27 September 2014

Golf and fine art in Edinburgh.

Golf has been played in Scotland since at least the 15th century. Whilst its origins are obscure, it is undoubtedly close to the Netherlandish game of colf, which was played over rough ground or on frozen waterways, and involved hitting a ball to a target stick fixed in the ground or the ice. Colvers playing on the frozen canals appeared often in Dutch 17th century paintings.

Winter landscape, with skaters playing colf,
by Hendrick Avercamp c1620

There are many works by Hendrik Avercamp, for example, displaying a pale grey winter sky, a range of people socialising and participating in ice skating or colf. In the foreground, the viewer could easily see who was playing colf via the sticks they used. Avercamp may have been the first Dutch artist to use watercolours and gouache drawings in formal paintings and perhaps the first to make colf an important sport for artists to focus on. Note, for example, the delicate gouache colouring that created a sense of shadows on the ice.

In Scotland the game was often played over links courses, originally rough common ground where the land met the sea. The majority of Scotland’s famous old courses, such as St Andrews or North Berwick, were links courses.

At the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, an exhibition called The Art of Golf tells the story of the birth and evolution of Scotland’s national sport by bringing together fine art, golfing equipment and museum pieces significant to the game’s history. I am not sure if golf is the national sport, but I know the timing of the exhibition has been excellent. Its dates overlapped with two important events: the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (July-August 2014) and the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles (Sep 2014), the biennial competition played between teams of professional golfers representing the USA and Europe.

Sir John Lavery,
Golfing at North Berwick c1920,
private collection
Photo credit: Scottish National Gallery

The exhibition starts in the early 17th century, as you would expect, with paintings of Dutch colf players. It then chart the origins of modern Golf in Scotland, including images of important early links courses in, for example, Leith. There are 60 paintings on display.

Moving into the C20th, The Art of Golf showcases a beautiful oil painting of the course at North Berwick, a coastal resort 40 ks east of Edinburgh. It was done by John Lavery, one of the Glasgow Boys. The exhibition also displays rare original golf-themed railway posters and takes the story of golf right up to the present day with aerial artworks of Scotland’s most famous golf courses, including Gleneagles.

The Edinburgh Reporter believed the centre piece of this exhibition is the greatest golfing painting in the world by Charles Lees (1800-80), The Golfers 1847. This work commemorated a match played on the Old Course at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St Andrews, by Sir David Baird and Sir Ralph Anstruther, against Major Hugh Lyon Playfair and John Campbell of Saddell. It represented a who’s who of Scottish golf at that time and was reproduced in a fine engraving and sold well. Lees made use of (early) photography to help him design the painting’s overall compos­ition. The painting is jointly owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

Charles Lees
The Golfers at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, 1847
Photo credit: Scottish National Gallery

If art and golf fans miss the exhibition, I recommend the gallery's illustrated colour catalogue, with essays by Michael Clarke and Kenneth McConkey, Professor of Art History at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle.


I am assuming this is largely the same exhibition that went on show in Atlanta Georgia. Billed as the first substantial art survey on the subject organised by an American museum, The Art of Golf was on view in mid 2012 before touring four other American venues. The show featured 90 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture by artists as important as Rembrandt.

As in the Scottish exhibition, The Art of Golf in the USA tracked the game’s roots in the Netherlands and its development in Scotland, but then went on to give a specifically 20th century American feel to the history. Thus the artists included Scottish Enlightenment portraitist Sir Henry Raeburn and American artists James McNeill Whistler, Childe Hassam, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. A humour section included Charles Schulz's Peanuts and sly New Yorker cartoons about golf.

23 September 2014

Paris' Picasso treasures - when will the museum re-open?

A post called French Riviera Art Trail showed how the already mature artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) moved permanently to Vallauris, next to the town of Antibes, in the 1950s. There he slowly learned the skills of pottery art at the Galerie Madoura. The artist must have been busy – he created 4,000 pieces of ceramics during his life there. Vallauris was already well known for its cer­amics, but Picasso made the industry even more famous. The Ceramics Museum is thus a living reminder of Picasso’s and other ceramic artists’ contrib­ut­ions.

