Exhibition: Wakefield 27 October 2012 - 3 February 2013 Pallant House, Chichester 16 February - 2 June 2013 Mascalls Gallery, Kent 14 June - 24 August 2013
Catalogue: Nathaniel Hepburn, published by Tate Publishing £16.99
This is an exhibition and book which have been long overdue. Those who know Bristol museum and art gallery will be familiar with a small drawing by Hepworth of surgeons and nurses in an operating theatre. It is a masterpiece of control and expression, the subject matter distilled into a study of hands and eyes. It has for many years been my favourite work in this gallery, and so when this exhibition and book were announced, my anticipation was enormous. I had only seen a few other examples of Hepworth's hospital drawings, and unlike Henry Moore's bomb shelter pictures to which they are similar, many were privately-owned and had not been reproduced in any mainstream publications. So, would I be disappointed? Would the body of work be similar to that masterpiece in Bristol, or would the rest fail to live up to expectations?
The opening pages of the book recount the circumstances of these works' production. In 1934 Hepworth gave birth to triplets, two boys and a girl, and in 1944 the girl, Sarah, was hospitalised with a bone infection called osteomyelitis. During the long course of treatment the family came to know the surgeon Norman Capener. He was a keen amateur artist himself, became a family friend, and even purchased some of Hepworth's work in an effort to help with the crippling hospital costs. Later, in May 1947, Capener himself became ill with jaundice and spent time in St. Ives convalescing, and it was there that the idea for the hospital drawings was born. Apparently Hepworth insisted at the time that the only operations which she was prepared to witness were those of a 'recuperative' nature, as she did not feel able to deal with any 'element of catastrophe.'
Her first hospital drawing was undertaken on 14 November 1947, and the last some time in the summer of 1949. She would watch the operations that she attended intently, sometimes sketching details, but often just concentrating on the scene itself as the drama unfolded in front of her, and would later commit images to paper back in her studio. Although we use the term 'drawings' for these works, the more developed ones are more correctly oil sketches. Hepworth has used an unusual gesso of Ripolin, a commercial enamel paint, mixed with white lead and chalk as a base. This was built up in several layers, and then overlaid with a coloured oil wash, so that the resulting ground could be scratched with a razor blade to reveal the white surface beneath. On top of this, Hepworth could then add sensitive lines with pencil or chalk. The final picture has a sculptural quality which suits the subject matter remarkably well. The finest of these images have a timeless quality. The delicacy of the human figures recalls Renaissance masters, while our knowledge of their subject, the skilled hands and eyes of the best surgeons and nurses, invokes the tension between life and death, and the realisation that the work portrayed is the domain of the most highly-skilled within our modern society.
It is this dichotomy which makes these works so successful. The portrayal of human figures, engaged in what many of us would rank as the highest ideal of human endeavour, namely that of saving or improving the life of another human being, is perfectly balanced by the artistic skill which Hepworth has employed in their execution. Subject matter and artistic medium meet together to create a very special group of works. To misuse Marshall McLuhan's infamous words, here the medium is not the message but the medium enhances the message and gives it added resonance. Unlike anything that Hepworth produced during her artistic career, these works are indeed truly remarkable.
Sometime in 1953 Barbara Hepworth gave an illustrated lecture to a group of surgeons in Exeter. The catalogue to this exhibition prints the transcript in full, along with the illustrations which the artist used. She showed them several photographic slides to accompany her talk, but it is the talk itself which is so illuminating. Here is a selection of some of the points that she made. I think they can stand alone, since they speak eloquently for themselves.
"….in the operating theatre where one can observe the highest intention and purpose, one can see, consequently, the most perfectly attuned movements between a group of human beings.
"The form of beauty may be strange to us but if we lend our minds willingly to accustom ourselves to its strangeness, as a new experience, its message will reach us and we shall be enriched by the infinite variety that beauty can take in its reinforcement of life.
"The arm, the tendons of which can be manipulated whilst the spirit and mind of the owner are temporarily absent - and the living, seeing and highly intelligent hands of the surgeon which are carrying out the will and knowledge of his brain - supported by the desire of his spirit to heal and create."
"As I became more accustomed to the various operations I began to realise how profoundly important from an artist's point of view the expression of the human hand is. Not only is it the most revealing and expressive part of the human body – it is also the visible extension of the brain and feeling generally. In watching an operation there is simply no end to the revelations of thought and idea conveyed by the contemplation of these hands at work."
