The Arts Society Alton


Views of Venice

‘Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go’ - so said acclaimed American author Truman Capote and Venice was the subject of the recent meeting of The Arts Society Alton where members and guests were treated to a feast of images of the city painted in the 19th century.

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Well-known art expert Douglas Skeggs gave a spirited and expansive presentation starting with a potted history of the city from Roman times, which included numerous tales explaining its important position on trade routes from the East, until the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, which resulted in the decline of Venice. After the Napoleonic Wars it became of interest to writers, painters and poets and many including Byron, Turner, George Eliot, Clarkson Stansfield, Richard Parkes Bonington, Samuel Prout, Henry James, James Whistler and John Ruskin visited to take advantage of the interesting buildings, the famous light and the romantic setting of the city. Examples of some of their paintings, engravings and etchings were shown and stories of their interactions shared.

The collapse of the Campanile, the external bell tower of St Mark’s Cathedral, after it had been struck by lightning on 14 July 1902, brought the presentation to an end after the large audience had seen the transition of the city from medieval decline to the romantic destination we can experience today.

The members were also pleased to receive short presentations from three aspiring young artists from Alton College who had been awarded scholarships by The Arts Society Alton. Maisey Venn, Leah Coles and Emily Barnett showed examples of their work and spoke of their future plans in the artistic world. It was refreshing to hear of their interest in three different areas of art and appreciate their obvious talent in their chosen fields of 3D art works, graphic design and textiles with embroidery.

Leonardo - the story of a Renaissance Master

The Martin Read Hall at Alton College was packed recently when members of The Arts Society Alton, and guests, were treated to a talk on Leonardo da Vinci, who died 500 years ago on 2 May. Art historian Leslie Primo gave an account of the life and works of perhaps the most well-known artist in the world.

Leonardo - Virgin of the rocks.

From an illegitimate birth on 15 April 1452 in Vinci, a village 20 miles to the west of Florence, to his death on 2 May 1519, near Amboise in France, where he is buried, his life was ‘rebuilt’ using images of paintings and drawings undertaken by him and his contemporaries. The vagaries of specialist attributions in the art world, not to mention their effect on the value of pictures, were explained and the evolution of works originally thought to be by one person, assisted by another, were significant in a number of works now thought to be by Leonardo alone.

He seemed to be on the move all of his life. From an apprenticeship in Florence, he went to Milan where he undertook The Last Supper in the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie; then due to the invasion of the city by the French, he went back to Florence; followed a further spell in Milan; then time in Rome before journeying to France at the behest of the French King.

Although regarded as an artist, his notebooks show he wrote about and drew subjects as varied as military fortifications, weaponry and anatomy, where it appears he dissected some 30 corpses in an effort to understand the human form so he could paint it more accurately.

The stories behind famous works such as the Lady with the Ermine (1489-90), both versions of The Madonna of the Rocks, the ‘original’ in Paris whilst a later one is in London, the Salvator Mundi (1490-1500), and the Mona Lisa (1503-4) were presented with academic accuracy combined with a wit that made the stories of interest to a more general audience.

The Spring Study Day - Buddhism at Beech

On a blustery, damp March day we were safely inside being educated, enlightened and entertained starting with an introduction to Buddhism, the fastest- growing world religion (the 4th largest world religion); how it reached the Himalayas, how it revealed itself in the sacred art of Tibet and how it was applied in Bhutan, known as Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.


It never ceases to amaze me how well travelled some of our members are. There was more than a sprinkling of hands raised when Zara Fleming, our tutor for the day, asked how many of the audience had been to the Himalayas or had some knowledge of Buddhism.

As a typical male WASP I knew little or nothing about Buddhism (RI/RE was pretty basic at my school, unlike today where youngsters learn about a variety of faiths) which is why I thought it was important to attend. Zara Fleming was a delight to listen to as she talked without hesitation, repetition or deviation on a subject which is obviously very close to her heart. To have her as a tour guide whilst visiting the region would be marvellous and I am most envious of Cynthia who has that joy to look forward to later in the year.


