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Art review: York Art Gallery

03 July 2020

While galleries have been closed, Nicholas Cranfield has reflected on their collections. This week: York

York art gallery

St Clement Striking the Rock by Bernardino Fungai (1460-1516), presented by F. D. Lycett Green through the National Art Collections Fund

St Clement Striking the Rock by Bernardino Fungai (1460-1516), presented by F. D. Lycett Green through the National Art Collections Fund

I REALISED just how unpardonably long it had been since I had visited York City Art Gallery when I found that the illustrated guide cost just £2.75 when it was published in 1991 and that in my copy the telephone number has been updated by hand with an 01 STD prefix.

The gallery, open to the public since 1879, closed in 2013 for major redevelopment. Visitor figures in the previous year, April 2011 to April 2012, had reached more than 225,000. When it reopened in 2015, the introduction of a locally unpopular admission charge led to a dramatic fall in visitors; fewer than 100,000 came in the period August 2015 to August 2016.

york art galleryPortrait of Monsignor Agucchi, dated to 1610 as a Domenichino on documentary evidence, but also attributed to Carracci, 1603/04 on the basis of its style. Presented by F. D. Lycett Green through the National Art Collections Fund

That apart, the collection is one that I can wholeheartedly recommend to Archbishop-elect Cottrell; once resident, he will be able to buy an annual visitor card for the gallery and other attractions. Local benefactors here, as in so many provincial collections, have provided a range of material that should draw any art lover from the metropolises and the rural countryside alike.

Dean Eric Milner-White, probably better remembered as Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, where he established the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which still seems to thrive, despite abbreviation and curtailment elsewhere, was Dean of York from 1941 until his death in 1963. Besides giving a number of paintings, he gave his collection of ceramics, which concentrated on William Staite Murray, Bernard Leach, and a Japanese colleague of Leach, Shoji Hamada. At the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, the gallery was hosting an extensive survey of more than 40 ceramic sculptures by Gillian Lowndes (1936-2010).

Earlier, in 1931, the city had paid the extraordinary sum of £3000 for more than 1200 works on paper collected by a Welsh doctor. From 1950 to 1962, the gallery ran an award scheme named in honour of the same Dr W. A. Evelyn for an annual contemporary view of York; John Piper’s watercolour York from Clifford’s Tower launched the series in 1951.

The nucleus of the British collections of the 19th and early 20th centuries derived from the bequest of a celebrated horse dealer, John Burton (1799-1882), and the gallery has amassed works by the city’s most famous artist, William Etty RA (1787-1849), including the great painting The Wrestlers, which the city was able to acquire cheaply in 1947 for 30 guineas when there was little appetite for male nudes to match earlier Victorian enthusiasm.

In 1955, F. D. Lycett Green, impressed by the work of the German émigré curator of the gallery, donated more than 100 Continental Old Masters that he had built up since the First World War. Although he regretted not buying works by Botticelli, Titian, and Rembrandt, his small-scale works repay the close attention that a domestic collection could afford.

Notable among them is the portrait of the Bolognese art theorist, diplomat, and titular Bishop of Amasea in partibus infidelium, Giovanni Battista Agucchi (1570-1632), who was appointed papal nuncio to Venice in 1623 by Pope Urban VIII.

The intimate scale of the portrait, in which the sitter looks up from reading a letter, invites us to get close to this man of letters and strongly argues that it is the work of a friend. Long thought to have been a portrait by Domenichino and dated to between 1615 and 1620, it has more recently been argued that it was in fact painted earlier in the century, around 1603, probably by Annibale Carracci, another of Agucchi’s protégés, who received the last rites from Monsignor Agucchi at his premature death in 1609. The hospitable monsignor kept the portrait until his own death.

Two earlier Italian artists stand out in the collection; the Sienese-based Martino di Bartolomeo di Biagio and Bernardino Cristofano di Nicolo d’Antonio di Pietro da Fonghaia, who was born in 1460 at Fungai near Siena and is simply called Bernardino Fungai. One can see why.

Martino was born in Rome and is recorded illuminating manuscripts in Lucca Cathedral (1394) and painting an oratory at Crescina (1398) several years before he returned permanently to Siena after working in Pisa. There he is to be found working in the Duomo and the Palazzo Pubblico (the 1404-07 frescoes of the Sala di Balia are his) as well as at Sant’ Agostino (a polyptych of St Stephen) and eslewhere. In 1420, he was employed at the Collegiata in San Gimignano to paint the statues of the Annunciation.

Two delightful roundels, depicting the Prince of the Apostles and Paul of Tarsus, are in York thanks to Lycett Green. Both are painted on gold ground, icon-like, and betray the artist’s skill as a manuscript illuminator. Both men carry books in their right hand, the Gospel to proclaim.

Dressed in his characteristic blue and yellow, St Peter is immediately recognisable by the large keys he holds, somewhat awkwardly, in his left hand. Rather more unconventionally, Paul is dressed in white, a tunic that is lined throughout in red. He holds his executioner’s sword as if on sentry duty, awaiting the call of martyrdom.

York art galleryLeaping Salmon Vase (1931) by Bernard Leach (1887-1979), given by Dean Milner-White

Fungai lived into the first years of the Reformation, dying in 1516. The National Gallery in London has a celebrated “Tondo” Madonna (NG 1331) in which he cleverly shows off his skill at manipulating gold: in 1494, at about the time that Fungai painted the tondo, he was commissioned to gild and paint some ceremonial banners, and in 1499 he gilded the organ case in Siena Cathedral.

But perhaps his most important commission (1498-1501) was for the high-altarpiece for the Servite out-of-town church in the Terzo of San Martino in Siena. It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin (a very Sienese devotion) surrounded by saints and would assure his reputation in any galaxy of 15th-century Italian masters.

When it was first installed, the four reredos paintings in the predella, beneath the central altarpiece, had a central panel of the Dead Christ supported by angels. The narrative scenes celebrated the life of St Clement, the first-century martyred pope who is regarded as the first of the Apostolic Fathers and was a disciple of St Peter. The reason for this was that the Romanesque church had originally been dedicated to his cult until the Servite order rededicated it to Santa Maria dei Servi.

Painted in tempera and oil on poplar, the panels were sold off separately at some stage, presumably when the altar was being re-sited. The first two panels (now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg) depict The Conversion of Clement, in which the young philosopher Clement ponders the immortality of the soul, believing his parents and siblings to have been shipwrecked, and the second the family’s reunion.

Lycett Green gave the third panel of St Clement Striking the Rock to York, and in 1979 the gallery acquired the last scene, The Martyrdom of St Clement. Sienese painting was well known for its emphasis on surface pattern; artists frequently embellished the textiles in their works with complex designs, using real gold. In this panel, we see his use of gold intricately highlighting the detail of the Clement’s cope. In 1991, the central panel, which came up for sale at Sotheby’s, New York, in the collection of the well-known despot Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, was sold to York.

The Martyrdom is an incongruous scene in which the pontiff, fully vested to say mass in cope, papal tiara, and red gloves, is pitched overboard, with an anchor noosed around his neck. Not surprisingly, the pope looks bemused at this turn of events, as does one of the shipboard deckhands, who presumably was about to serve the mass. Slaves on the poop lower a sail, ready to pull away from the sparsely wooded cove and put out to sea. With such spiritedness we might journey to York.

The collection at York Art Gallery can be explored at www.yorkartgallery.org.uk, where there also details of the York Museums Trust’s Covid-19 fund-raising appeal.

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