Beningbrough Rule Bending Pt I

Having moved home in the last year I have a new area to explore and of course that includes some new National Trust properties that I’ve visited before, and even despite my disagreement with their drone policy two of the houses in North Yorkshire won me over with some special exhibits.

The first was Nunnington Hall; a largely 17th Century country house which was hosting a display of work by the finalists in the British Wildlife Photography Awards – how could I resist?  The images are all copyright of course so I can’t show them here, but they gave me some impetus to explore a new area of photography which I shall expand upon in the second part of this post.

Many of the shots were captured by the intrepid “camp out all night to see hares in the dawn mist” type, who must surely be professionals with bottomless pockets to fund the long telephoto lenses used in most of these shots.  I’m not denigrating their skill or commitment, but as these are shots that I don’t envisage myself ever taking I was happy to admire them but not inspired to follow suit.

In contrast the category that really did impress me was macro photography with incredible close up shots of insects revealing incredible detail but seemingly achieved with quite ordinary equipment.  I went straight out into the ground to shoot close ups of their flowers!

My second “new” discovery was Beninbrough Hall; a much grander Georgian mansion set in sprawling ground where cattle and sheep graze freely.  Beningbrough has a close relationship with the National Portrait Gallery, and so continually displays pictures from that collection, though these change in line with important themes.  In timely fashion this year is focusing on creative women, and so there are paintings and photographs of the likes of Judi Dench, Darcey Bussell and Amy Winehouse, though my personal favourite had to be one of the smaller works; Neil Wilder’s photographic portrait of JK Rowling.

With no opportunity to take that inspiration outside and begin photographing famous authors I was off to the gardens in close up mode again, but with one exception and act of rebellion.

A walk along the River Ouse gives an opportunity to view the Hall in the context of it’s grounds, though even at some distance it is difficult to capture a truly representative shot because of the many trees that can obstruct the view.  Time to get airborne again!

 

Advertisements

The Art Tardis

This isn’t my first blog about Staithes, the tiny village on the Yorkshire coast that was once home to Captain Cook, and given that it combines a built-in beauty with a shoreline location it doubtless won’t be the last.  Why this time?  Because since 2012 there has been an annual arts festival and this was my first visit.

With a number of creatives living there the town’s art gallery is always worth a visit, but as a space it’s never going to be able handle lots of visitors, and even taking into account the church hall and no less than three former Methodist chapels that would still make for a small-scale affair, albeit one that many villages would be happy with.  Not so Staithes.

The overflow car park!

To draw so much interest over 100 of the cottages in the little town are given over to pop up galleries for a couple of days, and even then the event is oversubscribed with painters, sculptors, silversmiths, potters and more.  There was even a female blacksmith taking part this year (Katie Ventress).

My motivation to be there wasn’t to buy; my walls have plenty of imagery on them already, though a monochrome watercolour by Suzanne McQuade tempted me all the same.  Instead I was there for a bit of inspiration and conversation; after all I’d spent my working week recommending that people who wanted to develop their creativity should associate with other creative people.  Suzanne’s other watercolours were of many of the same coastal scenes that have attracted me in recent years.

In contrast Rob Shaw‘s work in oils or acrylics is robust and dramatic, despite being of many of the same subjects.  His seas are grey and stormy, but in contrast his paintings of Staithes itself are bright and vibrant.

This highlights one of the areas where the artist has an advantage over the photographer; their ability to paint a scene as they would like it to be, unconstrained by the reality of obstructions, light or weather conditions.  I was shooting a lot of black and white this weekend given the flat, overcast day.

Another thing that surprised me was something I’ve long been familiar with as a photographer; duplication of images.  I’m always reluctant to take the “cliché” shot, the image that everyone already has in their portfolio, unless there is some technical challenge involved for me.  Why would I want to produce something that was already in existence?  Given the individual aspects of style I didn’t expect that the same would be a problem for the painter, and yet saw similarly sized images of the same scene, with similar colouring and composition in the galleries of Keith Blessed (in pastels) and Kate Smith (in oils), assuming my memory hasn’t deceived me!

In contrast there was one area where my camera gave me an advantage over the artist.  Portraits.  Shirley Hudson told me how long her works might take and the liberties she might take with colour (with the sitter’s agreement).  I walked out of her display and within minutes had captured multiple personalities.

And if you’re expecting to see examples of the art itself then you’re going to be disappointed.  Pictures of pictures aren’t my thing (unless by Renaissance masters!) and the spaces are often too tiny and packed with people to make this feasible.

