Monday 7 December 2015

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec: The Image of Paris

No one more personifies the city of Paris than the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the vision he created in his intimate portraits of its amoral hinterland and the many posters he designed to promote its willingly indulged but often best forgotten nightlife is the Paris of popular imagination that endures to this day, through his work and that of a thousand imitators
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec was born on 24 November 1864, the son of the Comte Alphonse Charles de Toulouse-Lautrec.

He was then a scion of the aristocracy and one born to rule – but it wasn’t to be.

Being from a world of privilege and opportunity did not protect the young Henri from the ravages of ill-health, disease, and disability.

He had a genetic disorder that stunted his growth and left him with the legs of a child and the body of a man, and standing at just 4’8” he was to become obsessed with what he considered his grotesque form, and in particular his over-sized genitalia.

Unable to participate in the manly and athletic pursuits of a young aristocrat, with the prospect of a good marriage slim and a career in the army out of the question he indulged his passion for art and the wonderful talent he had, acknowledged from an early age, for drawing and illustration.

By the early 1880’s he was living in Paris where his family connections had secured for him a place studying under the leading portrait artist Leon Bonnat and he studied long and hard but he had also been absorbed by the city being particularly drawn to the artistic milieu of South Bank cafe society and the nightlife of Montmartre which offered a world of fantasy and glitter, a theatre of non-conformity fuelled by alcohol and other stimulants.

He felt comfortable in the company of exotic dancers, drag queens, homosexuals, prostitutes and others shunned by society.

A place where a freak of nature, as he often described himself would be accepted with little said.
It wasn’t quite like that – the prostitutes he so adored often had fun at his expense but then they were all marked out for mockery and derision beyond the confines of their own existence.

They were freaks right enough, and those from respectable society who frequented their establishments and sought their interest, hypocrites.

He saw the moral bankruptcy of bohemian and hedonistic Paris not dissimilar to the physical deformity he had to endure, something that at its heart lay a thing of beauty.

Art and prostitutes were his life and alcohol the fuel that sustained it.

His love of the Green Fairy, or Absinthe, the supposedly hallucinogenic spirit is well known but he was no less fond of wine, whisky and beer, and he would drink throughout the day and long into the night even hollowing out the inside of his cane so he could have suitable libation with him at all times.

But his alcoholism did not seem to affect the quality of his art or slow his prodigious output and in 1891 he was commissioned to produce a poster for the recently opened Moulin Rouge featuring its star can-can dancer, La Goulue.

It was a success and similar commissions soon followed for the Folies Bergere and other cabaret venues and events around the city.

Indeed, it is his posters that captured so evocatively La Belle Epoque that Lautrec is best remembered today turning as they did the poster into an art form to be copied by his contemporaries and beyond making Paris the city of indulgence and love without parallel anywhere in the world.

Yet it is in his paintings so simplistic in their beauty that his true genius lay portraying with a light touch and delicate brushstrokes great sensitivity for his subjects in particular the intimate relationship of women to their bodies and each other.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec died on 9 September 1901, aged 36, as a result of complications arising from syphilis and alcoholism.

But Paris remains eternal – the City of Light and the City of Toulouse-Lautrec.


Sunday 22 November 2015

Marianne Leading the People

    Liberte Egalite Fraternite

    Vive La France - Long Live Democracy! Long Live Freedom!

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Sir Antony van Dyck: At the Court of Charles I

Anthony van Dyck was born in Antwerp on 22 March 1599, to parents wealthy enough to indulge their son’s passion for art rather than encourage him to pursue a career in commerce or one of the professions – it was after all something he had a talent for.

By the age of 20, he was an assistant to the greatest and most admired glamourist of his day Peter Paul Rubens, and what he learned at his master’s knee would serve him well when in 1632 he became principal artist to the Royal Court of King Charles I in London.

Van Dyck’s remit appeared a simple one - to portray the Stuart Monarchy in all its grandeur and leave no one in doubt that its King reigned without equivocation as God’s Representative on Earth.

But it was easier said than done.

Charles I, very short and pitifully thin with a pallid complexion and sunken eyes cut a frail rather than an imposing figure and unlike previous portraits of Henry VIII for example, whose physicality and strength of character positively leap from the canvass Charles I, despite Van Dyck’s best efforts, would often seem to merge into the background and so the majestic presence of any depiction would need to be contrived and come from elsewhere – the background, the horse, the armour, even the hat.

