Ajax and Cassandra by Raphael

I saw this drawing when I visited the metalpoint exhibition at the British Museum. I was really quite taken with it, the way in which Raphael has told the story. This is from the Greek myth where Ajax the Lesser abducts Cassandra from the temple of Athena and rapes her. The thing that struck me about the drawing was the way Raphael had conveyed the power of the scene – Ajax pulling Cassandra away while she clings to the statue of Athena and also the look of terror on Cassandra’s face.

I visited this exhibition shortly after I had been to the V&A to see the Raphael cartoons. The difference in scale is huge and the technical difficulties of the different techniques must have been very challenging. It was interesting to compare this drawing with the Sacrifice at Lystra. The main factor they both had in common was how Raphael had represented the human form. I see the twisted pose and rendering of the executioner in Lystra reflected in Ajax. In both these cases Raphael has portrayed the power and energy of the main character through pose and rendering of musculature.

I also learned all about metalpoint drawings from the British Museum exhibition, a technique that I knew nothing about before my visit.

My notes on the drawing can be found here: Raphael Ajax and Cassandra

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Oil on canvas, 762 x 1118 mm, 1851/2, Tate Britain, London
John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the detail achieved by Millais is stunning and the depiction of the slowly running water is fantastic. Millais tells the tragic story of Ophelia in a way that some find uplifting Hawksley states “Millais’s painting should be about death and misery and madness, but it always evokes in me positive associations”. (http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/john-everett-millaiss-ophelia).

It is not difficult to see why some find positive aspects in the painting with the bright colours and intense detail of the flowers and leaves. Nevertheless the expression on Ophelia’s face, to me indicating a real sadness, portrays the tragedy of the scene.

My notes on the painting are here: Ophelia


Annotation – Chartres Rose Window

I found this exercise somewhat difficult but ultimately rewarding. It was difficult because it was all done from photographs and web images. With something as special as stained glass it is impossible to get a sense of the effect that the light streaming through the window can have. But it was rewarding as I discovered so many new things about Gothic Cathedrals, rose windows, stained glass and mathematics!

Fortunately I discovered an excellent website: http://www.medievalart.org.uk/chartres/121_pages/Chartres_Bay121_key.htm

which not only had a key to the various parts of the window, but also clickable links to enlarge the section. This made study of the window much more rewarding as colours and details that were not obvious in the overall image of the window, suddenly emerged when the different sections were enlarged.

The geometry of the North Window at Chartres is extremely complex; I must admit I struggled to understand some of it, so I am in awe of the 13th century designers and builders.

What is also difficult to comment on from desk based research is how this rose window fits in to the overall design of the cathedral – perhaps I will be able to visit one day to see this for myself. Researching this annotation has certainly whetted my appetite to visit!

The annotation can be found here: Annotation Chartres Cathedral

Annotation – Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti

I think that the moral of this tale is that if there is the opportunity to study the real thing (or suitable copy) then you get so much more from the exercise by doing so rather than simple desk study. The OCA notes for this exercise stated that there were copies of the Gates of Paradise in the Cast Courts of the V & A museum, so I made a trip to London to see them. It more than repaid the effort, you really cannot appreciate the depth of relief in the panels, and some of the figures almost seem to be dropping out of the door panels. I would also not have appreciated the scale of the doors had I not been to see them. In addition you are able to see the scenes on each of the panels so much better when you see them in three dimensions rather than the two dimensions of an image.

I was able to see for myself the details of the scenes and how some of the panels contain a number of scenes from the same story.

I n many ways I did not miss out from seeing the gates at the Baptistery in Florence, as part of my research for the exercise I found out that they are also now reproductions, the originals are stored in a museum in the City.

The annotation can be seen here: Annotation Gates of Paradise

Project 4: Susanna and the Elders by Sir Peter Lely

I’m pleased that I chose to concentrate on this painting for Project 4. When I did my History of Art 1 course, one of the paintings I studied was Hayez’s Susanna at her Bath. This was an annotation for a female nude, but I remembered the story when I was at Tate Britain and saw Sir Peter Lely’s painting. I was struck by how different an interpretation it was from the Hayez.

I knew from the previous course that there had been other paintings of the story by very well-known artists, what I hadn’t realised was quite how many versions there were!

