‘A great sense of mystery and tension’: Sophie Macfadyen responds to Gainsborough’s ‘A Rocky Road with Trees’

On 28th January 2019, 11 A-Level students and members of the History of Art Club from St George’s, Ascot visited the Watercolours exhibition in the Verey Gallery. Prior to their visit the A-Level students researched selected works on display and prepared presentations which each student delivered in front of the artwork to the Club. 
Below is Sophie Macfadyen’s presentation on A Rocky Road with Trees by Thomas Gainsborough.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). A Rocky Road with Trees, 1785, black and white chalk, with stump.

This sketch is of a lone figure walking along a winding path into the distance. The path leads the figure as well as the viewer’s eyes through some woodland. There are buildings in the distance to the right which appear to be a manor house or farm and tall mountains beyond them. It is evening and the lighting gives the illusion that the moon is shining bright, illuminating the scene and dappling light through the trees and onto the ground.

The use of black and white alone in the picture gives a sense of eeriness as light and shadow are emphasised. It is the darkness that surrounds the figure that puts us on edge because it creates mystery as to what could be lurking around the corner. The open space which we see through also makes the figure seem vulnerable as they are alone in a wide, open space meaning that anyone and anything can jump out at them as well as be watching them, as the viewer is. The fact that the figure is so far away makes us feel helpless and as if we are about to watch something bad happen.

The tree on the right also adds to the eeriness of the scene as it twists and contorts as if to reach out to the figure. The idea of the trees having life and being able to watch and reach out to the lone figure gives the effect of the trees closing in on the person and trapping them. As well as this, the ground itself is also wrinkled and writhed making it seem like old skin, adding to the life-likeness of the landscape.

The use of linear strokes in the same direction creates a sense of unity. By pressing both hard and gently with the chalk, Gainsborough creates chiaroscuro, adding to the unsettling nature of the scene. This medium enables him to quickly and easily sketch out a complete scene either as a study for a painting or, as many were, just for fun. Overall, a great sense of mystery and tension is created, intriguing the viewer and drawing us in.

Gainsborough created over 1,100 drawings much like this in his lifetime. He had a huge interest in nature and depicting it. He often painted at night by candlelight which explains why the majority of his landscapes (especially the sketches) use tenebrism and appear to be set at dusk/night. This sketch was created at the end of his life therefore his technique and style is well established and the picture echoes his earlier works in both composition and subject. He is most famous for landscape compositions as well as detailed and delicate portraiture. His landscapes are typically of English countryside and are very effective at drawing the viewer’s eyes into the depth of the scene, usually via a path or open expanse of land. This technique is evident amongst many of his paintings and sketches such as Road From Market and Landscape in Suffolk. Gainsborough is renowned as being one of the best British landscape artists in history and I believe that he certainly deserves this title.

Sophie Macfadyen, St. George’s, Ascot

 

 

 

Current exhibitions in the Eton College Collections: the generosity of benefactors.

We have an engaging and varied exhibition programme running temporary exhibitions across two galleries, offering the chance to see holdings not shown in our permanent galleries and museum displays. The current exhibitions draw attention to the incredible generosity of benefactors to the Collections, and seek to share these works with others.

Watercolours from the Eton College Collections, Verey Gallery, Eton College

24 November 2018 to 24 February 2019

john frederick lewis, the patio de los arrayanes, alhambra, 1832. pencil, watercolour and gouache.

John Frederick Lewis, The Patio de Los Arrayanes, Alhambra, 1832. Pencil, watercolour and gouache.

 

john ruskin, capri, 1841. pencil and wash.

John Ruskin, Capri, 1841. Pencil and wash.

 

joseph mallord william turner, chateau d'arques, near dieppe, c.1834. pencil and watercolour.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Chateau d’Arques, near Dieppe, c.1834. Pencil and watercolour.

 

william daniell, eton from the river, 1827. pencil and watercolour.

William Daniell, Eton From the River, 1827. Pencil and watercolour.

 

The latest exhibition in the Verey Gallery is a display of some of the most significant 18th- and 19th-century watercolours from the Fine & Decorative Art collection. They represent many of the British artists of the golden age of watercolour painting, including Thomas Girtin, JMW Turner, John Ruskin and Paul Sandby.

