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The Eyes Have It – A short story

The Guitar Player

The Guitar Player

The gentle creaking of the old floorboards made me realise that I had crossed the threshold and entered the calm of the house. It was a bright morning in early May and tiny motes of dust floated in the shafts of sunlight that crossed the hall of Kenwood House in North London. The ticking of a tall grandfather clock was the only sound I heard as I looked around, taking in the paintings and beautiful quiet.

I went to the reception desk and enquired about the painting that I had come to see. The attendant directed me to a room at the back of the house, and I happily made my way along corridors filled with wonderful works of art. There were many paintings and pieces of sculpture, both big and small, and some fine furniture. No doubt all these pieces could tell a tale, but that would have to wait as I rounded a corner and stepped into the room that I had been directed to.

A few weeks earlier I had found out that a painting by one of my favourite artists, Johannes Vermeer, was on permanent display in the magnificent house on grounds that border Hampstead Heath. I had seen some of Vermeer’s work when I was in Amsterdam the previous winter, and was looking forward to seeing The Guitar Player.

And so I slowly looked about and found the beautiful painting only a few feet away, hanging near a tall window. The room was empty, save for me, the paintings and the gentle hum of a discreetly placed humidifier.

Although Vermeer produced less than forty attributed works, they are all prized and admired in equal measure for their clarity and brilliant capturing of a ‘moment in time’. It has been suggested, somewhat snootily, by some experts that he may have used a camera obscura to assist in the accurate rendering of his subjects and brilliant use of shadow. Whether this was true or not was far from my mind when I gazed upon the red-cheeked, young girl dressed in her gold and white dress, smiling as she plucked the strings of her guitar. It was a magical moment as I studied the colours, shadow and engaging smile that forced a grinning response. I was captivated and marvelled once again at Vermeer’s work. It was magnificent and I was delighted to have seen it.

I was aware of the silence in the room when I turned and looked at the other wonderful paintings. There was a delightful portrait by Franz Hals, and others by Gainsborough and Reynolds brought my eye to something that took my breath away. For there in front of me was a painting by another famous Dutch master that seemed to breathe and pulse, so intense and brilliant was the work. I was taken aback by the power of the sitter’s gaze, and it’s a moment that I have always treasured.

After the gentle, light work of Vermeer, I was completely unprepared for one of Rembrandt’s greatest works – Portrait of the Artist – that speaks with deep understanding over three hundred years after it was created. The artist is dressed for work and holds an easel and paintbrushes and has a bright, white hat to protect his long, silver hair. The painting is lit from the left and casts his left cheek and shoulder into shadow, a device that draws your attention to his face.

And his eyes – the windows to the soul.

They are the eyes of an old man, who was almost sixty years of age, and all too familiar with the ups and downs of life. For Rembrandt, who early on was successful, happy and rich, life dealt him some cruel blows. His wife, Saskia, who he loved madly, died young as did his son Titus. And, like other artists before and since, he made bad financial decisions and was eventually declared bankrupt. Such a fall from grace and the attendant pain are all captured in the painting that hung before me.

Then I realised something for the first time, and stepped closer. I could clearly see the brushstrokes and the dabs of paint that the master had applied all those years ago. And here I was in exactly the same position that Rembrandt must have stood, maybe on a morning in a far-off May, considering his next move. I felt that I was being let in on a secret and it was those deep, world-weary but captivating eyes that were my gateway to appreciating the master’s work. I have visited Kenwood House many times since, and always enjoyed Rembrandt’s gnarled, engaging face and the silent eyes that say so much.

Portrait of the Artist

Portrait of the Artist

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Time for Turner – The Vaughan Bequest

JMW Turner

JMW Turner

January is often viewed as a comedown after the excitement of Christmas has finally died away, but not for those who are fans of the watercolours of JMW Turner. The annual display of his work lasts for the month of January, and it is one of the National Gallery of Ireland’s (NGI) most popular attractions.

In 1900 the National Gallery were bequeathed 31 watercolours by Henry Vaughan, and a stipulation that they should only be displayed in January when the light was weak. This was to protect the delicate drawings, and although modern measures can adequately do the job the National Gallery adheres to Vaughan’s request. This adds to the display and allows the viewer to see Turner’s magical work as Vaughan or the artist would have enjoyed them.

Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan was born in Southwark, south London, in April 1809 and his father, George, owned a very successful hat making business. And in 1829 when his father died Henry inherited the business and was an extremely wealthy young man. He had been privately educated, and his wealth allowed him to travel widely in Europe and begin his collection. This included many works and sketches by Michelangelo and Rembrandt and paintings by Reynolds, Flaxman and Constable. In fact, he presented Constable’s famous work the Hay Wain to the National Gallery (London) in 1886.

By that time he had become a friend of Turner’s and bought a considerable number of his works that would constitute a large part of the Vaughan Bequest. The works that the NGI acquired have since been added to and now there are 36 watercolours to enjoy. They show Turner’s mastery of light, and his skill in catching the fleeting moment that so impressed generations of aspiring artists. And, two hundred later they still have the power to move the viewer. It’ll be a great way to start the New Year – check it out.

National Gallery of Ireland

National Gallery of Ireland

 

 

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Edmund Burke – A Great Orator

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke was born in Dublin on 12th January 1729 to a Protestant father, Richard and Catholic mother, Mary Nagle who was County Cork. Richard was a prosperous solicitor and he sent young Edmund to be educated in a Quaker school in Ballitore, County Kildare. Later, in 1744 he entered Trinity College and in 1747 established a debating society called the Edmund Burke Club. The society merged with the Historical Club in 1770 to form the College Historical Society which is the second oldest student society in the world.

He went to London 1750 to study law, and against the wishes of his father, soon gave up and decided to earn his living by writing. His first published work, A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind (1756), attacked social philosophy, especially that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great Swiss philosopher.

By the late 1750s he counted Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Sir Joshua Reynolds among his circle of friends in London.

After a return to Dublin, where he acted as private secretary to William Hamilton, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, he entered parliament in 1765. Over the following years he established himself as one of the greatest orators ever to speak in the House and his speeches have been studied ever since. He spoke out against Britain’s actions in America and thought war was the wrong path to follow. Subsequently, he attacked the French Revolution, for which he was criticised. However, many of his desperate warnings were borne out with the execution of Louis XVI and the rise of the despotic Napoleon.

A few of his many famous quotes:

  • Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting
  • Never apologise for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologise for the truth
  • You can never plan the future by the past

He died in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire on the 9th July 1797 and is buried in the local churchyard with his infant son Richard, whose loss affected him deeply.

Statue in Trinity College, Dublin

Statue in Trinity College, Dublin

 

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