Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Forgotten Faces

Who is the dandiacal figure above? It's Somerset Maugham, as painted by Gerald Kelly in a portrait called The Jester. The picture is one of the most striking in an interesting little exhibition at Tate Britain - Forgotten Faces - that I've just been to see. Its subject is paintings that were famous in their time, major attractions at the Tate in the first decades of the last century, and are now quite forgotten, though the exhibition is almost as much about artists whose sky-high reputations nosedived after their deaths - Gerald Kelly, PRA, a huge figure in his day, being a case in point.
  Star of the show is Diana of the Uplands, a big open-air portrait of his wife in a Diana-like pose, with hounds, by Charles Wellington Furse. Like many of the portraits here, it's executed with a freedom and dash that owe much to John Singer Sargent and to the revival of interest in Reynolds and 18th-century portraiture. A lively and striking picture - 'full of space and sky and instinct with vitality' as Chesterton described it - Diana of The Uplands was more popular in its day than Millais's Ophelia, and it's not hard to see why.
 Some of the other once-popular pictures on display seem to deserve their eclipse (notably Ralph Peacock's oddly airless portraits) - but there are gems as well. Charles Shannon's The Lady with the Amethyst is (fittingly) a gem, painted in the old Venetian way in layered glazes. John Lavery's La Mort du Cygne - the largest picture in the exhibition - is a bit of a stunner too, an image of Pavlova (though posed by the artist's wife) as the Dying Swan, near the foot of a boldly composed, near-monochrome image dominated by the heavy curtain and the stage.
 For me, however, it was the great Dieppe-based painter Jacques-Emile Blanche who stole the show. His 1906 portrait of Thomas Hardy - dashed off in an hour and a half - is a startlingly vivid image of the ageing author, haunted, buffeted, resigned. Blanche left it just as it was for fear of losing the 'revealing likeness', which Hardy himself described as 'striking'. And there's another Blanche portrait - of Charles Conder, elegantly posed in profile against a wall of Whistlerian yellow. Blanche described Conder as 'a rootless Australian nightbird' who went 'from a state of state of intoxication to a sort of lucid daze'. He lived largely on alcohol and cigarettes, died young and is all but forgotten (but not by Barry Humphries, an avid Conder collector).
 Forgotten Faces is on for another week or so - well worth a look if you're in the area. It's good to see the Tate using its holdings for this kind of exhibition, exploring the history of changing taste and fashion in art - and putting on display some fine forgotten works that deserve to be seen again.


  1. Love your art stuff Nige. Got a wonderful poster of some Manet lilacs from a recent visit to the Alt Galerie in Berlin having been turned on to Manet's flowers by one you posted.

  2. Thanks Guy - yes Manet's such a great flower painter. Do you know Odilon Redon's flower paintings? V different but wonderful...

    1. Thanks Nige, lovely paintings, here's the Wallraf's Redon, all about St George and the dragon. In the same room is Lovis Corinth's remarkable Kreuzabnahme. An outstanding example of that often painted subject.

  3. Extraordinary Corinth Malty and Redon intriguing Nige. Will try to see more.

  4. Painful to think that it took Paul Emsley three and a half months to create the catastrophic portrait of our Kate, and Blanche 30 minutes to knock-out that masterful realization of TH. My, how we have fallen.

    1. Little wonder , Mahlerman, his mancave, Stellenbosch university was more notable for it's skills with the oval ball than it's intellectual pursuits, standing in the clubhouse after the first appearance in the Melrose sevens of one of Stellenbosch universities many teams, my one thought was "here am I, over there is Bill McLaren", between us are the stokers from the Scharnhorst, inbreeding of the worrying kind, the SNDAP amalgamates with a group of people who call their fellow countrymen blicks.




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