In the matter of ‘culture’, I am an incorrigible procrastinator. I note with excitement a forthcoming exhibition in London or Cambridge, see that it is on for four or six months, think, ‘Plenty of time!’, and end up squashing in on the last day. I wouldn’t have seen the amazing ‘Search for Immortality’ exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum (10 minutes’ walk from my house), which was on only (!!) from May to November last year, if the museum had not kindly offered a private view to the staff of the Press in the final week, with the added bonus of a talk from the curator. It was astounding, and I dragged Him Indoors over on the final Saturday so that he could be gobsmacked too.
Following this pattern of last-minute raids I went to London on Friday afternoon to see ‘The Lost Prince’ at the National Portrait Gallery, and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain – both finished on Sunday (13 January), and both were very busy.
The death of Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1612, like the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817, was one of those ‘what if’ moments. If the brilliant, highly educated, deeply Protestant Henry had not died at the age of eighteen, might the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War not have happened, or happened differently? And might Shakespeare’s Cardenio have survived in the canon rather than slipping almost out of sight for four hundred years?
The artefacts and artworks in the exhibition were fascinating, as was some of the information. For example, Prince Henry spent £7,000 in jewellery during his lifetime, but none of it is known to have survived. One of those handy calculators on Google gives the present-day value of that sum as between £1.1 million and £255 million (!) depending on the criteria you use…
Most touching, perhaps, were the Renaissance bronze horse from his collection which his younger brother Charles gave him to hold as he lay on his deathbed, and the remaining parts of the effigy dressed in his clothes which was put on display in Westminster Abbey after his funeral – the clothes were quite quickly stolen, alas, and the head and hands were of wax, but the wooden torso and legs, crumbling at the feet, have survived. Music composed in mourning for the Prince was played on a loop in the ‘funeral’ room, but to my surprise the most famous of these pieces, Thomas Tomkins’ anthem, ‘When David Heard’, was not in the compilation.
After that rather sober experience, we caught a red bus (a really novel experience for us provincial hayseeds!) to Pimlico for the Pre-Raphaelites. There was a certain sense of déjà vu in this, though I had to look it up to find that I last went to such an exhibition at the Tate in 2004: then it was called ‘Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature’, and now it’s ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ (though – American readers take note – it reappears in the National Gallery of Art in Washington in February as ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900’).
All the usual suspects were there both times (the Tate’s own collection being of course comprehensive and superb). But I must confess that this time round I was merely confirmed in my opinion that I don’t really like a lot of this stuff. Hypocritical, I know, since I’ve spent a lot of time recently urging you to read all sorts of books by and about Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Morris et al. – but really, the weird women (especially in the section called ‘Beauty’), the weird eye-rolling in all the Holman Hunts, the weird colour combinations… And the caption to ‘The Scapegoat’ said that the goat was actually dying as Hunt painted it – why didn’t he give it some water and part of his packed lunch? In my defence, I can only argue that their lives and the social milieu in which they moved were at least as interesting as the painting and the poetry.
What I do like is the close-up, immaculate detail which of course was one of the Pre-Raphaelite USPs: the flowers and grasses in the foreground, the handling of textiles (and the poor old scapegoat’s fur). This, I assume, marks me out as the sort of philistine who prefers ‘hand-craft’ to ‘conceptual art’ and figurative painting to abstract, and I plead guilty – I’m infuriated by artists who could draw brilliantly but usually chose not to (e.g. Picasso) quite as much as I am by those who do draw but clearly can’t.
There was an unfamiliar (to me) portrait of Ruskin, Henry Wallis’s histrionic Chatterton (the three-volume edition of the works of Wordsworth’s ‘marvellous boy’ is now available), and Millais’ Mariana in the Moated Grange, with whose aching-back posture I always sympathise. There were the hangings designed by Burne-Jones and Morris for Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell (grandfather of Gertrude) and embroidered by his wife and daughters over many years. And there was William Morris’s only painting of his wife-to-be, Janey – he is alleged to have written on the canvas ‘I cannot paint you but I love you’, and he was not wrong, but all the textiles surrounding her are (predictably) wonderfully rendered. Indeed, from my point of view, the highlights of the whole thing were the Morris ‘Peacocks’ carpet, the Kelmscott Chaucer, and the original fresh-as-a-daisy roll of ‘Cray’ printed cloth from 1884. But then, I may not know much about art…