Amgueddfa Blog: Art

Since lockdown began, I have found myself spending more time than ever peering in to people’s windows. Not because I’m nosy (well, maybe just a little) but because our streets have become almost living galleries, with art popping up in windows everywhere – mostly rainbow art, as symbols of hope.

This got me thinking about the rainbows in the national art collection, like the Turner watercolour given to us by Gwendoline Davies in 1952 as part of the Davies sisters bequest; Thomas Hornor’s rushing waterfall rainbow; and this more melancholic painting in the manner of Constable of a rainbow cutting through dark clouds, with a solitary figure at a fence seemingly oblivious to the rainbow above.

Comfort on our doorsteps

The weather was a constant source of fascination to Constable. He was drawn to rainbows as a scientific spectacle, and also for their calming effects. He once said ‘nature… exhibits no feature more lovely nor any that awaken a more soothing reaction than the rainbow’. For Constable, the rainbow represented a glimmer of hope in tumultuous times – something that may resonate with many of us today, as we struggle to come to terms with traumatic world events.

Constable believed artists should paint views and subjects with deep personal connections – things that they know and love; things that have stirred their senses and emotions. He once said that ‘painting is but another word for feeling’. For some, this is key to understanding his art. Constable’s paintings are not meant to looked at – they are meant to be felt.

Much of his work was inspired by childhood memories of his native Suffolk. A Cottage in a Cornfield shows a humble cottage in the country, with what appears to be a little donkey and foal hiding in the shadows at the gate – a simple scene he saw every day on his way to school as a boy. He delighted in the smallest details – things that many of his contemporaries in the nineteenth century art would have overlooked. ‘The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things’ he wrote. Nothing was too commonplace, too mundane to be in his paintings. He saw beauty in things that at the time were not considered worthy to be the subject for art. He teaches us to find beauty in the everyday, and comfort on our doorsteps.

Today lockdown has stripped many of us right back to basics, and we are being encouraged to seek comfort and value the everyday more than ever before. We would love to see the things that are helping you get through these difficult times. You can share your #ObjectsofComfort with @AmgueddfaCymru on Twitter, or follow to see the items in our collections that have brought comfort to different people through the ages. 

Learning from Constable’s rainbows

Six years ago I had the privilege of being part of the Aspire partnership project which saw Constable’s incredible six-footer  painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 (Tate) displayed at National Museum Cardiff, after it was saved for the nation in 2013. 

The painting shows Salisbury Cathedral under a storm-heavy sky, a flash of lightning striking its roof. When he began paiting it in 1831, Constable was caught up in his own personal storm. His wife Maria had died from tuberculosis, leaving Constable to raise their seven children alone. He was also plagued by anxiety about political and religious changes raging around him. The painting is seen as an expression of the deep anxieties Constable felt at this time - anxieties, which were nonetheless mixed with a glimmer of hope for the future, symbolised by the faint rainbow. It is no coincidence that the rainbow ends at Leadenhall, the home of his friend and patron John Fisher who supported him through his darkest days.

Alongside the display we co-ordinated a series of learning activities, working with different visitor groups to create artworks and poems inspired by this painting. Over 6000 people took part in the programme, and I loved seeing the creative responses like these amazing pop-up rainbow landscapes made in family workshops. The animated light projections made by school groups working with artist Anne-Mie Melis , and CPD workshops for teachers led by poet clare e. potter were also real highlights.

Hope and broken hearts

What struck me during this project is that people of all ages responded so openly to the painting, and how it sometimes opened up dialogues about complex emotional states like grief, loss, hope and happiness.

One young pupil, Charles, asked ‘why does the dog look up for hope but the horses look down with their broken hearts?’; another, after learning that it took Constable four years to complete this painting, wondered ‘can you be that sad for that long? cos for every day you have a different feeling.’ I think about these questions even six years later: how emotions are never seperate - they intermingle and change so easily - and how our emotional states are never static, but are in a constant state of flux, which can sometimes make them difficult to deal with because they seem impossible to control.

This, I think, is why we need art and creativity more than ever. Not because I think art will solve the issues we are facing today - but perhaps it has a role in helping us to ask the right questions, and in teaching us how to feel our way through, together.

 

In 2013 Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 was secured for the British public through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Manton Foundation, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and Tate Members. The acquisition was part of Aspire, a five year partnership between Amgueddfa Cymru, Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, The Salisbiry Museum, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Britain, sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.

To secure the painting, a unique partnership initiative was formed between five public collections: Tate Britain, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Colchester and Ipswich Museums, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland. This initiative, named Aspire, was a five-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund enabling the work to be viewed in partner venues across the UK. National Museum Cardiff was the first venue to display the work. 

