Painting

The beauty of pollution

On the back of the British £20 note, J.M.W. Turner appears against the backdrop of his most iconic image. Voted the country’s favourite painting in 2005, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (1838) was Turner’s favourite too. It remained in his possession until his death; the 70-year-old artist swore in a letter of 1845 that ‘no consideration of money or favour can induce me to lend my Darling again’. But I suspect he would have approved of his darling’s current loan, along with that letter, to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle as part of the National Gallery’s bicentenary programme of loans of national treasures to regional museums. Turner relished the atmospheric effects

The most original sea painter since Turner? Lowry

In 1958 an elderly gentleman staying at the Castle Hotel in Berwick-upon-Tweed gave the receptionist a doodle he had made on the hotel’s notepaper. She kept it in a box and 43 years later, on the advice of Antiques Roadshow, sold it at auction for £8,000. ‘I don’t think anyone since Turner has looked at the sea with such an original eye’ A contemporary photograph shows that gentleman in his trademark trilby, dark suit and tie – no casual wear for L.S. Lowry – standing on the pier with Berwick in the background. Lowry (1887-1976) is not best known for his paintings of the sea, but there are 21 –

The ordeal of sitting for my father Lucian Freud

The frontispiece of this book is Lucian Freud’s portrait of his daughter Rose naked on a bed. Rose says that when her father asked her to sit, which she had long hoped he would do, she naturally assumed he would want her naked, but asked him not to paint her hairy legs. He, in turn, asked her to remove her mascara, but she refused. When she saw the canvas she was shocked at how much it focused on her vulva, but she did not object. She sat for him at night – he had other sitters during the day – and he sometimes gave her purple hearts to keep awake.

Is there still life in British still life?

‘The tyrannical rule of nature morte is, at last, over,’ announced Paul Nash in the Listener in 1931. ‘Apples have had their day.’ Since Cézanne fulfilled his famous boast that he would astonish Paris with an apple, artists had been trying the same trick in London, with limited success. Astonishment, unfortunately, only works once. Nash had had it up to here with them apples: tired of post-impressionism, tired of still life. An electric toothbrush occupied the same place in Hamilton’s heart as Mont Sainte-Victoire in Cézanne’s Continental ghosts haunt the tabletops of Pallant House Gallery’s informative new survey of modern and contemporary British still life. First it was the Dutch,

Suppress your groans: this women-only show is fascinating

In a Victorian art dealer’s shop a woman waits with her young son while the supercilious owner examines her work; behind her two top-hatted gents interrupt their inspection of a drawing of a dancer in a tutu to give her the once-over. The woman’s shabby umbrella, propped against the counter, awaits reopening in the rain outside. She knows what the dealer will say, and so do we. Every picture tells a story, and Emily Mary Osborn’s ‘Nameless and Friendless’ (1857) summarises the plot of Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, Now You See Us. Unlike her picture’s protagonist, Osborn was herself a successful artist in a field dominated by men – not

Beguiling: Yinka Shonibare, at the Serpentine Galleries, reviewed

More than seven centuries ago, the medieval cartographer Richard of Haldingham created Hereford Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi; I say ‘created’ because when he drew his map it was largely a work of the imagination. Its terra incognita is populated with bizarre creatures born of the fever dreams of early travel writers: his Africa is inhabited by Monocules, one-eyed, one-legged men who use their single foot as a parasol, and his Asia is roamed by the Bonnacon, a bull-like creature with inward-curling horns whose only defence is his projectile faeces. As a Londoner who grew up in Lagos he felt kinship with the hybrid creatures of the Mappa Mundi Five years ago,

The brilliance of Beryl Cook

Nobody claims Beryl Cook was an artistic genius, least of all the artist herself. ‘I think my work lies somewhere between Donald McGill [the saucy postcard artist that George Orwell wrote so lyrically about] and Stanley Spencer,’ she once told me. ‘But I’m sorry to say I’m probably nearer McGill.’ She was, as ever, being modest. I actually think she’s nearer Spencer – and Hogarth, come to that. Cook’s paintings make us laugh but that doesn’t stop them from being art. (Few would say Shakespeare’s comedies are as profound as his tragedies, but they’re brilliant creations, nevertheless.) Though Victoria Wood dubbed her work ‘Rubens with jokes’, there aren’t actually any

