I have mentioned before my tendency to put off going to exhibitions on the ground that there will be plenty of time. In the autumn of 2014, for various reasons, some more compelling than others, I spent a lot of time failing to arrange to go to any of the ‘blockbusters’ on offer in London, with the result that next week I am cramming late Rembrandt, late Turner and Moroni into one day, and on Friday I ‘did’ William Morris and John Constable.
‘Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1840–1960’, at the National Portrait Gallery, started off brilliantly, with familiar images – ‘Willow Bough’, a Sussex chair, the self-portrait sketch, the distinctly iffy painting of Janey as ‘La Belle Iseult’ – and others less so: affectionate cartoon caricatures of ‘Topsy’ by Burne-Jones, and increasingly vicious and unpleasant ones by Rossetti (whose famous ‘charisma’ must really have been something to disguise such an unpleasant underlying personality); a pencil portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones by Rossetti; plans for the Red House by Philip Webb.
There were also some of the books, including a Kelmscott Chaucer (with the elaborate, somewhat absurd, shrine-like cabinet in which to house it, designed by C.F.A. Voysey), and News from Nowhere, as well as catalogues from ‘The Firm’. There were two great ceramic pieces, one a lustre vase by William de Morgan (son of the mathematician and his Spiritualist wife), who also wrote novels, one of which (Alice-for-Short), dedicated to ‘E.B.J. and W.M.’, I picked up years ago at the second-hand bookstall at Wimpole Hall. (I must re-read it.)
The other was by Bernard Leach: a wonderful shape, Japanese-inspired, with harmonious decoration which was perfectly appropriate (and perfectly applied) to the curves of the pot. There were pictures of Leach at work, and a short film of him throwing a pot in old age: he was clearly talking (presumably about what he was doing), but the film was, alas, silent.
Among the ‘legacy’ elements of the exhibition, it was exciting to examine the original plan for Letchworth Garden City (at least two cricket pitches, no obvious football ground), and even more so to see a portrait of Ebenezer Howard, rubicund and twinkly behind a desk on which was spread possibly the very same plan, with lots of green on it. (There’s a very bad image of it here.) There was also a film of Howard’s funeral at Letchworth in 1928, and a mention of C.R. Ashbee (about whom the splendid Gentle Author is blogging today!). But I felt that the whole thing rather tailed off, with photographs of various epigoni in subsequent generations, but not enough about their work.
The Constable, at the V & A, was completely knock-out – to me, at any rate. I had read much less about it than about either the Turner or the Rembrandt, but I thought it was brilliant. It had a real argument – that Constable was very far from being the instinctive child of nature, painting his native wood-notes wild in the open air, but in fact spent a lot of time reading aesthetic theory from Leonardo to the eighteenth-century Academicians, taking advice from Benjamin West, and studying Old Master works via the medium of engraved prints, of which he had a large collection, many of which sold for greater amounts after his death than some of his own works.
Constable’s accuracy in copying (in ink) the small, complex prints of Ruisdael is staggering; and there is a nice comment about one of his oil copies. The duke of Wellington, owner of the original, insisted that Constable distinguish his version in some way, so that there could be no future mistaking of the one for the other. Constable added a dog.
I was fascinated to see that some of the famous cloud studies were annotated with the names – cirrus, etc. – that Luke Howard had classified only in 1803. It was also gratifying to see C.R. Leslie’s biography of his friend cited so often in the labelling! But the enormous value of the exhibition was the bringing together of pencil sketches, watercolours, oil sketches and the final ‘six-footers’ of ‘The Hay Wain’, ‘The Leaping Horse’ and ‘Salisbury Cathedral’, to demonstrate not only the pains Constable took with composition, but also the use of ‘motifs’ sketched months or years before in building up the finished pictures.
It was good to see the Canaletto-influenced ‘Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ – this is the one which Constable was finalising on Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy when Turner appeared and famously ‘fired a pistol’ by adding a red blob to the middle of his seascape, (hung next to it) and apparently ruining the canvas: he later wiped the paint into the shape of a red marker buoy, refocusing the picture in an original and startling way.
The only complaint I have to make about this show is that some the prints displayed over two of the walls, in the authentic floor-to-ceiling manner, were simply too high for someone with my particular combination of long- and short-sightedness to see properly. A grand afternoon out – and I’d thoroughly recommend it, but both exhibitions ended on Sunday!