The Arts Society Alton

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The Inside Story

The Alton Decorative and Fine Art Society recently welcomed Toby Faber who spoke about book cover design and the history of the independent publishing house which had been started by his grandfather back in 1929.


From humble beginnings in 1925 being associated with publishing The Nursing Mirror, Geofrey Faber moved away from the scientific press and began publishing work by initially unknown poets and novelists. This was accompanied by the employing of artists for appropriate book covers, some of whom went on to become household names in the art world, whilst many of the authors are still well-known today and their titles are still in print.

Amongst the examples cited was Lord of the Flies which was first published in 1954. William Golding's classic first novel has remained a stark allegory of civilisation, survival and human nature and is still popular as a course text for secondary schools. It was released in a film in 1963 and again in 1990 although it is generally agreed that the original version is closer to the book.

Fascinating asides relating to the acquisition of books which subsequently became best sellers and the rejection of others, some of which also went on to be published elsewhere to great acclaim, gave an insight into the hit and miss world of books and the important aspect of the design of book covers.

Glass through Fine Art

The recent speaker at the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was Jane Gardner who spoke about Glass in Art. Whilst it sounds a bit of a dull topic, the members and guests were enthralled with a lively history of glass production which the Romans had perfected two thousand years ago. Furnaces throughout the Empire showed that their clear glass was made using sand with soda as a flux. Evidence was provided through wall paintings from Pompeii which included crystal clear glass. Examples from excavations in Britain revealed conical drinking glasses, although without a foot they would have been handed back and forth during a meal. Small bottles have been excavated locally and can be seen in Alton's Curtis Museum.

Still life with drinking glasses
Still life with drinking glasses

Many different designs were provided from history with examples in paintings of many periods in which glass was featured either as part of a still-life composition or in an incidental way being used at a feast, banquet or orgy.

Glass making was established in Venice in the thirteenth century and the city earned an enviable reputation which continues today. A centre for trade routes to the East was disrupted following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks but this resulted in a trade exporting glassware to Western Europe instead. Although Venice kept a monopoly on fine glass, local production was established in places such as Germany resulting in an impure green glass, known as Forest Glass, which was blown into a variety of shapes. Black glass was produced for wine bottles and whilst previously glasses had only been used for beer, a wide variety of forms now replaced metal as the drinking vessel of choice for wine. These were also illustrated through paintings, although some of them were very difficult to make and others were less than functional to use.

The story of a stone - Cleopatra's Needle

The members of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society welcomed Clive Barham-Carter to their recent meeting where he spoke on Cleopatra's Needle, which is located on The Victoria Embankment in Westminster. That it has no association with Cleopatra and that it is not a needle but an obelisk were his opening statements, although it is still an interesting object with many historical associations.

Cleopatras Needle
Cleopatras Needle

The name is also applied to two other ancient Egyptian obelisks erected in Paris and New York during the 19th century and whilst the ones in London and New York are a pair, the example in Paris is one of a pair from Luxor where the other still stands. They are all genuine Egyptian obelisks dating from around four thousand years ago which originally stood either side of a temple entrance, although they were already about a thousand years old when Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt.

The audience heard how obelisks, composed of Egyptian granite, were quarried near Aswan and carved before being transported to their sites. When Egypt was conquered by the Romans, a number were shipped back to Rome where some can still be seen today. After the French invaded Egypt as part of their plan to take India over two hundred years ago, Britain intervened and whilst Admiral Nelson defeated the French Navy at Aboukir Bay, General Abercrombie won a decisive victory on land and drove the French out.

Although mortally wounded in the battle on 21 March 1801, it was proposed commemorate Abercrombie's success by shipping an obelisk, given by the restored Turkish ruler to mark his return to power, back to Britain. Unfortunately the British Government was unwilling to pay the costs of removal so the obelisk remained in Alexandria. In 1819 a different obelisk was brought back to Britain and erected at Kingston Lacey in Dorset, whilst the French brought another back in 1857 and sited it in central Paris where it still stands. Eventually in 1877 Erasmus Wilson, a British philanthropist, offered to pay for Abercrombie's obelisk to be brought back to London. Rather than load it into a ship for transport, it was decided to build a metal casing around the 168 foot structure and tow it home. On the voyage it was lost in a storm which claimed the lives of 5 crew members, but luckily found 5 days later by another British vessel and brought to London where it was erected in September 1878 not outside Parliament, the favoured site, but just around the corner on the Embankment.

Damaged by bombs from a Zeppelin in 1917, the obelisk with two supporting Bronze Sphinxes has recently been cleaned and looks as good as anything that old ought to look - which is remarkable considering its age. Four plaques on the base provide the full story of the structure and its eventful journey to London and the audience were encouraged to pause at its base on a visit to the capital to marvel at this fragment of ancient Egypt in the centre of our capital city.

A Poster Icon

The recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society (The Arts Society Alton) welcomed Charles Harris who, with a long career in advertising, spoke to members and guests on the work of Adolphe Mouron (1901 -1968), a French painter and commercial poster artist.

Poster Icon
A poster icon

Better known by his pseudonym Cassandre, he had been born in the Ukraine to French parents, later moving to Paris to study where the popularity of advertising posters gave him an opportunity to work in the printing trade. Inspired by cubism as well as surrealism, he earned a reputation with works such as Bûcheron (Woodcutter), a poster created for a cabinetmaker that won 1st prize at a prestigious design exhibition in 1925.

With others he set up his own advertising agency in the 1930s and is perhaps best known for his posters produced for railway and shipping companies. Interestingly, his creations for the Dubonnet in 1933 were among the first posters designed to be seen by occupants in moving vehicles. Images of his posters were projected and recognisable for their innovative graphic solutions and their frequent references to the work of well-known painters such as Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso.

With typography an important part of poster design, the company created several new typeface styles. Cassandre developed Bifur in 1929, the sans serif Acier Noir in 1935, and in 1937 an all-purpose font called Peignot. In 1936, his works were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City which led to commissions from Harper's Bazaar to create cover designs.

Poster Icon
A poster icon

Cassandre served in the army in 1940 until the fall of France. His business long gone, he survived by creating stage sets and costumes for the theatre, something he had worked on in the 1930s. After the war, he continued in the theatre while also returning to easel painting. He worked with several famous French fashion houses and in 1961 designed the well-known Yves Saint Laurent logo.

With his death being 50 years ago, the talk was a fascinating insight into the work of a gifted artist who bridged the gap between fine and commercial art, and whose designs are emulated to this day.

The Maths of art and architecture

It's not every lecture that starts off with an explanation of basic geometry, but all soon became clear at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society when visiting speaker Alexandra Epps provided examples of practical maths in action.

The Birth of Venus (detail) by Botticelli [mid 1480s].
The Birth of Venus (detail) by Botticelli [mid 1480s].

The audience heard how the Fibonacci sequence of numbers is nature's code used in such things as the leaf arrangement in plants, the parts of a pinecone and the scales of a pineapple. The so-called Golden Ratio of 1:1.618 and the associated curve on the arc was used by Classical architects producing buildings with pleasing proportions which made them in harmony as well as beautiful.

A number of buildings which conformed to this 'Golden Proportion' were shown from Classical times, through the Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral of the 12th century, Palladio's villas of the 16th century, Inigo Jones' buildings of the 17th century , Georgian styles of the 18th century right up to the work of modern architects Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and others.

The well-known Leonardo da Vinci drawing of Vitruvian Man, completed around 1490 provided the starting point for an examination of a selection of paintings and sculpture which incorporated this golden proportion and thus, were regarded as beautiful works of art. Sculpture by Michelangelo, artworks by the Italian Renaissance master Piera Della Francesca, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and right up to the 19th century French artist Seurat and the Dutch painter Mondrian were explored. There was even a short-lived art movement called the Section d'Or just before The Great War who espoused the mathematical element of composition.

Whereas The Arts Society Alton lecture topics are usually based on the work of a known artist, sculptor, architect or period of art history, this lively and informative presentation gave a broad-brush stroke approach to a fundamental component in a wide variety of art and design applications.

The Perfect Stocking Filler

The Arts Society Alton hosted a Christmas celebration at the Maltings Centre which included a lecture entitled Stocking Fillers from Faberge by Victoria & Albert Museum Curator Clare Phillips. Breathtaking, exquisite, magical, sublime were just a few of the adjectives used to describe the creations of the fabled jeweller, Carl Faberge.


His family were Huguenots who escaped persecution in France in the 18th Century. He worked as a restorer at the Hermitage in St Petersburg which made him well placed to cater to the tastes of Royalty, the aristocracy & those who had recently acquired wealth. Employing hundreds of craftsmen, many of his jewellery boxes, animal figures & flower creations were channelled through his London shop in Bond Street. The Royal Collection contains many of the finest examples of Carl Faberge’s work.

A Thousand Years of English Coronations

The recent meeting of The Arts Society Alton welcomed Barbara Askew who gave a fascinating lecture on a thousand years of English Coronations. Incorporating images of the Crown Jewels and other regalia, as well as recordings of some of the more well-known Coronation anthems, she skilfully provided an informative account of coronations from Edward the Confessor in Winchester Cathedral in April 1043, through 10 year-old Richard II in June 1377, to that of our present Queen in Westminster Abbey in June 1953.

Richard II coronation 1377
Richard II coronation 1377

The audience learned that the use of regalia by monarchs in England can be traced back a thousand years and by the 15th century it was usual for a monarch to inherit state regalia from their predecessor. Most of the present collection dates from around 350 years ago when King Charles II became King. The earlier regalia had been either sold or melted down after the monarchy was abolished in 1649, during the English Civil War. Only four original items pre-date the Restoration: a late 12th century anointing spoon, the oldest object in the collection and three early 17th-century swords.

At a coronation, the monarch is anointed using holy oil poured from an ampulla into the spoon, followed by investiture with robes and ornaments, and finally he or she is crowned with St Edward's Crown. Afterwards, it is exchanged for the lighter Imperial State Crown, which is also usually worn at State Openings of Parliament. Wives of kings are crowned as queen consort and since 1831 a new crown has been made for each queen consort. Also regarded as Crown Jewels are the state swords, trumpets, ceremonial maces, church plate, historical banqueting plate and royal christening fonts.

England has experienced 39 monarchs since the Norman Conquest and there have been 38 ceremonies with that of William and Mary in April 1689 being a joint coronation. Notable among the 23,578 precious and semi-precious stones are two Cullinan diamonds, discovered in South Africa in 1905 and presented to Edward VII, the Stuart Sapphire, St Edward's Sapphire, and the Black Prince's Ruby – a large stone given to Edward the Black Prince by Don Pedro, a Spanish king, in 1367.

It was a lecture rich with historical significance, artistic design and cultural importance and will be remembered for a long time.

The Gap Year - 300 years ago

'The Grand Tour - a peculiar education' was the intriguing title of Deborah Lambert's talk to Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society recently but there was no mention of Clarkson, May or Hammond. The original Grand Tour started in the late sixteenth century and continued for the next three centuries, when it became fashionable for young aristocrats to visit Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome, as part of their classical education. It was essentially, a gap year or two for the young gentleman of wealthy families. Travel was arduous and costly throughout the period and was only possible for the privileged class - the same that produced gentleman scientists, authors, antiquaries and patrons of the arts.

Tribuna of the Uffizzi by Zoffani
Tribuna of the Uffizzi by Zoffani

Led by a tour party leader, often known as a Bear Leader, who acted as both tutor and guardian, the youngsters were generally away for a couple of years, although most Grand Tourists stayed for shorter periods and set out with less scholarly intentions. All hoped to return home with souvenirs of their travels and an understanding of art and architecture formed by visiting great masterpieces - not to mention an opportunity to frequent the less salubrious attractions of the foreign cities.

