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Art Lives On this Remembrance Sunday

As we turn our thoughts to remembrance this Sunday, at Somerset & Wood we do so in the context of art. “War art” is a notion powerful not only for the gravity, solemnity – and often horror – of what it depicts, but in the seeming incongruity of the bringing together of two antithetical notions, of war and art. Art lives on as a medium of engaging with history and of remembrance. And for artists who served as official war artists, the subjects of their work needn't be war or the military for the influence of this important role to be seen. 

War needs you poster

From the First World War onwards in Britain, artists’ talents have been utilised for recording the events of war. The Imperial War Museum was established by an Act of Parliament in 1917 with the purpose of collecting all kinds of material documenting the war, including art. The government was also commissioning and purchasing art as a record of war. During the Second World War the War Artists Advisory Committee was set up, establishing a more structured approach to official picture collecting. It is notable that, even today, despite global photojournalism, artists are still commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to respond to conflicts in which Britain is involved.

Whilst commissioned war art serves an official state purpose, it is, importantly through the lens of art that the human aspect of war is recorded and remembered. By re-presenting the events of war through art, rather than war being trivialised or art militarised, human creativity is used to achieve Hamlet’s insight “to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature”. In doing so, truths about the human suffering and devastation at the heart of military conflict are communicated and memorialised in a way in which regular record keeping could not achieve.

There are two artists whose collections we have recently acquired who were appointed as war artists in their day.

Henry Samuel Merritt (1884-1963)

Henry Samuel Merritt was commissioned during the Second World War to make sketches of ruins of London after bombing raids, several of which were subsequently acquired by the Inner Temple and Imperial War Museum. These watercolours below at the Imperial War Museum show St Nicholas Cole Abbey: Queen Victoria Street, EC4 and The Library, Inner Temple, London.

St Nicholas Cole Abbey : Queen Victoria Street, EC4

© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1509)

The Library, Inner Temple, London

© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 2217)

Merritt had an ability to record scenes from unconventional and striking viewpoints, so that whilst being painterly in technique, his watercolours have a sense of the photographic about their composition. It as if the bomb damage Merritt witnessed and recorded in London meant a revisioning of a familiar landscape, and encouraged new ways of approaching and communicating traditional landscape views. His preference for peaceful rural and Cornish seaside scenes was perhaps in reaction to the destruction he had experienced as a war artist in the city.

H.S. Merritt, Loch Linnhe - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

H.S. Merritt, Cows in Field - Original early 20th-century watercolour painting

 H.S. Merritt, Cows in Field - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

Cyril Henry Barraud (1877-1965)

Cyril Henry Barraud (1877-1965) was an official war artist in Canada, having emigrated from England in 1913. He enlisted in the Winnipeg Grenadiers in 1915. After being wounded in 1917 he was posted to the Canadian War Office, where he was appointed as an official war artist. His work can be found in the Canadian War Museum.

Like Henry Samuel Merritt, Barraud had a clear understanding of design and composition. Returning to England from Canada in the 1920s, he worked as an artist, etcher and commercial illustrator, specialising in landscape scenes in Suffolk, Essex, Kent, the Thames estuary and Rye. In contrast to the landscapes of Merrit however, Barraud often populated his views with figures or animals. Towering figures dominate the scene in this striking oil painting of "The Stretcher-Bearer Party", c.1918  at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Canada:

Cyril Henry Barraud - The Stretcher-Bearer Party

He was able to communicate the spirit of a place through the interaction between its people and the environment.

In our collection of watercolours featuring London’s iconic parks and gardens Barraud shows their status as places of sociality and recreation. Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are the backdrop for mothers with prams, couples meeting and older men resting and conversing on park benches. In these paintings Barraud really captures the spirit of these urban yet leafy spaces in the early 20th-century. They seem a far cry from the work of a war artist, and yet are perhaps all the more powerful and poignant as a counterpoint to this artist's earlier work and as a joyous record of post-war peace.

CH Barraud, Kensington Gardens - Original early 20th-century watercolour

CH Barraud, Kensington Gardens, Trees - Original early 20th-century watercolour

CH Barraud, Kensington Gardens, Under the Trees - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

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They say behind every great man there's a great woman!

In our everyday work it is all too often that we come across accomplished female artists of the past who, on further research, are found to be documented primarily for their association with a better-known man. The recent release of the film Suffragette is a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by women in the past to enact social reform and secure the extension of the franchise to women. 

