Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Monet’

Painting Parliament: Turner, Monet and Me

It’s not only an icon of London, recognisable around the world twice over, but it’s also one which I pass every working day. The Houses of Parliament in London is at the beating heart of the city. We set our clocks by the familiar chime of it’s big ben bell, we pass souvenir stalls packed full of paraphernalia containing the image of building, and we can see the soaring bell tower, now named Elizabeth Tower, from far across London. Yet we are all guilty of taking the Palace of Westminster, a.k.a. the Houses of Parliament for granted. When I emerge from the tube every morning, I do so directly opposite the great gothic palace, but never stop to take in its majesty, despite the hundreds of tourists who are always collecting before it with their cameras ready.

The Houses of Parliament from Millbank, David Roberts (1861) © Museum of London

The Houses of Parliament from Millbank, David Roberts (1861) © Museum of London

However all this changed when yesterday I headed up Elizabeth Tower to meet the great Big Ben first hand. Suddenly I have found myself looking at Parliament afresh. I even went into the Parliament bookshop and bought myself a souvenir or two (including a chocolate Big Ben – every visitor needs one). And all this had me thinking, the Palace of Westminster is such an impressive, iconic building, a masterpiece of architecture which is all the more perfect for its purposeful lack of symmetry, its miscellany of towers, spires and gothic ornamentation – no wonder then that the building has proved such an inspiration to artists over the years. And we’re not just talking any artists, but two of the greats. British favourite JMW Turner, and someone who, in a way, could be called Turner’s protege or disciple, father of the Impressionists, Claude Monet.

Both artist’s depictions of the Palace of Westminster have become iconic images of Parliament, but are also invaluable depictions of the building’s chequered history. For when Turner painted Parliament, he did so at a crucial point in its history – the day when Parliament was destroyed by fire: 16 October 1834. The fire, which ravaged the palace, gutting almost everything but Westminster Hall, proved inspirational to Turner. Already renowned for capturing the effect of light and smoke, almost impregnable foggy landscapes and turbulent great storms, Turner, who witnessed the great fire raging first hand, was evidently captivated by the gigantic inferno, pouring billowing smoke and red-hot flames high into the sky above the Thames.

J M W Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1835)

J M W Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1835)

J M W Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1834-5)

J M W Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (1834-5)

The canvases which result (the first held by the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the second by the Philadelphia Museum of Art) are brilliant, dramatic depictions of the fire, demonstrating the devastating extent of the inferno as it climbed high into the sky contrasted with the small shocked witnesses in the lower foreground. I love, in the second, the subtle silhouette of Westminster Cathedral glowing before the flames of its now burning neighbouring palace, and the huge column of fire rising dangerously high in the first.

Turner was evidently more than inspired. A series of watercolour sketches (pictured below), which appear to have been sketched roughly at the scene or shortly afterwards, are a striking record of the almost undefinable power of the fire, as the light and heat of the inferno blurs and tempers the city surroundings. These watercolours, which were bequeathed to London’s National Gallery and are now held at Tate, are so instantaneous in their quick creation that they start to look almost abstract in their composition while retaining a powerful contrast between glowing super-hot heat and the foggy smokey surrounds. It’s an effect which is brilliantly executed for such a loose and uncontrollable painting medium as watercolour.

But perhaps the most famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament are those depictions by impressionist master, Claude Monet. Monet, too, was evidently inspired by the elegant gothic structure which, by the time he visited London twice, once seeking safe haven during the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870s and again at the beginning of the 20th century, had been rebuilt into the structure we know and love today.

Claude Monet, The Thames at Westminster (1871)

Claude Monet, The Thames at Westminster (1871)

But for Monet, who was, by his own admission, greatly inspired by Turner’s expression of light and changing weather, the real inspiration appears to be not so much the Parliament building itself, but the varying effects of weather, light and city smog upon the building. While his first depiction of Parliament (above) is a fairly detailed depiction of the Thames at Westminster, showing the intricacy of the Palace of Westminster, albeit somewhat faded into a smoggy urban background, his later series of Parliament paintings concentrate far more on the changing light of London than on the landscape itself.

The results are a stunning series of works. The quick application of paint, no doubt painted in a great rush to capture the changing light as was Monet’s obsession, is so energetic and alive that the Palace appears to quiver before our very eyes, the effect of the smog and river mist undulating and turning over the surface of the canvas, capturing in turn the light as it filters through the layers of cloud and vapour. It’s hard to choose between these depictions, all of which are equally evocative of another stage in Parliament’s history, when London was almost chocked with poisonous noxious gases and a horrible river stench. But oh what a beautiful effect it had once captured by Monet’s hand.

Finally, we turn to the modern day. The Houses of Parliament continues to delight Londoners and tourists alike, stood proudly adjacent to the River Thames, and surrounded not by city smog, but by a thriving bustling capital city and, every 31 December, a firework display to rival all others across the world. Yet still, the character of the building changes, and its mood metamorphoses, as weather and light cast transformative moods upon this spectacular structure.

