Winter sunrise

John Martin, Thomas Bewick and Chinese brush paintings

We are fortunate in North East England to have a wealth of wonderful art galleries and museums to feed our cultural souls. On a recent town trip we enjoyed some new artworks and some old favourites.

Our first stop was an exhibition of Chinese brush paintings in the Newcastle City Library. This was part of the city’s celebrations for Chinese New Year – The Year of the Horse. The paintings in this exhibition were the work of members of the Northern Chinese Brush Painters’ Society. Chinese brush painting is a very distinct style of painting, often featuring flowers and animals associated with China, as well as classical images of Chinese figures.

Viewing Chinese Brush Painting Exhibition at City Library
Viewing Chinese Brush Painting Exhibition at City Library

We like to take our time when we’re exploring an exhibition and really absorb the feelings different works evoke. Having visited previous exhibitions of Chinese brush painting we were ready to appreciate the skillful brushwork that goes into this style of painting and the artists of the Chinese Brush Painters’ Society really are very accomplished. The exhibition was a visual treat. There were wild birds, cockerels, peonies, roses, landscapes, waterfalls, a tiger (a favourite with our boys), and of course, a horse – all beautifully represented in Chinese brush work.

Our second stop was the 18th and 19th Century Paintings on the first floor of the Laing Art Gallery which is conveniently just across the road from the library. The Laing is one of our regular haunts so our boys are very familiar with many of the works in this part of the gallery. They feel at home here and happily wander off to study the various paintings. In this gallery we have works by John Martin, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, William Holman Hunt and, one of my favourites, Laura Knight, among others. Then after we’ve wandered we meet up at particular family favourites and talk about something that has caught our eye.

On this occasion we were standing by John Martin’s “The Bard” – at over 2 metres high and a metre and a half across, it is an imposing and truly mesmerising painting that we never tire of viewing and discussing. It depicts the medieval story of Edward I and his armies conquering Wales, with the last Welsh Bard standing high on the mountainside from which he is about to leap to his death.

We also contemplated the smaller works by John Martin that are hung adjacent to “The Bard”. One in particular drew our attention, entitled “Solitude”, as it depicts a lone figure gazing out across woods and moorland towards the kind of glorious sunset we often see in winter across our own valley. The sunrise I’ve added as the header to this post demonstrates the amazing sky colours we experience. This is a raw image taken in early January.

The final part of this cultural tour was to view an exhibition currently at the Laing Gallery showcasing works by another very famous North East artist and his pupils, “Thomas Bewick and His Apprentices”. Thomas Bewick is renowned for his wood engravings, many of which were published as book illustrations.

Thomas Bewick's engravings
Thomas Bewick’s engravings

This exhibition partly showcased Bewick’s own work, but also that of the apprentices who worked with him at his workshop. There were engravings but also paintings by Bewick’s apprentices in the exhibition, including a wonderful watercolour of Tynemouth Priory by Luke Clennell. The following link takes you to part of the Tyne & Wear Museums website where you can see some of Luke Clennell’s work. We discussed how the subject matter and style of some of these paintings were similar to some of the works of John Sell Cotman.

We had a very enjoyable and informative day, experiencing and appreciating an interesting range of works by North East-based artists past and present. It was certainly a wonderful way to spend a damp winter’s day.

J Peggy Taylor

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