John Bettes A Man in a Black Cap 1545
Tracy Chevalier, Author: I was really drawn to this man in his black cap because his black cap is so very black. The rest of the painting is variegated but the black is pow, right in your face. Another thing I really am curious about in this painting is why the man is not looking at us. So many portraits, people look straight at us, and saying, this is me, who are you? And this guy isn’t even acknowledging our presence. And I’m trying to decide whether it’s because we’re not worth his attention, or, when I’m in a better mood, I might look at him and think he’s pondering something. He has a very, very thoughtful face and I was surprised to learn that he’s only 26 years old, because when you look at his face, he’s got wrinkles on his cheeks, he looks like he’s had a lot of experience. And, of course, in 1545, when this was painted, people lived shorter lives, so by aged 26, he would have been a lot more grown-up than a 26-year-old is now. So I remind myself of that and it makes me feel like there’s a really huge gap between him and me, and I think, what’s he thinking of? What was I thinking of when I was 26? I was thinking about jobs, maybe. And I think he’s probably thinking about financial problems or war.
Unknown artist, Britain The Cholmondeley Ladies c.1600–10
Tracy Chevalier, Author: I love these Cholmondeley Ladies. Whenever I look at them I immediately think of playing cards. And they’ve got that look, it’s like a template that’s been filled in. So the shape of the two women and the babies are the same, but slightly different details. And if you think of playing cards, if you think of the Queen of Spades and the Queen of Hearts, they usually look pretty much the same, just a few changes in colour. But then that’s the superficial view of this painting. When you start looking more closely, the idea is that perhaps these two women are twins, born on the same day, but I don’t think they are. I think that you’re tricked by the template of the painting into thinking that they’re the same, but actually when you start to look more closely they aren’t.
I look at the woman on the left and she has quite a nice sort of soft, almost insipid smile. The woman on the right, though, she’s older, her eyes, her dark eyes, are staring out at us. She’s a little bit grim, and I would say, if they’re sisters, she’s the older sister. And then, of course, there are the babies, and the babies are hilarious because they’re like an accessory for these two. They’re in exactly the same position and they’re being held, not with any great tenderness, but rather as if you were holding a loaf of bread or a book or something. You know, it’s just very funny. And when I got go to the Tate I often stand and look at this painting for a long time. There is something about it that’s so compelling I can’t tear myself away.
Mary Beale Portrait of a Young Girl, c.1681
Martin Myrone, Tate Curator: Mary Beale was one of the very first – perhaps the first – professional woman artists working in Britain, and in a time when, you know, women weren’t able to take up careers, she was very unusual. Her husband had a job in the Patent Office, but was also her studio assistant and studio manager, so it’s rather interesting. Like this is a very early female artist that we know much about, and probably the first professional artist, and this is a characteristic work from her studio, and especially for the date, an unusually direct and intimate portrait of a young girl.
We don’t know the name of the young girl, but there are at least a couple of possibilities. Mary Beale and her husband kept very detailed records of their working practices and their studio practice, and they identified two people who were usually used as models, one of which was her studio assistant, called Kate Trioche, and the other her godchild, Alice Woodforde, and she records doing studies of both those young women. So this is probably a kind of real living and breathing individual. It’s a testament, really, not only to, you know, the fact that Mary Beale was a very capable, skilful artist, working at a time when women had a very low status in society and, you know, wouldn’t expect to have careers, but it’s also a testament to the close-knit studio and household where family members and associates were working very intimately together.
William Hogarth O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) 1748
Lubaina Himid, Artist: I’m not entirely sure that I always knew what this painting was called. In my mind it’s the meat painting. Of course it’s incredibly rude about everyone, which in a way is what’s the best thing about Hogarth: his cynicism and his satirical venom is pointed at everyone. I like it because it’s so horrible. Everything about it is nasty. The characters are nasty. The colours are nasty. There are kind of really darkly-painted sections, especially down on the left-hand side. And then what’s kind of really nasty about it is that there’s a great big hole in the middle of it because this archway opens up, a kind of drawbridge thing, in the middle of it, and you can see some ghastly scene going on in the distance, as if they’re about to be killed or someone is or something - I don’t know - some kind of terrible religious thing, the ugliest people ever, great big, dark spots, and a big hole in the middle of the painting. It’s the sort of painting you just would never dare paint, but it’s absolutely terrific. I love it. I love it because there are those details of the meat looking actually quite delicious, if you like meat, with plenty of fat on it; and next to the meat, a beautiful piece of muslin, the guys carrying the meat in the muslin, and it’s just beautifully painted. There’s something about Hogarth that he is sometimes quite kind of sloshy and sort of a bit careless, and then really loves the details.
