Freshening Frescoes: Restoring Two Of Britain’s Largest Paintings

Work has begun to restore two of the most prominent – and by far the largest – works in the British Houses of Parliament, and if all goes well, they may go some way to rehabilitating the reputation of the artist who painted them.

The frescoes, by Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) depict the death of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Prince Gebhard von Blücher on the field of Waterloo. Maclise won a national competition to execute the paintings in the Royal Gallery of the newly-constructed House of Lords, a large ceremonial space typically used for the grandest of official ceremonies or dinners. His work was particularly encouraged by Prince Albert, in his role as head of the Fine Arts Committee overseeing the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster.

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Unfortunately, the paintings began to darken and fade soon after they were painted. At the time, blame was accorded to Maclise and his methodology, which involved what is known as the “water-glass technique”, which Prince Albert sent him to Germany to study. This painting technique starts out in the traditional fresco method, with pigment painted on patches of fresh, wet plaster applied to the wall surface. After this, a coating consisting of water mixed with a silica is applied on top of the pigment while the surface is still wet. The concept here is that, once the entire surface dries, the paint and plaster will be covered with a microscopically thin, protective layer of glassy film. It never really worked very well, which is probably why you’ve never heard of it.

It seems however that the fault lies not in Maclise’s stars, as it were, but in ourselves. As The Guardian reports:

The conservation work, which has involved research by academics in Germany on the fresco technique, has absolved both men of blame. Despite damage from leaking windows, settlement cracks probably dating from the 19th century, and the near destruction of the gallery in the second world war when masonry from a bombed tower crashed through the roof, the frescoed plaster is still sound.

“None of it was poor Maclise’s fault,” said Caroline Babington, collections care manager. “The place was still a building site and the whole city was burning coal. It wasn’t the paint turning black, it was just filthy London air.”

We forget now, when London is no longer plagued by dense clouds of fog and soot, how filthy the city became thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of coal in homes, businesses, and transportion. I can recall living in London at the turn of the preceding century, and watching a Victorian grand hotel near my home slowly being cleaned of over a century of grime that had accumulated on its façade. In the space of a few months, it went from being a structure that appeared to have been painted entirely black, back to its original pale pink granite and gleaming white marble.

You can get a sense of how bright Maclise’s frescoes originally were by checking out his completed study for “The Death of Nelson”, which is now at The Walker in Liverpool. The contrast between the blues, reds, and whites should immediately remind you of the Union Jack, naturally enough. The composition appears to be linear, with all of the figures spread out from left to right, but notice how the artist has placed the dying Nelson and his surrounding companions at the top of a semi-circle on the deck of his ship, pushed back so that the action actually arches away from us toward the center.

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At closer range, the comparison between the finished study of the center of the painting in Liverpool, and that of the finished work in its current state of preservation in the House of Lords, is readily apparent:

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Similarly, in Maclise’s painting of Waterloo, which you can see below at full width, everything appears to be rather murky, faded, and dirty.

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However in this study of the central portion of the composition, in which Maclise shows the Prussian and British leaders shaking hands, we get a sense of how vivid the colors of the completed work once were, in comparison of the current state of preservation of the fresco versus that of a far more vibrant study:

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I can’t say that, for my part, I’m a big fan of this sort of historical painting, even though for much of the 18th through early 20th century, these sorts of works were considered the epitome art. Thanks to the rigors of the academic method of art instruction, history paintings were definitely considered to be at the top of the pecking order among the members of the art establishment during this time, and artists competed fiercely to gain these commissions. Today however, a painstakingly executed history painting, albeit not one quite so large as one of these, would fetch a fraction of what a hastily-executed sketch by an Impressionist would achieve in a gallery or auction.

Perhaps because these works of art are often so vast, and crowded with so much action, it’s difficult to see them as something more than giant comic books. Or perhaps because the celebrate the achievements of man, rather than the grace of God, they are often utterly banal. For every great history painting that we might name, there are 100 more which we don’t even know about or remember, languishing away in museum basements or down dark corridors of public buildings.

Yet in this case, I think that the effort to clean up these particular works, which will inevitably result in a wider reexamination of Maclise and his art as a whole, will prove to be a good thing. These frescoes were considered enormously significant at the time of their execution, and crowds of people flocked to see Maclise’s designs, sketches, and finished products. Gaining a better understanding of the man and his work would simultaneously help to raise interest in and knowledge of a genre of painting which, while now largely out of favor, still represents an important and influential chapter in the history of Western art.

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Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

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People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Antolinez

To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

Teniers

Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.

Sargent’s Silk: The Fabric Connecting Two Beautiful Portraits

One of the fun things about being an art nerd is when you get the chance to make new discoveries regarding old friends. Such is the case with my favorite American artist, John Singer Sargent, whom I have written about for years (such as in my first piece for The Federalist almost three years ago.) One of his best-known portraits and indeed one of my favorites as well has always been his mesmerizing portrait “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892), now in the National Gallery of Scotland. So it was quite a surprise this past weekend while visiting the excellent Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey to come across another wonderful Sargent portrait previously unknown to me, but which appears to have a visual connection to this more famous portrait of Lady Agnew.

