Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Art of Snow and Ice

I missed Tales of Winter: The Art of Snow and Ice yesterday and will be catching up on iPlayer Click the link in the title to access it - for all those who can access iPlayer - I ask no questions as to how!;)
Winter was not always beautiful. Until Pieter Bruegel painted Hunters in the Snow, the long bitter months had never been transformed into a thing of beauty. This documentary charts how mankind's ever-changing struggle with winter has been reflected in western art throughout the ages, resulting in images that are now amongst the greatest paintings of all time. With contributions from Grayson Perry, Will Self, Don McCullin and many others, the film takes an eclectic group of people from all walks of life out into the cold to reflect on the paintings that have come to define the art of snow and ice.
BBC - Tales of Winter: The Art of Snow and Ice

[UPDATE: I've now watched it and it's excellent!  It's available on iPlayer until 1:29AM Fri, 1 Feb 2013]

Hunters in the Snow / Jagers in de sneeuw (1565) by Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder
oil on oak panel | 117 × 162 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Bruegel's painting is part of a series of six paintings to reflect different seasons of the year - of which only five survive.

This painting represents the bleak and yet beautiful winter countryside in January.  Both hunters and dogs enliven the scene despite being obvious weary and downcast by a hunt which has obviously produced little.  In the background is a scene of snow and ice and that peculiar green grey sky which only appears in the depths of winter.  The trees are skeletal and any leaves are shrivelled and dried out in the cold.  The people and animals are all dark colours and are not much more than shapes against the cold background.

It's odd how a smidgen of orange draws our eye to the side of the painting and the roaring fire outside the inn - and I always wonder why it's outside and what they are doing.  On the one hand they might be preparing food - on the other do they really need a fire burning like that to prepare food?

When we used to have this a reproduction of this painting at school I was always preoccupied with working out what all the tiny people were up to - such as the woman towing another on a sled in the bottom right hand corner.

For me Breugel's paintings always demonstrate how much more we look at countryside when it includes people who are doing things - and not just there to give a sense of scale.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Frost Fair on the Thames 1683 #1

There are a number of paintings and etchings of Frost Fairs on the River Thames and elsewhere.  This painting is of the celebrated frost fair which occurred in the winter of 1683–84.   Titled Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the distanceit was painted by an unknown artist in 1685 and is owned by the Yale Centre for British Art.

I've also found an etching of the same scene - also of unknown origin - but it does identify a number of the subjects in the scene.  You can find more versions at The 1683-4 frost fair

Looking at both the painting and engraving makes me wonder why more people don't paint accounts of contemporaneous events today - they're such wonderful records of both time and place!

Frost fair 1683-4

The temperature dropped severely at the beginning of December 1683.  The River Thames froze and remained frozen for nine weeks until early February 1684.   A road developed - called "Temple Street" between Temple Steps on the north bank of the Thames and Southwark on the south bank.  This road is what is portrayed in both painting and etching.  Booths and stalls developed along Temple Street to serve the people passing to and fro across the frozen river - and doubtless sight-seeing too!

John Evelyn, the diarist wrote, 
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.London: Portrait of a City. Hudson, Roger (1998). The Folio Society. 
Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the distance (1685)
unknown artist, 17th century, British;
Formerly attributed to Jan Wyck, ca. 1645-1700, Dutch, active in Britain (from about 1664)

Oil on canvas | 25 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches (64.1 x 76.8 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
I've taken the liberty of lightening the painting slightly - on the basis I don't believe any artist paints a scene of this sort do that it's dark - even if it has darkened with age.  On the Yale website, there is a fascinating set of images of the painting as it used to be and following treatment.

I also found an engraving of the exact same scene on Wikipedia.  I've cropped a large version of it to show more details included by the artist in the foreground.  Below this is the text at the bottom of the picture which tells you about all the things you can see in the engraving - and the painting! It seems very likely that the painting is based on this engraving.

The National Portrait Gallery identifies William Faithorne (1616 – 1691), English painter and engraver as the probably source of the engraving - he had a shop near Temple Bar.

The Thames Frost Fair, 1683
probably by William Faithorne, published by William Warter
line engraving, circa 1684
15 in. x 18 7/8 in. (380 mm x 480 mm) paper size
Crop of foreground of the Engraving of the Frost Fair 1683
The text at the top states

Exact and lively Mapp
Of Booths and all the varieties of showes and
Humours upon the ICE on the River of
During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare
of the Reigne of his Sacred Maty
King CHARLES the 2d

