The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Seventy Five
What’s it like to be photographed by Martin Parr? Plus Greek mythology and flamboyant fashion tips for the well-dressed mercenary
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.
We start this month with Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present – the Gallery’s first exhibition devoted to photography. The show traces the close relationship between photography and fine art, by putting the two side by side.
One pairing that's attracted attention is the placing of Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews from about 1750, next to a 1991 photograph of an up-and-coming professional couple taken by that keen observer of modern British life, Martin Parr – a portrait which was taken to accompany a BBC television series called 'Signs of the Times'.
The couple in question – Richard and Abigail Bromell – met up with Leah Kharibian to explain how it feels to see their younger selves hung on a wall in the National Gallery. But first, the show’s curator Hope Kingsley explained why she decided to place Martin Parr's photograph alongside Thomas Gainsborough's painting.
Hope Kingsley: Well, certainly one of the key points in this part of the exhibition and the project is that whether painted or photographed portraits share stylistic devices and conventions and they share narratives, including social context. We are very aware of the humanity in Gainsborough’s work – a young couple at the beginning of their lives, with their world as it is a shared world opening up beyond them. I felt very strongly that Martin Parr’s picture gave the same sense of the sitters and the same sense of their world as a young couple.
Leah Kharibian: That’s wonderful and that brings me onto the Bromells who we actually have – the two sitters for this portrait – here with us, Richard and Abigail. And I was wondering Richard if I could start – I mean talking about that idea of a young couple starting out – could you just explain where you and Abigail were at this moment? What time is this for you in your lives?
Richard Bromell: We were just married in 1991 and that was our first house, with our first few little possessions, which were begged, borrowed or stolen.
Abigail Bromell: Basically, when you look at that photo you are looking at our house. That is almost all of it that there was – it was very small.
Leah Kharibian: And I understand Abigail that Martin Parr has a sort of technique of making people wait. There’s a sort of gap between the actual taking up of a pose and the taking of the photograph. Did that actually happen for you?
Abigail Bromell: It did seem to take an awfully long time and he had a very particular idea… you know, none of that is accidental… he wanted us in exactly those positions. I seem to remember he told us about four or five times that we weren’t allowed to smile even, which is actually quite unnerving when you’re sitting there with someone you don’t know. You know, the natural reaction is I think to smile and appear friendly, isn’t it? There is nothing about what he did that was trying to put us at our ease. He was in charge and wanted us to feel very aware of the situation I think somehow.
Richard Bromell: I mean, it was okay for Abigail, she was sat down… but I was standing bolt upright. I mean I could hear my father sort of telling me, you know, 'stand up straight', you know, 'shoulders back', and that’s really what I’m kind of doing there, really.
Leah Kharibian: But I do think that actually the tension comes out, because you in particular Abigail have this rather wonderful look, that’s sort of both a bit suspicious, a bit wary, and almost saucy, and in fact a bit challenging to him. And it’s not a million miles away from the look that Mrs Andrews has in the Gainsborough portrait. Something slightly…
Abigail Bromell: Slightly disdainful almost, sort of… do you think? Or not?
Richard Bromell: I actually quite like it… I don’t like myself, but I think generally when you see yourself in a picture, in a photograph, it’s always yourself that you don’t actually like, you tend to like everyone else, and actually everyone else tends to look very at ease.
Abigail Bromell: I think you look great.
Richard Bromell: Do you? Great.
Leah Kharibian: And in terms of the fact that it was seen at the time and people did see it – how did you feel? Did you feel as if you’d been slightly exposed by this photograph?
Richard Bromell: I tend to look back on it more fondly today than I think I possibly did at the time. Like so many things it seemed like a great idea at the time and then it comes out and you’re thinking 'are we really like that'? We don’t see ourselves like that, do our friends see us like that? The answer is usually no – but that is clearly what we are in the eyes of other people.
Abigail Bromell: But also that’s art. That’s not just us, that’s his interpretation of us, isn’t it. We didn’t spend many evenings standing in the lounge looking like that. But that’s how he saw us, so…
Leah Kharibian: And can I just finally ask… how do you feel about it now? I mean here you are at the National Gallery!
Abigail Bromell: I think it’s amazing. Bizarre. Really… you know. I mean have you ever had your picture hung in the National Gallery? It’s not something I ever thought would happen. It’s really bizarre…
Richard Bromell: What I think is also strange is that one of the people who works for us is a Martin Parr mad fan and has got all his books and has actually looked at us previously and hadn’t connected us with being his bosses, which is quite amazing as well.
