Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

curated by Thornton Rigg

Ravilious & Co : Compton Verney

… a fascinating exhibition …

horse design westbury england

This marvellous show traces the story of a dynamic group of British artist/designers from the first half of the 20th century. Taking a collective approach, the two major gallery spaces of Compton Verney are absolutely crammed full of paintings and woodcuts, fabric prints, book covers, ceramics and wallpapers, and the curators are able to create a wonderful sense of how this close network of artists interacted with one another. Leading with Eric Ravilious, the exhibition also includes the Nash brothers, Enid Marx, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Helen Binyon and many others. It’s definitely worth a visit – and taking your time to enjoy the creativity.

Here are a few of my absolute favourites to give you a flavour of what’s on offer …

  1. You are greeted by Eric Ravilious‘ Wedgwood Boat Race Bowl, 1938. A beautiful piece celebrating this most English tradition. Don’t forget to look at the design inside and around the sides to find this gorgeous mermaid with her honour guard of oars.Boat race mermaid guard wedgwood
  2. In the same room is RaviliousWestbury Horse, 1939, in watercolour and pencil (see above). Here one can really see his pattern making in action with the round horse against the voluminous hills set in contrast to the grey patchwork of the fields and train track.
  3. There is also some gorgeous paper ephemera including this Ravilious fishy sketch on an envelope … ( I now hope to address all my letters like this) …envelope fish watercolour inks
  4. … and this Peepshow called In Winter and In Summer created by Barnett Freedman in 1932 for oil diorama peep show
  5. There’s also the frankly disturbing set of wood engravings by Tirzah Garwood called The Relations. Here’s  The Husband, 1929, a marvellous piece of creeping anxiety. If you gaze at it for a moment ,you’ll understand what I mean. marrow coat wood

I think the gentleman in the trench coat has mistaken marrows for guns. What do you reckon?

Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship. English Artist Designers 1922-1942 at Compton Verney runs from 17 March until 10 June 2018 (Tue – Sun 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. In fact two or three visits. Plan at least 2 hours to look around and then have some cake.

Instead of an exhibition catalogue, the accompanying book is a brilliant new biography, Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend, which was published last April by Thames & Hudson.

This is the final leg of the exhibition’s tour and was originally staged at Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, May –September 2017 and then at the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, October 2017 – January 2018.

If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space, permanent exhibitions and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a lovely cafe, an adventure playground for children, and boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.


Thornhill : Pam Smy

Congratulations to Pam Smy – Thornhill has been for illustration.

Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities

… perfectly paced and other worldly …

halloween ghost thornhill

This is a perfectly paced ghost story about a girl living next to a derelict orphanage.

Pam Smy carefully weaves together the stories of two girls in a beguiling mix of diary and illustration. The ghost, Mary, writes heartbreaking entries of her bleak childhood in the diary which is discovered years later by the lonely Ella, whose story is told entirely through unscripted illustrations. With no narrator to help, we are left to piece together the gaps in each story.

Pam then intersperses the diary entries and cartoon narrative with heavy black pages to represent sleep. The cumulative effect of these blanks, combined with the silent illustrations, recreates the detachedness of a lonely childhood and gives the reader delightful pause to think about and guess (deliciously) what might happen next.

The whole effect is intriguing, creepy and otherworldly by turn and builds to…

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Madame Trudaine : Jacques-Louis David

… against a bloody background …

french revolution portrait

I always think of Jacques-Louis David as a history painter and so the delicacy of his portraits take me by surprise.

Painted in 1791-2, this striking young woman is most likely Marie-Louise Micault de Courbeton (1769-1802), the wife of Charles-Louis Trudaine, who was a friend of the artist. The Trudaine family belonged to the liberal “haute bourgeoisie” and they were  initially favourable to the Revolution. Marie-Louise is wearing simple clothes suitable for someone of her political leanings; and her blue sash, white shirt and the red background makeup the new Tricolour flag of France. The portrait was never finished as the Trudaines quarrelled with David over his support for the increasingly violent Terror.

David‘s characteristic “scumbling” of the red background – a technique he used for these portraits – adds a clamour of hysteria to this already nervous, defiant young woman, with her arms folded awkwardly across her body and her half turn towards the viewer. The Trudaine brothers went to the scaffold soon after this. Marie-Louise died ten years later when she was 33 years old. Alas, I can’t find anymore details about her but it can’t have been a very happy life.