Using drawings, paintings, maps and pictures of objects the lecture developed from a mere travelogue into a reasoned explanation of the growth of Northern art based on the architecture and the fine and decorative arts seen by the Grand Tourists. Many artists benefited from the patronage of these affluent tourists eager to buy mementos of their travels. Pompeo Batoni painted portraits of these aristocrats in Rome with classical backgrounds, and many travellers bought Piranesi's prints of ancient buildings such as the Colosseum. Canaletto painted pictures of Venice for the travellers and was even invited to England to produce paintings of a similar style featuring London and elsewhere.

The search for the Queen of Sheba

The Queen of Sheba is mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran and the story of her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem has been subjected to extensive Jewish, Islamic and Ethiopian stories, and has become the subject of one of the most widespread legends in the Middle East.

The queen of Sheba
The queen of Sheba

Louise Schofield, formerly of the British Museum and now an archaeologist working in Ethiopia, was the speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society and she recounted the legends and explained the archaeological evidence that supported the stories.

Depictions of the Queen and her visit seem to have depended on who was drawing or painting the historic pictures that are available to scholars. In some she is fair skinned, in others dark skinned in others of Oriental appearance. However, the Land of Sheba was identified by archaeologists in the nineteenth century as being what is now Yemen and on the opposite side of the Red Sea in what was then Abyssinia, now Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. The legends seem to date from the 6th century BC to 8th century AD, although the Queen of Sheba does not become common in Christian iconography until the 12th century.

Louise included reference to her excavations in Tigre province and to Menelik, the offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant and it was venerated there during his reign (c. 970-930 BC) and afterwards. Then it vanished and Ethiopian tradition relates it was removed by Menelik. Much of Jewish tradition holds that it disappeared before or while the Babylonians sacked the temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC. However through the centuries, Ethiopian Christians have claimed that the ark rests in a chapel in the small town of Aksum, in their country's northern highlands. It is reputed to have arrived nearly 3,000 years ago, and has been guarded by a succession of monks who, once appointed, are forbidden to set foot outside the chapel grounds until they die - quite literally a job for life. Emperor Haile Selassie, whose death, under circumstances that remain unclear, was announced in 1975. He was the last emperor of Ethiopia and, he claimed, the 225th monarch, descended from Menelik.

Who was the real St Valentine?

Andrew Davies was the speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society and he entertained the audience with a fascinating history of Christmas cards, Valentines and Postcards. Delving deep into the Pagan past, the members were informed of the importance of the festivals of Saturnalia, Mithras and Lupercalia and their adoption by the Christian church into the festivals of Christmas and Valentine's Day.

19th century Valentine card
19th century Valentine card

At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the literature relating to 14 February. One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a Bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.

Who knew where the, now totally unacceptable term, 'wolf whistle' originated, how the term spooning came about and that Christmas Day only became a national holiday in 1834?

Ever since Rowland Hill introduced the penny post in 1840, during wide range of technological advances in the Victorian period, the card has become an important form of communication in Britain. Popular, exuberant, lively and sometimes a little rude, cards provide a colourful social history of the last 170 years. The audience discovered a little about who designed, sent and received them as well as touching upon their 20th century successor, the poster.

Punch and Judy exposed

The members and guests of Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society (The Arts Society Alton) who attended the January meeting at Alton College were treated to a lively, informative and highly entertaining lecture by Bertie Pearce on Punch and Judy.

Beartie Pearce
Beartie Pearce

Mr Punch is the most famous puppet character of all time - originally a marionette string puppet, he was later transformed into a glove puppet. Appearing in England in 1662, Punch is descended from the Italian Clown Pulcinella of the 15th century Commedia dell'Arte tradition where travelling players entertaining audiences with impromptu comedic performances. Using examples of the characteristic moulded leather facemasks from his own collection, for he is a well-known performer, indeed a Professor of Punch and Judy, Bertie explained the twelve main characters and their role in proceedings. Whilst today it is generally thought of as a children's entertainment at seaside resorts up and down the country, it was originally aimed at the working man, although all sections of society seem to have been able to relate to this 'Lord of Misrule' who uses his slapstick to dispense with oppressive authority, be it politicians, Political Correctness or the devil, while proclaiming his notorious refrain: "That's the way to do it!"

His comic irreverence also gave the Punch magazine (1841 - 2002) its title and his image is to be seen on the masthead of the contemporary satirical magazine Private Eye. The attentive audience learned that his anarchic vitality has inspired opera, ballet and punk rock and his enduring popularity has seen his likeness on goods ranging from Victorian silverware to computer video games. A fascinating Victorian model made of metal, which formerly stood on a shop counter with a lit flame at his mouth enabled customers to light their cigarettes, as well as illustrations of Punch and Judy performances in engravings and paintings enabled Bertie to show how the Victorians and Edwardians warmed to this figure of fun.

The distinctive harsh, rasping voice of Punch is produced by a swazzle - a small device made of two strips of metal bound around a cotton tape reed which is held in the mouth by the performer and the audience was not going to let Bertie escape without demonstrating the technique. With one of his characteristic asides he mentioned that as he was born in Tunbridge Wells, so his was made of silver.

Bertie had visited The Arts Society Alton before and being a born performer with a keen sense of humour, an eye for detail and a caustic wit, he will no doubt be invited back in the future and have them rolling in the aisles once again.

Men in Tights - what a picture

Linda Smith made a long-awaited return to Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society recently and gave a fascinating talk featuring the key developments in early English painting under the eye-catching title of Power, Propaganda and Men in Tights. In what is referred to as the long 16 century, most pictures were by continental painters and works by artists such as Holbein and Gheeraerts were explained in detail, and close attention was paid to symbolism, both personal and political.

Gheeraerts Essex 1596

Portraiture dominated the period, and images of the great monarchs and personalities of the age were compared and contrasted in terms of the functions they were intended to fulfil. Other genres, such as religious subjects and the early beginnings of landscape painting also featured in her considered and flawless presentation which was very well received by an enthusiastic audience.

The next meeting of NADFAS will take place at 8pm on Tuesday, 8 November at Alton Maltings when Nicola Moorby will talk about Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group of artists. Guests are most welcome.

The Importance of Gardens

Members and guests at the September meeting of Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society welcomed Laura de Beden, a well-known Landscape Architect and Garden Designer, who give an introduction to the art of creating gardens in her recent lecture 'The life enhancing garden'.


As a Landscape Architect, Laura has worked on large projects for leisure centres, retail, industrial and housing developments and now specialises in the design of urban and rural gardens and large estates. Laura said: "Like any form of art, garden design has a language and vocabulary which needs to be understood in order to gain awareness and fully enjoy its beauty". The lecture was well chosen as most of the audience had a love of gardens and are interested in their artistic dimension.

Using inspiring images she illustrated both the material and spiritual sides of gardening, from the crucial importance of space to the awakening of the senses and the powerful role of memory. They all contributed to the make-up of a successful garden that will answer mankind's unstoppable search for beauty, serenity and meaning.

The next meeting of the society will be at The Martin Read Hall in Alton College on Tuesday, October when Linda Smith will talk on English Art under the Tudors with the title Power, Propaganda and Men in Tights! Guests most welcome.

A Simple Man

L.S. Lowry (1887 - 1976), or as visiting speaker Michael Howard referred to him, Mr Lowry - he was a Victorian after all, is an artist whose work is etched on our public consciousness. However, he is a much more complex and varied artist than the popular image of the painter that has come down to us. Michael's lecture to The Arts Society Alton introduced the full range of his work, including cityscapes which were inspired by his knowledge of the industrial cities and towns of North West England. He walked the streets of Manchester and Salford both professionally as a rent collector, and for pleasure as an observer of everyday life.

L.S. Lowry

The lecture wove in references to music, literature and history as well as considering the relationship of his works to Lowry's own private life and the way we can understand them today. Particularly challenging was Michael's suggestion that Lowry is perhaps the painter of the industrial revolution and the spiritual uncertainty and anxiety associated with it and that in works such as The Lake of 1937, he can be genuinely set along aside TS Eliot's great poem of 1922, The Wasteland.

Michael brought out Lowry's fascination with the composition of paintings, his unique technique and the extraordinary nature of his 'dream-landscapes, figure compositions and the compelling images of the open sea which suggest that Lowry was indeed a visionary artist and much more than the matchstick man from up north.

The Elgin Marbles: A history of meaning

Alan Read was the speaker at the recent meeting of The Arts Society Alton and he gave an insightful lecture on the history of what we know as The Elgin Marbles.

Elgin Marble

It seems that they represent only a part of the Parthenon sculptures, which originally consisted of a highly coloured frieze which depicted a procession in Athens consisting of 92 carved panels, and a pediment of carved figures at the east and west ends. This was quite a shallow carving only 13cm deep, carved in situ. The panels are about a metre in size and depict scenes from the battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The pediments at each end consisted of the largest 3 dimensional sculptures that were placed on the pediments after they had been carved. They depicted the birth of Athena and her contest with Poseidon.

The Parthenon was originally a temple to the goddess Athena, later under Turkish occupation a mosque, a Christian church and by the 1680's the Venetians were using it as a gunpowder store when significant damage was caused by an explosion. After this it was used as a stone quarry and many of the sculptures were used as building stone or ground down to make quick lime, whilst others were taken or sold as souvenirs.

In 1798 Lord Elgin became our Ambassador to Turkey when they still occupied Greece and he originally intended just to take drawings and casts of the sculptures and the Turks granted him permission to remove them. It has since been debated as to whether this permission actually allowed him to remove the sculptures completely or simply to remove them from the building to enable casts and drawings to be made on site. However, Elgin found that many of the sculptures had gone missing and this is seen as his rationale to remove them completely from the Parthenon and bring them back to the UK.

It took Elgin and the marbles several years to return to Britain. He was taken as a prisoner of war by the French for 3 years and a ship containing some of the sculptures sank and had to be salvaged. On eventually returning to England, Elgin was short of money and had no place to store or display the marbles. Initially he displayed them in private to friends in his own home, for a brief while they resided at the back of Burlington House (now the Royal Academy) and in 1816 he sold them (not without controversy) to the British Government for display at the British Museum.

In bringing Greek sculpture to Britain and a wider audience, 19th century artists were able to compare Greek and Roman sculpture. As a consequence, copies of the horses and of the frieze can be seen in many places around Europe including London.

Life and Art in Paris during the 1920s &30s

This was a lively lecture, by visiting lecturer Linda Collins, for the members and guests of the Alton Decorative Arts Societyand she focussed on three areas - the people; the art of the 1920's & 30's and where this led in the build up to World War II.

Eiffel Tower

France was regularly invaded throughout history and after the Great War, was aware it was likely to happen again. Rather than wringing their hands and worrying, the general attitude was to enjoy life to the full whilst they had the opportunity. It was against this backdrop that the artistic society in its broadest sense flourished. It encompassed artists, architects, sculptors and musicians.

By the 1920's many artists were making considerable sums of money, so rather than living unknown in impoverished garrets in Montmartre, they moved to the wealthy area of Montparnasse and Porte de Versailles, were well known as celebrities and often mixed with the aristocracy. Their wealth enabled them to live the hedonistic lifestyle to the full. Linda gave many interesting anecdotes of their antics, including the time they drank La Cupola cafe bar dry in 2 hours. They were able to afford fast cars and country mansions, a far cry from the poor artist in his attic as typified by the earlier Impressionists.