This collection of more than 1,500 drawings and watercolours includes scenes of Windsor, Eton and their environs in addition to a considerable body of work depicting national and international subjects. Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art, has curated a display which highlights the quality, scope and beauty in the watercolour collection that has been acquired by the College by several generous donations. The collection has been used for teaching, research and various displays with the aim of opening up access.

This exhibition can be seen on Sunday afternoons, 2:30-5pm, entry is free. Alternatively, arrange a visit by appointment with collections@etoncollege.org.uk from Monday to Friday.

 

Treasures from the Nicholas Kessler Collection, Tower Gallery, Eton College Library

24 November 2018 to 29 March 2019

carl buddeus, volksgemälde und charakterköpfe des russischen volks. leipzig, johann friedrich gleditsch, 1820. depictions of russian peasants by an estonian artist.

Carl Buddeus, Volksgemälde und Charakterköpfe des Russischen Volks. Leipzig, Johann Friedrich Gleditsch, 1820. Depictions of Russian peasants by an Estonian artist.

 

henri gaudier-brzeska, two deer, c.1913. a study of two fallow deer, probably dating to a visit to arundel park in 1913.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Two deer, c.1913. A study of two fallow deer, probably dating to a visit to Arundel Park in 1913.

hergé, tintin au tibet. paris, casterman, 1960. split board mosaic binding commissioned by nicholas kessler from shepherds in 2012, with binder_s metal plate.

Hergé, Tintin au Tibet. Paris, Casterman, 1960. Split board mosaic binding commissioned by Nicholas Kessler from Shepherds in 2012, with binder’s metal plate.

 

joachim bouvet, l_estat present de la chine, en figures. paris, pierre giffart, 1697.

Joachim Bouvet, L’estat present de la Chine, en figures. Paris, Pierre Giffart, 1697.

 

thomas hardy, the trumpet-major. london, smith, elder, & co., 1880. first issue of the first edition.

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major. London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1880. First issue of the first edition.

 

Curated by Michael Meredith and Dr Stephanie Coane, this exhibition commemorates one of College Library’s most significant 20th-century benefactors, Nicholas Kessler OE, who died earlier this year. During his life Kessler gave over 900 rare books to Eton, including important works on China, Russia and the novelist James Joyce; his gifts to Eton also include autograph manuscripts by Thomas Hardy and contemporary sculptures. Without his gifts our nineteenth century collection today would be very much the poorer.

Primarily a memorial to Nicholas Kessler, this exhibition also enables us to display some of the interesting books, manuscripts and photographs he gave us. In so doing, the extent and range of his gifts can be appreciated for the first time, as he wished to remain anonymous during his lifetime. This exhibition is open by appointment and we welcome you to book a visit: contact us at collections@etoncollege.org.uk or 01753 370590.

 

A Spring wreath

To celebrate the long-awaited arrival of Spring, we have woven together some objects from the collections in a wreath for Flora, goddess of the season.  We include some prints by the Suffolk artist J.G. Lubbock.  Here’s to the warmer weather!

A Collections Christmas Cracker

Welcome to our final blog of the Michaelmas half!  We’ve chosen twelve of our favourite seasonal objects from the Collections, for your festive enjoyment.  Merry Christmas!

Transformative conservation: ‘The Lamentation’

As the newly appointed Conservation Steward, I’ve been working over the past nine months to improve how we care for the objects in the College Collections, commissioning specialists to perform conservation treatments and carrying out preventive care as well as in-house conservation treatments.

Recently we commissioned a particularly interesting treatment on a painting called The Lamentation by Pietro Testa–a 17th century oil on canvas. It hangs over the altar of the Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel, located on Eton Court Road in Eton. The chapel was commissioned between 1905 and 1915 by Old Etonian Lord Braye, who wanted a Roman Catholic Chapel built for the use of the Roman Catholic students of the school and the parishioners of Eton and Datchet. In recent years this building was acquired by Eton College.