It was fascinating to research the way in which different painters had portrayed the scene, many seem to have taken it as an opportunity to paint a naked or semi-naked young woman. The trouble with this, as I found out from my research of this painting, is that it can change the whole narrative of the story. Is Susanna an innocent victim or a temptress? It brought home to me just how the interpretation of a story can change through the eyes of a painter. It reflects, to some small degree, the debate in photography over the manipulation of images. In that instance the photographer is deciding whether the story is better told by manipulating the image – in narrative painting the artist can completely change the whole context of the story from the way he or she chooses to portray it.

The Project can be found here:Lely Susanna

I have amended this exercise to reduce the word count. The amended version can be seen here: Project 4 Narrative Painting

The Sacrifice at Lystra by Raphael

I visited the Cast Courts at the V & A to study Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, so as I was there I went to see the Raphael cartoons. It is excellent being able to see them all together. I could have studied any of them for the exercise on narrative paintings but I found The Sacrifice at Lystra appealed to me the most. I’m not sure why, perhaps it is the way that Raphael has composed the painting with the throbbing crowd on the right and the two saints, slightly removed, on the left. Or perhaps it was the portrayal of the executioner, the way in which he had been painted really expressed the power of the blow he was about to strike on the unfortunate animal.

The slight problem I had is that the room was rather dimly lit (I guess for conservation purposes), which made it slightly more difficult to see the detail.

The sheer scale and number of the works is overpowering.

I also learned from this research just what a cartoon is. I already knew that, in artistic terms, it wasn’t just a humorous drawing, but in this case it was used to produce a design for transfer on to a tapestry.

My notes on the painting can be found here:Raphael Lystra

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Burne-Jones

Edward Burne-Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


This was another painting that I discovered on my visit to Tate Britain, it is really interesting  to go a gallery with the aim of finding narrative paintings to research and annotate.

I had seen images of Burne-Jones work before, but the scale of this painting surprised me. I had read in books about ‘verticality’ in paintings – as soon as I saw this I knew instantly what was meant by the term. The shape and composition of this painting combine to draw the eye up the image.

Researching the background to this painting taught me about influences too – not just the poem and ballad of King Cophetua – but the possible artistic influences, in this case the painting by Mantegna. The more work I do on this course the more I discover the various influences that are brought to bear on a particular painting.

I also learned from this research that anemones are the symbol of rejected love.

You can see my notes on the painting here: King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

Drawing in Silver and Gold – Leonardo to Jasper Johns


I hadn’t come across the term metalpoint before so I was anxious to see this exhibition – called Drawing in Silver and Gold – at the British museum.

First I learned how the technique was used. Essentially, I think it was a way of producing very fine lines and points before the graphite pencil was invented.

The British museum website describes the technique “Metalpoint is a drawing technique where the artist uses a metal stimageylus, usually made of silver, on an abrasive preparation so that traces of the metal are left on the surface, resulting in a visible drawing. The fine point allows for precise lines so that stunningly detailed drawings can be achieved”.

The examples in the exhibition showed how the technique could be used to produce drawings of very fine detail.

It is a great way to learn about a technique – to visit an exhibition dedicated to displaying some of the finest examples of the work. The exhibition had an explanation of the technique at the beginning and then went through examples of the work chronologically from ‘Leonardo to Jasper Johns’. I was fascinated by the range of work and of artists. From Leonardo’s wonderful profile of a warrior with a winged helmet and the sternest of military faces to Dutch and German drawings, through the pre-Raphaelites right up to the present day.


Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum.

Hugo Chapman, who is keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum, has written an excellent article in the September edition of Apollo Magazine which gives a real insight into the technique, why and by who it was used. It is well illustrated and gives a number of meaningful insights, such as how many Italian artists only ever saw it as a studio tool. But Leonardo and then Dutch and German artists recognised the versatility and portability of the system and used it in inventive ways.

I was totally struck by the exhibition, how carefully it had been thought through and the natural progression as you walked past the exhibits. I was not the only one to think this, Jonathon Jones in his review in The Guardian says “I have never seen an exhibition that so joyously reveals the beauty and mystery of the art of drawing”.

