Magazine article Contemporary Review

An Amazing Dreamcoat at the Royal Academy: The Lloyd Webber Collection

Magazine article Contemporary Review

An Amazing Dreamcoat at the Royal Academy: The Lloyd Webber Collection

Article excerpt

THE discourtesies extended to the collector, Andrew Lloyd Webber, by the London Evening Standard, The Sunday Times and The Guardian, were not only incivil but also irrelevant. I too feel blank about his musical entertainments. That has nothing to do with the pictures which he has bought from the profits of his enterprises. Money could be far worse spent. He has justified his considerable wealth by sharing the pictures it brought him with the public, at short notice and no little trouble to himself, and to the enrichment of the Royal Academy.

It must be conceded that there is little consistency of style or achievement in the exhibition. Lloyd Webber is devoted to Victorian art and cannot resist kitsch so long as it is Victorian kitsch. Among many meritorious pictures there are some which are quite appalling, as well as various tasteless artefacts. They include a bizarre grand piano, not only reconstructed by Philip Webb but in addition decorated by Kate Faulkner with playing-card pips, mottoes and whorls of gilt gesso-work.

Sir John Millais is represented by Chill October, a meticulously positioned landscape worthy of Daubigny or Theodore Rousseau of the Barbizon School. His Huguenot Lovers (a girl pleading with a young man to flee the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and in her ardour pulling him by her scarf with what little strength she has) is deftly composed, the figures slotted into each other in a trim polygon. Elsewhere Millais's story-telling bent becomes ludicrous in such pictures as The Proscribed Royalist, in which a former Cavalier stretches his begrimed head out of a hollow oak-tree to kiss the hand of his lady, who has brought him food. A similar clownish aptness degrades a grave event in William Holman Hunt's Shadow of Death. There a clay-coloured hirsute Jesus, halfway through sawing a plank in Joseph's carpenter's shop, stretches Himself so that He casts a shadow of His crucified form.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti had enough wit and judgement to shun such glib and tasteless visual puns; also to avoid 'platitudes in stained-glass attitudes', as Gilbert put it in one of his libretti. Subtly moving as a poet and translator, Rossetti was far less so as a painter. Self-trained and over-confident, in his earliest pictures he favoured large spongy miasmas of simple colours, either gaudy or dismal. Later, in pursuit of his opiated dreams, he devised cocktails of chloral and colour in the form of his succession of burly Swinburnean women, heavy-tressed and olive-complexioned, their thick jaws jutting from necks coiled like pythons, as in Fiammetta and La Ghirlandata. Finally, although a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, he abandoned the style of Fra Angelico for the distinctly post-Raphaelite Florentine bogus-Mannerism (sometimes contrived, over-ripe and maudlin) of Carlo Dolci and Sassoferrato, as in Blanzifiore and The Damsel of the Sanct Grael.

In a jumble of disparities, it seems best to single out three outstanding Post-Pre-Raphaelite painters: Edward Burne-Jones, James Waterhouse and Atkinson Grimshaw.

Burne-Jones's incompatibility with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood may be discerned in two pictures in the exhibition: Rossetti's Fiammetta, 'a hot wench in flaming taffeta', parts two boughs of improbable apple-blossom and peers through them with an unfocused gape. In Burne-Jones's Music two girls, intent on their duo of voice and viola, interact among limpid orchard-colours. As in Mantegna, whom he admired, Burne-Jones's drawing and coloration are sharp and pellucid. He was as keen at first on the Grail legend and knights in armour as any Pre-Raphaelite, but depicted the Quest for the Grail with a stricter antiquarian accuracy. Max Beerbohm once caricatured the Greek scholar, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, among a throng of Pre-Raphaelites who were painting frescoes: Jowett asks them what the knights would do with the Grail when they found it. Burne-Jones would have felt the weight of Jowett's sarcasm. …

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