Friday, 10 April 2009

More Tale-pieces

On the last post Eliza said: "Those images must be small! Are they only one or two inches wide? I want to see the one with the kid sending the infant into the river! It sounds hilarious!" Well Eliza, I've taken a few pix of my Tale-pieces catalogue to show you the scale and also the pic I mentioned (click on it to enlarge). I'm so fascinated with this man I've ordered Jenny Uglow's, Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick; it was said he could draw figures on his thumbnail with a pencil!

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The God of Small Things

Just back from the Thomas Bewick exhibition, Tale-pieces, at Ikon Gallery and I'm thoroughly charmed.

These vignettes of country life are marvellous in their detail and their dark, macabre wit. On the surface of it, his tail-pieces (or 'tale-pieces' as he punningly called them, because they illustrated 'some truth or point of some moral') show ordinary life in the last quarter of the 18th century, but look deeper and you see studies of human vanity and the fragility of life.

Bewick was obviously a great lover of animals, which tend to emerge with a greater dignity than his humans. A stag drinks from a tumbling cataract, a Latin motto on the rocks translating as: Everything Good Comes From Above; a pet monkey holds a razor thoughtfully to his face in front of his master's mirror; an ass rubs its rump against a gravestone. Elsewhere, a child has tethered a dog and cat to a toy cart containing a baby, and as he whips them cruelly, the animals pull the infant into a stream.

Given their tiny size, I did find a conventional gallery setting a frustrating place to view the vignettes, and in some ways, the catalogue was more satisfying than the show (it's worth taking a magnifying glass if you visit Ikon). But given that this is - incredibly - the very first exhibition devoted entirely to Bewick's vignettes, it's fantastic to see his art revived for a new audience.

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Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Paradise Regained

Freelance writer Sarah Jane Downing is the author of a fascinating new book on the English Pleasure Garden, which looks at its beginnings as a 17th-century escape from urban life, right through to its decline in the 19th century. The book - which provides an overview of provincial gardens as well as their London counterparts - is packed with fantastic illustrations, such as The Theatre and Fountain at Vauxhall Gardens (pictured above). In an exclusive Memoirs interview, I quizzed the author on bucolic entertainment through the ages.

In what ways were the early pleasure gardens of the 17th century places of escape from ordinary life?

Even for the well-to-do the city was dirty and dangerous, crowded with traffic, packed with cutpurses, and with the absence of police force or sewerage system quite squalid. New building was crammed on top of the medieval city, and there was very little green space aside from the private parks of the nobility. After the enforced prohibition of the interregnum people wanted entertainment and to socialize but the spectre of the plague lurked at any public gathering which was also marred by the aroma of so many unwashed bodies. The Pleasure Gardens provided the perfect antidote, a beautiful oasis perfumed with flowers, adorned with birdsong, and decorated with glittering lights where people could stroll peacefully along the manicured walks.

The 18th century was the age of landscape gardening. How did that impact on pleasure gardens?

For those far away from their country estates or without the opportunity to indulge the new passion for horticulture in the city, the Pleasure Gardens offered a way of enjoying the results without the effort of creation. The proprietors of the pleasure gardens were very keen to include new aesthetics and many added ornamental hedges, statuary, obelisks, and Grecian temples. It was Jonathan Tyers in particular who embraced the theatricality of landscape design, making Vauxhall Gardens the embodiment of Rococo Romanticism.

What part did Vauxhall and Ranelagh play in the development of the arts in the 18th century?

Vauxhall and Ranelagh played a significant role in both nurturing and the proliferation of the arts. They showcased the finest musicians and artists of the day, hosting Mozart’s English debut, and provided literary inspiration for Pepys, Thackeray, Austen and Dickens, they were also the subject of poetry, painting, and opera. Tyers' commission of Francis Hayman to paint a series of paintings for each of the supper boxes was amongst the first commissions for art that would be in a public space.

Do you think the gardens were liberating places of entertainment for women, or were they not terribly respectable?

For most women they were a pleasant place to spend an evening or attend a smart public breakfast, offering an irresistible opportunity to display their newest finery and indulge their Romantic sensibilities. There was also the frisson of excitement that they might get to have a little un-chaperoned conversation especially at a masquerade where undoubtedly some people would use their anonymity to drop their usual decorum. One of the few places where scandalous women and courtesans could attend, no doubt there were some illicit liaisons in the dark walks where ladies were warned not to go.

What caused the eventual decline of the gardens?

For each Pleasure Garden there is its own sad little story of decline, but the general causes were changes in fashion and the advent of the railways. For most people their holiday really was only a day and they were limited by how far they could travel without compromising their time for enjoyment. People were pleased to spend a happy day at a Pleasure Garden when they could get no further, but when the railways began to provide reasonably priced travel their horizons expanded to the seaside.

The English Pleasure Garden: 1660-1860 (Shire Library, £5.99) is out now in the UK and will be published in the US on July 21.

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Monday, 6 April 2009

Georgian Portraits

It’s shaping up to be a great Spring for Georgian exhibitions here in the Midlands; Warwickshire stately home/art gallery Compton Verney has emailed me with info on this forthcoming show, which looks well worth a trip if you’re in the area.

Georgian Portraits: Seeing is Believing
20 May – 13 December 2009

This display of portraits, on loan from the Holburne Museum in Bath, traces the development of Georgian Portraiture in Britain. It examines the shift in the purpose of portraits from symbols of success and status, to a new era of realism and glamour.

Coinciding with the launch of this display will be our Georgian weekend, with a whole host of historical events and activities for all ages.

Above: Allan Ramsay, Rosamund Sargent (1749).

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