Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900, edited by Jan Marsh
Lund Humphries, 2005
In England many people hold the view that there were no Black people here until the advent of the slave trade. This is backed up by the vast majority of cultural artefacts, but not by the historical record: Black people were almost certainly in England well before the 1700s. They were ignored by artists mainly because they were not considered to be proper subjects for serious art, due to prevailing European prejudices concerning beauty and the human form. During the Victorian era, however, Black people for the first time in our history began to be depicted more frequently in serious studies, rather than just in racist caricatures. This can be attributed to artists' increasing awareness of the presence of Black people, partly because of the huge changes that Britain was undergoing, including industrialisation and imperial expansion.
Jan Marsh, curator of the Black Victorians exhibition at Manchester and Birmingham Art Galleries in 2005, and editor of the accompanying book, has stated that one of her intentions was to increase awareness of the diversity of Victorian art: "I think that it's important to show that contrary to one's expectations and understanding, Victorian art is not exclusively white. It has a wide range of people from all ethnic origins."
Both the book and the exhibition are based on 120 images, chosen to reveal the diversity of ways in which Black people were represented. The pictures range from intimate studies to professional portraits and popular caricatures, including images of notable Black figures such as Dejatch Alamayou, the first Black officer in the British army, and Mary Seacole, who cared for British soldiers during the Crimean war.
The book's essays represent some of the first research to concentrate solely on the depiction of Black people in British art. For the vast majority of the images, the 2005 exhibition was their first time on a gallery wall. This is amazing, considering the importance of the Victorian period for the formation of popular attitudes towards Black people. Without exception, all the artists included were white --no Black artists have yet been identified from the Victorian age—which suggests that the models would have had no control over how they were portrayed. Jan Marsh writes that the images can be analysed in terms of the 'white gaze,' which refers to the way the dominant culture would have perceived them. The images were made for consumption in a British art market that, although it was awakening to the presence of Black people, still had many pre-conceived and racist notions of how Black people should look. For instance, Dejatch Alamayou was photographed wearing a lion skin and holding a spear, even though he had been educated in a British boarding school far away from his Abyssinian homeland (modern-day Ethiopia).
Jan Marsh acknowledges the project's limitations in relation to research on Black history: "A display of black figures in visual culture is not a history of the black presence in Britain from 1800-1900... nor a history of black experience." The book's real value, therefore, is that it shows the extent to which Black people were represented in Victorian art. This cannot be taken as an indication of their contemporary social position, since there is a clear divergence between popular culture and the historical record. All the reproductions in the volume are of excellent quality; however, the essays are fairly arcane, and would mainly interest specialists in the area. --Alexander Flux
Jan Marsh's interview with Black Britain can be read here.
Timothy Wilcox's Samuel Palmer
(British Artists) Tate Publishing, 2005
This book, one of Tate Publishing's British Artists series, provides an excellent introduction to the work of Samuel Palmer, the visionary painter best known for his mystical portrayals of the Shoreham, Kent area. His most famous painting, which appears on the cover, is In a Shoreham Garden (1829). Its naïve style anticipates twentieth-century art (unsurprisingly, Palmer's work was an inspiration to later painters such as John Nash). This mysterious work, which alludes to the Garden of Eden, shows a fruit tree in full pink-and-white blossom, with the distant figure of a woman in the background and a serpent twined around a post in the foreground.
Heavily influenced by William Blake, another London mystic, Palmer was nevertheless a highly distinctive artist in his own right. Three early works, eccentrically combining brown ink with gum arabic, already radiate the eeriness and unconventionality that characterise his mature style. These atmospheric pictures, Early Morning, The Valley Thick with Corn, and Late Twilight, all of which are reproduced in this volume, were completed in 1825, when Palmer was only about twenty. This book allows the newcomer to his work to fully appreciate his genius: there are many lovely full-page plates throughout, including a startlingly immediate self-portrait from 1824-25, as well as numerous smaller reproductions of his majestic and otherworldly landscape studies.
