A journey in pictures

Never having had any formal education in art history, I gained my knowledge by studying collections at first hand. Though the National Gallery in London has always set the highest standards, a rich diversity of pictures lies beyond: early Italian art in Liverpool and Oxford, Spanish art in Barnard Castle, pre-Raphaelites in Birmingham and Manchester, German expressionism in Leicester, French impressionism in Cardiff and surrealism in Edinburgh. Setting out on a journey to find the masterpieces in our public collections for a forthcoming book, one of my aims was to show how widely the geographical distribution of fine paintings extends throughout the British Isles.

There has been a rich tradition of collecting in Britain and Ireland since the 16th century. The court led the way, with aristocratic families rich enough for the Grand Tour coming to dominance during the 18th century. But the great age of museum-building arrived in the 19th century. The National Gallery in London was founded in 1824 – well behind the rest of Europe. Edinburgh (1850), Dublin (1854), Cardiff (1907) and Belfast (1909) followed suit. The rise of large industrial cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Glasgow – brought new wealth and civic pride, which sought fresh outlets in ­cultural institutions. Local benefactors and philanthropists eagerly stepped forward throughout the 19th and early twentieth centuries. The roots of many of the museums and art galleries lie in the concept of the universal exhibition or in the influence of learned societies. Universities, too, following Oxford and Cambridge, formed important collections often linked to areas of specialist study. Outstanding examples are the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham and the Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow.

Wonderful examples of works by some of the greatest artists are found in unexpected places: Tintoretto in Gateshead, Frans Hals in Hull, Georges de la Tour in Stockton-on-Tees, Goya in Barnard Castle, Van Gogh in Glasgow, Frank Stella in Brighton. And the list goes on. Nearly all museums and galleries outside London have succeeded over the years in widening their representation of British painting post-1900 while also trying to keep abreast of the contemporary scene. And all this against the financial odds.

The great 19th-century critic, William Hazlitt, wrote that “A life passed among pictures, in the study and love of art, is a happy noiseless dream.” I would encourage everybody to experience the thrill of entering an art gallery not knowing what they might find, and to share Hazlitt’s dream.

Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

Giambattista Moroni (c.1522-78): “Portrait of a Widower and his Two Children” c.1565

Moroni’s portraits, of which there are many – this one came into the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1866 – are notable for their descriptive power and compositional restraint. Moroni was born near Bergamo and remained in northern Italy throughout his life. The influence of Venetian painting was paramount and he learnt a great deal from the portraits of Titian. Typically, he eschewed aristocratic sitters, favouring instead the merchants, clerics and lawyers that make his portraits so revealing sociologically. The books on the shelf and the letters on the table in “Portrait of a Widower and his Two Children” suggest that the widower is a notary. He looks directly at us with a forlorn expression, embracing both his children protectively as though inviting us to sympathise with his predicament. The bright colours of the children’s clothes contrast vividly with the black of their father’s garments; Moroni was a master in the tonal nuances of black. The overall composition is relatively simple, but the detailing of the clothes and accessories – the flowers in the girl’s hair, the apple held by the boy, the father’s ring – make this an intensely personal as well as a sad portrait.

Stockton-on-Tees, Preston Hall Museum

Georges de la Tour (1593-1652): “The Dice Players” c.1650

Georges de la Tour is an artist perhaps even more admired today than in his own time. The combination of enigmatic subject matter, a striking technique and a limited output has proved compelling for a modern audience, added to which is the relative paucity of information about his life. He came from Lorraine and spent most of his life there, earning a royal appointment from Louis XIII in 1639. “The Dice Players” is a late picture. The older man on the far left seems to be picking the pocket of his neighbour while the role of the youthful, slightly androgynous figure on the far right remains mysterious. The principal feature of so many of his compositions is the treatment of light. Like other northern followers of Caravaggio, he preferred nocturnal effects illuminated by spluttering candles and smoky tapers. The drama in “The Dice Players” is heightened by shadows and reflections, but also by the fact that the source of the internal lighting is obscured by the extended arm of one of the dice players. A similar ambiguity exists as regards meaning: is the painting a secular allegory or is there a religious connotation such as the story of the prodigal son or the denial of Christ?

Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

Lucian Freud (b.1922): “Interior in Paddington” 1951

This important early work by Freud was first shown at the Festival of Britain in the year in which it was painted. The interior of the title is the artist’s London flat overlooking the Grand Union Canal, which is seen at the right edge. The model is Henry Diamond, who worked first as a stage hand and then as a photographer, as well as modelling for the artist. Freud fell out with him in 1970. The composition of a closely observed interior with a view looking down through a window was one often used by the French impressionist Gustave Caillebotte and then by Henri Matisse. There is a feeling not so much of escape but of entrapment, with the figure enclosed within a series of verticals, one of which is formed by the threatening plant. Diamond stands on a puckered carpet, which reflects the mood of discontent expressed at the time by the model who was easily bored by the tedium of the numerous sittings. The incisive drawing and bleached colour reveal Freud’s early interest in German art, while the spiky potted palm reminds the viewer that the artist is also a superb painter of still lifes.

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum

Domenico Veneziano (c.1410-61): “The Annunciation” c.1445-47

This painting represents the culmination of the early Renaissance in Florence in its purest form. It was originally one of a sequence of small narrative scenes placed beneath the main section of Domenico Veneziano’s altarpiece painted in the mid-1440s for the church of Santa Lucia de’ Magnoli in Florence. The main section is now in the Uffizi gallery, but the narrative scenes were separated from the altarpiece at the beginning of the 19th century and are in various museums. “The Annunciation” was centrally positioned immediately below the Virgin and Child – the focal point of the altarpiece both theologically and visually. The composition is a confident demonstration of the use of the recently devised system of mathematical perspective (allowing for the fact that the panel has been slightly cut on the left), added to which are the clear light and confetti-like colours. Most eloquent is the space separating the submissive Virgin Mary from the kneeling Angel Gabriel – both seen in sharp profile. Through the archway is a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) representing the Virgin’s purity, beyond which is a doorway symbolising redemption. The artist cleverly incorporates these elements of medieval mysticism by means of the new visual vocabulary of the Renaissance. None of these features would have been lost on Veneziano’s pupil – Piero della Francesca.

Cardiff, National Museum of Wales

Jean-François Millet (1814-75): “Winter – The Faggot Gatherers” 1868-75

Millet’s principal paintings depicted rural life, particularly the plight of the peasants as he observed it in the village of Barbizon, south-east of Paris. Some of his images, such as “The Angelus”, became iconic, but his work has always been open to interpretation. Some saw it as socialist and revolutionary; others felt that it was conservative and sentimentalist. Actually, Millet wanted to show the hardship of rural labour while stressing its dignity and sense of values derived from the rhythms of nature. Prone to melancholy, he also saw the encroaching urbanisation of France as a threat to traditional life. “Winter” belongs to a cycle of the seasons commissioned not long before the artist’s death. Three pictures were completed, but “Winter” is unfinished. It is an unforgettable image of unremitting toil: the stooping figures with their heavy burdens slowly and silently pass us by. The picture was part of a remarkable group of French 19th-century avant-garde paintings collected mainly during the 1920s by two sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies.

Aberdeen Art Gallery

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959): “Southwold” 1937

Spencer’s personal vision of the village and inhabitants of Cookham by the Thames in Berkshire is so intense that it comes as a surprise to discover that he painted numerous subjects without religious overtones. Southwold is on the coast of Suffolk and Spencer had spent his honeymoon at nearby Wangford after his marriage to his first wife Hilda Carline. He divorced her in 1937 in order to marry his muse Patricia Preece. The unsatisfactory outcome of this second marriage encouraged him to revisit those places where he had been happiest with Hilda, to whom he remained close until her death in 1950. The view he shows in “Southwold” is looking down from the road above the beach; at the extreme left edge one of the famous beach huts can be seen, which, like the breakwaters, are still a feature of the resort. The artist provides an inventory of beach equipment – deck chairs, windbreaks, sun hats, swimming costumes and towels. The people seem secondary to these still lifes which, in the ordinary course of events, Spencer was more than capable of investing with numinous qualities.

