Driven from the house because I could no longer bear the upheaval created by the builders who are putting in a new bathroom (tentacles of chaos extended from the room itself through the hall, the kitchen and the spare room, leaving me trying to maintain some semblance of normality in either the living room or the bedroom) and feeling somewhat emotionally labile after a bad tussle with Mr. Novovirus and therefore unwilling to subject myself to the delights of the pre-Christmas scrum in the High Street, I decided to seek an oasis of light and calm at the Tate Gallery. Because of the current chaos caused by the building works at Victoria, I couldn't find the right bus stop and ended up having to walk to Pimlico; not a great experience when you have to stop every couple of hundred yards to catch your breath. Maybe I should have got a taxi because, Dear Reader, it turned out that I was going to need every last bit of energy to get round this huge exhibtion, the scale of which I completely underestimated.
I have no objection to paying good money to see an exhibition; what I object to is museums' constant squawks of "please donate". Yes, I will happily drop a couple of coins in a collecting box if it is parked discreetly to one side but its the in-your-face "PLEASE DONATE £4!" signs that rub me up the wrong way. I think I had to pass eight or nine of them between the entrance and the actual exhibition. Even the cloakroom counter was liberally festooned with "PLEASE DONATE £2!" signs. I asked the staff member behind the counter whether a percentage of those donations made their way into his wallet each month and he shook his head regretfully, so I said cheerfully "Then the Tate can go hang" (no art gallery pun intended). The financial assault wasn't over yet; within the space of 50 feet outside the exhibition itself I was practically wrestled to the floor by three staff members trying to foist the audioguide on me, one of whom was deeply engaged in a private conversation on his mobile phone at the time. I generally like audioguides, but not for another tenner, thank you very much.
The first room of the exhibition is quite small, but even this contains a couple of "biggies". This would ultimately cause me enormous problems with the "Art Gallery Game", the rules of which I outlined in my review of Bronze. Because familiar images scream at you from every wall, you can run the risk of making your choices simply because you happen to be familiar with an image rather than for more aesthetic reasons. Anyway, even in this first room, there are a couple of very famous paintings - Rosetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Holman Hunt's Lorenzo and Isabella. I stood in front of the latter for quite some time deliberating whether it would be my "shortlist item" simply because of the beauty of the fold's of Isabella's dress, but decided to reject it because there was something about it, not previously noticed, that annoyed me. The plants on the windowsill are cotton and passion flower, both of which are New World plants and therefore wouldnt have been in cultivation in Europe in the 14th Century when Bocaccio wrote The Decameron in which this story appears. I did wonder whether the audioguide mentioned the incredibly phallic shadow which appears on the tablecloth behind the male figure in the white hose. In the end, I settled on Ford Madox Brown's The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry for my Room 1 Shortlist Item; unfortunately none of the reproductions on the internet I could find do justice to its luminous quality, but its a lovely, glossy thing and I wondered why the Tate don't do a Christmas card of it.
Room 2 has the nominal theme of "History" and there are some interesting pictures here - lots of Rosetti's rather over-pouty maidens, and quite a lot of Shakespeare-inspired Millais - although I struggle to see how The Two Gentlemen of Verona or The Tempest could be construed as "history". What I enjoyed about this room was that there was absolutely nothing to stop you getting as close to a picture as you wanted and peering intently at it - so often you are held back by a little wire barrier which is easy to forget about and catch your foot in as you turn around - do you hear the voice of experience here? After a brief flirtation with Rosetti's Wedding of St. George as my shortlisted picture (mainly because I think the dragon's head looks just like some daft mummer has been prancing around in a dragon costume and then bundled the head back into the dressing up box before sneaking off to quaff some mead, or whatever it is that mummers do for kicks), I picked his enigmatic Tune of Seven Towers because it was just so damned crackpot for a while before realising that I couldn't justify not picking Millais' superb Mariana (link to a very interesting YouTube documentary if you have five minutes to spare) simply because you can practically feel the velvet pile of the dress she is wearing (and I like the mouse which has obviously been hidng under her chair and which has just had to make a run for it after being disturbed). In fact, tiny details would become an almost over-riding criterion for shortlist selection during this visit).
Absoultely no contest about the star item in Room 3 - my personal selection for the award of Greatest Picture of All Time. The almost photographic rendering of the hands just blows me away every time I see it. No dicussion needed, go straight to the head of the shortlist, do not pass GO. Millais again. Two out of three so far; not bad going given the competition on offer. In fact, there has to be something pretty spectacular ahead for this not to be coming home with me as I leave the exhibition.
Its a bit difficult to stand and gaze meditatively at Ophelia about to sink beneath the surface, as Room 3 is filling up and there is a bit of a crush. Room 4 is roped off at the moment because someone has collapsed and is being tended to by anxious-looking staff members, although this does not stop some people refusing categorically to leave the room and have their picture-viewing interrupted; in fact, a couple of feelingless idiots actually step OVER the poor prostrate figure on the floor in order to get a closer look at the canvasses she fell over in front of. Room 4 starts to get a bit claustrophobic as no message seems to have been given to the idiots on the main doors to stop more people coming in. Finally, with an almost audible sigh of relief, the ropes are removed and we can finally get into Room 4. Almost as soon as I enter, someone shouts from Room 5 that someone has collapsed in there as well. They are obviously falling like flies, although whether overcome with aesthetic transfiguration or Norovirus is hard to ascertain.