In his clear, concise and sympathetic text, Timothy Wilcox provides a thorough overview of the artist's biography, particularly his professional friendship with fellow artist John Linnell and his marriage to Linnell's artistically gifted daughter Hannah. Wilcox also discusses the influence on Palmer of The Ancients, a literary and artistic group of which Blake was the nucleus. Indeed, one of the strengths of Wilcox's analysis is that it shows the extent to which Palmer drew his deeply spiritual inspiration from literature. This should not surprise us, given that as a young man, the painter wrote that "The visions of the soul, being perfect, are the only true standard by which nature must be tried."
This is the ideal introduction to the work of an artist whose embrace of subjective vision, as expressed in his imaginary landscapes, made him a role model for twentieth-century English painters.--Isabel Taylor
The paintings of William Hogarth occupy an interesting and unique position in the history of English art. Hogarth was born at the turn of the eighteenth century, and witnessed tumultuous social changes during his lifetime. Despite occasional criticisms of his technical abilities, he is seen as one of the most important social commentators of his era. From a young age, he began producing engravings and prints for mass production, and by the end of his life he was the author of a vast and diverse body of work that has proved impossible to pigeonhole. The sheer range of Hogarth's oeuvre makes the task of condensing the essential aspects of his genius into an exhibition of around 140 paintings a daunting one. Nonetheless, the touring exhibition co-curated by the authors of this book, Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, in collaboration with the Tate, has proved to be a huge success in Paris and Barcelona as well as London. Hogarth's appeal is certainly not limited to his home country.
As a young man, Hogarth was first and foremost an engraver, creating lively and complicated satirical scenes of contemporary England in which he focussed on such topics as the South Sea Bubble, a financial crash that affected most of Europe. Once he had made his name through engraving, he began to expand his visual repertoire, gaining a reputation as a brilliant painter of conversation pieces. Hogarth was --and is—particularly renowned for his ability to capture subjects' facial expressions, a skill that he had probably honed as an engraver. This gift was fully realised in his Progress paintings, which secured his reputation upon publication in 1732 (The Harlot's Progress) and 1734 (The Rake's Progress). They became some of the most widely-produced prints of the age. The Progress paintings also demonstrate the most arresting characteristic of Hogarth's pictures, their energy. They are so vigorous and candid that we can easily take in what is happening to the characters, and grasp the moral lessons about greed and naïveté, while the little details amidst the chaos encourage us to dig deeper into the stories.
Hallett and Riding, both recognised for their research into eighteenth-century art, have arranged their selections according to Hogarth's specialities, to show the inventiveness and variety of his paintings. From his early engravings of theatrical scenes to his Progress paintings, portraits, and political satires, the images also demonstrate the keenness of Hogarth's interest in the changing world around him. Unlike many artists, he managed to depict his times in paintings that are still immediately accessible today.
The prints included in this book are all of good quality; however, due to the obvious size constraints on the black-and-white engravings, and their compositional complexity, some of the smaller images can be difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, the book and the related exhibition are excellent introductions to Hogarth's work.--Alexander Flux
In 1953 a small group of Americans, backed by money from the CIA, announced a competition for a memorial to 'The Unknown Political Prisoner,' to be erected in Humboldt Hain, a park overlooking Berlin. The competition provoked controversy in the press, mainly because the Americans' thinly-veiled intention was to counter the huge war memorial erected by the Soviets in Treptow, southeast Berlin. Although he probably did not expect to win, Reg Butler, who had only made a name for himself the previous year at the Venice Biennale, entered the first of four maquettes for the memorial. In 1954, after much debate and protest, he was declared the winner. The decision shocked many, not least the American group behind the project, who, at the last minute, withdrew the project funding, so that his design was never built.
The episode stands as a unique turning-point in Butler's career. Despite the acclaim that the competition brought him, critics point out that, like his memorial design, the high expectations of him were never fully realised. Throughout his career Butler was constantly struggling to situate himself in the dialectic between traditional sculpture and modernity, and thus to define himself as an artist.
