Friday, February 15, 2008

A Bull in a Storm on a Moor

It was exactly five years ago today that millions of us marched through London to protest about the impending war on Iraq. One of my abiding memories is the extraordinarily slow progress we made, such was the weight of numbers. As we inched down Piccadilly I remember looking up at some figures carved on a building and realising suddenly I was seeing a sculpture of Thomas Girtin, one of my favourite landscape watercolourists. The building was designed for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour (now located at the Mall Galleries) and along with Girtin it has busts of Sandby, Cozens, Girtin, Turner, Cox, De Wint, Barret and Hunt.

There is a description of the building at British History Online: 'Nos. 190–195 Piccadilly were rebuilt between 1881 and 1883 for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, which had been founded in 1831 as the New Society of Painters in Water Colours... The new galleries with shops and a public hall beneath were built from the designs of E. R. Robson... The galleries of the Royal Institute were damaged by enemy action in 1940, and were reopened on 1 July 1948. Three bays of the ground-floor façade have now been extensively altered by Pan American Airways, and the remainder of the lower parts of the building, with Nos. 36–40 Jermyn Street, is occupied by shops, restaurants and offices. The building in its present state is no more than a sad relic of Robson's original design, its ground and second storeys, and indeed its whole proportions, having been ruthlessly sacrificed to commercial interests. A photograph of 1896 in the possession of the National Buildings Record shows a three-storeyed stone façade arranged in two stages, the two-storeyed upper stage being twice the height of the lower and almost completely devoid of windows, expressing the exhibition galleries within. The ground storey was divided into nine bays by pilasters supporting a simple but well-proportioned entablature, and in the middle and outer bays were three splendid Baroque doorways, each having a swan-neck pediment enclosed within a broken segmental pediment...'

The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour, photographed in 2008

It seemed inappropriate to be protesting against the possibility of war and thinking about the gentile art of watercolour. However, I remembered that Paul Sandby, who stands at the beginning of the British tradition of watercolour painting, actually worked for the army: making maps to help avert another Jacobite rebellion. And subsequent watercolourists were not always in the business of creating serene classical idylls. Here, for example, is a painting by another of the watercolourists honoured by the Royal Institute building, David Cox. The V&A site says of it "he often depicted scenes of rain and strong winds. In this watercolour Cox attacks the sheet with his brush to achieve an aggressive and threatening effect." The threat and uncertainty felt very real five years ago; the storm came hasn't blown over yet.

The Challenge: A Bull in a Storm on a Moor by David Cox
Souce: V&A

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