Lady Agnew

I had gone up to Newark to see the new exhibition, “The Rockies & The Alps”, which I will be reviewing soon, but while at the museum I was astounded by the breadth of the permanent collection. The Newark Museum is the largest museum in New Jersey, with over 200,000 objects, and includes holdings in the areas of the Ancient Mediterranean, Asia, decorative arts, American painting and sculpture, science, Modern and Contemporary Art, and much more. There was no way to see it all in the new hours I spent there, but you can see an extensive sampling of some of the pieces in their holdings over on my Instagram account.

At the far end of a corridor in the American Wing, I spotted a full-length portrait of a seated lady, and I knew immediately that it was a Sargent even though it was some distance away. When you become familiar with the work of a particular artist, after awhile it becomes something akin to being in a sea of people on a metro platform or airport terminal and suddenly spotting an old friend amidst all of the distraction. I had a similar experience on another floor in the American Wing at the Newark Museum a bit later, when I saw a work some distance down a corridor and thought, “That looks like an Edward Hopper,” and it was: another terrific piece in the museum’s permanent collection.

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The portrait of “Mrs. Charles Thursby” (1897) depicts a good friend of the artist, Alice Brisbane Thursby (1859-1953). Her father, Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), was a utopian Christian socialist who led a somewhat peripatetic and occasionally scandalous personal life. Papa Brisbane popularized Fourierism in the United States in the mid-19th century, and his writings were adopted at proto-communes such as Brook Farm near Boston. (If you’re familiar with Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “You’re a Fourierist?”)

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As she was growing up, Mrs. Thursby’s family dragged her all over the US and Europe, and it was while she was studying art in Paris that she met Sargent, who was living there at the time; they became lifelong friends. She later married a British Naval Officer and civil engineer, Lt. Charles Radcliffe Thursby, whose work and land holdings took the couple back and forth between England, America, and Argentina. Having spent most of her childhood moving about every few years, it’s not surprising that these two were very well-suited.

There are many wonderful details about the portrait that give us an indication of the personality of the sitter. Mrs. Thursby looks at us with a mixture of determination and intellectual curiosity. She is curious to find out exactly who we are, and to find out why we’ve come to see her. Note how Mrs. Thursby appears to be about to get up out of her chair to greet us, which suggests that she is a somewhat restless, lively figure who does not like to sit still. This a lady who is always on the move, always out and about doing something.

Notice, too, the wonderful detail of her hand, and those fingers. In Sargent’s unforgettable, bolt-upright portrait of “Mrs. Adrian Iselin” (1888), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, we are told everything we need to know about the subject by the way she seems to balance her entire weight on the outstretched pinky finger of her right hand, suggesting that this is not a woman whom you want to cross. In the Newark Museum’s picture we see a similar strength of will in Mrs. Thursby’s fingers, but the splayed, open hand suggests to us that the woman whom we see here is more open to the world around her than was the rather dour and imposing Mrs. Iselin.

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But here, for my money, is the *really* interesting bit.

The portrait of Lady Agnew shows the subject seated in a chair covered in a floral upholstery, while Mrs. Thursby is seated in a chair whose fabric is completely white. Yet if you look closely, you’ll see that the two women share the same backdrop: a piece of pale blue silk embroidered with gold figures. In the portrait of Lady Agnew, these figures are more clearly meant to represent characters, since the fabric in question was a large piece of Chinese drapery.

Lady Agnew

By the time he paints the portrait of Mrs. Thursby several years later however, Sargent has become even more impressionistic. He is still using that wonderfully loose brushwork which is indicative of his love and study of Velázquez’ technique, but the transcription from real life to canvas has become more hazy. Even the color is less of a direct copy of the original, since it now appears to be made up of just as much brown and gray as blue.

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Like many artists, Sargent kept a number of objects in his studio which he used and reused in his paintings. If you’ve seen the live-action Disney film of “Cinderella” for example, you’ll recall that in the scene in which the artist is painting the portrait of Kit on horseback, there is a pre-painted backdrop of putti tumbling out of heaven which is hung behind the prince to help center the composition. This Chinese panel in Sargent’s work was one such object, which is why it appears in both the portraits of Lady Agnew and Thursby. No doubt those of my readers who are more expert in Sargent’s work than I am would be able to identify other pictures where the same silk appears – and by all means, please do so in the comments below.

This is just a recent, personal example of one of the things I love about studying art history. The more art you see and know, the more you come to recognize and appreciate connections between works of art, just as one piece of music or film can immediately recall another that you’re already familiar with. More to the point, should you happen to find yourself in the Newark area – only 9 miles from New York City – go visit Mrs. Thursby for yourself, and see the rest of the collection at her very fascinating permanent residence.