Historic Gardens of the Italian Lakes

Historic Gardens of the Italian Lakes – lecture by Steven Desmond.

This very witty and entertaining lecture was just what we all needed in grey January.

N.B. Please note that the pictures used in this review are not the ones used by Steven in his lecture as they were from his private collection. I have found similar pictures to illustrate what he was talking to us about. 

Steven set the scene with a beautiful image of Lake Como in the early morning and explained that the climates in the two lakes he was going to talk about were not always as visitors expected. In the winter it was dry.cold and sunny; whilst the summer months could be very wet. He showed us how the light on the lake is often theatrical and mysterious as it is surrounded by mountains and therefore there is very little sun –  particularly so in the early morning.

We were then taken on a beautiful tour of the villas and gardens of Lakes Como and Magiore.

Belagio on Lake Como is home to Villa Melzi built in the early 1800s for Francesco Melzi who was Vice President of `Italy.  The villa was completed on 1810 and the gardens were created in terraces a few years later at the side of the house. They were in the English style and with an English statue even though at the time they were at war with England .


We then travelled to Villa del Bambinello which was built in the late 16th century. This magnificent villa is known for its picturesque gardens featuring flowers and trees which are the colours of the Italian flag: green, white and red, and it is only reached by boat.



Then on to the Villa D’Este which was built in 1580 and its gardens have been described as ‘appearing to hang in the air.’ From the gardens this path leads directly up to the villa.



The next villa – Villa Cicognaga the garden and the villa were built simultaneously to have continuity between outside and inside,

The garden has a  with a famously long double staircase (156 steps) lined with cypresses and rising to a grotto.

It also has a large rectangular sunken garden.


It is designed with a living garden (seen here on the right ) and a dead side (on the left) 


and the retaining wall is made from stalactites.


Steven then took us to Lake Maggiore and to the 17th Century Palazzo Borromeo surrounded by its magnificent terraced gardens. 


As you enter these gardens the baroque style in intended to knock you off your feet with the power it represents. There are statues representing the four seasons.


Our beautiful  journey ended at Villa San Remigio

The Villa owes its existence to two lovers determined to create their “dream garden”: the Marquis Silvio della Valle di Casanova, a Neapolitan poet and musician, and his wife, the Irish painter Sophia Browne. They were determined to renovate a ruined villa owned by Sophia’s grandfather.

Flights of steps, avenues and narrow passages,  lead to the garden of the Hours, recalling memories of happy times past, the garden of Joy, full of bright colours, the garden of Sadness, with no flowers and no water, the garden of Memories, symbolising nostalgia for the past, and the garden of Sighs, where the spirit merges with the surroundings. The garden of Scent has a lawn made of thyme and the shrubs are myrtle. The park also has many  fine statues.

The villa became a meeting point of the Arts.

Steven concluded his captivating lecture with a view of the lake at Sunset and for a while the greyness of January had been banished.

Singe Ye Yule -A Musical Portrait of a Medieval Christmas

Singe Ye Yule -A Musical Portrait of a Medieval Christmas –

A lecture by Sarah Deere-Jones.

Sarah began her lecture by giving us the sad information that unfortunately there were no original medieval instruments left therefore all the instruments she had brought with her were reproductions. Throughout her captivating lecture we were enthralled by Sarah playing to us on these medieval reproductions.

She then set the scene   for us – we were in woodland area along a muddy track ; we can hear the sound of chopping wood and ahead we can see a Manor House . It was  beautiful and peaceful time so the people are getting excited on hearing lively music. The peasants would spend much of their time chopping firewood  and caring for animals. They would come in from outside for soup at mid-day and at the end of the day they would just have a chunk of bread and cheese before going to bed. So it is no wonder that the 12 days of Christmas were so special.Everyone gathered evergreens for symbolism and to decorate their homes.Mistletoe had special fertility powers, whilst holly symbolised Christianity with white flowers , red berries and everlasting leaves.

The main part of the festivities was feasting. The main meal was served at 11 because of the need for light. This was essential for peasants and the wealthier you were the later you could eat. There was particular food for each course. Generous lords of the manor would invite one or two of the peasants to join the lords and ladies at the table.

Hunting was a very popular activity in the winter. After a day’s hunting they would return to the Manor for food and entertainment. The entertainment would be mummers and disguisers. The entertainers would often be out of work agricultural workers which is why they would disguise themselves.

One of the musical entertainments would be the Hurdy Gurdy – rather like a mechanical violin. Skating and kurling were also popular activities . At one time the Thames was frozen for 14 weeks. Skates were made from animal bones. Other games included backgammon, quoits, cards and chess.