The art of this time was a reaction to Cubism which became unfashionable after the Great War for being too clever. Scenes of comfort became more popular after the harshness of war. Much of the art and behaviour at this time was a reaction to the inevitability of the Second World War, which these people knew would come. Approaching 1939 many of the artists and art dealers, along with the wealthy, fled Paris for New York and their art eventually led to the American School of Abstract Expressionism - and their works are quite another story!

The lecture left the audience breathless, informed and entertained - so it was a pretty good evening all round!

What a Card!

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was Yasha Beresiner, a retired lawyer, who gave an interesting and humorous account of the history of playing cards. The audience discovered that the exact origin of playing cards is unknown but the earliest reference to them was in Italy in 1377 when they were banned for being a contributory factor to drunkenness in Florence.


In 1792 after the French Revolution, the sight of crowned heads on their playing cards was considered offensive so the crowns were simply cut off and the kings turned into sages, the queens into virtues and the jacks became heroes. However, ever keen to adapt to the changing political situation, the government reversed the decision in 1813!

Until 1820 the court cards were depicted as standing figures but then became mirrored, and forty years later numbers were added by the Americans (who also introduced jokers), so the cards were much easier to hold, read and sort in the hand.

At different periods of time the backs of the cards were illustrated with current affairs stories such as the South Sea Bubble and the Popish Plots, with county maps which for the first time showed roads, with satirical cartoons, with musical scores such as The Beggar's Opera, with proverbs or with the coats of arms of the nobility. Indeed, the tradition of political cartoons continues right up to modern times with packs of cards being issued by the Americans after WW2 showing Hitler and Mussolini as the jokers, or with the British producing a Playing Politics or Cabinet Shuffle pack in 1983 when, very conveniently, there were four political parties contesting the General Election (Conservative, Labour, Liberal and SDP) which could represent the four traditional suits.

Yasha's deep interest in playing cards had stemmed from a boyhood collection of coins and banknotes when he discovered that during the French Revolution there had been a shortage of notes and so the blank backs of playing cards were used. If that had been the starting point of his lifelong fascination, then the high point must surely have been his installation as Master of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards.

The Pity of War

'My subject is War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity' so wrote Wilfred Owen in the preface to his War Poems, among the most passionately expressed in the English language. This hard-hitting introduction set the tone of Denis Moriarty's epic lecture for The Arts Society Alton held recently in the Martin Read Hall at Alton College.

Wilfred Owen

In addition to biographical details of Owen who served as an Infantry Officer, won a Military Cross but died in battle at the age of 25 - just four days before the Armistice in November 1918, the very comprehensive lecture set Owen's brief life in context using his poetry, the work of official War Artists and other poets, music and familiar, but compelling photographic images and artworks of the conflict. Whilst the Great War cast a long shadow over the whole of the 20th century and changed history and society for ever, the audience were encouraged to reflect on the feeling of the time that there emerged an eternal and optimistic determination that human endeavour must strive to avoid such calamities again. As we know optimism and determination was not enough because war flared up again 20 years later!

Purple prose and denim blues

At the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society (The Arts Society Alton) the audience discovered that the story of textiles was very broad, ranging across both time periods and continents. The lecture was presented with great knowledge and considerable skill by Dr Susan Kay-Williams, Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework based at Hampton Court.

Dyeing in the 15th century

With a long-standing interest in textiles and author of The Story of Colour in Textiles published in 2013, she focused on the history of dyeing in Europe, but included India, China and South America. It was a fascinating story flavoured with power, war, politics, the church, money, exploration, adventure, science, serendipity and even sex. It ran from pre-history to the middle of the 19th century and was illustrated with both well-known and unusual images and was, of course, full of colour. Sources of the dyes were many and various including sea shells, plants, insects and trees. It was a fascinating and colourful presentation of a subject that today, with a multitude of synthetic dyes, few people even give the origin of the colour of our cloths a second thought - unless you inadvertently mix light and dark items in your washing machine!

A Picture of England

Visiting speaker David Haycock gave a fascinating account of the England of Eric Ravilious in a recent lecture to members of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society (The Arts Society Alton). The subject of a very popular exhibition over the Summer at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Ravilious is well known as a watercolourist, muralist, ceramicist and wood-engraver. He was one of the most distinctive young British artists working between the two World Wars and the audience learned of his career, his place in the long tradition of watercolour painting in England, as well as within the social and cultural context of England in the 1920s and ‘30s.


Born in 1903 and raised in Edwardian Eastbourne, Ravilious came of age as a painter in the 1930s, but left that civilian world of bathing huts and butchers’ shops behind in 1939 when he joined the Admiralty as an official war artist. He travelled across Britain to paint aspects of the conflict until his death during an RAF air-sea rescue mission off the coast of Iceland in 1942 aged 39.

Wonderful Copenhagen

The Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society welcomed Hanne Sutcliffe to their recent meeting and she spoke on some of the fourteen royal castles and palaces in the small country of Denmark. Its history dates back to the Vikings and between the 13th and 17th centuries, it was a European superpower. Today, the size and influence of Denmark is the result of 400 years of forced relinquishments of land and lost battles. With a population of some 5.5 million its monarchy can be traced back a thousand years.

Fredriksborg Palace

The small early 17th century palace of Rosenberg is one of true renaissance genius in Copenhagen. Built by Christian IV it served as a leisure palace and a place to store his vast treasure. The outstanding and rare jewelled renaissance gold crown is the finest example known. The palace has an exceptional collection of silver furniture, including a silver throne and three rare and famous full size silver lions guarding the kings and queens of Denmark.

By contrast Denmark’s most beautiful palace is Fredriksborg, north of Copenhagen, set in a large garden and park, with fountains and lakes. It was built in 1560 and forty years later a larger building was created next to the older, smaller palace as a pure Renaissance creation with green copper roofs. King Christian IV created outstanding interiors with rare paintings, tapestries and furniture.

The exquisite French and Italian neo-classical Fredensborg palace has been the Danish Royal families’ favourite summer residence for four hundred years. The light, airy complex consists of 28 separate buildings, all painted white and the state apartments are filled with outstanding art.

Finally, the elegant Amalienborg palace, which overlooks the large harbour, gateway to the Baltic and has a splendid view (very close to the Little Mermaid). Consisting of four identical rococo buildings around an octagonal square, it has a superb equestrian bronze statue of King Fredrik V cast in 1771 and it is the winter home of the Danish Kings, Queens and their families.

Waterloo links with the Arts

The June lecture of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was devoted to Art of the Napoleonic Wars when visiting lecturer Dr Lois Oliver spoke about artists and their works depicting the period which has been in the news of late with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The paintings of David Wilkie, James Gillray, George Jones and JWM Turner were illustrated along with sculptural works by Nicholas William Railton and Antonio Canova. Also mentioned was the triumphal Marble Arch designed by John Nash in 1827 to be the state entrance to Buckingham Palace, but relocated in 1851 and is now rather lost on a traffic island in Oxford Street in London’s West End.


Images associated with the three well-known military leaders of Nelson, Napoleon and Wellington were interspersed with others including the Prussian General Blucher whose well-timed arrival at Waterloo saved the day for the allied forces who were hard pressed by the French at the time. That the Germans regarded themselves as the victors at Waterloo is perhaps reinforced by their commemorative Waterloo column of 1826-32 in Waterloo Square in Hanover.

The meeting also heard from Ashleigh Trim, Libby Porteous and Pascle Chalmers-Arnold students from Alton College who had been recipients of Art Scholarships awarded by The Arts Society Alton. They spoke of their current work, how they had used their awards and how they intended to further their artistic studies. It was reassuring that their obvious talents had been recognised by their college offers and the meeting wished them well for the future.

The story of Magna Carta

The recent Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society lecture by archivist Dr Caroline Shenton on Magna Carta, which is celebrating its 800th anniversary in June, was well received by an attentive audience at Alton Maltings. The speaker provided the ‘backstory’ to the Great Charter which is considered the most famous document in England. Unlike Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, his late father and brother, John was a very unpopular monarch and as he considered himself above the law, was regarded as a ‘bad King’. Rebel Barons from the North confronted John at Runnymede, some 35 miles north east of Alton and presented him with a document which was more of a peace treaty than a bill of rights. Despite the image of John with a quill pen in numerous paintings and on a new £2 coin struck by The Royal Mint, John never actually signed the document but as was customary at the time, agreed to it and attached his seal.

Magna Carta

In modern parlance, it then went ‘viral’ as copies were prepared and sent to all county courts for reference. Possibly up to 40 copies were made and whilst 13 are known, only four originals remain today. The settlement did not last for long and after it was annulled by the Pope there was civil war. John died the following year and was succeeded by his son, who ruled as Henry III. The document was re-issued and it appears there were versions prepared in 1215, 1216, 1217, 1225, 1297 and 1300 each seemed to leave out various clauses and incorporate new ones. Later documents based themselves on the original resulting in The Petition of Rights of 1628 and much later, the Human Rights Act of 1998.

The speaker also outlined the parchment-making process for the charter and how the ink and quill pens were produced. She concluded by showing a number of contemporary illustrations associated with those involved, including the tomb of King John, who died in 1217 and was buried in Worcester cathedral.

Mozart’s Magic Flute: More Than Meets the Eye


Jonathan Hinden’s lectures on opera are something of a legend among NThe Arts Society Alton societies and on a recent return visit to Alton he certainly did not disappoint. Within minutes he had his audience entranced with the extraordinary depth, breadth, sensitivity and detail of his understanding of this remarkable opera, Mozart’s biggest success and one of his own favourites.

It was described as a non-technical and not-too-serious account of this masterpiece, its characters and story, with musical illustrations on the piano, focusing on the composer’s ability to express character and mood through music and with a brief look at the circumstances and context of its composition.

He talked of the relationship between Mozart and his librettist, Schikaneder, and the multiple layers of meaning embodied within this superficially child-like, but deeply serious, allegory with its legendary and Masonic origins. Each scene was illustrated with his excellent piano playing and his pleasing voice. As ever, he was happy to sing nearly all the parts in the opera, whatever their range, but he did draw the line at the famous coloratura passages of the Queen of the Night!

For the opera fans in the near capacity audience, this was a truly wonderful talk giving a unique insight into the extraordinary genius of Mozart in expressing the thoughts and feelings of his characters in music. For those not yet convinced of the merits of opera, it showed why so many consider it the greatest of the arts.

Bath – a World Heritage City

Ella Bartron and Flo Saralis

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society gave an interesting presentation devoted to the history of the romantic city of Bath. Jane Tapley, a Blue Badge Guide in the city explained that it became a spa with the Latin name of Aquae Sulis (‘the waters of Sulis’) around AD 60 when the Romans built baths and a temple in the valley of the River Avon, although tradition suggests that the hot springs were known before then. Indeed, even Charles Dickens wrote about the supposed ‘discovery’ of the healing properties of the local springs. It became popular as a spa town during the Georgian period, leaving a heritage of attractive Georgian architecture in the Palladian style built using the local honey-coloured stone.

Bath became a World Heritage Site in 1987 and the city's theatres, museums and other cultural and sporting venues have helped make it a major centre for tourism with more than 3.8 million visitors city each year. The talk was particularly well timed as a group of members were off for a long weekend to examine the cultural delights of the area shortly afterwards.

