The Arts Society Alton


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.”

For more news click here