The art of the monarchy

Elizabeth II spent virtually all her life surrounded by one of the world’s greatest art collections. Even when she was a child, and the likelihood of her inheriting the throne still seemed remote, visits to her grandparents at Buckingham Palace involved looking at pictures, since George V enjoyed showing her the Victorian narrative paintings that hung there, such as William Powell Frith’s ‘Ramsgate Sands’. Nobody knows exactly how many works of art there are in the Royal Collection, but at the end of Elizabeth II’s reign nearly 300,000 objects had been catalogued online, probably just under a third of the whole. Among the many masterpieces are Andrea Mantegna’s monumental sequence

Monet’s great war effort

Claude Monet wanted to be buried in a buoy. ‘This idea seemed to please him,’ his friend Gustave Geffroy wrote. ‘He laughed under his breath at the thought of being locked forever in this kind of invulnerable cork, dancing among the waves, braving storms, resting gently in the harmonious movements of calm weather, in the light of the sun.’ Tethered below the water, but bobbing on the surface like a necropolitan bud, this bizarre image would have the great Impressionist finally metamorphosing into the thing that had so dominated his later years: the water lily. For an author who has taken on those titans of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo,

We’re wrong to think the impressionists were chocolate boxy

One Sunday evening in the autumn of 1888 Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin went for a walk. They headed out of Arles into the countryside and when they looked back towards town they saw a sunset so splendid that each was inspired to paint a masterpiece. One of these, Gauguin’s painting bearing the timely title ‘Human Misery’, is among the star exhibits in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy. All the works in this show come from a delightful small museum in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen, housed in the early 20th-century mansion from which it takes its name, Ordrupgaard. This was the dwelling of Wilhelm Hansen (1868–1936),

How John Constable got masterpiece after masterpiece out of a tiny corner of rural Suffolk

Before his marriage John Constable returned regularly in early summer to his native village of East Bergholt. When he wrote from there to his wife-to-be, Maria Bicknell, he almost always exclaimed that Suffolk was ‘in great beauty’. His enthusiasm was never more eloquent than on 22 June 1812, when he declared: ‘Nothing can exceed the beautiful appearance of the country at this time, its freshness, its amenity — the very breeze that passes the window is delightful, it has the voice of Nature.’ I often think about Constable (1776–1837) as I pace across the water meadows on my daily constitutional — partly because this too is an East Anglian landscape

‘I think I’ve found a real paradise’: David Hockney interviewed

Spring has not been cancelled. Neither have the arts ceased to function. David Hockney’s marvellous exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery may be sadly shut, but the artist himself is firing on all cylinders. ‘I was just drawing on this thing I’m talking to you on,’ he announced when I spoke to him via FaceTime the other day. He was sitting in the sunshine outside his half-timbered farmhouse in Normandy. ‘We’re very busy here,’ Hockney explained, ‘because all the blossom is just coming out, and there’s a lot more to come. The big cherry tree looks glorious right now. Next the leaves will open, but at the moment the blossom

The price of art

Monet spinner The National Gallery was criticised for charging £22 for an exhibition of Monet’s work, although the rest of the gallery is free. How much do you have to pay for art? Uffizi, Florence €20.75 (£18) New York Metropolitan $25 (£17.75) Louvre, Paris €15 (£13) Hermitage, St Petersburg $25 (£17.75) Museum del Prado, Madrid Free  

The evanescence of everything

Think of the work of Claude Monet and water lilies come to mind, so do reflections in rippling rivers, and sparkling seas — but not buildings. He was scarcely a topographical artist — an impressionist Canaletto, even if Venice was among his themes. Nonetheless, Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery is an intriguing experience. Before I saw it, the suspicion crossed my mind that this was the solution to a conundrum that must puzzle many galleries. Namely, how to put together another Monet exhibition without it being the same as all the others? An institution such as the National Gallery could not just borrow a lorry-load of Monets and

London calling | 26 October 2017

Madame Monet was bored. Wouldn’t you have been? Exiled to London in the bad, cold winter of 1870–71. In rented rooms above Shaftesbury Avenue, with a three-year-old son in tow, a husband who couldn’t speak English, and no money coming in. Every day roast beef and potatoes and fog, fog, fog choking the city. ‘Brouillardopolis’, French writers called it. Camille Monet had offered to give language lessons, but when she hadn’t a pupil — and Claude hadn’t a commission — she let him paint her, listless on a chaise-longue, book unread on her lap. Her malaise was ‘l’exilité’ — the low, homesick spirits of the French in England. ‘Meditation, Mrs

First impressions | 21 July 2016

The last boat I saw in the galleries on the Mound was a canoe that the Scottish painter Jock McFadyen had been using to explore viewpoints around the waterways of London. Now another vessel has sailed in, a full-scale recreation of the studio boat built in 1857 by the French painter Charles-François Daubigny, from the bow of which he ushered in the movement that would come to be known as impressionism. Daubigny, a now sorely neglected artist, established an entirely novel approach to landscape painting that was to influence Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne and also, quite explicitly, Van Gogh. Inspiring Impressionism has an admirably clear narrative and it places Daubigny

