Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud

John Ruskin, the noted Victorian Art Critic and Social and Political thinker was born 8th of February 1819. Consequently a number of exhibitions and other events are being held around the country to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. Ruskin spent his last years at Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water, overlooking the Old Man and the other fells, so had a strong connection with the Lake District. Abbot Hall in Kendal have a strong connection with Ruskin and have a number of his drawings and watercolours in their collection. So, it’s not surprising that in this celebratory year they’re holding an exhibition.  Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud has been produced in partnership with York Art Gallery and University of York and is showing in Kendal from 12 July to 5 October.

Ruskin championed the work of the great British artist JMW Turner, proclaiming him to be ‘the greatest of the age’ and so the exhibition is intended to be

the first in-depth examination of the relationship between both men, their work, and the impact Ruskin had in highlighting climate change.

Abbot Hall website

Our first ever visit to Abbot Hall, way back in April 2012, was to see another exhibition featuring the works of Turner – Turner and his Contemporaries: The Hickman Bacon Watercolour Collection – we’ve been back many times since.

The exhibition includes a large number of paintings and drawings by both Ruskin and Turner, together with some by their contemporaries, and occupies the whole of the first floor of the Gallery.

The curators also commissioned contemporary artist Emma Stibbon to produce some large scale works in response to Ruskin’s concerns about the environment.

In June 2018, Royal Academician Stibbon retraced the steps of Turner and Ruskin visiting the Alps. She took the route made by Ruskin in June 1854 when he produced a series of daguerreotypes (early photographs) of Alpine scenery, to see what remains of the glaciers today.

Her work shows how geography has been impacted by climate change over the last two centuries.

Abbot Hall website

Turner’s paintings are usually nothing short of breathtaking and that was certainly the case with those works – mainly watercolours of British and alpine landscapes – included in the exhibition

JMW Turner, The Passage of Mount St Gothard, Taken from the Centre of the Teufels Broch (Devil’s Bridge), 1804 © Lakeland Arts Trust

Ruskin himself wasn’t a bad draftsman and water-colourist himself (although his paintings are not in Turner’s league, there aren’t many artists who are) and the exhibition featured a large number of his architectural drawings and landscapes. During his time at Brantwood he painted many pictures of the lake and fells, including this one of the Old Man seen from his home over the lake.

ohn Ruskin, Dawn, Coniston, 1873, Watercolour over pencil, Acquired with the support of a V&A Purchase Grant and the Friends of Abbot Hall, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria

During his travels in the Alps Ruskin photographed a glacier in the Alps, near Chamonix (photography being yet another of his interests)

John Ruskin and Frederick Crawley’s ‘Chamonix, Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif’ photograph taken in June 1854

Emma Stibbon returned to the glacier and took photographs using another early photographic process, cyanotype, from the same position. Her images reveal just how far it had retreated as a result of climate change.

Stibbon is quoted in the Guardian

When we think of the Alps,” said Stibbon, “we think of iconic white peaks. By the end of this century, there probably won’t be any snow.”Advertisement

She added that Ruskin was ahead of his time in realising “the Industrial Revolution was affecting air quality and that air pollution was linked to the use of coal. He could see that glaciers move and I think he suspected that there was some [ice] recession, which would have been starting around that period in the 1850s.”

Another interesting and thought provoking exhibition at Abbot Hall.

“Refuge:The Art of Belonging” at Abbot Hall

“No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”  (From Home by Warsan Shire)

The world’s a pretty depressing place at the moment. War and poverty has led to waves of migration – people fleeing to the more prosperous parts of the world, seeking safety, a better life, or both. Sadly, the response of many people has been xenophobia, fear and a lack of compassion. A mood whipped up by the right wing press and populist politicians.

We’ve been here before, many times. Over the centuries migrants who have settled here and contributed to our culture and prosperity, but who were initially greeted with the same reaction. The 1930’s are an example when Jews and other “undesirables” had to flee Nazi repression and death camps. The reaction then, from the usual suspects, was the same as we see today.

Despite the hysteria of the likes of the Mail, some German Jewish refugees and radicals were able to settle in Britain, although the authorities didn’t make it easy. Amongst them were intellectuals and artists, some of whom made a lasting contribution to British business, science and art.

