Thursday, 17 March 2011

Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian drawings and watercolours Exhibition at the Courtauld Institute, London, UK

Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian drawings and watercolours.
At the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK from 17th February to 15 May 2011. See for further details. By Larissa Woolf, Arts Editorial Contributor

The Courtauld Gallery in London is currently showing a small, eclectic and impressive exhibition of Victorian drawings and watercolours. Selected from its own extensive collection, it is important to know that many of these works have never been exhibited before – until now! These watercolours, informal sketches and preliminary drawings span the reign of Victoria from 1837 – 1901 and reveal fascinating insights into the creative process of the artist as well as highlighting the vitality of draughtmanship that was so distinctive of the era. Nude sketches by artists like Frederic Leighton and Rossetti teem with watercolours by heavyweight landscape artists such as J.M.W Turner, Ruskin and Whistler.

One of the highlights of the show is a work by the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Rossetti. His study for the preparation of his grand painting, ‘Venus Verticordio’ is astonishing. One cannot fail to admire the sensual and striking features of his muse, inspired in part by Venetian High Renaissance Art, and how delicately he renders her beauty onto paper. Throughout the exhibition we are given titbits of historical and biographical information which makes admiring the works all the more interesting. For instance we learn that Rossetti in his graphite drawing of “Elizabeth Siddal seated at an easel” first spotted his muse in a milliner’s shop in Leicester Square. Not only did he cast Siddal as the Pre-Raphaelite ideal for female beauty but she also became an artist in her own right, under his training, and later on his wife. We see, perhaps more poignantly in these preparatory drawings, how these artists were influenced by the cultural influences of the Renaissance and Greek and Roman literature. John Millais’ “The Parting of Ulysees”, for example, depicts a scene from the Odyssey and his drawings appeared once a week in a periodical. In this miniature but richly painted drawing we see the sorceress Circe waving goodbye to a Greek hero. His ability to draw so evocatively and beautifully and yet on such a small scale testifies to his artistic ability.

Oddly – as I am rather a Rossetti fan – my favourite picture in the exhibition was by a the British painter, Frederick Walker, born in 1840, entitled “The Old Farm Garden”. It is a watercolour and gouache of an amazingly detailed and rich country scene. In it we rather voyeuristically watch a solitary lady in her own country garden absorbed in her knitting, not realising that there is a cat behind her about to pounce on her ball of yarn. There is both a sense of stillness and anticipation in the watercolour and we learn that the woman is in fact modelled by Walker’s own sister. It is both a narrative landscape and an elegant and poetic portrait of a solitary lady.

The exhibition moreover is a good incentive to come and visit the rest of the collection; the Courtauld gallery having one of the most important and varied collections of art in London.

Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian drawings and watercolours, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK from 17th February to 15 May 2011. See for further details.

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