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June 27 2012

Artoon of the week: Yoko Ono

Cartoonist Peter Duggan imagines what might have been had Yoko Ono got her artistic way on the album cover for the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

April 17 2012

Damien Hirst's favourite art

As part of his week-long digital takeover, Damien Hirst talks through some of the artworks that have most influenced his career

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March 31 2012

'Another Marianne Faithfull lives inside my head'

The veteran singer on her new role as art curator, the Rolling Stones, and 'the Fabulous Beast'

You are curating an art exhibition at Tate Liverpool this month, DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience. Your connection with that city goes back to childhood?

I was there until I was six, so it was very formative, at least if you believe the Jesuits. I remember a lot of it, particularly my mother taking me to the docks to show me the big American liners; she would say to me: "That way is America." Which set something up for me for sure. I played Liverpool a lot as a performer on tour. And when I was there I would go to the Walker Art Gallery; I remember seeing Millais's wonderful Ophelia there [at an exhibition in 1967].

You put together the show with John Dunbar, your first husband, who ran the Indica gallery in Soho in the 60s…

The person who first showed me how to look at pictures was John, when he was at Cambridge and doing his degree. We went to Rome and Florence together. We spent a lot of afternoons in the Tate and the National back then. And so we had a fabulous time going through the Tate archives for this show.

The idea is that it almost becomes an autobiographical sketch of you?

What I hope people will be seeing is something like the inside of my head.

What will they see there? We have some wonderful William Blakes, Newton sitting on what looks like the moon. Blake was a guiding spirit for me for a long, long time. My father gave me Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I was a child, which gave me the title for one of my albums. I went on living by Blake.

I always liked that fragment of his : "What is the price of experience…?"

Yes, and, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." I'm not sure if I believe that any more. Is it true? It might be. He had vision. I am not in any way a visionary like that. I'm more a channel.

The exhibition will also include Richard Hamilton's picture of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser's 1967 drug bust, Swingeing London. You were there, of course. Does that feel like another life?

It is all very present. I look at the picture every day. I've been so glad Richard gave it to me. It has helped me a lot to see that period as art, rather than just personal trauma. I read a lot of books about those times, and these days they seem to be viewed as a disaster. I don't see it that way at all, though for me personally they were pretty rough.

Did you read Keith Richards's memoir?

I did. And I loved it. It rang true as Keith. Not that I agree with everything in it. Strangely, I am going to New York to do, among other things, a tribute show to the Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall. With Ronnie Spector and Steve Earle and others. I will sing "Sister Morphine" at the very end.

Do you have any qualms about being in a Stones' tribute show?

Not really. There was a time I resented it because I felt I could have done anything, and just to be perceived as the creation of the Rolling Stones irritated me immensely. But there are worse things to be seen as, I suppose.

Things that seem tragic dramas when you are young seem less so when you look back?

Yes, you have to remember I was a completely insecure, self-centred, highly ambitious little girl.

Which period of your life do you think of as the happiest?

My childhood, and now. Because I have mastery. I am not drinking and not using drugs.

Do you have a religious impulse?

I do have a strong sense of God. It's impossible to explain what I mean when I say that, of course. I have to have a sense of something greater than myself to be able to stay sober. I have been in the programme for23 years but I am not 23 years sober. But I can't feel that it is all down to me, no.

You are a grandmother now?

I am. I'm 65. I have to take a lot more trouble physically. Before I spoke to you I did my 15 minutes on the treadmill. That's something I wouldn't have ever imagined. I do yoga. I do tai chi. I do a lot to keep my body and my spirit together so I can work. In the autumn I take up a position in Linz at the Opera House for three months, doing Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins, with full ballet costumes, everything.

Which of the sins do you feel you have explored most fully?

I've had a go at most, but in this piece Brecht turns them all upside down, so that lust becomes love. Pride becomes pride in your work. Envy is actually the hardest sin to make positive.

You have had more than your share of the male gaze over the years. Do you feel a bit liberated from that now?

I tried to ignore it most of the time. It's a mixed blessing but I do feel a bit liberated, although I make a great effort for my shows. A great effort to be Marianne Faithfull.

