Magazine article The Spectator

Close to the Bone

Magazine article The Spectator

Close to the Bone

Article excerpt

Sir Muirhead Bone: Artist and Patron

The Fleming Collection, 13 Berkeley Street, W1, until 5 September

The Fleming Collection mounts loan exhibitions of artists represented in its permanent collection, its focus on Scottish artists a strength rather than a limitation. (Would there were an institution in London which just showed American artists. Perhaps then we'd get decent exhibitions of Wayne Thiebaud, Nancy Graves or Martin Puryear. ) In recent years the Fleming has shown James Pryde and Joan Eardley to good effect, and now the great etcher Muirhead Bone is given the same treatment.

The chronological survey begins in the downstairs gallery, where a fine drypoint portrait of Bone by his great friend Francis Dodd depicts the artist leaning over his etching press in a curly-brimmed hat. There's lots of useful documentary material here in the wall-length display case - historic exhibition catalogues and paper-covered volumes of his war drawings from the Western Front, published in ten parts. Bone had the distinction of being Britain's first war artist when he was appointed in July 1916. Always a hard worker, during the first world war he pushed himself to the verge of breakdown.

But it was his war work that established his reputation.

Muirhead Bone (1876-1953) was born in Glasgow and apprenticed as an architect's draughtsman, a training that stood him in good stead for his later preoccupation with buildings and demolitions. He was ambitious and attended evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, later claiming that he never had a single lesson in oil painting because the light was never good enough at night. This did not prevent him from wanting to be a painter, and, although he later burned most of his early paintings, one or two have survived, including 'The Fair, Ayr Racecourse', c.1901. This hangs at the Fleming Collection among such early drawings as 'The Turkey Market, Smithfield' (1897), with its touch of Daumier, and a rather lovely depiction of the back of the 'Underground Railway' (c.1905) in lithographic ink on tracing paper.

It was evident early on that Bone was by instinct and inclination a draughtsman, and that etching was a process exactly suited to his talents. (See the beautiful, slightly Whistlerian 'Gorbals' from 1899. ) He was drawn to serious, dramatic subjects, and spent much time drawing the slums, having determined to do for Glasgow what Charles Meryon (1821-68) had done for Paris. Bone aimed to go beyond topography, and somehow capture the feel of a place. …

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