Monthly Archives: July 2015

One New Change

One New ChangeThe architect of One New Change, Jean Nouvel, described his building as a ‘stealth bomber’; it’s something very big – well over half a million square feet of shops, restaurants and offices spread over eight floors – designed to almost be unnoticed.

The main reason for this of course is its proximity to St Paul’s. Certain views of the cathedral are legally protected. These are generally the views from some major London parks – Richmond, Greenwich, Alexandra Palace, Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill – which aren’t allowed to be blocked by tall buildings. That’s why the really big skyscrapers in the City tend to cluster in the East and why there aren’t any in the area around the cathedral.

So One New Change hasn’t been allowed to impose on St Paul’s, but what it has done is to give us some great new views. Coming up the escalator with the dome appearing in front of you is a wonderful experience, as is riding in the glass lift; the panels in the central atrium reflect views of the Cathedral so that you’re aware of its presence whichever way you look; and on the sixth floor is a terrace that puts you on a level with the roof of St Paul’s – you feel like you can almost reach out and touch it. Continue reading

Monet – The Gare St Lazare



Claude Monet: The Gare St Lazare: 1877

This picture is an urban Parisian scene rather than a rural view, but it is as much a landscape as Constable’s idyllic Suffolk countryside. Instead of the trees we see lampposts which lead the eye into the background. The sky is the roof of the engine shed, the clouds those of steam and smoke from the trains, and the people are reduced to anonymous shapes, without detail.

What Monet was trying to do was capture real life in the moment, a style known as “en plein air”. It was inspired by the new art of photography and ‘snapshots’ and made possible by technical advances – portable easels, small pre-stretched canvases and pre-mixed paints in tubes – that meant artists could work anywhere, painting what they saw before them rather than recreating the images in their studios. Although Monet did finish off or rework some of his paintings in his studio, what comes through from his Gare St Lazare series is this immediacy, with a very thick covering of paint and with the brushstrokes clearly visible. Continue reading

Constable – Stratford Mill



John Constable: Stratford Mill: 1820

We think of Constable’s landscapes as classic images of the English countryside, almost ‘chocolate boxy’ they’ve been reproduced so often, but when they were painted they were thought of as radical and daring, every bit as innovative and untraditional as Turner.

This is Stratford Mill, one of six major paintings by Constable that show scenes from the River Stour in Suffolk, the most famous of which is probably the Hay Wain.

It’s a country scene. In the foreground there is an older man and a couple of children fishing, their rods leading our eye to the barge which is moored by the side of the river. That then leads us to a gate on the far side of the bank, and to the right of that through a gap in the trees we can see a house in the distance. Over on the left of the picture is Stratford Mill itself, the water gleaming on the mill wheel as it turns, and behind this a man has stopped his horse by the river for it to have a drink. Continue reading

Drouais – Madame de Pompadour at her tambour frame



Francois-Hubert Drouais: Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame: 1763-4

This is Madame de Pompadour. Erstwhile mistress to Louis XV of France – renowned beauty, wit and patron of the arts.

The heavy silk curtain swirls around and its line is taken up in the rich white silk of her gown. Madame de Pompadour always had a keen eye for how she was presented, and the objects in this picture have been chosen to show her as a cultured and intelligent woman. There’s a mandolin on the floor on the right leaning against an artist’s portfolio – stressing her love of music and art; the books in the bookcase show her to be well read. She’s at work on a tambour screen – a type of embroidery – and looks almost matronly.

This representation of domesticity was a definite decision on her part, as she was probably the most powerful woman in France at this time. As well as being the King’s mistress she exercised a great deal of influence, with a big say in Royal patronage as well as in domestic and international policy. Continue reading

Van Dyck – Equestrian Portrait of Charles I



Anthony van Dyck: Equestrian Portrait of Charles I: 1637-8

The first thing that strikes you about this painting is the sheer size of it – it’s 12′ by 9′ (that’s over three and a half metres tall by nearly 3 metres wide). It was done to impress – you would have seen this at the end of a long gallery, dominating the space – and the horizon line is at the level of the horse’s stirrup, which means we’re looking up at the King.

This is Charles I. He’s wearing armour – made at the Royal Armouries at Greenwich – and mounted on a huge horse. He’s carrying a baton, the traditional symbol of military command (think of Niccolo da Tolentino in the Uccello painting) and his servant on the right is about to hand the king a plumed helmet. Around his neck is a locket bearing the image of George and the Dragon, which identifies him as a Knight of the Order of the Garter. (Inside the locket was a portrait of his wife.) This then is the monarch as warrior king, effortlessly controlling his mount (and for that, read the nation), his eyes focussing on the future.

Continue reading

Rembrandt – the Woman taken in Adultery



Rembrandt: The Woman Taken in Adultery: 1644

This is a religious painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn. It’s one of the foundation acquisitions of the Gallery, being part of the Angerstein collection that formed the basis of the National Gallery in 1824.

We see a scene taking place in a small part of a much larger canvas. A group of figures are picked out by a shaft of light, the central one being a woman in white, kneeling and tearful, her veil being lifted – a considerable insult to her – by an older man who is presenting the woman to Christ, the tall, simply dressed man standing at the top of the flight of stairs. Behind this group the building soars upwards with, on the right, what seems like a huge gold structure. Continue reading

The iPlayer London collection

p018dsmgIf you’re at all interested in the recent history and culture of London (and let’s face it, if you’re not you really have come to the wrong place) you should head across to the BBC iPlayer.

Simon Jenkins has curated BBC documentaries from the 1940s through to the early 1990s – some personal views, some behind the scenes at various London institutions – which give a wonderful encapsulation of a lost London. Because London is always ‘lost’ – the city is so varied and moves so quickly that trying to preserve some aspect of it runs counter to its very nature. Or as Ian Broad, the proprietor of the Colony Room Club says in John Pitman’s 1985 programme about Soho“Of course it isn’t what it used to be; but it never ever was what it was”. Continue reading

Turner – the Fighting Temeraire



J M W Turner: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up: 1838

We see a magnificent sailing ship – brilliant white and gold, almost like a ghost ship – being towed by a small steam tugboat with smoke and flame pouring from its funnel. It’s sunset, with a fiery red sky reflected in the water, and a pale new moon rising in the top left hand corner.

This is the Temeraire, a ship that had fought as part of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar, being towed to the docks at Rotherhithe on the Thames to be broken up.

Turner had witnessed this event one day when he was out on an excursion on the river, but his representation of it here has a great deal of artistic licence.

First, the Temeraire was by then just a hulk, stripped of her mast and everything of value. Turner has painted it as if it had just left Trafalgar, with the detail so fine you can make out individual windows and the ropes of the rigging. Second, the ship was being towed upriver, from east to west, so the sunset would not have been behind her.. Continue reading