Last week I went to visit the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition currently showing at the Ipswich Art Gallery. It is a fascinating, stylish display of visually elegant and appealing mechanical artworks.
And, what’s more you get to push small, red buttons to make the automata work in all their whirring and squeaky intricacy.
In these digital times it’s easy to take for granted all our speedy, convenient tech. We click and scroll without a second thought as to what is actually going on beneath the screen.
It wasn’t always so and the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition reminds us of all those bewitching clockwork and mechanical objects from the past. Some examples such as mechanical toys were purely for entertainment and some were functional equipment that was often beautiful too.
Functional objects from the past on display in this exhibition included a braille typewriter, a rather attractive ‘shrimp’ sweet making machine
and a scale model of the an early Otis lift.
Of course, humans have used mechanisms to make moving toys for thousands of years.
Naturally, in an Art Gallery some of the works on display are examples of art. These delightful mechanical sculptures by Paul Spooner are exquisitely crafted, and are both beguiling and witty.
I particularly liked the manner in which the mechanics are also on display in this piece. It has become an expression of our contemporary culture to reveal inner workings. Here you can see the cogs and spindles are finely made and are assembled in a functional and satisfyingly ordered arrangement.
Another work by Peter Markey, Artist-Painter, resonated surprisingly strongly with me. It’s as if he has been spying on me!
‘Marvellous Machines’ featuring these quirky pieces from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, continues at Ipswich Art Gallery until 3 November 2019. If you can’t get to Ipswich a list of upcoming events displaying some of these mechanical sculptures is available on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre website. Finally, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre sell some of their work online offering one-offs, limited editions and even ‘build your own’ kits.
Rodin’s world-famous sculpture ‘The Kiss’ is currently the centre piece of the ‘Kiss and Tell’ exhibition at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. It is on temporary loan from the Tate and it is fascinating to see it spotlit at the centre of a dark, navy blue room.
The inspiration for the figural forms of ‘The Kiss’, was taken from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and are the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Originally, the design for the two lovers, together with precursors for other renowned Rodin sculptures ‘The Thinker’ and ‘The Three Shades’, were part of a major government commission. In 1880, the French government had commissioned Rodin to create large, ornamented entrance gates for a new decorative arts museum in Paris.
The gates were to be over six metres high and were to feature forms inspired by Baudelaire’s ‘The Flowers of Evil’ as well as the ‘Divine Comedy’. The museum was not built, but Rodin repurposed some of the sculptural details to make stand alone pieces one of which became ‘Le Baiser’ the marble version of Francesca and Paolo and is known to us English speakers as ‘The Kiss’.
Also on display at the exhibition was a sketch for ‘The Three Shades’. The shades are the ghosts of dammed souls that stand at the entrance to hell and point to the sign “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. It is always thought-provoking to see the creative processes behind a finished work of art such as preparatory drawings and small-scale models. And, indeed, when discussing his work towards the end of his life, Rodin said “It’s very simple. My drawings are the key to my work”.
Another sculpture by Rodin in the exhibition shows a more formal, restrained style. This marble portrait bust of society beauty Mary Hunter, shows a polished and contained individual. I understand the societal constraints of the times, but I still think this is a chilly and detached piece especially in comparison to the vital, visceral quality of ‘The Kiss’. Mind you this could be partly due to the fact that, according to the exhibition label, the actual carving of the marble was carried out by an assistant working under Rodin’s direction.
Personally, I am not keen on this style of portrait and it feels too similar to a death mask for my taste. I much preferred another portrait head by Rodin, this time in bronze, of the popular Japanese actress, Hanako.
Apparently, Rodin, who met Hanako in 1906, was fascinated by the range of emotions the actress could portray with her face. Unfortunately due to the low light and darkness of the piece my photograph of this compelling bronze portrait does not do it justice.
Supporting the main Rodin pieces were examples of various sculptures that either influenced Rodin or works that were influenced by him or had an obvious Suffolk connection. A portrait bust by Maggi Hambling of her tutor, Bernard Reynolds, falls into the last category. The original bronze was cast in 1963 whilst Hambling was attending Ipswich Art School.