The music played at these festivities would  include town musicians playing bagpipes very early in the morning whilst heralds would play loud brass instruments!!                                 Whilst the guests were eating, quieter music would be played by minstrels who would then accompany the dancing afterwards. Much of the rustic dancing originated from pagan dancing  i.e. in a circle. Slow dances like the Pavanne were introduced by the wealthy.

The earliest medieval carols started as elements in plays and not in churches.

we were sad as this lecture closed as we could have listened for much longer especially as now we could place the music and the instruments into context. We were most grateful to Sarah for setting the scene for us to begin to celebrate our Christmas.


Spencer Goes to War

Spencer Goes to War – a lecture by Carolyn Leder.

This lecture was well timed as it was just one  day after the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, so our minds were full of images of the war and  how the country was celebrating 100 years since the armistice. We were full of anticipation and expectation and we were not disappointed.

Carolyn began with a short introduction to Spencer’s early  life. He was born in Cookham in 1891 where his father was an organist and a rather bad painter and his mother was rather unconventional. He was educated at home by his sisters so he became quite a solitary individual. Both he and his brother received art lessons from a local artist and Stanley developed a passion for drawing. He then studied at the Slade from 1908-1912 under, amongst others,Henry Tonks.

Spencer was short and spoke rapidly, volubly and non-stop. He also wrote a lot.

In 1914 he painted this self portrait and interestingly he never painted himself in military uniform unlike some of his contemporaries .

Stanley’s attitude to war is remarkably different from other artists. He does not have the bitterness, nor does he glorify it. His aim is not to vilify but to redeem it, to make it whole. It is interesting how very accurate his paintings are, as in this painting of the travoys


In 1914 he was keen to enlist but his mother persuaded him to volunteer for ambulance duties because he was not robust. He was placed in Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol. He had been brought up at home and he found this placement very hard. He was bullied and shouted at. After 13 months at Beaufort he was transferred to overseas duty in Macedonia.

All of his war pictures were suffused with spiritual feeling. He spent a lot of time reading the Bible. Spencer’s writing was at times waspish and at others quite poetic. Interestingly he wrote a lot about the mules used in wartime. Paintings by his contemporaries were much more brutal and harsh as this one by Sargeant entitled ‘Gassed’

and Nevinson’s ‘La Patrie’


and Paul Nash’s ‘Menine Road1919 ‘

Although Spencer never painted himself in uniform other artists of the time did as Erst Kefner’s – ‘Self Portrait’ 

though much of this ‘self portrait’ was fiction as for one thing he didn’t have an arm amputated.

Max Beckman’s painting ‘ The Way Home’ from Hell shows just what Berlin was like after the war. 

Spencer painted this self portrait in 1923

Spencer was commissioned to decorate Burghclere Chapel in 1927 and he wrote of the chapel – ‘they are all portraits of me but not self portraits.’

In the ‘Resurrection of Soldiers’ is at the end of the chapel  Spencer imagined the Resurrection of the Soldiers taking place in Macedonia with soldiers rising out of their graves and handing in identical white crosses to a Christ figure towards the top of the wall. Spencer said that working on the Memorial Chapel has been a six-year process of remembrance and exorcism. “I had buried so many people and saw so many bodies that I felt death could not be the end of everything.”..

Caroline ended this fascinating lecture with the rather strange story of Spencer’s second marriage. In 1937 he divorced his first wife Carline and married Patricia Preece but he never lived with her and she continued to live with her girlfriend Hepworth. Seen below in the wedding photograph – with Spencer in the glasses. 

Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Legacy

Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Legacy

a lecture by Alan Read .

Alan opened his lecture by asking us what image came into our minds when we thought of Burne-Jones – knights in shining armour? ethereal beautiful ladies?or monsters ?  Images that could mesmerise and repel in the same instant. He explained that he wanted to challenge the idea that Burne-Jones was the last of the pre-Raphaelites but more the beginning of the modernists.

A Portrait of Burne-Jones painted by Alphonse -Legros in 1879

Burne-Jones was described as the most intellectual of artists – but neurotic and melancholic. His studios were full of ‘unpainted masterpieces’, sketches and drawings which he would return to in time and work on them as he felt inspired. Some would lay for years before he completed them.

He was born in Birmingham into the ‘Jones’ family. He added the Burne from his aunt in order to give himself status. His mother died when he was only six days old and throughout his life he carried the burden of the hurt that he did at his birth. He read voraciously at school and had some art classes. He planned to go into the church but when he went to Oxford he met William Morris and thus began a lifetime of friendship and support. They both travelled to France and whilst there they decided on their careers – art for Burne-Jones and architecture for Morris. Burne-Jones in fact,  left Oxford without taking a degree.

