Tate Britain Inspiration

Finding myself in London one afternoon last week, I decided to visit Tate Britain for a quiet wander. With nothing specific to see, I decided to look around some of the ‘BP Walk through British Art’ galleries. When a particular thought struck me that had some relevance to what I would like to achieve with my own painting, I took a picture to remind me of it.

My snaps are of rubbish quality, so for anyone who is interested, I suggest looking at the beautiful reproductions on the Tate Britain website. Type in the name of the artist or title of the work, and you’ll find it easily enough. I particularly recommend you do this to look at Hogarth’s self portrait and Sargent’s boy on the beach.

So, what was I trying to remind myself of in each case?…

George Romney ‘Lady Hamilton as Circe’
I’m not particularly a fan of some of the idealised portraits of this period, and in many ways this painting is no exception. The energy in the brushstrokes however, is remarkable; the variety of closely related hues in the background, and the simply effective flow of the hair. The modelling of the nose is really beautiful, soft but solidly structured. The amount of red in the shadows is also something that I really took note of. It describes areas such as the nostrils perfectly, without the deadening effect of black.

William Hogarth ‘The Painter and his Pug’
More beautifully structured modelling of the facial features, with subtle halftones and warm shadows. Also, who doesn’t love this dog?

John Constable ‘The Mill Stream’
The immediacy of Constable’s oil sketches feels so fresh and contemporary to me. Until I had seen some of his sketches of this kind, I had definitely fallen victim to dismissing Constable as a painter of ‘biscuit tin’ romantic scenery. Knowing more about him, I now understand how wrong I was, and that in his own time his naturalistic painting style was something new and radical. There’s probably too much cultural baggage attached to some of his more finished works (such as The Haywain) for me to appreciate them as they deserve to be. The sketches though, are a source of great inspiration with regard to the simple shapes found with confident brushwork and the vivid but natural palette employed.

John Singer Sargent ‘A Nude Boy on a Beach’
Just wonderful. For something that is basically a sketch, the shapes and colour, the sheer virtuosity of it… remarkable. It’s also a jewel by virtue of its small size – approximately 27cm x 35cm – and the delicacy of the paint surface, so thin in places that the ground glows through.

I also photographed some details of Sargent’s painting of pearls. These are featured in his 1896 society portrait ‘Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children’. What I love about Sargent is how in close-up, he leaves out so much, but across a room, it all appears to be there. I struggled like mad trying to paint the pearls in this portrait. What a lesson Sargent provides here.

Philip Wilson Steer ‘Seated Nude: The Black Hat’
Great colour and edge work in the figure. Loose, sketchy brushwork throughout, but the context of the room nevertheless described. It’s not academic, and it is more than a study of the nude; instead it has narrative and freshness.

Walter Richard Sickert ‘La Hollandaise’
The same applies to this painting of Sickert’s, but more so. It comments on social structures and class. Stylistic and psychological, there is no idealisation of form, and it is awash with ambiguity of intent and meaning – although unsettling undercurrents certainly appear to be at work. If ever proof were needed of how figurative work can be a world away from simply copying nature, here is a great example.