David was an ardent supporter the Terror. He organized revolutionary fetes and ceremonials to replace the Catholic festivals and painted many key images of the period such as the pietà of the Revolution, The Death of Marat. David was a member of the Assembly, however, he too was eventually imprisoned. When the artist was released, a couple of years later, David stayed away from direct politics but did become a favourite painter of Napolean.

Portrait of Marie-Louise Micault de Courbeton1891-2, (Louvre) by Jacques-Louis David  (1748 – 1825).

The Ghost A Cultural History : Susan Owens

… a fascinating book to curl up with … 

ghost supernatural spooks halloween

The Ghost is a thoroughly fascinating book which traces the development of ghosts from warnings from the afterlife, through escapees from purgatory and then the devil’s playthings and finally to delicious, terrifying entertainment purely from the imagination. This history is complemented by the shifts in the images of ghosts from skeleton to a shrouded, bare footed figure to the cotton sheet.

There are old favourites such as the well known Ghost of a Flea by William Blake and new favourites including the beautiful and eerie three works by Paul Nash. Susan reminded of the extraordinary spiritualist painter Georgiana Houghton and introduced me to writer and essayist Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).

The book is furnished with detailed references should you wish to follow up a line of enquiry, a thoughtful selection of colour plates and a great bibliography.

Highly recommended.

Susan Owens studied English at Oxford and European art at the Courtauld, gaining her PhD from the University of London. She was Assistant Curator at University College London and then worked for the Royal Collection as Assistant Curator of the Print Room at Windsor Castle. From 2007 to 2013 she was Curator of Paintings at the V & A, where she was responsible for oils, watercolours and drawings from 1800 to the present day. She is now a freelance curator, writer and art historian, who publishes and
lectures widely on British Art.

Cover design moment : The alluring cover design is by Anvi Patel and I think she strikes the right balance between spooky – the chalky wisps and wonky lettering – and academic – the old style font. You can see more of her work here. The lovely typesetting carries on through the book with elegant lay outs and wisps for section breaks.

The Ghost A Cultural History by Susan Owens was published by Tate Publishing in October 2017.

The Lost Velazquez: Charles I, King & Collector.

… lost portrait of a king …

One of the most alluring images in the Charles I, King & Collector exhibition is the informal portrait of Philip IV by Velasquez. Charles never owned the picture – so why did the curators include it?

Dallas Philip IV

In 1623, when Prince Charles was 22, he was betrothed to the King of Spain’s sister. Negotiations over this alliance had begun to drag so Charles seized the initiative and travelled to Spain to win the Infanta over. The whole mission was a bit of an embarrassing disaster because diplomacy is never that simple but his informal embassy was the springboard for Charles’ passion for art collecting.

It was a court of young men. In 1623 King Philip IV was 18 and had already been king for two years. He entertains the older Charles for months in Madrid and even gives him a Titian to take home (Charles V with a Dog, 1533). In this same year, Velazquez who was only 24, is ordered to the city to try out as the new Court Painter. It is probable that he painted this quick and informal portrait of Philip to secure his position – and a close, successful relationship began between monarch and painter which lasted until Velazquez‘s death.

Intriguingly Velazquez also painted a portrait of Charles during this year. The closest image we have to what it may have looked like is this portrait from the studio of the Dutch painter, Daniel Mytens.  A fine work – but no Velazquez.

King Charles Prince Charles

Daniel Mytens was the principle painter at the Stuart court from the early 1620s to the mid 1630s. This portrait is a contemporary replica, probably painted in Mytens’ studio, as it was one of his most important early commissions.  It shows Charles I before he became King in 1625.*

How exciting would it be if the original Velazquez was discovered! A young man – on the brink of kingship – by one of the finest painters of the 17th century. In the 19th century, one man became obsessed with the idea that he had found it. His fascinating story is told by Laura Cumming in The Vanishing Man: In pursuit of Velazquez It wasn’t. Here’s a link to her article about it.

Charles I, King and Collector at The Royal Academy, London runs until 15 April 2018. With all exhibitions of this size and popularity, it is worth getting the catalogue first to scope out what you want to see before plunging in. It’s a wonderful book with over 200 colour illustrations, essays to put the exhibition in context, and detailed notes on provenance. Softback £28. Hardback £40.  A link to the Royal Academy bookshop is here.

Philip IV c.1623-24 (Meadows Museum, Dallas) Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)

Charles I (when Prince of Wales) 1620s (Unknown) Contemporary copy after Daniel Mytens (c.1590–1647/48)

* Details from Philip Mould Fine Paintings.




Neither Virgin nor Venus. Five Outstanding Women from Charles I, King & Collector.