When he saw ‘The Maids of Elfen Mere’ by Rosetti (1855) he said it was the most beautiful painting he had seen and sought to meet Rosetti.

They all collaborated on these murals (1857-9) in the Oxford Union Debating Hall   based on La Morte d’Artur by Tennyson. Jane Burden was persuaded to sit for them. She later married William Morris, whilst Burne-Jones married Georgiana MacDonald– who became his rock and indulged him throughout his life. The two families were very good friends as shown in this photo from 1874.


Burne-Jones said he could never have lived by his pictures alone and it was his work in stained glass that allowed him to lead a comfortable life.

Burne-Jones’ stained glass window ‘ The Good Shepherd’ in Birmingham Cathedral.  (1884-9)

This drawing of ‘The Knights Farewell ‘ (1858) shows Burne-Jones’ fascination with medieval manuscripts , though it caused him to be unwell as he couldn’t cope with the smell of turps.

The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi 1861

This watercolour which looks almost like an oil painting met with considerable criticism and it seemed as if it was going back to old beliefs. As a result it was displayed high up in what was known as ‘the naughty boys corner.’

Sir Edward Burne-Jones – Le Chant d’Amour

Burne-Jones first painted this in black and white inside a piano and then returned to work on it much later. 

‘The Prioresses Tale painted by Burne-Jones is at the very heart of his association with medievalism.

and ‘The Lament’ (1865)

which has no real subject but was an excuse for a demonstration of harmony.

  Phyllis and Demophoon again was criticised for several reasons. Firstly because it showed a woman making an advance to a man and also that it showed private parts. Burne-Jones  was asked to cover up them up and Burne-Jones refused and as a result he resigned from the Royal Academy   and had what he described as the best seven years of his life !! The painting had also been criticised because it was ‘too green!’

The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in New Bond Street  in 1877 was a big event and pictures were given ‘room to breathe’ compared to the space allocated to paintings in the Royal Academy. Burne- Jones had 7 or 8 paintings exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery.

In ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ which he painted in 1873, Burne-Jones compared it to his own position with his total infatuation with one of his models – Maria Zambaco

There is no story – it is a picture for arts’sake and thus is so different from the work of the pre-Raphaelites

George Howard – 9th earl of Carlisle commissioned a painting ‘The Last Sleep of Arthur ‘ but when, after he had worked on it for many years, the Earl saw how much it meant to Burne-Jones he gave it to him.  Burne-Jones worked on this painting for 17 years and in fact was working on it the day before he died.

Alan concluded this very interesting lecture with a quote from one of Burne-Jones’  critics describing him as ‘a mediocre artist indulging girlish dreams.’ Was he just this ? Burne-Jones said of himself – ‘I want big things to do and large spaces in which to do them and for people to say on seeing them – Oh and only Oh ‘

Alan’s final  question – ‘was he the beginning of surrealism as his work was all about imagination and dreams and the subconscious? certainly gave us food for thought.Was he not the last of the pre-Raphaelites but the first artist of the 20th.century. With all his passion he was surely a modern of the moderns.  Alan had certainly given us plenty of evidence to support this view.


Dazzle – Disguise and Disruption in War and Art –  a  lecture by Dr. James Taylor

Dr. James Taylor gave an intriguing and entertaining lecture on the art form  that was  Dazzle.

To many of us it was an art form that we had not really heard of before and it opened our eyes to the whole concept.

James began by introducing us to Norman Wilkinson who was the inventor of Dazzle camouflage. As we saw the first illustration our immediate reaction was to question whether this was indeed camouflage. It certainly wasn’t camouflage as we traditionally knew it but it was camouflage by confusion.They were wild, wacky constructional designs which broke up the line of the vessel.

Everywoman by Cara Phillips  is the best example of this.

The painting challenges the outline and form and it was crucial when the enemy were trying to fire at the vessels.

HMS Kildangan 

A lot of the early photographs were in black and white so it was difficult to get the real image.

Wilkinson  did phenomenal work in terms of camouflage in WWI and WWII. He was originally a poster artist 

Wilkinson asserted that ‘art was a crucial part of advertising to interest and educate the public and relieve the tedium of what is still probably one of life’s most depressing experiences – the railway waiting room !!’

By 1917 U boats had been responsible for the sinking of more than 500 merchant ships and Britain was on its knees. and Wilkinson began to think about what could be done.

Wilkinson saw the ships crossing the seas  as ‘a flock of sea-going Easter eggs’ such was their vulnerability. He went to the  Admiralty  with his ‘cunning plan.’  The Admiralty asked him to prove his idea so he set about doing just that. A large team was set up with women drawn from  art colleges and men making the models.The Royal Academy provided the accommodation.The plan was to paint not just small ships but big liners as well.

