James Hamilton

Behind the lines

The Artist&rsquo;s Studio<br /> Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 13 December<br /> Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 9 February to 16 May 2010

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The Artist’s Studio

Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 13 December

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 9 February to 16 May 2010

Compton Verney, in the heart of Warwickshire, settles into its Capability Brown landscape like a grand old diva sinking into a sofa. Some surprise then, as this sparkling art museum constantly raises the senses with its refreshing series of exhibitions. Last year saw Giacometti, Oskar Kokoschka and Jack Yeats; this year Constable Portraits and The Artist’s Studio; next year Francis Bacon and Volcano.

The Artist’s Studio explores those places that are part workshop, part engine-room, part desert island, and their evolution as a source of creative energy through five centuries. Laid out in themes, the exhibition explains the evolving purpose of the studio, from academy, to meeting place, to lonely garret or bunker, to gallery, to shrine. While the artist is always kept company by his or her face, which makes the self-portrait an ever-available subject when all else fails, so, too, are the artist’s personal surroundings. When out of sorts, or short of ideas, what better subject to paint than, as John Bratby did, the dustbin in the corner; or, like Gwen John, the table in the window. This sense of intimacy, even of intrusion, provides the bedrock to the show, and drives it along in an elegant display, intelligently curated by Giles Waterfield and Antonia Harrison.

In addition to the obvious requirements of genius or talent, art is generally a collective endeavour: sculptors need their teams of assistants — six at least swarm about the c.1790 studio drawn by William Pyne; painters need their suppliers of paint and varnish — as depicted by Rodrigo Moynihan in his still life on a studio shelf painted 200 years later. But all artists need their human models, who, dressed and undressed, inhabit the show in works by Orpen, Nevinson, Bruce Bernard and others. Orpen’s model is dissolved in sunlight, while Nevinson’s is alone in a high, wide Paris attic, looking out naked on to the busy city. In Bruce Bernard’s photograph of Lucian Freud’s studio, the model Leigh Bowery takes on a pose made famous by Courbet, as Freud paints the rolling acres of his back. Photographs of artists in their studios, by Jorge Lewinski, Lord Snowdon and others, embrace the objective reality that many of the paintings duck. The best of these reveal a touching vulnerability and an ordinariness that comes as a surprise, such as Mayall’s Alma-Tadema, and Snowdon’s Frank Auerbach.

One might reasonably expect the artist to need to be alone, but that is probably a late-19th-century notion, which on the evidence of E.M. Ward’s painting of Hogarth’s Studio has become an elusive ideal. Here the artist is seen being harassed by a dozen or more chattering patrons. In Alberti’s noisy 17th-century academy there is little space to think in peace as students wrestle with geometry, facial expression or a corpse. Most poignant of all, in George Morland’s evocation of his cold miserable studio, the artist shivers at his work as his servant fries sausages on the fire, and his dogs look hungrily on.

From the polar opposites of Hogarth and Morland we move to the perfect misery of A.D. Brunton, whose ‘Rewards of Art’ (1884) shows him alone with an empty purse and an emptier future. Yet more discomfort is betrayed by the ramrod stiff figure of the fashionable portrait painter Sir Francis Grant, working alone in his studio, but nevertheless spooked by the half-finished portraits encircling him. Whether grand or unbearable, spare or cluttered, the studio reveals a hidden fragment of the artist’s identity, and takes us (with permission) momentarily behind the lines.