Out of this world | 16 June 2016

It is London in the summer of 1871. Queen Victoria has just opened the Royal Albert Hall in memory of her beloved husband; Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland has just been published, and French refugees from the Franco-Prussian war continue to arrive in the capital. Among them is Claude Monet, who is having a miserable time in the fog and mist. Not far from the Thames views that he had been painting, a fellow artist has just opened her first exhibition of 155 ‘Spirit Drawings’ in a gallery on Old Bond Street, in the heart of London’s art quarter. She was Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), a 57-year-old London-based middle-class

Show me the Monet

Philip Larkin once remarked that Art Tatum, a jazz musician given to ornate, multi-noted flourishes on the keyboard, reminded him of ‘a dressmaker, who having seen how pretty one frill looks, makes a dress bearing ninety-nine’. If you substitute paintings of flower-beds and dappled sunlight for chromatic keyboard runs, something similar is true of the new blockbuster at the Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden. That, however, is only half the verdict on this curious affair. It is a show that feels a bit overblown — like a visit to an enormous Victorian conservatory — but contained inside it is another, triumphantly successful exhibition that is inspiring, exalting and almost

Best in show | 31 December 2015

Until a decade and a half ago, we had no national museum of modern art at all. Indeed, the stuff was not regarded as being of much interest to the British; now Tate Modern is about to expand vastly and bills itself as the most popular such institution in the world. The opening of the new, enlarged version on 17 June — with apparently 60 per cent more room for display — will be one of the art world events of the year. But, like all jumbo galleries, it will face the question: what on earth to put in all that space? Essentially, there are two answers to that conundrum.

Seeing the light | 11 June 2015

James Turrell gave me extremely precise instructions. After dinner, I was to walk out through the grounds at Houghton Hall to the skyspace he has built. Here I should observe the gradual darkening above as brightness fell from the Norfolk air. At 9.40 p.m., I was to join him and the Marquess of Cholmondeley to witness the illumination Turrell has devised for the west front of the house. So we stood in the chill air of an English summer evening and watched as a slowly changing sequence of pinks, mauves, blues and reds lit up the colonnades and Palladian windows designed in the 1720s by Colen Campbell and the domes

Eastern reflections

In his introductory remarks to the Afro–Eurasian Eclipse, one of his later suites for jazz orchestra, Duke Ellington remarked — this was in 1971 — that east and west were blending into one another, and everyone was in danger of losing his or her identity. Nowhere is it easier to observe that phenomenon than on the little island of Naoshima, in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, which I visited last month. Naoshima possesses sandy beaches and tranquil blue waters dotted with further islets stretching towards the horizon. But this is an especially heavenly spot for a relatively small and specialised, even eccentric, group of travellers. For more than two

Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery reviewed: a mixed bag of sometimes magnificent paintings

When it was suggested that a huge exhibition of Impressionist paintings should be held in London, Claude Monet had his doubts. Staging such an exhibition, he wrote to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, would be ‘unwise’ and only likely to baffle a London public that ‘knows very little about us’. That was in 1904. What, one wonders, would Monet make of Inventing Impressionism, which has just opened at the National Gallery 111 years later? It can hardly be said now that the British know little of the Impressionists. On the contrary, you could argue we’ve seen quite enough of them in recent decades. The challenge for a gallery planning to put

Snow – art’s biggest challenge

In owning a flock of artificial sheep, Joseph Farquharson must have been unusual among Highland lairds a century ago. His Aberdeenshire estate covered 20,000 acres — surely enough to support the modest local ovine needs. But Farquharson was a painter, the fake sheep artist’s models. For cleanliness and biddability, few grazing ewes can match a woolly dummy. Joseph Farquharson was 27 when he scored his first hit at the Royal Academy in 1873. ‘Day’s Dying Glow’ depicts a handful of sheep negotiating a snowy incline alongside an icy burn. Leafless trees crown a mound. Behind them a sickly sun is sinking or possibly rising. It is an image of some

Ladies’ hats were his waterlillies – the obsessive brilliance of Edgar Degas

Lucian Freud once said that ‘being able to draw well is the hardest thing — far harder than painting, as one can easily see from the fact that there are so few great draughtsmen compared to the number of great painters — Ingres, Degas, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, just a few.’ Christopher Lloyd’s new study of Degas’s drawings and pastels, with over 200 beautifully reproduced illustrations, demonstrates that Edgar Degas (1834–1917) deserves his place on that list. And more than that, it shows that for him there was no distinction between painting and drawing. In his art these categories so blur together that it is hard to say whether certain pictures

Who knew that Cézanne had a sense of humour?

Tourists are attracted to queues, art lovers to quietude. So while the mass of Monet fans visiting Paris line up outside the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie, connoisseurs head to the Musée Marmottan, an institution so surprisingly little known that it had to rename itself the Musée Marmottan Monet to flag up the fact that it owns the world’s largest collection of Monets. Even so, it remains a haven of peace. Now, on its 80th anniversary, this discreet museum in a charmingly furnished mansion overlooking the Jardins du Ranelagh is making another bid for attention with an exhibition of 100 rarely seen Impressionist works borrowed from 50 private lenders. The