The latest Venice Biennale is ideologically and aesthetically bankrupt 

Last week’s opening of the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale marks a watershed for the art world. In much of the festival’s gigantic central exhibition, curated by the Brazilian museum director Adriano Pedrosa, as well as in many of the dozens of independently organised national pavilions and countless collateral events, it more obviously than ever before didn’t so much matter what was on show, but why. The politics of visibility and representation has been eating away at the arts for at least a decade, most recently under the banner of ‘decolonisation’. The now nearly complete abdication of aesthetic criteria in favour of a decolonial organising principle is here finally

Impressionism is 150 years old – this is the anniversary show to see

The time that elapsed between the fall of the Paris Commune and the opening of the first proper impressionist exhibition amounted to less than three years. Over the course of that period, the city had witnessed the collapse of the Second Empire, suffered a siege at the hands of the Prussian army and seen vicious house-to-house fighting between the troops of the Versailles government and thescrappy citizen-army of Paris proper. All Parisians would recall the rivers of blood running down the city’s ritziest shopping streets, zoo animals being butchered for restaurant fodder, and the mass slaughter of rebel prisoners across the public squares of the city’s eastern faubourgs. Given that

Rich, beautiful and vital: John Craxton, at Pallant House Gallery, reviewed

The sensuality of the light in John Craxton’s painting ‘Two Figures and Setting Sun’ (1952-67) has to be seen to be believed. Viewing this large work in Pallant House, you feel its full force. Craxton was concerned with a scene’s essence, rather than simply its appearance and here he achieves not merely an effect but affect. In spite of most of the light being painted in yellows and oranges rather than white, the contrast and refraction of the rays produce a blinding sensation much like staring into the sun on a hot day.   It was as a chorister at Chichester Cathedral that Craxton’s daily encounter with two 12th-century Romanesque

Why did this brilliant Irish artist fall off the radar? 

Sir John Lavery has always had a place in Irish affections. His depiction of his wife, Hazel, as the mythical figure of Cathleen ni Houlihan, which appeared on the old ten shilling and subsequently on the watermark of the Irish pound notes, meant, as the joke went, that every Irishman kept her close to his heart. He was indeed Irish – born in Belfast – but was at home in Scotland, and was the best known of the spirited group of painters called the Glasgow Boys. Yet he lived most of his life in London, was friends with Winston Churchill (they took a painting trip together) and also with Michael

The force of nature that drove Claude Monet

There have been some really good biographies of artists over recent years and what distinguishes the best of them is their sense of context and a lucid prose free from the jargon of the art historian. In the end, of course, any work of art has to be able to stand by itself, but for Jackie Wullschläger her appreciation of Monet’s paintings has been immeasurably deepened by her sense of the man behind them. ‘My approach,’ she writes, ‘stems from the belief that painters transform the raw material of experience into art’, and that material, both the familiar external events and, more illuminatingly, the inner man, is what she gives

How Philip Guston became a hero to a new generation of figurative painters

Why do painters represent things? There was a time when the answers seemed obvious. Art glorified power, earthly and divine, and provided moral exemplars of how to behave – in the case of sacred paintings – or how not to in the case of profane ones. When modernism threw all that into doubt, the picture frame remained. The question for modern artists was, what to put in it? Fifteen years of non-representational painting prompted Guston to question its usefulness For the first decade of his career, Philip Guston had an old-fashioned answer: the murals he painted in the style of Italian Renaissance frescoes in the US and Mexico during the

Proof that Rubens really was a champion of the female sex: Rubens & Women, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery reviewed

‘She is a princess endowed with all the virtues of sex; long experience has taught her how to govern these people… I think that if Her Highness could govern in her own way, everything would turn out very happily.’ The ‘princess’ in question was Isabel Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain and regent of the Spanish Netherlands; ‘these people’ were the pesky, ungovernable Flemings and the author of the glowing testimonial was Peter Paul Rubens who, since the death of Isabel’s husband the Archduke Albert in 1621, had become her trusted diplomatic adviser. It was quite a step up for a mere court painter, especially one with a skeleton in the

