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Episode 59

The National Gallery Podcast

Meet Sydney Vacher: the Victorian who saw patterns in the paintings others overlooked. Plus Paris with Manet and the Devotion by Design exhibition.

16 min 58 sec | September 2011

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s episode... See the birth of modern Paris through the eyes of Edouard Manet...
And take a piece of the Gallery home – courtesy of Farrow & Ball. 

But we start with a visit to 'Devotion by Design', our free exhibition exploring the Gallery’s superb collection of 14th- and 15th-century Italian altarpieces. To demonstrate how these works were originally experienced, one room of the show evokes the interior of a church. Inside, the very largest work in the exhibition - Signorelli's 'The Circumcision' - takes pride of place above a plinth bearing candles and a cross. To help explain the significance of this very distinctive display, we invited the Reverend James Hanvey to the exhibition. He started by giving us his reaction to this extraordinary room.

Rev James Hanvey: Of course, when you come into this room what it’s meant to evoke and what I think it does evoke very successfully is the sense of coming in to a small, beautiful sacred space – a church. And the subdued lighting... if you can imagine coming in from the contrast from the glaring heat outside and the noise outside, you come into a space which has already a sense of presence in it, a hallowed place.

And then you have the main altar with this wonderful Signorelli 'Circumcision', which captures your attention immediately, but also then as your eyes adjust you begin to see the other wonderful pieces that are here and in traditional church these would also be the side altars.

Leah Kharibian: You mention the Signorelli which is above what we’d call the high altar and I wanted really to ask a very plain question. What is a high altar and what happens there?

Rev James Hanvey: Well, the high altar would be the main altar of the church and that would be used for all the major feasts and celebrations of the mass or the Eucharist.

Leah Kharibian: And what of the subject here, the circumcision? I think for many people this might strike them as a rather perhaps unsavoury subject for a three-metre high altarpiece.

Rev James Hanvey: Oh, I think it’s a very wonderful subject. The whole idea of the feast of the circumcision which this celebrates is first of all, Christ is circumcised – that means that he enters into the covenant that God has with his people, the Jewish people, so Christ is deeply and profoundly human and he is deeply and profoundly Jewish.

So he’s part of history. He’s not an illusion. He’s not a fiction. He’s deeply part of history and he’s part of the history of this people at this particular time. The other idea behind the Feast of the Circumcision is the giving of the name ‘Jesus’, which in Matthew’s Gospel is Emmanuel, God with Us. So this is a moment of fulfilment, a moment of wonderful celebration, and it’s the beginning of the new history that God is making for us and for all people.

Leah Kharibian: Finally the show explores the development of the altarpiece from a multi-panelled architectural object to single frame works like this one where the viewer is actually invited into the space and I wanted to ask whether you think this shift actually reflects a development in the Catholic imagination?

Rev James Hanvey: Well I think in some ways it does, because I think it’s important to remember that at this time the vast majority of people, ordinary people, who would have been coming in to churches with these magnificent pictures would not have been literate.

They wouldn’t have had direct access to the texts, and so what you find happening is art is doing that work for them. Art is making the text real – it’s making it a living visual text. And of course what’s also happening at this time is the whole growth in the devotion in which people are invited to see the life of Christ as their life.

They become participants in that, particularly if we for instance say look at this Signorelli. I mean obviously it’s painted in such a way that we’re invited into it – it’s almost as if the floor – that beautifully marbled tiled floor – comes out to meet us.

So instead of us being on the outside, it looks to me – the way in which it’s positioned – as if we’re actually right before this event and we’re very much part of it, and in a sense this is what Signorelli is doing – he’s inviting us to be one of the people standing there, seeing the child, who isn’t... he’s greeting this moment, he’s not squirming away from it.

Also the way in which the figures of Joseph and Mary invite us to prayer – to mediate beyond what we can see and what we can touch into the deeper reality which is also active there. So the whole thing is an invitation to prayer and to use our imagination as a way into prayer, which is also a sacred thing.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The Reverend James Hanvey talking about Signorelli’s 'The Circumcision'. Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500 runs for just a few more weeks until the 2nd of October, so if you’re in London this month, do come along to the Gallery. Admission is free.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Edouard Manet’s 'Corner of a Cafe-Concert' is one of the most famous paintings in our collection. You may not recognise the title – but you’ve almost certainly seen the image.

Often reproduced, it shows a waitress holding two glasses of beer in a busy Parisian brasserie. Her customers surround her and in the background musicians play for a dancer up on stage. Today, we’re so familiar with the scene, it’s easy to forget how radical Manet’s choice of every-day subject matter was back in the 19th century, when grand historical pictures were the norm.

I met up with art historian Rebecca Lyons to hear more about the painting..... and we began by discussing its distinctively Parisian setting – the café-concert. 

Rebecca Lyons: These had sprung up – kind of proliferated in Paris in the latter half of the 19th century – and as you say, they’re a kind of mixture of cafe, night venue, concert, bit of ballet going on in the background... and in the foreground is actually not so much the spectacle itself, but those who are observing it, as they sit, resting...

And in the foreground of course this worker in his smock, resting an elbow there on the table, smoking his pipe and perhaps we might also see in how he’s gazing something of the kind of exhaustion of his working day... a chance to sit down and have a beer and a smoke and watch the entertainment.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s interesting that you talk about observation because if we follow everyone’s line of sight, everyone’s looking at something else. They’re either engrossed in what they’re doing, or their attention has been caught by something that’s going on out of picture.

Rebecca Lyons: Yes, absolutely, I think in a way Manet has done that deliberately and that would have been one of the aspects of this painting that I think would have provided the most challenge for some of its viewers, the sense that we don’t have a central focus as such, we have people looking in different directions, and the waitress looking out of the picture really there – it’s almost as if another customer has signalled to her – has caught her eye.

Miranda Hinkley: So it’s not just art that’s reflecting this interest in everyday life and modern life... it’s also literature and poetry...

Rebecca Lyons: Yes, in fact Manet had a particular link with a poet called Charles Baudelaire. They’d actually met in about 1859 and Baudelaire at that point was actually... well, he’d produced a collection of poems which is translated into English as the 'Flowers of Evil', 'Les Fleurs du Mal', and that had been censored in 1857 quite dramatically – and he was told that he couldn’t publish it the way he wanted to because of the subject matter which drew upon the underbelly of life in a way, and tried make beauty out of some things that were not considered always the subject of high art.

I think that’s something that bonded them together and through the 1860s, up until Baudelaire’s death in 1867, they had a very strong friendship – they supported each other with letters... they wrote to one another – Manet was keen to read Baudelaire’s poems... more of his poems, he wanted more – and to read more about what Baudelaire was writing. And Baudelaire... I think he tried to help Manet in a little bit, to weather the storms of rejection.

Famously Manet writes to him, he says ‘it’s terrible, insults are raining down on me like hail, my dear Baudelaire, I wish you were here and tries to draw strength I think from someone who’s been through that. And that’s probably something that they share – that desire to explode the world of the ideal, the polished surface, the perfect classical subject and to find beauty – or indeed heroism, is how Baudelaire puts it – to find the heroic, the epic in modern life.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s that idea of the artist as observer – part of everyday life – but also somewhat detached and able to have that critical distance.

Rebecca Lyons: Yes, Baudelaire says in his essay about the painter of modern life.. in fact he says the artist should set up home in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow. So you get that sense of an experience that’s lived, that’s something that an artist has experienced and isn’t glamorised in a particular sort of way.

Miranda Hinkley: I suppose this idea of the artist as observer... as detached observer... is something that also translates to any individual who’s living in a city and it really speaks to the experience of living in a big group.

Rebecca Lyons: Yes, I think so and we forget how relatively recent that is. In fact Paris had been completely transformed under Napoleon the III by Baron Hausmann, who had changed the medieval streets into these big broad boulevards.

So the streets are thronging with people who for the first time really are from all different walks of life. And they can see each other and sort of use each other really as part of the entertainment, the spectacle. And that’s where you get as well the proliferation of the café society, as well, because that’s linked in a way to this broader pavements and big streets.

So the modern city and the crowd – and it’s something that writers pick up on as well as painters – is a new experience. And many of our paintings here at the Gallery pick up on that idea of the crowd. You know the Renoir, 'Umbrellas', the idea of living in the modern city – of rubbing shoulders with all sorts of different individuals and not always knowing. Baudelaire writes a poem about this – he calls it 'To a Passer-by'. And he says ‘I don’t know where you’re going; you don’t know where I’m going – you know the love... we could have fallen in love, but it’s just a fleeting moment.’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Rebecca Lyons. Come along to the Gallery to see Manet’s 'Corner of a Cafe-Concert' for yourself... admission is free. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to a man with a rather unusual mission. Over the years the National Gallery's pictures have been an inspiration to people from all walks of life. Back in the 1880s, an architect named Sydney Vacher spent long hours here studying the patterns of rich Renaissance textiles he saw in the collection's early pictures.

