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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Painting of the Month (68) Jan 2017: John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917) was a late-comer to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood school of painting. He worked at a date which was late enough for him to show influences of Impressionism in some of his later  work. His themes were pretty consistent throughout his career; ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, often depicting women in a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite style.
The Lady of Shalott by J W Waterhouse, 1888, Tate Modern, London
The first and best of three versions he made of this subject.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his poem, The Lady of Shalottbased on medieval legends of King Arthur, in 1833 with a revised version in 1842. The story is that the lady was a prisoner in a tower on the island of Shalott which was situated in a river leading downstream to Camelot. We don't know who she was or why she was being punished but she could only see images of the world in her mirror. She weaved these images into a multi-coloured web but was under threat of an unknown curse if she looked upon Camelot or any of it's people. One day she saw and fell in love with Sir Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table and her fate was sealed. We see her floating down toward Camelot and to her tragic demise.
The painting is an interesting mix of both symbolism and realism. The palette (range of colours used) is very autumnal as is the low-cast light level. I have sampled some of the these colours below to illustrate this point.
The artist has succeeded in maintaining a balance between realism and what we might call 'other-worldliness'. Her unkempt hair and the untidy reeds in the foreground along with her expression symbolises her despair. She could also be said to symbolise the position of women in Victorian Britain - she is not in control of her destiny. Waterhouse has kept a sense of realism with his clever use of depth in the background landscape and the surface of the water. As she emerges from the dark woods behind her she is brightly lit so she remains the focus of our attention. To her left you can see some steps leading down to the water, which I think she has just walked down to begin her fateful journey. There are three candles on the far side of the boat, only one of which is still burning and toward the bow of the boat is a crucifix, all of which symbolises her impending untimely death. Draped over the side of the boat is one of her tapestries, a direct reference to Tennyson's poem.
In summary, we have a realistic scene of a 'fairy-tale' woman heavily symbolic of both the time in which it was made and of faithful reference to Tennyson's poem.
Below are Waterhouse's two other paintings of this subject. In both works we can see her tapestry loom and, in the background, the mirror, her only view of the world until she looks at Lancelot.
Having just got back from a long weekend in France I'm feeling all Frenchified and I am listening to Françoise Hardy: 
La maison où j'ai grandi (click to listen).
I used to be in love with her - probably still am. My wife understands....

Monday, 16 January 2017

The wonderful story of Agloe, New York

The protection of intellectual property can be a very difficult area for map-makers. The London A-Z map book is known to contain various non-existent streets. 
The idea is that anyone copying the work of the publishers would be trapped in any legal action because they would copy the deliberate errors and be exposed. This is an age-old practice to keep the copycats at bay. Companies that create maps get their work pirated all the time. You might hire surveyors and draughtsmen, you might checks all of your spellings, you might get all of the towns and cities in the right place and another company comes along, say for example a tourist agency, and steals your work.
You cry 'Piracy!' and take them to court.  "Prove it" they say "It's a map, it describes what is. Because there's a real world out there, obviously maps are going to be identical. So we're only guilty of describing the same world the other map described". Jurors think, "Hmm, sounds reasonable," and the pirates get away with it. Unless the mapmaker runs a little scam. 
I am going to relate the fascinating story of what happened to a map published in the 1930s. The map-makers, Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company of Convent Station, New Jersey, used an anagram of their initials, OGL and EA, to create the fictitious town of Agloe, New York. They sited it in a spot that they knew to be uninhabited 100m from the junction of Highway 206 and an, at-that-time, dirt road called Beaverkill Valley Road. So, were any plagiarist to copy their map, Agloe would in turn show up on the stolen property, and General Drafting Co. would have their proof.
Google maps Street View couldn't get me any closer.
Then one day it happened! Rand McNally, a big map distribution company, published a new New York map that showed Agloe on it. "Aha" thought Lindberg and Alpers "We've got 'em". But they were in for a shock when the case got to court. 
A couple had bought a legal copy of General's map from Esso, who were the distributors, and chose Agloe as the spot to open a General Store. (You might wonder why they chose to open a store in a non-existent place but the town of Roscoe is very nearby and, anyway, that's what they did). Rand McNally countered the plaintiffs accusation by asking "How come the Agloe General Store exists (for that is what the couple had named their business) if there is no such place." And they won their case. Lindberg and Alpers had legitimately created a 'Paper Town' to protect their work but it became a reality and voided their legal claim that they had made it up and that it 'did not exist'!
The American Map Company bought and swallowed-up General Drafting in 1992 and Agloe continued to be included in their maps (maybe they didn't know it's history?). Google reportedly only removed it from their maps in 2013, eighty years after it first appeared. However, I just put 'Agloe' into a Google Maps search box and the location of the 'Agloe General Store (Closed)'  was shown on Beaverkill Valley Road! 
So, a made-up name for a made-up place inadvertently created a real place that, for a time, really existed.......and then didn't! 
FOOTNOTE:     John Green, who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars, based his mystery novel 'Paper Towns' on Agloe in 2008 and it was made into a Hollywood film in 2015. Apparently the film stinks. Perhaps it will disappear......
I am listening to Dave Edmunds 'Queen of Hearts'

Monday, 9 January 2017

Painting of the Month (67) Dec 2017: Gilbert & George

Forward, Gilbert & George 2008, Stained Glass
Gilbert and George are an oddity in the art world. They are Conservative, monarchists and anti-socialists. They do everything together, are never seen apart (they are a couple) and have been together since art school days. Gilbert Prousch was born in Italy in 1943 and George Passmore in England in 1942. They are often seen walking along together in the trendy parts of London's East End. They declined to be photographed with me when I ran into them a couple of years ago (I don't blame them really). They are strongly anti-elitist and have questioned why so many artists are left-wing socialists whom, they claim, tend to be all the same. Surely, they ask, artists should want to be different and individual? Their trade mark is that they are very often featured in their own work which they describe as 'scuptures'.
Family Tree, Gilbert & George 1994, Photos pasted onto board
They are irreverent, witty, obscenely rude, playful and fun. They are always immaculately dressed and are renowned for their highly-formal appearance, always in the same matching suits. I have made a collage of some of their photos below.
I'm listening to the original version of  Lets Stick Together by Wilbert Harrison