She's a creation as much as anything?

It is actually my name. It is me. But it hasn't felt like me for a long time. What has happened in the past 10 years or so, and what has been my goal for as long as I can remember, is to bring me and Marianne Faithfull into some semblance of harmony. It was her doing drugs and drinking, her inside my head, so it has been tough. The Fabulous Beast, that's what I call her.

Is that Fabulous Beast still whispering to you?

Less so. But she is very naughty. And doesn't believe anything of what I tell her is good for us. She just laughs at all that. She is not evil. She is naughty, and I shouldn't listen to her. I just have to be very careful all the time.

DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience – curated by Marianne Faithfull is at Tate Liverpool from 21 April to 2 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 26 2012

Route masters: William Blake's Chaucerian Pilgrims

Jonathan Jones is choosing his favourite artworks that depict spring. Today it's the turn of William Blake's famed engraving of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales crew

April 09 2011

The 10 best watercolours

As Tate Britian reviews the history of the watercolour the Observer's art critic selects her 10 favourite paintings in the medium

1 David Hockney Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

Leaning in close to the mirror, peering over the top of his glasses, Hockney stares so hard at himself his eyes are nearly glazed with looking. He is painting himself literally in the act. The brush, which he cannot see at this precise moment, is forming a line out of the very watercolour from which it is made. A blot of black has escaped. Hockney, virtuoso draughtsman, great technician in every medium from oil to print to coloured crayon, is challenging himself with quick-drying, no-corrections watercolour. The picture is almost life-size. Hockney is putting himself on the spot.

2 JMW Turner The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

Turner's sequence of watercolours, made as the Houses of Parliament burned down right before his eyes, is one of the great wonders of the watercolour world. An immense conflagration lighting up the sky, reflected in the Thames below, struts, towers and windows fleetingly visible among the flames, it's all dashed down in the heat of the moment. A contemporary described Turner 'pouring wet paint on to the paper till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrabbled in a kind of frenzy.' The brush movements are violent, the colour contrasts sudden: it's action painting, with the trickiest medium, long before the 20th century.

3 Arthur Melville The Little Bullfight, "Bravo Toro!" (c1892)

The Scottish painter Arthur Melville was one of the supreme watercolourists of his age, specialising in wet-on-wet paintings in brilliant melting colour. But sheer range may have stymied his reputation. Venetian nights, desert days, cabbages in Greenock, he moves widely in both subject and style. His quickfire watercolours of Parisian cabarets presage abstract expressionism, and here he focuses in and out of the scene like a cinematographer. High detail in the audience fades to a lacuna where the frenzy of death is taking place. Over and again, Melville seems like a real one-off.

4 William Blake The Judgment of Paris (1811)

The Trojan prince Paris is forced to judge a beauty contest of goddesses. Fatally, he picks Aphrodite over Hera and Athena. Blake shows the moment at which he hands her the golden apple. Eros streams into the air, apparently elated, but above him black Discord unfurls with flames in his hands. The bodies are lithe, liable to levitate with their transparent limbs. Shape-shifters, sky-divers, wraiths, Blake's figures are always superhuman. The look is strenuous, yet each figure is airy, a figment of outline and wash that lives in the page. This is a rare watercolour; most of Blake's images became prints.

5 Eric Ravilious The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes (1935)

Any watercolour by Eric Ravilious deserves its place here, but this one shows what a world the medium can make in and of itself with transparent colour and a sheet of paper. Ravilious's greenhouse has the atmosphere of a dream. Everything is in perfect order, yet there is no sign of a gardener, unless perhaps God? Door opens on to door, on to door. The perspective is pristine, the painting so clear, light and symmetrical in both form and content, the white paper burning through the foliage like sunlight. It is the greenhouse from paradise. Ravilious is the lost genius of British art: his plane crashed over Iceland during the second world war. His body was never found.

6 Alexander Cozens A Blot: Tigers (c1770-80)

Colour suspended in water: potential for endless accidents as the water seeps or spills or the brush is overloaded. Alexander Cozens found form in these mishaps. Out of accidental blots, random images would begin to emerge which Cozens would then develop using grey or brown wash. Mostly these messes resolved into imaginary landscapes, but here he saw powerful animals, crouching, dormant, their force momentarily contained. Others might have seen something else. The power of Cozens's art lies in its inchoate shapes and energies, its multiple possibilities. The artist was said to be the illegitimate son of Peter the Great.

7 Samuel Palmer Cornfield by Moonlight (c1930)

Palmer's "moonlight" paintings all look as if they must be visions, with their radiant moons and glimmering stars, but in fact they are intensely particular about reality. The man with the smock, dog and staff is pausing among avenues of sheaves cut sharp as straw, with the rolling hills around Shoreham in the distance. Light is the main protagonist, binding landscape and man snugly together, and the atmosphere is reverential; look close and you will see a tinier world of detail praised in the rich surface. Palmer was inspired by Blake, among others, and founded an early avant-garde movement known as the Ancients.

8 John Sell Cotman Greta Bridge (c1807)

Cotman had been staying at Rokeby Hall (once home of Velázquez's Venus). The bridge across the river Greta was in one corner of the park, and Cotman drew it over and again. But in watercolour he gives it an almost ethereal beauty. Everything is held still and in perfect equipoise – the sky above, the river below, the bridge a pale platonic ideal over the silver water. Nature as abstract, geometric, all detail omitted, the painting is a feat of control and tonal delicacy. Cotman's colours got brighter, and he would later enrich them with rice paste, but this picture, made when he was 25, is surely his greatest work.

9 Gwen John Girls in a Church (c1920)

Gwen John moved to the village of Meudon outside Paris in 1911. There she began to go to church services at a local convent. The watercolours she made of children and nuns, and of the relationships between them and the words of the service, are some of her most sensitive and private paintings. This one is a hazy moment of youthful concentration, the girls as soft and mute as the air around them. John usually sat at the back sketching in pencil, washing in the paint afterwards in the studio, but this one is entirely formed of watercolour. She painted in this church for 20 years.

10 Isaac Oliver A Man Against a Background of Flames (c1600)

What a concept: the living man against a wall of death, his mind (and desires) on fire. The sitter's identity is not known, but his character is all there in the acute face, the tousled locks, the shirt open to the waist as he presents his locket, and his feelings, in the heat of passion. Painted by the French-born Oliver on a piece of vellum no bigger than a baby's palm, using squirrel-hair brushes delicate enough to describe the finest stubble, this watercolour is far bigger than its scale. A fiery keepsake, condensing portrait and love poem, it's the equivalent of an Elizabethan sonnet. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 11 2011

Picture this: the week's art shows

From David Hockney in York to Douglas Gordon in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

February 05 2011

Liquid asset

Despite associations with Victorian ladies and flower paintings, watercolour has often been far from wishy-washy. The Tate's new survey – from the haunting visions of William Blake to intimate scenes by Tracey Emin – shows the medium's versatility and power

Historically, watercolour has been perceived as the medium of the dabbling amateur. Children, ladies and gentlemen of leisure have all been drawn to its cheapness, speed and apparent ease. Its subjects, too, have tended to be minor in size and scope: a domestic scene here, a botanical drawing there, stretching at most to a charming landscape. When professional artists use watercolour, so the grand narrative goes, it is to make preliminary sketches, try-outs, what-ifs that are supplementary to the real business of art, which involves painting in oils.

Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition, entitled simply Watercolour, aims to unsettle these easy assumptions. If painting in watercolour really is irredeemably minor, then how to account for the haunting visions of William Blake, the proto-modernist landscapes of JS Cotman, key symbolist work by Edward Burne-Jones, Paul Nash's hellish war paintings, Edward Burra's grotesqueries, not forgetting some of Tracey Emin's more affecting pieces? And what about JMW Turner, who frequently used watercolour not as a medium in which to rehearse, but rather as the best way to convey his finished vision? Look again at his Blue Rigi of 1842 and you see not just a perfect rendering of the play of light on water, but also an essay in the essential qualities of his chosen medium. Broad layers of pale colour have been washed in to create an ethereal translucency impossible to imagine in dense, sticky oil.

