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Pastels at the Tate

10 April 2014

The Fortune-Teller exhibited 1790 by John Russell 1744-1807I wondered whether I should mention my trip to Tate Britain (if that is what it is called these days) yesterday morning – and decided initially that I shouldn’t. But the view of pastel that this exhibition leaves is so fundamentally wrong that I shall run the risk of upsetting people by saying why.

I had helped rescue the Ozias Humphry pastel that Tate subsequently acquired, and knew an exhibition of pastels would take place this summer, but the first I heard about the display was in a review on the Apollo website that appeared in my Twitter feed (and where the portrait of the footman was reproduced as by Baron Nagell). Bizarrely the reviewer seemed not to understand very much about the medium, the report including statements such as “For much of the 18th century, pastel was available in England only in black, white and red.” I was keen to see how the reviewer had got that impression.

Arriving at the gallery I asked the reception desk where the display was to be found, only to meet with blank looks. Wandering round the galleries wasn’t the happiest experience either: one, which glories under the name “1780” (preferable I suppose to that of a sponsor), had the great treasures of Tate’s permanent collection swathed under yards of polythene to the bemusement of visitors. I searched in vain for any gallery staff to tell me why: when I finally found one I was told that repairs to the roof were in contemplation. Warders had it seemed congregated in the central Duveen Galleries to police an installation which I find from the website should be credited to someone called Phyllida Barlow. It looked to me like a health-and-safety nightmare waiting to happen, so perhaps Tate’s management had judiciously responded to a risk analysis in deciding where to place stretched resources. But perhaps a bigger question eluded them.

Finally with the persistence of those seeking MH370 I followed the ping of emptiness, through Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (for once, Tate’s message of failure epitomised in the “Sorry, no image is available of this artwork” on their website could not be more appropriate).

And there finally was the exhibition I had come for.

Reader, I wish I could tell you that it restored my faith in Tate. But it was sadly small in scale and ambition. The Tate’s new Humphry was flanked by their two good Russells, both subject pictures (if you like that sort of thing) and their Gardner (who likes that sort of thing?). The Humphry itself was not as bad as most of his pastels, but even with the thrill of “my discovery” I couldn’t bring myself to say that it was good (the critic in the St James’s Chronicle was rather more severe, calling it “A very feeble production; not worthy of Mr Humphry”). Would it have been bought if the subject were not black (although the name under which it was exhibited at the RA, “Baron Nagell’s Black”, was deemed to need political correction)? But at least all four were pastels.

What had confused the reviewer however was the rest of the exhibition. Two Downman drawings in his baffling technique that mix chalk and watercolour on both sides of translucent paper which certainly don’t much resemble conventional pastels. A handful of Gainsborough drawings described as “pastel and chalk” were more properly “chalk with occasional touches of pastel”. And then a group of chalk drawings with no pastel whatsoever, one of which (now “attributed” to Joseph Wright of Derby) makes it onto the website as the main image for the display, despite the fact that it is simply a red chalk drawing. No wonder visitors are confused. Under this BP Spotlight works as diverse as these are apt to be tarred with the same brush.

The exhibition concludes with the idea that pastel was rendered “obsolete” by the development of techniques in oil painting that could replicate its effects. It won’t surprise readers of this blog that I disagree fundamentally with this view. Or that I considered the whole exhibition, with its focus on pastel as drawing, locked in a twentieth-century academic mindset rather than a proper reflection of eighteenth-century artistic practice. And for those whose exposure to pastel is limited to these four examples, prejudice against the medium is likely to be reinforced rather than removed.

I had other, less important niggles which nevertheless undermined the authority of the exhibition. In fairness it should be said that the curator responsible is now on leave, and may not have seen the final stages.

One of the Russells (above) was labelled “The Fortune Teller, exhibited 1790”. This surprised me, since I had previously pointed out to the Tate that their picture was probably the one called Artifice and Credulity, exhibited in 1795. The earlier picture shown at the Royal Academy in 1790 had an old woman as the fortune teller, while the later featured an old man: understandably someone had read the Tate’s subject as a fortune teller, and assumed they had the RA exhibit with that name. Had the curator found further evidence to reject my suggestion? In her essay posted on the Tate’s website, she wrote “The Fortune Teller is another ‘fancy picture’, which may have been exhibited contemporarily as Artifice and Credulity” – acknowledging (if not fully accepting) my position. But the caption in the exhibition reads “The Fortune Teller is a ‘fancy picture’ by Russell, which may have been exhibited at the same time as Artifice and Credulity.” “Contemporarily” may mean the same as “at the same time as”, but the two sentences don’t.

Curiously the accompanying essay doesn’t reproduce the Humphry, and when you follow the Tate link to find a reproduction, you are greeted with Creed-like insolence. So if it were not for the stumbling efforts of the Apollo website in reproducing the pastel by Ozias, Lord Nagell, readers would be faced with Othello without the Moor.

Other trivia arise in the essay. For example, a passage about pastel technique is cited as by “the pastel manual writer John Imison”, and the reference is given as Imison’s The school of the arts, 4th ed., London, 1798, pp. 62–3, a section which deals with the animation of a spider by electricity. The crayon passage (which was later reprinted in the anonymous The artist’s assistant, Birmingham, 1801, p. 126) did appear in an earlier edition. But can Imison really be described as a pastel manual writer when all he has done (seemingly unremarked by the author of the essay) is lift a passage – in part word for word – from John Russell’s Elements of painting with crayons?

Later editions of Imison (who died in 1788) come to the promised section on “crayon-painting” that appeared only in the contents of the 1798 edition: “upon considering that it is a very inferior mode of painting…we have judged it better to suppress the article altogether, to make room for something of more importance.” Let us hope that Tate management are not tempted to do this, but are rather inspired to do a more thorough exhibition that gives the public a far clearer account of this subject.

Postscript – 13 April

If you want to know why there was a craze for pastel in the eighteenth century, you need go no further than The Queen’s Gallery, where, in Room 1, you will find three glorious pastels Liotard made of the future George III and two of his sisters.

Postscript – 19 May

The caption on the Apollo website has been corrected.

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From → Art history

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