In that last sentence I think we find the key to the strange power of the best of these works, to which the one held in Bristol certainly belongs. They are meditative pieces, their subject matter based firmly in the Renaissance tradition of visually expressing man's inherent humanity. In the Renaissance this was seen as God-given, but by the 1940s many had abandoned this idea and embraced a secular social contract of which the new NHS was the finest expression to date. In Hepworth's own skilled hands, the subject matter and the medium meet together in almost perfect harmony.
There is a peaceful quality in these works which is hard to define, but it is surely the product of that harmony. Barbara Hepworth has a well established world wide reputation as one of the finest sculptors of her generation. Her work is on display at most renowned museums, and she is credited with the development of abstract forms, with non-representational starting and finishing points. However, the hospital drawings are unlike anything else in her canon. Representational, emotional, and beautifully worked, they rank comfortably alongside any art which this country produced at the time. See them if you can, and if you can't, buy the book!--Paul Flux
Review of The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart
Exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, 18 October 2012–13 January 2013 Catalogue: ed. Catherine MacLeod, published by National Portrait Gallery 2012
Prince Henry Stuart (1594-1612), the eldest son of James I, was the great hope of his generation. Well educated, devoutly Protestant, a fine horseman and a keen art collector, he was the embodiment of a late Renaissance prince. However, apparently after swimming in the Thames-- never a particularly bright thing to do--he contracted what was probably typhoid, and despite the attentions of the finest medical minds, he died a month or so later aged just eighteen. This exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, seeks to breathe life into the story of a young prince who, despite Roy Strong's fine 1986 biography, remains largely unknown and unremembered.
Henry was born at Stirling Castle on 19 February 1594. As Timothy Wilks' introduction clearly points out, the task of grooming the new baby into a worthy royal prince began almost immediately. Rather than remain with his natural parents, he was entrusted to the Earl of Mar and his wife who diligently brought him up within the strict faith of the Church of Scotland. It was not until the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 that he was reunited with his parents, joining them on their progress towards London for James to claim the the throne of England. Yet once in England he was again separated from his family, living in comfort in the old palaces of Henry VIII, at Oatlands and Nonsuch. As he entered his teenage years his education was meticulously planned by his father, who employed the most enlightened tutors to guide his son's steps into adulthood. James even wrote his own kingly guide for his son, the famous Basilikon Doron, of which the exhibition displayed the original handwritten version, usually held in the British Library. In it he describes the activities suitable for a young monarch: cards instead of chess, fencing, tennis and archery, but no 'rumling violent exercises, as the football.'
The exhibition has largely resisted the great 'what if ' question, as it is largely unanswerable. We simply cannot know how the young prince would have ruled had he lived after 1625, when his father died. Instead we are presented with images, objects and writings that provide a more balanced view, a kaleidoscope of source material that puts us in touch with what his contemporaries thought of him. Above all, it becomes very clear that perhaps the most important thing about his life was his death-- all the expectations of a young, balanced and intelligent prince, cruelly dashed when they were at their height.
On June 4 1610, at a showpiece ceremony in Westminster Hall, Henry was proclaimed Prince of Wales. Now 16, Henry had his own court and a group of followers. He was a talented horseman and excelled in martial sports, when he was allowed to participate. Two suits of armour were on display in the exhibition, both dated around 1608, when Henry would have been fourteen. They are beautiful objects in their own right, but also have significance in that they were not commissioned by the prince himself, but were received from elderly courtiers, who were obviously flattering the young prince with their extravagant gifts.
The suits themselves are remarkable pieces of work. They are highly decorated and the workmanship is of the highest quality, but perhaps the implicit symbolism is of more interest. The suit given by Sir Francis Vere, probably made in Holland, is of such quality that only someone of the highest social standing could have worn it. Stunningly worked, the suit is decorated with scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, the ancient warrior, and surely the design was intended to identify the prince with the classical hero. Such a gift not only reflects on the donor, but also on the recipient and the esteem in which he is held. The fourteen-year-old had a reputation for excellence at the tiltyard exercises, and such a gift from an elderly warrior underlines this in a very public way. To those around the prince this would simply have encouraged their belief that the young man was, indeed, the embodiment of their chivalric ideal.
