It feels like it’s time to take a trip outside the city again so get the tube down to Paddington and board a train heading West. The carriage is nicely empty and quiet when I get on and I’m just settling down to a snooze when suddenly there’s a riotous explosion of raucous energy and the kind of feverishly excited chattering and cheering, squeaking and squealing that I associate with nervous schoolchildren about to embark on some naughty adventurous pursuit. But grown-ups when gathered into small groups also occasionally revert to this kind of juvenile state of boisterous bravado, noisy indiscretion and forced exuberance that doubtless could be explained in Freudian terms as being related to challenging a repressed desire to shed the responsibilities of adulthood. I’ve quite often seen gangs of football supporters act this way on underground trains but the phenomenon is not gender specific and today the tiresome behaviour is being promulgated by a dozen or so youngish ladies all wearing identical sashes that confirm the shrieking sorority are part of a celebratory hen party outing. I suppose I could approach them and request that they settle down, be quiet and behave in a way more in keeping with the sensible respectable societal norms and good manners that were once the proud boast of this country. But I kind of think that if I did so I might well be confused with one of those ecdysiastic performers who begin their act by appearing to be some fake figure of authority before revealing their true character…and very much more else besides. Consequently, I simply exit the compartment and relocate to another one and return to my former somnambulistic state, dreaming of a narrative that involves confronting Salome, the Three Graces and a pride of Lionesses from the English Women’s Football Squad.
When I rouse from my slumbers I find the train is pulling into Bath Spa and my reverie ends as I walk out into the rainy downpour that greets my arrival. It’s many years since I was last in this part of the world but, as I hurry along, my vague past memories seem to be reconfirmed of a city architecturally set in stone from a decidedly 18th century quarry. Fake simulations of a Jane Austen world of twee gentility appear to be taking place simultaneously in all the dozens of charming tearooms and souvenir trinket shops, with these efforts mimicked in the general behaviour of both locals and visitors, as if all are engaged in re-enacting an anachronistic version of the confected TV adaptation of some classic literary costume drama. I presume the hen party must have detrained in Reading or Swindon.
For my part, I bustle along under the protection of my umbrella until I reach the solid, impressively attractive honey-coloured stone facade of the Holburne Museum. And, shaking the drizzle from my brolly, I advance to the reception desk where I’m met by a pair of charming assistants who seem only too happy to indulge me in my attempts at the kind of witty bantering persiflage that, if not exactly Austenesque in its sophistication, Is my best attempt at the kind of polite good-mannered small talk that seems appropriate to the elegant surroundings. Originally the Museum was an hotel, presumably for the Regency tourists who were in search of the health-giving waters for which the city is famous but, at the start of the last century, it was transformed into its current state as a Museum to house the collection of art and artefacts acquired by Sir William Holburne, fifth Baronet of Menstrie. As such, there are four rooms full of the kind of pretty random clutter of treasures and trophies that an aristocrat might easily acquire as he completed his Grand Tour round the Continent before settling down to continue the happy habit of accumulating yet more decorative ornamentations by attending all the local sales and country auctions.
Having said that, it’s quickly clear from a cursory perusal of his acquisitions that Holburne was much more of a dedicated magpie amateur rather than any kind of expert connoisseur, or that he had much of an academic frame of mind. So, while there are no really great works of art here (and the paintings he bought by Leonardo and other big-name renaissance masters were all either fakes or accidental misattributions), there are a few very good ones – notably the large Gainsborough portrait of the Byam family, the small Ramsay portrait of Rosamund Sargent (see above) and the bronze Venus by Susini – all of which are rightly highlighted in the gallery guide leaflet. As for the rest, well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag with a few good-ish works by Romney, Zoffany and Peter Bruegel the Younger and then quite a lot of not entirely unattractive space fillers – landscapes, works of religious instruction, vernacular tavern scenes etc etc. There’s also a lot of porcelain, pottery crockery, glass, furniture and such like that will doubtless fascinate and enthral some visitors but, located well outside of my area of particular knowledge or interest, I will pass without comment. Except to note that there is a special, exceptionally large collection of rare spoons, the thought of which may cause amusement among any regular readers of Private Eye.
