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Thursday, 24 September 2015

Painting of the Month (57): Sept 2015 Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mona Lisa c1503 - 1507. The Louvre, Paris.
No photograph could do it justice.
Probably the most famous painting of all time Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic painting of The Mona Lisa is a relatively small picture measuring only 30 x 21 inches. Why is it so famous? Well it’s not for nothing! Let’s start with some history; Madonna Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini was the wife of the silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo (in Italian the painting is known as La Gioconda). We know her as Mona Lisa, of course. ‘Mona’ being an archaic Italian word for ‘Lady’.
Leonardo was the true Renaissance man with interests in invention, painting, sculpture, music, mathematics, anatomy, geology, astronomy and much more; a real polymath. He started the painting in 1503 and worked on it, on and off, for four years and did not really stop working on it until shortly before he died in 1519.
There are very many innovative and unusual elements of this painting which, today, are taken for granted. The subject is not a famous person, she is shown sitting in what is known as a three-quarter pose – something never done before and is still a preferred angle. It’s also a half-length portrait rather than head-and-shoulders or full-length. The Italian term sfumato, meaning ‘smokey’ is translated into English as ‘feathered, shaded, fuzzy or blurred’. It is a technique brought into prominence by Leonardo based on the subtle use of layers of translucent paint. The glowing skin around the eyes is a good example of this. It was also extremely unusual to show an imaginary landscape, (which is clearly unfinished). If you look at the landscape on the left of the painting and compare it with that on the right you can see that the two halves don’t match properly – the view is impossible. The realism of the fading detail of the distance was also new. Before then artists showed as much detail in the distance as in the foreground. His deep knowledge of anatomy is seen in the masterful painting of her hands - always a difficulty.
The clever pyramid composition always draws the viewer toward her eyes. See left.
Mona wasn’t always an international celebrity until, in 1911, she was stolen from the Louvre by a workman who thought she should be kept in Italy. No one noticed for a day, thinking it had been removed for publicity photographs! She was returned there in 1913 and, since several attempts at vandalism, has been kept behind bullet-proof glass.

Her ‘about-to-smile’ expression and ‘eyes that follow you around the room’ are world renowned and there have been countless pastiches and interpretations of the original.

Mona Lisa has become embedded in modern popular culture


Listening to Joan Baez singing Love Song to a Stranger (click the title to hear it).This is a live performance of one of the saddest songs I know.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Romford Garden Suburb

I led my Sunday morning walking group on a tour around Romford Garden Suburb today. After Hampstead Garden Suburb was built in north-west London in 1907 some of the investors wanted to build another project in north-east London. Sir Herbert Raphael had the idea of a competition for the best house designs in order to generate publicity for the project.
The Garden City movement had begun with the building of the world's first Garden City in Letchworth in 1903.
Sir Herbert owned a large estate with a mansion (Gidea Hall) and grounds all around it. He donated 90 acres on the western flank as a public park and founded a golf club to the east. This had the effect of preserving the surroundings and stopping encroachment into the area. Although I live only about seven miles from this area, until researching local places, I had never heard of it; as it turned out nor had any of my friends! It seems to be an incredible local secret although it was the talk of London when it opened in 1911. Around 122 of the leading architects of the era designed 159 homes for the exhibition. A great variety of English architectural styles were on display and there was plenty of reference to local styles as known in the surrounding County of Essex. The influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the time is very evident. In the map below I have outlined the local Conservation Area in red and if you find UK postcode RM2 5JB on Google Maps you can go down to street level and see many of the interesting house designs. I have shown a selection of photos that my wife took below.
The area of The Exhibition Estate (as it is known) shown bordered in red.
There were two classes of homes for the competition: Four bedroom 'Family homes' to sell at £500, well above average for the time, and also three bedroom 'Cottages' to sell at £375.
Many of the houses are now valued at between one and two million pounds.
I particularly like this style with herring-bone brickwork set in the Tudor oak beams.
Designed by Michael Bunney and Clifford Makins.
Most of the homes have retained their chimney stacks as an architectural feature
This Philip Tilden designed property is Grade II listed.
In the UK that means one can't make external changes but as the property is in a 
conservation area anyway it's doubly protected.
This house has, unusually, had its two tall chimneys removed. It was designed by
Clough Williams-Ellis who later designed Portmeirion in Wales where the  cult TV series
The Prisoner was filmed in the 1960s.
This picture, taken from Google Maps, is of  the Class 1 Family Home first-prize winner in 1911. It was designed by Geoffrey Lucas. Don't forget that these buildings were not judged on their prettiness but rather their utility, ease and economy of management and maintenance.
In 1934 a second competition was held to help sell the few vacant plots that were available. All of those new homes were in the Art Deco style that was dominant at that time.
A graceful Art Deco door and window

Another of the successful 1934 designs (some of them are disappointing).
Finally, this house won the 1934 first prize by probably the most famous of the architects, Berthold Lubetkin, co-founder of the influential Tecton Group.
As I am in a good mood I am listening to Jackson Browne's lovely Linda Paloma. Listen here!