A Christmas spirit hovers over Art of the Middle Ages at Sam Fogg (15d Clifford Street, W1, until 12 January), visible particularly in the Three Kings bearing gifts in the tiny 14th-century French ivory diptych, and in the green-winged stained-glass angel probably from the glazier who worked at Sées Cathedral, Orne in Normandy, around 1270–80. This high standard is maintained in the stucco relief of the ‘Virgin and Child Enthroned’ of c.1420, by Michele da Firenze, a kneeling wooden king from an Austrian ‘Adoration of the Magi’, and a remarkable Bavarian limewood Jesse figure. Other treasures include illuminated manuscripts, miniatures and Romanesque architectural sculpture. Here are gifts indeed to impress loved ones.
Christmas shows abound in the commercial galleries of the West End: a good chance to recycle old stock, or bring on delectable (even saleable) miniature works, to be offered as presents. Flowers has perfected this, with its annual Small is Beautiful show in Cork Street (until 7 January). Its 23rd exhibition includes tempting things by some of our best abstractionists: Nigel Hall, Sandra Blow, John McLean, Michael Kidner and Manijeh Yadegar. Across the road, Art First presents Twelve Square (until 22 December) — ‘perfect pieces precisely produced’ by gallery artists such as Jack Milroy, Luke Elwes, Eileen Cooper and Philippa Stjernsward. And introducing the distinguished South African painter Louis Maqhubela, whose work the gallery will be showing from January to February. At The Drawing Gallery (37 Duke Street, St James’s, SW1, until 22 December, then 10–26 January), 40 artists from Edward Allington to James Wright each contribute a work. All praise to this tiny gallery which is devoted to putting drawings back on the map as highly desirable purchases.
Crane Kalman has mounted a worthy successor to its 2004 survey of British landscape painting, with Marine, a themed show on the subject of the sea (178 Brompton Road, SW3, until 16 January). More than 40 years ago Andras Kalman mounted a similar show about what Othello called ‘the enchafed flood’; today his son Andrew gathers together greats like Monet and Courbet, mixes them with Pechstein and Nevinson, and adds Ensor, Ernst and Permeke for seasoning. It’s a heady but satisfying mix of the kind of paintings you usually have to visit a museum to see.
Alan Davie (born 1920) is the Grand Old Man of pictographic abstraction, making intuitive visionary images of consistent authority. At Gimpel Fils (30 Davies Street, W1, until 7 January) is a powerful show of his early work from the Fifties and Sixties, which marries improvisation and structure in a manner similar to a jazz musician, which Davie also is. Of the seven paintings on show, the 1962 diptych ‘It’s Heavenly Inside’ is perhaps the most richly satisfying, with its bold triple ‘snakeskin’ surround, and loosely organic imagery with distinctly fleshy interludes. Davie’s emblematic forms have so many connotations, from the prayer wheel to the TV screen, that the paintings appear at once timeless and ultra-contemporary. Prices start at £18,000.
2005 is Robert Medley’s centenary year. The man who started W.H. Auden writing poetry, and revamped Camberwell School of Art and the Theatre Design School at the Slade, Medley is also a considerable artist who was in danger of being forgotten. This show (at James Hyman Fine Art, 6 Mason’s Yard, Duke Street, St James’s, SW1, until 27 January), focusing on his inventive organic abstract paintings from the 1960s, and accompanied by a lavish catalogue (I declare an interest: I wrote one of the essays therein), has brought him once more to public attention. Encouragingly, most of the paintings have sold to buyers previously unfamiliar with Medley. A new generation is discovering his fluid and hearteningly inconclusive style, which, rather like life itself, is endlessly suggestive rather than overtly declarative. He was a great humanist painter who inspired a whole generation of artists: R.B. Kitaj, David Hockney, John Berger and Maggi Hambling are among those who pay tribute in the catalogue.
It’s evidently the season for British abstraction, with works of museum quality once more appearing on the Bloomsbury walls of Austin/Desmond Fine Art (68/69 Great Russell Street, WC1, until 21 December). Among the riches on show are a large and powerful Terry Frost from 1962, Roger Hilton at his most inventive, a poignant David Jones landscape and ‘Casket’, Prunella Clough’s last painting, a transcendent beauty and a bargain at only £6,000. Meanwhile, Advanced Graphics (32 Long Lane, SE1) is celebrating 25 years of printmaking with Bert Irvin in its first show (until 28 January) of his work since it moved from Deptford. Irvin (born 1922) has made two series of monoprints, his first venture into this technique, with the vaguely topographical titles of ‘Blackfriars’ and ‘Marshalsea’. The gallery is situated just round the corner from the site of the old Marshalsea Prison (where Dickens’s father was imprisoned), and the Blackfriars connection can be seen in the shape of an heraldic shield from Blackfriars Bridge which appears from time to time in the resolutely abstract imagery. Expect to pay around £2,000 for a one-off silkscreen print, featuring hand-colouring or woodblock additions.
Outside London, there are one or two museum shows worth catching if you’re in the area. In Bath, it’s the last chance to see the Target Collection of Modern British Pictures at the Holburne Museum of Art (until 18 December). It includes a couple of early figurative Cloughs, a splendid Keith Vaughan, Christopher Wood’s fine ‘Treboul’ of 1930, and a lovely little Piper gouache. Also good things by Heron, Redpath and Trevelyan. At the other end of Great Pulteney Street is the Victoria Art Gallery, which currently hosts a touring show Bodies of Water (until 29 January). Bath is never short of the wet stuff, even though it can’t get its new Spa off the ground, so this exhibition of paintings and photo-works by Susan Derges, Hughie O’Donoghue and Michael Porter is deeply appropriate. Derges comes out best with her strangely beautiful photograms of water movement in the River Taw. This show travels to Southampton City Art Gallery in April, but before that Elements of Abstraction: Space, Line & Interval in Modern British Art (at Southampton, until 8 January) provides a scholarly context for many of the artists featured in Austin/Desmond’s exhibition.
Back to the City, and part of the Corporation of London’s flagship ‘street scene enhancement scheme’ is a series of visual interventions in and around Queen Street. Four artists have been commissioned to Light Up the street that runs north from the river to the Guildhall, and their low-key solutions are in operation from dusk to midnight until 29 January. Bustling City workers don’t seem to take much notice, but the paved churchyard of St Michael Paternoster, Dick Whittington’s church just off Upper Thames Street and now home to The Mission to Seafarers, currently resounds with recorded birdsong. An image of the night sky hung with stars (with particular reference to the Pleiades) is projected on to the church’s fa