Genius and Ambition – A Show Worth the Road Trip to Bendigo

Which would you choose...detail - The Council of the Royal Academy Selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Eighteenth century English gurus of taste and style considered the fine arts of painting and sculpture, addressed the so-called pleasures of the imagination.

On Saturday March 1st some 200 guests previewing the exhibition Genius and Ambition: Royal Academy of Arts London 1768 – 1918 at the Bendigo Art Gallery endorsed this idea. The show, officially opened by Tony Ellwood Director of the NGV was off to a good start.

Surprise was the order of the day it seems not only for the guests, but also for Charles Saumurez Smith current Director of the Royal Academy of Arts who travelled from London for the event. “It’s remarkable to see the quality,” said Charles – further explaining that it was the first time he was viewing some of the works on show, because they were usually in storage at London.

He was looking relaxed and gave a wonderful opening address, explaining some were ‘Diploma works’, meaning the artists themselves had chosen them as being representative of their own vision, presenting them to the Academy when applying for admission as Academicians.

From when it was founded by King George III in 1768 until the end of World War 1 when the world was irrevocably changed, obtaining admission to the Royal Academy of Arts equated to high status for artists.

Self Portrait with Gladioli, 1922, George Lambert, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

One of the wonderful works in the show by Charles West Cope RA (1811-1890) reveals that selection process taking place in 1875, but more on that later. The show also includes thirty significant works by ambitious Australian artists, who had sought the singular honour of exhibiting at the Royal Academy.

They included Will Ashton, Arthur Streeton, Rupert Bunny, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, George Lambert and E. Phillips Fox all of whom had travelled to London so they might study at the Royal Academy.

Charles Saumurez Smith commented this was…” a great initiative by the Bendigo Art Gallery ”, singling out Karen Quinlan its current director for great praise.

This is a striking self portrait of George Lambert (1873-1930), who recorded himself quite arrogantly posing in his velvet dressing gown, not as a lily, but as a whole bunch of gladioli.

It was an outrageous statement on the Aesthetic Movement – England’s beautiful Cult of its Own’. At the time it was also a courageous image, one that still astounds today.

Lambert was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1922 – the only Australian painter ever to be so honoured.

Here he is in his posing like one of society’s darlings, illustrating the influence of British art on Australian art with its brilliant technique and depth of intellectual sophistication.

It’s an irreverent comment, proving just how good the British are at laughing at themselves. No wonder we were always considered ‘larrikans’.

Karen Quinlan has brought not only a unique and special show to Bendigo for ‘Bendigonians who include Tony Ellwood to view, but also one Australians can take advantage of if take a road trip to Bendigo, which sited right in the middle of the picturesque Victorian countryside.

They will not be disappointed if they do.

It is a truly great Victorian city with many of its building registered with the National Trust and Victorian Heritage Register still intact. They were all the product of the gold boom and many retain their English place names.

Visiting Valentine’s Antiques Gallery  and talking with Peter Valentine, revealed it is on the cusp of a new boom in population growth and prosperity. That is not surprising when you visit Bendigo. It’s a most attractive place with many wonderful cafés and restaurants.

J’adore ‘The Basement on View’, sited downstairs from the gallery entrance. It’s a café full of charm, happy friendly people and yummy cakes well worthy of winning a British bake off.

As far as building’s go the façade of the gallery alone, with its giant soaring columned portico, is well worth a road, train or plane trip to see, let alone the heritage shops lining View Street the main boulevard and other major thoroughfares.

Then there is an important symbol of the wealth of Bendigo, the exuberant Alexandra fountain designed by a local architect William Vahland and produced by local craftsmen. It is sited on the Charing Cross road junction, constructed in 1881 and unveiled during an elaborate ceremony with Prince Albert and Prince George (later King George V) in attendance.

With all that history abounding this is a great place for a show about Genius and Ambition to be.

It was Quinlan’s initiative and passion to learn more about the Academy’s influence on Australian art and expatriate artists that made this show happen.

Back in 2009 she asked the question of RA curator MaryAnne Stevens and was surprised when Ms Stevens, intrigued by the possibility of exhibiting at Bendigo, agreed to go on an administrative journey to find out if it was possible.

Once approved the journey for Ms Quinlan began in her creatively planning and presenting such a show in Australia. It was a huge task, but one she has clearly enjoyed.

So what of the art on show? Best to single out my top five favourites and then urge you to go and find out what yours may be.  I can’t claim to have any qualifications to do so, except to say that my choices are all about liking what I see and wanting to know more.

Not in any particular order, let’s start with Charles West Cope’s The Council of the Royal Academy Selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875. This is all about working out who the executive will let into their very select coterie.