Hugo Chapman’s article in Apollo Magazine can be read here:


The British Museum’s description of the technique and introduction to the exhibition can be found here:


Jonathon Jones’ review in The Guardian is here:


Vision of Medea by JMW Turner

I went to Tate Britain to research the narrative paintings exercise. I came across this interpretation of the story of Medea by JMW Turner.

My notes can be found here: Vision of Medea by JMW Turner

I found it interesting how Turner had included more than one scene from the story in the same painting – in the main scene Medea is shown casting her spell, but in the background she is driving her chariot across the sky, casting her dead children to the ground. This was something I had seen done by other atrists, but it was the first time I had seen it used by Turner.

I also learned from this exercise the possible influences on Turner, it wasn’t necessarily just the ancient Greek myth, but possibly an opera of the story that was playing at the time Turner was contemplating his painting.

This exercise is a good illustration oh how I am coming across a much wider selection of art works. Whenever possible I try to annotate or carry out the research exercises on works of art that I can visit and examine. In this case I visited Tate Britain looking for works that could be used in this exercise. I did not know this work by Turner existed before going to the gallery, so the exercise has helped to broaden my knowledge of works of art.

Francis Bacon and the Masters

I visited this exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, not quite knowing what to expect. While I had seen images of Bacon’s work before I had not seen the originals of any of his paintings.

The concept of the exhibition was interesting, displays of Bacon’s work alongside those of ‘great masters’ that were an influence on him. The exhibition started with large scale photos of Bacon in his studio, the floor littered with discarded artist’s materials and reproductions of great works of art that he loved.

Putting Bacon’s work alongside his possible influences was, in parts, quite enlightening – not least when seeing Bacon’s rendering of the human body alongside Michelangelo’s statues of the human form. I could see the same curvature of the spine and twisting of the body in both.

I did not go into this exhibition as the world’s greatest fan of Francis bacon, I’m probably much too conservative in my own taste. Nevertheless I did learn a lot about how one generation of art will influence another. You would not normally compare Bacon and Michelangelo, yet to see the work I’ve just mentioned alongside each other enables you to see for yourself what effect these influences have.

Not all of the influences are as immediately obvious as Michelangelo’s statues, but it was a great opportunity to be able to study them alongside each other. It was also an excellent opportunity to see some pieces that I might not otherwise have been able to see – Rodin’s Eternal Spring for example or Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr.

As I said, I did not go to the exhibition as a huge admirer of Bacon’s work, but the more I saw of it the more intrigued I became. His Screaming Popes series was inspired by Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X – I had been lucky enough to see the original Velazquez at Houghton Hall the previous year. I found it quite arresting, the eyes held your gaze as you looked at the painting, almost seeming to follow you as you walked away, the personality of the sitter seemed to be bursting out of the painting. Bacon’s versions stand in complete contrast, the subject seems to me almost to be strapped to an electric chair, screaming in agony at the viewer. It came over to me as a personal comment on religion and the restrictive nature of organised faith.

I read the programme notes with interest, especially where it was talking about Bacon’s attempts to depict what is inside the subjects of his painting, to de- and then re-construct them. As Jonathon Jones says in his Guardian Review of the exhibition “All his life, Bacon looked at and wanted to reinvent the art of the great masters”. This enabled me to see his work in a new light, what he was trying to do and this gave me a new way of trying to read his paintings.

Unlike Jonathon Jones I was not very aware of Bacon’s work until I saw this exhibition. Like him, though, I was not sure that the exhibition did Bacon and his work too many favours. Perhaps it is because I don’t hold particularly radical views of painting, but to me Bacon seemed to come off second best when held to comparison with the works of Rembrandt, Rodin, Matisse, etc.

I think this is best demonstrated in comparing Bacon’s crucifixion with similar subjects by Cano and Titian. Jones draws attention to the power and intensity of the Titian, but describes Bacon’s painting as “sensationalised, hysterical and weightless”. I had to agree, to me the Bacon crucifixion conveyed noe sense of passion or pain, seeming more like a transparency.

Perhaps I am being over-critical, but I did rather agree with Jonathon Jones when he wrote “The jaw-dropping masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Titian and Rodin that so nearly make this show five-star unmissable also, to my dismay, to my shock, make Bacon seem a small, timebound, fading figure”.

Jonathon Jones review of the exhibition can be found here:


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