To Victoria station and on to the Queens’s Gallery and I guess that Christmas must be approaching as there’s a great big fir tree stuck near the entrance. It’s covered in the usual little ornamental lights but, instead of twinkly glass baubles or streams of tinsel hanging from the branches, there are dozens of little replica crowns, albeit that they seem to be made of tin foil and some stuffed material rather than the more traditional gold, diamonds and other assorted gemstones. I suppose it’s going too far to draw a comparison with the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, who famously subverted sculptural conventions by recasting the forms of kitchen utensils, musical instruments, fast food and various other solid objects in pliable plastics and other inappropriately squidgy materials. But then again, maybe Maj is into a bit of Pop Art as the nearby gift shop is currently selling tea towels decorated with the silver jubilee portrait of her that Andy Warhol produced in his familiar, signature style. Also available here are various chocolates, drinks, cushions, ceramic sets and toy corgis all carrying the Buckingham Palace mark and each item, presumably, approved by the head of the firm herself. If the overall house style for this display of souvenir goods might best be described as a sort of quirky, camp disingenuity, I can’t quite make up my mind as to whether this indicates that the boss has a keen awareness of the nuances of marketing and brand promotion in our multi-media age or else that she’s completely disinterested in such footling trivialities.
Anyway, enough about this seasonal shopping stuff and on with the show. And the latest exhibition in the Gallery here is entitled, Portrait of the Artist, which is, I suppose, the kind of generalised title that’s broad enough to allow for the inclusion of just about any painting from amongst the entirety of the royal collection. And so it proves to be. Frankly, it’s all a bit of a hodge-podge and while there are indeed dozens of formal portraits to check out, there also quite a number of other curiosities including landscapes, genre scenes and allegorical works, not to mention one of Lord Leighton’s massive historical fantasies Cinabue’s Madonna Carried in Procession. Now, this is undoubtedly a very impressive bit of painting but, as the name suggests, the subject matter is the representation of a traditional Italian religious parade rather than being the portrait of an artist or, indeed, any other individual in particular. And so, like quite a few of the other works here, it’s a little bit hard to understand precisely what the logic was that compelled the selection committee to drag it up from the royal storage vaults and stick it in the current show.
To add to the slight sense of curatorial muddle, the show’s organisers also seem to have gone out of their way to try to include examples of as many different type of media as they could find. So, interspersed among the traditional oil paintings are photographs, prints, chalk sketches, Mary Kowles’ woolen embroidery self-portrait and a David Hockney computerised ipad print. Everything is a little bit too haphazard for my tastes and if there really was a guiding hand intent on making some overarching point about stylistic changes in the development of portraiture; or else determined to illustrate some narrative concerning the mercuriality of the artistic mind-set; or maybe even reveal how the acquisitorial tastes of royalty have changed over the past few centuries – then I don’t think that they’ve succeeded very well. Maybe all is better explained in the accompanying catalogue. I certainly couldn’t determine what was meant to be going on by just looking at the pictures and trying to decode the rationale behind their selection or display. Which is not to say that there aren’t some diverting works here that are worth having a good look at. Self-portraits by Rembrandt and Rubens are probably the stars of the show but I also liked some of the less grandiose works: bespectacled Joshua Reynolds squinting back at himself, mustachioed Edwin Landseer surrounded by some canine critics, and John Bratby relaxing with his feet propped up on a stool – all retain a certain innocent charm. Although I’m still not convinced that hanging them together and then inserting a Hogarth print, an Alfred Munnings cartoon, or the wonderful Zoffany picture of connoisseurs posing in front of paintings in the Uffizi, is such a good idea. It doesn’t really matter how good, great or even mediocre the art is – and there are examples of all types here – by displaying the works as a random switcharound between different genres, styles and media, forces the viewer to keep recalibrating dials on the mental goggles and this quickly becomes all a bit too tiring. At least it does for me and so I soon exit – not through the gift shop – but straight out into the bracing atmosphere of the chilly afternoon air.
By the time I’ve traversed Green Park my head is clear once again and I feel ready for a stroll up Albermarle Street pausing to have a quick look at the wonderful little selection of works by Raoul Dufy in Connaught Brown. I’m still not convinced that he was anything other than a deft commercial artist or skillful graphic designer but he certainly had a flair for constructing striking colour schemes and a talent for economically capturing movement and character in a handful of dashed off brushstrokes. Whether it’s boulevardiers heading towards the casino in Nice, oarsmen getting ready for a row at the Henley Regatta, or just a toff adjusting his tie before heading out to a society soiree, Dufy convincingly manages to suggest just how pleasant and stylish was the gilded inter-war ambience that was enjoyed by the charmed elite of the day.
A bit further along the road comes Marlborough Fine Art and unfortunately the wonderful display of precision draughtswomanship exemplified by Paula Rego’s carefully crafted pastel drawings of portly ballerinas has been superseded by some dynamic expressionistic paintings from Catherine Goodman. I think the idea of this sort of Kokoschka-esque style of painting is that the sheer exuberance of the artist’s generalised brushstrokes helps to convey a sort of atmospheric description of a scene that is somehow more revealing of truth than that which a simple, straightforward, figurative representation can manage to achieve – though it’s not an argument that’s ever convinced me. Nevertheless, Goodman clearly gives it her all when she comes to applying the pigments and I wouldn’t want to be the person responsible for clearing up the studio after she’s been squishing through the paint tubes and splashing about on the canvases. But for all the energy she’s clearly expended I still don’t find her depictions of animals, jungle fighters or scenes deep in the forest as powerful or compelling as I sort of feel that I’m meant to.
Heading further north I pass a shop selling paintings by the famous poet, Nobel laureate and droner, Bob Dylan. Fortunately, there is a typical example of his work in the window which makes it unnecessary for me to halt my walk and detour into the space.
A single, fleeting glance is sufficient to confirm that the true métier of the one-time protest singer lies firmly within in the literary and musical worlds and not the visual one and while the exhibition is called The Beaten Path, I think Le Violon d’Ingres might be rather more apt.
And so finally, after a quick bus ride I reach the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in Conway Street which, I now discover, has a permanent coffee bar installed in the middle of the ground floor gallery. It’s certainly a novel idea and I’m tempted to take a refreshment break but first I climb the spiral staircase to the first floor where I’m confronted by what I take to be a giant komodo lizard. Beyond this magnificent beast are some parrots, various primates and an anteater, all of which are constructed from old bits of metal salvaged from the scrapyard by the artist Iain Nutting. The idea of patching together bits of junk to form animal-shaped sculptures may sound terribly corny and kitsch but the artist has such a wonderful eye for gauging just the right element to use to suggest the precise shape of a skull, curve of a muscle or weight of a limb that the overall results are really quite spectacular. On the other hand, if you happen to quite like the kitsch and curious then it’s worth heading over to the other Rebecca Hossack Gallery in Charlotte Street where Nancy Josephson’s sparkly antelope-head candle holders would provide the ideal present for someone who already has a couple of QE2 toy corgis.