It is a huge work realized as oil on canvas in 1876 (145.2 x 220.1 cm) and dominates the room. Some of the members are seated on chairs with sabre legs and many are identifiable.

The President, Sir Francis Grant, who is sitting in a chair with arms that is elevated indicating his importance, is holding an ivory gavel so that he can let the foreman of porters, who are lugging all the works around, know whether the work is accepted, doubtful or rejected.

He stands ready with a chalk to mark the back of the picture ‘A’, ‘D’ or ‘X’ accordingly. The Secretary, F. A. Eaton, can be seen recording their decisions in his ledger in the background.

I just loved the expressions on all the faces.

They are animated, and the stance of the porter on the far right who is leaning on one of the works in its great gilt frame is balanced by one of the judges sitting forward on his chair on the left, helping to convey the tension and energy in the room as they eagerly await decisions.

Souvenir of Velázquez by John Everett Millais, Royal Academy of Arts, London

The setting was the all-new galleries designed by Sidney Smirke RA for the Academy when it first moved into Burlington House, which had been completed in 1869.

Cope includes a self-portrait, sketching his colleagues, in the background of the group.

Prominent in the foreground is John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-1896), in spite of the fact that he did not serve on Council until after the event. Millais was one of the brightest stars of the British art world at the time.’

This brings me to my second choice, A Souvenir of Velázquez painted by Millais in 1868, inspired by portrait of the Infanta Maria Margarita by the great Spanish master Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)

Millais’ portrait of a child is a comment on the transient nature of life, of beauty and truth, which children speak. By looking at his Diploma work we begin to understand that perhaps the artist wanted to be seen as a master himself, which satisfyingly for him he did become.

I responded well to the only ceiling painting ever executed by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723-1792) entitled Theory (1779-80). It took me by surprise and so appropriate for a man whose ideal painter was a master of theory, as well as of practice.

All painters, Reynolds believed, must be able to ‘stand in need of more knowledge than is to be picked up off his pallette’.

He wanted to extend the view of the observer to bring about a refinement of taste and infused all of his own works of art, particularly his portraiture, with an unprecedented sophistication, learnedness and dignity.

Reynolds defined the hierarchy of artists and pointed out what aesthetic values they needed to embrace, laying down the path he thought painters should follow if they were to become artistic inheritors of the Renaissance.

Vanity was a subject for art during the Italian Renaissance and my third choice was the lovely painting of Vanity herself, decked out in pearls and sensational fabrics representing pleasure and abundance.

Frank Cadogan Cowper RA (1877-1958) was influenced by the visionary vanity of half a dozen boys, the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood. Founded in 1848 they were all desperate romantics, wanting to awaken the social consciousness for contemporary issues.

Their movement was fired by a vision of sublime innocence and the transparency of colour in art. The Royal Academy’s 1st President Sir Joshua Reynolds became their chief ‘hate-figure’ because he had set high standards in art and established ‘rules’ for its progression, which they wanted to break.

Their paintings have, in the twenty first century become an emblem of a type of jolly buccaneering, with their crystalline colours and eyeball challenges.

Talking about eyeball challenges.

The Mermaid by John Williams Waterhouse courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London

My fourth choice is A Mermaid by John Williams Waterhouse RA (1849-1917) painted in 1900.

There sits the beautiful siren of the sea, who lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks, her tail curling around her while she combs her long lovely red tresses.

She is not only an alluring figure but in reality just glows out of her canvas.

John Williams Waterhouse’s work is also bound down in romantic notions. He provided a continuum for the pre-Raphealite love of religious and narrative subjects, although using his own painting technique and style.

Technical virtuosity was something the Royal Academy was always looking for when choosing works by its artists.

Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769-1830), self portrait c1825, Royal Academy of Arts London

The final of my five is a self-portrait of Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA (1769 – 1830), which was painted around 1825.

Don’t think I will win many admirers in England for choosing it.

It is unfinished, which for me was in itself a creative comment on Lawrence and his life achievements, stating that perhaps he had remained open to new possibilities and had thoughts of his own.

Lawrence was not a popular figure in his day, disparaged by ‘fashionable society’, notably by William Thackeray (1811-1863) in his novel Vanity Fair published 1847-8.

He included an unkind and unfavourable comparison of his work to Royal Academy president Sir Joshua Reynolds and Anthony Van Dyke, the leading court painter in England in the 17th century.

At the time people it seems liked to believe everything they read, rather than making their own assessment and this meant that Lawrence in reality ‘fell from grace’ for a very long time.

Many of his works left English collections and ‘found homes in American collections and even further afield’.

