Saturday, October 25th 2014
The purpose of our visit to the beautiful city of Bristol was to meet a cousin of Tigger’s and much of the visit was taken up with this. We met in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery and managed to have a look at some of the exhibits on show. Photography is permitted without flash and I show a selection of the works we saw, plus a few other things, below.
The Museum & Art Gallery building is very handsome. The exterior, with its columns, manage to be both Classical and modern at the same time. It was built between 1899 and 1904 in the period of transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian eras. It received a Grade II* listing in 1966.
Beneath a finely carved coat of arms of Bristol, an inscription reminds us that this establishment is “The gift of Sir William Henry Wills, Bart, to his fellow citizens”, a magnanimous gesture for which I imagine, the citizens of Bristol still remain grateful. Sir William was a member of the Bristol tobacco importing family which formed the W.D. & H.O. Wills tobacco and cigarette company that eventually merged into the Imperial Tobacco Company.
The way in is through a pair of traditional swing doors in wood and glass. These are accessed up a flight of steps though there is a separate entrance for wheelchairs.
Inside the museum, the doors are flanked by a pair of telamones (the masculine analogue of female caryatids), supporting a balcony above them.
While the building is of elegant proportions, the attention to detail and the careful finish (look at the veins on the telamon’s foot, for example) also impress, making this a building that you enjoy exploring for its own sake.
Near the doors stand a couple of Ancient Egypt sculptures and I photographed this one because she is feline. It is Sekhmet, the lioness goddess, daughter of the sun god Re. This is actually not the original but a plaster cast of the statue that probably dates from the 18th dynasty and is therefore around 3,400 years old.
The ground floor plan comprises two halls of which this is the second. It is largely taken up with tables and chairs for use by customers of the cafe, though there are exhibits all around in the side aisles. In the evening of November 24th 1940, a bomb fell through the glass and metal roof and exploded in this hall. You would hardly guess that today, so excellent has the repair work been, though there remain some chips and scars on the pillars as reminders of that destructive event.
We had made an early start in order to get here for a reasonable hour and so it was pleasant to make a pause and take refreshment in the cafe.
After meeting with our people we went on a tour of the museum and art gallery. What follows is a purely capricious sampling of what we saw, without any order to it.
Every self-respecting museum must have its Ming vase or, if not a vase, at least some beautiful artifact from that fabled Chinese era. Bristol has its piece of Ming, described as a flask (slip that into your hip pocket!) modelled on Middle Eastern designs. It is finely decorated with scrolls in underglaze blue.
This exhibit illustrates the main two problems associated with photographing museum objects. The first is reflection from the protective glass and the second is the illumination which is often narrowly focussed and creates over-bright highlights. In this case, the glass reflecting the vase made a nice counterbalance for the main image.
One of the pleasures of visiting art collections is the discovery of an artist I wasn’t previously aware of. I didn’t know Samuel Colman (1780-1845) but was rather taken with this portrait. The sitter is not named, which suggests this was not a commissioned portrait, and this fact has perhaps allowed the artist to be frank in his rendition of the man’s features. The man’s character shines through and you can imagine that he has made, or is about to make, some pithily humorous remark to the artist. (Apologies for the unwanted reflections on the glass.)
Another artist whose acquaintance I made here, so to speak, was Rolinda Sharples. A member of a family of artists, Rolinda (1793-1838) specialized in portraits and genre pieces. There were several of her paintings on display (see below, for another) and they show that she was an extremely competent painter with a eye for detail. The artist herself appears in several of her pictures, as above, and you soon begin to feel that you know her because her self-portraits vividly express her personality. While the picture above is a charming family piece, it is also carefully composed and finished and intended to display her prowess as an artist.
The above painting, representing two elderly ladies exchanging gossip, while a third listens covertly, risks being a cliché but I think the artist saves it from this fate with her accurate portrayal and humorous touches (the eavesdropper, the cat running past unnoticed with a bird in his mouth). To our eyes, this is a period piece, a scene from a costume drama, but to the artist, this was something immediate and real.
We now remember Edward Lear (1812-88) principally for his humorous verse but he was as much a painter as a poet and specialized in ornithological pictures. I find that there is a dreamy quality to his paintings of the landscape of Greece and Egypt but, at the same time, there is the realism of an artist who knows the land and feels at one with it. The costumed figures may date the work but the painting itself has a timeless quality.
I was attracted to this painting by the subject (Ancient Egypt!) and the grandeur both of the subject and of the painting itself. The reduced size of the image here present does not do justice to it, so please click on it to see a larger (though still inadequate) version. The artist liked architectural subjects and undertook a tour of the Middle East to broaden his portfolio. He uses human figures to show the scale of the temple though he cheats a little – the state of preservation of the sculpted faces is not as good as he makes it out to be here!
One of the largest exhibits is the suspended Bristol Biplane. Nicknamed the ‘Bristol Boxkite’, these planes were made in the years 1910 to 1914 in Bristol by the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company. This one is actually a model, created for the film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, 1963.
The museum has a collection of preserved birds and animals. As a child I loved visiting the animals in Brighton Museum but these days I am less keen on them, though I recognize that some collections have proved their value to scientific research. This portrait shot is of Alfred the Gorilla who became famous nationally and internationally from his arrival in Bristol Zoo in 1930. At his death in 1948 he was the world’s longest living gorilla in captivity.
In a corner by a staircase, in somewhat cramped conditions, stands this bronze sculpture by Francis Derwent Wood (1871-1926). It is referred to variously as Daedalus and Icarus or Daedalus Equiping Icarus. The story of the father and son pair who escape imprisonment by flying on artificial wings created by the inventive Daedalus and which ends tragically when the son exultantly flies too near the sun, causing the wax to melt and the wings to disintegrate, is well known. We know the exploit to be a legend and the feat to be physically impossible but the story continues to intrigue us and the sculpture, with its realistic scaled up birds’ wings makes it seem almost possible. It is a beautiful piece and rightly secured for the young sculptor a gold medal and a travelling scholarship of £200 from the Royal Academy Schools.
The same artist also made the bronze figure of a young woman holding a lamp and entitle Truth.
This beautiful sculpture in white marble presented a puzzle when I first saw it as I could not find the artist’s name or any details. Looking it up on the Web, I was hampered by not knowing its name. In the end, I emailed the museum and asked for information which they kindly supplied. I was then able to find further details online. The sculpture, done (I believe) in 1821, is by Edward Hodges Baily, famous for his statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson that stands atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Quoting from the museum’s email, “The figure illustrates the passage in [Milton’s] Paradise Lost after Eve has eaten the apple and become aware of her own reflection in the pool.” Baily was born in Bristol and this piece was one of the first of the museum’s art acquisitions.
To round off our tour what better way than to discover a bronze by my favourite sculptor, Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). Epstein’s sculpture covers a dizzyingly broad range of styles and techniques and he is the key figure in modern sculpture. He produced many portrait busts and heads, both of famous people and of members of his family. The Kathleen portrayed here is Kathleen Garman, Epstein’s long-term mistress whom he eventually married after the death of his wife. Epstein made several portraits of his muse Kathleen and these tend to be known by their number in the sequence. Thus this is the fifth portrait of Kathleen.
I started the sculpture tour with a lioness, so I will end it with a lion! Lions, sitting bolt upright, adorn the ends of the balustrades on the staircases. They have a slightly dreamy air to them. They are no longer the fierce, proud lions of the Victorian age of Empire, but softer, more reflective creatures, seemingly aware that they sit on the brink of great changes.