Rome is a very special place to me and this is a small, perfect jewel in its crown. The Keats-Shelley House on the Spanish Steps in Rome is a museum dedicated to the second-generation English romantic poets who lived in, and were inspired by Italy. The house hosted PB and Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron, but more importantly, it was the final home of John Keats. I am not a lover of poetry, having endured Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at school, but the various Odes by Keats and Paradise Lost by Milton somehow embedded themselves in my artistic imagination. Ode to a Nightingale by Keats is a personal favourite, it even recently prompted the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association’s 2020 Keats-Shelley Writing Prize theme of Songbird.
Anthony Kersting’s black and white photograph of the house, with its half-shuttered windows, patchy exterior paintwork and the overall dilapidated appearance, exudes a post-war feeling of decay – almost a reflection of Keats’ own situation – tired, worn out, dying. The building appears almost tragic – reflecting a tragic life and story. Ode to a Nightingale was written two years before Keats died in this building in 1821 and yet the following stanza captures the ‘beauty’ and essence of this photograph.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. [read more]
Today, the striking, renovated building, has a secure future, thanks to the ongoing programme of maintenance and restorations to the interior and exterior of the House. So, before climbing the 138 Spanish steps, It is worth taking a walk through a series of beautiful rooms, containing many treasures and curiosities associated with the lives and works of the Romantic poets, as well as one of the finest libraries of Romantic literature in the world, now numbering more than 8,000 volumes.
In addition to the museum, library and exhibition rooms, there are two spacious terraces boasting stunning views, a book and gift shop, and a small cinema room. The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (London) purchased the house in 1906 and oversees this house, as well as the Keats House in London, and his grave in Rome.
My key interest for the past year has been in the figure of the “Fat Cat”, to which none of the images I was looking at in the Conway Library could give a literal face. Yet, the collection of AF Kersting seemed to offer some light on my desire to continue looking at this select group of people through his record of the Canary Wharf commercial estate in the early 1990s.
Leafing through the collection of Kersting’s work held by the Conway Library, one begins to form an image of a photographer who scrutinised his subject matter until no question was left for the imagination. There are only four images he took of Canary Wharf and they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the collection, which features a multitude of similar images taken from minutely different angles, recording as much as possible of an object, building or landscape.
Kersting’s photographs show us Canary Wharf in the early 1990s standing at the opposing side of the river, and take us all the way through to the marble halls of the West Ferry Circus property at the most western side of the site. Thirty years old today, these images are outstanding documents of the architecture of Canary Wharf in the early days of its redevelopment. The images place 1 Canada Square high up in the London skyline and relay a reality far from the built-up area we know today. The relationship between Kersting’s habit of not including people in his images of buildings and landscapes, and the current intensive and pedantic control of the site’s media coverage, lends itself to a new conversation about the presentation of the financial industry.
Arguably, there is much to glean from an image that documents something that only wants us to see its surface. For example, the empty and flawless nuances of each image reiterate the appearance the financial world wishes to portray to its global audience. The single interior photograph shows a vestibule leading into something of an endless tunnel of infinite reflections, the shuttering of the repetitive architecture rejects our attempt to try and identify ourselves with this alien space of wealth. Similarly the exterior of the Westferry Circus and “The Tower”, (which is referring to 1 Canada Square, the second tallest building at the time of its completion in 1991), suggests, through its scale and uniform appearance, that there are no cracks in its literal physical structure in which to insert ourselves psychologically.
In Henrich Wöfflin’s doctoral dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture, 1886), he focuses on the concept of the psychology of aesthetics and suggests that there is an empathy that we have with objects which influences their design. His particular focus is on architecture and its proportions which, he argues, are understood by viewers in relation to their own: humans actively create buildings that correspond to their own physiques. An example he gives is that facades of buildings are the same as human faces.
Kersting’s documentation of these buildings within Canary Wharf rings true to such a proposal. The design exhibits the nature of the clientele who rent these office floors, actively displaying their wealth and desire for privacy. The structures themselves behave not only in alignment with their inhabitants – the city skyline mirroring the companies’ power and international reach – but also with the inaccessible and largely unknown movements of the financial market, which prefers to be left alone to do its job as the largest grossing industry in the UK.
The tone set by these structures is one of distance and exclusivity. Furthermore, the symbolism of these buildings, in particular the success and association that they have with their “starchitects”, has become something of a novel and “must-have” aspect to new developments cropping up across global capitals. 1 Canada Square’s architects, César Pelli & Associates, who also designed the World Financial Centre in New York, only reiterate how these buildings have been made to accommodate and act as a representation of those inhabiting it.
