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.

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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.

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

Scout Scar and Cunswick Fell

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After we’d finished looking round the Elisabeth Frink exhibition at Abbot Hall we popped into Kendal to pick up some bits and bobs and then drove to the Scout Scar car park, a short distance to the west of the town. It was a nice day and we’d decided to explore Scout Scar and Cunswick Fell, limestone ridges, just inside the Lake District National Park and from which there are marvellous views of the higher fells.

We crossed the road to the south of the car park and took the path up to the top of the ridge. It was easy walking as we followed the ridge southwards. Immediately we were greeted with views of the fells from Coniston Old Man, across to Langdale and then round to the Fairfield Horseshoe and, to the north, the Kentmere Round, with the Howgills and Yorkshire Dales to the east and down to Morecambe Bay in the south. The photos I took really can’t do justice to the views, but that’s often the case isn’t it?

A short distance along the ridge there’s a shelter, the “Mushroom” (the clues in the name)which has a “toposcope” inside the rim of the roof, which helps visitors to identify the various hills and other features. For some reason I didn’t take a photo of the shelter (unusual for me!).

We carried on along the ridge

until the path started to descend down towards the village of Brigsteer. At that point we turned around and took another path a little to the east

and set back along the ridge, eventually reaching the trig point.

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We carried on back towards the Mushroom (there it is in the distance)

and then back towards the car park along the edge of the ridge

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Reaching the car park we now took the path heading north towards the second of the limestone hills – Cunswick Fell,

with yet more great views of the fells

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Reaching the summit we took in the views and then turned round and retraced our steps back to the car park. It was nearly 7 o’clock by now and we were getting hungry so we decided to drive over to the Eagle and Child at Staveley where we had a rather enjoyable meal.

So another good day out. These modest hills are just to the west of the Kendall by-pass which we’ve zoomed down so many times without realising just how pleasant and peaceful they are. I reckon being so close to Kendal they’ll be a popular place for weekend and afternoon strolls. The car park was certainly much busier when we left than when we arrived and the number of walkers, dog walkers and runners increased as the day went on, particularly after 5 o’clock.

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.

Kendal Castle

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After our visit to Abbot Hall to see the Julian Cooper exhibition we had a wander round the town centre and then, as it had turned into a pleasant afternoon, we decided to walk up to Kendal Castle. The Castle was built in the early 12th Century on a glacial hill left behind from the last ice age, to the east of the town. It was more of a fortified manor house  for the local barons, than a military stronghold, but it would have dominated the town, looking over it from it’s prominent high position. And it would have been a potent symbol of their wealth and power.

Crossing the River Kent near to Abbot Hall, it’s a short walk to Castle Hill.

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It’s then a short, if steep, climb up to the castle.

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I didn’t have my camera with me, but the good light meant I was able to get some decent shots using my phone.

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Visibility was good so there were great views over to Red Screes and the Kentmere fells.

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We could clearly see Yoke and Ill Bell that we’d climber only a few weeks before.

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We had a quick look round the interior of the ruined castle

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George Shaw: My Back to Nature at Abbot Hall

Last Saturday we drove up to Kendal to visit the latest exhibition showing at Abbot Hall. It’s devoted to the work of George Shaw, a working class artist from Coventry who was a Turner Prize nominee in 2011 for The Sly and Unseen Day, a series of paintings of Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where he grew up. As with the present exhibition, these were painted using Humbrol enamel paints, which I used to use as a young teenager to paint Airfix and Tamiya model aircraft and military vehicles.

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From a distance his paintings have a photographic quality – perhaps not surprising as he paints from photographs – but closer up it’s clear they’re not. Imperfections in the surface due to the use of his unusual medium become visible and the paint has an unusual sheen quite different from more traditional media. He doesn’t romanticise his subject, but shows it “as is”. However, they’re usually devoid of people so the scenes look deserted and a little intimidating.

