Sunday, 30 January 2011

Dulwich Picture Gallery's Bicentenary Year: Sir John Soane by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Or, January and the Project Begins

You'll remember I'm planning to see each of the Masterpieces of the Month at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, through this, it's 200th birthday year.

Today, I started. I started by walking to the gallery in the cold January sunshine. (I was quite impressed that it really is just half an hour away, give or take a couple of minutes for photographs.) I started by becoming a member of said gallery for the princely sum of £30. (Reasoning that if I do make all 12, at £5 entrance fee a go, I'll end up spending more than that.) And I started by taking it quite easy, taking in only a few of the treasures on display, and trying not to get overwhelmed.

The fact is, I'd love to know more about art. I can spot a Canaletto and a Constable; I can tell what's Dutch, and what's been influenced by Dali (although he can throw a curveball); and I'm always pleased to recognise a dark Goya after over-indulging in him in the Prado when I lived in Madrid or something skinny by El Greco or something colourful by Gauguin. But I'd love to know more.

Hence this little mission.

So, for this month, The Portrait of John Soane hangs in pride of place at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

John Soane designed the gallery, and it's rather nice to see him, sitting rather smugly, watching all the activity going on inside today. (It was filled with people headed to the Norman Rockwell exhibition; so much so, there was a queue. Buggies, Barbour jackets, brogues, bifocals; your average Dulwich fayre.)

It seems incredible that he's the guy responsible for thinking out the whole idea of a building specifically designed for the display of paintings. His series of interlinked rooms, with plenty of wall space and skylights to illuminate the stuff on show indirectly means this is "one the great small galleries in which to look at oil paintings," according to wiki. "The influential 20th-century architect Philip Johnson said, "Soane has taught us how to display paintings." There's another nice quote here:
"Nicholas Pevsner, in his An Outline of European Architecture, considered the building to be "a very early example of 'modern' architecture – where the form and appearance of the building is directly related to its function". However we know that the elevations are not as Soane originally intended – he would have preferred more ornate facades – but luckily for us a lack of funds meant that he was forced into a more austere (and better) design."
I've read more thoughts on this month's star painting by Richard Dorment in the Telegraph. And I have to agree with him. You can see this is a flattering portrait of a 70 year old, rouge and wig included. And its interesting to think that this is a portrait painted for a particular place. Above the fireplace in the Library Dining Room of the Soane Museum at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, there's no need to have painted him with nods to his collections and what-not. And somehow, here in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, there's something nice about his being painted against such a simple red backdrop. "What's he famous for?" the viewer might ask. Then turn around and look at what he's looking at. "Oh, just *all* this," is the answer

Now comes one of my confusions with portrait painting. Is it about the subject, or the artist? Which is "more" important? Of course, one wouldn't exist without the other, bu.u.u.t... When it's a Portrait of a Man (like the Hogarth one hanging near John Soane), I find it easier to think about the painter, and what he was doing.

But when it's a portrait of a famous person, I sometimes struggle to hold together all the information about both artist and sitter in the same headspace. (I remember getting in a tangle like this when I first started lit crit at school. Was I talking about the character, or the author who made the character... I learnt to separate and unseparate the two for various purposes eventually, and I suppose its the same with paintings...)

So, now, a little bit about this artist courtesy of wiki etc:

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was a child prodigy who quickly became the most accomplished portrait painter of his day and, from 1820, President of the Royal Academy. He never married, and had tortuous relationships with Sally and Maria Siddons. They're actress Sarah Siddon's daughters. The most extensive collections of Lawrence's work can be found in the Royal Collections and the National Portrait Gallery.

Let's see if I can try and hold these two chaps in my head for any length of time.

And after another 11 pictures have also been pushing for space in a year's time. We'll see.

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