“I studied at Ipswich Art School from 1962 until 1964. For my portrait of Bernard Reynolds, I worked in clay as he toured the sculpture studio, his head always tilted towards the ceiling, in the manner of an inquisitive, exotic bird”.
Cardinal Wolsey (1470 or 1471-1530) sadly ended his days being hounded by King Henry VIII and died in Leicester en route to London following his recall from York to be tried for treason. It hadn’t always been so as Wolsey had spent much of his life and good fortune entwined with the Tudors despite being born the son of a butcher in Ipswich.
Thomas Wolsey – by Jacques le Boucq (1520-73) circa 1550. This drawing is thought to be a copy of a lost portrait dated 1508 when Wolsey was in his late thirties and a royal chaplain.
Thomas Wolsey – unknown artist 1589-95. This oil on panel painting is a later copy of a lost original work painted about 1520 when Wolsey was at the height of his power. He’s shown in his cardinal’s robes.
Thomas Wolsey was clever and after attending Ipswich School he studied theology at Magdalen College, Oxford. Henry VII had made Wolsey Royal Chaplain, but when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, Wolsey’s intelligence, administrative competence and diplomatic skills began to be recognised and rewarded. He rose through the ranks, both ecclesiastical and secular, to become Archbishop of York in 1514, Cardinal in 1515 and Lord Chancellor of England from 1515 to 1529. And, he was passionate about the role of education creating the Cardinal’s College of Mary, Ipswich and Cardinal College, Oxford, although neither of which outlived him in their original form.
Despite all his accomplishments Wolsey ended his days in disgrace and was buried in ignominy in Leicester Abbey without a significant, grand monument to mark his burial. In fact Wolsey had been overseeing arrangements for his eternal resting place including a design for a sarcophagus and accompanying sculptural adornments some six or so years before his death.
By 1524 the sarcophagus had been made and the Florentine Renaissance sculptor, Benedetto da Rovezzano, was commissioned to create four bronze angels to complete the monument.
However, despite these exquisite Renaissance angels being sculpted and cast by 1529 a year before the Cardinal’s death, the full memorial tomb was never assembled and erected in its entirety as . . . . .
unfortunately for the Cardinal he dramatically and cataclysmically fell from the King’s favour following his failure to obtain a divorce from Pope Clement VII permitting Henry to escape his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.
There may not be the grand tomb in Westminster Abbey for Cardinal Wolsey that he had envisaged, but there is an engaging tribute to Wolsey in his home town of Ipswich. It is a commemorative statue by David Annand that I hope Wolsey would have deeply appreciated as it depicts him not only as the Cardinal, but gesticulating, as if in full flow, educating the world (or at least the good folk of Ipswich as they stroll up St Peter’s Street).
The impressive, ornate Duomo di Milano is unmistakable and familiar to anyone vaguely interested in medieval church buildings, but what about inside . . . naturally it’s vast. The interior space can accommodate 40,000 people in the 12,000 square metres. It feels magnificent as you enter the immense, shadowy gloom from the bright Milanese daylight.
It is hard to capture the scale of the space which is dominated by the 52 pillars that make up the five aisles of the church, but a few shots down the nave to the altar and beyond . . .
and then standing in the transept to the right of the main alter looking across to the northern apse, encompassing the Altar of the Madonna and the Tree, . . .
and then turning around to face the altar of Saint John Bono (San Giovanni Bono) on the southern side of the transept, and you begin to get the idea.
Milan Cathedral has taken over 600 years to complete and during those centuries various architectural and art styles have come and gone. Interestingly, although the Altar of San Giovanni Bono looks at first glance as if it was a whole, complete design created at one time by a single sculptor, it is actually a combination of sculptural pieces. The main figure of San Gionvanni Bono in the centre of this classical style altar, was sculpted by the 18th century sculptor Elia Vincenzo Buzzi around 1763. The statue stands beneath the inscription ‘Ego sun pastor bonus’ (I am the Good Shepherd) and it is flanked to its right by The Guardian Angel and to the left by St Michael. I liked the composition of The Guardian Angel grouping and thought it made an interesting photograph. Our guide simply walked past the whole altar affair, ignoring it and began to relate the details of the more famous Marco d’Agrate statue of St Bartholomew nearby.
