-1927) liked to call this the Drawing Room, perhaps a rather grand title for a room no more than a few metres wide. He was nothing if not house proud, but he had every right to be. Born into a working class family, David Parr had an inauspicious start. His mother died when he was six and his father was a ne’er do well, charged at times with theft and child cruelty. David's break came when, at the age of 17, he was taken on as an apprentice to FR Leach, a Cambridge firm of artisan decorators working with the leading designers of the day, including Charles Kempe, George Bodley and William Morris. Parr went on to become one of Leach’s best craftsmen, working on commissions from Scotland to the Isle of Wight including St James’ Palace and, closer to home, All Saints’ Church, Cambridge. By 1886 he had enough financial security to buy his own home and for the next forty years he set about transforming his small house into his own personal palace with hand painted wall decorations and many other embellishments.
David Parr seems to have taken on board William Morris’s famous maxim: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Every detail of the design, each swirling leaf and abundant flower reveal the skill and dexterity of the painter’s hand and his desire to create beauty in his modest family home. While the rich could employ William Morris to redesign their houses, David Parr was talented and determined enough to do it himself. It is an astonishing achievement. What is equally astonishing is that his artistry was preserved almost intact by his granddaughter, Elsie Palmer, who lived in the house for over 80 years after her grandfather died. In a final piece of serendipity, the house was then able to be bought and conserved by the David Parr House Trust.
As we admire David Parr’s Drawing Room decoration, the words of the popular Victorian verse that he inscribed on the upper text scroll seem particularly apt for today - ‘Swiftly see each moment flies, see and learn be timely wise …. seize the moments as they fly, know to live and learn to die.’ David Parr certainly ‘seized the moments’ to create a unique work of art that was his home.
William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, 1780
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
Trinity College, Cambridge
A few years ago two pictures from Trinity College were put on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The college has a collection of about 240 paintings, most of which are portraits of past alumni, masters and fellows but these two paintings reflected the college’s royal connections. The first was a large portrait of King Henry VIII, the college’s founder and patron. It is by the Flemish artist Hans Eworth (1520-74) and based on a lost composition by Hans Holbein. The portrait normally hangs behind high table in the college dining hall from where it exudes royal power and prerogative. The second painting to be shown at the Fitzwilliam was this one: Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester.
The portrait shows William Frederick, George III’s nephew and future son-in-law, standing proud at the tender age of four. Reynolds, the master portraitist, gives him a stature and confidence beyond his years. How does he achieve this? By using the tools of his trade - pose, costume, facial expression and setting. The boy’s stance, left foot forward and right arm extended to hold his feathered hat and cane, is one of authority. His dusky pink suit with lace collar and cuffs looks back to royal portraits by Van Dyck. His direct stare radiates a sense of entitlement, while the low horizon of the landscape forces the viewer to look up to him. Painted in 1780, the picture shows Reynolds, the preeminent portrait painter of the time, at the height of his power. He was, by then, the first President of the Royal Academy (founded in 1768) and only the second artist to receive a knighthood. One contemporary conceded that his genius was to combine truth with fiction.
So what of the subject himself? William Frederick was the only son of William Henry, 1st Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of George III. Through his mother, Maria Walpole, the illegitimate daughter of Edward Walpole, he was the grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister, giving him a distinguished, if slightly complicated, family tree. The young aristocrat was admitted to Trinity College in 1787, aged 11, and gained his degree three years later. He was, however, no child prodigy and was later renowned for his foolishness rather than his intellect, gaining him the nickname “Silly Billy”. Described by a contemporary as being “large and stout, but with weak, helpless legs”, his pomposity and appearance made him the butt of many satirical cartoons by the likes of James Gillray and others. None of this hindered his army career where he rose to the rank of Field Marshal in 1816 or his appointment as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1811 until his death. Did Sir Joshua Reynolds recognise some of his sitter’s character when he painted this portrait or perhaps he painted what his patron wanted to see? Whatever the answer, the painting is one of the most striking and engaging in the college’s collection.