With an Alphabetical Explanation of the
most remarkeable Figures

The text at the bottom provides an explanation of the alphabetical annotations
The Temple Staires with People goeing upon the Ice to Temple Street A.
The Duke of Yorke's Coffee house B.
The Tory Booth C.
The Booth with a Phoenix on it and Insured as long as the Foundation Stand D.
The Roast Beefe Booth E.
The halfe way house F.
The Beare garden Shire Booth G.
The Musick Booth H.
The Printing Booth I.
The Lottery Booth K.
The Horne Tavern Booth L.
The Temple garden with Crowds of People looking over the wall M.
The Boat drawne with a Hors N.
The Drum Boat O.
the Boat drawne upon wheeles P.
the Bull baiting Q.
The Chair sliding in the Ring R.
The Boyes Sliding S.
The Nine Pinn Playing T.
The sliding on Scates V.
The sledge drawing Coales from the other side of the Thames W.
The Boyes climbing upon the Tree in the Temple garden to see ye Bull Baiting X.
The Toy Shopps Y.
London Bridge Z.

Source for text: visual inspection, and verified from Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 9 by Charles Dickens, William Harrison Ainsworth, Albert Smith; publisher: Richard Bentley; year: 1841; page 133, footnote 1.
In the background is the Old London Bridge which was started in 1176 and completed in 1212.  Over the years properties were built on top of it (see below an etching of it just three years earlier).  The bridge and its buildings survived the great fire of 1666 due to a fire break at the northern end caused by a previous fire.

Drawing of London Bridge from a 1682 London MapSurveyed by: Morgan, William, d. 1690. Published: London, London Topographical Society, 1904
To the south of the Bridge was a gate where the heads of those executed for treason used to be put on spikes - with the head of William Wallace being the first to appear on the gate, in 1305.  This practice stopped in 1660 - just 25 years before this painting.

The church in the background of the frost fair painting is Southwark Cathedral which lies just to the west of London Bridge.  

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Frozen Thames - looking like the Arctic

It's been snowing here in London - so I thought I'd have a look at the pictures of Frost Fairs on the Thames.  The first one had me unpicking the trail of the story behind the painting both in terms of content and who painted it.

Here's the first one - it's a painting of The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London - painted in 1677 by a painter I'd not heard of before - Abraham Hondius (1625–1691).

The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London (1677)  by Abraham Hondius (1625–1691)
The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London (1677) 
by Abraham Hondius
Oil on canvas, 107.8 x 175.6 cm
Museum of London
Abraham Hondius [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The really interesting thing about this painting is that, according to the websites which have details about when the Thames froze, it didn't freeze on 1677!  In fact, it hadn't frozen for some years prior to this.

I'm wondering whether this painting is an imaginary interpretation of what the River Thames would look like if it froze.  This would account for why it looks so much like the Arctic(!) in his painting Arctic Adventure - also painted in 1677 (see below).  This latter painting is in the Fitzwilliam Museum.  Guess which painting I think was finished first!

Arctic Adventure 1677 Abraham Hondius
Arctic Adventure (1677) Abraham Hondius
Oil on canvas, 55.4 x 84.7 cm
Fiztwilliam Museum
Hondius was a Dutch Golden Age artist who was noted for his portrayals of animals.  He moved to London in 1666 so this painting may very well have been a way of him bringing his work to the attention of collectors in London.

What's not obvious from the painting is the degree of devastation on one bank of the Thames at the time.  This is the year after the Great Fire of London and part of the City of London was wiped out (see an old map in the British Library of the impact of the Great Fire)

I'm very bothered by the church in the background.  In shape it looks like the old St Paul's Cathedral which had burnt down the previous year in Fire - but if the painting is looking east then it's on the wrong side of the Thames.  However if it's looking FROM the east then it makes sense and by definition must then be totally imaginary as the Cathedral no longer existed in 1667.

The Old St Paul's Cathedral in flames
The only church which was just beyond London Bridge at the time was St Thomas Church which now houses The Old Operating Theatre Museum - and which is totally the wrong shape.  (I should know - I used to work in the offices next door to it!)

You can watch a slideshow of 14 more paintings by Hondius on the Your Paintings website

These are the Museums and Art Galleries where you can see paintings by Hondius

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Mapping landscape paintings on Google Maps

I'm in two minds about a website I came across today.  MyReadingMapped maps places to historic events - or in the case of artists - landscape paintings to places on maps

The thing is that they're mapping the place in the picture - not the place from where the picture was seen and/or painted - and it's often the latter which artists are interested to see.  Not least because some of us are rather fond of trying to see what we make of the same view! (see my "Places to Paint" series)

The Google Map view of the world as seen in landscape paintings
Here's the link - The Works of Artists, Architects and Photographers in Google Map - and you can see for yourself.
Click on the map title below to go to the blog page with an embedded map, photos and background and source information about each subject.
I think the problem for me is that this has the potential for being a good idea - however it needs more content and the pins in the map need to be rather more accurate - preferably being placed "where the easel stood" literally or metaphorically!