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September 2005

Vol. 147 | No. 1230

Painting in England

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Editorial

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LAST MONTH THE Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in collaboration with the Wolfson Foundation, announced grants totalling £4 million to benefit forty museums and galleries in England, the fourth such annual award by this partnership. Seven of the forty are in London, the rest being widely spaced over the country, including castles, dockyards, open-air museums, the National Football Museum (Preston) and Robert Smythson’s great gutted Wollaton Hall, near Nottingham. The grants go towards everything from redisplay and refurbishment to ‘interpretative signs’ and the provision of audio-guides. ‘Access’ is the mantra occurring throughout – physical, educational or social; all are combined, for example, in plans for the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool (granted £225,000), a rare purpose-built structure to house one man’s collection. Here, a ‘fully accessible’ entrance and reception will be made where visitors are to be ‘greeted by staff’ and whisked off, perhaps, to the new ‘flexible learning suite’ which will contain an ‘interactive “Artbase” space’ alongside opportunities to draw, follow trails and complete quizzes. All this chimes with the acceptable face of today’s museums, many of which, particularly the smaller, regional ones, are admittedly in urgent need of physical improvements (though not necessarily of expansion). But what of the collections within?

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  • 'Mysterious wisdom won by toil': new light on Samuel Palmer's 'Lonely tower'

    By William Vaughan,Elizabeth Barker

    SAMUEL PALMER'S DEPICTIONS of The lonely tower – a subject taken from Milton’s early poem Il Penseroso – rank among his most impressive later works. Repeated on a number of occasions, the composition is best known in one of its last manifestations, as an etching from 1879 (Fig.1). In this version, the isolated hilltop tower, with its single light shining out against a darkened sky, forms a particularly haunting image. It was this print that prompted W.B. Yeats to make what is probably the most famous literary reference to Palmer. This comes in the poem The Phases of the Moon in which Yeats uses the scene to shape his own commentary on Il Penseroso, talking of how ‘From the far tower, where Milton’s Platonist sat late’ could be seen ‘The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved/An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil’. This evocation of ‘mysterious wisdom won by toil’ seems particularly relevant to the later part of Palmer’s career. The meticulously crafted works of that period, replete with pictorial and literary allusion, contrast strongly with the vivid and ebullient work of his early ‘visionary’ years. However, even within this later period, The lonely tower seems to stand out for its powerfully evocative mood.

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  • Evocation or topography: John Piper's watercolours of Windsor Castle, 1941-44

    By Susan Owens

    IN THE SHORT period between the accession of King George VI in December 1936 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Consort, quickly became known for her keen interest in the arts. Not only did she readily adopt the custodianship of the Royal Collection – when Benedict Nicolson was appointed Deputy Surveyor in 1939, Kenneth Clark, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures (1934–44), informed him that he would be dealing directly with Queen Elizabeth, ‘who is completely charming and most anxious to know about the pictures’ – she also became an enthusiastic collector on her own account, with a particular interest in the work of living British painters. The cornerstone of her collection was laid in 1938 when she bought ‘When Homer nods’ (1915), a portrait of George Bernard Shaw by Augustus John. The purchase was reported approvingly in the press; according to an editorial in The Times of April 1938: ‘The Queen has decided that contemporary British painting matters – irrespective of subject represented or fashionable tendency in style; and it will be against all experience if, according to their means, the decision is not followed by many of her subjects – to the raising of the general level of taste, and to the practical advantage of good artists who, less from insensibility to their merits than from uncertainty about the importance of art in life, are apt to be neglected.’ In a private letter to the queen, Clark expressed the same conviction: ‘may I say how extremely valuable to all of us who care for the arts is Your Majesty’s decision to buy the work of living painters. It is not too much to say that it will have an important effect on British art in general. [. . .] Under Your Majesty’s patronage British painters will have a new confidence, because you will make them feel that they are not working for a small clique but for the centre of the national life.’ Over the next few years Queen Elizabeth’s collection came to include, as well as a number of drawings by Augustus John, works by other leading British artists, including William Nicholson, Walter Sickert, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, David Jones and Matthew Smith. With only a few exceptions (mainly in the case of portraits) Queen Elizabeth’s approach to collecting was to purchase existing works, rather than to make commissions. When, therefore, in 1941, she commissioned a series of watercolour views of Windsor Castle from John Piper, she was making a significant departure from her established pattern.

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  • John Constable and the Theory of Landscape Painting.

    By Michael Rosenthal
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  • Building Jerusalem. The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City [and: The Small House in Eighteenth-Century London]

    By Chris Miele
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  • Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain.

    By Peter Funnell
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  • Body Doubles: Sculpture in Britain, 1877-1905

    By Peyton Skipwith
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  • William Roberts: An English Cubist.

    By Frances Spalding
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  • Modern Art, Britain and the Great War: Witnessing, Testimony and Remembrance.

    By David Peters Corbett
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  • British watercolours and drawings. London

    By Richard Green
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  • Treasures from Dresden. London

    By Timothy Schroder
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  • Graham Sutherland. London and Nottingham

    By Dennis Farr
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  • Pictures of Innocence. Bath and Kendal.

    By Alex Kidson
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  • Landscape in Provence. Marseille and Montreal

    By Philip Conisbee
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  • Paul McCarthy. Munich and London

    By Morgan Falconer
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  • Freud; Biennale; Pollock. Venice

    By Catherine Craft
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  • Vittoria Colonna. Florence.

    By Stephen J. Campbell
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  • Maria de' Medici. Florence

    By Bruce L. Edelstein
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  • Jasper Johns. New York

    By James Lawrence
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  • Tiepolo's oil-sketches. Los Angeles

    By Catherine Whistler
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