Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Guildhall Art Gallery and more Victorians

After seeing lots of Victorian painters at Leighton House Museum at the start of the week what better way to finish the week with more Victorians and another gallery I'd never visited, the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City. It's recently re-hung it's collection so it's a good time to go, especially on a dreary wet and cold afternoon in mid-February.

The star of the collection is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'La Ghirlandata', one of the centre-pieces of the Pre-Raphaelites, with her lush lips and direct gaze. She looks quite cold to me, playing her harp and gazing out at the viewer but, I think, she's gazing through us to something else, something just behind us that we can't see. Is she playing for a lover or is she cursed to play endlessly until the magic of a kiss frees her?

There are a few other paintings that might be classed as broadly Pre-Raphaelite but most of the collection isn't and it's good to see them together, the different artistic movements over the years.

There was a lovely painting by Frederic Leighton (whose home and studio are now Leighton House Museum) called 'The Music Lesson'. I assume the mother is teaching her daughter to play the lute amidst the acres of fabulously decorated fabrics that make up their clothes and their feet bare. It's the feet I first noticed since this painting is hung beside a short staircase and I saw the feet as I went up. The antique or eastern background, coupled with bare feet, suggests tho is meant to be in a far off land long ago to give it a context but I just think it's a lovely domestic scene with a parent and child doing what parents and children have always done. It's a very peaceful and calming painting with no rush or worry, not a care in the world.

Harking back to Leighton House again, I found three small paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema  in a little alcove, not terribly well lit or well hung, but it was nice to see them anyway. 'The Wine Shop', 'Pleading' (a very similar composition to a painting at Leighton House) and this one, 'The Pyrrhic Dance'.  The dance of armed soldiers celebrating history in war, performed for the great and the good in the city, a martial dance to show off their superiority. It's an odd composition, with the soldiers taking up two thirds of the available space and the other third given up to the city elders to watch. It's a small painting but quite striking.

The oldest painting I found was in a small underground gallery beside the entrance to the old Roman amphitheatre excavated underneath the Guildhall and this was 'The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739' painted by Jan Griffier the Younger in 1739. The Thames has frozen over in the winter cold and there are people out on the ice, possibly getting ready for the frost fairs that took place on the river. The dome of St Paul's is in th distance so this might have been painted from somewhere around Westminster? The river certainly looks wider the today so it was before the Embankment was built along the Thames. It's a fascinating view.

There's also the hopelessly sentimental and romantic paintings that the Victorians seem to love and we turn into pictures to decorate biscuit tins and Christmas cards. I quite liked this one, a painting by Augustus Edwin Mulready called 'Remembering Joys That Have Passed Away' from 1873. It shows two children gazing up at an old poster of the Christmas pantomime that has now closed while the snow falls around them. C'mon, own up - we've all been there haven't we, wishing that something would come back, some event or special moment and that is depicted in this small painting. Ah… memories…

2014 saw the 120th anniversary of the opening of Tower Bridge so, since this is the Guildhall, there was a small exhibition of paintings of the bridge and the surrounding areas as well a room with various things about the construction of the bridge and the alternative designs that were considered. Rather than show a painting of Tower Bridge I want to show this painting, called 'Chaos on London Bridge' by Harold Workman (undated). I like this, the traffic hell that can be London bridges, with buses all over the place and vans and cars dodging in and out. It reminded me of 'Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day' by Walter Greaves that I saw at Tate Britain with it's similar theme of crowds and madness on a bridge. Bridges can be special places, a transition point from one place to the next or a change from one thing to another and sometimes that transition is a mess. Welcome to London Bridge!

And there you have it, a selection of paintings and thoughts from the Guildhall Art Gallery. It's all plush and new and has very thick carpets. The main room quite a large space, very light and airy and most of the paintings are well hung for easy viewing. There are smaller rooms to visit as you wander round and you never know what you might stumble across. And best of all, no crowds. I'll certainly be happy to return again.

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