Significant Architectural Work By Novelist Thomas Hardy Rediscovered

A major architectural discovery may be about to change the way we think about one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who is familiar to anyone who has studied British literature, was an acclaimed novelist, poet, and dramatist. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a whopping 12 times, back when that was a highly prestigious award, although he never actually won. In books such as “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”, Hardy often exposed the darker, more savage undertones of the veneer of Victorian propriety. His works have been turned into popular films and television series many times over.

What you may not know about Thomas Hardy however, is that he was also an architect. Hardy left the profession in the early 1870’s in order to pursue writing full time, leaving few completed projects to his name. A simple, but unusual and creative example of his work can still be found, perhaps appropriately for Hardy the writer of somber literature, in a London graveyard – a design which deserves a brief detour in our story of discovery.

Back in 1865 the young Thomas Hardy, apprenticed to a London architect who specialized in the restoration and redecoration of old churches, was faced with a somewhat macabre task. He had been given the unenviable job of clearing part of the cemetery located on the grounds of Old St. Pancras Church in Central London. A new railway line was set to cut through the churchyard, but a number of graves stood in its path. The coffins of the deceased had to be disinterred, under Hardy’s supervision, and moved to another location which the church had acquired for this purpose.

The problem of what to do with all of the old tombstones, which would not be accompanying the remains to their new resting place, was another matter. At the time, common practice was either to smash up discarded gravestones for other uses such as paving, or to simply throw them away. Hardy’s unusual solution was to stack the stones against each other in concentric circles, around the base of a young tree. Today, the so-called “Hardy Tree” still exists; over the years its roots have enveloped many of the crumbling, moss-covered grave markers that Hardy had arranged around its trunk.

But back to our main story.

Hardy’s architectural renderings from his early days have reappeared from time to time, such as in the 1970’s when several of Hardy’s proposed designs for a reredos in the church of All Saints, Windsor, were discovered hidden in the organ loft of that building. In traditional Western church architecture, a reredos is a prominent structure located directly behind the main altar of a church, which is usually decorated with carvings, mosaics, or paintings. Until now however, it was assumed that these were just some ideas by the young draughtsman which were never carried out.

As The Guardian reported yesterday, two members of the congregation at All Saints were recently exploring the historic church, looking for the original foundation stone that had been laid by the Empress Frederick of Prussia, daughter of Queen Victoria back in 1863, when they stumbled upon what appears to be Hardy’s completed reredos:

I said, ‘Let’s have a root around with a torch’, and he said, ‘I’ve always wondered why the panelling behind the altar sticks out a bit’,” said Tunstall. “I lay down, and shone my iPhone torch up the back. I didn’t see a foundation stone, but I saw a carved motive and a decorative panel.”

Tunstall realised the design on the altar-stone resembled a design hanging at the back of the church – the one, he said, that had been designed by Hardy. “The discovery shows it did exist, but that it had been covered over some time in the 1920s,” he said. “It’s every little boy and little girl’s dream, to discover hidden treasure.”

The church is now engaged in a fundraising campaign to remove the carved paneling that was used to cover over Hardy’s altarpiece about a century ago. It estimates that it will cost close to $12,000 to do the work, and of course no one knows how much restoration will be required once the paneling is removed. When exposed however, I suspect that this discovery will prove to be a major addition to our understanding of Thomas Hardy both as an architect and as an author.

In later life, Thomas Hardy wrote an essay entitled “Memories of Church Restoration” for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which he was a member. In it, he recounted his experiences as a young draughtsman and architect working during the Gothic Revival period of Victorian architecture, when the influences of people like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin were at their peak. Hardy voiced his regret over the tendency of architects and designers of that time to try to make existing Gothic buildings even more Gothic-y, by ripping out their ancient interiors. 

In the case of All Saints however, since the church was brand-new when Hardy was working on it, he must not have felt such concerns. He was designing something new, for a new building, albeit evoking the architectural styles of the past. Hardy’s appreciation of historic architecture, and his understanding that there is much to be learned from it, ended up significantly influencing his work as a writer. 

Although he later abandoned the profession of architect, Thomas Hardy never lost his interest in architecture, nor lost sight of the importance that a building’s design can have on the life of an individual. Old buildings and the secrets contained within their ancient walls often played key roles in Hardy’s writing. All the more appropriate then, that a secret hidden in one of the few buildings that he himself worked on, may soon be brought back into the light.

Celebrity Suckers: When David Bowie Exposed The Art Establishment

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story that actor Alec Baldwin claims to have been ripped off by an art dealer who sold him a painting that was not exactly the one he had asked her to obtain for him. The art press has been weighing in on the somewhat confusing situation, since it is difficult to tell exactly what happened, and I won’t begin to try. However his tale of woe is based partially on the fact that celebrities can often fall victim to the silliness of Modern and Contemporary Art, in which all of the players can be easily manipulated into believing what they want to believe.

Baldwin of course is not the first nor the last celebrity art collector possessing wealth and resources that, in the end, have let him down. Comedian Steve Martin, who is well-known in the art world as a serious collector, purchased a painting supposedly by the German Modernist Heinrich Campendonk (1889-1957) for $860,000 which later turned out to be a fake. Tennis star John McEnroe was duped out of $2 million by a New York art dealer, who sold him half-interests in two faked paintings allegedly by the Russian Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) for investment purposes. The ease with which art-collecting celebrities can be duped was wonderfully sent up by the late David Bowie a few years ago, at an event which you should recall the next time someone accuses you of being a philistine when it comes to Modern and Contemporary Art.