Now back home, I have spent some time digging around in the literature and at the same time examining my photographs. I’ve discovered that the two statues flanking the central display were created by a different sculptor and not Buzzi. They are the work of Giovanni Bellandi and were carved 140 years earlier than the Buzzi work. If you look closely the Bellandi work is less stiff and formal than the Buzzi statue. In any case I just liked the idea of such a grand altar being a successful composite of more than one artist’s work carved over a century apart.
Another decorative element of the building that significantly adds to the drama of the experience is the beautiful stained glass.
Soaring 20 metres up towards the ceiling the windows are filled with stained glass some from the 15th and 16th centuries with more additions in the 19th century and some new windows commissioned as recently as 1988. Stained glass is more fragile than stone, and requires regular maintenance. The cleaning and repairing work began in the 17th century and has been carried out ever since.
Of course, over the centuries, many hundreds if not several thousands of people have worked to build and adorn the cathedral and most of them remain unnamed. In our individualistic times celebrating named, famous artists, it is refreshing to think of the extensive collaboration of these unnamed people, working together over hundreds of years, to create such a magnificent building as the Duomo.
Sometimes a single photograph simply doesn’t convey the sheer scale and drama of a building. Last month I was staying in Milan and took the opportunity to visit the magnificent Italian Gothic cathedral – the Duomo di Milano. It is the fifth largest cathedral in the world and the third largest in Europe with only St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Seville Cathedral being bigger.
Even when you walk across the Piazza del Duomo through the tourist crowds it doesn’t ‘feel’ huge as unlike many other medieval cathedrals it is broad rather than tall. Then, the closer you get the magnificent marble façade looms and looms above you. The scale is best appreciated when a few humans stand in front of the mighty west doors – mille grazie soldati!
The church is dedicated to St Mary of the Nativity and was begun in 1386 and took over six centuries to finish. It is constructed from grey and pink-veined Candoglian marble that was ferried down a system of waterways from the Lake Maggiore quarries. From a distance it looks like an intricately iced cake, but up close you can truly appreciate the many marble statues and the fine ornate decoration.
Glimpsing ‘The Madonnina’, the highest point. Gilded copper.
There are 3,400 statues, 135 spires including 700 figures and 96 large gargoyles adorning the church. Looking up at the spires you might assume they were simply decorated with architectural, sculpted foliage, but in fact they are spires with multiple niches each holding a statue and finally each pinnacle is topped by another statue.
Interestingly, such a vast and lengthy undertaking as building and embellishing a magnificent cathedral resulted in a collaboration between local Lombardy sculptors and workers from further afield including French and German sculptors.
And inside. . . The interior can accommodate 40,000 people in the 12,000 square metres – I think the guide below was just checking to see where they all were on this very, cold morning.
There might be a few corners of the world where a certain birthday is going unnoticed, but that wouldn’t be Britain. Apparently, it’s a good news story and folk like a good news story. This morning I heard a radio clip of the Queen when she was very young speaking of the time when, incognito, she and Princess Margaret had joined the celebrating crowds on the Mall during VE Day, May 1945. She would have been 19 years old and it reminded me of a notice I’d recently read when visiting the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London.
More than 125,000 men flew in Bomber Command and all were volunteers. Of this number, nearly half lost their lives (55,573). Most who flew were very young, the great majority still in their late teens.
It has taken 70 years for this memorial to be erected and it was unveiled by the Queen on 28th June 2012. The memorial was designed by the architect Liam O’Connor and is made of Portland stone and echoes the nearby 19th-century Ionic Screen gate by Decimus Burton at the entrance to Hyde Park.