Sun, Stars, Dawn, 1996
Gillian Ayres (1930-2018)
New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge
Walking into the Fellows Drawing Room at Murray Edwards College the first thing you see is a large painting hanging above the fireplace. In most other Oxbridge colleges a painting in this position would probably be a portrait of an eminent master or alumnus but not at Murray Edwards. Founded in the 1960s and formerly known as New Hall, the college prides itself on being a bastion of women’s education and boasts one of the largest collections of contemporary women’s art in the world. It is fitting that the painting above the fireplace, a riot of pulsating colours, shapes and forms, is by the ‘grande dame’ of British abstraction Gillian Ayres RA OBE.
Gillian Ayres (1930-2018) was born in London and studied at Camberwell School of Art alongside other well known British abstract artists such as Roger Hilton and Howard Hodgkin. In the 1950s she was influenced by Jackson Pollock and American Abstract Expressionism. She went on to develop her own visual language, applying paint with thick impasto, juxtaposing forms and celebrating colour. She has been described as being “besotted by paint - what it felt like physically and what she could do with it. She used her hands, brushes, parts of cardboard boxes and brooms to arrange the vivid images that distinguished her work for more than 60 years”.
The title of the New Hall painting, “Sun, Stars, Dawn”, may imply a subject. Are the circular forms a depiction of the planets? The orange and pink a reference to the sunrise? Like many other artists Gillian Ayres resisted the call for such explanations: “People like to understand, and I wish they wouldn’t, I wish they’d just look. It’s visual … I don’t want this sort of understanding. There is no understanding.”
The fellows of Murray Edwards College may beg to disagree as they rest from their academic endeavours to meet in the drawing room, recently refurbished with a rug and furniture designed to complement the painting. Surely our need to understand and make sense of the world is an inherent part of our human nature? The art of Gillian Ayres invites us to shake off this perceived wisdom by embracing the visual, enjoying colour for colour’s sake and revelling in the mystery of the unknown.
The Gospels of St Augustine, MS 286
Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day when Christians remember the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his arrest. There are many famous artistic depictions of this scene but one of my favourites is in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It is also one of the oldest.
This small illustration is one of twelve comic-strip style scenes from a page of the Gospels of St Augustine, the earliest surviving Gospel Book with figure illumination. The book is believed to have been brought to England by St Augustine when he was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring Christianity to England in 597. Unsurprisingly, some of the illuminations have been lost but two pages of images survive - the frontispiece to Luke's gospel and the illustrations from the Passion narrative, shown here. The six scenes at the top show, from the top left, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Betrayal of Christ, Christ washing the feet of his disciples and the Raising of Lazarus. Why Lazarus you may ask? His story is not strictly speaking part of the Passion narrative but it is included here because John's gospel suggests it was the reason that the Jewish authorities decided to take action against Jesus.
There is another incongruity. In the Last Supper scene there are eight rather than twelve disciples. They are gathered around a circular table with Christ seated in the middle. He is easily recognisable from the cruciform halo behind his head. The simple, naive style makes this image, like the others on the page, easy to read. This is important. The page was designed to be didactic, a visual explanation of the Latin text. At the table all eyes are on Jesus, as the disciples listen intently to what He is saying, although they are yet to understand its significance. He holds the bread in his hand - "this is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19) - it is the moment of the first Eucharist.
I like to imagine St Augustine arriving in Kent in the late 6th century with this precious manuscript in his saddle bag. Then, as now, it would have been a rare and treasured object. Then, as now, it was a book that travelled. In recent years the journey has been from Cambridge to Canterbury where, since 1945, new Archbishops of Canterbury have sworn oaths on the book during their enthronement service, reflecting its deep significance in our nation's Christian heritage. As Dr Christopher de Hamel, former fellow librarian at Corpus Christi College, says: "It is very moving that a book of such a date still has the power to focus the mind spiritually".