As for the specific reason for my having made the long distance trip to call in to this Museum -that occupies the remaining room. And it’s here in the Roper Gallery (which is evidently allowed a special dispensation to stage temporary exhibitions entirely unrelated to the other items in the main collection) that is presented the current display of works by the 20th century French Modernist painter Edouard Vuillard. Having come all this way, I suppose that I was rather hoping to find a somewhat larger showing than the twenty or so small paintings and dozen or so small prints that fill the one-room Gallery here, but then I suppose it’s my own fault for not having researched the exhibition more thoroughly before setting off on the journey in the first place. Then again, the value of any exhibition relies less on quantity and much more on quality and, since Vuillard was famed for the mastery of his precious intimiste works, it should be eminently possible to assemble a jewel box selection of stunners that would reward the intrepid culture seeker no matter how far he’d travelled. At which point, I guess the dear reader may not be entirely surprised when, sadly, I have to say that this exhibition does not consist of said sequential suite of top rank sparklers. Which is not to say that there are only damp squib disappointments here but there are probably only two or three paintings that really confirm Vuillard‘s true talents and, for those who are unfamiliar with his works, I’m not sure this show will be sufficient to convince them of his deserved artworld status.
When he does get it right, then Vuillard‘s detailed domestic tableaux documenting the daily life of his bourgeois French family are as prettily composed and psychologically revealing as any chapter from an Austen novel. And they look better, as the artist plays with the lighting, atmosphere and especially the colour combinations and contrasts that seem to seep from the patterns of the model’s clothing out on to the wallpaper and furnishing backgrounds that make up the sets. It’s a neat trick that, when it comes off, can manage to merge everything together into a suffocating yet strangely satisfying whole, creating scenes that would have been daunting to have had to walk into in real life and yet, from our safe distance on the other side of the canvas, are just delightful and compel the voyeuristic viewer to take a long lingering view. I think probably only two or three of the paintings in this show achieve this elevated state of success and the rest are noble failures where the characters are too loosely painted or carelessly structured. They’re still very attractive but I’m not really sure I would recommend anyone who didn’t already live in Bath to make the effort to go and check them out. (And apologies for the fact that the photographs above don’t do the paintings justice.)
So, what else is there to see in Bath? Well, I suppose there are the baths but my time is short and it looks like the rain is going to start up again so I settle instead for a quick look into the City’s other plastic art attraction, namely the Victoria Gallery. And here is a decidedly odd venue with one large ground floor space for temporary shows and two upper rooms in which to cram the permanent collections, one of ceramics and the other a bizarre hodge-podge chronology of art. The latter selection slightly reminds me of one of those comic stage productions that used to claim to offer up the complete works of Shakespeare in an hour-and-a-half or less, albeit in a heavily abridged version. Here the gallery walls are crammed with a mosaic of paintings that run the whole gamut of art history starting off in the 16th century with a portrait of fat king Henry VIII, a scene of Cleopatra meeting her snaky demise and Adam and Eve about to be expelled from Eden. Then the higgledy-piggledy selection continues with a race to get through all the other centuries and genres with examples of landscapes, maritime scenes, still lifes and portraits leading into a final wall of modern stuff.
There are a couple of works that warrant a longer look –William Roberts’ Dressmakers and Sickert’s view of Bath’s London Street (see below) – but such is the cacophony and clamour of their surrounding selection of horrors – the garish Matthew Smith and the cartoony Rex Whistler – that it’s much too hard to concentrate. I feel as if I’ve just downed six cups of strong coffee and can’t relax enough to stand in one place and look at anything for more than a fleeting ten seconds. And I can’t help thinking that the Gallery should employ a more sensitive curator to sort out the collection, put three-quarters of the works into storage and rehang the rest in a smaller, more coherent display. In fact, if they offer me a sufficient sum I’d be happy to return and give it a go.
All of which leads on to the temporary show downstairs. War and Rumours of War is a large selection of works on paper loaned from the Hepworth Wakefield gallery that, as the title intimates, covers works made by British artists during the 1930s and ’40s.
This was obviously a bit of a tough time for the country as a whole so it’s not too surprising that all the works on show are decidedly downbeat, whether it’s Moore’s scenes of people camped underground sheltering from the Blitz (see above) or EG Nicholson‘s still life with rhubarb leaves (see below).
Perhaps even more grim is the fact that things don’t appear to lighten up very much even when the War finally finishes. The celebrations seem to have been over very quickly and gone entirely unrecorded before most of the artists represented here seem to have entered a period of sustained anticlimactic angst, expressed through dull abstracts or darkly depressive figurative works. I suppose it’s interesting to see painting by Ceri Richards, Brian Winter, Merlin Evans, Robert Colquhoun, Michael Ayrton (see below) and other artists from that grim gray era – after all, their works are seldom seen these days – but it’s not much fun. And perhaps it’s no real surprise that their works have gone so very far out of fashion.
After that it’s back to the station where, very much to my surprise, I’m just in time to witness the arrival of another hen party crowd! I guess there must be an alternative hidden side to Bath that I’ve managed to miss, although I don’t think I’ll be going back anytime soon to try to find it.