Friday, 3 June 2016

The Queen’s Gallery

Buckingham Palace
London SW1A 1AA

Thursday June 2 2016

Jo’s turn to be on a walking holiday with her destination guaranteeing rather more reliable weather than ours, lucky though we were; this meant the choice of outing was Linda’s alone.
I opted for the Queen's Gallery – Jo had been once and was not inclined to repeat the experience, especially as it comes at quite a cost.   

The purpose-built gallery is neatly positioned between the Palace itself (only open late July/August) and the Royal Mews, for which I could have bought a joint ticket. But it was to be pictures today. Within the Gallery the undercroft has a cloakroom and some sumptuous toilets, the ground floor an extensive shop and reception and security and the exhibition rooms are on the first floor – there are two substantial ones, two smaller ones and an Education area. Each room is named for a past curator though there was no sign of a ‘Blunt’ room …

Throughout the time of his activities in espionage, Blunt's public career was in the History of Art, a field in which he gained prominence. Following his dissertation on Italian Art he was given the position of Surveyor of the King's Pictures, and later the Queen’s Pictures (after the death of King George VI in 1952), one of the largest private collections in the world. He held the position for 27 years, was knighted as a KCVO in 1956 for his work,  and his contribution was vital in the expansion and cataloguing of the Queen’s Gallery, which opened in 1962.

The Gallery runs different exhibitions throughout the year and today you could enjoy ‘Scottish Artists 1750-1900’ and Maria Merian’s ‘Butterflies’ . I was not unduly thrilled at the thought of Victorian Scottish landscapes and sure enough there were plenty of stags at bay and heather coloured moors; the gallery visitors included a sprinkling of Scottish kilts, who felt very at home I’m sure. Sir David Wilkie was most popular in his day and the Georgian then Victorian public clearly loved his narrative painting – earlier works such as the game of Blind Man’s Buff bought by George IV when Prince Regent and Penny Wedding gave the monarchs an ‘impression’ of life among the lower orders even if in a cleaned up way.  More interesting was his trip abroad and though he did visit Italy (as almost any artist from Dürer to the present day has to do and does) the newly opened up Spain inspired three interesting narrative works – ‘The Guerrilla’s Departure’, ‘Defence of Saragossa’ and lastly ‘The Guerrilla’s Return’ – of course wounded, on a donkey and not unlike scenes from the Passion. (You can tell I am newly returned from a Catholic part of Germany where such scenes are supposed to be a penance and therefore inspire you to walk uphill…)  

George IV seemed to like these works and his purchase re-established Sir David’s somewhat fading fortunes. The Gallery offered a 10 minute talk slot focussing on an admirer and to some extent protégé of Wilkie’s by the name of John Philip, who (again inspired by a book) had also ventured to Spain and painted amongst others ‘The Dying Contrabandista’ – another strong narrative piece . There are clear influences of both Velasquez and Murillo with a ewer in the foreground and a texture to the textiles… Philip left Scotland quite young and was another Royal Academy student  teaming up with other artists including Richard Dadd, whose work we had encountered a few months back during our visit to the Bethlem Museum, and whose sister Maria he married. Unfortunately she was as mentally unstable as her brother and the marriage proved volatile – partly to escape and forget he travelled to Spain, so recently opened up following gaining their ‘freedom’ from Napoleon. After his return from Spain John Philip, or Philip of Spain as began to be known, was patronised by LANDSEER which helped him get commissions. The side galleries have very low light to enable  the Gallery to show what are essentially preparatory sketches and plans for the big pictures.

(I managed to lose my camera in Germany and though my phone worked well for the second half the light was too low  and flash discouraged - the Gallery website offers the full range of the exhibition) Apologies.

The real attraction for me today was the opportunity to see the ‘Butterflies of Maria Merian’ – the very contrasting show in the adjacent rooms. In some ways Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) is a ‘one-trick pony’ as what is on display are her consummate quasi-scientific watercolours, executed on vellum which gives them an added lustre and of course longevity. Her subject matter is almost entirely the life-cycle of butterflies and she combines, artistically, in each picture an accurate, life-sized depiction of the caterpillar> chrysalis (pupa) > butterfly ‘grazing’ on the tropical plant which gives it nourishment. She was the daughter of a Frankfurt printer and her widowed mother remarried an artist who taught his step-daughter how to paint flowers but she showed an early interest in insect life as well. Following the breakdown of her marriage she left to join a religious group in Amsterdam with her two daughters, whom she later taught to be artists also.

There she could develop her skills against the background of the European Enlightenment and its interest in scientific demonstration and advances. A bit like imagining a belief system ‘before Galileo or Darwin’, it is hard to remember that until the mid-17 th Century most folk still believed as Aristotle had thought  that insect life was generated from rotting matter – it was only Francesco Redi who demonstrated that the insects had a life independent though linked to the rotting meat. Even more surprising was the conclusion that the three stages of insect development are not three separate life-forms but one creature undergoing metamorphosis. It was the Dutchman Jan Swammerdam with his microscope work who demonstrated that the three life stages are one animal not three.

Maria Merian wished to catalogue these findings in a pictorial way and enterprising woman that she was, having seen some tropical specimens in Amsterdam, set off for Suriname, then a Dutch colony in South America. When I worry about our daughter heading in to the Pantanal (again) I have to salute the enterprise of this woman searching out mini-beasts three hundred years ago… 

She was there with her daughter from 1701-3 and the gallery shows many examples of her exquisite representations of the different moths, butterflies and insects, plus a few reptiles that she observed and captured very accurately. It was a bit like going to the tropical fruit section in the supermarket only better as her fruits looked fresher and more at home with the different species having their preferred habitats. So the wonderful red pomegranate has a Blue Morpho butterfly, the Pomelo a different species. She would ask locals mostly expat Sugar Plantation owners and enquire about plant names and they would mock her for ‘seeking anything other than sugar’… That was not to say that she had no sense of business because she was so impressed with the Seville Orange Moth’s strong thread that she sent some back  to Amsterdam in the hope it might generate a silk industry..

Similarly we have the Papaya and Nymphidium Butterfly and the Pineapple (a fruit only recently introduced in Europe) with its cockroaches and the Dido Longwing Butterfly.

I found the combination of scientific enquiry with artistic skill a most compelling but soothing exhibition. The ‘pictures’ are actually all pages from her magnum opus ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ – I thought you might have a better chance of understanding the Latin than the Dutch!

Her legacy was not inconsiderable inspiring both successive scientists and innumerable fabric and porcelain designers.

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