Friday, October 20, 2017

Poached eggs and other savoured memories

Diego Velazquez: An old woman cooking eggs (image from here)
I had been exposed to a wide variety of visual art from my earliest years, but I was over 11 years old before I entered an institutional art gallery.  My first visit was to the Scottish National Gallery with my secondary school in Edinburgh.  I subsequently visited many times after that, both with the school, but mostly alone.  The year I took History of Art as part of my degree (still in Edinburgh) I was there at least once a week.
Several of the paintings there remain prominently in my head and in my heart, but my favourite of all is the Velazquez above.  I find it a complete stunner that never shuts down my curiosity.  It presents the possible beginning, or middle, or maybe even the end of many stories.  The skill of course is breath-taking.  And I love that my grandmother's mortar and pestle are there right at the front.  I remember as a small child battering the shape out of walnuts using those heavy brass instruments that I was barely able to lift!
Inevitably one of my other favourites is the now widely known The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (perhaps) by Raeburn(image above from here)
Daniel Macnee: A lady in grey (the artist's daughter)
And a much less well known lady whom I used to greet on every visit: A Lady in Grey.  This again had a personal connection because it was unusual to have a portrait showing a young woman engaged in an occupation which dominated my leisure hours: hand stitching.
Paul Gauguin: Vision of the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel)
In my teenage years I was obsessed by all things French (none of my family knew anything about France or the French, so my interest was left well alone), and so inevitably I was drawn by the strikingly dramatic Gauguin - indeed the whole painting cried out to me before I knew who had made it.  (If you scroll down the page linked under the image above you will find a short film which chimes very much with my own youthful experience - strangely enough we were reading The moon and sixpence at school around the time of my first visits to the gallery.)
Edgar Degas: Woman Drying Herself
The other French painting which stays with me from those early days is a Degas pastel.  I had loved both the realism and the looseness, the chalkiness of the pastel as well as its subtle colour - without at that point knowing anything about the material.  Later, during my art history studies the tutor who specialised in Post Impressionism told us that this work had had the glass cleaned so assiduously that the pastel had now transferred from the paper to the glass!  I do not know whether this is really true.*  And I don't know whether my curiosity about and my love of soft pastels came from this work and the story.

Of course I discovered many other delights in the collection, and during the intensive art history visits learned so much about them all - a sweet consolation for not being permitted to study to be an artist myself - but these five works in particular have a special place in my memory.  Over the decades ever since then I have continued to look, to discover, to pursue my curiosity, to research not only the art that appeals, but also the art that does not appeal.  I believe that finding out why something does not capture one's delight can illuminate and develop one's looking and understanding.
I must admit to doing a bit less of the latter now.  I seem to have reached a point when - with some exceptions - I want to save my art curiosity for delving deeper into the realms that I already enjoy.  Nowadays that seems to feed my own work much more, and I save my wider curiosity for other subjects such as Roman architecture, satellite mapping of the oceans, and geology (all current or imminent FutureLearn courses).

*I don't think it can be true because the implication in 1967 was that years of cleaning had lifted the pastel off the paper, and yet I now see that the work was only donated to the gallery in 1960.  I must have seen it first not long after that gift took place.


  1. I remember so vividly the first time I saw The Vision of the Sermon - it had a profound effect on me. To this day I cannot put into words the feelings it evokes in me, but I still have the same reaction every time I see the painting. I have never seen it 'in the flesh' so to speak, so this is another reason why a visit to Edinburgh is a necessity.

    1. The painting certainly packs a punch, which works on a range of scales. I had a postcard of it up in my office in London. I hope that you do manage to see it for real some day.