On 15 March we launch our new LGBTQ+ tours at National Museum Cardiff. The tours have been developed in partnership with Pride Cymru working with self-confessed Museum queerator Dan Vo and an amazing team of volunteers.

You may already have read Norena Shopland's blog about the Ladies of Llangollen, and Young Heritage Leader Jake’s post, Queer Snakes! There are so many more LGBTQ+ stories in our collection – stories that have been hidden in dusty museum closets for too long. Friends, it’s time for us to let them out!

To whet your appetite, here’s a quick glimpse at one of the works you might spot on the tour…

The Mower, by Sir William Hamo Thornycoft

The Mower is a bronze statuette on display in our Victorian Art gallery. It is about half a metre high and shows a topless young farmworker in a hat and navvy boots resting with his arm on his hip, holding a scythe. This sassy pose, known as contrapposto, was inspired by Donatello’s David - a work with its own queer story to tell.

The Mower was made by William Hamo Thornycroft, one of the most famous sculptors in Britain in the nineteenth century, and was given to the Museum in 1928 by Sir William Goscombe John. An earlier, life-size version is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and is said to be the first significant free-standing sculpture showing a manual labourer made in Britain.

Thornycroft became fascinated with manual labourers and the working classes after being introduced to socialist ideas by his wife, Agatha Cox. He wrote ‘Every workman’s face I meet in the street interests me, and I feel sympathy with the hard-handed toilers & not with the lazy do nothing selfish ‘upper-ten.’ In The Mower, he presents the body of a young working-class man as though it's a classical hero or god – a brave move for the time.

Queering the Mower

With the rising interest in queer theory, many art historians have drawn attention to the queer in this sculpture. In an article by Michael Hatt the work is described as homoerotic, which he describes as that ambiguous space between the homosocial and homosexual.

One of the main factors is the artist’s relationship with Edmund Gosse, a writer and critic who helped establish Thornycroft’s reputation in the art world. Gosse was married with children, but his letters to Thornycroft give us a touching insight into their relationship.

He describes times they spent together basking in the sun in meadows and swimming naked in rivers; and they are filled with love poems and giddy declarations of affection. ‘Nature, the clouds, the grass, everything takes on new freshness and brightness now I have you to share the world with,’ he wrote. Gosse was so obsessed with Thornycroft that writer Lytton Strachey famously joked he wasn’t homosexual, but Hamo-sexual.

Gosse and Thornycroft were spending time together when the first inspiration for The Mower hit. They were sailing with a group of friends up the Thames when they spotted a real-life mower on the riverbank, resting. Thornycroft made a quick sketch, and the idea for the sculpture was born. A wax model sketch from 1882 is at the Tate.

The real-life mower they saw was wearing a shirt, but for his sculpture Thornycroft stripped him down. He explained to his wife that he wanted to ‘keep his hat on and carry his shirt’ and that a brace over his shoulder will help ‘take off the nude look’.

Brace or no brace, it’s difficult to hide the fact that this is a celebration of the male body designed for erotic appeal. Thornycroft used an Italian model, Orazio Cervi. Cervi was famous in Victorian Britain for his ‘perfectly proportioned physique’ (art historical speak for a hot bod!)

Later in the century, photographs of The Mower and other artworks were collected and exchanged in secret along with photographs of real life nudes, by a network of men mostly in London – a kind of queer subculture, although it wouldn’t have been understood in those terms back then.

This was dangerous ground. The second half of the nineteenth century saw what has been described as a ‘homosexual panic’, with rising anxieties around gender identity, sexuality and same-sex desire. Fanny and Stella, the artist Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde were among many who were hounded and publicly prosecuted for ‘indecent’ behaviour.

These tensions showed up in the art world too. Many of the artists associated with the Aesthetic and Decadent movements in particular were under scrutiny for producing works that were described as ‘effeminate’, ‘degenerate’ or ‘decadent’. But works like The Mower suggest that art might have provided a safer space for playing out private desires in a public arena at this time.

 

Book your place on our free volunteer-led LGBTQ+ tours here, and keep an eye on our website and social media for future dates!  

 

A few years ago the chemical works BP Baglan Bay called me and said they were clearing out the offices as the site was closing and would I like to see if the museum wanted any objects for our Modern Industry collection?

I couldn’t wait to go and have a look, and as there was quite a lot to go through I took our museum van in the hope of a few accessions.

There were lots of photographs, some in frames, some big aerial photos too. There were overalls, hats and jackets with logos on them – just the sort of things that tell a great story when exhibited for displays.

There were tools specific to the industry and other bits and pieces like signs and gauges.

I loaded a few things in the van to take back to the museum so I could go through them to decide what we would like to keep and what should be returned.

But as I was about to leave they called me back and asked if I wanted the paintings? I hadn’t noticed these as they were covered in bubble wrap and stood against a wall.

