Tuesday, August 25th 2015
Cambridge is an ancient city through which runs the River Cam. What would be more natural than to think that the town derives its name from the river? Natural but incorrect: originally, the river was called the Granta and the town took the name Grantanbrycg (‘Bridge over the Granta’) from it, but in the medieval period, the town developed its modern name and its river thus became known as the Cam. In its upper reaches, however, the river is still called the Granta and its name changes to the Cam as it passes through the town.
Cambridge is also known as an ancient university town and a rival, not least in the annual Boat Race, of Oxford. Among the universities of the world still in existence, Cambridge is the fourth oldest, preceded by Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca. Thus it is the second oldest in Britain, though its royal charter is earlier (1231) than that of Oxford’s (1248).
As well as the 31 colleges forming the University, Cambridge boasts 18 museums and art galleries, one of which we had come to visit today. The FitzWilliam Museum was holding an exhibition entitled Ruskin’s Turners, that we wanted to see. While photography is allowed is the main park of the museum, it was not allowed in the exhibition and I therefore cannot show you any of the paintings.
We arrived by rail at Cambridge’s railway station with its unusual 15 arch design, and set out forthwith for the town. One can catch a bus outside the station but it is more interesting to walk and see the sights.
One such sight stands at the corner of Trumpington Street and Lensfield Road. It is often referred to as Hobson’s Conduit though in fact it is really a monument to Hobson that was erected to mark the end of the actual conduit. This artificial waterway was built in 1614 to bring clean water to the town and because one of the main benefactors of the scheme was one Thomas Hobson (1544-1630), it became known as Hobson’s Conduit. The monument, erected in gratitude to Hobson, stood in the market place until 1856 when it was moved to its present location.
The museum was founded in 1816 and it was only later that it moved to the superb Classical style building that now bears its name. The building was completed in stages. It opened in 1848 but the entrance hall was finished in 1875. More details will be found in the Wikipedia article Fitzwilliam Museum. (The image is a composite and there is a small amount of distortion.)
As mentioned above, photography was not allowed in the exhibition so what follows are pictures of items in the general collection that attracted my attention for one reason or another.
This elegant figure is by John Gibson (1790-1866), sculptor of the figures of Meleager the Hunter that I saw in the Norwich and Lincoln. It was made between 1833 and 1837 during the sculptor’s stay in Italy. Gibson is renowned for his Classical figures and this one is entitled Venus Verticordia, ‘Venus, turner of hearts’.
It is hard to imagine anything more different from Venus Verticordia in style and inspiration than this piece by Barbara Hepworth (1903-75). Hepworth achieved a high level of recognition for her sculpture and received many awards among which a CBE (1958) and a DBE (1965) but remains controversial. If, like the late lamented Brian Sewell, you consider modern art rubbish, then you will dismiss Hepworth’s works as meaningless lumps. Or maybe the almost musical rhythm of their shapes will appeal to you.
In the modern museum, glass cases are frowned upon but in my view they have their place. They are an efficient way of displaying large amounts of exhibits, protecting them but making them visible. At the same time, here is something sad about exhibits standing still and silent in rows upon glass shelves beyond the friendly touch of a hand, imprisoned in perpetuity for the crime of being beautiful and historically important.
This carefully finished figure with its intricate coiffure was part of a full-length statue. It portrays Antinous, the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138). He was drowned in the Nile while accompanying Hadrian on a visit to Egypt and the emperor subsequently deified him. Here he is apparelled to represent the god of wine.
I have long been fascinated by Ancient Egypt with its long history and the dense imagery of its culture and religion, expressed vigorously yet elegantly in carvings and polychrome paintings in the unique Egyptian style. This exhibit is a coffin lid from the tomb of one of the most important and long-iived Pharaohs, Ramesses III, who lived between BC 1183-52. According to the label, ‘The ruler appears in the form of the god Osiris. Ramesses is flanked by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys and two cobras. There is a third snake surrounding the outside edge of the lid. The mouth and tail meet at the top of the lid offering a protective seal.’
In contrast to the bare stone of Ramesses’ coffin lid, we have this intricately painted inner coffin lid from the burial of Nespawershefyt (c. BC 990-40). Though the features are probably symbolic rather than a lifelike portrait, we are struck by the steady, confident gaze that meets our eyes unflinchingly. This was a man who was successful and confident in life and who expected an equal level of wellbeing in the afterlife. The text and images reflect the passage of Newpawershefyt from this world to the next, detailing the stages and the formalities to be carried out.
The figures on coffin lids have their arms crossed, showing that they are dead. This statue, probably of an official of the Old Kingdom, has his arms uncrossed for he is very much alive. Much Egyptian art is stylized with the figures in a set of standard poses but Egyptian artists were capable of naturalistic and lifelike portrayals of people and animals. This portrait is formal but we glimpse the real man who is sitting for the artist to model him.
Rushing forward through time, I came upon this painting by L.S. Lowry. Entitled After the Wedding, it is dated to 1939, and is immediately recognizable as a work by the Lancashire artist. They are pictures you can view again and again, seeing new details, new relationships between the figures. Here, the focus is the church door towards the bottom right yet the bright sky at top left keeps tugging the eye away. Lowry’s paintings are often characterized, as here, by a depth of field that carries the attention from the scene and over the roofs, as though the artist, while painting, was dreaming of escape to new worlds but always, finally, coming to rest among the smoking chimneys of the industrial city. There is a liveliness to Lowry’s paintings, enhanced by the vivid colours, but also a touch of melancholy.
I was pleased to find another of my favourite artists well represented, the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Epstein made sculptures in many different styles so that his work in a sense reflects the whole of the sculpture of his period. Some works veer towards the symbolic or the abstract but his portraits are fully naturalistic and strike us both with their realism and the way the personality of the sitter shines through. I have chosen as examples four of those on view.
It is perhaps in his portrait busts that most of us can more easily access Epstein’s extraordinary power as a sculptor. It is almost as though he reached out to his subjects and his touch, like that of Midas, turned them to metal. They seem suspended in mid thought and the aura of life still clings to them.
I will admit to being intrigued by Napoleon and I often wonder what would have happened had his intended invasion of Britain taken place. Would we now be a French-speaking nation? This portrait bust, done by Antoine-Denis Chaudet (1763-1810) no later than 1802, became the official image of Napoleon as Emperor and was subsequently reproduced in many forms and sizes. Perhaps Chaudet was following the traditions of Roman sculptors in portraying their emperors and his bust has the same simplicity and lack of distracting detail. It is a portrait of authority, even of severity. Who could have guessed, when this bust was cast, that he whom it represents would die meanly as a prisoner on St Helena?
I was surprised by this painting and had to look at the label more than once to be sure that the artist really was Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). Done 5 years before his death, it seems to me unlike the famous works of his mature period and conventional in approach if nonetheless beautiful. However, it does no harm to be surprised from time to time by an artist you thought you knew well.
While enjoying the art, one should not neglect to study and enjoy the building within which it resides. It is very beautiful with an intricacy of decor that could simply not be produced within today’s budgetary constraints. For that reason it is to be treasured and maintained for the pleasure and education of us now and for future generations.