Within the central part of the design, raised on a plinth, stands a bronze sculpture of seven statues. These statues represent the aircrew of a World War Two bomber and were created by the sculptor Philip Jackson.
There is a dedication inscription on an internal wall:
This Memorial is dedicated to the 55,573 airmen from the United Kingdom, British Commonwealth and Allied nations who served in RAF Bomber Command and lost their lives over the course of the Second World War.
But also inscribed on one of the other walls is a message of reconciliation:
This Memorial also commemorates those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing of the 1939-1945.
My Great Uncle Rich was a Pilot Officer who flew Lancasters in 57 Squadron. It was incredible that he survived the war.
I remember him as a quiet, gentle man who perhaps never recovered from his 80+ active flights. He did receive the Distinguish Flying Cross, but I never heard that he talked about his war experience. And, there are no stories if he joined the celebrating crowds in the Mall on 8th May 1945.
Recently I’ve been looking at medieval sculptural details and one of the more interesting themes is ‘The Pelican in her Piety’. When food was scarce the female pelican was thought to peck her own breast until it bled in order to feed blood to her young. This Christian imagery of ‘The Pelican in her Piety’ would have been a familiar symbol across medieval Europe representing the self-sacrifice of Christ’s Passion.
Pelican in her piety, sculptural detail from 15th-century misericord, the church of St Peter and St Paul, East Harling, Norfolk.
Pelican in her piety, sculptural detail from a 15th-century tomb, the church of St Peter and St Paul, East Harling, Norfolk.
It is intriguing to examine fifteenth-century English interpretations depicting pelicans despite these birds not being found naturally in the British Isles. The above sculptural representations of this theme can be seen in the Church of St Peter and St Paul in the South Norfolk village of East Harling. Searching out local, regional work is one of the pleasures of investigating the creative skills and imagination of the medieval artisan.
Pelicans. 13th-century Bestiary MS Harley 4751, f46. British Library.
Cranes. 13th-century Bestiary MS Harley 4751, f46. British Library.
It is also thought-provoking to consider the dispersal and then acceptance of new ideas and symbols such as the pious pelican. Perhaps one route of transmission occurred through illuminated books. All kinds of real and imaginary combinations decorate their pages. This intriguing image of an ape riding a crane is from a fourteenth-century Flemish Psalter.
Of course, monks working away illuminating manuscripts in a medieval scriptorium in Europe may have seen a crane or a stork or even a pelican in the wild, but ever since the Ancient Egyptians there is evidence of humans capturing and keeping birds in cages. Nowadays, more often than not it is the rare and endangered birds that are kept not in cages, but in wildlife sanctuaries in attempts to save their species.
These birds – storks, cranes (members of the Great Crane Project) and ibises form part of a collection at the Pensthorpe Natural Park in North Norfolk. Sadly though there are no pelicans not even the Dalmatian Pelican whose current status is listed as vulnerable.
White stork. Ciconia-ciconia.
Eurasian crane part of the Great Crane Project.
Northern bald ibis.
Reading round the bird forums on the Internet I saw somebody describe these stunning birds as ‘deeply ugly’, surely not! I agree they are, along with herons, not tiny, sweet and cuddly, but to me they appear, with a little visual imagination, to have flown in from the Cretaceous Period. They bring with them a hint of early Earth drama with their pterodactyl-like appearance.
Rather chilly for this stork used to the warmer parts of Africa.
As Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction novels ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ receive the much lauded BBC period drama conversion to a television series, a new portrayal of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) will appear on our screens. This time the Duke is played by Bernard Hill and as in Mantel’s books he is loud, angry and ferociously ambitious. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Duke of Norfolk was one of England’s most powerful nobles whose first wife, Anne, was sister to Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York.
Heraldic shields held by lions at each corner of the chest-tomb of the third Duke of Norfolk.
Tudor chimney at Framlingham Castle. One of the residences of Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk.
