Art Appreciation No.2.

U3A Art Appreciation : No.2.

Grand Tour Reflections.

A while ago we discussed a painting, hanging on the walls of Cheltenham Art Gallery, titled ‘The Duke of St.Albans and his family’.

Smuglewicz, Franciszek; A Family Group of the 5th Duke of St Albans; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;

Smuglewicz, Franciszek; A Family Group of the 5th Duke of St Albans; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum.

It has been assumed that this was a record of the family on a Grand Tour in Italy – although, usually, such excursions were made by young men accompanied by their tutor. This seems more like a short package tour, with a resident artist recording the event for the family to take home, hang it in their house encouraging admiration and envy.

The group discussion here in Cheltenham thoroughly explored the painting, its meaning, and its social context. It seemed generally agreed that the painting somehow seemed ‘unrealistic’ – almost like a stage set with ‘props’ (bits of ancient sculpture and architecture).  Perhaps it was not even painted in Italy! – but back in England where a rather ‘hack’ artist sketched individual members of the family and then ‘composed’ a required, appropriate, setting.  This ‘staging’ was not unusual at the time – major artists like Reynolds and Gainsborough at times followed the same practice : Gainsborough’s ‘Mr & Mrs Andrews’ or Reynolds, Earl of Egmont and his second wife..

20 Gainsborough NG

Gainsborough, Thomas : Mr & Mrs Andrews : Nat Gal. London.

Reynolds, Joshua; John, 2nd Earl of Egmont and His Second Wife Catherine; Bradford Museums and Galleries;

Reynolds, Joshua; John, 2nd Earl of Egmont and His Second Wife Catherine; Bradford Museums and Galleries.

It is, of course, necessary to add that the Earl of Egmont and Mr & Mrs Andrews are firmly planted on British soil!

Reference to the Grand Tour reminds me of an interesting snippet gleaned in my researches into Lord Northwick and his Art Collection – Lord Northwick of Northwick Park, Blockley, and Thirlestaine House, Cheltenham.  As a young man (then Sir John Rushout, Baron) Lord Northwick spent some ten years on his Grand Tour, mainly in Italy where he made the useful acquaintance of several significant cultural figures. He was an enthusiastic collector – initially of medals and cameos. In the 1790’s he had made the acquaintance of another English young Traveller – John Merritt of Rokeby who, in a letter home, made the following comment :-

‘His acquaintance we have formed some time, we were both medalling, but, however, in a very different way, as his collection is upwards of twelve thousand, and he gives up his whole time to it from morning to night.  In short, he is a most excellent antiquarian, which I am not; has a smack of the baronetcy, which I have not; and looks much oftener at Julia Mammea and Faustina the Younger than he does at pretty women about him – which I do not.’






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Cheltenham U3A Art Appreciation.

Art Appreciation No.1.

Deprived of our monthly discussions and arguments concerning paintings, and with the temporary closure of our home at the Art Gallery & Museum (The Wilson) with its access to the permanent collection of paintings, I am prompted to explore ways of continuing our explorations.  Hopefully members, and others, are able to ‘tune in’ to my (intermittent) Blog ‘Addison Art’ and so I thought I would attempt to add posts for our Cheltenham U3A Art Appreciation members (and others).                                                                                            So here goes!!                                                                                                                                            As a starter – Theodore von Holst, great-uncle of the Cheltenham composer Gustav Holst, who was born in london, the fourth of the five children of Matthias and Katharina von Holst.   Theodore’s early drawing talents were noticed by the Romantic artist Henry Fuseli, and also by Sir Thomas Lawrence, the outstanding portrait painter of his generation. Lawrence bought some of his early drawings and Fuseli tutored him until he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1824.                                                                                     Like Fuseli, von Holst seemed to specialise in famous European literary subjects, often of a ‘Gothic’ nature, including Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Mary Shelley and was the first artist to illustrate the novel ‘Frankenstein’ (in 1831) – but he was particularly fond of the German Romantics, including Goethe, E.T.A.Hoffmann, and Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. Whilst his exceptional imagination and draughtsmanship were widely praised, particularly by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, his choice of subjects were not generally popular with an apparent fixation on the demonic, the supernatural, and the erotic.  He nevertheless was able to exhibit in the major London exhibitions and also had a following as a portrait painter.  Regarded as a Cheltenham artist, with his musical family roots in the von Holst family resident in Cheltenham, the Cheltenham Art Gallery has a number of his paintings and drawings, with several on show at the Holst Birthplace Museum.  I include here a few examples of his work :-

von Holst, Theodor Matthias; Bertalda Frightened by Apparitions; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;

von Holst, Theodor Matthias; Bertalda Frightened by Apparitions; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum at Holst Birthplace Museum.

This subject is taken from a short tale ‘Undine’ (1811) by the German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouque (1777-1843). The heroine Bertalda is tormented by a host of fantastical creatures, conjured up by the wicked supernatural creature ‘Kuhleborn’. These have been sent in an attempt to drive her away from the household of the hero, Huldbrand, and the lovely water-nymph Undine, whose evil Uncle is Kuhlebornand who is intent upon keeping the marriage between Undine and Huldbrand intact.  (Yes, I am confused as well!!)


von Holst, Theodor Matthias; The Wish; Yale Center for British Art;

von Holst, Theodor Matthias; The Wish; Yale Center for British Art; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum at Holst Birthplace Museum.

A work still following the mysterious or mystical theme. This painting was purchased by Lord Northwick (d1859) and hung in the extensive picture galleries of his Cheltenham property, Thirlestaine House (now Cheltenham College).


von Holst, Theodor Matthias; Gustav von Holst and His Brother, Theodore; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;

Theodore von Holst, ‘ Gustavus von Holst and His Brother, Theodor’; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum at Holst Birthplace Museum.





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Graham Sutherland, Devastation.


Sutherland, Graham Vivian; Devastation, House in Wales; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;

Sutherland, Graham Vivian; Devastation, House in Wales; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (The Wilson).

A haunting image!

I was recently asked to talk, briefly, about a favourite work in the Art Gallery & Museum at Cheltenham (The Wilson). This posed a problem – for I have always been uncomfortable about having a ‘favourite’ painting or ‘liking’ a painting – what does one mean by ‘like’?
So with these qualms in mind I have opted for Graham Sutherland’s ‘Devastation, House in Wales’. When I first came across this painting, in 1973 on first taking up the post at the Art Gallery and Museum, my initial reaction was a combination of the joy of having a work by a major modern British artist and an emotional horror at the scene depicted, or interpreted. That horror was because it brought back to me my personal experience of the devastation and suffering of WW2 bombing.    I remember vividly a particular experience – having travelled with my family, I was about six years old, from Bolton to Sheffield to see my grandparents. Bolton had not suffered particularly badly from bombing as the German planes flying over were heading for Manchester and Liverpool, occasionally they jettisoned bombs on their return but causing relatively little damage or carnage. Travelling, by a very crowded train, from Lancashire to Yorkshire was, for safety reasons, through the longest route through the Pennines, the Woodhead Tunnel. On this occasion when we stepped off the train in Sheffield I was immediately struck by an eerie silence and a strong acrid smell from plumes of smoke amidst devastated buildings which I had known as shops, offices, and public buildings as well as houses. Overnight the centre of Sheffield and the massive steel works surrounding the city had been severely bombed.
This painting hit a nerve. As a Government commissioned War Artist, chosen by Sir Kenneth Clarke, Sutherland went around the country recording, quite deliberately, scenes of bombing damage outside London – in this case to the industrial areas of south and mid Wales. As an adult, studying art history and then on to Curatorship, I had seen many types of depictions of war damage – most of them realistic, almost topographical, works. This work is of a different order completely. In this work, small as it is, the artist has used his ‘advanced’ abstract methods to really reveal, almost physically, the feeling of a bomb dropped INTO a house – forcibly destroying the fabric and ‘soul’ of an innocent building and its occupants. The artist does this by his use of line, form, and colour in a powerful and unnerving way. One can feel the impact of the bomb as forcibly and suddenly it thrust itself into the building, destroying everything around. The strong and forceful lines of the composition, the sharply angular forms, and the vivid clashing colours with more sombre tones. Nothing moves, nothing living, Silence – with the possible occasional sudden fall of fractured masonry.
This is a work which is not to be passed by casually – but visually studied and explored.

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Alfred Thornton ‘Melting Snow’.

Thornton, Alfred Henry Robinson; Melting Snow; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;

Thornton, Alfred Henry Robinson; Melting Snow; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

When I first went to work at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, in 1973, I quickly became intrigued by the oil paintings of Alfred Thornton – born 1863, died 1939. There were three works – ‘En Provence’, ‘Hill-Farm, Painswick’, and the one I mainly discuss to-day ‘Melting Snow’ (although originally titled ‘Thaw’).

Thornton, Alfred Henry Robinson; Hill Farm, Painswick, Gloucestershire; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum;

Thornton, Alfred Henry Robinson; Hill Farm, Painswick, Gloucestershire

(c) Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

I was intrigued by how apparently different they all were. Exploring the biography of the artist gave me some clues to the mystery.  The work ‘En Provence’, dated 1919, is a clear echo of Thornton’s days in France and his enthusiasm for French artists such as Monet, Sisley , and Gauguin with whom he painted in Brittany. Whilst Gauguin went off to Tahiti, Thornton settled back into the different scenery, and society, of the Cotswolds – but continuing to be firmly rooted in avant-garde movements in London. The work ‘Hill-Farm, Painswick’, of the 1930’s,  can be seen as a re-orientation, a coming to terms with a society and a landscape which differed from his earlier days in France. In this respect he echoed his contemporary, and fellow Cotswold inhabitant, William Rothenstein.

But what about ‘Melting Snow’, of about 1920,  it echoes his use of colour and form, and his application of paint, as seen in ‘En Provence’. This is not a view in the Cotswolds.  The nearest I can get relates to his staying in Bath around this time – the tall terraced houses on a hill-side could very well be in that city. The simple and bold colouring and brush-work is startling – but rather, perhaps because of the backs of a terrace of housing, rather boring.  This work was the first Thornton oil painting to enter the collection being a gift from the artist in 1923.  The offer was made by the artist to the Librarian Curator at Cheltenham, Daniel Herdman. Both seemed to have come to Gloucestershire at much the same time – but I have a strong feeling that they were already on friendly terms.  I suggest this friendship started in London – Thornton was very active in the London progressive art scene and Herdman was a frequent visitor to London and himself was familiar with contemporary artists.  Herdman was clearly keen to expand the Art Gallery collection – including work by modern British artists and artists working in Gloucestershire. This ambition of Herdman’s had to contend with a rather conservative Borough Council – but one who generally backed Herdman’s choices.




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