One of the paintings was quite big, about 4’6”x 6’ (1.5 x 2.1m) and I couldn’t see the subject for the wrapping. The other was much smaller about 2’ x 2’6” (0.6 x 0.76m). I was told the bigger one was an oil painting of Baglan Bay at Night and the smaller one a watercolour of a power station. I put them in the van, got the paperwork signed and left for our stores in Nantgarw where I could spread things out and examine them properly.

About a week went by and I still hadn’t looked at the paintings as I had been going through all the other objects first.

When I did take the bubble wrap off I was really surprised by the quality of both paintings. The oil painting was really striking and the BP staff had told me that it had hung in the office since the 1960s.

I looked for a painter’s signature and then the real surprise hit me! In the bottom corner was ‘Vicari’.

Bells rang deep in my head, where did I know that name from? A quick internet search answered that. The richest living artist in the world. The official Gulf War artist. Artist to the Saudi Royal family. And born in Port Talbot. This fitted my collecting policy perfectly, being an industrial scene in Wales painted by a Welsh artist. The only snag from my point of view was that it could be quite valuable and BP might want to keep it.

I contacted them straight away and told them about the artist and its possible value. One of their directors, David, called me and told me that they were happy it would be going to the National Museum of Wales and he couldn’t think of a better place for it.  This generosity meant that we could save a national treasure for future generations.

So far we had treated the painting as if it were a genuine ‘Vicari’, but was it really?

I contacted the ‘Vicari’ website and sent them an image of our painting asking them if they could confirm if Andrew had painted it.

I checked my email every day. No replies. How else could we confirm this if they didn’t get back to us?

One sunny morning about three weeks later my phone rang. I could tell from the number it was someone in France calling. This was not unusual as we have many visits from French schools and as my schoolboy French is just about good enough to get by, my number was very often given to schools as a contact.

After answering with who I was, a deep, rich voice said:

‘Ah, Andrew here, I hear you’ve found the lost Vicari’

I couldn’t believe it! Andrew Vicari calling me from his home in France! To say I was flabbergasted is an understatement!

Andrew told me he had painted Baglan in the early 1960s and was really glad of the commission at the time (when he wasn’t so well known). We spoke for about half an hour about all sorts of things and he went on to tell me an incredible  story from 1966.

Andrew had painted a picture that was to be auctioned for the Aberfan Disaster Appeal and went along to the auction in Cardiff. Before it got underway, two burly men approached Andrew and said someone needed to talk to him in private. He was shown to a room and waiting there were two more men in sharp suits, looking a bit ‘dodgy’ (his words). These two told him they wanted to buy the painting, and asked how much did he want for it? He told them that it wasn’t his to sell as he’d given to the appeal and it was out of his hands. They kept on that they wanted it and he needed to get it for them. They were getting more and more insistent. After repeating that he couldn’t a number of times, they finally left, to Andrew’s relief.

It turned out that they were the Kray twins! He laughed ‘I’m one of the few people to have said ‘no’ to the Kray twins and lived to tell the tale!’

He told me that he was very happy his painting was going to be in the National collection and that he would do anything for Wales!

We never had the chance to speak again; sadly Andrew died in Swansea, in 2016 aged 84. It’s lovely that we have such incredible paintings to remember him by.

This story happened in 2009 and the painting has been in our stores in Nantgarw where is has been conserved and a new glazed frame made. We’ve been waiting for a chance to exhibit it and finally it will happen.

You can see the painting as part of an Andrew Vicari exhibition from 13th July to 3rd November 2019 at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

Continuing the international year of the periodic table of chemical elements, for April we have selected Calcium. Known by most as the fundamental element in bone-forming or limestone, it has a host of other applications and is present in seabeds and marine life past and present.

Calcium (Ca) is a light-coloured metallic element with an atomic number of 20.  It is crucial for life today and commonly forms a supporting role in plants and animals. The 5th most common element in the earth’s crust, calcium forms many useful rocks and minerals such as limestone, aragonite, gypsum, dolomite, marble and chalk.

Aragonite and Calcite, the two most commonly crystalised forms of calcium carbonate, helped form the 2 million shells in our mollusc collection, the core of which is the Melvill-Tomlin collection, donated to the museum in the 1950s. An international collection it contains many rare, beautiful and scientifically important specimens and is utilised by worldwide scientists for their research. Pearls, also made of aragonite and calcite, are produced by bivalves such as oysters, freshwater mussels and even giant clams. In nature pearls are the result of the molluscs’ reaction against a parasitic intruder or a piece of grit. The mantle around the soft bodied animal secretes calcium carbonate and conchiolin that surrounds the invading body and imitates its shape so they are not all perfectly spherical. In the pearl industry the oyster or mussel is ‘seeded’ with a tiny orbs of shell to ensure that the resulted pearl is totally spherical.

