British Vision: Observation and Imagination in British Art 1750-1950

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British Vision: Observation and Imagination in British Art 1750-1950

Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

6 October 2007-13 January 2008

When Tate Britain reopened in 2000 with a bold thematic display of its permanent collection, rather than taking the more traditional chronological approach, it prompted widespread debate about the feasibility of what Nikolaus Pevsner once described as the 'geography of art'--the attempt to define the distinctive traits of a nation's art across time. Although the Tate's experiment deserved serious consideration as an alternative to the restrictions of a chronological approach--memorably placing Nicholas Hilliard's Elizabeth I shoulder-to-shoulder with Francis Bacon's Seated Figure, for example--the critics' sceptical response showed that curators straddle the centuries at their peril.

Yet the domestic anxieties that accompanied the Tate's inaugural display did not deter the organisers of an impressive exhibition at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, where more than two centuries of British art was assembled and arranged according to a certain idea of 'Britishness'. Bringing together more than 300 works from over 50 public and private collections throughout the UK, as well as from Europe and America, 'British Vision' is one of the most ambitious exhibitions of British art of the modern period ever to be held on the Continent. The museum's elegantly refurbished rooms revealed a succession of works of the highest calibre, tracing the course of the nation's art during a period of extraordinary change, from the discoveries of the mid-18th century to the scarred post-war figuration of the 1950s and early '60s.

The inclusion of works on paper, early photography and all kinds of printed matter lent an additional richness to the exhibition. In the first room, John Sell Cotman's early industrial view of Bedlam Furnace near Ironbridge, Shropshire and Robert Howlett's photographic celebration of the Great Eastern steamship, hung alongside such iconic oil paintings as Joseph Wright's A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery and Ford Madox Brown's Work, introducing the thematic ambitions that traversed the loosely chronological structure of the exhibition. That the same room also juxtaposed George Stubbs' servant-portrait of Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon's Gamekeeper with a beautifully conceived photographic study of a Suffolk poacher by Peter Henry Emerson was further testimony to the imagination that Robert Hoozee, the museum's director, and his collaborators had invested in an exhibition that frequently departed from the obvious.

The premise that held such a diverse array of objects together is that a distinctly British vision of art can be traced along an axis between 'observation' and 'imagination': that is to say, between a keen disposition for the empirical study of nature on the one hand and a tendency towards the visionary, or spiritual, on the other. The result is a survey of British art that is unapologetic in favouring the idiosyncratic and the obsessive over the conventional, in which the Academy plays a decidedly minor role, and where portraiture, once regarded as a British obsession by Continental critics, makes only an occasional, almost accidental, appearance. Thus, not a single work by Joshua Reynolds appeared in 'British Vision'; instead, eccentric outsiders William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Richard Dadd took centre stage, with more than 30 works between them. The danger that such an approach might have confined the exhibition's subject-matter to a series of stereotypes is gently, if unintentionally, caricatured in the title of Timothy Hyman's introductory essay to the accompanying catalogue, 'Between the Meticulous and the Mad'.

The work of Stanley Spencer, now firmly established as an eccentric hero of 20th-century British art, enjoys a similar prominence in the latter half of the exhibition, with no fewer than 16 works on display--the same as Constable and second only to Blake. …