Rising Stars

Ella Bartron and Flo Saralis

Two paintings by students at Alton College which The Arts Society Alton submitted for consideration, were selected for the exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists annual show at the Mall Galleries in London during March. Ella Bartron (left) and Flo Saralis were the lucky pair, the only ones selected from Hampshire and only 23 pieces were chosen from hundreds of works created by young artists nominated by NThe Arts Society Alton societies all over the UK. The Arts Society Alton helped the skilled pair by framing their works and arranging for them to be delivered to London in advance of the hanging.

In January the girls were contacted by NADFAS to inform them that there was an additional opportunity for showing their work in the RBA Rising Stars exhibition at Lloyds Register Gallery at 71, Fenchurch Street, London during February before the RBA show. Not surprisingly both students opted to include their pictures. Rising Stars indeed!

The Pilgrims of Babylon

Douglas Skeggs, the well-known art historian and lecturer recently made a welcome return visit to the town and took ADFAS on a virtual tour of Montmartre during the mid to late 19th century. With its labyrinth of winding lanes and alleyways cascading down the hill and its windmills, it became a place of entertainment and inspiration to many artists - including Renoir who painting his famous crowd scenes and Toulouse Lautrec who produced pictures of vibrant and evocative Can-Can girls and late night revellers in the Moulin Rouge.

Renoir's 1876 painting of the crowds at the Le Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre is on display in Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Artists were also attracted to the area because it was a cheap place to live and drink flowed freely. Social barriers were broken down and a bohemian lifestyle inspired the artists' imagination but also impaired their ability and their health - notably Lautrec who died at the age of 37 from consuming too much absinthe (a bitter green, aniseed-flavoured liquor known as the Green Fairy).

The lecture was a spirited insight into the characters and lives of the artists and their relationships to one another. The lecture explained why there is still such a fascination for Montmartre to this day and why the romance lives on attracting many tourists who want to experience the poignancy and atmosphere of a place where so many well-known artists emanated.

Basingstoke and its contribution to World Culture

Rupert Willoughby was the recent speaker at the Alton Decorative and Fine Art Society and his subject was a very personal and light-hearted view on the folly of 1960's planning.

His chosen place was Basingstoke, once a market town smaller even than Alton. Whilst it was not a town of great architectural merit what was to replace it is regarded as gross overdevelopment.

Basingstoke under construction

As many Altonians were aware it all happened in the mid 1960's when very left wing planners asked Sir Patrick Abercrombie, a hugely successful ‘contemporary’ architect, to build a London overspill town rather like Stevenage and Harlow as a show piece in the south of England. Their theory was that council housing and mass production brought about a middle class structure for all.

So once where small thatched dwellings and a few more prestigious homes such as that of the Merton family (of Merton College, Oxford fame), Jane Austen's relatives and Thomas Burberry, who invented the gabardine raincoat had stood, a mighty soulless mega-structure arose - The Great Wall of Basingstoke! It encompassed tower blocks of flats, concrete shopping malls, cinemas and treeless open spaces.

The speaker revealed the nobler Basingstoke which was raised to the ground or buried beneath the concrete, and described some of the few historic gems that survived. Sympathetically told as a local himself, it was a story that neatly illustrated what is generally regarded as the ugliest episode in England’s architectural history. Even the Wote Street Willy got a mention. As John Betjeman wrote, ‘What goes for Basingstoke goes for most English towns’.

A young incomer to Basingstoke during the re-development remarked that in her opinion ‘at that time the best view of the town was in the rear view mirror of her car’. Another comment from a member of the audience raised the general poor standards of housing in post-War Britain and the building of houses with bathrooms and indoor sanitation was a worthy aim and it is only in relatively recent years that thatched cottages have become desirable places to live.

Worcester Porcelain – the workmanship of heaven

Anton Gabszewicz recently made a welcome return to the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society to outline the story of Worcester Porcelain in the 18th century. The audience were given the fascinating story of how the factory had been formed, survived difficult economic conditions and eventually became one of the most well-known and highly regarded ceramic factories in the world, still popular and very collectable today.

Worcester Porcelain - The workmanship of heaven

Having been born in Worcester, the speaker outlined the importance of the River Severn in providing a transport route for the completed wares made in the city, especially after the acquisition of the equipment and ‘porcelain recipe’ from the failed factory of Benjamin Lund in Bristol around 1750.

It was interesting to see the influence of silver objects which were replicated as the new designs for this high quality and expensive commodity, which at first consisted of sauce boats and tea wares. One could also see the influence of Meissen on some of the the hand-painted decoration and the fact that wares from Worcester appealed to the landed gentry and professional classes who had the income to be able to afford such luxury items. A famous service of over 260 pieces was manufactured for the Duke of Clarence around 1770 which cost 800 guineas [£840].

Pevsner in Hampshire

The recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was devoted to the architectural historian, Nicholas Pevsner from visiting speaker, Susan Harries. The audience learned something of the man who had been born in Leipzig to a middle class bourgeoisie family, his career as a lecturer at the University of Göttingen being cut short by the rise of the National Socialists in Germany. He was expelled in 1933 and came to England, which he had previously visited as part of an architectural research trip.

Regency Furniture

Although interned as an enemy alien during the early part of the Second World War, he was later given a publishing editorship and established links with Penguin Books which eventually led to The Outline of European Architecture and his well-known series of County Guides, on which he began work in 1945.

A series of illustrations provided a fascinating glimpse into his thoughts on the buildings of the Alton area, Hampshire being just one of the 46 county guides he published between 1951 and 1974. Many are currently being revised and locally, new volumes on the IOW and North Hampshire have been completed.

Regency Furniture

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society convinced his audience that the Regency Period made a distinctive contribution to English furniture.
Janutz Slowikowski explained that for the first time designs incorporating lion paw feet and other exotic animals on the ends of Grecian scroll arms appeared in Britain. The 1798 Battle of the Nile, fought between the French and the English, led by Nelson, was largely responsible for inspiring designs containing Egyptian elements such as sphinx head finials and crocodile supports, as it established England as a Naval Supremacy in the final years of the Revolutionary Wars in France. Nelson's increasing victories also led to furniture incorporating a number of marine elements, including anchors, rope work and dolphins.

Regency Furniture

Following excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum other designs were more archaeologically correct inspiring a wide range of furniture to be made as a contrast to the classical Grecian style.

Thomas Sheraton's two published works, the Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 and the Cabinet-maker, Upholsterer and General Artists' Encyclopedia, which came out in parts from 1804 to 1806, showed in detail the new trend for the Regency style and illustrations from both were shown. Also of relevance was the use of woods from Brazil and the introduction of steam driven saws which allowed the production of fine veneers which became fashionable on a wide range of furniture.

Froyle Vestments Froyle vestments

The Arts Society Alton is pleased to continue to support the group who are maintaining the collection of historic vestments at St Mary’s church, Upper Froyle with the award of £500 to assist with the storage of the material. For further details please follow this link


Norman Rockwell - great American artist or mere illustrator?

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was John Ericson who gave a spirited lecture on Norman Rockwell, the celebrated twentieth century American painter and illustrator. His works enjoy a broad popular appeal in the United States, where he is most famous for the cover illustrations of everyday life he created for The Saturday Evening Post but it's his undoubted technical ability coupled with his ability to tell whimsical stories in his pictures that people admire most of all.

Little Boy Writing a Letter

Born in New York City in 1894, Norman Rockwell always wanted to be an artist. At 14 he enrolled in art classes at The New York School of Art before studying at The National Academy of Design. In 1916, the 22-year-old Rockwell painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine he considered to be the 'greatest show window in America'.

The 1930s and 1940s were the most fruitful decades of his career and in 1943, inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt's address to Congress, Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms paintings. They were reproduced in four issues of The Saturday Evening Post with essays by contemporary writers and proved to be very popular.

In collaboration with his son Thomas, Rockwell published his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, in 1960. The Saturday Evening Post carried excerpts in eight issues, with Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait on the cover of the first. In 1973, Rockwell established a trust to preserve his artistic legacy, later to become the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he received the Presidential Medal, the nation's highest civilian honour, in 1977 although he died the following year.

Turner and Beauty

Regarded as 'the only perfect landscape painter the world has ever seen’ J M W Turner (1775-1851) was the subject of the recent lecture to the Alton Decorative and Fine Art Society. Highly regarded author and art critic Eric Shanes put the spotlight on Turner's copious output of drawings, watercolours and oils in terms of the understanding of the times where perceived beauty was considered far more ‘artistic’ than merely reproducing what the artist saw.

Lulworth Cove, Dorset

With a keen awareness of architecture and the natural world, the highly motivated and driven Turner could paint buildings, landscapes and seascapes producing dramatic pictures and achieving what was regarded as highly sought after poetic beauty through his interpretations. Dramatic weather conditions, ships in stormy seas and the radiance of light were his trademarks and examples of these techniques were illustrated by works produced throughout his long career which spanned the last quarter of the eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth century.

Turner was recently the subject of an exhibition of seascapes at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, whilst later this year examples of works painted towards the end of his life will be on show in Tate Britain (10 September 2014 – 25 January 2015).

The next meeting of NADFAS will be on 13 May in Alton Maltings at 8pm when John Ericson will speak on Norman Rockwell, the great American artist – guests welcome.

Titanic Loss

The recent speaker at the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was Dominic Riley, a highly skilled professional bookbinder. The audience learned of a masterful example of the bookbinders craft The Rubiyat by Omar Khayyam which had more than 1,500 precious stones — each separately set in gold. Unfortunately it was being sent to America when it was lost in the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 when 1,514 people perished on the infamous liner’s maiden voyage.

The Great Omar

Famed London Bindery, Sangorsky & Sutcliffe, produced The Great Omar, the centrepiece of its many legendary fine and jewelled bindings from around the turn of the 20th century. After two years of continuous work, and over one thousand jewels and leather onlays, The Great Omar was completed in 1911. Both Francis Sangorsky and George Sutcliffe were famous in the field of bookbinding, and they opened their bindery in Bloomsbury in 1901. Sangorsky was gifted in forwarding, the process of assembling and binding a book whilst Sutcliffe acted as the finisher, decorating the covers and providing the aesthetic value to the books.

Shortly after the Titanic tragedy, Sangorsky also drowned. Sutliffe took over the bindery and Sutliffe’s nephew, Stanley Bray, joined the firm. In 1932, Bray had discovered the original designs for the Rubiyat and for seven years began the ambitious task to recreate a "second Omar". But during the London Blitz in World War II, the bindery was bombed and the book was destroyed... except for the jewels. Undaunted, Bray created the third Great Omar, which he completed in the spring of 1989, and it is now on display at the British Library. The Great Omar remains today as bookbinding’s greatest legend.

The Howards of Arundel Castle

William Forrester was the speaker at the February meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Art Society gave a scholarly outline of some five hundred years of the Howard family, through portraits as well illustrations of the grand houses and castles in which they lived. The audience learned that John Howard was created Duke of Norfolk by Richard III in 1483 and today the family remain the Premier Dukes of the Realm, acting as Earl Marshal of England arranging coronations and state funerals.

The Howards of Arundel

It seems that it was not all plain sailing for the family and after the English Reformation many Howards retained their Catholic faith and two members, Philip Howard, 20th Earl of Arundel, and William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, are regarded as martyrs.

Throughout much of British history, the Howards have played an important role. For example, John Howard died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field fighting for King Richard III. They regained favour with King Henry VIII after defending England from Scottish invasion at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513, whilst Catherine Howard subsequently became the fifth wife to Henry VIII in 1540, although only for a year and was executed in 1542. Howard of Effingham was Commander of English forces during the Spanish Armada in 1588.