George Vth visited the exhibition and was very impressed with how the dazzle painting created confusion.

‘Dazzled Merchantman in New Orleans ‘ emphasises that it was not camouflage as we know it but confusion. It made the ships appear as two ships or made them appear to be going in different directions. It inspired hundreds of ships around the world to be ‘Dazzled’

Julius Olsson joined the Dazzle team in 1917 Moonlit Shore’ is very typical of his work. 

‘Approach to the New World’ can be seen on the walls of paintings of the Titanic.

Olsson went to the Dardenelles and made paintings of the action. He too realised how vulnerable our boats were.

‘The Commander’ shows an actual Uboat commander on the Bergen in 1918.

By 1918 there was quite a lot of criticism about Wilkinson’s scheme so it was mainly used on merchant vessels.

James told us how the Germans were able to develop a way to filter out the beiges and greys painted on the vessels so most of the painting after this was mainly in black, white and blue as these colours could not be filtered out.

About 18 officer artists joined the team and  amongst them was Moser .

James showed us an amusing (whilst nonetheless serious)  image of animals being ‘dazzled’ as many of them – particularly cattle were killed in the blackout.  


James concluded his lecture with the rather disappointing fact that there was no evidence that Dazzling actually worked but it most definitely raised morale. However  the Americans reported that the scheme was a great success and did  confuse the enemy and thus saved many lives. There is now current research in Britain to check on the impact of Dazzling in both World Wars.

Many of us left the lecture much more informed, entertained and definitely dazzled.

Celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts –

a talk by Pamela Campbell-Johnson

Pamela led us on a fascinating and informative walk through the history of the Royal Academy.

The Royal Academy was founded by James lll  in December 1768 by an act of parliament and to this day it remains true to its origin and purpose  i.e. to promote the creation, enjoyment and appreciation of the visual arts through exhibitions, education and debate.

Many know it from its Summer Exhibition, but it is much more than that. It is unique and Britain’s oldest gallery and the only one that is privately funded.

Its original home was in Pall Mall and then in 1771 it moved to temporary accommodation in Old Somerset House. In 1780 it was installed in purpose built apartments in the new Somerset House. This painting by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin (1800) shows the Exhibition Room at Somerset House and how important the position of the paintings was – above or below the line  and there were many debates about the density of the hangings.Many of the people attended the exhibition to be seen rather than to view the paintings. The exhibition was very important to artists as this was the way most of them sold their work. Another aim was to show paintings of young ladies about to be introduced to society.

In 1837 it was moved to the National Gallery but after just a few years the space proved to be too small for two institutions so in 1868 it made the move to its current home in Burlington House in Piccadilly.

There were 40 founding artists and over the years the number of Academicians  has increased until in 1991 it was set at 80 and Associated Academicians were abolished. Academicians must be professionals and active in the U.K. Amongst this 80 there must always be 14 sculptors, 12 architects, and 8 printmakers with the remaining places being filled by  painters. They are voted and elected by their peers. Once they reach the age of 75 they move to become ‘Senior Academicians’ who can still display their work but are no longer involved in the day to day running and leave their place to younger artists.

The sculpture of Joshua Reynolds  is in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in honour of his role in establishing the Royal Academy.

The summer exhibition has many traditions including the consuming of beef tea and the parade behind a steel band to the church. For 150 years the only exhibition open to the general public was the summer exhibition

Artists submit their work for the summer exhibition and the hanging committee look at all of them and decide which should be hung and where. Once the sanctioning day has happened nothing more can be changed or moved.

This photograph shows the 1914 Hanging committee

Academicians can show up to 6 of their paintings at the Summer Exhibition and their paintings do not need to be approved by the ‘Hanging Committee’. Artists can submit up to 3 pieces of work. Last year 13000 entered but only 1200 were chosen.

In 1870 a Winter Exhibition was set up celebrating the work of the Old Masters. In 1931 they started to embrace European Art and Cultural Exhibitions. These have included Exhibitions of Chinese Art in 2002, Living Bridges in1996 and one of the most beautiful in 1991 – ‘Icons of Russia’

Some exhibitions attract large numbers. In 1991 the Monet exhibition had more than 807,000 visitors.

In 1997 an exhibition entitled ‘Sensation’  displayed the work of 42 young British Artists – put together by Saatchi. This exhibition showed that the Royal Academy can display cutting edge art as well as the more traditional.

