Stanley and Elsie (2019): Nicola Upson


Two years ago, on a hot summer’s day, I went to Cookham in search of Stanley Spencer. Nestled around a high street, the village is small and probably rather peaceful under normal circumstances, but I’d managed to turn up on the weekend of Rock the Moor, a festival which had taken over the meadows down by the river. As I studied the pictures in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a converted chapel at the far end of the village, my contemplation was underlaid by the distant, persistent throb of drums. It was all rather wonderful, in its own bizarre way. Stanley Spencer is an artist I don’t know well, but I like what I’ve seen of his work. It has the kind of robustness, the rounded simplicity and simplified geometric flair, that I find in the works of other British artists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and which always appeals to me (think Laura Knight; Augustus John; or, in a slightly later period, the young Lucian Freud). It was inevitable that this novel would capture my attention, but I came to it with caution: all too often, art-historical novels disappoint. But not this one. In simple but evocative prose, Upson unfolds the story of the Spencer family and their maid Elsie Munday, in a story that spans thirty years and offers an absorbing insight into one of the most tumultuous and bizarre artistic marriages of the 20th century. Fascinating and beautifully researched.

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Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity

1908,0616.44 (recto)-1

(British Museum, London, 20 February until 9 August 2020)

What do you think of when you think of Piranesi? Labyrinthine staircases and ominous prisons? The ruined monuments of ancient Rome? Marble vases brought home by Grand Tourists and Swedish kings? All of these would be absolutely correct, but each of them offers only one facet of the man. One way to get a broader sense of Piranesi’s achievements, as architect, designer, printmaker, publisher and art dealer, is by looking at his drawings; and, by happy chance, you can do just that at the moment here in London. In a completely shameless act of self-promotion, I wanted to flag a free exhibition at the British Museum (curated by me), running from tomorrow until 9 August 2020. Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity presents all 51 of the Museum’s drawings by Piranesi. It’s one of the richest collections in the world, spanning his career from his arrival in Rome in 1740, as a young man of twenty, to his death in 1778 as one of the most influential and admired advocates of ancient Roman architecture. There’ll be traces of ‘your’ Piranesi here, whether you know him best as a visionary printmaker or a methodical antiquarian, but I hope you’ll also get a sense of just how exuberant and wide-ranging his talents were. Join me below the line for an unofficial romp through Piranesi’s life and work.

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Will and Tom (2015): Matthew Plampin


Will Turner arrives at Harewood House in the summer of 1797 in a turbulent frame of mind. His invitation from ‘Beau’ Lascelles, the eldest son of Baron Harewood, could be the beginning of something big. Will’s talent has been noted by his contemporaries and by the press. Now he might be able to win the greatest prize of all: an understanding patron. On the other hand, in order to achieve said prize, Will is going to have to endure several days in the company of frivolous aristocrats without causing offence which, for an obstinate working-class Londoner with a chip on his shoulder, won’t be easy. And worse is to come. For Will isn’t the only painter who’s been invited to Harewood this summer. When his boyhood friend (and fellow – rival? – painter) Tom Girtin unexpectedly turns up, looking mightily comfortable in this aristocratic milieu, Will bristles, assuming they’ve been set up to compete for the nobles’ amusement. But the truth – if truth it is – turns out to be more peculiar than even he could have imagined.

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The Renaissance Nude


(Royal Academy, London, until 2 June 2019)

What do St Sebastian, Lucretia, Hercules and Eve have in common? All four of them allowed Renaissance artists to experiment with representations of the nude body. The Royal Academy’s new exhibition – formerly on view at the Getty in Los Angeles – focuses on this depiction of the unclothed form during the 15th and 16th centuries, taking in both Northern and Italian art, and explores the different meanings that the nude could have: from innocence to eroticism, Christianity to classical myth, brute strength to sensuality. It’s almost a shame that a subject of such breadth and promise is confined to the cramped Sackler Galleries upstairs, but the five rooms nevertheless include a select treasure-trove of paintings and drawings by some of the most celebrated artists of the time – some very famous works, other less familiar but remarkably beautiful.

