Painted Faces exhibition at castle
ANGI KENNEDY How much you can learn from a portrait? Not just what the person looked like, but so many little clues to their life, their times and character. ANGI KENNEDY takes a look at a new portrait exhibition in Norwich.
Elizabeth Patteson must be turning in her grave. The painting of her which she loathed so deeply that she sliced it in two, now hangs proudly in a portrait exhibition.
And a charming picture it is too. There are no hints to what Elizabeth found so repugnant that she destroyed the portrait by Philip Reinagle. This 18th century wife of Norwich brewer John Patteson looks composed and neatly attractive, holding a favourite dog in her arms. Indeed it was this pet which was the only redeeming feature of the picture in Elizabeth's eyes. After cutting the painting in half, she framed the piece showing the dog!
It was her son, William, some years later who reunited dog and mistress when he had the painting restored. And so it provides one of the fascinating stories highlighted in Painted Faces: Portraits from the Collections, the new exhibition at Norwich Castle.
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The exhibition - in the Timothy Gurney Gallery - features 36 paintings that show the development of portrait painting over 400 years, from the 16th century through to the present day.
Curator of Art Nick Thornton worked on the show, with assistant Keeper of Art Norma Watt. He has relished the opportunity to tell the story of the painted portrait.
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“Often we tend to have a theme or particular artist featured in our exhibitions. But this has been slightly different in that we have been able to mix paintings from the 16th and 20th century in this journey through the changes in portrait painting,” he said.
“Even for those people who are not so interested in art history, the stories behind the people in these pictures are fascinating and will really appeal.”
The earliest painting on show is an impressive and very formal piece by an unknown artist of Joanna Smith in 1594.
Although she lived in London, Mrs Smith was a benefactor of the St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich. She is shown in her portrait with a cushion and a very intricate piece of lacework. Mr Thornton believes this must have some significance - perhaps indicative of pieces she created herself or gave to the church.
Family crests, stylised landscapes and costumes give clues to the initiated, but there is so much more in these portraits. They take us back to a specific moment in time, to an encounter between artist and sitter, and give a tantalising glimpse into the character, identity and personality of the sitters.
There is the surprising portrait of young William Crotch at the end of the 18th century. Pictured as an infant at the keyboard, William looks a sombre little soul. He was a child prodigy on the organ and violin.
By the age of two he was playing organ recitals; at three he had played for the king and by seven he had given recitals in all the major towns in England and Scotland.
“He lived near Colegate and people would come across the city and the river to listen to him playing in his home,” said Mr Thornton. “He grew up to be a musician and to write music, but he never realised his full potential.”
The “Norwich Pre-Raphaelite” Frederick Sandys' self-portrait is also on show, alongside two of his characteristic paintings. These are thought to be a wedding pair, one a portrait of Philip Bedingfield and the other of his wife, Adelaide, pictured on honeymoon in front of what seems to be a Tuscan background.
A selection of miniature portraits, rarely shown at the Castle, reveals more personal images of the sitters.
These were usually kept by the sitter or family, perhaps in a locket or snuff box or maybe given as a love token. They were also much cheaper and so more available to the middle classes, giving us an insight into a different type of person to those previously seen in most formal portraits.
The choice of pictures in the exhibition reveals how the artistic and social conventions of each period, as well as their function, helped to dictate the style of the portraits. And it is startling to see how the 20th century transformed portraiture.
“By then photography had become a lot more accessible to people,” said Mr Thornton. “So artists had more freedom to show personality and character, rather than to create a faithful image of their sitter.”
The most recent example of this in the exhibition is by John Lessore, a teacher at Norwich School of Art and Design, who was a great believer in strong, figurative work. His painting of his mother, Helen at the age of 77, shows this style beautifully.
Painted Faces, Portraits from the Collections is showing at the Timothy Gurney Gallery of the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery from now until March 4 2007. It is supported by Renaissance East of England and the East Anglia Art Fund. For more information, call 01603 493636 or visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk