Anne Gardom on two very different sets of paintings

John Pelling’s Stations of the Cross

The church of St Thomas the Apostle, Hanwell, in Middlesex, has acquired a set of Stations of the Cross painted by John Pelling. (His exhibition Double Exposure was reviewed in New Directions June 2001). They are painted in brilliant stained glass colours and are beautifully set off by the cream-coloured walls of this tall, elegant 1930s church, by Sir Edward Maufe, the architect of Guildford Cathedral.

In the pictures Christ wears a white robe and carries a purple cross which is set against a background of strong oranges, yellows, blues and greens. We watch his progress and passion from behind the onlookers and ranks of Roman soldiers in the foreground of the paintings and are made to share in the sorrow and helplessness of those who loved and followed him. One of the soldiers carries a green spear – in each of the early stations the threatening spear appears and finally we realize that we have been looking at that very spear which will pierce Christ’s side as he hangs on the Cross.

The figures express their feelings and emotions in subtle gestures and movements. Their features are only suggested by slight shadings or gradation of colours. The effect of this is to give us space to identify in our own way with participants and scenes of Christ’s Passion.

The pictures are full of symbolism and colour – the shape of a chasuble in the background, the use of palms, not only as palm trees but as symbols of Christ’s triumph, the flowing lines of the red and purple sheets as his spent, white body is taken down from the cross, the broken shapes and vivid colours form backgrounds that are both turbulent and ordered.

Viewed from the back of the church the fourteen stations glow with strong and vivid colour – complementing and enhancing the Church’s interior, and offering the people of Hanwell a dramatic focus to the story of Christ’s Passion.

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Gainsborough at Tate Britain

Gainsborough is one of the major English painters. He was hugely prolific, much sought after as a society portrait painter, and admired by his fellow artists for his sensitive and perceptive painting and his exuberant brushwork.

This very large exhibition focuses on various aspects of this work but central to the whole concept, and occupying the largest gallery are his Exhibition Works, very large, very grand portraits. Gainsborough’s first love was landscape, but at least at the start of his career this genre of painting was not much admired in England and, more importantly, did not command high prices. There are lovely pencil landscape drawings to be seen throughout the exhibition.

His early portraits, mostly painted before he moved to London, differ very noticeably from his fluid, confident, later works. They are normally quite small, showing carefully painted rather wooden figures in elaborate clothes sitting in summery idyllic landscapes. His double portrait of Mr & Mrs Andrews, painted about 1740, shows a rather doll-like couple (he used dolls for models at this time) sitting well to one side of a carefully reaped field in a well-tended rural landscape. Mr Andrews was a landed gentleman farmer, as is shown by his nonchalantly crossed legs, gun and faithful dog – all important parts of the picture’s message.

Portraits were very much intended to express the importance and status of the subject and Gainsborough’s success shows how thoroughly he grasped this principle. His splendid painting of Robert Cragge launched his career as a portrait painter. The picture shows an intelligent and powerful man, his slightly quizzical glance beautifully caught by the artist. In his magnificent painting of Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux he demonstrates the importance of elaborate clothes in creating the sense of wealth and nobility. He paints her in a contemporary black and silver dress, however, rather than classical draperies. The famous painting of the celebrated dancer Giovanna Baccelli uses dress in quite a different way. Her pose, her dress, her lively glance say clearly that here is an actress and dancer, not an aristocratic lady.

There were well-understood conventions in portrait painting for expressing importance, wealth and success. Dress had to be grand, but not over-elaborate (the amazing portrait of Sir Edward Turner in his eye-catching floral silk suit is a delightful exception) a relaxed attitude with the legs elegantly crossed was the sign of a gentleman, as was a dog, a gun and other symbols could be introduced to suggest musical, literary or other interests. Many of his aristocratic sitters gaze out at the viewer with bland, rather expressionless, faces. It was an important gentlemanly attribute that he was in command of his emotions and this is how they wanted to be portrayed. Women were expected to be modest, though they certainly could be grandly dressed, and were normally not painted looking directly at the viewer. The painting of Ann Ford, later Mrs Philip Thicknesse, who was a considerable musician, aroused much adverse comment, her pose being described as ‘handsome and bold’ – not a recommendation!

Sensibility, a correct balance between the emotions and the intellect, was a quality much admired in the eighteenth century and Gainsborough was at pains to express this balance between thinking and feeling in his pictures. His paintings of the poor are not simply depictions of the landscape he loved peopled with picturesque peasants but are intended to arouse in the viewer feelings of pity and compassion and concern for social injustice. It was a time of land-enclosure and the erosion of rights to common land. He was also much influenced by the work of Claude, as were Turner and Constable, and this is very apparent in some of his sun-filled idyllic landscapes. Whatever the message, however, it is Gainsborough’s sheer love of the English countryside that flows through these paintings.

In the final room, devoted to his later works, there are some landscapes painted on glass which, when viewed on the illuminated hooded screen, give a sense of intimacy and enchantment to the viewer.

This is a big exhibition showing the work of a very English painter. Some of the labelling is quite difficult to read and not always worth the effort, but the pictures are a joy and show us why Gainsborough was so successful in his day and has been admired ever since.

Gainsborough is open till 19th January, 2003. Entry £8.50, Concessions £6.00

Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions.