The Profane and the Divine: Art In London

Still a little sporadic in my updating, and my current excuse is that I still have a guest staying with me and making sure she is entertained at all times means no time for blogs, Dr Jones.

Today we visited the National Portrait Gallery, which I have not been in very often, and I had a high old time finding out what various British historical figures (Walsingham, Drake*, Sarah Siddons, Blake, Dalton, Castlereagh, Johnson, Boswell, etc, etc.) actually looked like, or how they were willing to let people see them, which is not always the same thing. We pondered the interactive stations which allow you to examine the collection in context, putting paintings in a timeline and relevant to each other, giving you an opportunity to look at the archive documents related to this painter during this period of his life or that sitter and so on. It’s a bit like falling down a WikiHole, but with art and in the middle of a gallery.

As a consequence of which the Australian now knows a lot more about the abolition of slavery in the British Empire than she previously did, and I feel a lot more informed on the subjects of: Lord Castlereagh, the 1801 Act of Union which involved lopping off what little executive power the parliament in Dublin had at the time, and how delighted the artist Thomas Lawrence was by basically everything in Vienna. I read a nine-page letter by the latter in which he was effusive about his patrons and about the high society of Vienna and frankly nauseating in his sucking-up. I can’t imagine receiving a letter like that from someone I liked.

Later I had to explain to the Australian who Nye Bevan was (there was a bust of him in the gallery for the first half of the 20th century), and used the phrase “father of the NHS”, to which she replied:

“I imagine he’s doing a lot of turning in his grave at the moment.”
“That… that observation has been made a few times, yes.”

The latter half of the 20th century yielded, at least in the portraits, an unremitting stream of “no I don’t like it”, except for the large portrait of Thatcher which produced the same leap sideways of revulsion that images of the architect of my childhood starvation always has. On the other hand, being able to contrast a self-portrait of Lucian Freud with the photograph we’d seen in the earlier gallery was an interesting experience.

Before we went to the National, though, there was a much smaller gallery and the actual purpose of our visit.

At 15 Bateman Street in Soho, until the 14th of June, Pertwee Anderson & Gold are collaborating with the Museum of Curiosity on an exhibition called Memento Mori. I was sent a link to their site by a friend who is well-informed about my morbid taste in art, and we took it upon ourselves to pay a visit.

There were some marvels, like photographs of morbidity rendered in three dimensions, and a concept called painting which was peculiarly destructive and under other circumstances might have annoyed me – but under these seemed entirely right. My favourite pieces, excluding the obvious appeal of the Chapman skull, were probably a black, sparkling skull in the apparent process of detonating; a gold skull whose teeth had been replaced by dangling beaded tendrils, and the magnificent stuffed peacock in the window. The Australian professed a great love for Saira Hunjan’s work (the attendant at the gallery informed us it had been snapped up at the opening night), and a skull covered in a distressing carpet of varying sizes of pearl, until it looked as if it had some sort of very expensive illness.

As the cheapest work of art (a design for a carton of “death cigarettes”) would have set me back £50, I neglected to become a patron of the arts today. I did buy a postcard of Wilfred Owen from the National Portrait Gallery, however, so I’m going to claim that I have kept my hand in and am still supporting the frivolous and beautiful. For more on the Memento Mori exhibition and biographies of the artists, go here.



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