Exploring the School of Art Collections – 2021

As part of the first year art history module Exploring the School of Art Collections, students have the opportunity to write a small piece for this blog. This year the group decided on the theme Dressed to Impress (or Not). Each student had the opportunity to choose from a selection of prints, drawings and photographs. They only had one week to undertake some research before presenting their drafts. They all worked very hard on these projects, so please take the time to view their efforts.

Ram Gopal, Angus McBean, silver gelatin print, 1951, 242 x 189mm, PH1704

Welsh photographer Angus McBean captured the renowned Bangalore-born dancer Ram Gopal in this photograph in 1951. McBean was an acclaimed photographer who took on many projects throughout his expansive career. He took pictures of the Beatles for the cover of their first album Please Please Me, photographed for French Vogue, and created several surreal portraits of himself as well as of celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn.

This example of McBean’s work shows Ram Gopal in the costume for his famous ‘Garuda’ dance. Garuda is the winged mount of the Hindu god Vishnu and is depicted as half man and half eagle. In this photograph, McBean expressively depicts Gopal as the golden eagle. The contrasts in this image are striking: Gopal’s face is lit from the front as if he had been captured onstage in the spotlight, and his golden headdress and feathers are illuminated to show their metallic finish. Gopal’s glistening feathers are set off against the matt black background.

The costume Ram Gopal wears in this photograph is most likely the original golden eagle costume. There are later copies designed by Jenny Levy Casperson. One of these later versions has been in the collection of the V & A since 2009. The original costume in this image was mostly brown with flecks of gold, and the tassel piece on Gopal’s chest would have been a burnt orange colour. The later versions received an upgrade, with 24 karat gold on the wings and brilliant blue tassels on the chest piece.

McBean transports the viewer into the world of Gopal in this photograph: we are pulled in by Gopal’s androgynous beauty and the ethereal poise he exudes. The arch of his arm suggests that McBean took this shot at a performance. However, it is more likely this is a marketing image taken to promote one of Gopal’s shows that he did in the early 1950s.

Perhaps it is more pleasant to think of this photograph as a candid shot, so that it won’t lose any of its charm.

Charley Browne (Fine Art and Art History)


Fashion for February, Edward Linley Sambourne, wood engraving, 1871, 190 x 120mm, PL3964

This wood engraving by Edward Linley Sambourne, titled Fashion for February, was published in the magazine London Society in 1871. The fashionably dressed woman in the foreground is strolling through a park with her dog. In the nineteenth century, having a dog was a status symbol, and to be able to dress it up in a lavish bow showed great wealth. The woman herself is wearing a very ornately decorated dress with simple black boots and a fur hand muff.  The fact that she is not chaperoned, which would have usually been expected in this period, sets up a tension to the narrative – a tension heightened by the soldier in the background. Is this her lover or does his presence introduce a sinister note? There are other figures present in the parkland behind her; all walking in the opposite direction away from the viewer; all accompanied except for the men.

A striking, almost troubling feature in the image is the woman’s bonnet with a putto on its top; a small plump child associated with romance and love. Perhaps, this image has an allegorical meaning. Even in an age where extravagant hats were becoming increasingly fashionable, it is unlikely that something as elaborate as this bonnet would have been worn in real life – possibly to a ball, but certainly not in a park. However, the title is Fashion for February (the month of love), and fashion plates of the period typically exaggerated current trends in fashion to the extreme. This would further explain the motifs on her skirt. Flowers are traditionally symbolic of fertility and love, which is reinforced by the hearts on her muff and collar. Given the month referred to in the title, the image clearly relates to the theme of Valentine’s Day.

Sambourne was a 19th century cartoonist and illustrator and lived during the period when photography was rapidly developing. He became very interested in this particular artform and took many fashion photos. He liked the precision and detail that photographs offered and would use them as the basis for his cartoons. This work has an intriguing symbolism and appears to have hidden references, which makes it work on several different levels.

Eva Liss (Art History)


Thomas Edward Ellis MP (1859-1899), J. F. R. Wood, oil on canvas, 1902, 1030 x 820mm, OP115

J.F.R. Wood’s 1902 oil painting features Thomas Edward Ellis MP (1859-1899). For this portrait, Ellis is sitting on a wooden chair, looking refined and professional in a black suit. He was a student at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth from 1875-1879 and a Welsh politician. His time at the university is commemorated by W. Goscombe John’s sculpture located at the Old College. He was a leading figure in voicing Welsh concerns and of the Cymru Fydd movement whose primary goal was to gain an independent Welsh government. The fact that the portrait was completed in 1902, so after Ellis’s death, implies that the painter was not aiming to depict him as powerful and compelling in aid of his political campaign but, like Goscombe John, more to commemorate him. With his head turned to the right, he directly faces the viewers as though he was acknowledging them. The feeling that he took notice of them would have been quite appealing to contemporary members of the public and might have made them believe that he was a politician whom they could trust.