… neither Virgin nor Venus …

Among all the Royal portraits and big dramatic pieces in this outstanding exhibition, there are some extremely fine images of women. The Academy rooms are teeming with spectators and the show has 140 works of art on view, so it pays to have an idea of what you are looking for. Here are five I wouldn’t want anyone to miss …

My advice would be to ignore the crowded first couple of rooms and make straight for Gallery VIII which holds pictures from “The Queen’s House” and take a look at this Head of a Woman (c.1630-35) by Orazio Gentileschi. It’s such an arresting work combining beauty and determination in a very penetrating stare – as her former owner said: “She’s no extra!” The painting sold to a private buyer in January 2018 for $1.8 million and there’s a brief Sotheby’s video about her here.

gentileschi royal collection

Then turn around and, diagonally opposite in the same room, is a painting by Orazio‘s daughter’s Artemisia Gentileschi called Allegory of Painting (c.1638-39). Artemisia joined her father and her brothers in London in 1638. Charles and Henrietta already owned at least three of Artemisia‘s paintings by then and she found steady employment here. Some suggest this is a self portrait though it is not listed as such in Court inventories and is perhaps instead a younger, more idealised version of her 46 year old self.  It is probably more a declaration of her remarkable status: as a practising and successful female artist at this time – an image of a working painter not a fanciful allegory.

allegory artist

Travelling back a hundred years to the court of Henry VIII, the next picture is a portrait of Anne Cresacre ( c.1526-27) by Hans Holbein. This piece of fragile wonderfulness can be found in the next room along, Gallery IX, “The Whitehall Cabinet.” Charles’ Cabinet in Whitehall Palace was a private space decorated with more personal items from his collection; the core of which he inherited from his older brother, Henry, including these a set of drawings by Holbein. These sketches were made for a large group portrait of Thomas More‘s family – since lost. Anne was a ward of More’s and became his daughter-in-law around this time. The exquisite delicacy of this chalk drawing is truly arresting. It might just be me … but there’s a resemblance to the actor Louise Brealey who played Molly Hooper in Sherlock in the slight frown about her lips.


The next work executed about the same time but leagues apart in tone and handling. If there’s a Bronzino in a gallery I’m in front of it. The work is in “The Italian Renaissance” Gallery V and its understated elegance could be overlooked as there are Titians in the same room. There is some debate over whether Portrait of a Women in Green (c.1530-32) is actually a Bronzino or possibly a del Piombo or a Sarto. I have my doubts too – it’s not quite good enough but …. it could be a youthful work. Her direct gaze is typical of Bronzino’s portraits and she is an arresting example of a confident and self assured Renaissance woman.


The final painting in my selection is the Rembrandt. Again in any other exhibition, a work of this quality would be centre stage but again she is in a corner of Gallery IV, “The Northern Renaissance” and could easily be over looked. This Portrait of an Old Woman (c. 1627-29) is also called The Artist’s Mother as Rembrandt often used his mother, Neeltgen Willensdr, as a model at the beginning of his career. The painting is not a portrait but a tronie (a generic term for ‘face’). Such tronies move beyond imitation and become imaginative exercises using carefully chosen costume and dramatic illumination – a cross between a portrait and a historical painting. I was fascinated by the interplay between the lines on her face with the gorgeous lace and fabric detail, both picked out with a warm Northern European light. It is an amazing painting.

rembrandt portrait royal collection

So there you are: my top five paintings of women from Charles I, King and Collector. Which paintings caught your eye?

Charles I, King and Collector at The Royal Academy, London runs until 15 April 2018.

With all exhibitions of this size and popularity, it is worth getting the catalogue first to scope out what you want to see before plunging in. It’s a wonderful book with over 200 colour illustrations, essays to put the exhibition in context, and detailed notes on provenance. Softback £28. Hardback £40.  A link to the Royal Academy bookshop is here.

Head of a Woman c.1630-35 (Private Collection)  Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639)

Allegory of Painting c.1638-39 (Royal Collection) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3)

Anne Cresacre c.1526-27 (Royal Collection) Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)

Portrait of a Women in Green c.1530-32 (Royal Collection) Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72)

Portrait of an Old Woman c. 1627-29 (Royal Collection) Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

Captain Gilbert Heathcote : William Owen

… brushstroke bravado …

Heathcliff Royal Navy Nelson

Why the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum doesn’t make more of this lush portrait, goodness only knows.

This is one of William Owen‘s finest portraits. He painted Captain Gilbert sometime between 1801-05 whilst he was in his mid-twenties and a dashing Naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars. The face is finely worked whilst the rest of the picture is a virtuoso demonstration of impressionistic paint handling. The loose brushwork of his gold braiding, epaulettes and buttons add a very glamorous swagger to the Captain.