What initially drew amateurs to watercolour, though, was not Turner's virtuoso example so much as the fact that it was convenient and cheap. To make your mark all you needed to do was add water to a concentrated cake of pigment bound with gum arabic and let your brush do the rest. By the middle of the 19th century, companies including Reeves and Winsor & Newton would sell you charming little boxes primed with six essential shades, exactly the kind of thing that the young Queen Victoria was rumoured to take with her when she ventured en plein air. And for those who felt confident, there was always the option to fiddle with the formula. Professional painters stirred in egg yolk to make tempera, achieving the kind of long-lasting finish employed by medieval artists working directly on vellum and plaster. Others preferred to add white pigment or chalk to make gouache, a denser paint that mimicked the opacity of oil but retained the fluidity of water.

Technically, the Tate's curators say, anything can be used to make a watercolour. Paul Sandby, working at the end of the 18th century, added crumbs from his burnt breakfast roll to achieve a rich brindle. In our own times, Andy Goldsworthy has used pulverised red stone from the river bed of Scaur Water in Scotland to produce his pooling Source of Scaur; and in her delicate abstracts the young artist Karla Black experiments by mixing water with Vaseline, toothpaste and hair gel.

This makes watercolour sound facile whereas in fact it is versatile. It can be applied in a loose, diluted wash to paper that is already damp – a technique known as "wet on wet" – to produce the palest tint. Or it can be used almost dry to make a broken line that scrapes along textured paper. It can be "lifted off" – blotted out with a rag while still damp – or "scratched out" when already dry. In both cases the aim is to reveal and incorporate the whiteness of the paper underneath. Cotman's unfinished study of Rievaulx Abbey (1803) uses lifting off to depict a smudge of barely-there foliage, while 80 years later Walter Langley employs scratching out in his But Men Must Work and Women Must Weep to create tiny stray hairs on the heads of the two women whose anxious presence dominates the picture.

Turner and Cotman belonged to the period known as the golden age of British watercolour, which spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Under the romantic spell of Wordsworth and Coleridge, a generation of young artists turned away from composing historical and biblical scenes in the studio to face their native landscape head on. Urged to paint directly from nature, they climbed in Snowdonia or clambered over the Yorkshire Dales before setting up their easels in the open air. This was where watercolour showed its special virtues: easily carried in a pocket, it was in a sense contiguous with the landscape itself. All you need do was scoop some water from a mountain stream to release a flood of colour on to the page.

As they straggled up and down the country, these young painters were continuing a long tradition of recording landscape in watercolour. For centuries "stained drawings" had been the approved means for antiquaries, topographers and military men to map the lie of the land. Now a new generation started to use the full potential of the medium to add an extra dimension. Sandby's Part of the Banqueting Hall of the Royal Palace at Eltham shows a draughtsman's discipline in the way it delineates the ruined palace's arched windows and steeply pitched roof. But Sandby also uses his skills as a consumate colourist to show the differing textures of brick, stone, wood and foliage. His decision to add a group of figures adds a present-ness to the scene which reminds the viewer that this is no mere map-maker's exercise. Meanwhile, Thomas Girtin's Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland (ca 1797) is a vertical wall of stormy stone and ruined fortifications. High above the scene glowers a sky of operatic intensity, all scudding clouds and sudden bursts of sunlight. Anyone who doubted that watercolour was able to achieve intimations of the sublime so central to the romantic project had only to look at what Girtin – who died at a melancholy 27 – achieved here.

But even these peaks of achievement did not impress the Royal Academy, which, since its early days in the 1770s, had insisted on disparaging watercolour as the preserve of drawing masters, illustrators and amateurs. Indeed, for several years landscape art had been entirely banned from the academy's annual exhibition, since mere "transcripts" from nature could hardly be expected to occupy the same sanctified space as carefully constructed historical or biblical scenes. Such a mindset must explain why exquisite work by William Capon, who rendered the streets of late-Georgian London in fresh, delicate colour, seems to have been regarded as useful documentary rather than bona fide art. Even when the academy did admit watercolours to its exhibition walls, it did so grudgingly, crowding them together in dark corners where they appeared to sulk.