Back in 1998, Bowie and Iman hosted a cocktail party at the studio of artist Jeff Koons for the first book to be launched by Bowie’s new publishing venture. “Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960” was the biography of a struggling, talented Abstract Expressionist painter, who burned almost every painting he had ever painted, shortly before committing suicide in 1960 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry into the Hudson River. Guests at the reception included celebrities, famous artists, and the press, who were all mesmerized by Bowie’s presentation and reading from the book:

The crowd took their eyes off Koons’s colourful, kitsch sculptures of kittens, and listened attentively, then resumed drinking, networking and seeing who could impress most with opinions about Nat Tate’s life and work.

It was a glittering evening, probably the major event in that year’s cultural calendar, and beneath the glitz a poignant tribute to one of the 20th century’s pioneering artists.

There was just one problem: Nat Tate never existed.

The book’s author, the Bowies, and others who were in the joke wanted to show how easy it was to dupe the glitterati into believing that they knew all about an artist who was, in fact, nothing more than a work of fiction. While some feathers were undoubtedly ruffled by the hoax, it remains to date one of the best examples of how easy it is to fool the current gatekeepers of culture into believing their own hype. By using the kind of artspeak which the arts community has employed for decades now as a kind of shield against the intrusions of more rational minds, it is easy for those with bad taste and low standards to avoid admitting that they do not know what they are talking about.

This is not to say that Bowie himself had good taste. In fact he didn’t, as this slideshow of some of the works in his collection indicates. However in exposing how easily celebrities can be taken in, he did show that the rich and famous can sometimes turn out to be just as gullible as ordinary people.     

Proud Parents: A Family Snapshot from 17th Century Spain

Earlier this week Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, died suddenly at the age of 64. One of the wealthiest people in the world, the Duke owned much of Mayfair and Belgravia, two of the best neighborhoods in London. Under the British system of taxation his son and heir, who will presumably become the 7th Duke, will be faced with an enormous bill for his inheritance, often referred to colloquially as “Death Duties”.

While I don’t pretend to understand why and how the British tax things as they do – such as having a license for a television set, which will cost you almost $200 a year for one color TV – I do know that in Britain when the wealthy and/or titled die, their heirs often have to sell off some of the art and antiques from the family home in order to pay their taxes, or give such things to the government in lieu of paying said taxes. In fact, many of the objects currently in UK museums found their way there because of this tax system.

In the case of the Grosvenors, the family has been collecting art for quite a long time, and as The Art Newspaper points out, there are some major Old Master paintings in their collection, including works by Gainsborough, Claude, and Stubbs. There is no suggestion that any of these works will be headed to the auction house or National Gallery in London any time soon. However one painting in the collection that I would like to draw your attention to is by my favorite Spanish Old Master painter, Velázquez. It is not a very well-known painting, but its subject will be familiar to anyone who has studied art history.

Prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646) was the only son of the Habsburg King Felipe IV of Spain and his 1st wife, Queen Elisabeth de Bourbon, the daughter of King Henry IV of France and his wife, Queen Marie de’ Medici. As such, he represented the union of some of the most important families in European history. He also represented the imperial hopes of many in his country since, although its star had begun to fade, at the time Spain was still the most powerful empire in the world.

Sadly, those hopes were dashed when the Prince caught smallpox while attending a memorial service for his late mother, and died without issue at the age of 17. Felipe IV would marry again and have more children, and one of his sons would survive to be crowned King Carlos II. However the impotence of Baltasar Carlos’ half-brother would mark the end of the Habsburg rule of Spain, which in turn accelerated the decline of the Spanish Empire.

Despite his relatively short life, Baltasar Carlos had a profound impact on the history of art, not because of his own patronage, but because of that of his father. The portraits of the Prince which the King ordered from Velázquez, in particular, have been popular for centuries now. Their compositions have influenced portrait painters and photographers right up to today. 

The skill of the artist in lending a regal, dignified quality to images of a young boy was no small feat, but he tied his artistry in perfectly with the family’s ambitions. Two famous examples of this are in The Prado, showing the Prince in hunting attire accompanied by his favorite dogs, and another of him riding a galloping pony, represent Habsburg dynastic propaganda at its finest. However there is another, more informal portrait of the prince that many are completely unaware of, since it has been in the collection of the Dukes of Westminster for the past two centuries.

The Velázquez belonging to the Grosvenors is known by various titles, but it is often referred to as “Prince Baltasar Carlos in the Riding School”. It was painted in around 1635, and shows the young Prince on horseback at the Retiro Palace in Madrid. In the background, we see his parents standing on a balcony, watching their son’s riding lesson, while in the middle ground we see his father’s Prime Minister, the Conde-Duque de Olivares, standing with other courtiers. Although the Retiro Palace itself no longer exists, those of my readers who have been to Madrid will immediately recognize not only the very Castilian architectural style of the building shown in the painting, but also the towering clouds and big skies that characterize this part of Spain.

This is not a great work by Velázquez, and there is some scholarly dispute over exactly how much of it (if any) he himself actually painted, and how much was painted by his assistants. And yet in its way, I find this is a very charming picture. It adds to the mental image that one can shape of life at that time, and further humanizes a family which we already know from the many formal images that they had painted of themselves.

The Westminster painting is a snapshot of family life at court, almost like seeing parents seated in the bleachers, watching their son come up to bat at baseball practice. It evokes those feelings of pride which all parents have, when watching their children grow and play. At the same time, the piece perfectly captures the skies that are so particular to Madrid, with the idiosyncratic, Austro-Moorish towers and rooflines that still dot the old part of the city. The combination makes it more interesting, and more unusual, than many other, more formal pieces from this period, which are so often set indoors against plain backdrops.

Whatever their tax bill, one hopes that the Grosvenors will be able to hold on to this rather unique, pleasing work of art.