That his name was Siddhartha, that he was born in 623BC, that he was an inspirational teacher and that he was revered in an area from Afghanistan to Korea and from Mongolia to Java was news to me. Buddha’s most important teachings, known as the Four Noble Truths, are essential to understanding the religion - and suffering feature here. Karma - the law of cause and effect, and reincarnation - the continuous cycle of rebirth are also important. The middle way looms large and non-violence is important. I was particularly interested in the Ashokan Pillars and their use on Indian postage stamps and coins, and the wheel, or Chakra, which is incorporated into the flag of India.

As a geologist, I was impressed that Zara mentioned the importance of plate movements in the formation of Tibet. Historically, the country was taken over by the Chinese in 1959, although the people still live in harmony with the environment, whilst the aim of all is the elimination of suffering in the achievement of enlightenment. I was taken by the six realms of existence, how to read a Tibetan painting and what the symbolism means.

The history, art and culture of Bhutan, where most of the population is Buddhist, with some Hindu and a few Christians, was fascinating. The landscape ranges from lush subtropical plains in the south to the Himalayan mountains in the north and whilst it has preserved its traditional Buddhist values, there have been many changes as the country strives to modernise. With a constitutional monarchy and a government more interested in gross national happiness than gross national product, they seem to be on the right track.

With coffee and biscuits on arrival and a lunch with a glass of wine, Paulette and her team created a delightful atmosphere for the day which is very important feature; as a consequence, Zara’s day will be remembered for some considerable time, and for all of the right reasons.

In a positive way of promoting tolerance and inclusivity, perhaps we should consider exploring the art and cultural associations of other world religions in the future - what do you think?

Turmoil between Britain and Europe - the Brexit of Tudor times!

Members and guests of the Arts Society Alton welcomed Anthony Russell to their recent meeting when he spoke on one of the most significant paintings by Hans Holbein - The Ambassadors, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. Holbein, as official painter to the king, more than any other person brought the Tudor world to life through his portraits. In a well-structured and very interesting presentation he began by explaining the religious changes which were taking place in the Tudor world of 1533, the year in which the picture, also known as Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, was painted.

The Ambassadors

The former was French ambassador to England, whilst the latter, acted on several occasions as French ambassador to the Republic of Venice, to the Pope in Rome, and to England, Germany, and Spain. The picture is some two square metres in size and remains an enigma within which every detail seems to suggest multiple meanings. Between the two men are a number of scientific instruments including a celestial globe, a sundial and various other items used in astronomy and for measuring time and these relate to the heavenly realm. The terrestrial globe, compass, lute, case of flutes, and open hymn book on the bottom shelf indicate earthly pursuits.

Symbols of death abound too; although The Ambassadors most significant deathly sign is the strange object that stretches across the bottom of the painting. While the odd shape makes the item largely indistinguishable when viewed from the front, Dinteville may have originally positioned the picture on a staircase in his chateau, so that a viewer walking past from the side would be confronted with the grinning face of death on a skull. The notion of listening about one picture for an hour seemed rather interesting, if a little daunting; however it took half of that time to give the context of the period in which the picture was painted and then the explanations of the range of items featured, and their dual meanings, seemed to make perfect sense.

Visit to the British Museum in London

A quick and uneventful coach journey deposited us outside the British Museum not long after it opened and the group split into two - one cohort to seek out coffee, the other to seek the Clore Education Centre for a lecture on the exhibition we had all come to see - Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, which thoughtfully provided a complimentary mug of coffee (and a very welcome refill) included in the additional charge.