The Royal Academy also held the first 24 hour exhibition as a way of coping with the large numbers of people who wish to visit the galleries. This can not happen all the time as paintings need times ‘to be put to sleep’

In 2015 the steps of the R.A were painted as part of the Summer Exhibition

One of the most prized possessions is Michael Angelo’s Taddei Tondo which was bequeathed to the Academy by Sir George Beaumont. It was carved in Florence in 1504 and is the only marble by Michael Angelo in the U.K. and shows the Virgin Mary and Child with the Infant John the Baptist 

Galleries also borrow and lend between themselves. Temporary loan exchanges may last months or even longer. No money changes hands apart from the costs of installations. The Royal Gallery also lend from their permanent collections as every Academician must leave a painting. For example Constable left his painting ‘Leaping Horse’

Sir Joshua Reynolds set up the first  training for artists at the Royal Academy  which still flourishes today offering three year graduate courses. In 1769 seventy seven  students enrolled and there was an average intake of 75 students a year.  These included Blake, Constable and Turner.

It was 1860 before women came to the school but two women were amongst the 40 founding artists but it was to be another 154 years before a woman became an Associate Royal Academician.

Sir Hugh Casson was a much loved director who bridged the gap in the 1970s between Modern art and the traditionalists.

Pamela concluded by telling us about the current plans for development. They will be building a link bridge to the schools and the Burlington gardens and new galleries. It will be the largest development since the Royal Academy moved to Burlington House.

The Royal Academy is aware that it needs to constantly rethink and remain relevant ‘ a reflection of who we are, where we came from and where we are going to go’

An interesting insight into the Royal Academy.

As Good As Gold

As Good As Gold  – a lecture by Alexandra Epps

This lecture was planned to be part of our celebration of the Golden Anniversary of the Society. Alexandra began by saying how gold shimmers and reflects light and stirs our emotions, how we have a timeless fascination for all things golden and how it appears eternal. She then began to take us on a  very interesting and informative journey through ‘gold’ in art.

Alexandra began with images of Ancient Egypt. Moving onto early Christianity she explained how gold was used to represent the  ‘immaterial’ as opposed to the  material. In Basilica San Vitali one of the masterpieces of the Byzantine we saw how  golden tessare are used and set at an angle to catch and reflect the flicker of candlelight and bring the whole interior alive almost as a glimpse of heaven.

The Arena Chapel by Giotto (1305) shows golden halos and the introduction of blue allows us to enter into the space of the  painting and portrays more feeling and emotion. At this point in history blue is a more expensive pigment than gold and used to represent heaven. This is why we always see mary clothed in blue as the Queen of Heaven,

Looking at theThe Wilton Diptych (c1395)  in the National Gallery which was created as a portable altarpiece for Richard II  is like looking into a jewelled casket. It is a complicated mixture of  the secular and religious symbolism. It shows Jesus giving the banner to King Richard thereby re enforcing the divine right of kings.

The San Pier Maggiore altarpiece  by Jocopo di Cione (1370) and workshop also in the National Gallery is the other end of the scale at originally 5metres in height. The middle tier representing  ‘The Coronation of the Virgin’ showed many of the intricate gilding methods of the time.

Fra Angelica’s ‘Annunciation’ altarpiece shows both interior and exterior with both Gabriel, Mary and the Garden of Eden. This  is when Gothic meets the new language of the Renaissance. The golden burst in the corner shows the hands of God and contains a dove as the representation of the Holy Spirit. A work of great devotional beauty.

The Book of Hours of Louis XII (1498) which would have been a a medieval best seller was an illustration of how finely gold details would have been used in manuscripts.

Madonna of the Magnificat by Botticelli (1481) celebrates the writing of the Magnificat . In this circular painting covered in fine gold we see a golden crown lowered onto Mary’s head, rays of gold coming down from the crown and golden tones on the face. It was probably a commission as there is so much gold.

Also by Botticelli -‘The Birth of Venus we see again the entire canvas covered in fine golden highlights -so much gold – in the hair, in the eyes, in the flowers, the shell  and in every detail. It is a symbol for the  Renaissance itself as the  rebirth.

 Titian’s painting of ‘Danae Receiving the Golden Rain’ (1650) shows darkness all around the cloud but Danae is suffused by gold as she is showered in the golden rain of Zeus

Gold also is shown as greed as in Matsy’s painting of the ‘Moneylender and His Wife’ where the wife is clearly more interested in the gold her husband is counting than the scripture she is reading ! As in many Dutch paintings there are several hidden messages.