Born in Shropshire, William Owen was apprenticed to a coach painter and then sent to the Royal Academy School in 1791 when he was 22. Owen was a success and in 1810 he was appointed portrait painter to the Prince of Wales, later George IV;  however the prince never gave Owen a sitting and in 1813, when Owen was offered a knighthood, he declined. Whether out of exasperation or disappointment, I cannot find out.

In 1825 Owen died of accidental poisoning by an overdose of ‘Barclay’s Drops’, a heady mixture of aniseed, camphor and opium, after a chemist had mislabelled his bottles.

Portrait of Captain Gilbert Heathcote1802-5, (Birmingham Art Gallery & Museum) by William Owen (1769 – 1825).



The Book of Lost Books : Stuart Kelly

… deliciously anecdotal & splendidly erudite …

book review lost books

Deliciously anecdotal and splendidly erudite, Stuart Kelly has written a crash course in the Canon via an Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read. From Greek plays praised in passing to the possibility of Sylvia Plath‘s second novel, from the celebrated Mystery of Edwin Drood to the fabulous Yongle Encyclopaedia ,Stuart’s charming and witty scholarship lets you muse upon what might have been. Perfect for bedtime reading.

I have no idea why I hadn’t heard of it before! Highly reccommended.

Stuart Kelly is the literary editor of Scotland on Sunday and a freelance critic and writer.

The Book of Lost Books (New Expanded Edition) by Stuart Kelly was published by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd in 2010.

Harry Potter: the History of Magic Exhibition : British Library

… showmanship, a dragon’s flower & curious composite creatures …
harry potter philosopher's stone

A History of Magic achieves the very difficult balancing act of displaying an intriguing collection of historical artefacts alongside JK Rowling‘s notes, sketches and illustrators’ works from the books. It is incredibly difficult to present a modern, imaginary world alongside objects from a time when magic was an accepted truth. The fun and knowing humour of the former can clash horridly against the simple sincerity of the latter. I am full of admiration for the lead curator, Julian Harrison, in achieving such a thoughtful exhibition. There is so much to see here that I have chosen three of my absolute favourites to highlight.

First of all, I cannot ignore – and neither can you – the amazing Ripley Scroll (detail above) which is worth the admission fee alone. It takes its name from George Ripley, an 15th century alchemist and is an astoundingly beautiful piece of showmanship – surely the 6m long scroll was not designed to be displayed in its entirely but rather unfurled slowly before some marvelling initiate? The fantastical detail and mysterious verses are a delight. There is no clear evidence that George actually designed the scroll but it is named after him because the work includes verse associated with the alchemist. There are actually about 23 copies in existence – all variations on a lost 15th century original. 

dragon arum thornton temple of floraThe second highlight for me was this magnificently doom laden portrait of the black Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) from Robert John Thornton‘s The Temple of Flora, 1799 – 1807. This Flora is the third part of a larger work entitled: New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus and the accompanying text is rather passionate and hot under the collar about this wonderful plant. It includes lines from Frances Arabella Rowden‘s A Poetical introduction to the study of botany : “So Vice allures with Virtue’s pleasing song, / And Charms her victims with a Siren’s tongue.” Thornton attempted to produce the most impressive botanical book ever; unfortunately lack of buyers meant the whole thing nearly bankrupted him.

But my absolute favourite in the exhibition is something much more personal and delightful which could very easily be missed because it is next to the show stopping dried Mermaid (actually a pairing of a monkey and a fish).

The object is a “Game Book“. It’s a C17th game of consequences where a series of flaps overlay a wonderful collection of mythical and real beasts: siren, manticore, lion, etc. to create composite creatures. With its wobbly handwriting and charming illustrations, the curators suggest it was made as a love token. One of the drawings is of a smart gentleman wearing a large ruff with cloak thrown over one shoulder – it would please me very much if this was a self portrait designed to woo his admiring lover …

mermaid siren syren

The show is a delight and I would suggest a couple of hours to look round and negotiate the crowded rooms.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at The British Library runs until 28 February 2018. Alas – all the tickets have now been sold. It will re-open in New York in October 2018.

To get a flavour of the exhibition you can always buy the official book of the exhibition from the British Library shop – informative and with good illustrations. Harry Potter: A History of Magic £25.00 (reduced from £30). Bloomsbury Publishing. Hardback. October 2017. Also available as an ebook. There’s also a BBC documentary about the exhibition that you can buy on DVD. For further details check out the Pottermore website.


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