According to Michael Levey, late director of the National Gallery in England, who made a lifelong study of Lawrence’s works he had been a ‘phenomenal talent.

In his early days he enjoyed great success- not only in Britain, but from Vienna to Rome as well.

He was considered ‘highly intelligent, unusually literate and outstandingly handsome, with manners polished to a high degree. He was almost as admired and successful personally as were his portraits’.

The Boy at The Basin by William Dobell, courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

Today I would like to believe that in Australia, and hopefully in England, we are a little more enlightened and can just admire the work for the skill of the artist and his ability to convey something to the viewer.

Finishing on an Australian note, my favourite of all the works by Australian artists who are represented was a work by William Dobell (1899-1970).

He was an artist whose work was much in the headlines when I was growing up in the 50’s. It depicts The Boy at the Basin, 1932.

On loan from the Art Gallery of NSW this delightful work displays Dobell’s distinctive style and captures the personality of the subject involved.

He is not a lad of leisure, but a worker. The painting has not only a satirical edge, but also a real sweetness about it as well.

There he is at the basin, the kettle on an element nearby boiling up the water for his morning wash and cup of tea, drying himself off.

Dobell came from a working class family in Newcastle, just north of Sydney. In 1932 when this was painted it was right at the end of the Great Depression in Australia, which Dobell himself like the majority of Australians, had a terrible time surviving.

The Dawn of a New Age 1924 by Bertram Mackennal, bronze courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

It is an event, which I heard a great deal about from my mother and Nana as a child and in that light I would have to say I really plugged into this work’s real feeling of optimism.

This was the plus for me of viewing all the works on show ‘live’ so to speak, rather than just looking at pictures in catalogues and books.

There was an animated luminosity about all my favourites that was very compelling, and they were mainly about people full of character and life.

Landscapes don’t do it for me in the same way, even though I can admire the subject, the skill and technique required to produce them.

Unless they draw me into the scene (some do) I do not engage with them nearly as much as I do with works portraying people at work, leisure or play.

Genius and Ambition, as well as presenting a series of wonderful paintings from abroad, also draws attention to works not so well known in the Australia oeuvre.

There were also a few fine sculptures and a handsome bust of the Academy’s first patron King George III 1773 by Genoan sculptor Agostino Carlini RA (1718-1790). He was a foundation member of the Royal Academy, having lived in London since around 1760 the year George succeeded to the throne.

Then there was the well known romantic, heroic portrait of King George IV when he was Prince of Wales c1798, painted by Sir William Beechey RA in his uniform as Colonel of the Dragoon Guards. The detailing of the silver frogging on his uniform was so precisely executed.

I did love the two small bronze sculptures, one by Sir Bertram MacKennal (RA (1863-1941) entitled The Dawn of the New Age, 1924. The other was Orpheus, 1904, by Harold Parker (1873-1962) whose work I was unfamiliar with, but it was also very fine.

The Ferry c1910-1911 oil on canvas courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

Having always admired The Ferry a painting by Emmanuel Phillips Fox (1865-1915) considered his masterpiece, which has been on display at the Art Gallery of NSW since 1949 when I was a child, I must say I didn’t know his work ‘The Terrace’ c1912.

My Nana took me to see The Ferry in Sydney when I was about 9 years of age. It had a lasting impression and it’s one of those pictures I still try to see each time I visit there today.

There is always something more to admire.

You can imagine how pleased I was to see my favourite lady, the one wearing the royal blue striped dress featured in this other work.

When I was little I thought she was the loveliest person I had ever seen with her jaunty bonnet and warming scarf, heading off for a trip on Sydney harbour on a sunny day.

The Terrace, Emmanuel Phillips Fox (1865-1915) c1912, University of Melbourne Art Collection, gift of Mrs. El. Phillips Fox 1939

Now she was here chilling out on a very stylish terrace with friends!

In 1912 Fox was elected a member of the International Society of Painters and in the same year spent time painting in Spain and Algeria, arriving home in 1913.

Once back he had set about enthusiastically recording those who enjoyed ‘leisure’, finding ‘something of the infinite beauty discoverable in everyday things’.

The Terrace we could say basically summed up the Bendigo Art Gallery show. It paid homage to the artists who admired the modern movements in art, while retaining the tonal values of academic realism, which the Royal Academy of Arts had been so renowned for safeguarding for over a century.

The show is well worth taking a road trip to Bendigo, oh and please don’t forget to enjoy breakfast or lunch in the Basement on View, a unique and elegant fusion of past and present. So appropriate.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Genius and Ambition: The Royal Academy of Arts, London 1768-1918

March 2 – June 9, 20114

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