This connection between money and power is shown again in Vadim Zhakarov’s contemporary installation  ‘Danae ‘

Klimt’s painting of ‘Danae’ shows again the great power of gold. In the most famous painting of his golden phase Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’  is so very golden. They almost make one shape and within their own halo. The shapes on the male side are hard whilst those on the female side are round and soft.In this painting Alexandra pointed out that Klimt has used at least 8 different types of gold.

In Judith Holofernes Klimt shows women being taken over by ornament. This was Klimt’s first painting in his golden phase and the model   Adele Bloch-Bauer who also appears in his famous painting Adele Bloch Bauer – this was coined the Woman in Gold and is all about the shimmering properties  of  pattern and wealth.

Japanese art was a great influence on the work of Klimt as well as on the artist Whistler and we saw how he created the Peacock Room to the designs he wanted in the home of Frederick Leyland and how he interpreted gold in his own atmospheric landscapes.

The importance of gold representing the  power of royalty is best seen on the coronation portrait of Elizabeth I where everything is totally gold – the dress, the crown, the shoes etc. Again in  ‘Queen Victoria Receiving the Sacrament at her Coronation’ seen wearing the golden Imperial mantle and bathed in a shaft of golden light.

At the end of last century (1982) Roni Horn created ‘Gold Field’ more interested in the the physicality of gold she created a golden mat ‘a volumeless sculpture’ that inspired another artist – Felix Gonzalez Torres to create his own gold field out of 1000s of golden sweets representing ideas of life,love and transience. The audience is invited to take the sweets so they become part of the work.

Alexandra concluded with paintings of the gold of nature – Houses of Parliament ‘ by Monet Autumn Gold by John Atkinson, and finally the huge installation by Olafur Eliasson -‘ The Weather Project’ where he created the sun and sky inside the Turbine Hall at  Tate Modern which made viewers relate back to the awe of the ancients when seeing the sun rise and set.


Christopher Marlowe – Poet and Spy

Christopher Marlowe – Poet and Spy   A talk by Giles Ramsey on March 12th.

This is possibly one of the only remaining portraits of Christopher Marlowe dated 1585 – with the inscription ‘That which nourishes me , destroys me’ which was rather apt considering how Marlowe died.

I think many of us who attended this lecture  were rather unsure about the theme – not sure whether it was something which would inspire us. However it was a most fascinating, intriguing and informative lecture which left many of us buzzing.

Giles began by giving us some of the background to Christopher Marlowe’s life and times and explaining the significance and important role they played in shaping the path he took.

Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564 and lived through the Elizabethan Golden Age until 1593.

On August 23rd 1572 the Catholics turned on the Protestants in what became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre. Elizabeth I was now living in great fear and needed eyes and ears everywhere. As a result brother turned on brother. Sir Francis Walsingham (Kings College Cambridge) had seen much of what Catholics could do, as he said  ‘There is less danger in fearing too much  than too little.’ The threat was very real in England because of Mary Queen of Scots. Walsingham became one of Elizabeth’s most trusted allies and to show her appreciation she gifted a painting to him. This was a clever piece of propaganda.

Walsingham  needed agents all over England and the rest of the world. One of these was Robert Poley – described as ‘a very bad fellow’  ‘a notable nave’ Sir Anthony Babington was sending messages to Mary through Poley but Poley was in fact a double agent and was working for Walsingham.

The English Ambassador in Madrid was a drunk and a gambler and he fed information to the Spanish. He was rumbled by Walsingham, but Walsingham left him there and fed him endless wrong information !

Into this world Marlowe was born in Canterbury and went to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge where he began to write poetry.His poetry was breaking all the boundaries including bringing in blank verse. Shakespeare was born in Stratford a few months after Marlowe and both writers showed what  inventive artists they were.

Marlowe placed his plays in exotic places.            Tamburlaine was so successful that he wrote Tambourlaine II.

At this time Marlowe spent so much of his time away and saying how he supported the Catholic Church. In fact he was setting up his cover – ensuring that he was accepted and trusted by the Catholics.

Thomas Walsingham became a patron to Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nash and George Chapman and lived in Seedbury in Kent, and it was there that  Marlowe continued to write.

Two other noted men were working with Walsingham – Ingram Frizer (his business agent ) and Nicholas Skeres ( a government informer) These two were also engaged in ‘coney catching’  – lending money to soft, gullible gentry who had lost money gambling.

At this time Marlowe wrote ‘Doctor Faustus’ and ‘Edward II and His Lamentable Death’  It raised the question – why did Marlowe write about the death of a monarch when the Queen was in danger? Was it asking the question -‘where do your loyalties lie- with state or religion?

His final play ‘Massacre at Paris’ included praise for the Queen who rejected papistry.

The Rose Theatre  simultaneously put on  plays by Marlowe and Shakespeare.