But Charles was delighted with his work particularly the elegance he brought to the Stuart Court and the way he captured his wife Queen Henrietta Maria’s effervescent character, natural ebullience, and coquettish charm to compensate for her lack of grace and eye-catching beauty.

Indeed, he was to paint the King some forty times and his wife and children a further thirty times.

In late 1632, Van Dyck was knighted and awarded a substantial annual pension of £200 which along with his many private commissions from prominent people of the time such as Archbishop Laud, the Earl of Strafford, and the architect Inigo Jones made him a very wealthy man.

Sir Anthony van Dyck was to spend most of the next decade in London where he became one of the foremost propagandists for the King in his on-going dispute with parliament and is credited with creating the dashing image of the cavalier that was to so much define the opposing sides in the coming civil war.

But he was not to witness the crumbling of the seemingly indestructible edifice he had done so much to create.
Having returned to London following a journey to Flanders that had seen him fall ill he died on 9 December 1641, aged 42, and just 8 months before the Royal Court he had depicted with such grace and elegance would be consumed by conflict.

His death, which had been unexpected, profoundly shook Charles I, a sensitive man who deeply felt the loss of any friend or ally.

Such ill-tidings he often took to be a bad omen.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Battle of Britain: Facts

Flight-Lieutenant Eric Stanley Lock, died 3 August 1941, aged 23 (lost over the English Channel his body was never recovered from the sea) was the RAF's premier Fighter Ace during the Battle of Britain with 21 confirmed kills.

Of the 544 R.A.F pilots who died during the Battle of Britain 98 were foreign nationals:
Poland -141 (29) killed
Australia - 21 (14)
Canada - 88 (20)
New Zealand - 73 (11)
South Africa - 21 (9)
Czechoslovakia - 86 (8)
Belgium - 26 (6)
United States - 7 (1)
French - 13 (0)
Irish 8 (0)
Rhodesia - 2 (0)
Palestine - 1 (0)

Thursday 27 August 2015

Peter Paul Rubens: The Glamourist

“My passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings.”

Few artists have been as popular or successful in their own lifetime as Peter Paul Rubens.

Born in the town of Siegen in Germany he is most closely associated with the city of Antwerp where he was raised, trained as an artist, established his studio, and was to have one of his many homes.

His father, Jan Rubens, was a prosperous lawyer and magistrate but one whose suspected Calvinism led to the fear, if not always the reality, of persecution which led to frequent flight and constant instability but never to impoverishment and the dread pauperism.

When his father died in 1587, the young Rubens, born a Protestant, was raised a Catholic by his mother and educated in the humanist tradition providing him with a perspective that allowed him to carefully navigate the political and religious controversies of his day.

Indeed, he was to acquire a diplomacy as delicate as his brushwork and become as well-versed in the art of fine words as he was with oil on canvass.

He made friends in high-places, and he kept them, so much so that he could be knighted by both the Catholic Philip IV of Spain and the Protestant Charles I of England.

Although he was loathe to politicise his art, never shy of being all things to all men, his historical and religious work  became very visible exemplars of the Counter-Reformation strategy of using art as propaganda.

Said to have been influenced by Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, but most particularly Caravaggio, he never permitted the reality of the Italians vision to impinge upon his own. For him art was the portrayal of beauty whether contrived or merely imagined. He had no desire to devote his exquisite baroque style to the depiction of warts.

With his ability to make a small man larger than life, a sallow woman the buxom beauty of rude good health there were few notable people in seventeenth century Europe who did not want to be painted by Peter Paul Rubens.

He was the ‘Glamourist’ of his age.

Anne of Austria

Maria Pallavicino

Susanna Lunden

Clara Serena

Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia

Brueghel Family

Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel

Anne Fourment

Landscape by Moonlight

King Solomon

Feast of Herodes

Fall of Man

Immaculate Conception

St George and the Dragon

Saturday 15 August 2015

Notable Britons Who Fought In World War One

Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill, Royal Scots Fusiliers

In remembrance of those many thousands who were deprived of the opportunity and the millions more who served their country and survived to live more humble but no less valid lives - a short article on notable Britons and their contribution in the Great War.