As well as being Dukes of Norfolk, the main line of the family are also titled the Earl of Arundel, Earl of Surrey and Earl of Norfolk. The Arundel title was inherited in 1580, when the Howards became the successors to the FitzAlans. Arundel Castle in nearby Sussex has been in the family of the Duke of Norfolk since that time and is the family home of the 18th Duke and his wife.

With a visit to Arundel arranged for the summer the society will be able to ‘hit the ground running’ following their presentation on a most important family tree.

The Artist as Reporter – British artists in the Great War

As we approach the centenary of the start of the Great War, the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society welcomed to their January meeting Jo Walton who explored the lives and work of a group of young British Artists who were closely involved in the fighting. These included well-known names such as Paul Nash, William Nicholson, John Nash, Eric Kennington and Stanley Spencer who with many others were also recording their experiences and impressions in remarkable paintings, drawings and sculptures.

E Wadsworth Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, 1919

Often at the cutting edge of avant-garde art before the War, these artists used their personal experiences to create a body of work that still seems fresh, shocking and powerful today. These ‘battle paintings’ were quite unlike anything produced to record previous conflicts, and the speaker explained how and why this was the case. We saw how artists were involved in the War in many different ways; designing posters, creating cartoons or inventing and implementing ground-breaking forms of camouflage, as well as becoming Official War Artists.

As the war came to an end, the urge to commemorate the fallen produced some highly controversial war memorials, and we saw what happened to the young artists when Peace was finally declared. The Great War changed those who participated in it and the society they returned to. We were introduced to some of those changes through the art produced and saw artists wrestling with issues that are still relevant today - what can be shown and how far can censorship go.

An interesting and thought provoking evening – which is just what one wants from a monthly lecture!

Christmas Shopping report – A Seasonal Tale

The December meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society aimed to put Christmas shopping into context. The visiting speaker was Dr Claire Walsh who provided a chronology of how traditions developed starting with the early Christians absorbing the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in December, from around 200 AD. In Canterbury, St Augustine started 12 days of feasting with boars' heads, wassailing, sweetmeats, dancing and fun for all. The pagan habit of using greenery as garlands enhanced the festivities. Needless to say this was a popular annual event and despite a short Puritan ban in the 17th century, the celebrations resumed with the restoration of King Charles II.

Christmas Tree

There were various additions including in 1800 when Queen Charlotte, wife of George III had a fir tree brought into Windsor Castle. In 1834 bank holidays were introduced at Christmas and the commercial aspect that many regard with distain today, commenced. Shop windows were decorated and Selfridges encouraged people to "shop early . . . . ."

Dickens understood how the working classes enjoyed themselves and portrayed it in A Christmas Carol. However, in 1848 Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, allowed a picture of his family around a decorated Christmas tree to be printed in The Illustrated London News and this made Christmas a respectable festivity, so more shopping had to take place.

Victorian sentimentality adopted the idea and the concept of family bonding developed alongside charitable giving. A present, unwrapped, might be given to the children of the family. Around this time we saw the arrival of Santa Claus from Turkey, via Holland and the USA. In art we see the family, either rich or poor depicted with a tree, presents, toys, food and decorations.

The 1930s saw present-giving become widespread and Santa became Father Christmas, his coat turning to the scarlet we see today. Since the Second World War the commercial side of Christmas had no bounds, although thankfully, the concept of providing for the poor remains.

More recent innovations have seen the proliferation of a ‘wrapping’ industry and whilst Christmas shopping was originally the prerogative of the man of the house, it being too stressful and requiring more physical effort that a mere woman could expend, the roles seem to have reversed today.

Splendours of Sicily

The fascinating cultural history of this island was ‘explored‘at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society when Dr Paul Roberts, a Senior Curator at The British Museum, was the visiting speaker. Owing to its strategic position, Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, has frequently been fought over - from the Greeks right up to the Normans with each culture leaving its architectural and artistic heritage.

Splendours of Sicily

The 8th century BC saw the arrival of the Greeks which marked the beginning of Greek supremacy which only ended in 212 BC with the Roman conquest of Syracuse. Roman Sicily saw the rise of large feudal estates and the imposition of taxes. Christianity began to spread in the 3rd - 4th centuries AD. In 535 AD Sicily became part of Justinian’s Eastern Roman Empire and from 827 there were frequent Arab raids to conquer the island, ending successfully in 902.

In 1061 the Normans invaded Sicily, claiming it from the Saracens in a ten-year conflict beginning with the Conquest of Messina, during which time several Muslim emirs were displaced. The Kingdom of Sicily was established in 1130 and reached its zenith with the splendour of Frederick II’s court. The rule of the Normans came to an end with the death of Tancred in 1194.

Discovering Mexican painting

The recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society featured a fascinating talk on the Golden Age of Mexican Painting by Chloe Sayer, an internationally recognised authority on the topic. The spellbound audience discovered that Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) have iconic status in Mexico where Rivera’s intricate visual narratives, rich with allegory and symbolism, adorn the walls of public buildings. Inspired by Aztec and Maya imagery, and by early Italian fresco painting, his vast murals combine social criticism with faith in human progress.

Rivera the Uprising

Arguably Mexico’s most original painter, Frida Kahlo made herself the principal theme of her art and her paintings reflect her experiences and dreams. This lecture provided a fascinating introduction to the work of both artists and chronicled their turbulent marriage and Mexico’s history after the 1910 Revolution.

The Tears of an Oyster

The recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society featured a fascinating talk on pearls from visiting specialist Patricia Law. With 30 years experience in auction houses, she has enjoyed unrivalled access to all manner of gemstones and pearls and shared her extensive knowledge.

Tears of an oyster

Symbolic of purity, prosperity and a long life the audience discovered much relating to the formation and history of natural pearls which were the gemstone of choice before the technique of cutting diamonds was developed in the mid -17th century. Historical portraits before this time showed the sitter wearing pearls, often with other uncut precious stones to show off their purity and lustrous colour. In Roman times only the nobility were allowed to wear pears and for a long time India was the prime source, although they were also discovered in the Persian Gulf. With the exploration of the New World other areas of supply were uncovered although over harvesting resulted in a return to India and the Persian Gulf.

With limited supply the price of natural pearls were maintained but all of this changed in the 1890s when Mikimoto Kokichi, a Japanese entrepreneur who is credited with creating the first cultured pearl and setting up his luxury pearl company Mikimoto, which still enjoys an unrivalled international reputation today. The market was saturated with cultured pearls by the 1930s and prices slumped due to the Depression. After the Second World War costume pearls made of plastic became widely available.

High quality cultured pearls can look natural and nowadays anyone purchasing natural pearls will be provided with a certificate of authenticity which is based on an x-ray showing the natural internal structure of the pearl.

An 18th century Man of Letters

John Iddon, the speaker at the recent Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society meeting gave the ‘inside story’ on Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill - his well-known house in Twickenham. It has been re-painted recently as part of a £9m two-year project to restore and re-furbish the fabric of the building which was built between 1749 and 1776 on what was, at the time, a very desirable riverside site.

Horatio Walpole

Horatio Walpole, the youngest son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, and a cousin of Admiral Lord Nelson, 4th Earl of Orford (1717 –1797) was an English art historian, an enthusiastic writer of letters, antiquarian collector and politician. He is now largely remembered for Strawberry Hill, where he revived the Gothic style some decades before his Victorian successors, and for his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Along with the book, his literary reputation rests on his Letters, which are of significant social and political interest.

With some of the members having visited the house recently, his talk filled a number of gaps and was particularly well received.

Our National Gallery

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was Linda Collins who outlined the history of the National Gallery and provided some interesting stories relating to a selection of well-known paintings.

National Gallery

In April 1824 the House of Commons agreed to pay £57,000 for the picture collection of the banker, John Julius Angerstein. His 38 pictures were intended to form the core of a new national collection, for the enjoyment and education of all. They were displayed at Angerstein's house at 100 Pall Mall until a dedicated gallery could be constructed. However, the size of the building was compared unfavourably with other national art galleries, such as the Louvre in Paris, and ridiculed in the press.

Following lengthy discussion about the best location for the new gallery, in 1831 Parliament agreed to construct a building Trafalgar Square as it was considered to be at the very centre of London. The new National Gallery finally opened in 1838.

Initially, the Gallery had no formal collection policy, and new pictures were acquired according to the personal tastes of the Trustees. By the 1850s the Trustees were being criticised for neglecting to purchase works of the earlier Italian Schools, then known as the Primitives.

Following the reform of Gallery administration in 1855, the new Director travelled throughout Europe to purchase works for the collection. In the 10 years that he was Director, Sir Charles Eastlake ensured that the holdings of Italian painting expanded and widened in scope to become one of the best in the world.

Today, The National Gallery, London houses one of the greatest collections in the world. All major traditions of Western European painting are represented from the artists of late Medieval and Renaissance Italy to the French Impressionists. The pictures belong to the public and entrance to see them is free, despite efforts by Governments in the past to impose admission charges.

The National Gallery Collection contains over 2,300 items, including many famous works, such as van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

A Romantic artistic evening

The recent meeting of The Arts Society Alton was devoted to three leading exponents of the Romantic Movement. Visiting speaker Elizabeth Rumbelow did an impressive job of exploring their individual contributions to the artistic spectrum of early 19th century France, as well as outlining their intertwined lives following their first meeting in 1836.

A romantic artistic evening

The paintings of Delacroix had a brilliance of colour and movement compared to the rather staid ‘neoclassical’ paintings of the time and we saw a number of examples including perhaps the most well-known Liberty leading the People, which was recently defaced in The Louvre in Paris. The audience learnt something of the life of Chopin and heard excerpts of his music with its marvellous range and an impressive output, although he was penniless at his death when only 39. George Sand had an amazing output of novels, plays and other writings and what might be described as an interesting personal life.

It was a fascinating tale of three Romantics, two of whom were geniuses and one an extraordinary woman. Delacroix and Chopin were buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the last resting place of many famous people.

Hoo was the mystery Saxon?

The mystery surrounding the identity of the person associated with the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial was the subject of the recent lecture given by Imogen Corrigan to members of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society (The Arts Society Alton).

Treasure of Hoo

In 1939 a mound at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk, was discovered to contain an Anglo-Saxon burial of unparalleled interest. The mound had been built over a ship and in the centre was a chamber containing a remarkable assemblage of jewellery and rich grave goods, including silver bowls, drinking vessels, clothing and weaponry. The gold and garnet body-equipment found with the goods which had been made by the most accomplished Europe goldsmith and had designed to generate an image of power and importance. 37 gold coins found dated the burial to 615-625AD.

The audience learned that the magnificence of the grave goods pointed to the burial of someone connected with the royal court, possibly Radwald, who was the King of East Anglia some 1400 years ago.

The lecturer illustrated the excavation material and discussed the various arguments surrounding the burial, although there was a strong Swedish cultural influence with the spectacular items. Using passages from contemporary writings, she was able to create a picture of life and death in a Kingdom that occupied an area of England from the Humber to the Thames, some 170 years before the Viking raids and long before a King of all England had been proclaimed. With items in the British Museum and an interpretation centre on the site, there is plenty of opportunity to investigate the fascinating story in more detail.

Regency Rivals

Regency Terrace Nash

The recent speaker at the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society laid the groundwork for a forthcoming visit to London with an interesting comparison of the work of two great Regency architects.

John Soane and John Nash were contemporaries and rivals two hundred years ago and whilst many works of the latter are still to be seen, history has been less kind to the preservation of representative buildings of the former.

