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.


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.


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.

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.

The Paintings at Upton House

… so which painting would you like to steal?

Rembrandt lievens magus


Upton House is another one of those gorgeous country houses with spectacular gardens and glamorous rooms; what sets it apart from a host of other National Trust properties is the quality and range of its astounding art collection.

I visited with a friend at the weekend and we played: “which would you steal for your house?” So it’s all about personal cravings, not money nor technical ability, and we spent a happy couple of hours debating and chatting to the knowledgeable guides.

My very favourite was A Magus at an Altar which is now attributed to Jan Lievens, a contemporary of Rembrandt. To my eye, the detail of the light playing on his silk robes are as exquisite as anything by his more famous contemporary.  In fact, the painting had previously been judged good enough to be a Rembrandt. Then it was relegated to “Rembrandt and his circle” and finally thought to be a just copy of some lost Lievens.

More recent analysis has revealed lots of re-worked passages proving that the work is not a copy but an original work. In fact the examination showed up so many alterations that it suggests, on balance, a Lievens’ approach working rather than a Rembrandt. There is a brief article and further links from the National Trust’s website here.

I was so pleased to be introduced to this Lievens and, after a quick internet search, I find this wonderful still life (in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) … which is a lovely combination of my two main interests: books and art.
lievens rijksmuseum

The man behind the extraordinary collection at Upton House was Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted. He was the chairman of Shell and owned M Samuel & Co. Bank. He was also chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery and the Whitechapel Art Gallery; and also on the board of trustees for the Tate. With his love of paintings and his huge fortune, he amassed one of the finest art collections in private hands during the 20th century. Walter donated the house, gardens and art collection to the National Trust in 1948.

For further information about Upton House, please follow this link to the National Trust’s page on the property.

Monument to Cecco di Sangro : Cappella Sansevero

… intriguing jack-in-a-box …

Naples Sansevero

One of the top sights in Naples is the group of extraordinary Baroque sculptures in Cappella Sansevero. The most famous is the Veiled Christ by Napolitan Guiseppe Sanmartino. This dramatic and technical tour-de-force depicts the dead Christ under a thin, transparent shroud. Such was its virtuosity that a legend grew about its creation: people believed that a real cloth shroud had somehow been turned to stone over the marble body. Queue up, buy the ticket and shuffle around the statue: it truly is amazing.

Veiled Christ Naples

However … the rest of the chapel is just as interesting. After admiring the main event, I wandered around, as I always do, avoiding the crowds and rebelling against the directions. This is why I do it: most of the tourists completely miss this delightful memorial to Cecco di Sangro as it is above the entrance and so you have to turn your back on the Veiled Christ to notice it.

Some background: most of the decorative scheme was devised and commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero (1710 – 1771). He was a fascinating character: an Italian nobleman, soldier, writer, scientist, alchemist and freemason whose dangerous and heretical archive was destroyed by his family after his death.

This sculpture has attracted several intriguing stories.  According to the Chapel’s own website, the Monument to Cecco di Sangro represents a real event. Raimondo’s ancestor,  Cecco is climbing out of a chest where he had been hiding for two days, allowing him to take the enemy by surprise and capture the fort of Amiens. Alas, I haven’t been able to find any corroboration for this escapade. The subject matter has also been interpreted as the soldier being the “guardian” of this supposedly Masonic Temple.

But most delightfully, according to one legend, as told to the local philosopher Benedetto Croce, as he approached the end, Raimondo di Sangro had himself cut to pieces and closed in a coffin, from which he was supposed to emerge “hale and hearty” at a specific time; unfortunately the family opened the coffin too early and the “resurrection” lasted only a few moments … oops.



Raphael: The Drawings : Ashmolean, Oxford

… intimate and exhilarating …

Raphael sketch

I don’t know about you but I often prefer sketches to finished paintings. They are more intimate, more approachable and, ultimately, more engaging than a finished work. The fragments, smudges and re-worked lines get me closer to the artist’s creativity than the varnished perfection of an oil or fresco. And I have, I confess, always found Raphael a little too perfect to love.  But I was bowled over by this exhibition. His virtuosity is breathtaking and his experimentation truly exhilarating.

The Ashmolean has brought together a stunning exhibition of 120 sketches. Fifty works come from their own collection, the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world and loans from other international collections including the Louvre, the Uffizi and the Queen’s Private Collection.

There’s also a very good short film running through the different techniques and media used : charcoal, chalks, metal point and ink.

The show is crowded so to avoid shuffling along, try to go at the edge of a day. I would also recommend a tactic which works particularly well at the Ashmolean where visitors want to linger over the detail of every single picture. I walk straight through the exhibition to the last of the three rooms and work backwards. This final room is always the least crowded as gallery fatigue sets in for many people at the end of the second room … when they see the exit sign (and a coffee beckons).

Raphael: The Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford runs until 3 September 2017. The show will now be open on Monday 14 and Monday 21 August (the museum is not usually open on Mondays) as well as being open until 8pm on Friday 25 August and Saturday 2 September. 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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