Wednesday, February 21, 2007

in a silent way

By chance, I passed by an exhibition of Victoriana in the corridor (we'd had to configure a laptop and projector). It was late on Friday afternoon, so I stopped and idled, and anyway I was waiting around for someone else who had a 3G issue.

Small oil of a bench, by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), titled Interior of a House at Lindos; a study for Cleobolus instructing his daughter Cleoboline. I had to jot this title down, it seemed irresistibly comical. (Partly because it brought to mind Deacon's Boyhood of Cyrus, fictional painting in Powell.)

But really this was just yokel hilarity. Lindos is on the island of Rhodes, and Cleobolus was its ruler (6th century BCE, also one of the "Seven Sages of Antiquity"). The peculiar thing is that Lord Leighton supposed it worth his while to use a real Lindos interior as the model for his painting. Was this a genuine effort at authenticity - or at least, one particular conception of authenticity - , or was it all to do with creating a story for the PR people: the value of the painting would be naturally enhanced if it had a story attached to it: Did you know, the painter-adventurer had actually travelled to Lindos to research his subject!

This is how the completed painting turned out:

[image courtesy of Vost's: Fine art valuers, advisers and brokers]

There's not much memory of the hasty little daub that was actually painted at Lindos, except for some of the colour values - certainly none of its rough charm, though in compensation the girl Cleoboline's expressive feet and arms are "a picture", as they say.

The most valuable painting was one of Atkinson Grimshaw's moonlit scenes - you can bid for it next Wednesday if you like. I'd enjoyed Grimshaw's paintings on many a book-cover - The Woman in White, Edwin Drood, The Secret Agent, that kind of thing. I was surprised how small it was. The moonlight was as thrilling as ever, and I don't suppose Grimshaw used an aerosol can, but his layering system reminded me of those teams of quick-shot artists with spray-cans and cutouts who churn out spectacular high-VOC scenes of mountains, waterfalls and lunar craters - you can watch them any hot night along the promenade at Palma Nova. I wanted to say something pretentious to my companion about Grimshaw's winter trees being elms such as you'd never see nowadays, but I didn't really know what I was talking about - how rare the chance to know elm silhouettes... - perhaps the one on the left is only a scraggy oak.

There was also three top-quality drawings by Waterhouse and a funny, affectionate cartoon by Rossetti of Siddal.

But maybe what I liked best was a water-colour by Anna Alma-Tadema called The Idler's Harvest. That stern morality is belied by the picture, which does indeed portray a hay-meadow with tall thistles running to fluff, but what a meadow! Sun-soaked and with hardly a breath of wind, high on the shoulder of a big hill, it seems like a most idyllic place to have your easel carried by a servant. "Blessed are the Idle," Anna might have blasphemed. But perhaps that wasn't in her nature. Like her father she was amazingly skilful at painting tiny detail - it's a tiny painting, but the musk thistles tremble with botanical precision among strawy August grasses and, hazily beyond them, a chasmic view into the greener valley below.

There were other things to see, a plate designed by Pugin and made by Minton, an 18" carving of a mail-clad knight bearing a banner with a strange device - I suppose, a monumental knick-knack for the study - , but I went to chase up my user. Round the back of the building we were packing up the servers. It was the value of the pieces that kept us talking, even though you'd pay just as much for a Fiber Connect SAN or a Netfinity server farm. But this felt different, somehow. Christies' security were parked up discreetly in the wood, listening to the radio. We joked about stashing a couple of the lesser items inside the Pickfords van. No-one would ever think of that, and we'd be away up the M42 by the time anyone noticed.


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