The current exhibition at Abbot Hall in Kendal, Refuge: The Art of Belonging tells the story of artists who entered Britain as a result of Nazi occupation, which is part of Insiders/Outsiders – a nationwide arts festival taking place throughout 2019 to celebrate refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture. We visited on the last day on our short break in Cartmel as Kendal was only a short diversion on our journey home.

The exhibition features paintings and ceramics from Lakeland Arts’ own collection with some loans from public and private collections . Artists include Kurt Schwitters, Hilde Goldschmidt, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Martin Bloch.

I was familiar with some of the works. This little collage, made chiefly of wooden scraps upon a wooden base, by Kurt Schwitters, the master of “Merz”, is often on display in the Gallery

Schwitters was a key figure of Dadaism but as a “degenerate artist” he fled Germany, initially to Norway before moving to Britain. At the outbreak of WWII, together with many other “enemy alien” refugees he was interned on the Isle of Man where he would create abstract sculptures out of leftover porridge! (They soon went mouldy). After his release in 1941 he moved to London where he formed a relationship with a younger woman, Edith Thomas, who he nicknamed Wantee (she was always asking him if he wanted tea – a woman after my own heart, I think!). After the war they ended up moving to the Lake District, where he would paint portraits and landscapes to earn a little money, and he spent his last years at Elterwater. The Lakeland Arts Trust have a small collection of his works.

Another refugee artist who lived in the Lakes, and who was a friend of Schwitters, was
the Austrian Expressionist painter Hilde Goldschmidt. When she arrived London in 1939 with her mother, she had little money so set up a small business, the Golly Studio, making and selling gloves and mittens to give themselves an income. Like Schwitters, she moved to the Lake District settling on the Langdale Estate near Ambleside.

Again, the Lakeland Arts Trust have a small collection of her paintings.

Martin Bloch was a German-Jewish artist who came to Britain as a refugee in 1934 via Denmark.  At the beginning of the war he was interned in Huyton, near Liverpool. On his release he painted blitzed London cityscapes. During the post-war years he painted the English countryside, and stayed in the countryside staying with his friend and fellow émigré artist Joseph Herman. In 1947 he became a British citizen, and from 1949 until his death in 1954 he taught at Camberwell school of Art,

Martin Bloch, Scorched Trees, (1943 )

Another artist who figured prominently in the exhibition, and who I’d not come across before (at least, as far as I can recall) was Fred Uhlman.   He had qualified as a lawyer in Stuttgart, with a doctorate in both civil and church law, but, being Jewish had to flee Germany in 1933.  He initially went to Paris, but as he was unable to work there legally he moved to Spain, leaving due to the start of the Civil War, moved back to France and then on to London. He married Diana Croft, the daughter of the right wing MP (and, like many of his kind today, an opponent of allowing in refugees) who wasn’t too pleased, to put it mildly. They were together for almost 50 years. Another one interned on the Isle of Man, where he had his portrait painted by Kurt Schwitters

Fred Uhlman (1901–1985)

he was released six months later and reunited with his wife and with his daughter, who had been born while he was away. Several of his pictures are included in the exhibition.

There were a number of beautiful ceramics displayed by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie . Coper was born in Chemnitz, Germany, and fled to Britain in 1939. He was interned as in Canada for two years returning to Britain in 1942. In 1946, he began working as an assistant in the studio of Lucie Rie, an Austrian Jewish refugee, even though he had no previous experience in ceramics. I particularly liked Coper’s pieces, especially the hourglass shaped vases.

There were plenty of other artists included in the exhibition, some well known such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach . Both are probably considered to be British artists but they were child refugees born in Germany. Of course, for some people, it’s convenient to forget that. After all “we want to claim our country back”.

Alison Watt: A Shadow On The Blind

The main exhibition currently showing at Abbot t Hall at the moment features the work of the Sottish artist, Alison Watt. During our visit last week, perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t attracting as much attention as the tapestries by the much better known Grayson Perry, but we spent some time looking at her meticulously painted pictures.

The Abbot Hall website tells us:

Her work first came to public attention in 1987 when she won the National Portrait Gallery’s coveted annual award, and in the late 1980s and early 90s she became known for her paintings of figures, often female nudes. In the late 1990s her focus shifted away from the figure and she began to explore the possibility of painting drapery as a surrogate for the human body.

They were mainly monochrome trompe d’oiel images of relatively simple objects – mainly plain fabrics and electrical flex. They were very convincing, particularly when viewed from a few feet away. Simple, but very effective. They really need to be seen “in the flesh” to be properly appreciated.