Despite the Duke of Norfolk being one of the most prominent courtiers, he remained a Catholic throughout the violence and upheavals of the Reformation during the latter part of Henry’s reign and the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI. However, towards the end of the Henry’s reign both Norfolk and his son, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, ended up in the Tower of London. The pair had been found guilty of treason and in January 1547 Henry Howard was beheaded at the Tower. His father’s execution date was set for 29 January 1547 but King Henry died the day before. Following the death of Henry VIII the old Duke of Norfolk was not executed, but instead spent the next six years in the Tower. As a Catholic he was finally released on the accession to the throne of Queen Mary. He died a year later aged 80 years old at his Kenninghall residence, but before his death he had commissioned England’s finest early Renaissance tomb.
The chest-tomb is exquisitely carved from alabaster depicting the twelve Apostles plus St Paul and Aaron carved round the four sides with effigies of the Duke and his first wife, Anne, lying along the top.
The representation of the twelve Apostles was a traditional Catholic theme that was found in churches across the country often painted on the rood screen. However, the interpretation of this popular medieval choice is created here in an early Renaissance European idiom, possibly carved sometime in the mid-sixteenth century. The sculptor is unnamed, but the work is regarded as Italianate in style, but also displaying French influences.
The individual saints stand in shell-headed narrow niches, four along the north and south sides, and three at the east and west ends of the tomb. The design of the tomb suggests it was intended to be viewed from all four sides, but this is no longer possible.
The tomb is just to the south of the high altar under the East Window.
Detail of the tomb which can be seen close to the east wall.
Instead, the tomb-chest is positioned up close to the east wall of the chancel. The Duke of Norfolk had been overseeing the partial rebuilding of St Michael’s Church when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The rebuilt and enlarged chancel was to provide space to accommodate the tombs that were removed from Thetford Priory with the dissolution of the monasteries. Of course, this tomb may originally have been destined for Thetford Priory where traditionally the Norfolks had been interred.
According to a visiting Venetian ambassador, the Duke of Norfolk was described as ‘small and spare in person’ and here he is displayed as stern, thin and angular. The effigy wears full armour, it has a long, pointed beard and around the collar the inscription reads ‘Gracia Dei sum quod sum’ – ‘By the Grace of God I am what I am’.
Yesterday, I saw blue flashing lights reflected in my computer screen and looking out across the street I saw the ambulance arriving. An elderly neighbour had been taken seriously ill and was rushed off to hospital. Shocking and a nightmare time for friends and family, but for the wider world just another day. It made me think of our daily lives with the mostly bland routines that occupy us and the Henry David Thoreau comment:
It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?
So, what are we busy about? At best, in a post-industrial, post-modern, virtually post everything time, perhaps, it is thinking, creating and caring. Often when I listen to music, watch a film, or visit an exhibition I’m struck by an individual’s drive to make and present their work to others. At the same time it is interesting to observe audiences keen to engage and consider this output.
A couple of weekends ago I went to the ‘Germany – memories of a nation’ exhibition at the British Museum. It was curated by Neil MacGregor and considered 600 years of German history through a selection of objects. It was advertised as
Explore art by Dürer, Holbein and Richter, and marvel at technological achievements through the ages which gave the world Gutenberg’s printing press, Meissen porcelain, the Bauhaus movement and modern design icon the VW Beetle.
The main reason I went was to see ‘The Four Evangelists’ by Tilman Riemenschneider. Despite timed entry tickets the exhibition was rather crowded. I’m not sure whether a close, intimate feel to the exhibition was intended, but it left me with an overall impression of the space being tight and cluttered. Nevertheless, it was worth seeing the Riemenschneider limewood sculptures up close.
Riemenschneider (1460-1531) worked from Würzburg, Germany, and was a leading guildsman sculpting in wood. Traditionally, religious works such as altarpieces carved in wood were covered in gesso, painted and gilded. During the second half of the fifteenth century in Southern Germany sculptors working in limewood were commissioned to make unadorned, plain pieces. German Protestantism had brought about a change in attitude towards imagery. Instead of an image being an ostentatious, embellished focal point of devotion, works with an emphasis on sober instruction were favoured. A preference for the unpainted together with the qualities of limewood (a light, close-grained wood) facilitated the advancement of delicate and fine carving. Riemenschneider honed his technique and developed a style that featured sensitive and expressive faces.