Mollusc shells are created as protective shields by their soft-bodied owners and this is true of other invertebrates, especially in the world’s oceans. Coral reefs and some marine bristle worm tubes (Serpulidae, Spirorbinae) rely on the reinforcing nature of calcium carbonate to provide support and protection to their soft bodies. Crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters have a hard exoskeleton strengthened with both calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. Calcium required after moulting in lobsters, crawfish, crayfish and some land crabs is provided by gastroliths (sometimes referred to as gizzard stones, stomach stones or crab’s eyes). They are found on either side of the stomach and provide calcium for essential parts of the cuticle such as mouthparts and legs. The museum’s collections holds nearly 750,000 marine invertebrates, including crustaceans, corals and bristleworms.

Many of the 700,000 fossils in the Museum’s collections are also made of calcium minerals.  Invertebrates use two main forms of calcium carbonate to make their shells and exoskeletons, and the one they use influences how likely they are to be immortalised as fossils.  Aragonite, found in the shells of molluscs such as ammonites, gastropods and bivalves, is unstable and doesn’t usually survive for millions of years.  During fossilisation, aragonite shells either dissolve away completely, or the aragonite recrystallizes to form calcite.  Calcite was used to make the shells and skeletons of extinct groups of corals, articulate brachiopods, bryozoans, echinoderms and most trilobites.  It is much more stable than aragonite, so the original hard parts of these creatures are commonly found as fossils, millions of years after they sank to the sea floor.  Large calcite crystals are often found filling spaces in fossils, such as the chambers inside ammonite shells.  Vertebrates use a different calcium mineral to make their bones and teeth: apatite (calcium phosphate), which can survive for millions of years to make iconic fossils such as dinosaur skeletons and mammoth tusks.

The Museum’s rock collections contain many limestones, rocks formed at the bottom of ancient seas from bits of shells and other calcium carbonate-rich remains.  For millenia, people have used limestones as a construction material: from carved stone in the iconic Greek and Roman temples; broken fragments as ballast in the base layer of railways and roads; or burnt to form lime in the manufacturing of cement.  National Museum Cardiff and other iconic buildings in Cardiff Civic Centre were built from a famous Dorset limestone called Portland Stone.  The Museum’s floor is tiled with marble, limestone that has been transformed (‘metamorphosed’) under great heat and pressure.  Marble has long been prized by sculptors, since the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Museum’s art collections include works in this material by Auguste Rodin, John Gibson, Sir Francis Chantrey, Sir William Goscombe John, and many others. There are also important examples of work by twentieth-century sculptors, such as Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Breszka. They preferred carving the softer texture and density of the softer limestone, Portland Stone and sandstone.

Many of the books in the Library collections at the National Museum Wales have attractive decorative techniques applied to the covers or text blocks. Decoration on text blocks, the combined pages of the book inside the covers, is particularly lovely because it tends to be hidden when they are on the shelves.

The most popular examples of decorating text blocks include marbling and gilding. But one of the most interesting techniques is the one known as disappearing fore-edge painting, which was often hidden underneath the other types of decoration.

Fore-edge painting was a technique that reached the height of its popularity from the mid-17th century onwards. It was usually applied to the longest section of the text block, the one opposite the spine, the fore-edge.

Two books in our special collections feature examples of mid-19th century disappearing fore-edge paintings. They are the two volumes of the second edition of the Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke by George Wingrove Cooke, and were published in 1836.

When the book is closed you cannot see the image, only the gilt edges of the text block, but when the leaves are fanned, the hidden picture is revealed.

To achieve this effect, the artist would need to fan the pages, and then secure them in a vice, this means they are applying the paint not to the edge of the page, but to just shy of the edge. Once completed, it is released from the vice and the gilding would be applied to the edges.

Landscape scenes were the most popular for this technique, and the ones on our books show Conway Castle and Caernarfon Castle.

Very often the motivation for a fore-edge painting was a demonstration of artistic skill, so it didn’t always follow that the images were related to the text contained within the book. These two volumes of Memoirs, do not have an obvious connection to the scenes painted. Lord Bolingbroke (Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke 1678–1751) was an English politician during the reign of Queen Anne, and later George I, and is probably best known as a supporter of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, but he does not appear to have any direct association with either Conwy or Caernarfon.

The volumes were acquired for the Library in 2008 from a rare book dealer, but we don’t know enough about their history to be able to tell when the fore-edge paintings were added. The first volume contains an inscription that states that the book was a gift to a T. M. Townley from his friend Samuel Thomas Abbot on his leaving Eton in 1843. Unfortunately we don’t know anything about either the recipient or the sender, so we can’t tell if one of them was ultimately responsible for painting the books.