My curiosity wishes to revisit how these images might have been created, particularly when restrictions placed by the owners of Canary Wharf, Canary Wharf Group Plc, are so tightly regulated today. Though we are being given access privileges that might not exist again, the images are largely dictated by Kersting’s style. From behind the lens, he has the ability to crop out the rest of the landscape. Perhaps the photograph from the other side of the river suggests that Canary Wharf has become an island, a disconnected metropolis from the rest of the city? Kersting’s reiteration to his audience of this distance between these developments and the rest of the city becomes an increasingly alarming parallel when one inserts the companies into the offices that tower 50 floors into the sky. I feel a far clearer message relayed, however, is the immense power and money these structures represent. And the way they stand as early symbols of the city against the largely unpopulated docklands of the time.
The faceless nature of the fat cat lets us forget the individuals of the financial machine. It is not necessarily the individuals who see the need to remove themselves but, for example, Canary Wharf Group Plc who is the umbrella voice surrounding the property and enforces film and photography permits. With Kersting’s choice to not include people in the images these photographs only flatten the facade we are presented and, arguably, the face of this industry even more. The flatness compacts and constricts itself even tighter, so that it gives as little information as it possibly can. The flatness of our knowledge is emanated by these buildings’ faces. Its desire to create privacy reflects our image back to ourselves, looking at the light catching on the windows. What else Kersting saw, we will never know. The fat cat wins again.
Fat Cat: If you refer to a businessman or politician as a fat cat, you are indicating that you disapprove of the way they use their wealth and power. www.collinsdictionary.com
 Wölfflin, H., 1886. Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, München.
You never know quite what to expect when a box of old engravings is brought down from the prints department for digitisation – that’s what makes it so interesting. The prints can depict anything from bland pastoral scenes to salacious classical carry-ons or gory biblical fire-and-brimstoning; all in a day’s work.
This print above turned up at the last session I volunteered at – the wheels with eyes, disembodied hand and hovering winged multi-headed creatures seemed odd, to say the least, so I thought I’d try and find out a bit more about it all.
The type below the print is a biblical quote from Isiah 6, a chapter which has “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (all quotes will be from the King James Bible) and describes “seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.” Isaiah 6:6 then has one of the sepaphims flying and having a live coal in his hand, which“he laid it upon my mouth”. The picture seems to have a scroll rather than a coal being put near a mouth, but the description of the seraphims seemed to possibly identify what the creatures were. But there was no mention of wheels bedecked with eyes.
The top of the frame also has a biblical quote, but this one is Ezekiel 1, so off I went there and it was much more promising.
Ezekiel has four living creatures with “the likeness of a man. 1:5 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 1:6 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 1:10”
This seemed more like it, especially as these creatures have wheels complete with eyes beside them:
“behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures. 1:15 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. 1:18 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. 1:19″
Ezekiel 10 appears to have the same creatures, with four faces, wings, wheels within wheels, and an even more generous allocation of eyes:
“And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel. 10:10 And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had. 10:12″
Ezekiel then says “and I knew that they were the cherubims. 10:20″
So these seem to me more likely to be Cherubim rather than Isiah’s Seraphim. Cherubim is the plural of Cherub, which are not at all the chubby babies wafting about on mini clouds (these are putti) but are instead some sort of heavenly creatures which occupy the second highest sphere in the Christian angelic hierarchy (Seraphim are in the first). Cherub means ‘to be near’ or ‘near ones’ so they are close to God and seem to have a sort of servant/ bodyguard function.
Incidentally, it was from Ezekiel’s description of the four faces, the ox, the man, the lion and the eagle, that the symbols for the four evangelists were later adopted.
That seemed to solve some of the mystery of the fantastical subject matter, so I figured it was worth finding out a bit more about the print and the artist. Below the frame, in small writing are two names, one on the left one on the right. Usually, the name on the left is the original artist’s and that on the right is the engraver or craftsman who printed the image and that seems to be the case here.
On the left, it says ‘B. Picart. del’. The ‘del.’ means ‘drawn by’, so Bernard Picart is the artist who did the original drawing.
On the right, it says ‘Phil. Andr. Kilian, Sc. A.V.’ The Sc. denotes ‘engraved by’, so Philipp Andrew Kilian is the engraver. A. V. stands for Augusta Vindelicorum, which means it was published in Augsburg Germany. (Isn’t the internet only marvelous!)
Picart (b.1673) was an engraver and artist who worked on a lot of book and biblical illustrations. He is known chiefly for his 1723 tome The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world. This was a widely distributed, early enlightenment encyclopaedia of religious life which aimed to describe the origins beliefs and rites of the religions of the then known world. It has been described as “a milestone in information gathering”, and even as “the book that changed Europe”. Here are some examples of his work.
Kilian, b. 1714 was one of a famous family of Augsburg engravers, and he did, amongst other things, 130 engravings for some monumental collection of illustrated Bible stories. So my assumption is that Picard did an engraving or drawing of this Cherubim scene, and then later, Kilian copied it or did his version of it for another publication. I haven’t however been able to find our image in online collections of Kilian’s biblical illustrations.