By the early 19th century artists who worked mainly in watercolour developed their own clubs, cultures and marketing strategies. From the start there was something inherently middle class about the whole enterprise. Watercolours tended to be both small in size and polite in tone, making them ideally suited to the wall of a suburban sitting room. There was less embarrassment, too, about the need for artists to make a sale. Buyers who saw something they liked hanging on the exhibition wall could simply put down a deposit before returning several days later to carry off their purchase under their arm.

Luckily there were always painters with sufficient confidence or cheek to pay no attention to the rules, whether old or new. William Blake, who worked in watercolour, simply showed his work at home. Turner, who used both watercolour and oils, hung both media side by side in his own Harley Street gallery. Meanwhile, a new generation of painters, including several of the pre-Raphaelites, pointedly ignored expectations about what watercolour could and couldn't do. In 1864 Edward Burne-Jones caused a storm when he exhibited The Merciful Knight at the Old Water Colour Society. The greybeards hated the archaism of Burne-Jones's dense application of scumbled and rubbed watercolour, designed to mimic the tempera techniques of early renaissance painters. In an echo of the Royal Academy's early high-handedness, the OWCS hung The Merciful Knight high up behind the door, in the hope that no one would see.

This radical reimagining of watercolour by Burne-Jones and others meant that by the beginning of the 20th century the medium had lost any sapping associations with sentimentality. Around 1927 the architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, then living in the Pyrenees, made a wonderful watercolour of the village of Fetges which draws on his art nouveau heritage to produce a picture of piercing clarity and strong structural rhythm. Ten years later Edward Burra was using watercolour to very different effect, rendering the interior of a Mexican church in bloody, muddy tones complete with an agonised Christ. It was a world away from Victorian ladies and their flower drawings.

Even when watercolour artists of the 20th century did consciously look back to the golden age, it wasn't simply an exercise in comforting nostalgia. What fascinated John Piper and Eric Ravilious in the interwar period was the way that painters such as Cotman and Girtin appeared so radically modern in their exploration of their chosen medium. Looked at this way, Cotman's landscapes of the early 1800s become more than simply exquisite renderings of natural forms. By massing colours into abstract blocks rather than striving after mere mimesis, the artist offers a self-conscious commentary on the possibilities and limits of watercolour. You can see some of that complexity recouped in Ravilious's 1939 painting The Vale of the White Horse, in which the chalk downlands of southern England have been simplified into rolls of colour, atop which sits the abstraction of the ancient cut-out horse. Piper, the closest thing the neo-romantics had to a spokesman, does something similar in his 1944 study of rocks in Snowdonia, where elements of the sublime so evident in the work of Girtin have been reworked into a sinister commentary on the breakdown of all natural forms, including the human body.

Many of their contemporaries followed Piper and Ravilious in using watercolour to capture the trauma of the 1940s. The qualities that had made the medium so useful to the landscapists of the golden age 150 years earlier – portability, cheapness, a certain tactful reticence – made it equally serviceable in a war zone. Nor was it only professional artists who noticed. Burra, exempted from service on account of his chronic ill-health, was concerned to learn in 1940 of a severe shortage of paintbrushes: apparently they had been bought up by servicemen keen to fill their long evenings under canvas. Indeed, it was one of these ordinary soldiers who produced perhaps the most startling image in the whole Tate exhibition. Following the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, Eric Taylor compiled a large graphic watercolour showing piles of ravaged corpses, their skeletal outlines made jagged by the artist's angry accents of colour.

These days watercolour seems to be making a virtue of its old reputation for quiet discretion. The later work in the exhibition shows contemporary artists using the medium to explore inner visions rather than outer spectacle. Tracey Emin's Berlin the Last Week in April 1998 is a delicate smudge of watery monochrome which wistfully recalls an intimate bath taken with a lover in a hotel room. In Eighty Three, Nicola Durvasula uses layers of watercolour to build up a stylised figure which seems to come from deep within the vocabulary of ancient Indian art. The twist, though, comes in the fact that the figure squats not on paper designed for watercolour but on a sheet torn out from a pre-ruled account book. The lines show through in a way that recalls the "wove" paper used by early watercolourists such as Samuel Scott in the mid 18th century. Finally there is the late Patrick Heron, who used gouache to paint his bold colour abstracts because, he insisted, water-based paint gave him a fluidity (and hence a subject: the materiality of his own art) that oils could simply never manage.