There are of course works to see in town that are permanent features, and permanent features that have value in my eyes so I still shot plenty of images that were interesting to this artist’s eye, and to these can be added the wire and willow sculptures of Emma Stothard.

For me of course even the rocks of the breakwater have potential!

Revisiting the Past

The last morning in Rome of my honeymoon was spent in Santa Maria Maggiore (due to its proximity to our hotel) and then, to kill time until we had to leave, people watching from the steps outside. The memory is one that has long outlasted the marriage, but coincidentally I spent my last morning in Rome on my more recent trip visiting the same church.

Not so convenient this time; an early morning metro across town was needed this time, but soon I was at those steps again. (Along with signage prohibiting their use as seats by those with inclinations similar to mine from all those years ago).

There are so many things I could write about his basilica; from one side it is plainly Romanesque, from the other extravagantly Baroque, the maggiore of the name because it is the largest dedicated to Mary in the city and not because it has the tallest campanile in town, or about the relics and burials beginning with B (The Bethlehem Crib, a Borghese, a Bonaparte, and the sculptor Bernini).

Yet there was something else here that made a greater impression on me.  That Romanesque apse is genuinely Roman for the church was constructed in the 5th century a few decades before the city fell to invaders and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed (ironically called Romulus Augustulus).

The marble pillars in the church may date back to an earlier basilica but much of the building dates back to this period, including the archway between nave and choir that has become known as the Triumphal Arch.   Much of the church is decorated in mosaic (a good preparation for my Sicilian journey) but here they are particularly important because of the insight they give into Roman life at the time, including wardrobe.  The depictions here are arguably the most accurate views of how the characters from bible stories may have appeared since they were created by the same Romans responsible for the crucifixion.

Of course I’m not really suggesting that they are accurate; look at the seated Mary at the top of the arch and she resembles a Roman empress, and of course four centuries had passed between her life and her depiction here, but it did make me think: “If the artists of the Renaissance supposedly took their inspiration from antiquity and the remains in Rome, why did they persist in dressing their subjects in medieval garb rather than take inspiration from the evidence here?”

All of which just left me time to lap up the baroque elements, jump on my return metro and kill time before leaving the city on some other notable steps when I left the station.

In Piazza di Spagna.

 

Postscript – I almost forgot to mention one other detail that stood out for me.  Amongst the marble popes there was an African face, one carved by Bernini no less.  A reminder that the countries of that continent that were colonised and raided by Europeans were not the savages we have portrayed them as through history.  Antonia Manuele was sent from what is now Angola as an Ambassador to Rome in 1604.  Weakened by a terrible journey he died in the city and was granted his last rights by the Pope himself.  Treated with respect and importance rather than as human cargo as his countrymen would be in the centuries that followed.

Son of Janus

In one of my Genovan posts I casually mentioned the city’s name being derived from Janus.  This is far from certain as there are other theories about the origins of the name (including the Italian word for knee!), but the presence of the great statue in the Palazzo Bianco was enough to convince me of the Roman God’s influence.  Still, as we’ll see below, it’s possible that if the Genoese aren’t completely bought into claiming him he may have headed for the warmer climes of Sicily.

Janus is famously the two-faced deity who is god of transitions, which of course is why we have January named after him as one year moves into the next, but his patronage also extends to doorways, the transition between in and out.

A recent post by fellow blogger Staci di Anna Pollard reminded me just how many doorways I’d photographed on my trip to Sicily at Easter and prompted me to gather a selection together for this post.  (Believe me there are more!).

Doorways in Italy always make for good photographs; whether for design, colour, texture or for the hidden scenes beyond and in Sicily I found another reason to be drawn to them; their size, or more precisely their lack of size.  Yes, the churches, opera houses, museums and public buildings have rather grand entrances as you’d expect, but up in the hill towns the homes of ordinary folk seemed to feature doorways that would require anyone of even above average height to bend or risk injury.

And so despite my attendance at two of Christianity’s most engaging festivals during my visit it seemed fitting in these days when journalistic balance is a hot topic that my trip should be influenced by this pagan god too.  Or am I just being two-faced?

Levels of Recognition

Perhaps the young amphibian martial artists of New York’s sewers are to blame, but when it comes to the artists of the Italian Renaissance and beyond, some getter a better deal than others in the public eye.  Perhaps Caravaggio was just a syllable too many to be a catchy name for a super hero, but no more so than Michelangelo who did make it to turtle status!

I’m being flippant of course and wonder how many of the public at large appreciate why Raphael and Donatello might be names that they recognise when   Giotto, Cimabue, or Brunelleschi might not.  How does one differentiate between levels of genius?