One such talented 19th-century woman was Lady Susan Vernon Harcourt (née Holroyd), wife of Edward William Vernon Harcourt, English naturalist and Conservative politician. It was through her husband that Susan travelled abroad and had rich opportunity to draw foreign sights.  

Edward Vernon Harcourt was the author of Sporting in Algeria (1859). A watercolour portrait by Susan Vernon Harcourt in our collection shows an Arab at Algiers, presumably painted whilst accompanying her husband in North Africa. She would have mixed in the leading intellectual circles of the day; Edward corresponded with Charles Darwin, with Darwin citing Edward’s observations about the colour of horses in Algeria in his follow-up work to On the Origin of the Species.

Lady Susan V Harcourt, Arab Algiers - Original 19th-century watercolour painting

 Lady Susan V Harcourt, Arab Algiers - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

Edward Harcourt also wrote Sketch of Madeira (1851), a handbook to the Portuguese island (Darwin corresponded with Harcourt about the species of bird present on the island). Susan Harcourt again created fine drawings of views on the island, which were published as a book of lithographs called Sketches in Madeira and were informative of the landscapes and customs of the island:

Lady Susan Vernon Harcourt - Sketches in Madeira

We find that it is not uncommon that historically a talented female artist is found to be wife to a male artist – the mutual artistic life of such couples a conducive and productive environment for both parties. Eva Walbourn (neé Knight), active 1888-1930, is one such artist – wife to the better-known Victorian landscape painter Ernest Charles Walbourn (1872-1927).

The Artist's Wife Eva Walbourn - by Ernest Walbourn

The Artist's Wife by Ernest Walbourn

Eva gained recognition in her own right as an accomplished painter of garden scenes. She is recorded as being a wood carver, carpenter and sculptor. Before marrying she lived in Cardiff, Wales, where she was a member of The South Wales Art Society. She married Ernest in 1906, and not only encouraged her husband’s art but also often assisted him in painting the backgrounds of his larger works.

After Ernest’s death, Eva lived near Bristol and regularly exhibited at the Annual Exhibition of the Royal West of England Academy. Our collection of oils on board showcases Eva Walbourn’s individual talent. She excelled at depicting the cultivated beauty of English gardens, with an impressionistic use of colour and brushstroke, and eye for surprising composition. Her paintings are a delight of summer light and floral bloom.

Eva Walbourn, Coastal Garden - Original early 20th-century oil painting

Eva Walbourn, Garden Pathway - Original early 20th-century oil painting

Eva Walbourn, Garden Pathway - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

Historically, it is evident that close association with esteemed men could bring opportunities and recognition to these women artists that otherwise could have escaped them altogether. But now it is important to revisit and celebrate their work in its own right. With news in Britain this week of proposed legislation forcing employers to publish the amount awarded to men and women as bonuses - and expose the gender pay gap - the fight for equality goes on.

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Fabulous Florals as summer draws to a close

With the nights drawing in, we are pleased to be reminded of summer and to showcase what we think is a very special group of flower paintings – take a look at our Floral Collection to see the full range. The paintings appear similar in execution but they are in fact by a variety of female artists, and they form part of our Lady Frances Mary Perring Collection.

Dating from as early as 1821, some are inscribed as gifts to Lady Perring (née Roe) from the hands of friends of similarly high standing – such as Beatrice G. Drummond of Edinburgh and Susan Broadhurst of Bath. This wonderful script on the reverse of one painting is almost as impressive as the florals on the front!

The floral still life was once a medium for moralising motifs, such as the lily representing purity in 17th-century works. This magnificent painting by celebrated Dutch artist Cornelis de Heem (which can be seen on display at Dyrham Park near Bath) shows not only the lily but overripe fruit, symbolic of the transience of life.

By the 19th century however, a widening interest in natural history and improving printing processes saw the reproduction of fine botanical drawings in books and catalogues. These artists painted with outstanding precision, in what we would now term a photorealist style. The hand-painted close-up detail on these watercolours is quite exceptional to the 21st-century eye:

        

Looking at the paintings, we time-travel back to an era predating the self-consciousness of modernism, conceptualism, postmodernism – they speak of an age when upper class females had the leisure time to devote to exacting artistic pursuits, and when realism in painting was highly prized.

Just as the photorealist painters of the 1970s used photographs as the basis for their art, it is likely that our female artists copied from popular prints of botanical illustrations rather than painting from life. See how our floral watercolour by Beatrice G. Drummond (left) resembles a print by Belgian botantical painter Pierre- Joseph Redouté (right).

                                     

Not to be dismissed as the product of women with time on their hands, botanical illustrations were considered scientifically valid – and even today the development of photographic plates has not made scientific illustration obsolete.

Remarkably, upper class women in the 19th century often published books anonymously as it was considered shameful to link a woman’s name to any commercial venture. It seems all the more important that we resurrect, admire and celebrate these women’s work anew.

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119 years to the day since the death of William Morris

“I am the handmaid of the earth,
I broider fair her glorious gown”        From Flora by William Morris

One of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain, Morris died on 3 October 1896. Morris was a fascinating figure – not least because of the way he spanned the disciplines of art, design, poetry and politics. Studying 19th-century botanical paintings as we have been recently at Somerset & Wood, it is interesting to consider them in the popular context of the "Morris Style".

The metaphor of nature "embroidering" earth in Morris’s poem Flora conveys the wonderful union of nature and decorative art as one. Furthermore, that art and nature should be brought into the home in the form of interior design is a notion that we celebrate at Somerset & Wood!

                           

Morris designed over 50 wallpaper patterns. Although initially expensive, by the 1890s they popularly furnished middle-class homes. The "Morris style" made commercially available at his shop premises in Bloomsbury, then Oxford Street, enabled the public to furnish their homes in a coordinated and fashionable way. He transformed the way in which people of relatively modest means decorated their houses - and his influence lives on 119 years after his death.

 “Laden Autumn here I stand
Worn of heart, and weak of hand:
Nought but rest seems good to me,
Speak the word that sets me free.”

From Autumn by William Morris

Morris’s sumptuous designs covered all seasons, drawing on the rich and suggestive colours of autumn foliage as well as the blooms of spring and summer. And to meditate on seasons in art is to meditate on the cyclical passing of time.

                            

 We end with a curious 19th-century pressed leaf work we have – or in this case actually pressed seaweed. The delicate translucent fronds have survived over a century, nature crystallised as art. A popular Victorian craft of which surely Morris would have approved?

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Dismaland – Somerset’s most disappointing day out for September only!

A local day out at the nationally hyped bemusement park was an exciting novelty for us, the mixed faces braving the long queues testament to Banksy’s appeal – from Weston granny to London art aficionado.

Banksy’s controversy, whether around traditional arguments of street vs high art, or the inevitable paradox when the "underground" becomes the "establishment", is always a draw. And drawn we were, as we headed to Weston-super-Mare to check out “the UK’s most disappointing new visitor attraction”.

Once inside, you can’t shake the uncanny feeling that you are part of the show, that somehow your reactions are not your own. And of course, in taking photos – which we did, we all did, continuously – we are not objective reporter but the pawns in some great post-modem artistic video game…

     

 

Banksy has said that technical calculations mean that the event must end as planned and it cannot remain as a fixture on the Weston-super-Mare tourist scene. And that has got to be part of its attraction, its intrigue, its charm – it will soon be gone in a puff of magical Disney smoke as the artistic tide goes out, and Weston returns to the traditional seaside resort it has been for over 100 years.

Dismaland's mini golf course                                          Weston-super-Mare’s mini golf course              

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Ed Smith - Abstract Expressionism meets Surrealism in the 1960s!

We are excited to launch our group of paintings by Ed Smith (1923-1988). Check out his fantastic botanical-themed watercolours. We love the colours and the patterning effect Smith achieves, as well as the Surrealist, biomorphic quality he brings to his abstract style. These works are a visual feast of delicate line, layering and colour.

Interestingly, they bridge the styles of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. His work seems to embody both American and European sensibilities. Born in Detroit, Smith joined the Art Students League in New York. After the Second World War, he spent time in Paris, studied at the Royal Academy of Art in London in the 1940s, and showed at the Arts Council in 1948. A major Ed Smith Retrospective was held at the John Denham Gallery in London in 1991.

Smith’s palette and expressive energy resemble the an artist such as Jackson Pollock.

      

 Yet the paintings also recall the meandering ‘automatic’ drawings of the Surrealists of the 1930s – and the organic forms of works such as Joan Miro’s biomorphic compositions, Andre Masson’s undergrowth paintings or Cecil Collins’s paintings of nature and the cosmos.

        

Smith's subjects included New York bridges, abstract or surreal landscapes and architectural structures, and astute portraits of down-and-out characters – eclectic subjects and styles which tell of an interesting life!

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