The old Grimaldi family castle in Vallauris was built in the Renais­sance style and later converted into the town hall of Antibes. After WW1, the chateau became known as the Grimaldi Museum. Since it was the home of artist Pablo Picasso after WW2, the castle was eventual­ly turned into the Picasso Museum, one of the first museums anywhere to be dedicated to that artist.

Picasso himself donated important works to the museum, especially his paintings The Goat and La Joie de Vivre. Jacqueline Roque married Picasso in Vallauris in March 1961 and she too presented the museum with many important Picasso art objects. Today the museum holds 245 works by Picasso, collected from 1952 on.

On the walls of a ruined Romanesque chapel, in the Castle at Vall­aur­is, lies the Musée National Picasso’s War and Peace. In 1952, Picasso had decided to erect a temple there with his monumental composition. He painted two huge panels, one portraying the horrors of war and one depicting the benefits of peace. Another panel was added at the far end of the chapel to make the link between the two themes.

Musée Picasso
in Le Marais district of Paris
Opened in 1985, closed in 2009 for renovations, due to open September 2014

So the south of France is well served, but what about Paris? The post Le Marais, Paris showed how the main hôtels particuliers (private houses) were not pulled down in Le Marais. Instead they became excellent museums eg the Paris Historical Museum is in Hôtel Carnavalet. Where possible, the interiors of these private houses were maintained and modernised.

Picasso had amassed an enormous collection of his own work by the time of his death in 1973 and bequeathed them to the French state in his will. Paris' Musée Picasso, which opened in 1985 in the old Hôtel Salé, gathered thousands of the artist's own art objects, plus Picasso's personal art collection of works by Cézanne, Degas, Seurat, Matisse and others. 

In time the museum had to be renovated. The decision to renovate the façades, the exterior decoration and the surrounding wall was easy; it all took place between 2006 and 2009. This operation was effective in saving the important sculptural pieces of the building’s mouldings and pediments.

Musée Picasso, Paris before it closed. The rooms were arranged chronologically.

But the old palace also needed major extensions and this was where things went badly wrong. What caused the delay in reopening the Picasso Museum in Le Marais district and what caused a serious financial blowout? The final bill for the renovated 17th-century baroque mansion now stands at €52million. I hope it will be worth it. The museum's exhibition space has been more than doubled to 3,800 square metres after the renovation, and the garden and the planted terrace were redesigned.

Alas there is a serious a fight between the French Culture Ministry and the family of Pablo Picasso. As of September 2014, the museum is still not ready. Claude Picasso, Pablo’s only living son, was furious that the museum’s director (Anne Baldassari) was sacked by the Culture Ministry. She had been the driving force behind the renovations, and as a result of her dismissal, Claude Picasso threatened to withhold donations of his father’s work to the museum.

The 37 rooms of  renovated Musee Picasso are being temporarily opened this weekend  (Sept 2014) in honour of France's annual heritage weekend. But the rooms will be empty; the enormous collection of paintings and sculptural works will still be in storage.


The 17th-century Hôtel de Savoie on the Rue des Grands Augustins in the chic 6th arrondissement of Paris is one of the gorgeous grand mansions mentioned earlier. A plaque next to the building's wrought iron gates reveals that Pablo Picasso lived in this building between 1936 and 1955. It is in this studio he painted Guernica in 1937. The studio is "so large that the skylight fails to illuminate the corners"; it is reached via an impressive entrance hall and spiral staircase, recognisable from old photos showing Picasso at work.

Picasso's attic studio in  Hôtel de Savoie

According to Art Media Agency, a campaign is on to save the attic studio which is owned by the Chamber of Legal Bailiffs. The Association du Comité National pour l’Éducation Artistique completely renovated the space in 2002, and in the intervening years has used it to host free exhibitions, concerts, readings, and educational workshops. After years of rent-free tenancy, CNEA was evicted by the owners in August 2013, and Picasso's wide airy studio has sat vacant and tragic for months.

20 September 2014

Royal Chelsea Hospital - an elegant retirement village for ex servicemen

King Charles II was the personal patron of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the architect who helped rebuild London after the 1666 Great Fire. Whatever one thinks of the later Stuarts, no-one can accuse Charles II of shirking his responsibilities as a builder of arguably the greatest city on earth.

