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Episode 17

The National Gallery Podcast

In the March 2008 podcast, hear about sexual escapades on the Grand Tour, piece together a puzzling mosaic, and talk to associate artist Alison Watt.

17 min 24 sec | March 2008

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s show… can’t break the habit: artist Alison Watt explains why she’s drawn back to visit a painting of a rather spooky monk day after day. And…

Jonathan Conlin: So there are touches of humour throughout the floors here. We have a lady, as you mentioned, dancing the Charleston – that was the hit dance of the period – and also popular sports like football – I think one of the two players here, the one doing the tackling, might be wearing a Manchester United strip.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): …author Jonathan Conlin takes to his knees to tell us about an artwork that’s hidden where no one thinks to look – on the floor.

Pompeo Batoni and the Grand Tour

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But first, to Pompeo Batoni. As our current show proves, this 18th-century Italian master was a man of many talents. But for the British aristocrats who travelled Europe in search of culture and new experiences on the Grand Tour, Batoni was best loved as a portraitist. He had a flair for adding a particular Italian sparkle that his sitters, the majority of whom were young men, adored. Leah Kharibian reports.

Leah Kharibian: I think anyone visiting the Batoni show will instantly see his appeal as a portraitist of young men. His pictures are often big, always brilliantly coloured, and he has a wonderful way of using dress in particular to make his sitters look glamorous and well, not to put too fine a point on it, sexy. And to explore these twin aspects of glamorous dress and wild behaviour, I’m joined here as the show is being hung by the costume historian Jacqui Ansell and also by the author and the Grand Tour expert, Jeremy Black.

Now, Jacqui, if I can start with you… we’re here in front of a particularly gorgeous portrait of a young man called Richard Milles and I wonder if you could describe what he’s wearing and whether this differs at all from how he’d dress at home.

Jacqui Ansell: Well, Richard is standing in a very dynamic pose with a great big red gown draped over his shoulders so that it looks like a cloak. And it’s got the most sumptuous fur lining – it’s a rich red colour and it has the fake hint of a spot to it, so it could possibly be lynx or squirrel. And of course in British portraiture you get the people in their country estates showing themselves in their frock coats and relatively plain clothing. So you get this old Protestant ethic that says you shouldn’t show off, you should wear plain clothing, and it always seems to me that in the artist’s studio, and especially in Batoni’s studio, this is your one legitimate release of restraint. You can absolutely ‘peacock’, you can look splendid and glorious, and he absolutely revels in those silks and satins and the sumptuous textures of the fur-lined gowns.

Leah Kharibian: Now if I could bring in Jeremy… Jeremy, we know that the ostensible reason that Grand Tourists went to Italy was to further their education, but it actually… the reality was a little bit different wasn’t it?

Jeremy Black: Pleasure was certainly very important – pleasure meaning for example the ability to drink as you pleased, to get up whatever time you wanted, but also the sort of thing that interests people today – sexual behaviour that would not be acceptable at home. And it seemed to have been, as Lord Chesterfield put it, that part of the education of a young man was to be spent between the haunches of a woman.

Leah Kharibian: Obviously Italy was a place where you could sew your wild oats, but I think if we take a look at another portrait, a very beautiful portrait of a young lord called Lord Brudenell, I think we can find a person… or a depiction of a person… who simply felt more comfortable abroad. If we could just go this way…. I mean, this really is just a gorgeous painting and what’s interesting and what I find really interesting about Brudenell is that we know that he was a man of great learning, he was very interested in antiquities and in music, and he has this wonderful open score in front of him. But he was also – maybe slanderously – described by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as somebody who was not interested in the ladies.

Jeremy Black: Well, Lady Mary, like Horace Walpole, was somebody who was always willing to put the pen in. I think it’s certainly true that one of the appeals of Italy was a degree of sexual licence which included not being supervised too clearly and that meant if you were sexually active you could be sexually active; if you chose not to be sexually active, nobody was going to make fun of you or know what you were doing. The idea of going to Italy to find a more conducive atmosphere if you were homosexual might surprise us today with the Italian male so keen to argue that they are the very epitome of virility, but in fact in terms of the 18th century, sexual stereotypes were different to today. In terms of homosexuality, Italy had the reputation in Britain as being the centre of homosexuality. So if you were interested in that kind of activity it was something you could do there – though the vast majority of tourists were in no way homosexual and they were going to Italy to see Italy.

In many senses, tourism in the 18th century is much more interesting than tourism today because it is a much more individual art. You might well have at any one time no more than 20 prominent aristocrats and maybe another 60 British travellers for pleasure in Italy at the time, so it’s not like going on a package holiday or anything – this is very much individual tourism. These are individuals who when they go to Italy follow in many senses their own individualised response to the landscape, to the activities that they can do. And because they have plenty of money they can actually take through this response and they can have themselves memorialised wonderfully by Batoni in this respect.