The splendour of Edinburgh’s new Scottish galleries 

For nearly 50 years, the Scottish collection at Edinburgh’s National Galleries has been housed in a gloomy subterranean space beneath the main gallery, rarely visited, never celebrated. If you didn’t know it was there, don’t be ashamed. Just 19 per cent of visitors ventured into the bowels to find the jumble of Scottish paintings, dimly lit and hanging on colour-sucking, mucky green walls above a depressing brown carpet. Of those who did get there, lots immediately turned and fled back upstairs to the luminous comforts of Titian, Velazquez and Rubens. Safe to say, the space was not exactly showcasing Scottish art; a puzzling strategy for the country’s flagship gallery. The

Why is Frans Hals still not considered the equal of Rembrandt?

Who was Frans Hals? We know very little about him. He was baptised in either 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp. He died in 1666 at the age of 83 or 84. Approximately 220 works survive. One discredited narrative claimed Hals was a drunk – an inference probably based on his subject matter. There are several depictions of drinkers. On the other hand, there is his evident industry. Two streets in Haarlem, where he lived his entire life, have been identified, but not the actual houses. He was buried in St Bavo’s church in the Grote Markt, which was originally Catholic but became Protestant. There are two commemorative slabs next to

Lyrical and dreamlike: A World of Private Mystery – British Neo-Romantics, at the Fry Art Gallery, reviewed

‘My daughter’s moving to Saffron Walden, away from all this,’ said the railway man at Stratford station, gesturing at the tower blocks overlooking the platform. ‘It’s like going back to the 1970s and ’80s.’ For the neo-romantics the pastoral mode was an escape from the grimness of everyday wartime reality Further back, in the case of Saffron Walden’s Fry Art Gallery. Purpose-built by a Victorian banker to house his collection, this gem of a gallery has since been devoted to collecting and showing artists who have lived and worked in north-west Essex, beginning with the group that congregated around Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious in Great Bardfield from the 1930s.

The greatest artist chronicler of our times: Grayson Perry, at the Edinburgh Art Festival, reviewed

The busiest show in Edinburgh must be Grayson Perry: Smash Hits which, a month into its run, still has people queuing at 10 a.m. His original title, National Treasure, was rejected because ‘national’ is a politically loaded term in Scotland. But Perry’s lens is resolutely fixed on England and Englishness. Seen from a Scottish perspective, this riot of rococo folkishness is familiar and exotic. Grayson Perry is the greatest artist chronicler of our times, with an omnificent style that’s all substance The exuberant exhibition, which is curated by the National Galleries of Scotland but showing at the Royal Scottish Academy and ends on 12 November, slaps the viewer around the

An extraordinary woman: The Art of Lucy Kemp-Welch, at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, reviewed

In March 1913 two horse painters met at the Lyceum Club to discuss the establishment of a Society of Animal Painters to raise the profile of their genre. Of the two, it was Alfred Munnings whose profile needed raising. Lucy Kemp-Welch had been a celebrity since her twenties when her 5x10ft canvas ‘Colt Hunting in the New Forest’ caused a sensation at the 1897 RA Summer Exhibition and was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the new National Gallery of British Art on Millbank. She threw herself into every activity she depicted, whether rounding up colts or hauling timber The daughter of a Bournemouth solicitor, Kemp-Welch had been riding and

Move fast to snap up one of Elizabeth Blackadder’s sleek cats at the Scottish Gallery

If there’s one thing the internet knows, it’s that cats sell. The Scottish painter Elizabeth Blackadder, who died in 2021 at the age of 89, knew it too. Her sinuous, characterful cat pictures, watercolours mostly but also oils and prints, helped cement her place as the nation’s favourite painter. She was an establishment favourite too, becoming the first woman to be elected to both the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy in London. In 1995, her cats adorned a set of Royal Mail stamps and, in 2001, she became the first woman to be appointed as Her Majesty’s Painter and Limner, a position unique to the Royal Household of