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Bath time

25 March 2006

12:00 AM

25 March 2006

12:00 AM

Three fine exhibitions are currently gracing the public galleries of Bath, and even though the new spa is shamefully late in opening, art-lovers are spoilt for choice. In fact, these shows are well worth a day trip from London if you live in town. Bath is a relatively easy hour-and-a-half’s journey from Paddington, and the rewards are considerable. Apart from the distinguished beauty of the city itself, all mellow Bath stone rising in proud tiers on the surrounding hills, this trio of shows provides an uncommon range of visual stimulation and entertainment. For those interested in the contemporary, the etchings and lithographs of Paula Rego make compulsive viewing, while a taste for Modern British art is piqued and satisfied by an excellent small display of Sickert’s work, focusing on his residence in the city. Meanwhile, at the other end of Great Pulteney Street, the Holburne plays host to an historical survey of great houses and their estates in the west of England. A nicely contrasted day’s viewing.

Sickert has been getting more attention recently with various shows of his prints, drawings and paintings (I’m thinking particularly of last year’s impressive touring exhibition Walter Sickert: ‘drawing is the thing’, arranged by Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery), and the publication of Matthew Sturgis’s exhaustive and well-received biography of the artist. Bath cherishes Sickert as one of its most famous former inhabitants, who not only spent the summers of 1917 and 1918 there (born in 1860, he was too old to fight in the war), but also retired to nearby Bathampton in 1938, where he spent the last four years of his life.

Artists don’t, of course, tend to retire, and Sickert continued to paint almost to the end of his life, with a superb example of his late style forming the centrepiece of this display. Entitled ‘London Street, Bath’ (c.1941), it was recently and most appropriately acquired by the Victoria Art Gallery, purchased with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In its pale tonalities and assured economical drawing it’s like a very good, very dry sherry. Compare it to his earlier depictions of the city such as ‘View of Bath from Belvedere’ and ‘Lansdowne Crescent’, both of c.1917. Or indeed the couple of lovely drawings here from the same period. Pure Sickert in their compact yet spirited composition and profound sense of place, yet nowhere near as distilled as the late work.

This lovely little exhibition — a handful of paintings and drawings, six etchings and three watercolours (a delicious one of Pulteney Bridge borrowed from Leeds, and two by Sickert’s last wife, Thérèse Lessore) — includes the artist’s life-size wooden lay figure. Made of lime, pine, oak, copper, hessian and brown paint, and reputed to have once belonged to Hogarth, this slightly raffish articulated mannequin sprawls in a chair like Sickert’s alter ego. It’s the very same figure he persuaded an undertaker to wrap in a shroud so that he could enact that strange painting ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, now in Melbourne, Australia. It is the first Sickert exhibition in Bath for 16 years, and I hope it inaugurates a series of small shows of similar high quality.

The main exhibition space at the Victoria Art Gallery is given over to a retrospective of the graphic work of Paula Rego (born 1935). Rego is a great admirer of Sickert and loved the lay figure. (Perhaps it will appear in a subsequent etching?) She is one of our greatest storytellers and a printmaker of real distinction. Rego’s graphic skills have always seemed to me to be more central to what she does than paint (though I make an exception of the early work of the 1950s and 60s), and line rather than colour seems to be her pre-eminent concern. Her work sits very well with that of Sickert, who said, ‘All serious painting is illustration and illustration all the time,’ for Rego is a superb illustrator. Just how good can be judged from the Victoria’s exhibition.

It has been divided into two, so that the full range of Rego’s work in series (she prefers a sequential format to individual prints) can be shown, numbering in total some 200 items. I saw the first part, but by the time this review is published, the second will be on view. These are not gentle images, but a detailed visualisation of the darker side of the human soul. Black humour is not far away, but it’s cautionary in spirit, like all good stories. It was fascinating to see some of her very earliest print experiments, un-editioned etchings such as the Japanese-influenced ‘Buried Treasure’ of 1956 and the Goya-ish ‘Two Monkeys’ of the following year. Bright early lithographs made a colourful splash in the children’s area, where visitors are encouraged to draw. The famous ‘Nursery Rhymes’ (1989) were double-banked around the walls, and only ‘The Children’s Crusade’ (1996–8), another sequence dealing with horror, hanging and torture, was hung in single file for prominence.

Some of my favourites were the Peter Pan series — though I can’t think why an image of a mermaid with great butch shoulders drowning Wendy should be quite so uplifting. But it is, in some curious way. Perhaps because Rego is tough and unsentimental (though never lacking in compassion and sympathetic curiosity), and her work as a consequence is bracing rather than depressing. She deals unflinchingly with highly charged topics. For instance, Part Two of the exhibition will feature the Abortion series. These etchings were based on pre-existing paintings — a rare proceeding in Rego’s oeuvre; she usually makes completely new prints — and were made because she wanted to say something about the subject that would communicate with as many people as possible. Part of her very considerable attraction (besides her dazzling technical skills) is the uncompromising energy of her enquiry into human nature. I’m very glad to see it reaching such large audiences.

At the Holburne Museum is a choice show of some 30 paintings of houses and views. The most celebrated must be Jan Siberechts’s 1675 ‘View of Longleat’, graciously lent by the Marquess of Bath, but there are lesser-known but equally enjoyable pictures also on show. Not all are ancient: the most recent is a striking portrait of ‘Alfred’s Tower’ by former gallery-owner Richard Pomeroy (born 1960). This depicts the tower on Kingsettle Hill where King Alfred apparently gathered his troops against the invading Danes in 879. Among other notable images are ‘Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, from the South’ by Eric Ravilious, one of the many pictures commissioned to support the cause of Artists Against Fascism, William Nicholson’s ‘Elm Tree, towards St Andrew’s Church, Mells’ (c.1925), and the three charming views of Painswick by Thomas Robins. But the most magical of all the paintings and drawings gathered here is ‘Llanvihangel Court, Monmouthshire’ (c.1684), by an unknown artist. What is so bewitching is the shape of the mountain behind the house (it is Skirrid, the Holy Mountain), and the line of the encircling wall. The mountain seems to offer protection to the enchanted garden below it, where all manner of dreams might be dreamed, and where all possibilities for the greater glory of Creation might be envisioned. There’s spaciousness for you.

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