Monday 10 March 2014

The National Portrait Gallery and beyond: my weekend in London

The Great War in Portraits  at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June

This small show is a poignant tribute to World War I. There are some well-known pictures and some famous artists, but the relative unknowns stood out for me. The portraits of doomed soldiers have a quiet dignity; they are followed by harrowing pictures of disfiguring war wounds and film footage from the Western Front. They have done well with a challenging brief, and I think they were right to mount this display on a small scale. 

The weakness is a jarring curatorial voice that makes bombastic claims that are quite unnecessary; the pictures tell their own story. But the wall text offers questionable generalities like this: "The appalling consequences of [new] weapons suggested that human nature itself had changed, compassion snuffed out by unbridled cruelty and hatred. Such altered perceptions raised profound questions for artists". Was it really new weapons? Was it really worse than, say, the thirty years' war? And even if it was, why should other horrific conflicts not have caused such questioning? Were changed perceptions really caused by war? Virginia Woolf thought human nature changed in December 1910; why do the curators think it was later? These questions are better left for visitors to ponder. Less would have been more in this otherwise fine show.
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

I was more disappointed by this display of Holbein copies - really more of a re-hang than an exhibition. There's a dreaded 'interactive display', but limited wall text, no accompanying publication and poor visibility. It's a shame, because some of the copies are quite good and I'd love to learn more about them. 

I then made some fortuitous acquisitions at Any Amount of Books including a wonderful old Dutch architectural treatise with fantastic plates. I want to compare it to other editions, as it seems to be a rather idiosyncratic selection of illustrations, some sharp early impressions and others very worn. I also got a copy of Oliver Millar's Zoffany and his Tribuna inscribed by the author to Roy Strong, the catalogue of the NPG's 1974 Samuel Cooper exhibition and the introductory volume to I.Q. van Retgeren Altena's catalogue of Jacques de Gheyn.

On Sunday I went to view the English furniture sale at Bonham's. It includes an architect's collection from a rectory in Kent, which is very much my style - simple and elegant English walnut. This bureau is exceptional, and has a great provenance. The estimate of £25k - £35k reflects just how unfashionable these things are today. I suspect this exceptional batchelor's chest will do well too.

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