British Museum
British Museum

The lecture was given by the project curator of the exhibition, Carine Harmand, to a small audience comprising our group of 12 and a similar number from an historical society. I felt it was well worth the extra fee for the talk as we learned about a period of history with which I am not familiar so that when we toured the display after lunch, I felt I did not have to read everything and could concentrate on the artefacts. The carved gypsum panels from the royal palace at Nineveh, near modern-day Mosul, were the most obvious but there were a surprising range of material dating from reign of the King around 645 BC, from an empire that stretched from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east. All manner of stories were depicted on the panels from the royal lion hunts through battlefield scenes, some very gruesome, to depictions of tranquil gardens. A couple of these used projectors which illuminated the carved panels with coloured light to simulate the originally painted surfaces. A couple of other projectors highlighted particular scenes on two panels as well as simultaneously projecting explanatory captions on blank sections of panel.

British Museum
British Museum

The exploits of the King were recorded on leather papyrus, in wax frames and on clay tablets bearing cuneiform script- the last of these surviving when the empire fell and the palace was destroyed by fire. As an educated ruler, Ashurbanipal’s palace was home to what is today, the world’s oldest surviving royal library. I was particularly interested to learn that the King had a royal mail service with which he could communicate across his vast empire and on show was a minute clay tablet and a clay ‘envelope’ bearing the royal seal.

Having been ‘in the trade’ I found the exhibition layout a little confusing, rather hot and rather crowded - despite the timed ticket system which aimed to regulate visitor flow. Two interesting-looking audio-visual sequences near the end of the special exhibition were in a narrow thoroughfare which tended to impede visitor movement and had minimal seating for those who were interested in watching. A couple of informative time lines were arranged against the circulation when it would have been far simpler to have arranged them with the convenience of the visitor in mind. The obligatory sales area outside the exhibition itself seemed very sparsely stocked which was perhaps to be expected as the show was almost at the end of its run, with only three days to go before it closed.

That said, it was a marvellous and well organised (as usual) day out and the regular Assyrian galleries provided additional material for those who wanted more. On the coach on the way home there were many animated conversations about what people had seen during the day. However, despite leaving earlier than planned in an attempt to avoid some of the rush-hour traffic, it took us an hour and a half to reach the M3, but then only 45 minutes back to Alton.


French Impressionists

The speaker at the recent meeting of The Arts Society Alton was Carol Petipher who spoke about a group of French painters who lived in Paris 150 years ago and became known as the Impressionists following their first exhibition in 1874. Members and guests heard of their lives and loves, what was going on in mid - late nineteenth century France and that they moved down the River Seine to the area around Bougival when life became too expensive in the capital.

Cowes, IOW
Cowes, IOW

As Carol had written the talk whilst living on a 90 year-old petrol barge plying up and down the River Seine, her presentation had a unique riverside perspective. Included in her group of Parisian painters were Pierre- Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot - the last being a generally little known female artist who painted aspects of feminine life. She married the artist Edouard Manet’s younger brother, Eugene, and honeymooned on the Isle of Wight in 1875 where a number of notable images were produced.

With potted biographies of the five artists and a selection of illustrations of little-known works they had produced, the audience were enthralled by the evening which was well structured, interesting and very well presented.

A Capital Day Out

On 29 November, we travelled to London to visit the Wallace Collection in Hertford House, and the Design Museum in what was originally The Commonwealth Institute.

The Wallace Collection was assembled in the 18th and 19th centuries by the first four Marquises of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard's widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897 as a closed collection, which means that nothing may be added nor removed.

Capital Day Out
A Capital Day Out.

There is a fine collection of European and Asian armour, but we had chosen to be guided through the Old Master paintings and the French Artists.

Our guide, Debbie, told us that the two paintings that all visitors want to see are The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals and The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard. However, neither painting is quite what it seems.

The former only acquired its current name when exhibited at The Royal Academy in 1888 and it is now accepted that the sitter is neither laughing nor a cavalier. The clues are there. In the embroidery of the doublet, there are motifs indicating commerce, gallantry and courtship. But, in truth, its 1888 title is somewhat catchier than the alternative Betrothed and Self-Satisfied Textile Merchant.

