One of the highlights of the Royal Collection is Gainsborough’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’, a painting I always make a point of visiting when I am viewing a new temporary exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery

One of the highlights of the Royal Collection is Gainsborough’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’, a painting I always make a point of visiting when I am viewing a new temporary exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery. An unusual picture, it is Gainsborough’s only mythological subject with an identifiable classical literary subject.

Best-known for his portraits, Suffolk-born Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) would have preferred to spend his time painting landscapes, but couldn’t make a living at that. He stuck to ‘face-painting’ as he called it, with increasing ill humour, but for some reason he avoided the great mythological subjects. So this version of ‘Diana and Actaeon’ is unique in his oeuvre, and hints at what fascinating pictures he might have painted.

There are three chalk studies for the painting, and two of them are included in this enjoyable in-focus exhibition at Gainsborough’s House, the artist’s birthplace and museum. Devised by Christopher Lloyd, a former Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, the exhibition aims to set Gainsborough’s lone mythological painting in context. This it achieves by gathering together a group of works which shed light on subject and imagery, many of them making Gainsborough’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ look priceless in comparison. The painting hangs on the left side of the end wall of the exhibition gallery, vibrant with speedy and energetic brushstrokes, loosely and thinly painted. Some of the figures of Diana’s attendants are very schematically done, and the waterfall behind (a late addition to the composition, which doesn’t feature in the preparatory drawings) looks more like an overflowing lake-edge.

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Further to the left is the pair of black chalk preparatory drawings, one from Gainsborough’s House, the other from the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum, and next to them a large painting entitled ‘Musidora’, from the Tate. On a similar theme to ‘Diana and Actaeon’, but inspired by James Thomson’s ‘Seasons’, this late Gainsborough echoes the pose of the foreground figure in ‘Diana and Actaeon’, which in turn seems to derive from the kind of bronze statuette of Venus sculpted by Giambologna or his pupil Adriaen de Vries.

If you’re looking at ‘Diana and Actaeon’, turn to the left to note ‘Musidora’ and then to the right to the standing cabinet containing de Vries’s lead ‘Nymph Washing her Foot’ to note how an artist borrows and develops a pose. To the right of ‘Diana and Actaeon’ hangs a lovely little oil by Renoir (from the National Gallery), tenderly but robustly sensual, demonstrating how the tradition of depicting bathers developed in later centuries.
     Elsewhere in the gallery are a Manet etching, a Pissarro lithograph and a Cézanne drawing, oddly blotchy with oxidisation, to reinforce this notion of the pastoral. Also in the cabinet is a late-16th-century bronze of the Callipygian Venus, beautiful buttocked indeed though perhaps a trifle too deeply dimpled, and a majolica plate from Urbino, c.540, with a scene of Diana and Actaeon.
Poor Actaeon. As Ted Hughes puts it, in his superb version of Ovid’s original: ‘It is no crime/ To lose your way in a dark wood.’ And so the hunter came across the goddess of the hunt who liked to bathe in a secluded mountain pool: ‘Often to that grotto,/ Aching and burning from her hunting,/ Diana came/ To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.’ By accident then, Actaeon witnessed what should never have been revealed to mortal sight, ‘steered by pitiless fate — whose nudgings he felt/ Only as surges of curiosity’, and he had to pay the terrible penalty. Furious Diana transformed him into a stag to be run down and ripped asunder by his own hounds.

In Gainsborough’s version we see a watching Actaeon sprout antlers at the beginning of his lethal metamorphosis, the myth providing the justification for a scene of nude frolic. By contrast, Rowlandson didn’t bother with the narrative, simply painting half-a-dozen bouncing girls bathing, and Turner dissolved his figures in light — which he was far more interested in. The paintings here which stick closest to the story are often the least inspired: versions by Francis Hayman, Lambert Sustris and Frans Floris. Thomas Stothard offers something approaching a Victorian fairy painting, Francesco Zuccarelli a darkly romantic landscape.

More memorable is Joseph Wright of Derby’s eloquent chalk study after de Vries’s little sculpture. But the variety and range of interest makes this an informative display as well as a delightful exhibition of naked girls disporting themselves. The accompanying catalogue is a bargain at £3.95.

I must admit I’d never heard of the Methodist Art Collection, so when I discovered it was temporarily on show at St Peter’s Church in Sudbury (until 21 August), I hastened along. The collection was inaugurated in the early 1960s by a Methodist layman, Dr John Morel Gibbs, who had noticed the generally poor quality of religious art and church furnishings, and who hoped that a more imaginative approach could be encouraged by a top-quality art collection. To this end Dr Gibbs approached the Revd Douglas Wollen to purchase works of art, and the resulting collection travelled the country in the mid-1960s. In 1978 the works were installed at Southlands College of Education and inevitably became less visible. After various vicissitudes, the collection ended up on loan at Westminster College, Oxford, and an exhibition programme — as well as an acquisitions policy — was organised.

In this age of rampant secularisation, the making of truly effective religious works of art has become increasingly rare, and it comes as scant surprise that most of the best work dates from the first half of the 20th century. Graham Sutherland is represented by a severe, angular ‘Deposition’ (1947), the figure reduced to bone and empty cage. There’s a rather harrowing ‘Crucifixion’ from the 1920s by William Roberts, a congested and suitably troubled composition; a rather good early oil painting by Patrick Heron from 1950, ‘Crucifix and Candles: Night’, very graphic and atmospheric; a large (by this artist’s standards) Albert Herbert painting of Epiphany; a smallish but intense gouache by Ceri Richards of the Supper at Emmaus, which is a study for the altarpiece at St Edmund Hall, Oxford; and a large watercolour by the inimitable Edward Burra, depicting ‘The Pool of Bethesda’, where Jesus told the crippled to walk, a scene depicted here as sinister and alarming in mood rather than healing and optimistic.

Other powerful works include an ink and wash drawing by Elisabeth Frink, ‘Pietà’ (1956), and an exquisite little Eric Gill watercolour of the Annunciation (c.1912). Among the newer acquisitions are a wonderfully upbeat and celebratory watercolour by Norman Adams of ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’, and a carborundum etching of the Crucifixion by Craigie Aitchison, set against a poignant pink ground. The most recent addition to the collection is Maggi Hambling’s ‘Christ Walks on the Water’ (2006), one of her Good Friday paintings, which in this case builds upon her recent obsession with the sea. An informative illustrated catalogue is available for the modest price of £5, and the collection may be seen at Chislehurst Methodist Church (17 September to 29 October) and then at Truro, Preston, London and Chester in 2012. Well worth a look.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated