Great Art Cities Explained: London

This is a story about the British aristocracy.
three wealthy and titled men who centuries ago   went against social expectations. One
was a leading high court judge who also   campaigned for the abolition of slavery, one was
a bastard child of the wealthiest man in England,   and one was the son of a bricklayer,
who in a time with little to no social   mobility, rose through the social classes
to become a knight of the British empire.   Not only were their homes gifted to the nation but
also their incredible art collections within them.   If you went to an art gallery in London every
day for the next two years you still couldn’t   visit them all. The national gallery, the two Tates,
the Hayward and the royal academy are just a few   of the UK capitals 857 public art galleries.
This series will look not only at galleries   around the world which often get overlooked,
but also the fascinating stories behind them. Kenwood house designed by Robert Adam is on the
edge of hampstead heath and houses a staggering   collection of old master paintings, including
Rembrandt, Vermeer, Reynolds and van Dyke.   The owner of Kenwood house, William Murray the
first earl of Mansfield, was an unusual man.   He was the most powerful judge in England, part of
the elite ruling class, yet he was also an early   advocate for the abolishment of slavery. In 1772 he
presided over the case of James Somerset, who was   bought as a slave in Boston and transported to
England where he escaped. Somerset won the court   case and was freed. It was a turning point for
the abolitionist movement. Murray’s abolitionist   sympathies may have come from his great-niece, one
of the most extraordinary women, dido Elizabeth Bell. This is a rare 18th-century portrait of
a black woman and her white cousin – as equals.   Dido Bell was the illegitimate daughter of a
black slave and William Murray’s nephew, and was   raised by Murray as part of the aristocracy. By
all accounts Dido and her cousin were raised as   equals, and this portrait of the two was seen as an
image of sisterhood reflecting their equal status.   But looking at it with modern eyes we can see it
more in the vein of traditional servant and master   portraits of the time. Bell’s exotic clothing is
designed to differentiate her from her cousin,   and the painting reflects the
conservative views of the time. Kenwood house owns a Rembrandt said
by many to be one of his greatest.   In his 40-year career Rembrandt made at least
80 self-portraits, and here he is presented   as an artist in his studio, in his working
clothes, holding the tools of his profession.   And you can really see Rembrandt physically at
work here. The work is rough, the brush strokes   are loose and expressive. But it is above all a
portrait of painful honesty that shows Rembrandt   tired, old, and newly bankrupt. Look at the hat
which is painted wet-on-wet. With just a few   rough strokes he produces intense realism. He
draws on the painting with the end of his brush,   you can see it here and here – and some parts are
painted so quickly, with just a whisper of paint.   This begs the question: Is it finished? Probably
not, and that’s what makes it so interesting.   The two strange circles in the background have
long puzzled art historians and there are many   theories. The most plausible one, I think, is that
he was referencing Giotto, who in the 14th century   proved his artistic skill by drawing a perfect
circle freehand – It’s harder than you think.   It is possible that Rembrandt is
linking himself with another master. There are only 36 paintings by Vermeer
worldwide and Kenwood house has one   of them. This domestic masterwork fits
so well in the setting of a warm home.   Vermeer wasn’t that famous until the 19th century,
and the family bought this in 1889 for just a   thousand pounds. Only a few years later a Vermeer
was sold for a hundred thousand dollars. The artist   painted the quiet existence of women, and here
we see a young girl interrupted from her guitar   playing. If you think you’ve seen her jacket before,
you probably have. It is a well-used studio prop.   It is an understated subtle scene and Vermeer uses
light to move us around the composition, in this   case the light comes from the right side which
is very unusual for Vermeer, and the only other   example is “The Lacemaker”, otherwise Vermeer
painted with the light sources from the left,   so that the shadows of his right hand did not fall
onto the canvas as he was painting. This is a late   painting by Vermeer and we see experimentation. The
guitar player is far to the left, she is cropped   almost photographically, and the room to the right
is in shadows, giving a sense of movement as if she   has just turned to her right. Most of his music
players stand posed and silent at keyboards but   she is moving. Look at the strings on her guitar,
they are blurred which means they are vibrating. He has captured not just a
moment in time but sound as well! The pink of the book, matches her flushing cheeks,
and the fall of her hair matches the picture above.   These are wonderful details designed to pull us
in. The big question is: Did he use a Camera Obscura,   an optical device to paint this? it is something
I will return to when I make my film on Vermeer.   Sir John Soane’s house is in central London and has
been an eclectic and quirky museum since 1837.   It has worked by Canaletto, Piranesi, Turner,
and famously Hogarth. This is the former home   of Bank of England architect sir John Soane. It is
a labyrinth of artistic treasures, packed to the   rafters with antiquities and artworks, including
a tiny picture room that is rammed with 118   paintings. A collection large enough for a room
four times its size. Soane was a working class boy   who miraculously rose through the British class
system. His spoiled and snobby sons despised him,   and one, George, wrote an anonymous article
trying to ruin his father’s career.   Soane would get his revenge by cutting George out
of his will, and leaving his wealth to the nation. George was a classic example of a rake or
philanderer, he lived in a menage-a-trois with both   his wife and her sister, who tried to blackmail
Soane. In fact George’s life was not too far removed   from the theme of William Hogarth’s famous series
of paintings “A Rake’s Progress”, the star attraction   of the museum. The eight-part painting series is
a moralistic and satirical story of the downfall   of Tom Rakewell. The paintings were considered so
shocking in Soane’s time, that they were hidden away   in secret panels, in a room in his house. To this
day, you need to ask a staff member to reveal them.   The director Alan Parker described them
perfectly “as like storyboards for a film”.   In the first scene, Tom inherits his father’s
fortune and ditches his pregnant fiance Sarah   Young, seen here weeping in her mother’s
arms, as she clutches her engagement ring.   In scene two. the newly wealthy Tom is surrounded
by tradesmen eager to get his money. By scene three   Tom is at an orgy, a scene designed to titillate
the viewer, as he is surrounded by prostitutes in   various states of undress. Note the black spots
on their faces that cover syphilitic sores.  Tom in scene four is now broke, and arrested by debt
collectors, but is saved by the good Sarah Young.   By scene five, Tom is trying to recoup his losses
by marrying a rich old hag. His eyes however   are on her young maid. Tom here is already
losing his wife’s fortune on gambling,  a major problem in the 18th century, and
by scene seven he is in debtor’s prison.   The final scene is Tom in the mad house. His
downfall is complete. The ever-faithful Sarah Young   is visiting him with their child, but he is too
far gone. These well-dressed women are here to be   amused. The upper classes would pay to see lunatics
in the asylum, as a form of entertainment. They’re   here to remind us just how far Tom has fallen.
What is interesting is that Hogarth never intended   these paintings to be sold. His main income came
from engravings of his work, which were affordable   to the new growing middle class. The brilliant
entrepreneur sold subscriptions to his engravings, and these paintings were made to show to
potential clients. Hogarth was so successful   that it wasn’t long before unscrupulous engravers
were copying his work and selling it on the black   market, leading Hogarth to lobby parliament to
instigate the world’s first copyright act of 1753.   The Wallace collection is a national museum
in a London townhouse with 25 galleries of   world-class collections. Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens,
Caneletto, and Fragonard are the highlights.   Sir Richard Wallace, was not your
typical Victorian aristocrat.  He was the illegitimate son of the fourth marquess
of Hertford, and was married to a commoner, but as   he was the sole heir, he inherited the Marquess’s
vast fortune AND his extensive art collection.   Wallace immediately went on a spending spree
of his own, and bought masterpieces to add to   the collection, but it was his great-grandfather
the first marquess of Hertford who started the   collection, by buying several Canalettos on a trip
to Italy in 1738 – directly from Canaletto himself.   The artist was at the height of his
fame, and these would have cost a fortune. The Grand Tour was a rite of passage
for every titled child of England.   These were cultural trips, through Europe to see
great works of art from classical antiquity and   the Renaissance. On their journey they
would buy souvenirs – but not postcards.   These were works by Rembrandt,
Caneletto and Vermeer. Canaletto’s paintings seem almost
photographic in their accuracy to us,   but in fact he often changed the width of a canal
or removed less important buildings from his view.   In his quest to create the ideal image for
18th-century tourists like the marquess.  What makes the Canaletto’s in the Wallace collection so
unique, are these two paintings designed as a pair.   Both show the Bacino di San Marco, Venice’s inner
harbour of saint Mark’s – but from opposing views.   Caneletto shows the view from here, looking over
the Bacino, and then from this opposite point of   view, represented by this painting. In the first
painting we have the Customs House on our left,   and we are looking across the Bacino towards the
church of San Giorgio. We glimpse the Doge’s palace   over to the left. In the second painting, we are
now on the terrace of the church of San Giorgio,   looking at the dome of the Santa Maria de
la Salute. Again, we see the Doge’s palace,   but this time as the view is reversed, it is on
our right. And to the right of Santa Maria de la   Salute, we can also see the Customs House from the
opposing view. The paintings were meant to be hung   opposite each other, in which case the direction
of the sunlight matches. The sun comes from the   left in the case of the view from San Giorgio and
from the right in the case of the view from Giudecca.   Fragonard’s erotic painting “The Swing”, originally
would have been kept in a private room behind a   curtain, as it was so salacious. The painting
was commissioned by the notorious libertine   Baron de Saint-Julien. It is Fragonard’s most
famous work, and an iconic piece of Rococo art.   It features a young woman in scandalous pink
silk, tantalizingly poised mid-air on a swing.  Behind her – working the swing – is her elderly
husband, and in front of her is her young lover,  getting a good look up her skirt. Cupid is telling
us to keep quiet, as a shoe flies off with abandon.   Women’s ankles were just not shown in
public, and had seriously erotic connotations.   In 2021 the painting was restored and finally
we get to see it in its original glory.   Details were revealed, like the rope being frayed,
which adds an element of danger to the scene. Known as the Mona Lisa of the Wallis collection,
“The Laughing Cavalier” is neither laughing,   or a cavalier. But he was given the name in the
19th century and it stuck. Frans Hals is known   for his startlingly realistic portraits, created
by very loose and impressionistic brushstrokes,   not seen in the Netherlands before. Hundreds of
years later his painting technique would inspire   a new generation of artists like Singer Sargent,
and Eduard Manet. And Van Gogh in particular would   be strongly influenced by Hals. The loose brush
work on the laughing cavalier’s lace collar   is an unparalleled example of Hals’ incredible
technique. We don’t know who the cavalier is but we   know he was 26 – as Hals tells us – he had to be very
rich to be able to afford such opulent clothes.   He was probably single, as Hals usually painted
men facing left as part of a marriage double   portrait, and the cavalier is facing right. The
minutely detailed embroidery on his jacket   can be read just like hieroglyphics. We find
some of the common motifs symbolic of love,   including bees, arrows, and flaming cornucopia,
which could mean this was a betrothal portrait.   Other symbols like Mercury’s hat and staff would
be associated with good fortune and business.   His pose is casual and makes
him appear extremely lifelike.   By positioning him in the extreme foreground of
the composition, his left arm on his hip as if   he is breaking the picture plane and spilling
out into the viewer’s space. A true masterpiece.   When these aristocrats left their
houses and collections to the state,   it could be seen as a “vanity project”, a means
of maintaining legacies after their death.  I think what links these three men, is a sense
of being an “outsider”, a sense of “difference”,   and it is this eccentric attitude that
produces these great collections. By contrast, the wealthy today see art
as a commodity, rather than as something to admire,   and inspire. They often hide great artworks in
“freeports”, offshore tax-free storage, to sit   and increase in value, rather than to be seen
and appreciated. There are great philanthropic   collectors out there, but the world needs more people
like Murray, Soane, and Wallace. People who saw that art   can transcend social class. They understood that
art should enrich the soul – not the bank balance. If you’d like to see a less famous museum featured
in this series, please leave a comment below!
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