The Swing, in apparent innocence, has adorned many a chocolate box. But the story that it tells is rather racy. As a sweet young girl swings away from her old husband, she kicks up her leg in delight and gives her young lover a privileged and naughty eyeful. It was becoming clear how important it is to look properly at the displayed masterpieces because the story being told is not always what is expected and there was more to come.

In Jan Steen’s Celebrating the Birth, the husband proudly holds a new born child. Surely a happy story. However the signs are there in the broken eggs, cold warming pan, dangling sausage and the young man sneaking out the door giving the sign of the cuckold over the baby’s head. The wenches in the painting are not laughing with the husband, they are laughing at him.

There are so many great paintings with so many stories to be discovered so further visits to the collection are certainly justified.

After lunch in the now enclosed inner courtyard, we moved on to the Design Museum, which is a wonderful building, especially on the inside, where many of the displays were on the subject of building and housing our burgeoning population in elegant, efficient and eco-friendly developments.

There were also displays demonstrating the progress in modern technology, such as computers, television and mobile 'phones. For many people, it was a trip down memory lane. For others, there was the realisation that some of their “hi-tech” possessions actually belong in a museum. Jeremy Scott.

The Riddle in the Sands

Neil Faulkner’s recent talk to a capacity audience of members and guests at The Arts Society Alton was a fascinating interpretation of the real man behind the legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

Faulkner's interest in T. E. Lawrence was sparked during a 10-year-long archaeological project looking for evidence related to the Arab Revolt in the deserts of southern Jordan.

Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia

“Lawrence’s war memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was the most detailed record of the revolt, so our project meant that we inevitably had to have a very serious engagement with the biography, the character, the role and indeed the controversy surrounding Lawrence. I’ve indirectly become a sort of Lawrence specialist, as a consequence of our archaeological project,” he said.

After the First World War, Lawrence’s story became something of a legend, promoted again in 1962 with the release of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning historical drama. However, Lawrence’s celebrity is surrounded by controversy, which according to Faulkner has existed since 1919. “There were those who saw him as a sort of military genius who played a major role in the outcome of First World War in the Middle East and those who think of him as a serial liar.” says the archaeologist.

Based upon his findings in Jordan, Faulkner’s team were able to draw a conclusion which could perhaps bring some answers to this century-old debate. “We certainly came to a definite view that The Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be considered to be a reliable account,” he says.

The story of T. E. Lawrence continues to be relevant to this day. Faulkner explained that Lawrence internalised the remaining Middle East conflict post-war, something from which he never properly recovered. “Lawrence was broken by the war, primarily as a consequence of his sense that the Arabs had been betrayed by the British. The British had effectively promised the leaders of the Arab Revolt a united independent Arab state in the Middle East, if the Ottoman Empire was defeated, which obviously it was.” he explains.

Faulkner continued, “However, after the war, a secret agreement between the British, French and Russians meant that the Middle East was actually divided between the imperial powers. Over time, as the various states of the Middle East got their independence, the artificial borders that had been created were fossilised and are largely unchanged to this day.”

In some respects, Faulkner bears similarities with T. E. Lawrence. Both are scholars, academics and archaeologists whose interests took them to the same part of the world.

“Lawrence took himself out to the Middle East to collect information for an undergraduate dissertation on crusader castles in 1909. He then went back there after graduating to work as an excavator. That’s the kind of thing that I can identify with very strongly.” However, as an anti-imperialist, Faulkner considers Lawrence to have been too trusting. “He viewed the British Empire through rose-tinted glasses. I think he was extremely naïve about their potential benevolence. The British Empire wasn’t some cross between the National Trust and the United Nations; it was a rapacious system of exploitation.” He puts it down to Lawrence’s background and the political influences that he came under. Ultimately, Faulkner believes that Lawrence was subject to ideological conditioning. “He was never able to break away and see the underlying purpose of the British Empire or the reactionary nature of the leadership of the Arab Revolt.”

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