Alison Watt: A Shadow On The Blind from Lakeland Arts on Vimeo.

The Life of Julie Cope at Abbot Hall

Last week I managed to take a day off and we decided to drive up to Kendal to have a look at the current exhibitions at Abbot Hall in Kendal. They’re currently showing a pair of linked tapestries by Grayson Perry illustrating the life of Julie Cope, a fictional heroine from his home county of Essex. Her life from her birth during the floods on Canvey Island back in the 50’s through growing up in Basildon, getting married and having children, separating from her husband, becoming a mature student, finding a new partner and being killed in her early sixties in an accident with a moped.

The tapestries have been acquired by the Crafts Council, and they’re touring them round the country. They’re on display at Abbot Hall until 16 February next year, audio recording The Ballad of Julie Cope, a 3000 word narrative written and read by Perry himself telling the story illustrated on the tapestries.

A Perfect Match, Grayson Perry, 2015. Crafts Council Collection: 2016.18. Purchase  supported by Art Fund (with a contribution from The Wolfson Foundation) and a donation from Maylis and James Grand. Courtesy the Artist, Paragon Press, and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

In Its Familiarity, Golden, Grayson Perry, 2015. Crafts Council Collection: 2016.19. Purchase supported by Art Fund (with a contribution from The Wolfson Foundation) and a donation from Maylis and James Grand. Courtesy the Artist, Paragon Press, and Victoria Miro, London. © Grayson Perry

In a way, Perry has reinvented the tapestry for the 21st Century, taking modern themes and telling stories through a traditional form of woven comic strip. He’s a very astute observer of society and this is reflected in many of his works which are commentaries on various aspects of contemporary British life and society, of which these tapestries are another good example.

Rather like the animator, Nick Park (of Wallace and Grommet fame) there are many small details incorporated into Perry’s works that really bring out the flavour of the times and the places he’s illustrating – everyday objects, architectural features, musical logos, fashion to mention a few.

In conjunction with the Abbot Hall exhibition, Blackwell, 20 minutes drive away, are showing three of Grayson Perry’s pots which they have on loan. We drove over later in the day to take a look. No photos allowed of these works but they do have a press photo of one of them

Melanie, (2014) On loan from York Museums Trust

Elisabeth Frink: Fragility and Power at Abbot Hall

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Last week we went to have a look at the latest exhibition at Abbot Hall in Kendal. It’s devoted to the work of the sculptor Elisabeth Frink.

We’re quite familiar with her work – there’s a good selection of her sculptures, including the three Riache Warriors, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and I’ve seen other sculptures in various locations including Tate Modern, Paternoster Square in London, Chatsworth and Merrion Square in Dublin.

The Abbot Hall exhibition has 50 works from throughout her career on display, including sculpture, maquettes and works on paper. The majority are in the main galleries on the first floor but visitors are greeted by a Riache Warrior in the lobby and there’s a Walking Madonna in one of the downstairs rooms in amongst the Georgian furniture.

As usual, no photos allowed, but these are a selection of Press images.

This is an early work Portrait of a young man (1962)

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There were several of her animal sculptures, including Harbinger birds

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Many of Frink’s sculptures I’ve seen in the past are statues or busts of men and there were a number of the latter in the exhibition including Easter Head

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and this rather disturbing and frightening Goggle Head, one of a series produced while she was living in France from 1967 to 1970 and which were influenced by events in Algeria and other parts of North Africa.

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The Goggle Heads were inspired by media coverage of Moroccan General Mohammed Oufkir, who had been accused of ordering the assassination in Paris of the exiled politician Ben Bark, and was usual seen in photographs with his eyes hidden by sunglasses.

Goggle Heads are no longer warriors or soldiers but sophisticated criminal types, their identities hidden behind polished goggles, displaying a bullish arrogance and suaveness. The double edged point of these glasses however, is that these men lack vision and they mask a vulnerability, as Peter Shaffer wrote: ‘the constant wearing of dark glasses always speaks of impotence to me: a fear of having scrutiny returned – the secret terror of the torturer’ (Southeby’s)

The first room in the exhibition features work by sculptors and other artists who were working around the same time has Frink, including Barbara Hepworth, FE McWilliam, Lynn Chadwick Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler. Apparently, the latter was dismissive of Elisabeth Frink, believing that women could not be successful as sculptors. Well, he got that wrong.