On one such day, when menacing clouds began to break apart, and blue sky and a winter sun peeked out from behind the cover of cloud directly above the great gothic structure, I, like Monet and Turner before me, was captivated by the stunning view before me, and all the more so for the doubling of the image thanks to the reflective image in the river below it. Some time later, I took out my brushes, oil paints and a canvas and painted that view I had seen – it was in fact one of the first oils I had ever attempted. And here it is. It’s no Turner or Monet admittedly, but it is my own painted homage to the power and glory of London’s Houses of Parliament.

Cityscape I: London (2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, oil on canvas)

Cityscape I: London (2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, oil on canvas)

Tuscany Part I: Sea, Sand and plenty of Sunflowers

While the Norms have been up and down the great boot of Italy, I have been indulging in a more relaxing affair – I’m just back from a sumptuous and sensation-tickling trip to Tuscany and the electric city of Bologna, and as a result I have so much to share that I barely even know where to begin. With sights, sounds and flavour sensations as ripe and abounding as the offerings of Italy in the hot months of the summer, I am felicitous with fresh inspiration, enlivened by my experience, and freshly fulfilled by a holiday of multisensoral pleasure.

Perfectly aligned parasols and loungers

I begin my tale in the balmy fresh light of a lazy Saturday morning. I had jetted out to Pisa after work, and arriving close to midnight, the only impression I had thus far gauged of my seaside Tuscan location was the lucid clarity of the fresh sea air (a marked-comparison with central London) and the enticing smell of the pine forests that loll lazily down to the sea edge. In the morning, it was my eyes which gorged ravenously upon the visual sensations all around. From our hotel window, an expanse of golden soft sand, tidily raked every morning, was broken only by the perfect alignment of a hundred blue parasols sat atop neatly arranged loungers. In the distance, green hills were faded into a pale turquoise because of their distance, while further yet still, an almost translucent outline of the island of Elba rose mysteriously above the horizon. While my eyes took in the scene, accompanied by a pure light warmed by the yellow lustre of an early Mediterranean sun, my ears pricked up to the gentle swish of an intermittent wave sliding, rather than crashing, upon the sandy shore. No angry traffic here, no rush of suited Londoners running to squeeze their way onto a delayed, crowded tube. Rather, the only people were those beach workers, silently preparing the space for the later arrival of tourists and locals alike, while nearby, the steamer of a large coffee machine pumped into action for a day full of making creamy cappuccinos and rich espressos.

It was straight to the said coffee bar that we headed, a moment to which I had been looking forward ever since booking my flights some months ago. Nothing surpasses the cappuccinos in Italy, whose coffee is creamy, not bitter, and whose foam is indulgent and thick. Gone is the Cafe Nero takeaway and the sprint to the office – here we had all the time in the world to indulge on the beach’s edge, before the sun warmed to its midday ferocity, and the crowds descended.

True italian cappuccino

The crowds descend with coloured parasols aplenty

When that moment came, we were already gone. My partner took me to see a sight which was bound to get my camera clicking and my artist juices running – a nearby field of sunflowers bursting from the dry soil in a sea of vivid yellow, contrasting sensationally with the deep blue sky all around. Standing in that field, surrounded by flowers equalling me in height was truly incredibly. It was no wonder that these flowers had inspired Van Gogh so. My favourites were the older, dying flowers, with the large human-sized faces, loaded with an incredibly intricate pattern of seed pods, the petals now wilting and drying up, but the flower, in the last stages of its life, still desperately faced towards the sun, turned to its master in relishing the last days of its existence. In Italian, sunflowers are called girasoli, which literally translates as it turns sun – and true to form, it was remarkable to note how these amazing flowers were all turned in one direction, a carpet of yellow faced towards the sun, and a wall of green when seen from behind.

A carpet of yellow

And another of green

I could have stayed amongst the sunflowers all day, but alas, my photographic adventure did constitute some form of trespass onto this farmland, albeit in the name of art. We returned thereafter to safer pastures – to the incredibly vineyard views of a vineyard known to my partner’s brother, and a nearby field with large bails of hay perfect to inspired Monet himself.

Hay for Monet

What Milan exudes in fashion and Bologna offers in food, Tuscany has in countryside views which stun and inspire in equal measure – I’m giving a whole post over to these lavish landscapes tomorrow. But the great benefit of where I was staying (Donoratico) was that having had my fill of inland views under a progressively searing sun, the coast with its relieving sea breezes was never far away, and it was to the soft sandy beach of Donoratico that I returned that afternoon, wiling away the hours splashing around in soft silky seawater with light pale-ocre sand squishing softly beneath my toes, until the sun retained its former morning pallor, before retreating back under the horizon in hues of orange, then pink and then a devastating crimson red. Until tomorrow…

Sunset over the Alta Maremma coast