Fitzwilliam Museum

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Things to do


Date of travel

May, 2019

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Having the need to visit Cambridge for most a day, it seemed a good idea to use some free time to catch up with paintings by Stanley Spencer that, unlike the Sandham Chapel works, could be photographed. This was the more inviting since several paintings by an artist of the previous generation, William Nicholson, had been removed from photography into a fascinating exhibition of works under the heading “Beggarstaff”. Of this more later.

The Spencer works comprise two nude studies that could have been influential on the style of Lucien Freud, three that are related to the Cookham series and one that has a striking similarity to his Sandham battlefield paintings. A self portrait completes the set.

In light of my recent visit to the Sandham Memorial Chapel it seems appropriate to begin with the Welsh landscape that recalls the rugged scenes of the battle zone of Salonica. The foreground rocks, perhaps set on end as a boundary, could belong to a megalithic site. They would also have served as protection for observers or infantry. The painting shows Spencer’s attraction to rough scenery and muted landscape colours with stormy skies.

Two panoramic scenes of social (even anti-social) gatherings represent the Cookham style and in part the Salonica scenes of the chapel. They do not have the spirituality of its resurrection, however, being closer to the Breughel works in the Fitwilliam’s Flemish collection. Somewhat nearer the religious style is the study of masons building the tower of Babel. All feature the symbolic rendition of human form.

Spencer’s other works in the museum are like the Welsh landscape in realism but not with the same possibility of symbolism. One female nude and a couple that includes a self portrait and the more conventional head and shoulders image complete the set.

As a complete change, the Beggarstaff exhibition pairs work by William Nicholson and James Pryde, who worked together under that heading to create series of prints, few of which appear in the gallery. Nicholson’s landscape in Spain is in the exhibition but is similar to another hung close to its usual open-to-photography position. Not available at present is his Armistice Day, which might have offered a contrast to the Spencer works.
It is nonetheless a very interesting exhibition, particularly with regard to Nicholson, who was a versatile artist beginning as a society portraitist in the manner of Sargent and by degrees produced post-impressionist landscapes and still life works of great quality. A darker vision seems to have marked Pryde, with series of towers and arches that over time became almost obsessive. Pryde’s life in later years could have been depicted by Degas in his absinthe drinkers (also in the Fitzwilliam).

Beggarstaff is a worthwhile exhibition that will in time leave a substantial number of works by Nicholson back in the gallery of early modern British paintings.

Lighter relief, from the same gallery as the Degas, is provided by a smaller collection of early twentieth century glass, contemporary with much of Lalique. There are also the maquettes for ballet dancers by Degas, beyond which is the echo of their movement in Monet’s sweep of white poplars.


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