Soane's Bank of England

Tim Bruce-Dick, himself an architect, gave a fascinating illustrated account of their lives and contrasting projects – Soane re-building the Bank of England and later becoming Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy whilst Nash was responsible for much of the layout of Regency London under the patronage of George VI, first as Prince Regent then as King.

Wonder Workers and the art of illusion

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was Bertie Pearce who, at different times during his highly entertaining talk on the history of magicians, had the audience in the palm of his hand and rolling in the aisles with laughter.

The 'Joungleurs' by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1460-1516)
The 'Joungleurs' by Hieronymus Bosch

From the beginning of time the fascination with magic and the impossible has been widespread. Egypt was the cradle of magic where Sorcerer Priests used scientific principles to create illusions for the edification of worship and to hold power over the people. Where there was power there was magic. Then there was the age-old skill of sleight of hand, which proves that 'the hand is quicker than the eye'. Magicians were known as 'Joungleurs' lest they be sentenced to death for 'witchcraft and conjuration' under the 1542 edict of Henry VIII.

With the emergence of the Music Hall, magic gained a new respectability and audiences flocked in their thousands to watch the extraordinary feats of The Great Illusionists. This gave birth to legendary tricks such as pulling a rabbit from a hat and sawing a lady in half. We were introduced to a long list of famous magicians including Isaac Fawkes, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Harry Houdini (whose stage name was modelled on his magician hero), John Henry Peppler and his Ghost and those who became well-known on TV such as David Nixon, Tommy Cooper, Paul Daniels and David Blaine. It seems that modern cruise ships are the Music Halls of the 21st century and the old skills of magicians and illusionists are alive and well and being enjoyed by many. It was pleasing to note that even today in our super technical age of I-pods and Broadband, the wonder and surprise of magic are as popular as ever.

Wonder Workers and the Art of Illusion was a whistle stop tour of the history of mystery from 3000BC to the 21st century and the delighted audience left the hall full of wonder at the skill of this delightful performer. A dark and wet January evening had been transformed by the best talk of the year so far.

A different Christmas experience

The recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society welcomed Rosamund Bartlett who spoke about Christmas in Russia where although Christians still celebrate the birth of Jesus, using the Orthodox Julian calendar this falls on 7th January. Using pictures and music she painted a vivid picture of the history and cultural differences and similarities at this special time of year. They have a celebration for Saint Nicholas in December and another in May, but this is not our Santa Claus rather an honorary Russian who was born in Greece!

Russian Christmas card of 1966

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks banned Christmas celebrations and many traditions, such as decorating a fir tree and giving presents, turned into New Year's traditions. Christmas only became an official holiday in Russia in 1991 and it began regaining popularity only recently, partially because Russian leaders attend a Christmas service. It was interesting to learn that the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates religious holidays according to the Julian calendar, although the country has used the Gregorian calendar for secular purposes since 1918.

Christmas is now regaining its popularity and religious meaning in Russia and people celebrate Christmas Day in a way which would be familiar to us. With plenty of snow they are able to enjoy a white Christmas every year although, interestingly, it is preceded by a 40-day Lent when practicing Christians do not eat meat. The Lent period ends with the first star in the night sky on January 6 – which is taken as a symbol of Jesus Christ's birth, and marks the start of their Christmas meal. Christmas Eve also marks the time of an old Slavic tradition in which young women used a mirror and candles to invoke the image of their future husbands.

For many non-religious Russians, Christmas Day is a family holiday but it is not as important, as New Year's Day when many visit friends and relatives, as well as give and receive presents, on January 7. Like going to church, fortune-telling on Christmas Eve is again becoming popular in Russia although like Britain, not many people work during the run up to the New Year until after Christmas, although they declare it a state holiday.

Iran – a Misunderstood Land

The recent speaker at the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was John Osborne who gave a masterful outline of one of the great civilisations of the world. The history of the country is mixed with the history of a larger region, from the Danube in the west to the Indus in the east and from the Caucasus, Caspian Sea, and Aral Sea in the north to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and Egypt in the south.


The Persian Empire proper began in the Iron Age, following the influx of Iranian peoples which gave rise to a number of dynasties during classical antiquity. Once a major empire of superpower proportions, Persia, as it had long been called, has been overrun frequently and has had its territory altered throughout the centuries. Invaded and occupied by Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and others—and often caught up in the affairs of larger powers—Persia has always reasserted its national identity and has developed as a distinct political and cultural entity.

The enthralled audience learned that Iran is home to one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 4000 BC. The Islamic conquest of Persia (633–656) was a turning point in Iranian history. Islamicisation in Iran took place during 8th to 10th century and led to the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. However, the achievements of the previous Persian civilizations were not lost, but were to a great extent absorbed by the new Islamic rulers.

After centuries of foreign occupation and short-lived localised dynasties, Iran was reunified as an independent state in 1501 and Shi'a Islam became the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in the history of Islam. Iran had been a monarchy ruled by a Shah, or emperor, almost without interruption from 1501 until the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Iran officially became an Islamic Republic in April 1979.

Masterpieces of African Art

The recent lecture by Dr Claire Walsh to members and guests of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society explained the story associated with Benin Bronzes which were made in what is now modern Nigeria, from the sixteenth century. The items are actually made of brass, not bronze and the audience learned that they had three main functions – as ritual and ceremonial objects, plaques in royal palaces which related to historical events and other ritual and practical objects. They are not only great works of art and exceptional metal-casting; they are also evidence of two quite distinct contacts between Europe and Africa - the first, peaceful and commercial, the second rather more confrontational. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa in 1486, closely followed by the Dutch and British.

Benin Head

The Portuguese ships provided a new trading opportunity and carried gold and ivory direct to Europe and brought back larger quantities of European brass which was the raw material that enabled the Benin Bronzes to be made in large quantities. In addition, the Europeans could provide commodities from all over the world that were greatly valued by Benin society including coral from the Mediterranean, cowrie shells (to serve as money) from the Indian Ocean, as well as spices and cloth from the Far East.

The trade in brass was controlled by the Africans and this included a total prohibition on the export of brass plaques and heads. So although carved ivories were exported from Benin in the sixteenth century and were well known in Europe, the Benin figurative materials were reserved for the Ruler himself, and they were not allowed to leave the country or even be viewed by Europeans. None had been seen in Europe before 1897.

On 13 January 1897, the Times announced news of a Benin Disaster. A British delegation, seeking to enter Benin City during an important religious ceremony, had been attacked, and some of its members killed. The details of what actually happened are still far from clear, but the British, in revenge for the killing, organised a punitive expedition the following month which raided Benin City, exiled the Ruler and created the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria. The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of bronze statues and plaques. Many of these objects were then auctioned off in London to cover the costs of the expedition, and they were bought by museums across the world.

The arrival of these completely unknown sculptures caused a sensation in Europe and they changed European understanding of African history. Works by Picasso and Matisse, amongst others, reflected these new art forms and the speaker showed examples of this new influence. It became clear that Nigeria is interested in repatriating their cultural material although museums are less inclined to send the bronzes back.

Flemish influences on the Italian Renaissance

The recent speaker at Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was James Lindlow who gave a well-researched lecture on the influence of North European art on the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century.

Memling portrait photo

It is generally considered that this was a rather one-sided exchange from Italy to countries north of the Alps but the speaker presented a strong case for Flemish art having a strong influence in the south in the early 1400s. The audience were shown innovative oil paintings from the north which were taken south and then influenced art in that area. The differences were in the areas of format, subject and detail and it became clear that commerce played an important part in the equation as the role of collectors in Italy was based on economics with patrons such as the Medici developing an active interest in acquiring Flemish art. Examples of work by many well-known artists, such as Memling, van Eyke and van der Weyden from the Flemish area were compared to pictures created in the south by artists such as Ghirlandaio and Botticelli and were explained with precision and skill which was obviously the result of considerable research from the speaker who has published much on the period.

The next meeting will be on 9 October in The Forum at Alton College when Claire Walsh will talk on the Benin Bronzes from West Africa. Visitors welcome – please contact Sue Ruffhead (01420 549480).

The Cabinet Maker and other stories

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society was Diana Lloyd who provided a fascinating insight into the development of furniture of the Georgian period.

Hepplewhite style mahogany chair

Much of the modern understanding of late 18th and early 19th century furniture originated from the designs illustrated in pattern books and Thomas Chippendale, Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite owe their reputations more to their published works than to their actual surviving furniture. Pattern books were published for many reasons - to introduce new fashions; to assist in the pricing of work; to impress wealthy patrons and, ultimately, to acquire new clients.

The audience learned how simple items like the chair developed – the stretcher, for example, (between the legs) being a Queen Anne feature which was dropped by the Georgians. The long dining room table only started to appear in the third quarter of the eighteenth century when large dinner parties became popular. Mahogany gave way to satinwood and growing wealth encouraged ever more complicated cabinets to be designed.

Some of the pieces illustrated in pattern books already existed, such as Robert and James Adam's pieces, and work by Chippendale and others. Many designs were not meant to be slavishly copied, but were intended more as a guide for other makers.

Other cabinet-makers were actively encouraged to recreate the designs themselves. Some publications included drawings and most included heights of the furniture and instructions for when these should be altered - a change that was dependent upon the location for which a piece of furniture was intended.

Thomas Sheraton's two-volume The Cabinet Dictionary (1803) ensured that nothing was left to chance in the implementation of his instructions. The book included perspective drawings, measurements, the type of wood or paint to be used, a description of types of furniture, now made using reproduction furniture techniques, and even instructions on where the furniture should be placed.

It is a curious fact that despite his immense fame, no actual pieces of furniture can be attributed to George Hepplewhite. His fame is entirely due to his published works, and he only became famous after his death in 1786, when his widow published The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide in 1788. Hepplewhite was a great advocate of the Adam style, and it is thanks in no small part to Hepplewhite's publication that Adam's work continues to be so well known today.

No Still Life

The life and work of artist Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) was the subject of the recent presentation to the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society by visiting lecturer Jo Walton. Son of a well-known artist, he was encouraged to take up art and spent a year at The Slade School of Art before travelling. Exempt from War Service he went to America in 1917, but returned on the death of his mother during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Anthony, one of his brothers died three months later as a result of wounds received in France. He became unofficially engaged to Edith Stuart-Wortley, also an artist, although it didn't quite work out the way he anticipated when she married his father. Instead he married Winifred Roberts in 1920 and they had three children before a divorce in 1938. Whilst living on the continent during this period he painted and corresponded with artists in Paris including Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard.

No Still Life

Nicholson made his first visit to St Ives in 1928 and he became friendly with Alfred Wallis, the fisherman painter, and his work took on a more naïve style.

On a Norfolk holiday in 1931 he met the sculptress Barbara Hepworth whom he married in 1938 and they also had three children. Nicholson and Hepworth lived and worked in St Ives during the war years – him painting her sculpting, but the marriage failed in 1951, although they both remained in the locality and he continued experimented with drawing and painting.

Nicholson married a 27 year-old German TV interviewer, Felicitas Vogler in 1957 and they moved to Switzerland the following year. Apparently he had earlier refused a Knighthood as a continued rejection of his father (who had been knighted) but in 1968 he received the British Order of Merit. In 1971 he separated from Vogler and moved to Cambridge and they divorced in 1977. He died in London in February in 1982.

A Regent's Dream Palace

The speaker at the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society revealed the fascinating history of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Jackie Marsh-Hobbs explained that in the mid-1780s George, Prince of Wales rented a small farmhouse in the town which was becoming a seaside retreat for the rich and famous.

