Anne Gardom on the merits of a good old-fashioned hanging
The Victoria and Albert Museum has refurbished its paintings galleries in a splendid decor of red, white and gold, and rehung some of its very interesting collection of mainly nineteenth-century paintings and watercolours. Though we do not normally associate the V&A with pictures, they were pioneers in this field and still hold the national watercolour collection. It is this history and the intelligent and perceptive way in which the pictures have been hung that gives these galleries a special interest, and a human and social dimension not to be found in the blockbuster exhibitions, however exciting and successful these may be. Go to them with different expectations and you will not be disappointed.
The pictures in the two first galleries were both generous bequests to the Museum. They are displayed in the way our great-grandparents would have expected to see them. They are mostly framed in gilt frames and are hung very close together, the idea being to display as many as possible on the walls. The V&A have reproduced as nearly as possible the way in which they would have been seen at that time.
The Sheepshanks bequest, the gift of a wealthy cloth manufacturer, was the first bequest ever made to the V&A, and comprised 233 paintings and 259 drawings. Sheepshanks paid between £10 and £100 for his paintings (a junior army officer’s annual pay at this time was £200). The bequest was made on the condition that it should be open on Sunday afternoons and some evenings so that working people could come. (Sundays had to wait till 1897 but they managed gas lamps for the evenings). Sheepshanks was a successful self-made businessman and passionately believed in the improvement of the people by exposure to art and beauty.
This is the collection of a man who saw art as a social tool with power to change society. Here are paintings by Blake, including his ethereal and remote Madonna and Child, the Redgrave painting of The Governess which shows us a sad young woman clad in black and holding a letter in her hand, while in the sunshine light-hearted and prettily dressed children are playing. There is a wonderfully dramatic Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru by Millais, with no doubt about who is the victim and who the aggressor. Landseer was very popular at this time, and was, indeed, Queen Victoria’s favourite painter. He is well represented here – The Stonebreaker and his Daughter shows the depth of poverty lit by the hopeful ray of youth. Jack in Office is one of Landseer’s anthropomorphic paintings where animals substitute for humans to make a point. In this picture a smug and dominant dog is sitting in a little cart while subservient dogs hang hopefully around hoping to pick up scraps of food. It is beautifully painted and the kind of picture that made Landseer so popular. Nearby hangs another Landseer, a small picture called The Eagle’s Nest. He has painted it quite freely in greys, blacks and browns and with no social message at all but a wonderful celebration of a desolate landscape and the strength and power of superb birds of prey. Man’s battle with the elements is depicted by a magnificent Turner, showing a storm-tossed boat being rescued off the coast; the crashing waves and lowering skies are shot with fitful gleams of light.
The second bequest was donated by Constantine Ionides, stockbroker son of a wealthy Anglo-Greek family. He saw his collection not so much as a social force as the creation of a cultured Victorian gentleman and the expression of a rounded and balanced view of life. A wealthy and patriarchal man (he was known as ‘Oh Zeus’ to his five children), he also collected gems and porcelain some of which are on display. There is also the gilt and gesso decorated Broadway piano which adorned his drawing room, by the same artist, Kate Falkner, as that in the current Lloyd Webber exhibition. Ionides collected French paintings as well as English. There are some lovely oils by Rousseau, small vivid paintings of trees and landscape against a stormy sky. Corot is well represented and there is a wonderful painting by Millet – The Wood Sawyers full of the movement and the energy of two young men sawing up a huge log. He bought the first Degas to enter a British collection, a painting of the performance of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable showing the dance of ghosts of nuns who have been seduced from the life of purity. Their shadowy whirling figures form the background to the very human and clear-cut players in the orchestra, some of which are actual portraits. He also bought pictures by Botticelli, Le Nain and a lovely small Rembrandt – The Departure of the Shunamite Woman painted with masterly grasp of the drama of light and darkness.
In 1888 Isabel Constable donated a collection of her father’s pictures, oil sketches and sketchbooks to the Museum, and these are displayed along with Gainsborough’s Show Box (ancestor of the slide-show) for which he painted exquisite landscapes on glass to be viewed through a magnifying lens. Constable’s little oil sketches are a joy – they are quite small and freely painted with vigorous brush strokes and full of vitality. We all know his famous paintings. Indeed, they have become almost hackneyed by being reproduced in books, on posters, biscuit tins and jigsaw puzzles, so it is a delightful surprise to come upon these virtually unknown paintings, so full of life and energy and so immediate in their response to what he was seeing. A facsimile of one of his tiny sketch books allows you to turn the pages and enjoy his little sketches of a church from a variety of different angles and his sympathetic depiction of everyday people. We really feel as if we were seeing what he saw through his own eyes!
There are other pictures to be enjoyed in this part of the exhibition. De Loutheberg’s Schaffhausen Falls is a vast picture, painted in the ‘Sublime’ manner with tumbling crashing water dwarfing the buildings and small human figures. There are more Turners, most notably a painting of St Michael’s Mount off the Cornish coast, where the pale ghostly shape of the castle looks like an insubstantial Avalon. There are delectable watercolours by Cox, Towne and Samuel Palmer, all little jewels needing time and space to enjoy them.
This is not a big exhibition and gives us the chance to look at the pictures from a rather different historical viewpoint from that which informs many exhibitions. The pictures, lovely and varied in themselves, express the ideas and ideals of our great-grandparents, who saw art and learning as a powerful agent for social betterment and as the expression of a cultured and refined mind. Understanding this gives an added dimension and pleasure to a visit to these handsomely restored galleries.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is free.
Anne Gardom is Art Critic for New Directions
The bequest was made on the condition that it should be open on Sunday afternoons and some evenings so that working people could come.