My trip to Norwich for the weekend coincided with a highly recommended exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum. Luckily I managed to fit in a visit first thing on Saturday morning – before proceeding to other more personal ‘family matters’.
The exhibition, subtitled “The family in British art”, covered a wide variety of media and time periods and was subdivided into 5 sections: Inheritance, Childhood, Couple and Kinship, Parenting and Home. A number of galleries have contributed to the exhibit which will show next year in Sheffield, Newcastle and at Tate Britain. I would love to tell about every picture, installation and sculpture but will just highlight a few which I found particularly relevant or interesting.
Many of the pictures included in Family Matters are from Norwich Castle’s own collection. I know that this is pretty extensive as I have in the past participated in behind-the-scenes tours and there are also many fine works of art in the permanent galleries. John Crome and John Sell Cotman and other Norwich School painters being particularly well represented.
Approaching Norwich Castle
One of my favourite pictures fell into this category: The Harvey Family of Norwich, c.1820 by Joseph Clover. Outside the gallery, in the Castle Rotunda is a life-size copy of this painting with a few faces missing. So I had a go at filling one of the gaps!
The Harvey Family of Norwich, plus one!
In addition there’s The Descent of King James I by an unknown 17th century artist – a kind of visual family tree and right up to date is a 3 screen video installation by Zineb Sedira featuring 3 generations of one family who speak Arabic, French and English in turn.
I loved the Gainsborough painting of his Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (c.1756). The butterfly is said to denote fragility and one of the daughters, Mary, was named after a previous daughter who had died two years earlier.
Bang up to date was a Grayson Perry vase made in 2000 and titled Difficult Background. Look past the innocent 1950s children in the foreground to horrors of war, burning buildings, naked figures.
Couples and Kinship
To me the most touching of all the pictures was Batoni’s “The Hon. Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with their daughters Barbara Anne” (1750). Thomas and Anna Maria Pratt had married in 1739. Their daughter Barbara had died in 1749 and to console themselves they had taken a European tour. In Rome they commissioned Pompeo Batoni to paint their portrait and to include (using a miniature of her likeness) their daughter.
Walter Sickert’s “Ennui” depicts another couple but in what appears to be a totally restrained relationship. It depicts “a sense of suffocating boredom” but is in fact a posed picture using as models a friend of Sickert’s and his own maidservant.
We have a print on our staircase of “Melanie and me swimming” by Michael Andrews (1978-9). Our print measures about 38cm square. The actual painting is about 2m x 2m. It’s based on a holiday photograph taken years earlier of the artist teaching his daughter to swim.
Several other pictures in this section interested me – not least David Hockney’s painting of his parents (1977). I recognised the Habitat folding chairs! We bought these very chairs that same year – the year we got married – for our kitchen. We’ve still got them and use them now and again when we number more than 4 at the kitchen table.
Finally the section titled ‘Home’ like the others included a right mixture of interpretations! Several were photographs including one by Thomas Struth (a German photographer born in 1954) called “The Smith family, Fife” (1989). I had only earlier this week read an article in the New Yorker about Struth and his National Portrait Gallery photo of The Queen and Prince Philip commissioned for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year. You can read the article here.
The curator poses some thought-provoking questions. “What makes a house a home? Is home a real place or just a dream of intimacy? Can we ever return home, or is it always somewhere irretrievably in our past?”
With these thoughts on my mind I then proceeded to Family Matters of my own and here are four generations of my family in Norwich.