I had some free time during my day off yesterday so nipped in to the British Postal Museum and Archive, now preparing for its move to larger premises next year, to take a look at the Penny Black 175 exhibition. This celebrates the 175th anniversary of the introduction of this iconic postage stamp, the world’s first.
The exhibition is small, but informative, exploring how the Penny Black (and its lesser-known counterpart for slightly heavier mail, the Twopenny Blue) was introduced in 1840 as a way of simplifying the postal system and enabling more people than ever before to send letters. A sheet of these stamps was displayed, which was interesting to see for someone like me who is very interested in Victorian history.
I’d heard of the Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, more commonly known as Goya, because of his powerful war paintings, but this new exhibition at the National Gallery shows another side to him. Goya: The Portraits encompasses the artist’s career in portraiture, from his earliest work to his final years. The exhibition contains 70 works, made up of paintings, drawings and miniatures.
I enjoyed the exhibition: I thought some works were better than others, but they all had Goya’s unique style and power. I was particularly interested in the self-portraits, most notably the “Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta” (1820) in which Goya pays tribute to the medical man who saved his life when he was stricken with a serious illness. The picture shows an ill-looking Goya prostrate in bed, attended by the doctor, while shadowy figures – possibly harbingers of death, or waiting to give the last rites – lurk in the shadows. I also thought that the artist’s family pictures, including the sensitive portrait of his wife, Josefa Bayeu de Goya and his final portrait, an image of his beloved grandson Mariano Goya y Goicoechea, were rather touching.
I thought it very impressive how Goya managed to stay in favour for so much of his life, given the tumults within Spanish society. From an established portrait painter to the Spanish aristocracy, he became the official portrait painter to the Spanish court, and yet when the 1808 popular uprising led to conflict between the existing royal family and the French emperor Napoleon, he managed to keep his position, painting all sorts of powerful figures. I hadn’t previously known that a serious illness in his mid-40s left him almost totally deaf: his portraits became a way for him to communicate with his sitters.
I sometimes find looking at portraits to be a bit boring – there’s only so many times you can gaze with interest at powerful figures posing in beautiful outfits – but Goya’s grasp of psychology and his unusual style made these pictures genuinely fascinating for me. The exhibition runs in the Sainsbury Wing until 10 January.
I was interested to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: despite not being the biggest fan of modern art in general, this particular artist is well known for his commentary on censorship, the Chinese government and human rights. He first became well-known in Britain in 2010 when his sunflower seeds installation was present in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, but this is the first major survey in the UK.
The exhibition was curated in collaboration with Weiwei, and covers the period from 1993, when he returned to China, until the present day. Some works have been created specifically for the RA.
I genuinely wasn’t sure what I would make of this exhibition, but I found it a worthwhile experience, getting me to think about the issues Weiwei raises in his work. I liked the way that contemporary Chinese society was juxtaposed with ancient culture.
Consisting largely of big installation pieces, on a first glance there isn’t a whole lot to look at in the exhibition, but in fact I thought the works had a surprising depth. The free audio guide definitely helped me find my way through the pieces. This n represents a map of China.
Another consisted of leftover wood arranged incredibly neatly, with pieces of ancient temple buried among the pile.
This work, consisting of material from collapsed buildings, represents the Szechuan earthquake of 2008, and the panels on the wall bear the names of those who died. Many of these were children, the details suppressed by the authorities as they did not want to admit that the materials for building schools had been skimped on.
As I said, I wasn’t sure if I would be impressed by this exhibition but I really was. In all honesty, I was probably swayed by the knowledge that Weiwei had been placed under house arrest and come under scrutiny from the Chinese authorities – his art must be important for them to act in this way. Wrong or right, I did find myself thinking seriously about all of these works and they are still on my mind now.
The exhibition runs until 13 December. The Royal Academy is open every day, including late opening on Friday.
I wanted to visit the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives, which I became aware of thanks to The Exhibitionologist’s excellent review. The LMA is open late several nights a week, so I headed down after work.
The exhibition consists of selected images from the LMA collections, photographs taken in the nineteenth century from 1839, when photography first arrived in London. Though small, it is a rich collection, consisting of portraits and street scenes, people at work and at leisure. One of my favourite sections consisted of actors and actresses, including Henry Irving and William Terriss, the latter murdered outside the Adelphi stage door by a disgruntled actor. Another was a collection of images of orphan boys, taken before they left for Canada to start new lives. Yet another poignant collection was made up of inmates of the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum.
Less personal, but equally interesting, pictures covered the Crystal Palace, the construction of the Metropolitan Railway, and the Blackwall Tunnel. The earliest images captured ancient inns, roadways and other buildings which had grown up since the Great Fire, and which are no longer around. We have the Society for Photographing Old Relics of London to thank for this: founded in 1875, they could not stop the demolition of these beautiful old buildings in the name of “progress”, but they could, and did, capture them on camera.
Many buildings from the Victorian period were destroyed in the Blitz, and new construction means that modern-day London looks very different from its Victorian counterpart, as two contrasting images taken from the same spot demonstrate. However, there are still recognisable elements to be seen in the pictures, and these clear, crisp images seem to bring the past even closer. A fantastic, free exhibition that is well worth a visit.
London Metropolitan Archives
40 Northampton Road