Ellis’s direct gaze also indicates an element of self-confidence as does his relaxed pose with his arms resting on the ornately carved wooden chair and his hands folded in his lap. This laid-back manner seems in stark contrast to the formality of his sharp three-piece suit complete with spotted bow tie and golden watch chain. His attire further adds to his credibility as a politician by emphasising his important and professional role in society. Ellis is thus depicted as confident and official; the way he is dressed highlights his sense of importance and aims to impress those viewing the painting. His confident yet casual appearance, along with his fixed attention, create a personal connection which would have resonated with viewers at the time.

Zoe Bennett (Fine Art and Art History)


UNE ERREUR EXCUSABLE. Poulets croyant retrouver la cage dans laquelle ils ont passé leur première jeunesse, Honoré Daumier, lithograph, 1857, 201 x 262mm

This charming lithograph created by Honoré Daumier intrigued me instantly. It depicts two figures, walking together arm in arm, with the woman’s large extravagant dress spreading almost across the whole extent of the image. The man is wearing a smart suit and a striking top hat. However, their surroundings are in contrast to their appearance; they walk through a plain area with grassland and buildings in the background. Although there are three chickens humorously poking in and out from underneath her dress, the woman confidently ignores them and walks on. Daumier produced many caricatures similar to this. They often offer a social or political comment on life in France during the nineteenth century. I believe that in this print he intended to show the class hierarchy that dominated society. The couple are most likely wealthy and reasonably well known. However, this does not mean that they are exempt from interacting with society and from passing through the rural parts of town. Daumier uses fashion to convey this. Particularly during this period, clothing was employed to determine worth and importance; the costumes here give the figures an air of authority. They are so completely absorbed by appearing respectable and giving a good impression that they are oblivious to, as the caption reads, the “[C]hickens thinking they have found the cage in which they spent their early childhood.” I think Daumier produced this to highlight the irony in the seemingly unnecessary fashion of the time. He is comically suggesting that the dress would be more useful as a home to other creatures, than as a status symbol for women.

Lizzie Andrews (Fine Art and Art History)


The Travelled Monkey, Benjamin Phelps Gibbon after Sir Edwin Landseer,engraving, 1828, 152 x 229mm, PR39

This engraving, titled The Travelled Monkey, was designed by Sir Edwin Landseer and engraved by Benjamin Phelps Gibbon in 1828. It depicts a congregation of five monkeys in various states of shock and disinterest in the presence of the sixth and central monkey, who is dressed in an extravagant eighteenth-century suit. In the centre left sits a rather indignant-looking mother whose infant shows nothing but intrigue for the traveller’s account. The two monkeys next to them look horrified and enthralled in equal parts. The monkey on the right, however, has no interest at all in the latter’s tales; he is too preoccupied with the snuffbox that has fallen out of the storyteller’s pocket. Landseer was best known for his animal artworks into which he frequently included moral messages. This particular piece, I think, demonstrates the effects of pride on both yourself and on those around you. The main protagonist seems so wrapped up in his stories that he fails to ascertain whether the other apes want to hear about his exploits. At the time the image was created, his costume would have been almost a century out-of-date, so it might be a salute to the past. Maybe Landseer wanted to comment on the narcissism shown by those with money, who parade their wealth and fortune in front of other people, who are, however, not interested in those exploits at all. Other than the obvious hilarity that can be observed in this engraving – animals in clothes, using snuff and displaying obvious discontentment – the deeper issue of the idea of self can be observed in all of the monkeys.

Ellie Hill (Art History)


The Graces in a High Wind, James Gillray, etching, etching, engraving and aquatint with handcolour on white wove paper, 1847-51, (originally published 1810), PR3006

This wind-swept scene depicts a version of the three graces looking far less graceful than ever observed before. They are meant to personify charm, beauty and creativity respectively, but artist James Gillray has perfectly omitted those virtues here. Instead, the women’s postures appear quite inelegant due to the breezy weather. Proving fashion to be completely useless in this instance, ribbons are twirling and bonnets are blowing, and the trios’ bright ‘plumages’ reveal their figures in the most unflattering manner.