Jacqui Ansell: You’re quite right. I think that these are people who are able to define themselves through their interests, through their dress, and ultimately through the negotiation between sitter and artist, between likeness, i.e. how you actually appear, and how you want to appear, and not just how you want to appear to your friends and relatives back home, but how you want to appear to posterity.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Professor Jeremy Black and Jacqui Ansell. If you’d like your own taste of the Grand Tour, come along to the exhibition. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee.

Associate artist: Alison Watt

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next up: two years ago, Alison Watt moved into a studio at the National Gallery and became our seventh associate artist. Filling the room with reproductions of pictures from the collection, she began to work. The result? A haunting series of paintings depicting sensuous folds of fabric. With a display of her works about to open, Colin Wiggins went to talk to Alison about her time at the Gallery. He began by asking about an artist she’s described as a key influence: the 17th-century Spanish painter, Zurbarán.

Colin Wiggins: Alison, when you arrived here, had you any preconception that Zurbarán might be an artist who was going to interest you?

Alison Watt: Well, Zurbarán had always been a painter that I was fascinated by but I didn’t know that his portrait of Saint Francis in Meditation would become so important and it’s the painting that I’ve looked at every single day since I’ve been here and that’s now for over two years.

Colin Wiggins: So how do you keep your interest in looking at something every single day for two years? Doesn’t it become repetitive? What do you keep finding there?

Alison Watt: Well, it’s interesting because it’s not something that I’ve actually planned. I realise that it almost… the repetition of looking almost crept up on me. I’d probably been looking at it everyday for a few weeks with other paintings and then gradually the other paintings I looked at less and less until it was just ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’. So… I just find the painting so absorbing that I couldn’t get enough of it and there’s something about that picture that I think is genuinely mysterious and it can withstand any amount of looking. No matter how many times I look at that painting, when I’m not with the picture there are certain things that I can’t remember about it. And I think that’s really, really strange, because that makes me wonder about how we look at things and why we choose to look at certain things over other things… and are there just some things in that painting that you have to be with… that you have to be present with in order to see? Because you just can’t remember them…

Colin Wiggins: Now his face is very interesting in the picture because you could certainly see his nose and you can certainly see his open mouth, but do you think you can see his eyes?

Alison Watt: Well, I think one of the most striking things about the painting is that Zurbarán has managed to convey, very powerfully, emotion. But Saint Francis’s face is almost entirely obscured by the shadow of the cowl. And that’s one of the things that I’m slightly baffled as to how he’s done that. I mean, all we can see really is the light catching the tip of the nose and the outline of the mouth. And I think the mouth itself for me is one of the key parts of the painting. Saint Francis’s mouth is open and I think if his mouth was closed it would be a very different picture and I think we tend to, when we look at a great painting… we tend to use a kind of… without realising, we use a visual shorthand and even when we can’t see things we tend to fill in what we think we know. So whether the eyes are painted or not is really immaterial – it’s what we imagine to be true about the painting that becomes important.

Colin Wiggins: And thinking about the painting – are you able to specify any particular way that you think your obsession with it might have affected your own practice and the appearance of your own paintings?

Alison Watt: That’s something that I’ve only come to realise as the months have passed in the studio. I think it takes… in a way it sounds strange… but in a way you have to make a painting in order to know why you wanted to make it in the first place. And now when I look at the work that’s in the studio and I look at Zurbarán’s ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’, I can see certain connections. But that’s something that didn’t necessarily happen consciously. And when I look at the painting of ‘Saint Francis’ and I look at the importance, that central focus that I have with his open mouth, that shape, the ‘o’ shape, is repeated in several points in the painting. There is the shadow of the hood, and there’s the deep eye sockets in the human skull and there’s the stigmata which is barely seen on the back of the hands, and those – what I like to call points of entry, those areas of darkness – have definitely crept in in my own painting and I’m beginning to recognise those shapes within my own work.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Alison Watt talking to Colin Wiggins. If you’d like to see the picture they were talking about for yourself, Zurburán’s ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’ is currently on display. And our exhibition of Alison Watt’s paintings opens at the Gallery on 12 March. Admission is free.