Butler undertook architectural training in the years before the Second World War, and established himself as both a designer and a critic. However, after the war he started to work increasingly within the practice of fine art, particularly drawing and sculpture. His early sculptural works were abstract and figurative wood carvings that show the influences of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth's imposing sculptural figures. Moore, Hepworth and Epstein were daunting role models for sculptors during the post-war era, and it was perhaps out of a desire to separate himself from these artists, rather than emulate them, that Butler moved from carving to modern sculptural techniques, such as welding, forging, and metal casting.
This innovation initially propelled him to the forefront of sculptural practice, and he was hailed as part of the spearhead of the avant-garde after his participation in the 1952 Venice Biennale, an exhibition made famous by Herbert Read's coining of the phrase "the geometry of fear." Critics identified Butler in particular as expressing post-war anxieties, in the contortions and abstractions of the human form that make his sculptures appear almost fetishistic.
In the years that followed, Butler's career was haunted by the contradiction that, despite his apparent dedication to modernity, his fundamental subject was the human form, often under stress, in motion, or deformed or contorted in some way. This is the reason why the avant-garde passed him by and artists such as Anthony Caro and Eduardo Paolozzi became the movement's leaders, turning away from a preoccupation with the human form to experimentation with materials, so that the materials became the subject.
The Sculpture of Reg Butler is the first in-depth survey of Butler's entire career, which may seem surprising, considering that he died in 1981. It is a valuable resource for understanding this important sculptor's life and work, particularly his critical reputation. The book does not venture into speculation about the hidden or obscure meanings behind Butler's work—all too easy to do— but objectively analyses the development of his art, from its early stages up to the late painted bronzes that were so badly received by the art world. With its precise methodology, and its pictorial record of all Butler's known major works, the book is extremely useful to art historians and casual readers alike. Reg Butler is not a household name, but his contribution to this country's sculpture is significant. Through this volume, it may be better recognised. --Alexander Flux
The phrase "a Turner sunset" has passed into the English language, but it is often hard to find an accessible book on the work of this genius, regarded by some as the greatest English artist. The appearance of this splendid volume is therefore extremely welcome. It not only contains one hundred gorgeous plates of Turner's paintings, but also a superbly written, detailed commentary that explains his place in art history, while making the reader appreciate the innovatory aspects of his technique and the scale of his achievement.
Rather than adopting a strictly chronological approach, Smiles organises his discussion into thematic chapters. For example, in the chapter entitled "Witnessing the Age," he analyses Turner's treatment of topical issues and recent events, showing how the painter reflected on the evils of slavery (in the harrowing Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming on, 1840), and The Field of Waterloo, 1917, an extraordinarily sombre painting, devoid of the triumphalism that the subject often inspired in other English painters, which shows the dead of both sides piled on top of one another.
The reproductions are stunning, including a two-page spread of the magnificent swirl of water, snow and light that Turner entitled Snow Storm --Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in This Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich (1842). (Turner often showed a cavalier disregard for brevity when choosing titles.) The book demonstrates his ability to find beauty in mundane subjects: an example of this is Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night (1835), an extraordinarily lovely study in blues, silvers and greys.
The layout of the book is initially a little confusing --chapter titles appear at the bottom of the page, rather than the top—but the clear subject headings and thematic focus make it a superlative guide to Turner's art. The most useful features are the illuminating essays which face full-page reproductions of his most remarkable works, discussing the circumstances which led him to paint them, the messages that they are meant to convey, and their significance in Turner's career and artistic growth. At the back of the book, there is a fascinating section on the artist's technique, explaining, among other things, the painstaking way in which he massed colour to build up his compositions. Smiles is especially brilliant in his analysis of Turner's development of the stunning use of light for which he is best known. A selection from the artist's lectures and professional and private correspondence shows Turner in a variety of moods, including jocularity ("Tell that fat fellow Chantrey that I did think of him"). In addition, Smiles provides excerpts from critical commentary on his work, spanning the period 1797-1966, as well as a chronology of his life together with a list of his artistic works in public collections.
Written in a style as accessible to the layperson as to the Turner specialist, this is an essential volume for anyone interested in English art. Furthermore, the quality of the abundant reproductions makes it an ideal gift.--Isabel Taylor