Lieutenant J.R.R Tolkien, Lancashire Fusiliers author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

A reluctant warrior who feared he lacked courage he did not enlist during the wave of patriotic fervour that swept the country following the declaration of war and only did so almost a year later in July 1915, when he began to find the whispering campaign against him intolerable.

Later joinig the Signals Corp he was to fight during the Battle of the Somme and in the ferocious struggle for the Schwaben Redoubt before finally being struck down not by enemy fire but trench fever.

He was later to write that his idea for Middle-Earth came from his experiences of the subterranean existence that almost constant shellfire often made trench warfare.

Private Ronald Colman, London Scottish - Oscar winning actor and Matinee Idol.

Serving in a Territorial Regiment prior to the war he was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force and so was one of the original ‘Old Contemptbles.’

He was seriously wounded by shrapnel at the Battle of Messines in October 1914, which was to leave him partially maimed, in frequent pain, and with a permanent limp.

Private Charles Laughton, Huntingdon Cyclist Battalion - Oscar winning actor he served on the Western Front where he was to fall victim to a poison gas attack.

Captain Robert Graves, Royal Welch Fusiliers  poet and author of I, Claudius was so badly wounded during the Battle of the Somme that he was removed from the hospital to be given the Last Rites.

His death was later confirmed and his parents informed.

Much to everyone's surprise and against the odds he survived.

Captain Harold MacMillan, Grenadier Guards - Prime Minister from 1957-63 he would tell the British people they had never had it so good and as a man who bore the burden of the trenches as a personal trauma he should have known for he never forgot the men who served under his command and would speak of them with admiration often with a tear in his eye.

Lieutenant Rupert Brooke, Royal Naval Division – a poet who expressed his love of country in his verse and was thrilled by the prospect of combat but instead died of blood poisoning en-route to Gallipoli on 23 April, 1915.

Captain Anthony Eden, King’s Royal Rifles – the Prime Minister 1955-7 who would be brought down by the Suez Crisis, an example of the very aggressive militarism he had spent so much of his life opposing.

He was awarded the Military Cross for valour and would rise to become the youngest Brigadier in the British Army.

Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, Royal Welch Fusiliers – a poet so brave that he earned the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ and was awarded the Military Cross but was later to turn very publicly against the war.

Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, the Manchester Regiment – a poet who unlike his friend Sassoon, never ceased to believe in the justice of the cause he was fighting for.

He was killed on 4 November 1918, during the last great offensive on the Western Front.

His parents learned of his death on 11 November just as the church bells rang out in celebration of the end of the war.

Lieutenant Basil Rathbone, London Scottish – actor.

Most famous for his roles alongside Errol Flynn and as Sherlock Holmes he was awarded the Military Cross for valour but after his brother was killed on the Western Front was often criticised for being reckless with his own life and with those of his men.

Major Clement Attlee, South Lancashire Regiment and future Leader of the Labour Party who would shock the world by defeating Winston Churchill in the post VE-Day Election.

He would serve as Prime Minister from 1945-51 and would introduce the Welfare State and the National Health Service thereby transforming British society forever.

He was the second from last man to be evacuated from Gallipoli and fought in Mesopotamia and on the Western Front.

Lieutenant Ralph Vaughan Williams, Royal Army Medical Corps – one of Britain’s favourite composers he was already 41 years of age when war was declared but enlisted nonetheless as a private serving as a stretcher-bearer, one of the most traumatic and perilous assignments on the front-line.

Lance-Corporal Arnold Ridley, Somerset Light Infantry – Actor most famous for his role in Dad’s Army and as the author of the Ghost Train he was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme where he was shot, clubbed, and bayoneted but managed to survive and fight on.

Later promoted to Captain he would also serve in World War Two.

Lieutenant Wyndham Lewis, Royal Artillery – the painter and author who despite his often louche manner became an effective battery commander on the Western Front before becoming the official war artist for the Canadian Army.

Lieutenant A A Milne, Royal Warwickshire Regiment – the poet and author of Winnie the Pooh fought on the Western Front and first wounded at the Somme was later repatriated following a serious illness where he transferred to Military Intelligence.

He also served as a Captain in the Home Guard during World War Two.