Room 4 - "Salvation" - is full of "big ticket paintings" - images whose fame stretches far and wide. Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat,, The Light of the World, and The Shadow of Death (a picture ruined for me because of Christ's resemblance to Russell Brand), Millais' controversial Christ in the House of His Parents and, strangely, Ford Madox Brown's Work (odd inclusion; is "work" the new salvation?) which is so full of details that it makes me feel queasy looking at it. It always looks to me like one of those paintings used in competitions - find 7 hats, 3 dogs, a baby, a picnic lunch and a blue spotted handkerchief. The number of famous images screaming for attention from every wall starts to get bit overpowering, and I am just about to settle on Convent Thoughts for my shortlist and stagger from the room, when a quiet, almost rustic image that I have never seen before brings me to both a halt and my senses. Its another Ford Madox Brown - Jesus washing Peter's Feet - and although I have no religious leanings whatsoever, it makes something inside me chime loudly. It immediately becomes my shortlist item for Room 4. I like the man on the left fiddling with his shoestrings. Perhaps he is next. At various points so far I have encountered a elderly lady using a portable stool sitting gazing up at paintings with a look of wonder on her face, and here she is again, explaining the significance of the act of washing someone's feet to her teenaged grand-daughter, who is hanging on her every word; they are clearly having a great time together and grandma is enjoying passing on her enthusiasm and knowledge. I stand and listen quietly and wish that I had had someone to do that for me.
I'm fading a bit by now as tiredness starts to set in but, in room 5, I am briefly intrigued by the almost Art Deco feel of Rosetti's Lady Lillith. I am held captivated once again by a detail - the shine on the watering can in the bottom right corner of Isabella and the Pot of Basil, and its reflection in the highly polished wood of the prie-dieu it is parked up against. Again, it is a tiny detail that has won the larger image a place on the shortlist. In fact, I wonder at this point whether I can bend the rules slightly and just have the watering can instead of the entire painting; having such a number of large canvasses under my arm is beginning to wear me out.
Room 6 is full of odds and ends of slightly dinky furnishings, a spectacular carpet featuring some rather scary peacocks and four acrimonious parrots having a go at them, some of those odd William Morris wallhangings featuring effeminate knights searching for the Holy Grail and, tucked away in a corner, my shortlist item for this room - a Morris design for wallpaper. I think an entire room decorated with this might be rather overpowering,(a criticism I have to level at most of Morris's wallpapers) but here its lightened considerably by only being coloured in the middle and surrounded by a deep border of unpainted pencil design (not entirely shown in the image below), as if in a frame. So I take it off the wall and add it to my collection.
Its called "Tulip and Willow" - and it crosses my mind that Morris must have been a bit tripped out that day, because they sure as heck don't look much like any tulips I know.
The end is in sight with only the final room - "Mythologies" left. My feet are starting to complain quite a lot and I feel slightly light-headed in that way you get when you have been staring at paintings for a couple of hours. There's only one painting here that takes my interest: Burne-Jones' enigmatic Golden Stairs. I can finally have a sit down and contemplate which of the paintings I have carried with me will be coming home on the train. I sit on a seat in the middle of the room and suddenly I see IT. THE ONE. Because its hanging in a slightly out-of-the-way position relative to how you come into this room I haven't noticed it before. It is completely out of place in this particular room among all the distressed damozels and simpering heroes. I've never seen it before. Its a simple landscape and I WANT IT and I WANT IT NOW.
Practically the last painting I see has carried all before it. Its a Millais - Chill October. Ophelia can return to her wall, vanquished by a simple, stunning landscape, that has little to do with PreRaphaelitism in the sense that most of us would describe it. You can practically feel the stiff breeze blowing out of the frame towards you and making those dry grasses rattle, and those birds are calling to each other as they fly towards their roost for the night. Just off canvas, perhaps a solitary heron wheels slowly towards its nest. I could sit and look at it for hours.
There's only one problem - it belongs to Andrew Lloyd Webber. And I find in the gift shop that he has refused the Tate permission to reproduce it as a postcard. Still, I can carry it home with me anyway. Its been an exhausting afternoon, and its time for a hot chocolate in the cafeteria before finding my way back to the station. .
PreRaphaelites - Victorian Avant Garde ends in mid-January. Still time to catch it - perhaps in the long, slow days between Christmas and New Year when there is little else to do but eat leftovers and slump in front of the TV. Its well worth the effort. Its a little overwhelming at times - there are so many famous paintings that it can feel disorientating, a bit like seeing a crowd of old friends at a party - but at this particular party, the crowds have suddenly parted and, from the other side of the room, a beautiful stranger has just smiled at me.