Cyclamen and Primula, c 1924
Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981)
On my last visit to Kettle Yard, just three weeks ago, I learnt something new. This, in itself, is not unusual. It happens each time I visit the house as I invariably see something I have missed on previous occasions. It may be a natural object juxtaposed with a painting, a cylindrical jar standing proud in the midst of potted plants or the ephemeral effect of light falling on the wooden floorboards.
This time I was looking at Winifred Nicholson's Cyclamen and Primula, painted almost 100 years ago. Born Winifred Roberts, she was already an established artist when she met and married Ben Nicholson in 1920. A few years later they became neighbours of Jim and Helen Ede in Hampstead. Jim later wrote that it was the Nicholsons who introduced him to contemporary art and that "Winifred .. taught me much about the fusing of art and daily living, and Ben that traffic in Piccadilly had the rhythm of a ballet, and a game of tennis the perfection of an old master. Life with them at once seemed lively, satisfying and special".
This painting of a cyclamen and a primula sitting on a window sill seems to epitomise this fusion of art and life. What could be more everyday? Yet Winifred Nicholson gives her quotidian subjects a beauty, balance and dignity beyond the ordinary. The two plants, still in their paper wrapping, seem to salute one another. The muted overall colour scheme is broken up by the purple of the cyclamen flowers and the sharp yellows and green of the primula leaves. Light floods through the window to cast sharp shadows onto the sill. In the background are the mountains of Switzerland where Ben and Winifred bought a house in 1921 and spent their summers.
What I didn't know until my last visit to Kettles Yard was that the inspiration for these paintings was a gift from Ben. Winifred later wrote "Ben had given me a pot of lilies of the valley ... in a tissue paper wrapper – this I stood on the window sill – behind was the azure blue, Mountain, Lake, Sky, all there – and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe ... after that the same theme painted itself on that window sill, in cyclamen, primula or cineraria ... I have often wished for another painting spell like that, but never had one."
Jim Ede bought the painting over 30 years later in the late 1950s when it was offered to him by a Cambridge art dealer. It was covered in dirt and barely visible but after he had given it "a good scrubbing" he described it as a "delight of sunlit shadows and insubstantial substance".
If you want to see the sunlit shadows at Kettles Yard this afternoon you can visit the House via their live webcam www.kettlesyard.co.uk/kettles-yard-webcam/. Look out for William Staithe Murray's Jar (The Heron) next to Ben Nicholson's 1944 (mugs) in the top left. You'll have the whole house to yourself and as Jim wrote to an undergraduate in 1964 "Do come in as often as you like - the place is only alive when used".
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Gallery 5, Fitzwilliam Museum
Let's start where it all began with a painting from the Fitzwilliam Museum. "If ever you get a case of post-Christmas blues in January," I tell people when we look at it together,
"Come and sit in front of this painting in Gallery 5 and I guarantee you will feel better". Painted in 1886 after Monet had settled in Giverny, it is a joyous reminder of nature's bounty and a glorious depiction of spring.
Monet captures the moment when the orchard is just about to burst into full bloom. The sunshine through the trees casts flickering shadows on the soft grassy glades below. Seated in the foreground is Suzanne Hoschedé, the daughter of Monet's mistress and future wife Alice and his own son, Jean, whose mother, Camille, had sadly died in 1877. They sit together partly encircled in the trunk and bough of a tree, the red of Suzanne's hair ribbon contrasting with the vivid green of the grass to make it appear even brighter.
Look closely at that tree trunk. It is astonishing to see how many different colours Monet used to paint it - yellow, violet, blue, pink and indigo but not a brushstroke of brown in sight. It was this use of colour, amongst other things, that appalled the critics. They accused Monet and his fellow Impressionists of "violettomania" and one commentator described the third Impressionist exhibition of 1877 as having the overall effect of a worm-eaten Roquefort cheese!
Now we look at paintings like this with a sense of wonder and appreciation. A reminder in these difficult times of brighter, sunnier days ahead.