Tuesday 25 September 2012

Sir John Cass Institute, 31 Jewry Street EC3

This powerful, vigorous figure striding purposefully out of his niche high over Jewry Street is Sir John Cass (1661-1718), alderman, sheriff and MP for the City of London.
As a merchant he amassed considerable wealth and left most of it to a foundation for education that still prospers today.
The statue is a copy of a life-size figure in lead created by the brilliant Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1702-1762) who was born in Lyon but made his home in London from 1730. It is a baroque masterpiece, full of life and movement.
The original was kept in the Sir John Cass primary school in the East End. Recently it was restored by Rupert Harris and moved to the Guildhall where it would also be safer and more accessible to the public. At the same time, several copies were made in fibreglass with lead powder impregnated into the surface.
Coincidentally, the 1898 Cass Institute (by A.W. Cooksey) had an empty niche over the entrance of exactly the right size, and one of the copies was placed in it. It looks as though it had always been there.

The new copy of Roubiliac's statue attracts all the attention now, but the other carving on the entrance bay rewards a look.
On either side of the statue are Baroque-style swags of impedimenta associated with education, art on the left and science on the right. It is all very practical, with lots of tools including an artist's palette and maulstick, sculptor's tools, T-squares, globe, telescope, gears and pinions, pincers and a retort.
Supporting the arch over the front steps are heads of boy and girl pupils surrounded by fruit. No attempt is made to make them look antique, even though they wear traditional charity school headgear. Very charming.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

190-195 Piccadilly W1

190-195 Piccadilly was built as a gallery, headquarters and club for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. The Royal Academy just down the street was too elevated to admit watercolourists, regarding oils as the only acceptable medium for art.
Unfortunately, the watercolourists were just as cliquey and two societies emerged, the Society of Painters in Water Colours (known as the Old Society) and the New Society of Painters in Water Colours.
The two were at war for centuries and still don't talk. The Old Society (now the Royal Watercolour Society) is in trendy Bankside and the New Society (now the Royal Institute) shares premises in the Mall.
For nearly a century, however, the RI was the much more richly housed, in the prominent building designed by E.R. Robson and ornamented with sculpture by Edward Onslow Ford.
Ford was largely self-taught, though he did study on the Continent. He specialised in portrait sculpture, so it is a particular gift that the front of the RI features a series of his busts of prominent watercolourists. I have only heard of one of them, which I suspect is due to a combination of the continuing prejudice against painters in water colours and my own stupendous ignorance.
David Cox (1783-1859). Who? Apparently, he was once regarded as rivaled only by Constable for his depictions of cloudscapes. I really must look at some of his pictures.
Peter De Wint (1784 - 1849) was trained as an engraver and painted in both oils and watercolours. He is particularly known for pictures of Lincoln, done on visits to his in-laws. 
George Barret Jr (1767 - 1842), the son of the Irish painter George Barret Sr, was the Stakhanov of watercolours, never missing a Royal Watercolour Society exhibition in the 38 years from its founding in 1804. He started with views of the Thames Valley, moving later to romantic imaginary landscapes after the manner of Claude. 
William Henry Hunt (1790 - 1864) was one of the founders of English water colour painting, developing a wide range of techniques admired by Ruskin. 
Paul Sandby (1731 - 1809) was a splendid example of the close relationship of water colour painting with soldiering. He started life as a draughtsman with the Board of Ordnance making maps, and began painting landscapes when he was surveying the Scottish Highlands. Later he rose to become Chief Drawing Master at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. All army officers (including my father) were expected to be able to produce a credible watercolour landscape for intelligence purposes. I suppose they do it with their mobile phones these days, sadly.
Thomas Girtin (1775 - 1802) was a childhood friend of Turner, the teenage pair getting jobs colouring prints. He is credited with inventing English Romantic watercolour painting. 
John Robert Cozens (1752 - 1797) travelled on the Continent with the notable mad person William Beckford, and sadly ended up in Bethlem himself, where he died. His paintings were dramatic and primitive in execution, but Constable himself called him 'the greatest genius that ever touched landscape.'
And finally, a name I recognise. Turner. The man. The greatest watercolourist of them all, and indeed one of the greatest artists of all time in any medium.