By 1673 it was becoming increasingly apparent that some soldiers were no longer fit for service. Perhaps King Charles II was truly anxious about the lads who had served their nation and had come home badly wounded. Or perhaps he was humiliated that France had a wond­erful facility for ex-servicemen while Britain did not. Without a doubt when King Louis XIV commissioned Hôtel des Invalides in the 7th arrondissement of Paris in 1671, Les Invalides became the envy of royal families everywhere. By 1678, wounded French soldiers had a fine place to live.

The pensioners, in red uniforms, parade in front of the Royal Hospital Chelsea

Examine the dates. In 1681, King Charles II issued a Royal Warrant authorising the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea to care for those broken by age or war. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building and Sir Stephen Fox was commissioned to secure the funds necessary to see the Chelsea Hospital through to completion. The huge site, adjacent to the River Thames in rural-ish Chelsea, was chosen because of its green landscape and healthy air. The new hospital was to stand on the site of an earlier building which had already been pulled down - Theological College, founded by King James I.

King Charles died in 1685 but the work continued under the next two rulers. 1692 saw the first Chelsea Pensioners admitted into residence and it did not take long before the full complement of 476 men had beds. An earlier bronze statue of Charles II, created by Grinling Gibbons in 1676, was placed in the central court of the complex in time to greet the new residents. This three sided courtyard, which to my eyes looked quite mon­astic and severe, was made from ordinary bricks.

Royal Hospital Chelsea Chapel
by Christopher Wren, consecrated in 1691

The four storey wings on both sides of the central court were designed as the Chelsea Pensioners' living quarters, called the long wards. The original berths, as designed by Wren, were tiny but the oak panelling was smart. Gas lighting was not installed in the long wards until 1854.

How ironic that the first intake were soldiers who survived the Battle of Sedgemoor which had occurred in July 1685 in Somerset. This was the final battle of the Monmouth Rebellion and followed a series of skirmishes around the SW provinces between the forces of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth and troops loyal to King James II. At least the old soldiers looked very smart, wearing a dis­tinctive red uniform and black hat. [Tod­ay the residents still wear uniforms, scarlet in summer, dark blue in winter, and ceremonial tricorn hats]. 

The Chelsea Hospital had to be a self-suffic­ient community, so it had res­idential facil­it­ies, dining rooms, veg­etable gardens and its own brew­ery. The chapel was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and consecrated in August 1691; services were held twice daily to which all the pensioners were warmly invited. Just as the King had a duty of care and honour to the ex-servicemen, so the ex-servicemen had a duty of care to God. Appropriately a fine version of the Resurrection appeared in the half dome of the chapel apse, painted by two Italian artists.

The Great Hall with its oak carving was also designed by Sir Christopher Wren, originally as a dining hall. Over the decades, the Chelsea pensioners started dining in the wards so the Great Hall began to be used for leisure time pursuits. Clearly Chelsea was a huge success. The proud Army ex-servicemen could remain in the complex until they died.

Royal Hospital Chelsea Great Hall
by Christopher Wren

But progress is never guaranteed. Wren's very special formal gard­ens, which provided a vista from the Royal Hospital to the River Th­ames and included gazebos and summer houses, were all dem­ol­ished when the Chelsea Embankment was constructed. The present Rane­lagh Gardens were laid out by John Gibson in c1860. Even the new Infirm­ary building, built by Sir John Soane in 1809 for 80 patients, was bombed by German planes and had to be pulled down. I suppose it is of some comfort that the site of the bombed-out Infirmary has now been re-purposed as the National Army Museum.

It is unfortunate that the Royal Hospital Chelsea is no longer owned by the government or by the army. The ex-servicemen are nearly back to where they were pre-1692 i.e dependent on their own army pensions and on charity from others. And until recently the pensioners still lived in the original carved oak berths off the same same oak long wards where ex-servicemen from the Jacobite Rising of 1715 once slept through the night. Wren made the original berths 6 x 6 ft and it was not until after WW2 that the berths were enlarged to 9 x 9 ft. But at last there is some progress. When the current renovations are complete, each pensioner will have his or her own small living-room and a toilet.

one of Christopher Wren's long wards
Doors on the left open into the individual berths for sleeping
Chairs and tables on the right provide reading and writing space for each resident.

British History Online has very detailed information about the hospital's history, architecture and art collections in "Survey of London: volume 11 - Chelsea, part IV: The Royal Hospital", written in 1927.