One way in which a Renaissance prince could show that he was truly enlightened was in his encouragement of the arts. Strong, for example, makes much of Henry's court masques, written by Ben Jonson and designed by Inigo Jones, the leading exponents of this highly specialised and elite entertainment. Their involvement gave these events a cultural cutting edge which his contemporaries would have understood and acknowledged. However, an unexpected but fascinating highlight of the exhibition were the images of Henry painted by the largely ignored English artist of the period, Robert Peake.
Peake does not appear in many artistic dictionaries. Strong calls him "decidedly old-fashioned," yet in 1610 he was described in the court financial accounts as 'painter to Prince Henry,' and he was still there two years later when Henry tragically died. From 1605 on Peake painted a series of portraits of the young Prince and the exhibition has four of them on display, as well as an early portrait of his younger brother, Charles, painted in 1613 after Henry's death. Together they make a fascinating group, combining rather traditional techniques with some startling innovations. Peake was clearly comfortable with a style which looked back, but, with the encouragement of a young prince, he broke new ground for an English artist.
Two portraits stand out: Prince Henry with Robert Devereux 3rd Earl of Essex (1605) and Prince Henry on Horseback (1606-08). In the first Henry is placed within an imaginary landscape, which may be based upon the grounds of Richmond Palace. The young Earl of Essex kneels deferentially in front of the fallen stag, and the young prince is sheathing his sword, having performed a ritual cut. The 3rd Earl of Essex was the son of Elizabeth's disgraced favourite, who was executed in 1602. His father had supported James' claim to the throne, and like several others his son had been rewarded when James eventually attained it. The confiscated family lands were restored to the young Earl, and he became a close friend to Henry.
The symbolism in this painting is both detailed and complex. The son of the old disgraced Earl kneels before the heir to the throne, the rebel family reconciled to the new order. The future is secure, for there is a immediate legitimate male heir to the throne, a situation which had not been the case since the days of Henry VIII. The significance of this should not be underestimated. The succession had been problematic since the death of Edward VI. Mary and her childless marriage, and then the virgin queen Elizabeth had left the possibility of a Catholic accession a distinct possibility. James and his family represented both a new order--a Stuart dynasty--and a progressive future with a well-educated Protestant prince in line to repel any notions of a Catholic succession. These two young friends represent that future.
The second portrait, Prince Henry on Horseback, is remarkable for several reasons. As the catalogue makes explicit, it is the first full-size equestrian portrait of a member of the English royal family. The Prince looks out of the canvas, engaging directly with us as if to say 'This is who I am.' And, like the previous portrait, this one is also all about the future. Henry is not only clothed in the finest armour, which we know he possessed, he is also riding a beautiful and demure grey horse who is also gazing at us, reinforcing the inherent power of the prince to control an environment in which he is pre-eminent. The figure behind him underscores this, for he is Father Time, carrying a war-like helmet and lance--surely a warning to Catholic Europe that here is a prince who will fight, and not seek appeasement like his father. Henry is the master of his future and that of England, as he drags Time behind him, subservient to his demands. Although Peake is not regarded as a significant artist of the period, these portraits display a keen understanding of the political realities surrounding the young prince. They make explicit the very real hopes which Henry was believed to embody, and express themes that have been repeated countless times: the young will reject their fathers' follies, and the world will become a better, more secure place, with an idealistic new ruler at the helm.
This exhibition and its accompanying book easily achieve their aims. We get a real sense of the loss that was felt at Henry's death, and through intimate objects such as his copy-book, which contains his own writing and even childish doodles, we catch a glimpse of the young prince on whom so many expectations were placed. The final exhibit, a copy of The Life and Death of our Late most Incomparable and Heroique Prince, Henry Prince of Wales, is most fitting, for this book, first written in 1613, is both eulogy and tribute. Significantly, the version on display here was printed in 1641, a period of deep decline in royal fortunes as Charles I struggled to rule as he wished. Even more significantly, it is dedicated to Henry's nephew, the young Prince Charles, who would be Charles II. It is as if the publisher aimed to remind the reader that Henry's true heir was not his failing brother, but another young, aspiring prince who would one day restore the crown and country to new prosperity, peace and fair government.
For someone who knew of Henry's existence, but little else about him, the collection has been a thoroughly enjoyable revelation. I am grateful to the curators and contributors for resisting the 'what if' speculations, instead allowing us to use our imaginations. That Henry had been well prepared for his future role is abundantly clear; that he was well educated and keen to explore the new learning in science and the arts is also clear; whether he would have been a good king or not is unknowable, but you do wonder: What if...? --Paul Flux