Katie Spragg at Blackwell

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So this weekend the “Beast from the East” made a comeback. Although the east and south east were worst hit, snow, freezing temperatures and a strong wind in the North West meant that we cancelled a planned short break walking around Ullswater. So stuck in the house I had the opportunity to write up about an exhibition we saw the last time we were up in the Lakes at the end of January (when the weather was less awful!).

While we are Abbot Hall visiting the Land|Sea|Life exhibition, as usual we had a look at the other rooms in the Gallery. On display were a couple of works by Katie Spragg, a taster for her exhibition showing at the Lakeland Art’s Trust other main venue, Blackwell.

Katie Spragg creates ceramic works but they’re not the usual pots and vessels. They’re uncoloured, ghostly, reproductions of plants – grasses and flowers. She also produces animations using her ceramics and illustrations.

At Abbot hall there were two animated pieces. In the Meadow illustrated the effect of the elements and people on a grassy meadow

For the other piece, While Away, vsitors could sit in a deck chair to watch grass made of porcelain blow in the wind.

Intrigued we decided to drive over to Blackwell to take a look at the works on display in the Arts and Crafts House.

Blackwell’s website tells us

The exhibition of ceramics at Blackwell will showcase eight new responses to the Arts and Crafts house and the surrounding landscape, alongside six existing works previously displayed by the Craft Council COLLECT at the Saatchi Gallery, Miami Art Week and the British Ceramic Biennial Award show.

Spragg spent a week at Blackwell in November and was inspired to create new works based on her experience. She said, “In the mornings Blackwell feels very serene. The nooks and corners of the house lend themselves to daydreaming, particularly at this time of day. I became interested in how the landscape is framed through the windows of the house and also how nature is brought inside.”

Most of the works were displayed in one of the exhibition rooms upstairs, but three had been located downstairs – two in the White Drawing Room and a third high up on the window sill in the Great Hall.

As well as displaying her work in standard style Perspex boxes, she also uses Victorian glass domes, “peephole boxes” and other types of cabinets.

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Painting Pop at Abbot Hall

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A couple of weeks ago, at the end of my week off work, we drove over to Kendal to visit the latest exhibition at Abbot Hall. which

celebrates British Pop Art from the early 1960s, including work by Sir Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney and Allen Jones borrowed from major collections such as Tate, National Portrait Gallery and Government Art Collection.

The 1960’s was when society began to change. Wartime austerity was behind us, National Service had ended and there was an explosion of creativity in music and the arts. The 50’s had been grey, the 1960’s were full of colour. Old ideas were being questioned and revolution was in the air. Mind you, I grew up in the 60’s in a small industrial town in Lancashire and I have to say most of this passed me by, but watching the news gave us glimpses of what was happening in that distant country called London and the rest of the world.

The Tate website tells us that Pop Art

began as a revolt against the dominant approaches to art and culture and traditional views on what art should be. Young artists felt that what they were taught at art school and what they saw in museums did not have anything to do with their lives or the things they saw around them every day. Instead they turned to sources such as Hollywood movies, advertising, product packaging, pop music and comic books for their imagery

Probably the most well known exponents of Pop Art are the Americans, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns, but this exhibition concentrates on British artists. It shows the contribution they made to the style.

The exhibition focuses on 1962, the year of Ken Russell’s documentary ‘Pop Goes the Easel’ featuring Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips, which was broadcast as part of the BBC’s Monitor arts strand.

No photos allowed in the exhibition but these are some Press Images that show some of the paintings on display.

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Probably one of the most famous Pop Art works is Andy Warhol’s series of prints of Marilyn Monroe. She also features in a painting by Pauline Boty Colour Her Gone which is used on the poster for the exhibition. It’s a more conventional portrait than Warhol’s image and the actress comes across more as a human being.

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As part of the exhibition the gallery have recreated a 1960’s living room. Probably more representative a of a trendy middle class home than the one I grew up in, but it certainly brought back memories. The wallpaper, record player, television set, telephone and sideboard were all evocative of the period.

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To complement Painting Pop, Abbot Hall is also showing Hockney’s complete print series A Rake’s Progress. It was inspired by a trip he made to New York and “the Rake” has more than a passing resemblance to the artist himself.

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