The Capability controversy

Three hundred years after the gardener’s birth, debates still rage over whether his ruthless landscaping led to something beautifully harmonious or just a bit dull


The Capability Brown-landscaped garden at Prior Park, near Bath, and the first know image of a railway line, from a drawing by Anthony Walker, 1750The Capability Brown-landscaped garden at Prior Park, near Bath, and the first know image of a railway line, from a drawing by Anthony Walker, 1750


In a piece of light verse from the 1770s ‘Dame Nature’ — out strolling ‘one bright day’ — bumps into the great landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Immediately the goddess lays into him for plagiarism. How, she wants to know, does he have the impudence to show his face? All the items he claims to have created — ‘the lawn, wood and water’ — were made in fact by her. Continue reading “The Capability controversy”

The over-exposure of Georgia O’Keeffe

‘New York Street with Moon’, 1925, by Georgia O’Keeffe

‘New York Street with Moon’, 1925, by Georgia O’Keeffe


In 1927, Georgia O’Keeffe announced that she would like her next exhibition to be ‘so magnificently vulgar that all the people who have liked what I have been doing would stop speaking to me’. Perhaps, then, she would approve of the massive retrospective of her work at Tate Modern. This show is, as is frequently the case in the largest suites of galleries on Bankside, considerably too big for its subject. The scale, however, is a matter of institutional overkill. Its vulgarity, magnificent or otherwise, is supplied by O’Keeffe (1887–1986) herself — in a pared-down, high-modernist way. Continue reading “The over-exposure of Georgia O’Keeffe”

Bologna with Gilbert & George

Bologna’s core: grand in the renaissance manner

Bologna’s core: grand in the renaissance manner


Sooner or later, no matter where you are travelling on Italian railways, you are likely to pass through Bologna Centrale. The city is the main junction between the north and south of the country, close to the route through the mountains. It always has been. The teenage Michelangelo stopped off while journeying between Venice and Florence, and — after a contretemps at the customs office, since Bologna was then a city state — carved some small sculptures for the Basilica of San Domenico. Continue reading “Bologna with Gilbert & George”

It’s time to split the Tate again

‘Babel’, 2001, by Cildo Meireles

‘Babel’, 2001, by Cildo Meireles


In 1992 I wrote a column that was published under the headline ‘It’s Time to Split the Tate’. To my absolute astonishment, shortly afterwards it was announced that this would actually happen (no doubt a coincidence rather than a response to my words). Hitherto, though it is hard now to recall those times, there had been just a single Tate gallery in London — the one on Millbank, containing a cheerful jumble of British painting from the Tudor era onwards mixed with what was then described as modern ‘foreign’ art. Continue reading “It’s time to split the Tate again”

My pilgrimage to see the world’s greatest male nudes

One of the two bronze statues of Greek warriors found in the sea off Riace, on display for the first time at the presidential palace in Rome, 1981

Poetic or pretentious? ‘Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust’ at the Royal Academy

Forget Vienna – Britain now has its own chamber of curiosities at the British Museum

Detail of a maiolica vase, c.1565–1571, a star piece for both Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill and later for Baron Ferdinand at Waddesdon Manor

The artist who only turned into a major painter once he became a homicidal maniac

Portrait photograph of Richard Dadd painting Contradiction (c.1857) in Bedlem

Originally published in The Spectator

Whole worlds conjured up in a few strokes: ‘Watercolour’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum reviewed

‘Unfinished’ at the Courtauld Gallery

‘Turning Road (Route Tournante)’, c.1905, by Paul Cézanne


A while ago, David Hockney mused on a proposal to tax the works of art stored in artists’ studios. ‘You’d only have to say they weren’t finished, and you are the only one who could say if they were,’ he suggested. ‘There’d be nothing they could do.’ This is the state of affairs examined in Unfinished, a thought-provoking little exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery.

Once upon a time, it was as clear whether a painter had completed a picture as it was whether the gardener had thoroughly mowed the lawn. Indisputably, Perino del Vaga downed tools for some reason halfway through his ‘Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist’ (1528–37). That’s obvious. Some parts are depicted in fine detail, others remain merely drawn outlines on the panel. Yet someone kept it because, even as it is, it’s beautiful.

This is where the topic begins to get complicated. There was a rather crass definition of ‘finished’ that was upheld, for example, at the 19th-century Royal Academy. It meant, roughly, ‘neatly and smoothly brushed all over’ (or polished, in the case of a sculpture). Thus the young Constable was told his landscape required more ‘finish’. But there are many other ways to bring a work to a conclusion.

It seems Rembrandt was the first to proclaim the Hockney doctrine: that a picture was finished if and only if he, its creator, said so. But this generates paradoxes. Why did Rembrandt leave his etching ‘The Artist Drawing from the Model’ (c.1639) as evidently ‘unfinished’ as the Perino del Vaga, with large areas of the plate just barely sketched in outline but about a third carefully elaborated? Perhaps he wasn’t happy with the composition — but in that case, why did he go ahead and print it? Surely it couldn’t be that he actually liked the image as it was? But its blend of ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ was fascinating enough to have influenced Picasso’s meditations on the theme of artist and model in ‘The Vollard Suite’.

Move on to the late 19th century and the question gets even more complex. In the case of a late Cézanne such as ‘Turning Road (Route Tournante)’ c.1905 there is, just as in the Perino, plenty of bare, unpainted surface. Did Cézanne intend to add more, and die before he was able to do it? Was he happy with it as it is? Had he even decided? It is impossible to say, but it looks fabulous as it is.

By that time, conventional taste had concluded that Michelangelo’s unfinished works were much better that way. The master himself would probably not have agreed, but he did regard the life of an artist as an unending struggle for perfection.

Michelangelo would also have seen the point of the current exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum: Drawn from the Antique. This investigates how the remains of ancient Greek and Roman art were a basis of art education from the Renaissance until the day before yesterday — and a source of inspiration that for artists continued throughout their careers.

According to a 16th-century anecdote, Cardinal Farnese met the septuagenarian Michelangelo one winter day near the Coliseum. He asked him where he was walking to through the snow. ‘I am still going to school to learn,’ the great man replied, meaning that his destination was the ruined amphitheatre.

Only in the 1960s and ’70s did most art schools throw out their casts of classical sculpture. Until then, as Drawn from the Antiqueillustrates with evocative images, students had for centuries learnt to comprehend the human body by copying these hallowed objects (traditionally, before they were let loose on living models). In a tenderly affectionate pen-and-wash drawing of around 1595, Federico Zuccaro depicted his deceased elder brother Taddeo assiduously studying ancient sculptures as a young artist in Rome, half a century before.

‘A Painter’s Studio’ (c.1646–50) by Michael Sweerts, a Flemish painter living in Rome, shows artists working from three sources: a naked life model, a plaster cast of a flayed cadaver and casts of ancient carving. These last are a wonderful jumbled pile of heads, limbs and torsos — much like the Soane Museum itself, which is a sort of architectural and sculptural collage, unified, like Sweerts’s painting, by the drama of lighting.

There was, however, a danger in excessive copying just as there was in the insistence on a smooth ‘finish’. It could be deadening and, in a great deal of 18th- and 19th-century art, certainly was. Michelangelo pointed out the pitfall soon after having seen the newly rediscovered Laocoön in 1506. This was, he apparently exclaimed, ‘a singular miracle of art’ but, he went on, ‘we should grasp the divine genius of the sculptor’ rather than simply imitate the work. In other words, art cannot be reduced to a simple and easily taught formula.


Originally published in The Spectator