Watercolour is at Tate Britain from 16 February until 21 August. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 12 2010

William Blake's art of mystery arrives at Tate Britain

Curator says of eight tiny, hand-coloured works tackling big themes: 'It's probably best not to get into too much detail'

When viewing the tiny, hand-coloured etchings of figures being burned alive and hair being washed in blood it is fine, the curators say, to be bemused and baffled. "They are strange," said Philippa Simpson. "Impenetrable, really, even for scholars."

The eight hand-coloured works by William Blake, an artist as bizarrely eccentric as he was visionary, are also remarkable. Today they went on display at Tate Britain in London as part of a rehang which sees nine rooms and 170 works devoted to the Romantics.

The Blakes are being displayed as part of the national collection for the first time after being acquired for the nation last year, and their history is almost as eye-catching as their content. For years their whereabouts were unknown until someone bought a box of secondhand books at a north London sale and discovered the etchings in the leaves of an old railway timetable.

That was in the 1970s, when they were thought to be facsimiles, and it took a further 15 years or so before experts fell off their chairs and declared them the real deal.

"Not only are they images by Blake but they have these handwritten lines of poetry under each one," said Simpson, who has curated the Blake display. "That is what makes them so extraordinary."

Blake, who died in 1827, was not really appreciated in his lifetime, always considered eccentric – which, as he and his wife sat naked in their garden reading Milton aloud, he probably was.

But he always tackled big and existential themes. What the themes are in the eight Blakes on display is open to long and possibly fruitless debate. One shows a man, possibly, washing his hair in a vat of blood while the flesh on his lower body appears to be melting away leaving just bones and muscles. "You might see it as a symbol of creativity," said Simpson. "But it is so complicated. You have this vegetating ball of fibrous masses which eventually will form into what Blake calls Urizen, which is a sort of strange, ambivalent God-like figure.

"It's complicated. It's probably best not to get into too much detail."

The pictures do, though, shine a light on Blake as the difficult, indefinable artist. Simpson said: "A perennial problem with Blake is that we tend to isolate him because he doesn't belong to any system or movement so he doesn't get looked at in a broader context. He's seen as an anomaly. So what I'm hoping with this display is to start teasing out connections with different artists and to show that he did not exist in a vacuum, however strange his images are."

Asked to choose a favourite – perhaps the one with the far-from-jolly caption "Vegetating in fibres of blood" – Simpson said it was instead one with an image from Blake's work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, showing a bearded man and four robed women with the artist's handwritten words, "Who shall set the prisoners free". "It is so delicate and contemplative," she said. "You can spend a lot of time with it. For something so tiny to be so touching is amazing."

The small Blakes are displayed in a room alongside full size paintings. "I've had various sleepless nights worrying that they would be too small and not hold the space," said Simpson. "But now that they are up it's overwhelming how powerful they are for such tiny, tiny images.

"They show that being monumental is not to do with the size of your canvas, it's to do with the intensity of the image and the subjects you tackle."

The rehang is of galleries devoted to the Tate's extensive Turner collection and there is plenty of Turner on display, including a room of his early work opposite a room of his late work which includes crowd pleasers such as Norham Castle, Sunrise, and Sun Setting over a Lake.

Tate Britain curator David Brown, in charge of the rehang, said: "It's meant to give the gallery a different feel. The trouble is, everybody knows us as this great Turner collection which brings the problem of how do you keep it alive? What you don't want is a one-artist gallery that becomes a mausoleum. You need to find ways of keeping it fresh and every now and again stirring things up a bit – like the Romantics."

The new display features work by artists including John Constable and Samuel Palmer and also looks at the Romantic legacy with works by those bracketed as neo-Romantics, such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.

The rehang also allows Tate to plunder its stores and show rarely exhibited works such as Edwin Landseer's A Scene at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, including the novelist's dying wolfhound and the expectant replacement dog in the background.