Glasgow, Hunterian Art Gallery

Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779): “A Lady Taking Tea” 1735

Chardin was the quiet revolutionary of French art during the 18th century, depicting scenes from everyday life as opposed to more traditional subjects from religious or historical sources. “A Lady Taking Tea” belonged to the physician, Dr William Hunter, whose collection, after his death in 1783, formed the original Hunterian Museum. The subject, as so often with Chardin, is uncomplicated and the mood is subdued. Yet, there are some surprising elements such as the monumental scale of the figure and the challenging perspective (imperfectly realised). The picture has personal significance in so far as Chardin has used his wife as a model: she died only two years later. His paintings always have the appearance of being carefully crafted (significantly, his father was a cabinet maker), and the work is replete with wonderful touches such as the rising steam and the scattering of powder on the shoulders. If there is any hint of mortality, there is, too, an awareness of materiality in the objects – table, teapot, tea cup – that underpins the emotional honesty of the depiction.

Leicester, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery

Franz Marc (1880-1916): “Red Woman” (Girl with Black Hair) 1912

Modern German art is a rarity in the British Isles, but the place to see it is Leicester, where the collection is based on the pictures once belonging to the family of Alfred Hess, who settled in the town during the 1930s. “Red Woman” is not just the only painting by Franz Marc in a public collection, it is also one of the most important in the history of German expressionism. Marc was a member of the Blaue Reiter group (1911-14), based nominally in Munich. More interested in depicting inner states of mind than the external world, their style formed part of the gradual evolution towards abstract painting. Although proud of its roots in German art, “Red Woman” evokes the influence of Paul Gauguin, particularly the Tahitian paintings. Seen from the back with flowing hair and one arm raised, the figure is portrayed as being at one with nature. The emphasis on overall pattern, rhythm and colour camouflages the form so well that she seems to blend in perfectly with the background. In this respect it might be an image of Eve in the garden of Eden before the loss of innocence. Many of Marc’s paintings are tinged with foreboding and he was killed at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 while still in his 30s.

Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97): “In the Car” 1963

Lichtenstein is the definitive exponent of pop art, the movement born of consumerism and the exploitation of mass culture. Using comic strips as a starting point for a series of pictures, Lichtenstein set out to blur the differences between “high” and “low” art. The visual source for “In the Car” is not difficult to detect, but it is the elevation of such material, cropped and enlarged, on to such a grand scale (172cm x 203.5cm) that is noteworthy. Underlying Lichtenstein’s images is a sense of irony since he does not shy away from dealing with themes axiomatic to great art – war, love. The style suited the times as Lichtenstein’s paintings resemble advertising billboards, which quickly became the lingua franca of a global culture. Similarly, his technique, relying on Ben-Day dots, speech balloons and forms of mechanised printing, increased the appearance of modernity, just as methods of transference and replication allowed him to duplicate his work more readily. The man’s glance in “In the Car” draws the viewer in – what are his intentions and what might be his next move? Perhaps his next painting tells us.

Oxford, Christ Church Picture Gallery

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609): “The Butcher’s Shop” c.1583

Described fairly accurately by the 17th-century diarist, John Evelyn, as “a butcher in his shambles selling meat to a Swiss”, the kind of everyday subject in “The Butcher’s Shop” was an unusual one for a painting on its scale (190cm x 271cm) dating from the late 16th century. Carracci was from a family of painters in Bologna, and his work was to mark a watershed in Italian art. At the start of his career he established an academy in Bologna that promoted the direct observation of daily life. But, summoned to Rome by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese in the 1590s, he realigned himself with the heritage of Raphael and Michelangelo, evolving an updated form of the classical style that was to dominate 17th-century Italian painting. “The Butcher’s Shop” was acquired from the Gonzagas in Mantua in 1629 by Charles I, who amassed the greatest collection of old master paintings ever seen in the British Isles, which was sold following his execution in 1649. Subsequently, “The Butcher’s Shop” belonged to General John Guise, who bequeathed his collection to his old Oxford college, Christ Church, in 1765.

‘In Search of a Masterpiece’ by Christopher Lloyd is published by Thames & Hudson on May 16

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