In 1593 a libel goes up suggesting that Protestant Englishmen should drive out Protestant foreigners.

On May 10th. the Lord Mayor offered a reward of 100 crowns for information on who was the author of this libel.  Kyd ( a writer,friend and former roommate of Marlowe) is arrested as the apparent author and tortured and he tells all about Marlowe. Marlowe is apprehended on May 18th and put on bail. At this point Richard Baines (informer and ordained  Catholic Priest ) began to rubbish Marlowe’s reputation with the so called ‘Baines note’

On May 30th Marlowe was invited for lunch by Ingram Frizer. Also at this lunch were Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. After lunch an argument  began which resulted in a fight and Marlowe’s death. His body was put into an unmarked grave in the church next door.

‘Cut is the branch which may have grown full straight’ (Doctor Faustus’)

The question we ask – ‘Was it a set up or just a drunken fight ?’ The other three received pardons and pensions and Kydd and others continue to destroy Marlowe’s reputation. Friends rallied to his support saying he was ‘ one of the wiliest knaves that ever God made’

After the death of Marlowe the door was open to Shakespeare.

Many of us left the lecture with a greater  knowledge about the life and death of Marlowe and his role in the Elizabethan Golden Age with its circles of espionage and conspiracy,which seemed so similar to 2018! The lecture had been presented to us with such enthusiasm, knowledge and humour that many of us could have listened for much longer.


Mdina Glass and Isle of Wight Studio Glass – a lecture by Mark Hill on January 8th 2018

Mark enthralled us all with his  enthusiastic and informative lecture featuring the work of Michael Harris  whom he described as ‘A studio pioneer’

He divided his talk into the various major developments in the life and work of Michael Harris.

The Early Years –  Prior to the 1950s glass had to be made in factories, so opportunities to find a job were very limited. It was a two part process – designer then producer. Decorating the glass was mainly done by cold working – i.e. working on the glass after the piece had cooled down. Michael had become very skilled at tapping onto glass, so much so that he became known as ‘Tapper Harris’. In 1957 he joined the Royal College of Art in London. It was a time when its graduates were producing a groundswell of innovation. After he graduated Michael was not sure what he wanted to do but he produced some really good work  such as this work from 1959 – Calypso Chance glass :

and the piece called ‘Ionian Bank’ in 1964 which took him 300 hours to create.

The next stage of his life was The Turning Point. In 1963/4  Michael went to Yugoslavia where he was able to handle the glass for himself. All over the world at this time there was an interest in using nature in creative works. In 1966 Sam Herman arrived from America and together he and Michael worked out a formula for making glass in small furnaces not in factories. Michael could see the commercial side of this rather than the academic. It is at this point he goes to Malta and begins the next stage of his life

Mdina Glass – Michael was very skilled at marketing and he began to use Mediterranean colours as he felt this was what people would want to remind them of their holidays. He also opened his workshop to the public.

Austere Scandinavian Modernism had replaced Victorian cut glass and Michael realised the potential for putting art into glass. By 1970 he began to see the export  market across the world.

These two examples of his work from the 1970s in Malta demonstrate his use of Mediterranean colours.

As the business became very successful he brought over two glassblowers from the U.K.

The ‘Fish’ was the next period of his life. To create these pieces it was a very complex method which involved dipping coloured glass into clear glass to create a surround. The works have very ‘comfortable’ curves and are very tactile. Once he had developed the ‘Fish’ he went on to develop ‘Crizzle’ (or cracked) glass. Again it is very complex to make. Pieces of ‘Crizzle’ signed by him are very rare and therefore very valuable.

Forced Changes – When Mintoff became Prime Minister of Malta he tells Michael he has to leave the island. Michael looks around for another place to site his studio and decides upon the isle of Wight. He starts completely from scratch replicating the Mdina studio but with one change – he makes only clear glass and adds colour afterwards.

Mid 70s In 1973 Michael produced the Seaward range and moves away from the Mdina style . He looks again at what people might want but he didn’t always get it right as with his  ‘pink and blue swirls’

Azurene 1978. This was a major breakthrough. He set a competition for the for the final year students at the Royal College.  One year the winner was William Walker and one of the prizes was that Michael would produce the winning design. So together  they produced the vase with silver and gold leaf applied.

1980s – During this time Michael developed Azurene colour and finishes and also introduced pink. Azurene became incredibly successful, thus he was able to experiment and develop further ideas. He set up companies in Ireland (1978) Jersey and Guernsey (1980s) and Isle of Man (1982-5). Work signed by Michael -as seen below  is clearly much more valuable 


Michael  then starts doing other things with gold and silver leaf and then experiments with colours like painting on glass.