These high-class muslin dresses where very fashionable during the Regency era. The material was sought after for being lightweight and breathable. However, it was perhaps not the best pick for a windy day. I also fail to understand why two of the ladies would need umbrellas – or in this case rather ‘parasols’ – as there is little to no sunshine to shield their fair skin from, nor is it raining. I assume the third woman’s parasol has taken to the wind together with the graces’ pride. ​So, these accessories must in fact be fashion statements emphasising their high position in society, in case it was not already obvious enough. These ladies, flaunting their expensive costumes in the fresh air, are the daughters of the politician Sir William Manners. Although they failed to dress in appropriate clothing fit for the stormy weather, their attire was entirely proper for young ladies of this era.

Their decision to wear bonnets should not go unnoticed. As their first step towards more practical clothing, they are protecting their hair from becoming a frantic mess of knots in the wind and resembling a bird’s nest. I would like to think that this artwork shows how we have developed our fashion taste over time to become more adapted to the challenges of the great outdoors, but, alas, bonnets have been deemed inadequate for today’s taste. ​

Isobelle Smith (Fine Art)


Ivor Novello and Mary Ellis, Angus McBean, silver bromide print, 1939, 241 x 191mm, PH1703

Ivor Novello and Mary Ellis is a black and white publicity photograph from the musical The Dancing Years and was taken in 1939. The image focuses on two characters – Maria Zeitler, played by Mary Ellis, and Rudi Kleiber, played by Ivor Novello. The two figures fill the frame with parts of the painted set visible in the background; they are wearing traditional Central European costumes from the early twentieth century. They embrace each other whilst also holding bunches of flowers. It does not appear to be a particularly warm embrace, as neither looks at the other, the camera nor the audience.

Angus McBean was a Welsh photographer, mask maker and set designer. In his early career, he experimented with surrealist techniques. In 1936, Novello commissioned him to create masks for his play The Happy Hypocrite and also admired the artist’s romantic images. This was the beginning of McBean’s journey into theatre and performance photography.

The Dancing Years was a musical written by Ivor Novello, who also played the protagonist. Set in 1930s Vienna, the musical explores a love story about class segregation under the rising threat of Nazism and while German forces were slowly taking control of Austria. The musical was first performed in London in 1939, one year after the story concludes. The plot would have resonated with its contemporary British audience, as it was clearly a subject of their times. The production was performed throughout the war, including a three-year provincial tour around Britain when the West End was threatened by the Blitz.

Millicent Evans (Fine Art)


Three Japanese women seated in a room, Anonymous, colour woodcut on silk, c.1870- 1920, 204 x 135mm, PR1539

In this picture, we can observe three women seated on the ground. They are looking to their right and seem surprised by something. The women are wearing colourful kimono, and two of them have a shimada hairstyle. One of the figures is leaning on what appears to be a bench. There are various objects around them, which seem to be floating just above the floor. A Japanese script, a wooden fence and a landscape with trees and buildings are in the background.

This woodblock is dated between c. 1870 and 1920, which means that it was probably created during the Meiji era (1868-1912). The Meiji era started with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The restoration brought the end of the military government and of the Edo era (1603-1867) to Japan. The Meiji period is characterised by the modernisation and Westernisation of Japan.

At first glance and analysing the women’s outfits, they could be geisha. This class of female entertainers used to wear long, trailing kimono. A variety of shimada hairstyles were also generally worn by geisha, as well as the traditional make-up – known as oshiroi – including white foundation, red and black colour for the eyes and eyebrows, red lips and light pink blusher.

Considering the way the three women are dressed, I think it is likely that this woodblock was made during the early years of Emperor Meiji’s reign or that it is at least representing a bygone era. With the integration of Western culture in Japan, the Japanese began to adopt new styles and practices and to adapt aspects of their culture. However, the women’s outfits and hairstyles, the view from the room and the room itself are represented in a traditional Japanese manner in this picture. The more I look at this work, the more it seems to me that the depicted scene is set in the Edo era. Considering the themes that were commonly represented during that time, such as kabuki theatre and other performances and pleasures, one of these sophisticated entertainments might have caused the women’s surprised reaction in this print. Another very common theme during the Edo period was ukiyo-e,the floating world, which is represented on the ceramics that are placed around the three figures.

Luisa Silva (Fine Art)

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