2 December 2011

Landscapes in Oxford and Bath

In a post back in August I remarked in passing “should France ever leave the Eurozone, which may seem unlikely”. Now we are being told that the breakup of the euro is the subject of contingency planning in finance ministries, embassies and the headquarters of multinationals across the world. What could be a better way to escape briefly from the encircling economic gloom than two visits to Arcadia?

The Ashmolean in Oxford is showing Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape, the first major exhibition of his work in over a decade. Claude Gellée (c.1600–1682), spent most of his working life in Rome, but his origins were in the commune of Chamagne in the Duchy of Lorraine, (now in Vosges (88) in France; never Champagne as the Ashmolean press pack states, perhaps wanting to inject some fizz). His biographical details are unclear, he may even have been trained originally as a pastry-cook, but by his thirties he was settled in Rome and had begun to make a name for himself by painting port scenes and landscapes. During his long artistic career he had the patronage of royalty as well as popes and cardinals.

The exhibition is organised in three sections: firstly, sketches and drawings from the Roman countryside; then thirteen paintings mostly with classical (Aeneas and Dido in Carthage, left) or religious themes, all providing the enchantment promised by the show’s name; finally, etchings including the fascinating series of the fireworks in Rome in 1637.

Claude’s work was encountered and collected on the Grand Tour by the English aristocracy who later laid out their parklands in the spirit of his pastoral idyll. One English artist he had some influence over was Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) whose landscapes are the subject of the Bath Holburne Museum’s second major exhibition since redevelopment, Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations. Although only six paintings are shown, these were well-chosen and helpfully complemented by drawings and prints, all skilfully curated by Susan Sloman. Gainsborough’s fame and livelihood came from his portraiture, particularly during the years 1759-74 when he lived in Bath, but as he said:
I’m sick of portraits and wish very much to take up my viol de gamba and walk off to some sweet village where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.
Perhaps this shows in his portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews (below) in the National Gallery, London, which, although telling us all we might want to know about them, still manages to be 50% landscape.

Gainsborough painted a romantic view of the countryside around Bath but populated it with more realistic inhabitants, Peasants Returning from Market (left) or looking after pigs, than Claude’s paintings feature. The exhibition reminds us of our encircling economic realities when it explains that Bath’s popularity as an all year spa and resort depended on winter heating provided by the coal mined a few miles to the south of the city.

Economic reality may also be intruding in the way that shows are increasingly augmenting a relatively small number of paintings with drawings, etchings and so on (Table below). In so far as these lesser works add depth and focus and encourage a more scholarly approach in visiting exhibitions, this is probably not entirely a retrograde step. Anyway, given that paintings are inevitably more expensive to transport and insure, we are probably going to have to get used to it.

Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape continues at the Ashmolean until 8 January and then can be seen at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt from 3 February to 6 May 2012. Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations will be in Bath until 22 January and then the appropriate parkland surroundings of Compton Verney from 11 February to 10 June 2012. Let’s hope the eurozone will survive for both.

No comments:

Post a Comment