Meadow garden produced in 1983 and Undercliff in 1987A

At this point  he reached his peak of painting on glass –  almost like Monet.

In 1980 his son Timothy joined the firm and in 1987 his wife and younger son Jonathan  also joined.

The ‘Scapes’ series were produced by all four and were made by blowing the glass and then smashing it to give shards.


Flower Garden (above) was produced in 1989 and the vase below is from the Ribbons, Lace, Satin and Silk collection.

The late 80s saw Michael retreating from the works. He had huge global success and his sons had brought new ideas. In 1989 he retired to Gozo where he set up a small business with his wife.

Timothy continued hot working with his collection – Jazz, Rythm and Blues

whilst Jonathan developed his cold working and linear designs. 

Michael died in 1994 but Timothy and Elizabeth continued working together  but moved the studio to Arreton where it still is today.

Mark summed up the life and work of this great glass worker by reminding us that Michael was the first studio glassmaker who combined commerce, marketing and aesthetics. He enabled studio glass  to be produced on a wider scale and helped others to achieve this. His determination and willingness to take risks in pursuit of excellence make him a true pioneer.

The number of questions asked at the end of the session showed how Mark had generated such interest and enthusiasm in our audience and I am sure many of us will look afresh at glass works in antique shops and at our own collections.

The Art Of Christmas

The Art Of Christmas – a talk by Valerie Woodgate on December

Valerie began by telling us that she endeavours to use paintings from Galleries that we can visit and see the paintings for ourselves. Valerie then took us through a fascinating story of  how the Christmas story is shown in art throughout the centuries and with different interpretations.

The birth of Jesus is relayed in only two of the gospels so painters had only these two accounts to use.

The early painting by Duccio in 1311 ( in the National Gallery ) is part of a larger painting . The wings are purely symbolic. Duccio tells the story through body language and colour. The angel has ethereal colours and  the colours of Mary are very earthly. The divide between Mary and the Angel appears very often in Italian art.


There are similarities with the Fra Angelica painting of 1435 (currently in the Prado ) – the blue robe and the expression of humility On the left can be seen Adam and Eve – a mixing of the Old and New Testaments. Augustine said that the Old Testament is the New Testament covered in a veil, and the New Testament is the Old Testament unveiled. Mary was known as the new Eve and Jesus was the new Adam


The Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi from the 1440s (currently in the National Gallery ) shows Mary with a book. The dove has golden rays coming from it .


The altarpiece attributed to Thomas Camin is set indoors in comparison to the Italian paintings. Instead of a dove we have a child himself. The clear glass symbolises the virgin’s womb and the child is coming through the glass. The white lily shows purity.


The Annunciation by Grunewald 1512-16 depicts Mary still reading


Whilst the ‘Madonna de Paro’ by Piero de Francesco shows Mary heavily pregnant and her face full of sorrow.


In the ‘Census at Bethlehem’ by Jan Bruegel the Elder from the 16th century was painted at a time when people were expected to pay half of their monies and crops to the Hapsburgs of Spain and this can be seen in the painting.


St. Francis was responsible for moving the story away from divinity to humanity. The Madonna and Child – a mosaic – depicts the divinity 


Whereas the ‘Birth of Jesus ‘- a Persian miniature from the 18th century shows a baby who is hungry so the palm is shaken for food 


The Russian icon dating from the 16th. century is not to scale. In this size is related to sanctity. At the front we can see Joseph being tempted by the devil.


The ‘Mystic Nativity’ by Boticelli (National Gallery ) was painted at a time when people were afraid that the world was ending thus the Virgin was painted very large- too large in fact for the stable.


The ‘Holy Family’ by Rembrandt  1640 (currently in the Louvre) contains no symbolism –



Valerie then talked to us about  the paintings of the visits by the shepherds. Paintings of the shepherds did not appear until 1500.

‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Bassano in the1500s. It is set in a ruin which symbolises the end of the old religion and the birth of the new. The lamb is often used to represent Christ.


The ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Poussin in 1634 shows how Poussin has used composition very well. The people at the front appear like an arrow leading to the baby 


Compared to Poussin’s painting, the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’  by Rembrandt – 1646 shows how the artist has used light to draw attention to the baby. There is also a feeling of humility which is not in the Poussin painting.


Valerie then concluded her lecture with paintings of the Kings.

The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert from the early 16th century  (in the National Gallery) is a most beautiful painting where the kings represent the ages of man and different parts of the world.


The painting of ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is so very different – the kings are wearing glorious robes and the child is shrinking away as myrrh is being offered (which depicts death) 


We were all enthused by this  very fascinating and comprehensive study of Christmas art.