Old Masters

Back down South, I visit Highgate Cemetery during the May holiday. Wild garlic, Cow parsley and Forget-Me-Nots are in flower and much of the place feels like a rural meadow, although I now learn that charity that maintains the cemetery is looking to cut back many of the trees and plants so as to recapture some of the original Victorian garden cemetery, such as the views over central London. While the West Cemetery may have the more romantic aspect, with its ruins ensnared by vines (for the time being, at least), this time the East Cemetery interests me more; rather baroque graves to people like Malcolm Maclaren and Jeremy Beadle (in forms imitating a Penguin or a bookshelf) emerge as modern counterparts to the Victorian impresarios who originally populated the Magnificent Seven; often not respectable enough for the places reserved for the nobility and still determined to prove a wealth and status they only tenuously had in life. The presence of a nearby Victorian grave in the form of a piano rather proves the point. The West Cemetery is rather different to how I remember it; the chapel has been beautifully restored, the catacombs are open and I can access the Beer mausoleum. The dissenting section is also accessible and I can visit Faraday’s grave as well as the spare pauper’s area above the Egyptian avenue where the unmarked grave of Adam Worth (The Napoleon of Crime) resides. Afterwards, I explore Highgate a bit, like Lubetkin’s Highpoint design with its incongruous Eretcheum Caryatids and St Michael’s church in Highgate, with its Kempe stained glass.

The following day I visit the National Gallery and its Veronese exhibition. I often find it a little difficult to warm to the religious aspects of Renaissance art wit its parades of Madonnas characterised by expressions of beatific stupefaction or by grisly views of the crucifixion and assorted Saints displaying the means of their demise. I tend to prefer the secular portraiture, of gentleman it against dark backgrounds, but it’s difficult not to note with Veronese’s paintings that there is very difference between the secular and the sacred; scenes are organised theatrically typically with smaller objects of interests at the margins (like children playing with a dog). The focus is often on textures and colours like the velvet of the dresses or the polished metal of soldier’s armour gleaming in the light. Backdrops are often formed by classical architectural subjects sometimes in a state of ruin but often intact; the focus is on opulence and magnificence rather than on piety and simplicity. Allegorical paintings designed to depict chastity and virtue typically do so by displaying large amounts of naked flesh. All in all, it’s an idea of religion that applies to a wealthy society that wasn’t too fussed at its precepts.

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