Treasures New and Old

Anne Gardom on a remarkable one man show

There is something about one man's enthusiasm which gives special interest to a collection of pictures. It is exciting and stimulating to study the development of the collector’s eye and share in his love and sense of discovery while looking at his collection. The Royal Academy is currently showing pictures, tapestries, furniture and ceramics belonging to Andrew Lloyd Webber, in a very large and diverse exhibition.

Andrew Lloyd Webber started early – certainly as a schoolboy at Westminster he was enjoying the then unfashionable Gothic Revival architecture and the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, and much of his collection is devoted to their work. But there is more to his collection than that, and he makes connections between artists as diverse as Stanley Spencer, Alfred Munnings and even a Blue Period Picasso. This wide-ranging exhibition is full of surprises.

Ethereal

The Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the work of the early Italian artists as being spiritually pure and direct, and this gives their paintings an almost obsessive brilliance and detail as they sought to give value and truth to everything they painted. The first rooms of the Exhibition have some paintings by Millais, Rossetti, and Holman Hunt, which are painted with breathtaking attention to detail and fineness of technique, and some of the smaller ones are almost jewel-like in their intensity of colour. Whether or not one likes or enjoys Pre-Raphaelite paintings, one cannot fail to marvel at their technical brilliance.

Rossetti did a number of drawings of Janey Morris whose exotic and brooding beauty was much admired and frequently painted by the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti made exquisite pencil drawings and portraits in chalk, both of her and other sitters, which celebrate the mystery and romance of these beautiful women. Penelope, Desdemona, The Blessed Damozel: the names resound with the romance and legend of the past.

Byrne-Jones is well represented in this exhibition and it is possible to see his work and career as a whole. He was hugely prolific, designing tapestries and embroideries, furnishings, stained glass and books, as well as painting pictures all his life. There are some wonderful tapestries woven to his designs, depicting Arthurian legends. Natural dyes were used and the colours are still brilliant and vivid. The large tapestries are jewelled with tiny flowers, and the figures move against deep blue and green backgrounds. His work ranges from quite early religious paintings, including a delightful Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary's slippers neatly tucked into a corner of the picture, to large allegorical works. He painted portraits, legendary scenes, minute book illustrations, alarmingly ethereal children. His creativity ranged freely across these subjects, enriching them all with a cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques.

Light

A room devoted to the paintings of Tissot and Atkinson Grimshaw show how contemporary artists not based on either the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or in London were painting. Tissot, a Frenchman, is mainly known for his luxurious paintings of sunlit middle-class society, and there are some delightful examples here but also rather sad mysterious paintings – The Orphans, and Goodbye – on the Mersey, painted in greys and browns, with a crowd waving white handkerchiefs as they watch a huge dark liner slip down the river. Works by Atkinson Grimshaw hang in the same room – he was well known for his paintings of moonlight, wet streets, reflections and evening skies. His paintings are full of wonderfully observed golden light, looking back with nostalgia to a serene and beautiful world which probably existed only in his imagination.

The Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of George IV as Prince of Wales is shown in the enormous gilt frame topped with three feathers and cornucopia in which it was originally exhibited. The Prince’s well-known portly shape has been much trimmed down and he is shown as a spirited martial figure in firm control of a very large horse.

There is a beautiful Canaletto. He painted mostly in Venice but came to this country in 1746 and painted here till 1755. The picture shows the old Horse Guards before its demolition in 1750, and is full of lovely architectural detail and lively little figures bathed in a golden – and somewhat Italianate – light.

Andrew Lloyd Webber clearly enjoys Victorian genre paintings and there are some splendid examples to be seen – they are pictures with a message rather than factual depictions. The wonderful Village Wedding by Fildes shows everyone contented, rejoicing, rosy-cheeked and well fed. In The Emigration Scheme the bleakness of rural poverty shows in the faces of the listeners, and the title of Feeding the Hungry after the Lord Mayor's Banquet only begins to describe the complexities of the painting. Along with the animal paintings, they throw lights and shadows on the way Victorian society saw itself.

Intensity

There are some wonderful examples of furniture of this period – some designed by William Burgess (his Philosophy Cabinet – painted with scenes from the lives of Luther, Aristotle, Diogenes, St Paul and Virgil is a wonder). There is the Stanmore Hall piano – surely the most spectacular object in the whole exhibition – which is covered with gilded gesso worked with twining flowers and ribbons, a piece of extraordinary virtuosity and beauty. William de Morgan was an Academy-trained artist who became a potter, and there is a marvellous range of his works on view. His lustre pots gleam with a range of metallic glazes in reds and bronzes, his plates are decorated with swirls of fish, or birds, or leopards, and his Moonlight Suite glows with mysterious blues and greys.

The early twentieth-century is represented by Alfred Munnings and Stanley Spencer, two artists who had little time for one another. There is a sequence of Munnings' paintings of gypsy life – lovely bold paintings in his well-known broad style, as well as his horses. Stanley Spencer is represented by one of his searching merciless self-portraits, disturbing in its savage intensity, and some lovingly observed landscapes and views of Cookham. Resurrection Waking Up, shows yawning stretching people, grotesque and ugly, as they awake to new life.

This is a very large exhibition, which has been amassed over forty or more years, beginning when Andrew Lloyd Webber was a teenager. It is probably one of the largest collections in private ownership, and there are plans to increase it further with additions of twentieth-century American and Second World War Jewish art. It bears the stamp of a man who loves and enjoys collecting pictures and works of art, and is not afraid (and can afford!) to trust his own judgement.

Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters – The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection

At the Royal Academy till 12th December 2003.

Adults £9, Concessions £8

(1098 words)

 

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