You’re probably well aware of Bernini if you’ve ever visited Rome;  the grand colonnade that fronts St Peter’s, the bronze baldacchino over the altar within are probably on a par with Michelangelo’s dome above the basilica and his Pieta inside in terms of public recognition.  Michelangelo holds the trump card with the Sistine Chapel of course, but Bernini has other works to offer.

Why is he as a sculptor and architect any less worthy of recognition?  It can’t be down to his patronage for Bernini enjoyed the favour of popes, cardinals and European royalty.  He lived in a different era of course so perhaps he lacks the glamour of being a pioneer in his field.  Bernini was a master of the Baroque rather than the Renaissance.   All the same he fares better than his contemporary Borromini.

Most visitors to the Piazza Navona stroll the length of the former arena and pause either to partake of the many caffés or to pose for the obligatory selfie by the attention grabbing Fountain of the Four Rivers; one of Bernini’s more famous works.  The fountain stands outside a fantastic baroque church, Sant’Agnese in Agone which was partly designed by Borromini.

Located elsewhere the church would have real presence, yet here it is relegated to backdrop.  (There is a popular myth that Bernini’s fountain exacerbates this by having the statues which personify the rivers turn in horror from Borromini’s facade, though the story is not consistent with the construction dates of both).

Then there is that baldacchino.  Actually a joint enterprise by both men, it has become known as “Bernini’s Baldacchino”.

St Agnes, Borromini

My visit to Sant’Agnese was curtailed by the church clearing visitors, presumably ahead of some daily service, but not before I could take in the frescoes and interior decoration which draw the eye with their bright colours, colours which Borromini’s design did not include.  His vision was one of white stucco throughout but a change of pope saw him lose favour and he resigned the commission, a decision he may have regretted when he saw the results.

Whether real or perceived, Borromini was probably a depressive for whom such slights can easily take on great significance.  He took his own life at the age of 67 which doubtless further impacted his reputation.

It’s not all about the work.

 

 

 

Needles and Pins

I can’t recall whether it was on University Challenge or some less august programme, but I recently heard the following question asked:

Where in the world will you find the most Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt?

The answer came to me immediately (and not entirely because I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Origins of late), but because I’ve seen so many.  London has a Cleopatra’s Needle (as do Paris and New York), Catania has its famous lava elephant bearing an example, the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and even Durham University possesses one.  By that count alone I’d have seen almost as many ancient Egyptian tekhenu (the original name, obelisk being a Greek word) outside of the country as Egypt herself possesses.  (Eight remain there).

Cultural imperialism at work.  Absolutely, but starting with the Roman Empire, for Egypt was a province of Rome for six centuries, and as supplier of much of the empire’s grain, arguably the most important.  Invariably Egyptian influences found their way into Rome and continued to do so.  Rome’s Piazza del Popolo features one of the city’s obelisks, but lion fountains rest on pyramidal structures, and sphinx topped walls are also present.

The antique shops feature the products of classicism and Catholicism flanked by more modest stele, and in this case a nice framed print comparing all of Rome’s pointed acquisitions.

All of which raises the argument which in this country gravitates most frequently to The Elgin Marbles; should these artefacts be returned to the country of their origin?  I’m a firm believer that the answer is an emphatic “No”, and for much the same reason that I voted against leaving the European Union.

Conflicts and prejudices are very often driven by a lack of understanding, or beliefs that have distorted truths at their hearts.  The more we know and understand one another the better in my view, and the art and history of different cultures is an important element of this.  Yes you can learn a lot by visiting another country (and I thoroughly enjoy doing so) but my cultural appetite for this was whetted in my teenage years by the British Museum, and though I first visited it to see a temporary exhibit, the permanent collections have had just as much impact on me over the years.  (That exhibit was another Egyptian marvel by the way; the mask and grave goods of Tutankhamen).

So for me Rome should keep her obelisks.  If they make people more curious to learn about Egypt so much the better.  Besides which, the Vatican, the Pantheon and several other sites in the city wouldn’t be the same without them.

And if you think I’ve forgotten the crowning glory of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, it was a deliberate exclusion.  The wealthier citizens of Rome commissioned a few of their own to be made in Egypt so this, the example atop the Spanish Steps, and the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore aren’t quite the genuine article.  Reproductions have a long history too.

 

The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman.  And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.

Bess of Hardwick

Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen.   Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses.  Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.

Old Hardwick Hall

She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here.  The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.

This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time.  The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project.  Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.

Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.)  Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.

These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).

The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room.  There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace.  Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!