Doing a bit of research on this has been interesting – typing such word combinations as ‘eyes, wheels and winged creatures’ into Google leads you down some very weird and wonderful paths indeed; I have to admit to spending far more time than I should have with shimmering auras, vibrating orbs and whispering angels. I also found a somewhat less than convincing explanation of Ezekiel 10 in a book that billed itself as ‘possibly the most extensive literary work scrutinizing extra-terrestrial intervention and biblical scripture ever compiled’, which went into astonishing detail regarding the interior furnishing of the Cherubim spacecraft. Belief can be an odd thing.
Mind you, we came across the print on the day of hurricane Ophelia, when the sky above the Courtauld was an unearthly yellow and people were standing in the strangely still courtyard, quietly staring up as if waiting for something to appear – spaceships, disembodied hands, even churning ‘dreadful’ wheels with staring eyes perhaps.
An urgent, restless group of portraits by Chaïm Soutine comprises the show entitled Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys. Painted in what seems like a flurry of activity, the paint still feels fresh: Soutine paints quickly wet into wet. Against the grain of conventional portraits, Soutine’s sitters were largely unknown, the make-shift titles were added by academics or dealers for practicality. Soutine doesn’t look to preserve a collective impression of a sitter, suggesting they are a vehicle for something more intangible. It is easy to set the scene, models in their uniform would sit for Soutine after their day’s work, brooding with a sense of resignation that is echoed in the way they are melded to the surface by the furious brushwork. Often their shoulders are bowed as the background encroaches, blurring where the paint meets the figure, and giving an overall sense of flatness. With the space collapsing, the weight of brushwork on the drapery and uniforms lends a further sense of claustrophobia, it is hard to imagine the sitters being able to breathe under the weight of their clothing.
Yet, despite the foreboding, the colours and nervous energy of the brushwork give a real sense of life to the portraits. Flesh tones feel tenderly observed and there is a sense of fidelity to the colours Soutine picks out of the surroundings: the yellows and turquoises coming from the whites of the chefs’ uniforms add a uniqueness to the vision. For something painted in such a blurry hurry these paintings are incredibly seductive to look at, we are constantly shifting our gaze from one passage to another; a splash of thinned paint forms some fidgety hands before moving up the furrows of a well-worn smock, and then a jab of the brush forms three opalescent teeth in a mouth, until eventually we are able to take in the painting in as a whole again.
Surveying the exhibition, I think less about the painters who were Soutine’s contemporaries and instead more of the photographers of his time, especially August Sander, the German documentary photographer who would have worked at around the same time as Soutine. In his series, People of the 20th Century, Sander photographed the working population of the country, from bricklayers to musicians and estate agents all with great faithfulness. Sander often photographed his subjects with the accouterments of their trade, much the same way as Soutine depicts his subjects in their uniform. It is also striking how Soutine uses quite conventional poses such as the full-length portrait in The Little Pastry Cook: with his hands planted firmly on his hips, the subject feels peculiarly photographic. But there is also something more psychologically puncturing about Soutine’s paintings that directs me to think of August Sanders photography, Roland Barthes wrote in his book camera lucida “What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” With his subjects posing resolutely with the tools of their trade, Sander seems to take such a specific slice of time it is almost as if he is pointing out that this might be how things are now but they will change. With a different medium and means, Soutine achieves a feeling very similar. Perhaps when we look at a painting, especially a portrait, we should get an impression of studious monumentality, it was traditionally the way monarchs would publicise their image to a nation. Yet, in Soutine’s portraits, faces often feel crestfallen and expressions are indistinct at best, the very antithesis of monumental. It is as if they are sliding off the canvas or slipping back to the anonymity of the city. All we are left with is the knowledge that the sitter sat for the artist at some point, but is now long lost to the past.
Pertinently, many of the surrounding paintings in the Courtauld are made by Soutine’s peers and contemporaries who were active in Europe at that time. They envisaged a world emboldened by clean graphic sensibilities, synthesised colour, and sometimes wild abandon. The modernity Soutine presents is one of squalid torment and rather than Europe it would be America that would hail Soutine. Alfred J. Barnes, an American collector, would purchase 60 paintings in one go liberating Soutine from the grinding poverty he had been captured in for much of his life.
In his seminal book, Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas writes of the grand European modernist Le Corbusier’s disgust at visiting New York, where the skyscrapers are too small, there is not enough light streaming into the buildings, and the roads aren’t wide enough. But Koolhaas’ proposition of modernism doesn’t have to be the rational utopian dream Le Corbusier desired, it could be the perverse, decadent vision of Salvador Dalí as well. Perhaps there is something Dali-esque in Soutine’s paintings; a wilful vision in which we are submitted to the artist’s innermost visions and feelings. America would be the heralding of Soutine, and you can largely see his legacy through American art from De Kooning and the abstract expressionists to Philip Guston and later painters such as Alice Neel and Cy Twombly.