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.


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)

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.


The British Countryside : Are you Rustic or Lyrical?

Another trend I’ve spotted from my favourites reviews of 2017 is the artists and writers’ response to nature.

basic nest architecture poems seren

Are we down in the terrifying muddy ditches of the Cumbrian badlands with Jacob Polley‘s sparkling poems about Jackself : “By head-lice powder, Paraquat / snapdragon’s snap and rat-tat-tat / who’s at the door / of the door of the door / it’s Jackself in his toadskin hat?” ? (Every Creeping Thing in Jackself : Jacob Polley.) And dying, sodden and foolish, from wearing Italian walking gear in a collection of ephemera created by Rebecca Chesney‘s Death by Denim. (Creating the Countryside : Compton Verney) ?


Or are we celebrating the lyricism in nature along with Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane in their stunning The Lost Words – a beguiling mix of illuminated manuscript and spell grimoire? And reflecting how nature can enrich our lives with Alex Preston and Neil Gower in the delightful birder’s book As Kingfishers Catch Fire. ?

Of course it’s both – but the oscillation between the two sides I find do fascinating.

I am also intrigued to find that most of these meditations on nature are through illustration and poetry  – as if the elusive quality of our responses cannot be tied down in prose. As Polly Atkins writes: “All I can do / is believe you will keep on being the warm / vaulting life, ravelled round mine, / although I may never hold you.” (Rabbit in morning in Basic Nest Architecture)

Wishing you all a very happy New Year.

Quentin Blake : Inside Stories : Compton Verney

… full of inspiration, creativity and generosity …

quentin blake compton verney exhibition illustration

This exuberant exhibition is full of inspiration, creativity and positively glows with Quentin Blake‘s joie-de-vivre and generosity of spirit.

It features a huge range of finished illustrations, working drawings and crossed out snippets showing his process including sketches for Roald Dahl’s The Twits, BFG and Matilda, The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams, and his tremendous series of illustrations to accompany Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. (And the outline Rosen emailed to his publisher entitled: Is this a Book?)

The show includes over 140 original works, as well as some of his artists tools and a couple of short films in which Quentin demonstrates his techniques.

Excellent. Couldn’t stop smiling all the way round.

The exhibition runs until 17 December 2017 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. The marvellous The Lost Words exhibition is running at the same time. 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.

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories is a touring exhibition from the brilliant House of Illustration. This charity, based in London, is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated to illustration and the graphic arts was founded by Sir Quentin Blake in 2014. To learn more about their splendid work visit their website here.

Illustration © Quentin Blake

The Lost Words : Compton Verney

… artwork for the stunning book …

robert macfarlane jackie morris

A delightful exhibition to accompany the launch of this wonderful book, the rooms are full of Jackie‘s stunning artwork and Robert‘s delightful poems.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the full page “absence” watercolours – especially for conker  – as their lyrical beauty is slightly muted in the finished book by the inclusion of the alphabet.

Compton Verney‘s curators have once again created an enchanting space for the art to shine with thoughtful backdrops of colour and illustration inspired by the art and the occasional school desk of bird books for children to browse.

The exhibition runs until 17 December 2017 (Tue – Fri 11am – 4pm; Weekends – 11am – 5pm) and is definitely worth a visit. 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.

The Lost Words : Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

… enchanting spells to conjure up nature …

kingfisher jackie morris

Hailed as one of the most beautiful books of the year, The Lost Words is a delightful collaboration between the very inspiring nature writer, Robert Macfarlane, and a supremely talented illustrator, Jackie Morris. Together they have produced a cross between a medieval illuminated manuscript and spell grimoire. The conceit behind the work is that Robert’s words have to conjure the missing animals and plants back into the world.

Each spell takes up three double page spreads. First there is a spread showing a lack: a shadow, an absence, a washed out line drawing; then comes the spell of conjuration and a full page portrait; and finally another full double page spread showing the living object in its landscape. This creates a beguiling rhythm to the procession of beautiful images across these large pages.

The poems themselves are acrostic, spelling out the plant or creature’s name using the first letter of the lines and have a Anglo-Saxon kenning quality about them. Robert twists and turns words about using alliteration and assonance to create evocative word combinations which really come alive when spoken out loud – rather like the expressive nature poems of Gerald Manly Hopkins. Jackie‘s illustrations are seductively gorgeous, making one want to linger over the pages, searching out the detail and basking in the gold leaf.

The whole book is truly delightful – full of humour, warmth and artistry.  And what’s more, there is an exhibition of their collaboration running at Compton Verney until 17th December. Further details are here.

Robert Macfarlane has established himself as one of the finest landscape writers of recent times. His wonderful book, Landmarks, (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) defends the lost language of the British countryside and is a precursor to this work. His other books include Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways. I can highly recommend all of these booksHe is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and writes on environmentalism, literature and travel for publications including the Guardian, the Sunday Times and The New York Times.

Jackie Morris has created over forty books, including beloved classics such as Song of the Golden Hare, Tell Me A Dragon, East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Wild Swans – and my personal favourite, Can you see a Little Bear? which will be re-released next Summer. She collaborated with Ted Hughes, and her books have sold more than a million copies worldwide.  Have a look at her website here.

The Lost Words was published by Hamish Hamilton in October 2017 and is my eighteenth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.


Imagining the Divine : Ashmolean, Oxford

… fascinating mash-ups between religions …

Imagining the Divine, Art and the Rise of World Religions at the Ashmolean in Oxford is an interesting yet somewhat frustrating exhibition. The idea behind the show is to trace the development and cross- fertilisation of visual representation in the major religions. However the curator has opted to place the five religions in different areas rather than allowing any thematic comparison by mixing the objects up. In addition, the rather sparse labelling meant that cross pollination was often eluded to rather than spelt out. The exhibits themselves are a delight and well worth your time.

persian senmurv textile silk

Always on the look out for the more unusual and quirky exhibits, I was drawn to this silk fragment from the V & A showing the fabulous creature, the sēnmurw. Part bird, part beast, the benevolent sēnmurw is a Zoroastrian figure of Sasanian Persian art. Here it is shown as a dog with a peacock’s tail. This piece comes from the same weaving as two pieces associated with the relics of St Helena at St Leu in Paris, now in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Relics, sometimes brought back to Europe by Crusaders, were often wrapped in precious silks. So the symbols of one religion are passed on to protect those of another.

The show also had a replica of the gorgeous bone Franks Casket from the British Museum. This intricately decorated Anglo-Saxon box’s significance is like catnip to scholars for it mixes up a Christian story with Germanic legends and Roman mythology. This detail of the front panel shows the Germanic Weyland the Smith at his forge on the left juxtaposed with the Adoration of the Magi on the right.

casket weland adoration british musuem

Imagining the Divine, Art and the Rise of World Religions at the Ashmolean, Oxford runs until 18 February 2018. Usual opening times for the Ashmolean are 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, and Bank Holidays. For further details about the museum and the exhibition, follow the link here to their own website.

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