The display also includes two paintings that could be emblematic of what most people think to be the Romantics: Henry Wallis's depiction of the melancholic poet Thomas Chatterton after his suicide and William Etty's portrayal of Hero shortly after she has thrown herself on top of her beloved, but drowned, Leander.

"It's what happens if you follow the dictates of your own nature and your own self," said Brown. "You probably end up dead. We're trying to cheer people up, of course." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 12 2010

Tate buys hellish Blakes

Talking of Tate Britain, the gallery has just announced that it has been able to buy eight beautiful (if disturbing) William Blake works on paper, depicting figures writhing in hellfire. The ­necessary £441,000 has been raised with the help of a £141,000 grant from the Art Fund, now run by Stephen Deuchar. Deuchar stepped down as director of Tate Britain in December, with Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, quipping that they expected to be the happy ­recipients of the charity's largesse. And so, reader, it has come to pass – just a little bit quicker than expected. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Is William Blake Britain's best artist? | Jonathan Jones

We might not boast a Titian, Rembrandt or Picasso - but we do have William Blake. The Tate's recent purchase of the artist's work is a blessing for the nation

It is wonderful that eight newly discovered works of art by William Blake have been purchased by Tate Britain. Wonderful, just, and heartwarming, because Blake is an artist who does not always get his due. Loving Blake is natural when you're a teenager. Some people turn against him later on and see him as a hamfisted draughtsman, a Hanoverian hippy.

In reality Blake is the essential British artist. He is the only one we have ever produced who really captures the national genius. This is because he was a writer as well as an artist – and the English language is Britain's true cultural achievement. We are not, repeat not, a nation of artists. The lack of great artists in our history is hilarious when you set it aside most other European nations. We have no Titian, Rembrandt or Picasso. We don't even have a Dali. But we do have William Blake.

It is the conceptual quality of Blake's art that raises it above the run of British visual achievement. In a work such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his illumination of his own words is like a fire of free throught blazing on the paper. In his sweet decorations for his Songs of Innocence and Experience we glimpse the lineaments of a lost folk art. In the powerful and intense hand-coloured prints now purchased by Tate, we see how real colouristic brilliance, as well as a magnificent graphic boldness, enabled Blake to impose his unique vision on history. Blake walked among angels and saw with their eyes. His rapturous mind lives on through these magnificent works. What a gain for the nation. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 11 2010

Tate to show hidden Blakes

Consumed by flames, contorted in ecstasy ... William Blake's lost depictions of the torments of hell have been acquired by the Tate

Tormented images of human figures consumed by flames, floundering in murky waters or contorted in ecstasy or anguish, by one of the greatest and oddest geniuses in British art, William Blake, have been acquired by the Tate after a £441,000 fundraising appeal.

The rich, dense, hand-applied colour is as fresh as if newly made, on eight sheets which were lost for almost 200 years until they turned up tucked into an Edwardian international train timetable in a box of secondhand books.

They were inherited by Blake's widow, Catherine, who had worked on them as his studio assistant, when he died in 1827. A note on the back of the sheets records she gave them to a man called Frederick Tatham – but then they disappeared without trace until a book lover bought them at a sale in north London in 1978. He wishes to remain anonymous, but last year offered them to the Tate as a single group if it could raise the purchase price. The money came from Tate members and patrons, the public, and a £141,000 donation from the Art Fund charity – whose new director, Stephen Deuchar, has just left as head of Tate Britain.

They have been exhibited just once since they were found, to protect the colour, but will go on display at the Tate next summer. Next winter they will be seen at the Pushkin museum in Moscow, in an exhibition on Blake and British art.

Blake, who chatted with the angels he saw perched in a tree, and sat naked in his London garden with Catherine, emulating what he saw as the lost innocence of Adam and Eve, created the etchings through a complicated process he largely invented.

The etchings, hand-printed and finished in pen and ink and layers of colour, were created as separate individual works, but based on images from his series of books in the 1790s in which he created his own prophetic universe.

Alison Smith, the Tate curator who has been working on the plates, said: "There is something deeply visceral about them – you feel they take you straight into the mind of Blake."

