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Art review: History in the Making at Compton Verney, Warwickshire

19 January 2024

Susan Gray visits the current art exhibition at Compton Verney

© Jamie Woodley

Installation view, “History in the Making”, at Compton Verney

Installation view, “History in the Making”, at Compton Verney

BRINGING together Crafts Council contemporary pieces with Woburn Abbey treasures, “History in the Making” encourages fresh evaluation of materials used to create art. Textile, originating in making nets and baskets, the precursor to weaving, opens the show. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes tapestry (c.1660) was commissioned as one of a set of seven by William Russell, 5th Earl of Bedford, and based on the Raphael Cartoons for the Sistine Chapel tapestries. The wool and silk hanging was made in the Mortlake Tapestry Works.

A five-year conservation project underscores the dynamism of Raphael’s rendition of the episode from Luke (5.1-11). An astonished and muscular Andrew stands trying to keep his balance in a boat overladen with wriggling fish, his arms are outstretched, and his curly hair and beard are caught by the breeze. Peter kneels in the fish, the folds and draping of his blue tunic highlighted by rolled up sleeves, encasing massive forearms brought together in prayer.

The delicacy of Peter’s halo in dark gold contrasts with the heavily worked figure. Christ, seated at the end of the boat, is shown in more oblique side profile than the two fishermen, with his background hand raised in blessing and halo in ellipsis, at the edge of the plane. Raphael’s use of linear perspective, giving his images of the lives of Saints Peter and Paul a cinematic quality never seen in tapestry before, influenced Northern European art for centuries after the future Charles I purchased the Cartoons in 1623, as blueprints for the Mortlake Works.

© shawanda corbett. Arts Council Collection 2023Hold on to your confession and tell your neighbour’s (from The heavenly plan, wade in my water) (2021) by Shawanda Corbett, a con­temporary ceramic artist featured in the exhibition. The artist says that the series creates a spiritual revival for cyborgs. It introduces a spiritual practice for cyborgs, and includes a form of baptism, and explores transcendence and the spiritual dimension. Corbett grew up in Mississippi, and the title alludes to a spiritual, “Wade in the water”

The global dimension of textile-making is demonstrated by an 18th-century Gujarati bed hanging, with embroidery showing a fantastical red- and purple-branched tree filled with tropical flowers and birds, a tiny Asiatic leopard at its base, commissioned by John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford. A letter from his India agent Mr Griffin illustrates the huge European demand for Indian textiles. Printed chintz fabric, from the Hindi chint, meaning variegated or sprayed, was created as a cheaper alternative to embroidery.

Freddie Robins’s life-size knitted figure pierced by knitting needles, Craft Kills (2002), references the martyrdom of St Sebastian, and challenges the preconception that knitting is inherently gendered, passive, and benign.

In the gallery exhibiting clay, brief biographies of the painters, gilders, throwers, and repareurs (added separate element such as handles) of the Sèvres porcelain factory near Paris, attempts to give skilled mid-18th-century makers the same due as ceramicists in later times. A florally decorated blue and gold straight-sided cup with saucer is identified by a triangular mark representing the Holy Trinity with Yaweh written in Hebrew, suggesting that its painter Jean-Jaques Dieu had Jewish heritage. He worked for Sèvres for three periods between 1787 and 1811. In 1791, Jewish people were given the same rights as other French citizens. Sèvres factory records reveal employees worked 12-hour days from dawn. Often, they married other workers, and their children later joined the company payroll.

Materials now considered ecologically dubious — ivory, coral, mother of pearl, and ebony — were once ubiquitous elements of precious objects. A cabinet made in Naples c.1610, when the city was part of the Spanish empire, has an exterior decorated with iridescent, mother-of-pearl arabesque foliage, birds and hunting figures, inspired by Islamic art. The interior 14 drawers faced in engraved ivory depict black-and-white scenes from the Book of Esther.

Longstanding belief in the protective power of coral is shown by a child’s pacifier, rattle, and whistle made from gold and coral in the early 1800s, next to a late-16th-century portrait of Anne Russell, granddaughter of the 2nd Earl of Bedford. Dressed in a lace headdress, lace square collar, and long-sleeved, richly patterned red dress with lace cuffs, the infant holds a coral pacifier, a mirror image of the one on display.

© Jamie WoodleyInstallation view, “History in the Making”, at Compton Verney

Two objects from Compton Verney’s collection reveal the part material plays in objects of devotion. A Nottingham Alabaster Relief of the Resurrection, dating from the 15th century, shows the figure Christ stepping out of the tomb, a staff in his right hand, and his left foot on a sleeping, helmeted guard. Porous alabaster was easy to dye in different colours, and to gild and paint. The production of religious carvings flourished in England until the 16th century.

After the Reformation, alabaster-carvers turned to funerary monuments. A chalkstone Pietà (1410-20) shows the crucified Christ lying across his mother’s knees. The figures’ elegant, elongated limbs draw focus to the beauty glimpsed through the scene rather than a realistic portrayal of death. A drop of blood on Mary’s veil indicates her position at the foot of the cross. Stone carvers considered chalkstone difficult to shape because it crumbles if not handled delicately. “History in the Making” is an illuminating exploration of the ever-evolving dance between material and artist.

“History in the Making” is at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park, Warwickshire, until 11 February. Phone 01926 645500. www.comptonverney.org.uk

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