Johan Zoffany Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match c.1784–6
Alice Procter, Art Historian: Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match depicts an event that was organised by Mordaunt. Mordaunt made his career in the East India Company as the bodyguard and the Head of the bodyguard to the Nawab of Oudh, Asaf-Ud-Dowlah. The East India Company was a trading business and mainly ran the British imperial interest in India and across large parts of South East Asia. The Nawab was a local ruler who, in this case, was heavily in debt to the East India Company, and very much held in power by the Company. Cock-fighting had been banned in England well before this date, but in India and away from the rule of British law, East India Company officials felt that they had permission to do anything that they wanted, and so cock-fighting was one of the many spectacle sports that gained popularity again. The figure of the Nawab in the centre of the painting is shown as quite agitated and possibly with an erection. He’s the figure who’s reaching towards Mordaunt, who is the European-looking man wearing white clothing. And the two of them are the central figures of this painting. There was a lot of speculation amongst East India Company officials as to the sexuality of the Nawab and many of them referred to the fact that although he had many adopted children he had none of his own, and this painting was commissioned by Warren Hastings who was governor of the East India Company at this time. And we know that he had very specific ways of ruling in India that would often exploit local rule and frequently break British laws, so this painting was commissioned by Hastings. So Zoffany made two versions of it. One of them was Hastings’s, and that is this one where the Nawab is shown in this very mocking way. Zoffany also made a second version that was given to the Nawab as a present where he’s shown with a lot more dignity. That second painting doesn’t survive but we know from drawings that it looks very different to this one.
John Singleton Copley The Death of Major Peirson, 1781
Lubaina Himid, Artist: There’s something about this that is just astonishing. What I love about it is, of course, there is a magnificent scene of, you know, extreme violence going on. There’s a kind of double centre to the painting with a spectacularly dead man at the very centre of the painting, and a spectacularly living man shooting just to the left of the centre. And the living man shooting is a beautifully and immaculately dressed black man in the most marvellous hat with feathers, beautiful leather trousers, a massive gun, and a kind of strangely posed, I guess, positioning. In a way, everyone else does look as if they are in the throes of battle, and he looks as if he’s been placed in the centre of the studio and asked to hold the gun in this way and stretch his leg out in one way.
The painting is about him, and you can hear the sound in it. You know, you can hear the gunfire, you can hear the screaming and you can hear the flags flapping, and there’s a baby being kind of whisked away from the scene. Maybe it’s the wife and the baby of the dead white man, and the children of the dead white man, because she is beautifully lit, the mother and the child, they’re beautifully lit on the right-hand side of the painting. I love it because there are very few colours in it, and, strangely, it looks like a very colourful painting, but it’s really only red and white, with some yellow and some terracotta and grey, but I love this because of the kind of discipline of that. It’s just beautiful.
John Constable Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’), 1816–7
Martin Myrone, Tate Curator: It’s a landscape, it’s scenery, and it’s a scene of working life that Constable knew extremely well. I mean, this is where he grew up and his father owned a mill here and helped manage the canal, which you see to the left here. It’s an ordinary everyday scene of working life that Constable would have known extremely well. Of course he knew it as somebody who was part of a family that was pretty affluent and were landowners and managers, so he’s clearly sympathetic to the scene, but he’s also somebody who had a degree of personal privilege. Constable invested a huge amount, emotionally, in the landscape that he grew up with, in the landscape that he knew, and this is painted at a turning point in his own career, when he was really kind of growing in ambitions as an artist. And as somebody from a relatively affluent background, a lot of people thought he was kind of an amateur and a bit of dabbler in art. He was really having to stake a claim for being a painter of the natural world and a painter who would paint the natural world in a way which had a degree of ambition and relevance.
At the same time, there may be a more personal meaning to the scene, and it’s been pointed out that this is painted immediately in the wake of the death of his father. There’s a detail on the path, just ahead of the boy and the horse, of an adult hat, which is discarded, and this has been interpreted as a symbol of his father and the absent father who had died just a year before this painting was completed and exhibited.
Joseph Mallord William Turner The Field of Waterloo exhibited 1818
Alice Procter, Art Historian: The Battle of Waterloo took place on the eighteenth of June 1815. It was fought between the allied British and Prussian armies against the French army, which was led by Napoleon at the time. And this battle was really the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The town of Waterloo is in modern day Belgium, but at the time it was in the Netherlands, and it’s located about fifteen kilometres or nine miles south of Brussels. So Turner shows this victory almost like it’s a defeat. We can see the women coming onto the battlefield, trying to identify the remains and find any possible survivors amongst the dead. It’s a way of bringing our attention back to the humanity of the people who’ve been lost here. The whole scene is lit by these little fragments of quite red, lantern light, and this very stark white lightning strike in the background, which looks almost like a kind of divine intervention into the scene. We’re left with this very strong sense of nature versus the disruption of humanity. There’s this incredibly powerful natural event going on in the background that puts the human loss - although it’s catastrophic in scale – reminds us of the larger world that’s going on around these events: that although this might be one of the biggest battles of its day, and one of the most catastrophic losses, even for the victorious armies, it’s a very, very small part of the world.
John Simpson Head of a Man (?Ira Frederick Aldridge) exhibited 1827
Lubaina Himid, Artist:
What doesn’t appeal to me about this painting is that there is only one person in the painting. It’s very easy to paint one Black person in a painting. The point about us is that we are not this kind of lone victim. We’re not this lone hero. We’re, like everybody else. We’re connecting and collaborating, thinking and engaging and living in conversation with each other on many different levels. And I think it’s very easy to either idolise or distance yourself from people. If you’re just looking at a painting of one person, looking rather magnificent, looking up to the heavens – I’m not interested in the heroic moment of the hero. I am interested in the everyday, what shall we have for breakfast of the hero? It’s too much about the Black body, and admiring the Black body for the fact that it’s a Black body.
