I‘ve been meaning for sometime to visit the Stanley Spencer gallery in Cookham, but had never quite got round to it before. Although the village looks as picturesque as it does in Spencer’s paintings as I walk towards it over Cookham Common, the amount of traffic rather belies that image. I have mixed feelings about Spencer. The gallery makes claims to place him alongside the likes of Gauguin and Giotto more than Samuel Palmer, with some obvious justification, but his works still often seem cartoonish and twee. In a lot of respects, his landscapes strike me as his best work; his view of a scarecrow in the fields or of Englefield in particular, as opposed to his Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors, The Last Supper, The Resurrection or Christ Preaching at Cookham Regetta, which all seem to have a spirituality of the teapot, garden shed and dish cloth. One painting that does stand out is his depiction of his divorced wife, child and her black faced dolls. I visit the church in Cookham while I’m there; a rather ramshackle affair with a copy of one of his paintings, but otherwise with only a few rather nondescript monuments. Nearer to home, I also visit the Sanham Memorial Chapel, where Spencer played the role of a Giotto or Michaelangelo in creating frescos on the walls; agin though, there’s not much of the oity of war here, in spite of the depiction of wounded soldiers. The christian emphasis on the resurrection undermines too much of the horror of war. It’s a lovely place though, with the orchard at the front and a little gate for badgers to pass through. The nearby church at Kingsclere is perhaps rather more in need of frescos, with a rather bare interior that seems rather disappointing after an its obviously Norman exterior. The following week sees a visit to the churches at Newington and Ewelme. The former has a Norman archway matched by a sparse interior with a few baroque monuments, while I hadn’t seen the almshouses at the latter before.
More recently, I went to London for the Royal Academy’s exhibition of paintings loaned from the Hungarian National Gallery. As this implies, it’s a somewhat hit and miss affair, although as I didn;’t have a chance to visit the gallery when I was in Budapest, it does provide a certain sense of completeness. It opens with a wonderful St Andrew alterpiece, a rock crystal bust of a womna, depictions of the apocalypse, the dead Christ, Raphael’s Esterhazy Madonna, Cranach’s Christ and Virgin Interceding for Humanity and Altdorfer’s Crucifxion. Later sections include Veronese, Goya and Moroni portraits and mythological scenes by Tintoretto and Brueghel. The first highlight though is Greco’s St Mary Magdalene and the landscape section, where Rosa’s romantic paintings of wildnerness and ruins, are placed next to Marko and Claude’s idealised scenes and Ruisdael’s realist paintings. Saenredam’s Protestant church scenes are placed next to Rubens and Murillo’s Catholic works. A Van Heyden still life (complete with hanging Armadillo) and a Bellotto painting of Florence particularly stand out in this section. The modern period combines works by Monet, Gaugion Pissarro and Corot with Bocklin, Gallen-Kallela, Kokoschka, Sciele and Stuck; Hungarian painters like Vaszary, Ziffer, Teutsch, Kosztka and Rippl-Ronai have some staggering works.
I also have time for the National Gallery’s exhibition of Canaletto and his contemporaries. Essentially an excuse to present several rooms full of Venice paintings, I nonetheless find myself surprised that when the same view is shown painted by Canaletto and Belotto alongside one another, it’s the latter that seems the more Canaltteoesque, with less soft light and more detail. It’s equally surprising to note that the most crowded and carnivalesque scenes are painted by Carlevarijs, while Marieschi’s work often has the most unusual perspectives. One opinion doesn’t change: I still don;t like Guardi, whose best work here is a seascape.