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Revisiting an old friend – The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals

I was in the Wallace Collection a couple of weeks ago having a look at the delightful Manolo Blahnik exhibition.  The shoes are dotted throughout the exhibition which means there is a kind of treasure hunt to find them.  One of them was placed in front of this famous portrait.  Now, The Laughing Cavalier was ubiquitous when I was growing up.  It turned up on biscuit tins and calendars all the time.  Because it was so familiar, I was a bit sniffy when I saw it up on the wall, but I thought I might as well have a look as it was there in front of me.  I am glad I did, because it really does reward close attention.  Frans Hals could really paint fabric.

A bit of information about the painting first.  Of course, the sitter isn’t laughing and he isn’t a cavalier.  Apparently, the motifs on his sleeve suggest that this might have been a betrothal portrait, and he was probably a merchant of some description.  The Wallace Collection website states:

In this exuberant half-length portrait, a young man poses, arm rakishly akimbo, against a plain grey background. The painting is inscribed with the date (1624) and the sitter’s age (26). The work is unique in Hals’s male portraiture for the rich colour that is largely imparted by the sitter’s flamboyant costume: a doublet embroidered with fanciful motifs in white, gold and red thread, with a gilded rapier pommel visible at the crook of his elbow…

By the early nineteenth century, Hals’s reputation had fallen into relative obscurity. Despite this, the portrait became the object of a furious bidding battle between the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Baron James de Rothschild at a Paris auction in 1865. It was acquired by Lord Hertford for the princely sum of 51.000 francs (about £2,040), an event which proved to be a turning point in the artist’s critical reputation. At the Royal Academy exhibition of 1888, the painting was exhibited with the title ‘The Laughing Cavalier.’

What caught my eye was the fantastic painting of the sleeve, particularly the embroidery, and also the lace.

 

I love those buttons and the lace on his cuffs.  Also, look at the way the ruff is painted:

Look at the gorgeous way he has painted the black silk:

And finally, the lovely frill of lace in the lower left-hand corner of the frame:

I think this is just too gorgeous to walk past.  Here’s the Manolo Blahnik that went with it:

Now, I can see why they paired the picture with Blahnik’s interpretation of the riding boot, but I think it misses the point.  Although materials and craft employed here are exquisite, this portrait is not about restraint.  It is flamboyant and rejoicing in excess.  I think it’s been matched with the title.

Just glorious.  Next time I go to the Wallace, I will go and have another look.

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Henry Moore Helmet Head Exhibition at the Wallace Collection

Yesterday I treated myself to a trip to the Wallace Collection to see the Henry Moore Helmet Head exhibition.  Moore apparently went to the Wallace Collection to study and draw the helmets in the Collection’s armour exhibitions.  He worked on these ideas throughout his life.

I only like three elements of Moore’s work; his drawings of sheep, his king and queen sculptures and his helmet work.  So, I really did want to get to see this show.  It’s been on for a good three months and I finally got to see it yesterday, the day before it closes.  That is typical of me.

The exhibition was wonderful, and the catalogue is great.  The Wallace is a lovely place to visit, and have lunch.  And there is a tiny branch of my current favourite shoe shop just around the corner.  That’s all I need, really.

I don’t have photos of the heads themselves, and they are easy enough to find on-line, like this one:

 

I went to draw the heads.  I think you understand what you are looking at a lot more if you draw it as well as just look at it,  So what follows is some pages from my sketchbook.

But, you can’t really go to a good show without learning something.  So, what I learned was that for Moore:

  • the helmet was a protector and  an object of war and brutality.  It has elements of the victim and the perpetrator.
  • the helmet is akin to the skull – it protects the brain – although within that it seems that the brain, for Moore, was the protector of the mind.  The mind is the thing that most needs protection.  It is the most important thing – the human consciousness.
  • the helmet is vital to the aggressive warrior but also protects the terrified soldier.  There is the warlike and the anxious.
  • there is tremendous human tenderness, somehow, in his portrayal of the human ear.  I wondered how much you heard in those helmets, and whether they amplified the sounds of war.  It turns out, that they had an arming helmet underneath which deadened the sound, which was good, but also meant that you couldn’t hear orders.  Infantrymen had much more open helmets which meant that they could hear order.  The heavy cavalry wore these enclosed helmets and couldn’t so once they charged, that was it – they were out of control.
  • I didn’t know about his lithographs which were stunning and a real extra special gift at the end of the exhibition.  He talked about them as soldiers looking out over the battlements getting ready for battle.  Anxiety leeches out of them as you look at them.  They reminded me as well as Goya’s unbearable painting of the little dog in his horrors of war series.

 

I also learned that Moore can make a much more graceful line in bronze than I can make on paper.

I think this anxiety about a world in peril, and people needing protection is very relevant again.  Moore had been in the First World War and seen the horrors.  I have lived a life of it on television.  I felt this exhibition gave a real feel of what it is like to suffer from this inescapable anxiety and to live with the ghost of war throughout our lives.

On a lighter note.  I loved doing these drawings.  I was going to give them some watercolour washes on the train home, but it was packed so there wasn’t room.  I finished them off this morning instead with coloured pencils and some kids’ crayons.  I absolutely loved doing it.  I loved layering the colours.  The sketchbook is a small six inch square one which gives you some idea of the scale of the drawings.  The collage elements were good for finding the proportions of the heads, which were a lot squarer than I thought.  Anyway, here are the pages.

 

This was one of the first exhibits of a helmet which had inspired him.  This one is from antiquity, whereas most of them are medieval or renaissance.

 

One of the things I learned from drawing was that the insides were cast separately from the helmet form, which is probably obvious, but took me a while.

 

I don’t normally like the stringed elements in Moore and his contemporaries’ work,  but I felt it worked here with some sort of reference to arrows as well as helmets.  Also seen in this collage of mine:

 

I loved the ambiguity of the above which looked masculine until you saw it sideways on when it had a goddess’ hairdo.  Also, whoever invented the Cybermen onmust have seen these heads.

These terrified me more than the Daleks, which must tell me something.

 

I love the shadow helmet which has emerged as I worked on the previous page and transferred some of the pigment from the purple head.

The piece on the left was affecting because it had the war-like lobster plate armour on the right as we look at it but an embracing, enveloping arm on the other.  Again playing with the duality of war: aggression and protection.  The drawing on the right is my version of Moore’s drawing.  Really perfect for layered stitching.

Good example of how cutting a square or a rectangle of paper helps to get the proportions right in these collages.

My attempts to work out how he did it!

 

 

I may well do some more work on these lithographs as they are almost preparatory sketches for stitched panels.

 

In short, this was a great show, beautifully mounted, and thought-provoking.  It had a brooding quality, which I think is instructive and highly current.

 

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Art crossover

A couple of weeks ago the medieval historian and I went to the Djangoly Gallery at the Lakeside Gallery at the University of Nottingham and saw an exhibition of work called ‘Space Light Colour’ by Rana Begum.  She makes large work playing with the three elements in the title: Space, light and colour.  The work changes totally as you move through space.  In the large pieces there were strips of square material – I think, wood, painted different colours on different sides so they look different as you see them from the left, right or straight on.

We were there on the most beautiful bright sunny morning and this made the colours glow in the white gallery.  But my eye was really caught by two smaller pieces which really reminded me of boro, the Japanese mending technique.  They start out looking like op art but change as you move in closer:

 

 

 

 

The superimposition of the grids leads to little cross marks just like the random boro stitches making cross stitches:

 

 

Really good show by an artist/architect who was new to me.