"This set is unique because they have terse but powerful captions added by Blake: the figure in flames is captioned 'I sought pleasure and found pain unutterable' – that says it all, really." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 08 2009

My Space: Marc Quinn

The artist opens the doors to the library of his London studio – a room for reading and lunch with his boys

I've worked in and around Old Street for 10 years. It's a fun area because it's quite anonymous, but there are always people around. This studio is two storeys of a new build with flats above. It's a bit like a tardis. You enter through a very small door into a big open space, very minimal, with a few artworks around. I like the work of Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, and southeast Asian art. I don't just want to look at my own stuff all the time.

This is the library, where I can sit and read – an area of contemplation, I suppose. If you look closely you'll see an alphabetical list of art books which I'll look at from time to time, but I get most of my inspiration from magazines or the internet.

At the moment I'm working on a series of sculptures of people who've transformed themselves through plastic surgery – it will be shown next year. A lot of the people I found on the internet, such as Buck Angel who is a transsexual porn star. It's quite magical to actually meet someone you've previously only seen on your computer. The final sculptures will be in bronze, silicon and marble, and up to 3m tall.

As an artist you have to have a creative relationship with your gallery, so Jay Jopling from White Cube sometimes drops in. It's partly a social call. He'll see what's happening and then we'll sit down here and decide what we're going to do with a show. My two sons, Sky, 4, and Lucas, 8, often come around for lunch: that's fun (we live in Primrose Hill, which is only 30 minutes away). It's only dangerous for children in that there are unsuitable images on the wall that I have to remember to take down.★

The Art Fund presents an Artist in Conversation talk with Marc Quinn on 12 November at 7pm at the National Portrait Gallery (

Around the room

Marble chairs and table I made a line of marble furniture called Iceberg with the Carpenter's Workshop Gallery in Mayfair at the end of last year. I made this table and chairs for myself to put in the studio. It's Italian white marble, exactly the same material as I would use for the sculptures.

Toast My preferred snack is Poilâne toast with olive oil, salt and pepper. Poilâne is posh French sourdough bread they sell around the corner in Waitrose for about £2 a loaf, but it's worth it because it's got a bit of body and bite to it – it's not just fluffy bread. I'll have a few slices at lunch and then a few more in the afternoon.

Implant This was a gift from one of the sitters for this new series. They sent me a letter saying they'd really enjoyed it and wondered if I'd like a discarded implant as a little present, which was very touching. I imagine it was removed to put a new one in, so it has already been sitting inside a body for a fair few years.

Framed picture This is a satellite photo of Hiroshima taken about one millisecond after the bomb was dropped. It's like the beginning of the 20th century, in a way. There's this rather amazing abstract sculpture made of smoke, the beginning of the mushroom cloud, and then you see the city in front of it just sort of sitting there, waiting. I bought it from an art dealer in Germany.

Sculpture Jason Schulman became an artist at the age of 40, so he's in this interesting situation of being a youngish artist whose work is quite mature. I can't remember the price I paid for this. It's a handmade Solpadine packet in magnetic suspension which appears to levitate. He just did a show at the Moscow Biennale.

Flower sculpture This is one of mine. It's like a transgenic plant; real flowers cast into bronze then reassembled by me to make an impossible plant. I developed a process to cast the actual flower. It was deemed impossible before I got it to work.

Baby heads I made these two little sculptures of my sons' heads when they were born, four years apart. I did a little clay portrait in the hospital and then made both of them in their own placenta as well (a bit like Self, the frozen cast of my head made with nine pints of my own blood). Those ones are now in the Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas and a private collection in New York.

Kate Moss Polaroid I took this the first day she came in to start modelling for the series in bronze I did a few years ago. It's a lovely black and white picture of her. She is very easy to work with and understands that there is a difference between herself and her image, which essentially what the work was about.

Silk fabrics I go to the south of India every Christmas for a holiday and I tend to bring back lots of silks and fabrics for covering sculptures. I've been going for about five years now.

William Blake head This is a plaster cast of the life cast of Blake that's in the National Portrait Gallery (one of the inspirations for my frozen head). It's rather amazing because it's not a death mask, it's a life cast, so it's about energy and life rather than the record of an empty vessel. I think that was quite unusual in his day. At one point they were selling copies, so I bought it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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