Seeing ‘The Four Evangelists’ (normally in Berlin) in the exhibition was a treat. The sorrowful face of St Mark complete with small bags under his eyes and the intensely, thoughtful downcast face of St Luke brought a humanity to these religious figures.
Another Riemenschneider work that can be found in the BM’s main collection is ‘The Adoration of the Three Wise Men’.
Riemenschneider – Adoration of the Three Kings
Detail showing hollowed cheeks and old eyes.
Detail showing veins carved on the back of the hands.
The panel is part of an alterpiece thought to have been commissioned between 1505-10 for the Marienkappelle in Rothenburg, Germany. Again, the work is varnished limewood and the facial details are exquisite.
We cannot all be busy sculpting outstanding masterpieces, but I believe many of us would find the world far less tolerable without our own small acts of creating.
Another New Year. A moment to pause and think about endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings. Due to a strange set of circumstances and horizontal rain in a howling gale I found myself in Southwark Cathedral on London’s South Bank on New Year’s Day. It was early for London, 10.00 am, and there was a young chap fast asleep across some chairs in the nave. Southwark Cathedral is not large. It isn’t tall and stark like the Norman built, Romanesque Norwich Cathedral. Neither does it have an intricate and ornate west face like that of the Gothic Exeter Cathedral.
Instead it is a much repaired and rebuilt church with only traces of its Norman heritage visible. One remaining Norman architectural detail is a doorway in the north aisle of the nave. In 1212 the church was devastated by fire. It’s rebuilding began around 1215 and was one of the first expressions of Gothic architecture in London. Subsequent fires and neglect have led to further renovations, but the medieval structure of the choir and the retro-choir still remain, making Southwark Cathedral the oldest Gothic building in the city predating the commencement of the present Westminster Abbey by 30 years. Changing, renovating, rebuilding. St Mary Overy renamed St Saviour’s and then renamed again to become Southwark Cathedral in 1905. Time does not stand still.
Interesting as the building was, the most striking markers for the passing of time were three of the tomb sculptures. Firstly, an effigy of an unknown knight. This wooden effigy is one of the earliest wooden monumental effigies in England dating from about 1280. The knight is thought to be a member of the de Warenne family who had been benefactors to the Priory church of St Mary Overy. He looks knightly, muscular and strong and dressed with chain mail coif and sword. He appears ready to continue the good fight.
The second sculpture is a stone effigy of an Elizabethan worthy, Thomas Cure Esq. Thomas Cure was the Queen’s saddler. He had also been saddler to Elizabeth’s siblings Edward VI and Queen Mary. As the Queen’s saddler Cure was a man of means. He owned a ship and its cargo in 1573 and acquired the manor of Widefleete in Southwark in 1580. He was also a Parliament man coming in for Southwark and East Grinstead. He died in 1588 and his stone effigy is in the style of a cadaver, a very direct memento mori.
A decomposing body as opposed to a skeleton atop a tomb is known as a transi. Although this example is more of a withered body than a rotting one it’s purpose is to remind us that we, too, will one day look like this. This tradition in funerary monument design lasted over three centuries, but by the time we reach the 17th century funerary fashion has moved on and has become more gentle and reflective. This brings me to the third example of a tomb sculpture that of ‘Lionel Lockyer, Physitian’.
He looks calm, thoughtful and perhaps a bit superior. Actually I think he looks rather self-satisfied, but then I now know he was a famous quack doctor. He made his fortune from selling ‘Pilula Radiis Solis Extracta’, pills containing captured sunbeams called Lockyer’s Pills . Obviously from the look of his grand tomb and the large sculpture capturing his likeness he did a roaring trade ripping off the desperate and gullible. So, out with the old and in with the new? It seems more like history repeating itself as we see the end of yet another year littered with examples of financial mis-selling scandals here in the UK.