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.

RoyalGallery

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.

Study

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:

NelsonWestminster

NelsonLiverpool

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

WaterlooWestminster

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:

ParliamentWaterloo

DetailWaterlooClean

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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Thought-Pourri: Cut The Crap Edition

You may recall the contretemps that took place back in 1999 when a work by overrated British Contemporary artist Chris Ofili entitled “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) went on show at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the “Sensation” exhibition organized by the loathsome advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for an incident in 2013 involving his now ex-wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, while they were dining at Scott’s, my favorite London restaurant. The only reason you may have heard of Ofili, of course, is because of this particular piece, which “features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast.”

Unfortunately said work, which I will not illustrate here, is now coming back to New York – permanently. It was purchased by the (equally loathsome) hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in 2015 for $4.6 million, and Cohen is now donating it to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As someone commented to me recently, when they visit MoMA they have to avoid certain sections of the museum, and I would imagine that this piece will presumably be located in one of *those* galleries. It is a pity that our cultural institutions continue to proudly display work that can at best be described as poorly-executed manifestations of the workings of diseased minds, as supported by people of horrifically bad taste.

On that note then, on to some more interesting stories.

Saving Salus Populi

Now here’s an image of Our Lady which I’ll happily share with you. After months of careful cleaning and restoration, the medieval Byzantine icon of the Madonna known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the Roman People”) was recently put back on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Years of dirt, soot, and grime were removed, along with badly-executed previous overpainting, to reveal the original splendor of the image of Mary holding the Child Jesus. The painting is a particular favorite of the current Pontiff: he went to pray before it on the morning after his election, and comes to visit before and after every time he travels outside the country, leaving a bouquet of white roses when he does so. In a papacy filled with many regrettable moments to date, this is at least one thing for which I can roundly applaud this pope.

Clean

So Long, Chagall

In a bit of a Scylla and Charybdis situation, the National Gallery of Canada has decided to sell one of the paintings in its permanent collection in order to purchase another painting; what’s highly unusual about this story is that the Canadians are selling a Modern painting in order to purchase an Old Master. The painting that the museum wants is by the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most important French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1779) is an extremely rare religious work by David, who was an anti-Catholic freemason, and dates prior to the French Revolution. The work that the National Gallery intends to sell is “The Eiffel Tower” (1929) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Personally, I’d rather have the Chagall, but I can understand the reasoning here. As you would imagine, this is what is known in the trade as a “developing story”, so stay tuned.

Jerome

Seeing Delacroix

Speaking of French art, The Louvre has just opened a major exhibition on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1862), whose work as head of the Romantic school of French painting is essentially the antithesis of David’s. Personally, I’ve always found him something of a mixed bag, as I find the majority of his most famous works rather muddy and melodramatic. His portraiture, however, is often very interesting, such as in the 1837 self-portrait of the artist shown below.

If you can’t get to Paris between now and July 23rd, not to worry. The show will travel to The Met in New York from September 17th through January 6th, albeit at the slightly reduced size of 145 paintings instead of the 180 on show at The Louvre, since a number of the pieces in France cannot travel. This will be the first major American exhibition ever held on the work of Delacroix, which may cause some of us, myself included, to reconsider our currently-held views on this enormously important and influential 19th century artist. We shall see.

Autoretrato

 

 

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.

Rex

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.