The building was transformed into a modest villa and with an interest in the visual arts George set about furnishing and decorating his seaside home using Chinese furniture and objects, and hand-painted Chinese wallpapers.

With his father George III being deemed incapable of acting as monarch, George was sworn in as Prince Regent in 1811 and four years later John Nash was commissioned to transform the villa into the magnificent oriental palace that we see today. Nash superimposed a cast iron frame onto the earlier construction to support a set of minarets, domes and pinnacles on the outside. No expense was spared on the interior with many rooms, galleries and corridors being carefully decorated with opulent decoration and exquisite furnishings. George became king in 1820 but owing to increased responsibilities and ill-health, once the interior of the Royal Pavilion was completed in 1823 he made only two further visits.

Following his death in 1830 George was succeeded by his younger brother, William IV who continued to visit Brighton and stay at the Royal Pavilion. When he died seven years later he was succeeded by his niece, Princess Victoria.

As her family grew and the Royal Pavilion failed to provide her with the space and privacy she needed, she sold the palace to the town of Brighton in 1850 for £50,000. Brighton was aware of the importance of the former palace and it was subsequently opened to the public. During World War I the building was used as a hospital with the interiors being altered, damaged and neglected.

In 1920 a programme of restoration began which continued after WW2 with the revival of interest in the Regency period and today the Royal Pavilion is a living testament to George IV's Regency dream.

Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece

Greenwich Royal Naval College

Louise Schofield made a welcome return to Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society recently when she spoke on the depiction of Greek Myths and Legends on ancient pots. The speaker outlined the cultures of the Aegean and showed how their stories were illustrated on the well- known red and black pots of the region.

The audience learned that these scenes depicted everyday life, battles or funerals or reflections of the legends of Homer. Amongst these was Cronus, King of the Titans and his rather extreme child-swallowing attributes and Zeus one of his offspring who escaped this fate due to the perhaps understandable grief of his mother Rhea on losing all of her children. Zeus founded the dynasty of the Gods and embarked on a number of marriages, one of which resulted in nine daughters who became the Muses. Another resulted in the birth of Athena, and we heard of her influence on Perseus in slaying Medusa, one of the terrifying female Gorgons with hair made of venomous snakes.

The Cyclops and Apollo featured as well as the Sirens, who lured men to their deaths with their melodious voices. Odysseus was the only man who had heard them and survived by lashing himself to the mast of his ship- an everyday story of folk in ancient Greece. The Trojan Wars were mentioned, Helen of Sparta and the Wooden Horse of Troy were included and many more well-known names made an appearance. We heard of the Victorian excavators who worked on the classical sites in Knossos and Mycenae and the story was brought right up to date when it was revealed that Brad Pitt, when playing Achilles in the 2004 film of Troy, had to resort to the use of a 'leg-double' for the close-up leg shots! Who said Classical Greece was boring?

Birth place of monarchs

One of the joys of membership of Alton Decorative and Fine Arts lectures was experienced recently. Rosalind Whyte gave a fascinating history of Greenwich - a place known by all - although the audience were treated to an insider's history of what is now a Royal Borough.

Greenwich Royal Naval College

It all began with the enclosure of 200 acres of land in 1433 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and the building of Bella Place by the river and his lending it to Henry VI for his honeymoon, who seems to have kept it. Henry VII built a palace there which became the birthplace of Prince Henry, later Henry VIII. He developed shipyards at nearby Woolwich and Deptford and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth were born there and two of his marriages took place there.

We heard of the building of The Queen's House, the involvement of Inigo Jones, Wren and his Royal Observatory were mentioned, as were John Flamsteed the First Astronomer Royal in 1712 and John Harrison the winner of the prize for his watch that helped establish longitude for mariners. The building of the King's House for Charles II and the hospital for sailors in 1727, the Royal Naval College and the Painted Hall were included as were the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark, the Greenwich Meridian, the introduction of Greenwich Mean Time, the 1902 tunnel under the Thames and the Millennium Dome whilst the University of Greenwich brought the story up to the present and encouraged many to consider a visit to the extraordinary Royal Borough.

The next meeting will take place at 8pm on Tuesday, 13 March in The Forum at Alton College when Louise Schofield makes a return visit to talk on Myths and Legends in early Greek art and guests are welcome.

O Yes It Is

Pantomine poster

Seasonal fun at the theatre was the subject chosen by Jane Tapley, who gave a well-illustrated review of Pantomime. From its Greek and Roman roots through the religious plays of the Middle Ages, the audience were shown examples of how the subject had developed and in the Georgian era was revived in Britain. Whilst traditional pantomime was for adults, the Victorians included productions suitable for children and shows seem as popular today as they were over a century ago. Indeed, many a youngster is introduced to theatre-going after being taken to a pantomime during the festive season in December or January.

In regional theatres all over the country Panto is seen as a box office boost in the lean winter months and part of the secret of its continued success is the inclusion of celebrity figures - initially from music hall and radio, now replaced by sports personalities and names from TV. Pictures of various well-known figures appearing in pantomimes over the years brought gasps of amused recognition -none more so than an image of Nicholas Parsons in 'drag', but sporting a shapely leg in stocking and suspenders. Such is the stuff of myth! With a traditional story of good overcoming evil, audience participation encouraged and modern references included by changing the names of popular characters, the future of Panto seems assured.

The Spirit of Christmas

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The question of whether Christmas is in good taste was the topic presented to members of the Alton Decorative and Fine Art Society at their recent meeting. Visiting speaker David Phillips gave an interesting, well-reasoned and well-researched account of how the subject has been illustrated since the Middle Ages and, in doing so, showed how the whole thing seems to have gone rather astray.

The audience heard how the Roman festival of Saturnalia had been adapted as a mid-Winter Christian celebration and they were shown examples of medieval Italian manger scenes generated by monks which are still popular today. Much later it seems the Germans had a tradition of good children and bad children rewarding the former and not the latter. The British adopted the idea a couple of hundred years ago, as well as the Christmas tree which was introduced by Prince Albert following his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840.

The role of Henry Cole, first Director of the South Kensington Museum, in sending the first Christmas card in 1843 was outlined thus launching a tradition that remains today. Cole didn't repeat his cards the following year - possibly because nobody sent him one the previous year! It seems we have a lot to blame on writers who spread the notion of what Christmas should be like starting with the American Washington Irving following his 1812 publication of St Nicholas having a flying cart. In Britain, Charles Dickens added to this with his Victorian view of seasonal celebrations.

The marketing industry in the USA seems to bear some responsibility for modern commercialisation by using Santa Claus in a particular brand of drink advertisement between 1931 and 1964. All this in an effort to encourage consumers to purchase their product during the winter months, as well as the traditional summer season.

The lecturer provided a series of photographs taken in their front room every Christmas Eve by Anna and Richard Wagner, a German couple, from the time they married in 1900 to 1945. This included 1917 which they labelled as 'The Year without Coal' and the images provided a fascinating social history of the Christmas celebrations of an ordinary couple through half a century including two world wars.

A section of seasonal paintings were shown including Breughel's 16th century painting entitled The Census at Bethlehem, through Samuel Palmer's works to those of Helen Allingham. On the way pictures with quaint features seem to have become somewhat exaggerated and in doing so they have become a cliché. A selection of modern material which could only be described as 'kitsch' showed just how bad things are! The pictures concluded with Botticelli's Madonna of the Pomegranate a somewhat more agreeable Christmas picture than many we had been shown during the evening.

In the end there were some sympathies with a view expressed by George Bernard Shaw that 'Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press'.

South Pacific - a Paradise Lost

Tahiti - painting by Gaugin

The Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society heard recently of the position of the South Pacific in western art over the past two hundred and fifty years. Leslie Primo outlined the origin of the 17th century idea that in a state of nature humans are essentially good - the notion of the noble savage.

He then introduced Samuel Wallis, an English sea captain, who sighted Tahiti in June 1767 and who is considered to be the first European visitor. The relaxed and contented nature of the people and the characterisation of the island as a paradise impressed early Europeans, planting the seed for a romanticisation by the West that endures to this day.

Our speaker outlined early visitors to this tropical paradise and the artworks they produced. The French explorer Bougainville made Tahiti famous in Europe when he wrote that the island was an earthly paradise where men and women live happily in innocence, away from the corruption of civilization.

His account illustrated the concept of the noble savage, and influenced utopian thoughts of philosophers such as Roussau before the French Revolution. Captain Cook visited in 1769 and we heard of the natural history and scientific activities of Joseph Banks who was with the party.

Unfortunately after extensive European contact the population decreased and traditional society was disrupted by guns, prostitution, alcohol and Christianity. Introduced diseases included typhus, influenza and smallpox which killed many Tahitians.

In time, this British posession was annexed by France which made it accessible for an aspiring artist Paul Gauguin to visit in 1891, abandoning his wife and family! That the idlyic life had changed over the intervening century was somewhat of a disappointment to him, although we were shown examples of his work and learned something of his somewhat headonistic lifestyle before he died in 1903 without discovering the supposed earthly paradise he had sought.

How to look at Art - notes from Lynne Gibson

Subject: What is the work about?
Form: What are its shapes, tones, colours, and composition?
Method: How was it produced? What materials and techniques has the artist used?
Context: What does it tell us of the artist and the times in which he/she lived?

Start with acknowledging your personal response. Then consider


Mona Lisa




How to use the strategy

Your personal response might lead you to the category with which to start, otherwise use the given order. The categories help direct your thoughts when interpreting any piece of art work. They all interrelate. You might find that an observation in one category helps answer a question in another.

This strategy is flexible and applicable to most art works. The questions above are fairly general, but will lead you to more specific questions about a particular piece.

Do not expect to 'grasp' an artwork at first viewing. Good art has complex layers of possible meanings. Discovering them is one of the great pleasures to be gained from looking at art.

Carmen - a 19th century fatal attraction explained

Willow Pattern plate

From the very first note of the much-loved overture to the final tragic chords, the very essence of Spain, from a French viewpoint, featured in the world's most popular opera was brought to life by Jonathan Hinden who recently spoke on Carmen to the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society. His lecture outlined a tale of lust, superstition and murder which unraveled with fatal consequences.

Carmen, a fiery gypsy girl, is arrested for attacking a fellow worker in the cigarette factory but manages to persuade her guard, Don José, to release her on the promise of love. Never satisfied with the attentions of one man alone, Carmen casts aside the hapless Don José in favour of the glamorous toreador, Escamillo. Consumed by passion and jealousy, Don José pursues Carmen back to Seville leading to the inevitable and tragic conclusion.

Bizet's score contains some of opera's finest arias and best-loved opera music and the lecturer played and sang his way through the tragic tale. Who could not fail to recognise Escamillo's rousing Song of the Toreador, Carmen's bewitching Seguidilla and tantalizing Habanera and Don José's heartfelt Flower Song?

Bizet died soon after the opera opened in Paris in 1875, when it was regarded as being too modern, and never knew of its belated popularity outside of his native country. The audience learned of the social reasons for the failure but that Tchaikovsky admired the piece and some of his later works feature Bizet-like passages. Many were encouraged to listen to the music at home or better still, attend one of the many productions doing the rounds.

Once upon a time in Blue and White

Willow Pattern plate

Members recently heard the background relating to the ever popular story associated with the Willow Pattern design from ceramics specialist, Amanda Herries.

The familiar tale from the exotic east involved two eloping lovers, a fierce father and a jilted suitor all depicted on a blue and white plate along with a bridge, sacred island, tragedy and death. The entranced audience discovered where the images and decorative designs originated and how the tale of the lovers came about... and how it was all a sham. However, along the way was the background to fine Chinese porcelain of a thousand years ago and the competitive industrial pottery towns of 19th century England - not quite what was expected.