The Lamentation before treatment

‘The Lamentation’ before treatment

The Lamentation is significant in size (two metres long by one metre high) and holds a prominent place within the chapel. In 2014 an initial condition assessment of The Lamentation was undertaken by the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge. They ascertained that the original canvas was typical of the early 17th century, but that it had undergone relining onto a secondary canvas in the 19th century. The paint layers seemed stable but the varnish was extremely discoloured, taking on an orange-brown tone that rendered the painting almost unreadable. In addition it was noted that there were many areas of retouching, probably from previous treatments, which were also extremely discoloured and disfiguring.

The conclusions from the assessment were that a full cleaning of the painting should be undertaken, including total removal of the varnish, removal of the overpaint in retouched areas and consolidation of any flaking paint layers. Finally, areas where paint had been lost would be filled and retouched, and a new varnish added for protection. Thanks to a generous donation, we were able to fund the treatment and in 2016 the painting was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute to be conserved.

It has now been almost a year since it left Eton and it has proved itself to be one of the most transformative conservation treatments ever undertaken at Hamilton Kerr. During the varnish removal it emerged that there were many layers of decayed varnish with dirt sandwiched between them, explaining why the painting was so dark and the subjects almost completely obscured. What conservators found under these layers were the bright and clear tones of the original 17th-century paint, which had been unseen for years. The painting is now in its final stage of conservation, being retouched and awaiting its new varnish layer. It is expected to be returned to us in early May.

The Lamentation halfway

Halfway through treatment

This project has been extremely rewarding in many ways, including the forging of new relationships with external conservators and giving conservation students the chance to work on and research a significant artwork. It will bring an artist’s original vision back to life and share it with the parishioners of Our Lady of Sorrows and the wider Eton community: an exciting example of the Collections team’s work to care for and preserve the collections for the benefit of present and future generations.

By Aimee Sims, Conservation Steward

Hodgkin at Eton

Venice Evening

Venice Evening, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

On 9 March 2017, the artist Howard Hodgkin died in a London hospital. One of the most significant and influential painters of his generation, Hodgkin is also the most celebrated of the many distinguished Old Etonian artists. His first retrospective, curated by Nicholas Serota, was held at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1976. In 1984, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and in the following year won the Turner Prize. He was knighted in 1992 and made a Companion of Honour in 2003.

Hodgkin’s connection to Eton is recognised by the display of two prints, Venice Evening and Venice Night, from the Venetian Views series (1995), each almost two metres wide, which hang in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre. However, he was only a pupil at Eton for one academic year, before his repeated running away led the school to insist he attend sessions with a therapist. He had lived in America as a young child and later claimed that he successfully persuaded the therapist to recommend that he return to the States instead of beginning a second year at Eton. But despite being deeply unhappy as a schoolboy, later in life Hodgkin fondly recalled the time he spent in the Drawing Schools with the then Drawing Master, Wilfred Blunt. He admired Blunt’s willingness to offer a clear verdict on the merits of a work, a quality he feared was being lost, and claimed to have learnt something of how to live as an outsider from Blunt. He held particularly vivid memories of Blunt’s eclectic collection of objects displayed within a glass cabinet in the Drawing Schools. These assorted items were intended for boys to draw or paint from and Hodgkin specifically recalled among them an African sculpture of a dog with an erect penis.

Venice Night~hi

Venice Night, by Howard Hodgkin (1995). Courtesy artist’s estate and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Over half a century after his single year as a pupil of Eton, Hodgkin returned for a fleeting visit. In 2002 he was asked to open a new extension to the Drawing Schools and to view his two prints, newly installed in the Farrer Theatre. Current Drawing Master, Ian Burke, remembers meeting Hodgkin during this visit:

He was obviously a very intelligent and slightly detached man, who did not comment on any of the work on display. He seemed relatively pleased that the two prints in the Farrer Theatre had been purchased by his old school.

In his speech, when declaring the new section of the Drawing Schools open, he thanked Eton and the past Drawing Master Wilfred Blunt for encouraging his enthusiasm for painting and art in general. He described Blunt as inspiring and very encouraging to a boy who much preferred painting to games.

The prints can still be viewed in the foyer of the Farrer Theatre at Eton.

By Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine & Decorative Arts