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Nefertiti (1998): Joyce Tyldesley


Unlocking the Mystery surrounding Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen

Writing about icons is a difficult business. Even biographers of modern stars like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley must wade through a morass of secrets, theories and fantasies. How much more difficult to choose a subject who lived 3,500 years ago, who emerged from nowhere, disappeared back into obscurity, and whose brief, glittering existence has been the subject of fierce iconoclasm! Thanks to the glorious portrait bust in Berlin (see below), Nefertiti is one of the most recognisable figures from Ancient Egypt, but the facts of her life remain tantalisingly elusive. As Joyce Tyldesley teases out the meaning of symbols, inscriptions and sculpted reliefs, Nefertiti’s lost world blossoms into life, in an archaeological story that reads like a detective novel. This is a tale of religious revolution, intrigue, iconoclasm, romance, and mysterious, powerful women. What’s not to like?

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Monet and Architecture

Monet: Houses of Parliament

(National Gallery, London, closed on 29 July 2018)

And I’m late again in posting about an exhibition. Sorry about this: summer travelling really isn’t conducive to getting things done on time. Anyway, it’ll be a good way to look back on a lovely show. Now, I’ll be upfront: I have not traditionally been a great fan of Monet. I don’t dislike his pictures – he doesn’t make me shudder, as some late female nudes by Renoir do – but, when I’ve seen his paintings in museums, they’ve rarely moved me to anything more than dutiful appreciation. As ever, much of my indifference was due to a lack of understanding. And that’s why the National Gallery’s present exhibition was such a revelation to me, because it rescued those waterlilies and seascapes and rivers from their chocolate-box ubiquity and reframed them as part of a dynamic story of experimentation and evocation. Monet was a painter of light and air and water, but he was also an inveterate painter of architecture, and this exhibition shows how he used a variety of man-made structures to order his compositions, emphasise the interplay between man and nature, and display the transformative power of light.

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The Art of Guido Cagnacci (2016): Xavier Salomon


Guido Cagnacci is probably an unfamiliar name even to many seasoned gallery-goers. He’s an Italian Baroque artist whom I’ve always liked, despite feeling that I probably shouldn’t. Shouldn’t my inner feminist revolt at the sight of his damp-eyed saints and tragic heroines, with their tumbling auburn hair and exposed breasts? But, despite all that, the man actually did paint some pretty fabulous pictures. In this monograph, written to celebrate the loan in 2017 of Cagnacci’s Repentent Magdalen, from the Norton Simon Museum to the Frick Collection and the National Gallery in London, Xavier Salomon fleshes out the life of this little-known artist. It’s only a short introduction, but it tantalises with its tale of a passionate, innovative and unconventional painter. Come join me – and enjoy a veritable bevy of lovely pictures.

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Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Cameron: Sadness (Ellen Terry)

(until 20 May 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shouldering up against the wall, the girl turns her face away from the light. We catch her in an unguarded moment, her blouse slipping off her shoulder and her hair mussed, her fingers tangling in her necklace. This is the celebrated actress Ellen Terry at the age of seventeen, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron during her brief, ill-suited marriage to the much older painter George Frederick Watts. It isn’t a portrait but an allegory, titled Sadness, and Cameron gives us the impression of trespassing on something deeply personal. It’s one of the most arresting images from a clutch of wonderful mid-Victorian photographs currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, tracing the early days of this art form through the works of four pioneers: Cameron herself; her teacher Oscar Rejlander; Lewis Carroll; and the ‘amateur’ artist Lady Clementine Hawarden.

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The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (2016): Daniel Jamieson

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk


(Kneehigh Theatre at Wilton’s Music Hall, 18 January 2018)

On 6 July 1915, a few weeks before their wedding, Bella Rosenfeld arrived at Marc Chagall’s house in Vitebsk, carrying a bouquet of flowers wrapped in several colourful shawls. It was his birthday – not a day he’d ever particularly celebrated – but she was determined to make it special, not least because her wealthy family had been grumbling about the match between a master jeweller’s daughter and a penniless artist. This moment – a gesture of love and acceptance; an offering – would resonate throughout both their lives and it forms one of the key scenes in Daniel Jamieson’s colourful, playful, poignant, meltingly romantic play, which is currently on tour. J and I saw it in the faded glory of Wilton’s, where it seems to fit perfectly: a magical glimpse of a lost age, a two-man show dominated by splendid performances and simplicity.

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Rubens: The Power of Transformation

Rubens: The Fur

(Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, until 21 January 2018)

My apologies for the recent silence. It’s been a rather frantic weekend and I’m only just getting to the point where I can think again. I was also off on a business trip last week in Vienna, which was (as ever) an utter joy. I fetched up at the Kunsthistorisches Museum last Tuesday afternoon, planning to have an indulgent hot chocolate in the wonderful café, and then to potter in the Italian galleries; but my visit was supplemented by this very impressive exhibition about Rubens.

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