Portraits - a very English taste

Portrait Elizabeth I

Members of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society welcomed Valerie Woodgate to their recent meeting to hear about the English approach to portraiture. For about 200 years after the Reformation, portraits were almost the only subject in art and most of the major artists working here were foreign. Holbein and van Dyke were the main ones and the audience saw examples of their work.

From the 18th century onwards outstanding British portrait painters such as Reynolds and Gainsborough came to prominence and the portrait has continued to intrigue and fascinate right up to the present day as artists such as David Hockney and Lucian Freud continue to explore and expand the subject. Examples of these any many other artists including the works of James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sergeant were shown and explained. Caption:- Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533 1601) attributed to Nicholas Hilliard

Members moved by Pickford's day

Ian Pickford

Ian Pickford did a splendid job at Beech Village Hall back in March when he talked about Silver at the Spring Study Day.

Following the tried and tested format of two talks in the morning followed by another after lunch, members were introduced to the subject through the social context of Silver, rather than merely talking about the different types of items. Using sources as diverse as paintings, embroidery, illuminated manuscripts and museum objects he skilfully introduced a wide range of silver used in the past.

Diet, daylight, meal times and social status were all brought into the story as we considered drinking vessels, salt pots, cutlery (knives), flatware (spoons and forks), cup boards, bowls, candlesticks, the tea caddy, sauce boats, tea sets dressing table sets and even the chamber pot.

While all this was going on Kit and her band of helpers were preparing a super lunch which was well received by the assembled throng numbering about 45.

Suitable refuelled, members then unpacked a wide range of silver items which Ian Pickford examined and provided information regarding date, makers and uses demonstrating in a very practical way, his knowledge and expertise which makes him such a valuable member of the Antiques Roadshow team. The material included flat wares, snuff boxes, a picture frame, vinaigrettes, boxes, a cheese scoop, candle holders, a serving dish ring, tea pot, a small 18 century mug and an impressive 19 century claret jug. An excellent, well organised day exploring an interesting topic.

Lee Miller & Picasso

Picasso and Antony Penrose 1950
ref: Lee Miller & Picasso

A fascinating insight into the lives of some of the best known names of 20th century art and photography was the reward for those attending the lecture of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society (The Arts Society Alton) recently.

Tony Penrose, son of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose gave a highly personal account of his parent's lives and some of their artistic associates, including Pablo Picasso who visited their Sussex home on a trip to Britain in 1950 when Tony was a child. Lee Miller (1907-77) began her photographic career as a top fashion model for American Vogue and Vanity Fair.

In 1929 she became associated with the Surrealist photographer Man Ray in Paris and later ran her own studio both there and in New York. Her Surrealist images along with advertising shots, portraits and extraordinary WWII combat shots following the Normandy invasion in June 1944, have earned her a place in the history of art. Roland Penrose (1900-84) was a Surrealist artist and is known to many as the friend and biographer of Picasso, Miro, Man Ray, Tapies and a close friend of Max Ernst and Paul Eluard.

Penrose is also remembered for his First International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 which marked the beginning of British Surrealism. He co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Herbert Read and was the Curator of the Tate Gallery Picasso exhibition in 1960. He was knighted for his services to visual arts in 1966. Penrose and Miller married in 1947 and moved out of London and bought a farmhouse near Uckfield in Sussex two years later and it became a meeting place for some of the key personalities in 20th century art. That it contains a collection of work by many of them and can be visited today, was of great interest - who amongst us have personal sketches by Picasso or examples of his ceramic tiles in our kitchen or even photographs of ourselves sitting on his knee.

The evening was billed as providing an insight into the world of the Surrealists; on reflection it did that but much, much more being presented by one who was closely involved with the personalities mentioned.

The Church and Easter - without the mention of a chocolate egg!

Dr Herbert

The Rt Revd Dr Christopher Herbert, former Bishop of St Albans, and an established authority in the field of medieval Christian art was speaking to the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society recently.

His interest in and passion for art and in particular the depiction of the Christian faith in art, led him to research on the image of the Resurrection in 15th century Northern European Art. His thesis, the first known to address this specific area of art history, resulted in the award of an M.Phil and he later extended his groundbreaking work into a Ph.D. His Alton lecture was a timely and fascinating explanation on medieval English Easter sepulchres which seem to have had their origin at the Winchester Synod back in 973. The preparation of a 'stage set' to represent the tomb of Christ and the involvement of monks to interpret the story seems to have been the origin of the acting profession and stage design, an observation he introduced with a still from Eastenders!

Whilst the Reformation in England destroyed this traditional Easter event in the 16th century, it seems to have continued in Europe and interesting examples from church art showed that the events which began in nearby Winchester, continue in Germany and France as well as events such as the Oberammergau Passion Play.

There was a revival of the practice in 19th century England and many architectural features in churches that are thought to be of medieval age, actually date from the Victorian period.

Northern Lights

The recent visit of Deborah Lambert to the The Arts Society Alton gave our members an opportunity to explore the influence of Scandinavian Design on the 20th century, especially furniture. It seems the style emerged at the same time as modernism in the 1930s and although interrupted by the Depression and the Second World War, it reached its peak in the 1950s. The Scandinavians took the concept and fused it with traditional materials such as wood, ceramic and glass resulting in beautifully made items in organic shapes.

Examples of work by Klint, Koppel, Jensen, Jacobsen and Aalto were shown. Tubular steel, fabrics and leather were also featured especially in chairs and with many of us visiting Ikea on a regular basis, the influence of these great designers has had more of an impact on contemporary design than most people realise. We were recently told about creating new sculptures as part of a recent large-scale renovation project at York Minster.

In the Beginning

Rory Young, an accomplished stone carver from the Cotswolds, explained how he had been commissioned to create new stone work for the Great West Door to replace both original, but damaged medieval work and corroded Victorian renovation work.

Over four years he designed sixteen biblical scenes from Genesis, made them in clay and eventually they were copied by Minster carvers and positioned in the door frame. That was interesting in itself but what really caught the attention of the audience was the process of finding models for his characters, the sources he chose for comparison and how the physical process of sculpture was adapted for the architecture of such a great building.

The well known stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah building the Ark, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and the Tower of Babel were all chosen as the subjects for his work and the speaker explained that even though there was an original controversy over his replacement of ancient work, even though it was severely damaged, he was continuing the medieval tradition of writing a prayer in stone.

With some members due to visit York in the Spring, this talk was an insight into one of the many delights they can expect to see.

A Christmas Pie

Portrait Van Gogh

Alton Decorative and Fine Art Society truly entered into the Christmas Spirit when The Dolmetsch Ensemble gave a stunning performance in The Maltings Centre last month. Through poetry, narration and music the evolution of Christmas customs was explored and the audience heard about the integration of mistletoe, holly, fir trees, glass balls, robins, reindeer, Yule logs, puddings, cakes as well as Saint Nicholas.

The 16th century story of Jack Horner and his Christmas Pie was re-told and the audience learned that Christmas was abolished under Cromwell and mince pies were made illegal. There was an inspired musical accompaniment involving harpsichord, violas and recorders and the performance was followed by a party which heralded the start of the festive season.

Portraits of the artist

Portrait Van Gogh

The Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society were treated to a tour de force recently when Nina Levick gave a considered opinion on Van Gogh's portraits.

Born in 1853 the son of a pastor, Van Gogh is one of the most well-known post-Impressionist painters, even though he was not widely appreciated in his lifetime. In 1869, he took his first job, in an international art firm which took him to London and Paris, but he was not really motivated and was dismissed in 1876. He briefly became a teacher in England, and then, being deeply interested in Christianity, a preacher in a mining community in Belgium. However he didn't go down to well with his 'flock' and left.

In 1880 he decided to become an artist and taught himself to draw and paint and a few years later joined his brother, Theo, in Paris, and met many artists including Gauguin, with whom he became friends.

In 1888, Van Gogh moved to southern France, where he painted his famous pictures of Sunflowers. He invited Gauguin to join him but Vincent was a difficult person to live with and they soon fell out. Van Gogh spent time in psychiatric hospitals and suffered mental illness, as did others in his immediate family, but he also managed periods of concentrated artistic activity, his output reflecting the intense colours and strong light of the local countryside. In July 1890, in a depressed state, Van Gogh shot himself and died two days later.

His portraits were considered against this troubled life, using his letters to his brother and pictures by his contemporaries to show their influences on his work.

The symbolism is his portraits was skilfully explored and even pictures that were not actual portraits such as his paintings of chairs and shoes, could be thought of as stereotypes of portraits. The audience appreciated the scholarly approach to this well known artist and looking at the pictures by this troubled man will never be the same again.

A Tonic for the Nation


The Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society had a real tonic recently - a lecture by Dr Robin Jones on Design and the Decorative Arts in Britain after 1945.

Members heard about the Britain Can Make It exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1946, popularly known as Britain Can't Have It and the even more popular Festival of Britain in 1951 which was labelled as A Tonic for the Nation.

The brain-child of Labour politician Herbert Morrison, it is remembered for The Dome of Discovery, the Skylon - both of which were demolished afterwards and the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank which survives to this day.

The audience were shown designs for furniture, metalware, ceramics and portraits produced during the period 1945-1965 and it appeared some present still had examples in their own homes. Perhaps less influential than some of their European counterparts, British designers such as Ernest Race, Robin Day and Robert Heritage nevertheless produced distinctive and prize-winning designs.

PaintingCeramics by Richard Guyatt, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper were mentioned and examples of their work can be seen at the Allen Gallery along with post-war designs by the ever popular Poole Pottery. I

t was a fascinating evening enabling members and guests to view decorative designs with which many had a personal association.

Controversial Art causes a stir in Alton

Many now famous and revered works of art once shocked and scandalised their contemporaries, so the recent meeting of the Alton Decorative and Fine Arts Society learnt recently from visiting lecturer, John Iddon.

PaintingExamples used included the British public's delighted in the anger and embarrassment caused in France over Gericault's 'The Raft of the Medusa', with its implications of incompetence of a ship's Captain, corruption in the Navy and cannibalism amongst the survivors of the wreck of the Medusa off Senegal in 1816.

The audience were shown a selection of pictures including Manet's nudes, Whistler's nocturnes, the Degas bronze of the ballet dancer, Epstein's sculptures, Gill's carvings, Karl Andre's Bricks, Chris Ofili's Black Madonna and Tracy Emin's notorious bed. Seen with the eye of history, many which were lambasted at the time, seem tame to modern eyes, although the implication that items which caused outrage now will be similarly accepted as wonderful by audiences in the future was not proved. Duchamp's infamous Urinal displayed in 1917 that can be seen in Tate Modern was considered then, and is still regarded now, as lacking in artistic merit. Some of Eric Gill's sculptures including Votes for Women might still not be thought acceptable to modern taste and was regarded as an abomination when produced almost a hundred years ago.

Anyone passing Zimbabwe House in The Stand is invited to look up at the remains of eighteen Epstein sculptures of nude men and women which were produced in 1908 for the building which was then the home of the British Medical Association. Pilloried in the press at the time the figures were destroyed by the Rhodesian High Commission who said the figures were inappropriate to their needs, thirty years later.

The audience came away with an understanding of the sensibilities that confronted earlier generations of painters and sculptors and an awareness of the role of the media in generating comment which could raise an insignificant piece of art to fame overnight.