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We’d seen The Sly and Unseen Day at the Baltic in 2011 and were keen to visit the current exhibition, which  was originally shown at the National Gallery where he spent two years as Associate Artist (2014-2016) The paintings are inspired by woodland scenes from the National Gallery’s collection – three of which (by Piero del Pollaiuolo, Nicolas Poussin and John Constable) are on loan to Abbot Hall and showing in another room in the Gallery.

But these are urban woods, in and around the estate where George Shaw grew up. They’re not idealised Sylvain landscapes, but clearly well used by locals who leave behind the residue of their visits – litter, beer cans, discarded mattresses, pornographic magazines and damaged and vandalised trees. The scenes are very typical of woodland bordering urban areas. There are similar scenes in some parts of the Plantations at Wigan.

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Taking the paintings by the Masters

Shaw is interested in how their stories – often featuring violence, illicit sex and drunkenness – have parallels in the way that people might behave in the woods today, when they think they are unobserved.

He considers his paintings to be modern equivalents, showing evidence of the same tyes of activities, or at least the modern equivalent. One major difference being the absence of people – except for one painting where the artist himself can be seen from the rear, clearly relieving himself against a tree.

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George Shaw was brought up as a Catholic and that certainly comes across in a number of works in the exhibition.

This is complemented by Shaw’s interest in Christian imagery, especially how landscape artists of the past often alluded to the Crucifixion in their depiction of trees.

such as this one

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one of a group of three paintings that can clearly be interpreted as a representation of the crucifixion.

There’s a series of 14 charcoal drawings – The Loneliness of the Middle‑Aged Life Model  – which are self portraits showing the artist in various poses – reaching, stretching, kneeling , and crucified. They are clearly  inspired by the fourteen stations of the cross.

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There’s also a series of drawings of the head of Christ

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It was also interesting to see the selection the three of the artist’s sketchbooks from his residency which give a further insight to his inspiration and technique.

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There’s a video accompanying the exhibition where George Shaw talks about his  work, his development as an artist and his residency at the National Gallery. He comes across as a very engaging, pleasant, unpretentious and humorous individual. We spoke to a some of the Gallery staff who had talked to him when he visited the Gallery with his family and they all had nothing but good words for him.

People on Paper at Abbot Hall

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To finish off our short break in the Lakes we drove over to Kendal to visit the latest exhibition at Abbot Hall. People on Paper , as the title implies, features drawings of people by British artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from the Arts Council Collection with loans from the British Council Collection.

The show includes drawings by nearly 50 artists,  from the early twentieth century, including Gwen John (with the earliest drawing in the exhibition), Augustus John and Walter Sickert, right through to more modern artists such as Euan Uglow, Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Antony Gormley.

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Drawing of a Girl, Alice (1974) by Lucien Freud

Drawing people is inevitably figurative but there were some more abstract approaches, particularly this sketch by Mimei Thomson (Liquid Portrait 4, 2008)

Mimei Thompson, Liquid Portrait 4, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist

The works included simple sketches (some unfinished), more complex drawings, watercolours and even some incorporation of multi-media as in Kate Davis’ drawing Partners Study (Figure 1) from 2005 which incorporates a ceramic “telephone” made from small slabs of white clay.

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Walking into the exhibition, the first drawing I saw, almost facing the door, was a rather creepy sketch by L S Lowry Woman With Long Hair (1964). The other drawings in the first room, from the early part of the 20th Century were a little more “normal”, including Gwen John’s simple sketch of the head of a young woman

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Head of a Woman (c 1910)

and this drawing by Harold Gilman,

Harold Gilman. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Woman Combing Her Hair (1911)

although there was also an early work by Antony Gorman.

The second room brought us forward in time and included works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth, Reconstruction, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Reconstruction (1947)

The third room included some later works, including this simple sketch by Euan Uglow

Girl close to Uglow

Girl Close To (1968)

Another enjoyable exhibition at one of our favourite Galleries. A good selection of artists with works encompassing a wide range of styles and approaches.