Sunday, December 07, 2008

Chuck out the Chintz

Have you ever been to the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London? The chances are you haven’t. In fact, I don’t think many people have judging by a quick gin-sozzled straw-poll in the pub last night (I refuse to say ‘survey’ - it sounds suburban) and neither had I until an acquaintance of mine was talking about the G.F. Watts show the other day in terms so urgent I thought I’d better go and see what all the fuss was about.

The Guildhall are showing the holdings of the G.F. Watts’ Museum (just outside Guildford) which are on holiday while the place undergoes a lottery-furb and the first thing that strikes is the unfinished self-portrait of the artist aged 17 immediately to your left as you enter, a bit like being given the opportunity to say a cheery 'Hullo!' to the artist on the way in. It's one of those confident portraits of talent too young, and reminded me of Samuel Palmer’s great teen self-portrait, only less intense. On into the exhibition proper and in the first room I was captured by the painted sunlight of Fiesole, Italy (above) dappling across deep rolling fields below a changable sky and creamy yellow clouds. But the joy was shortlived as the picture is unfortunately hung opposite a picture of Victorian children so emetic I am surprised I didn’t decorate the floor.

The second room is, thankfully, more balanced, with a great trio of gothic Victorian dramas, Irish Famine, Found Drowned, and Under the Arch, and, just for good measure, a six-foot Satan. As if this wasn’t enough, and just as you find yourself time-travelling into a fog-filled land of gas-lamps and ticking clocks (it's OK I don't expect you to share my penchant for dramatic reaction) there is another dazzling landscape, with curling clouds and hulking mountains scraping the heavens: it’s ‘In Asia Minor’, and so am I, realising, by this point, that far from being a dusty old Victorian painter Watts is a strong painter of place. I believe his far flung locales. I'm just not sure I can say the same for some of the figures.

Moving on, the big room holds further greats. Psychedelic slabs such as Sower of the Systems and After the Deluge, followed by Sunset on the Alps, Mammon Dedicated to his Worshippers and Obama’s fave picture Hope (or as G.K Chesterton would have it ‘Despair’ - but no matter - it’s beautiful). The mysterious The Ghost Ship is barely there, emerging from the snowy blizzard with the chill of a M.R. James and, in the last room, a wonderful landscape of the Isle of White... But I’ve rarely been in a show that needs editing as much as this: I want to take all the forementioned pictures, and put them in a large white gallery with plenty of space around them. They are crammed in to what amounts to a Rotary Club function room and too much of the work is the schmaltz that makes people give Victorian painting a wide berth. The duds are in danger of diminishing the greats.

While you're there, the permanent collection is worth a look, but a shock awaits on the landing as you’re confronted with 9-foot of chaotic Constable that assaults in too narrow a space. I took a few steps back and nearly went over the glass barrier into the downstairs area below (like Lee Remick going over the banisters in The Omen). The landing should be kept for small works and the Constable moved downstairs where you can get ten-feet away from it. There are some great pictures by Landseer, including the Well-Travelled Monkey which will make you smile and The First Leap which you will want to hate for being chocolate boxy but your inner taste-police will be scrapping like two cats in a sack as you fight to stop liking it. Popping back in to the Watts' show it occurred to me that the same can not be said for the chintzy duds.