Jun 2008 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Flowing shapes, mass and volume are the themes chosen by Alison Watt, the National Gallery’s seventh Associate Artist and the youngest since they linked with the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation to develop this scheme. The selected artist works for two years at the NG, which ensures continuity between the Old Master and the young contemporary artist.

In Alison’s case, she has come up with six large-scale works which reflect her preoccupation with volume, shape and space. For this she has elected to study Courbet and Ingres, although she takes Ingres’s 1856 portrait of Madame Moitessier with its elaborate frills to a far more modernistic and sculptural level – indeed, some of the work, in its softness and pallor, has the fluidity of sand dunes. Deceptively white, with what appear to be darker entrances to the fabric folds, her palette actually includes grey, burnt sienna, cadmium red and yellow ochre.

The six works she shows look as though she enjoys folding and melding fabric, as though she is pushing the subject as far as it will go without leaning too far into abstraction. Both her works, Pulse and Echo, seem representations of a knot and the weighty substance of it physically begins to invade the viewer’s space. Her interest in Zurbarán’s Saint Frances in Meditation is said to have excited her most. The crude, rough-spun brown fabric habit worn by the mystic, whose hooded face is completely obscured, although his mouth is open, speaks of death, especially in the skull imagery. Watts’s reductive skills have bleached away colour, realism and imagery to leave us with a space to get lost in.

The term ‘bluestocking’ once signalled a dried-up, sexless woman too clever for her own good. At least in the limited viewpoint of terrified men! But the original meaning of the term was anything but derogatory, and in the eighteenth century, awash with Enlightenment ideas and aspirations, the impact of intellectual women on creativity was lauded and romanticised, particularly in painting. The romantic view of the young poet, hosted in the salons of Paris, has found its way into literature and music.

Yet here in Britain, the term ‘bluestocking’ was a way of poking fun at intellectual women and the National Portrait Gallery’s current show, Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings, restores the romance of the salon set and offers historical insight into how wealthy women with literary aspirations nurtured each other. In London, the movement grew informally in social circles which also developed the talents of poorer women during the rise of the middle classes.

The three most fashionable eighteenth-century hostesses were Elizabeth Vesey, Frances Boscawen and the literary critic Elizabeth Montagu - called the queen of the bluestockings by Samuel Johnson, who honoured her pivotal role in attracting intellectual contemporaries. Let their menfolk booze on: these three offered tea and literary conversation, the motif of civilised conversation in the eighteenth century. Politically, Britain was at peace: it had won the Seven Years’ War against France and the horrors of the French Revolution were way in the future. Women who bemoaned their lack of inspirational feminine role models or mentors decided to take on the role themselves, often supporting poorer gifted and aspiring poets or novelists, and taking them under their wing. Literature and scholarship were their new bond as well as a need for sexual equality.

In portraits by Allan Ramsay, John Opie and Frances Reynolds, the women are beautifully dressed but their faces have an intellectual edge, at odds with the soft lace and drapery. Ramsay’s dreamy portrait of Montagu, in which she is softly moulded by her salmon-pink dress with pearls and old lace, a flower in her corsage and one in her hair accentuates the refinement of her hands and the sad wisdom in her eyes. As a widow, she proved a shrewd businesswoman, building Montague House in Portman Square, whose classically opulent drawing room, which she described as ‘a temple of virtue and friendship’, was the setting for her literary meetings, which embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment. Theirs was a mutual admiration society, but if equally based on mutual wealth, patronage was also offered. After her husband’s death she offered annuities to several women writers. One famous case is that of the milk-maid poet Ann Yearsley, whose work was promoted by the women until a bitter legal suit ended their patronage. A mezzotint of Ann by Joseph Grozer portrays her in muslin cap and workaday dress, glancing up from her writing with a knowing smile.

Gloria Tessler

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