The Anrep Mosaics

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Now, mudpies, ménage à trois, and Christmas pudding – not the normal stuff of art, you might say. And not the kind of thing you’d expect to find in the grand and beautiful surroundings of the Gallery’s main entrance. But as author Jonathan Conlin told me, you’d be wrong.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): Here I am in the foyer just before doors open – it’s just before 10 o’ clock when people will pour in – and I’m in front of the very first piece of art that you come across when you come into the Gallery, but it’s not one that you always notice, because it’s on the floor. It’s a beautiful mosaic laid by the Russian émigré, Boris Anrep, and I’m joined by Jonathan Conlin, author of ‘The Nation’s Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery’. Jonathan, this piece is called ‘The Awakening of the Muses’, which sounds like a very traditional theme, but some of the people who are represented in it are actually public figures.

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, these are not ancient Greek and Roman figures – it’s very much modern figures, the bright young things of the Bloomsbury crowd, almost having their own toga party.

Miranda Hinkley: Now this mosaic, ‘The Awakening of the Muses’, wasn’t actually the first one to be laid and it’s part of a cycle of four mosaics. Let’s just go up to the very earliest one. There’s something very fresh and modern about these images, isn’t there?

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, and certainly the choice… the way in which he divided the labours, which are represented on the left-hand side as you come in, and on the right-hand landing, the pleasures of life. He’s divided labours from pleasures in quite an idiosyncratic way. Among the labours he includes music, theatre, art – things that we might see as actually quite pleasurable.

Another odd choice for the set of labours of life is sacred love. One would assume love would be a pleasure, and yet there are two forms of love celebrated here, one in labours, one in pleasures. Sacred love – one man, one woman, family, obedience to the normal, polite norms of society – is represented as a labour. Boris Anrep himself was famous as a philanderer. He often spent his life living in ménage à trois – serial wives that he often passed onto his friends or inherited from them. And indeed when he was preparing this particular sacred love mosaic, on the back, we know from one of his designs, he wrote, rather dismissively, ‘monk sacré’ which is a combination of obviously English and French – ‘a sacred monk’ – suggesting that this sort of lifestyle, that of marriage, children, one partner, was somehow a monastic, restrained way of life that he perhaps disdained in favour of profane love which we see on the other side, where there are two women and one man – and that was the way Boris liked it.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, if those were the labours, we’re now in amongst the pleasures and we seem to have all sorts of things… football, dancing, mudpies?

Jonathan Conlin: Mudpies, yes. Boris had children of his own and this was obviously, along with the Christmas pudding, a very light-hearted, jokey reference. He was certainly not one to fall victim to the tendency of all great allegorical decorative schemes in public buildings to become ponderous, weighty, over-philosophical. So there are touches of humour throughout the floors here. We have a lady, as you mentioned, dancing the Charleston, which was the hit dance of the period, and also popular sports like football – I think one of the two players here, the one doing the tackling, might be wearing a Manchester United strip, I’m not so sure, can’t identify the other colours. But originally there was also supposed to be a vignette for tennis, because Boris Anrep was himself a very talented tennis player and indeed played at Wimbledon in 1920 in the Men’s Doubles.

Miranda Hinkley: So this is the final mosaic in this cycle and the mood here is really quite different – the colours are very different to the others.

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, the mood has shifted slightly. After World War Two it’s perhaps slightly more difficult to be as relentlessly light-hearted as previously in the 1920s and 30s. So, as you say, the first mosaic we confront, ‘Compassion’, shows Anna Akhmatova stretched out before the ruins of a building with an angel coming to save her. Anna Akhmatova was a very well-known Russian poet, very much became a victim of the Stalinist regime, yet remained in her homeland, unlike Boris, her lover, who remained abroad. And to her right we have a mass grave with the bodies of the victims of that terrible siege of Stalingrad. And on the left… Anrep at this point was 69 years old when these were unveiled, and he’s done his own tombstone or monument as it were. Here we have… he’s represented a gravestone with his own face and profile. He’s carved his own tools, his coat of arms, and the epitaph, ‘Here I lie’ surrounded by ivy, suggesting a peaceful English country churchyard and his own sense perhaps of mortality catching up with him.

Miranda Hinkley: There’s certainly a lot for people to discover as they wander past – just to take some time to have a look at what’s here and see if you can decode what he’s saying.

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, certainly, as one of the journalists on the Evening News who was covering the unveiling of one of the pavements here in 1929 described Anrep as ‘the apostle of frivolous floors’, saying that to walk on his floors is always a delight and I think that really sums it all up.

Miranda Hinkley: He would have been fairly happy with that I think.

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, this is a worthy monument for an iconoclastic and creative individual.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jonathan Conlin, author of ‘The Nation’s Mantlepiece: A History of the National Gallery’. Pop in and explore the Anrep mosaics for yourself if you’re passing. The Gallery is open daily from 10 to 6 and late on Wednesday nights until 9pm.

That’s it for this time – join us again next month for all the latest news. Until then, goodbye!