He published a beautiful book on the subject, which – nearly 130 years later – has become the inspiration for a series of modern wallpapers crafted by Farrow & Ball. Leah Kharibian met the textile historian and self-confessed Vacher fan Lisa Monnas to find out more about a man who found beauty in parts of paintings others overlooked.

Leah Kharibian: Lisa, we’re here in front of one of the pictures Sydney Vacher honed in on for his study, and it’s Carlo Crivelli’s 'The Virgin and Child with St Francis and St Sebastian' of 1491, and I was wondering if you could start by telling us about the man himself?

Lisa Monnas: Sydney Vacher was the son of Thomas Brittain Vacher. His family were publishers and stationers who had a bookshop at Westminster, so not far from the National Gallery. And Sydney Vacher was trained as an architect in the Royal Academy Schools and decided in around 1886 to make a compendium of the ornament in National Gallery paintings, especially ornament taken from textiles because he wanted people to be able to enjoy the benefit of having materials made with these beautiful designs for themselves in their own homes.

Leah Kharibian: Now, you’ve very kindly brought along your own copy of the 1886 book and we’ve got it open now at one of the pages that Vacher actually reproduces a pattern in this Crivelli, but I have to say the pattern actually looks quite different from the way we experience it in the picture. What has Vacher done?

Lisa Monnas: Vacher has reduced it to a very simple flat pattern of two tones. He had enormous difficulty doing this because the paintings at the time were set high up on the walls of the National Gallery and they were glazed.

And I imagine that Vacher would have had to scale a ladder – and he said it was very difficult seeing the patterns through glass. And in the painting Crivelli has painted this material as draped whereas Vacher’s had to flatten it out so that it can be used again for industrial design. And that’s why it looks so very different – he’s made a flat linear pattern out of something that was a draped textile which was very clever of him.

Leah Kharibian: It is very clever of him. It’s very graphic... it looks actually, although it’s a Renaissance textile, very modern.

Lisa Monnas: Yes, well I think Vacher was wholly in keeping with the trends of his time. I think Vacher was inspired by the socialist ideals of William Morris and his circle. And he wanted these designs to be available to people, and he said in his introduction that he envisaged them being printed on rough or common material so that they could be used in the home.

But he also thought that they would be used in the church, so he envisaged that they would be both on the slightly simpler material, but also manufactured as silks. But when they were manufactured as silks he said they should be done as simply as possible, so he meant not cloth of gold, and not things woven with metal thread but much simpler materials than the artist has shown in the painting. 

Leah Kharibian: And looking at the book again – it’s a very big book, I mean it’s folio size – seeing these beautiful pages, I mean they look actually like wallpaper samples. Was there any connection with that for him?

Lisa Monnas: The first time that any of these patterns were used, Vacher himself produced a wallpaper design from this very painting and it was produced by Jeffrey & Co. in 1886, the year that his book was produced. And at the same time another wallpaper design was produced by Charles Voysey, the famous designer, whose work is thought to be one of the seedbeds of Art Nouveau. So these wavy designs produced by Crivelli seen through other eyes could be reinterpreted into something very exciting.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio):  Thanks to Lisa Monnas.

Copies of Sydney Vacher’s beautiful book 'Fifteenth-Century Italian Ornament' are now hard to come by. But a new range of wallpaper based on his patterns means it’s possible – once again – to enjoy them at home.

Farrow & Ball have just launched the Broccato Papers, a series of six designs inspired by Vacher’s book and the rich fabrics of the Gallery’s Renaissance paintings.

That's almost it for this episode. If you’re visiting the National Gallery this month, we’re open 10 till 6 everyday, and 10 till 9 on Fridays. Or if you can’t make it here in person, you might like to know that we’ve just launched a virtual tour of the Gallery online.

If you’re watching the illustrated version of this podcast, there’s a click-through link on your screen now, or just enter into your browser. You can take a wander around the building and get a closer look at more than 300 works. There’s even a postcard option that lets you take a snapshot and send it to a friend.

That’s it for this episode. Until next time, goodbye.