Abigail Bromell: But I suppose when you age what you were part of when you were younger becomes more interesting to people – social history. So I suppose now that we’re a tiny bit older [laughs] we can see it a little bit more like that. Especially as we’ve moved on. We’ve now got two downstairs rooms… [laughs].
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Abigail and Richard Bromell, and Hope Kingsley. If you’d like to see Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, you’ve only got a few more weeks – it closes on the 20th of January. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next to a painting by the 16th-century Italian artist, Niccolò dell’Abate.
It depicts a scene from Greek mythology, as told by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, in which the nymph Eurydice flees from a shepherd who’s taken a fancy to her – Aristaeus. Their dramatic encounter is set in a highly atmospheric, lush green landscape – as art historian Jo Rhymer explained when she took Cathy FitzGerald to see Niccolò’s The Death of Eurydice.
Jo Rhymer: It’s almost like a stage set really – it’s like being at the theatre. You could imagine perhaps the sound of thunder… the sound of lightening. You’ve got a real sense of a storm brewing. And then over to the right-hand side, you’ve got this very peculiar – I suppose – city, this sort of urban-scape… which comprises a range of most peculiar buildings. You’ve got castles there which look as though they come from Northern Europe, you’ve got temples, you’ve got some buildings that seem to be in quite good repair, others seem to have fallen down – they’re like ruins. And they are all of the same sort of colour, a very sort of ghostly grey, spectral kind of colour. And it makes you feel as though you’ve ended up in a magical landscape. It’s a perfect setting perhaps for the story.
Cathy FitzGerald: And the story runs across the front of the painting, doesn’t it? It’s almost like a cartoon strip – we seem the same characters, but time’s moved on between scenes.
Jo Rhymer: Yes, I think this is really important, that when you look at a landscape painting, you usually assume it’s all one time, but this picture is actually encapsulating lots of moments, and they’re all sectioned off. So right in the centre we have Eurydice, our heroine, who is running towards the right-hand side of the picture, but looking over her shoulder behind her. She’s got this man running after her, his arms are widely stretched, it’s all incredibly dramatic. And because she’s not looking where she’s going, you almost feel, she’s had this dreadful accident. She steps on a snake… she gets bitten… And she dies.
Cathy FitzGerald: Yes, so we see her twice don’t we? So we see her in the middle of this very dramatic scene, obviously very frightened of this man who is pursuing her, and then on the floor – again – we suddenly see her and she’s lying flat out and you can see the tiny snake, can’t you?
Jo Rhymer: Yes, it is tiny and I think the reason it’s small is because people would have known this story and wouldn’t need a great big snake to illustrate it, whereas today perhaps we have to look a bit more carefully. I mean Aristaeus really seems to be lovestruck in a way – probably doesn’t seem to get the hint that actually Eurydice loves somebody else. I don’t think he wishes her any harm… I don’t think he intended to hurt her… but in running after, in his desire to catch up with her as it were, this terrible accident sort of occurs.
Cathy FitzGerald: So what happens next?
Jo Rhymer: The next stage is that Aristaeus has a mishap as well. He keeps cattle and he keeps bees. Because he’s caused indirectly the death of Eurydice, he’s cursed and all of his bees die and he’s terribly upset. And in the painting you can see him over in the distance on the right-hand side talking to the woman who is probably Cyrene, his mother. She sends him to Proteus the river god in the corner with his urn, and he says ‘you’re going to have to sacrifice something Aristaeus and you may or may not get your bees back’. And so the bulls and his cows – some of them are sacrificed. His bees return, so Aristaeus really in some ways perhaps is sorted out, but there’s still a problem, because in this story of course, Eurydice didn’t love Aristaeus, she loved Orpheus and Orpheus loved her and Orpheus wants his Eurydice back.
Cathy FitzGerald: So who was Orpheus?
Jo Rhymer: I think one of the things that’s really incredible about this painting is that Niccolò is able to give us a sense of the next stage of the story without actually showing it. Orpheus is probably most well-known for his beautiful music and we’re told that his music was so exquisite it charmed not just the animals, but also the plants and you can see in the painting that he’s surrounded by a very strange, incongruous group of animals, including a unicorn, a tiger, and what looks like a rabbit.
And this is really how he charms his way into the underworld – he charms the gods, he persuades them to allow him to have his Eurydice back and he’s told that that will be fine – she will follow you out of the underworld, but on no account must you turn back and check that she’s there. And sadly everything is going terribly well and it’s just as they’re about to surface as it were he breaks the rules – as sometimes we do, that’s human nature – he looks round, she was there and now she’s disappeared and she’s gone forever. It’s a very sad story, but there’s something really quite exquisite in that sadness – it’s incredibly beautiful.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jo Rhymer. If you’d like to see Niccolò dell'Abate’s painting for yourself, you’ll find 'The Death of Eurydice' on display in Room 2.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to one of the National Gallery’s best-loved depictions of a child – the portrait of the six-year-old Johann Friedrich of Saxony.
Painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1509, the little boy occupies one side of a diptych, or two-panelled picture, opposite his widowed father Johann the Steadfast. While the father’s clothes are dark and sombre, Johann Friedrich’s outfit is colourful and flamboyant. It also emulates the dress of some of the most feared men in early 16th-century Europe. Leah Kharibian visited the picture with costume historian Margaret Scott, and began by asking her to describe Little Johann Friedrich’s distinctive attire.
Margaret Scott: He is wearing a green hat with curled ostrich feathers along the top and the brim has been flipped over to allow him to incorporate pieces of gold jewellery. His hair is fashionably long and curly – that was a very admired feature of young German males’ appearances in late 15th and early 16th centuries, and foreigners often went ‘wow’ went they saw it. They couldn’t believe it. They would go up and touch it.
And his main garment is green over red. The green is slashed which mostly has disappeared now to show the red underneath, and on top of these sleeves and on the bodice of the garment there are strips of different coloured ribbons which are overlaid on the bodice in a kind of grid pattern. If you look very closely you can actually see that they don’t match up in the way they’re spaced down the arms which would suggest to me that the painting was actually done in a hurry and possibly doesn’t even reflect what the boy would have worn. It may be a fiction for the sake of the painting.
Leah Kharibian: Now if it’s a fiction for the sake of the painting, this outfit is very particular, isn’t it – it actually does relate to a type of outfit. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Margaret Scott: Well, slashing was quite popular in men’s dress in the early 16th century. It was particularly popular in German men’s dress and even to some extent in German women’s dress, and if you look at other Cranachs in the National Gallery, for instance the slightly later one of a young lady in a red velvet dress, you’ll see she has extraordinary slashed, bunched sleeves.
Now this kind of clothing was particularly associated with the most feared mercenary soldiers in Europe at the time, who were known as 'landsknechte'. And they had clothing whose hallmark was the most elaborate slashing imaginable – cutting and slashing to the point you’d think the clothing was in danger of falling apart. The 'landsknechte' had also very, very large hats with ostrich feather plumes in many cases – you’d think totally impractical for going into war.
And they also loved gold jewellery. Now the little boy is wearing a chain that as you see is made out of flattened gold links.
Leah Kharibian: That seems extraordinary to me, that you would dress a child as a mercenary soldier, but I mean the 'landsknechte' are really feared, aren’t they?
Margaret Scott: Oh yes, they are definitely feared. You didn’t want to come up against a troupe of 'landsknechte' because you were likely to lose, until firearms became much more effective later in the 16th century. But they actually became fashionable as people to imply you had in your employ. Henry VIII had his bodyguard dressed in pieces of Germanic clothing in the 1510s. But I think also what’s quite interesting is that I think a lot of men probably took it on because they wanted the 'machoness' that went with it.
Leah Kharibian: So the fact that he’s dressed in this very flamboyant way that directly references these 'landsknechte', actually is quite symbolic, is quite meaningful.
Margaret Scott: I think it is potentially quite meaningful. It would have been understood as being fashionable, but in the context of a child it does seem extraordinary, certainly to our eyes because we tend to look on children who are dressed as adults with a great deal of suspicion, like three-year-old beauty pageant queens – it’s a bit questionable. But I think that we have to understand the context. He is also the only child heir to the Electors of Saxony.
Now if we go back to the colours of the clothing, green was very commonly regarded as symbolic of hope. Recently we’ve had politicians going on about the 'green shoots of economic recovery' – well, they’ve quietened down a bit about that recently – but that’s a very long-standing symbolic association of green, so he is possibly here the hope of the country.
Red underneath – red had a very clear symbolic meaning to do with blood, which then went on to do with the red planet, Mars, the god of war, and one of the other symbolic meanings of red was a willingness to fight for one’s country.
And then this type of clothing associated with the 'landsknechte', the mercenary soldiers, also brings in another message because 'landsknechte' means literally ‘servant of the country’. So the child could well have been seen at the time in this image as the hope of his country, who’s prepared to fight for his country – be an eventual ruler, but at the same time be the servant of the country in its defence.
That’s it for this anniversary episode – our 75th since we launched back in 2006. You can find an extensive archive featuring our past shows online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk/podcasts
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Until next time, goodbye!