John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885–6
Minnie Scott, Tate Interpretation Curator: Sargent is really appealing to all of our senses in this work. First of all, the title, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is borrowed from the name of a popular song, so there’s our sense of sound. Maybe on top of that there’s the rustling of the carnations being crushed under foot. This is just the moment that these two little girls are lighting their lanterns so tiny sort of sizzle as the wick is caught by the flame. And then of course there’s an extraordinary overwhelming aroma of these flowers. You can see this as a visual representation of a perfume, the kind of…the base notes of a carnation. The rose is the mid note and then the top note of these perfectly blooming lilies. And then there is the sort of sense of temperature, so that kind of beautiful, cool greens and blues, and that sense of the purpling of the dusk, is wonderfully contrasted with the warmth of the lanterns. I love in particular…the very, very centre of the composition is this circular, spherical lantern that has just been lit by the girl with the very short hair. And extraordinary warmth of the colours there, the reds, the pinks, the yellows, and how they are reflected back on the tips of her fingers that are supporting the bottom of the lantern. It makes me think of, if you have ever held your own hand up against a very, very bright light and been able to see through it and see, almost see your own kind of, blood and sinews in your own hand. And I feel like I get this amazing sense of warmth and the living flesh of this little girl.
I don’t know if we’re looking at it with an adult viewer or if we’re looking at it with a kind of nostalgia for an impossibly perfect past; or if we’re identifying with these children now, and just allowing ourselves to kind of step into that scene, step into the cool, scented garden.
Richard Dadd The Flight out of Egypt 1849–50
Michelle Williams Gamaker, Artist and Lecturer: What we’re looking at this the depiction of a space in the Middle East that is seen through the eyes of a young British man, who’s been invited by Sir Thomas Phillips to go on a big tour of the Middle East. Dadd’s history is one that is heavy. He returns to the UK, and soon after kills his father. And what’s really strange here is that he is under the influence, he believes, of the Egyptian God of Sirius, and that in itself makes me think that the journey became much bigger than he could have even understood. He finds it overwhelming and he said, and it’s something that really stuck with me, ‘This excitement of these scenes has been enough to turn the brain of an ordinary weak-minded person, like myself, and often I have lain down at night with my imagination so full of wild vagaries that I have really and truly doubted my own sanity.’
And if you look at the central part of the painting, there’s a figure, a man, who is standing absolutely proud, guzzling from the silver bowl or urn, and he’s in a kind of armoured tunic with a gold bejewelled belt and a tiger draped around his shoulders. This would have been wild, actually, for Dadd to witness. So for somebody who lives in a completely muted palette of England, to be in a space that has silks and rich, rich, rich colour and sunshine on a daily basis, and heat, it has to be this dense, because he’s doing his very best to convey how layered that experience of being in the marketspace is. But the very fact that he’s so receptive to it, almost too receptive, becomes the beginnings of his downfall. There’s something there that I find, on one level, problematic about the idea of the colonial gaze, but at the other level, how sensitive this man must have been to have been affected by it.
Duncan Grant Bathing,1911
Richard Scott, Poet: So the first time I saw this painting I would have been 12, maybe, and I just remember being so blown away by it, because it was, you know, this poetic and rhapsodic observation of the male form and men’s bodies. There’s something so beautiful about the painting because they really are swimming, but also, if you imagine the patterns that make up the water and the boat, if you imagine them taken away, you realise just how risqué and forward-thinking Grant’s painting was. Because I really think that these are pictures of men that he’s in love with or that he’s slept with, the way that the bodies are arranged. They’re quite daring, they’re post-coital, or mid-coital. The two men, who are getting on to the boat, to me, are kind of, in a way, the most revealing, and possibly were most shocking at the time, because they are so intimate. I mean, almost it looks like they’re sort of maybe lying or climbing onto a bed.
The place that this is based on is the Serpentine in London, where naked swimming happened a lot. You know, gay men would go to go swimming there, too, to kind of meet other gay men, but he kind of elevates it from that and there’s nothing on the horizon and he kind of gives it this sense of freedom. Because it feels like the men who jump off in Hyde Park are totally free from law and social expectations in the City of London. The three that are most towards the bottom of the picture, there’s something kind of painful about their body positions, too. And I think it shouldn’t be overlooked that even through Grant, he was moving in pretty wealthy circles, he was a member of the Bloomsbury group, but he would have suffered such huge shame, the idea of not being able to fully come out or live a life with a male lover.
This painting was actually commissioned by Borough Polytechnic for their canteen in 1910/1911, and I’ve always loved the idea that in those times, when it was so hard to be anything approaching queer or gay, that, you know, a queer student might walk into the Polytechnic and see this picture on the wall and feel some support or some relief or some recognition.