Railing Against It

Early Morning, Station Platform

In the station car park two men lean on the bonnet of a white van, wreathed in the noise of important radio communication. Their role is printed in fluorescent yellow across their flak jackets: ‘Environmental Enforcement Officer’. The loud radios are on their shoulders, their utility belts bulge with objects full of function, the belt cuts into the waist of one of them to create a perfect wave form. He has a no 1 crop and a swallow tattoo on the back of his neck, his companion is a shorter younger wannabe version, perhaps he is saving up for the tattoo and the stomach. Their van also has ‘Environmental Enforcement’ written on it, the lights are on and the engine is running.

It takes a while to work out what these two are doing, what aspects of the environment they are enforcing, shouting at trees to grow maybe, telling raindrops which way to fall (down?). Do Urk and Splurk lounging on their bonnet have advanced environmental enforcement accreditation I wonder; making seeds grow in Fibonacci spirals for example, or enforcing Newton’s Laws of Motion perhaps? They stop one attractive young woman after another, eventually (the train is late) I realise; they are car park attendants checking tickets.

Stylish, Functional and Bulletproof

The bulletproof flak jacket style, usually modelled by TV war reporters and inner city policemen, is obviously necessary for this ordinary area of the Southeastern Railways empire. Particularly at this time of the morning, full of self important businessmen and feral schoolchildren travelling to the most selective schools in the country clutching their Latin homework. You could accuse the visual language that clothes Urk and Splurk of turning the volume up to eleven, but it is really part of a long tradition. A tradition that, in a convoluted manner, reminds me of Rubens, Rembrandt and Veronese, Alexander the Great obviously and a loathsome pop song that includes the words ‘You don’t have to turn on the red light’.

The Functions of Portraiture

In art, one of the functions of portraiture is to aggrandise, to mythologise the banal. The activities in the station car park took me back to a painting in the National Gallery, London: Thomas de Keyser’s ‘Portrait of Constantin Huygens and his (?) Clerk’.

Thomas de Keyser: ‘Portrait of Constantin Huygens and his (?) Clerk’. 1627, Oil on oak. 92 x 69 cm. National Gallery, London

An important man is sitting in a well-appointed room, he is not looking at us, he is receiving a letter. This is a Northern European painting, smallish and carefully painted, a cultural context which tells us to be aware of detail, composition and possible layers of iconographic meaning. From 1625 Huygens was secretary to the Stadtholder, or the chief executive of the province of The Hague, and the House of Orange. He is the self-consciously northern version of Baldasarre Castiglione’s the Courtier, as painted by Raphael.

 Where Does the Door Lead To?

Where do we find clues for all this? There is a doorway revealed by the pulled back tapestry, why? A painted space within a space; always a clue. Is the tapestry relevant for example? According to the usual sources, it is St Francis of Assisi being presented to the Sultan (in essence, St Francis promoting peace through dialogue not war) it is rumpled, and dark in such a way that it doesn’t present us with another space to seductively slip into, it is a luxurious object. This makes sense, that was the sitters role, to source luxury objects for his employers, and as a diplomat to promote peace.

Thomas de Keyser: ‘Portrait of Constantin Huygens and his (?) Clerk’. 1627, Oil on oak. 92 x 69 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Doorway

But where does the door lead to? Through art (the tapestry) we go to where? Art is a significant part of diplomacy, as this painting shows us, the sitter understood that language well.

Rubens and Alexander the Great

One of Huygens first acts for the newly married Prince Frederick Hendrick, was to negotiate the purchase of Rubens’ ‘The Marriage of Alexander and Roxane’.

Rubens: ‘Modello for Marriage of Alexander and Roxane’, oil on panel, 40 x 30 cm

That painting had a specific, relevant message. Frederick’s wife, Amalia although an important dynastic bride, was not of suitable rank or pedigree for the House of Orange. Like Vasari for the Medicis, Huygens organised art and it’s setting, a visual language that emphasised the ancient ancestry of the House of Orange. Hence the subject of the Rubens painting, Alexander married Roxane, the daughter of a chieftain, in a strategic marriage although legend tells us that Roxana was ‘the only passion which he, the most temperate of men, was overcome by’ (Plutarch: Life of Alexander, 33:47). A marriage equally disapproved of; Roxane was not of the right blood, any child would not be pure Macedonian.

By the way, after his invasion of India, back in Babylon, Alexander made another strategic marriage, to a new Persian wife, Staterira, a daughter of King Darius. After Alexander’s death, Roxane had Staterira and her child murdered.


And the relationship to Veronese, and uniforms?

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’, 1565-7. oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London

Veronese’s Family of Darius before Alexander, a painting that turns on misidentification, the grandmother appealing for the lives of her family, but to the wrong man, and one of her grandchildren in the painting is of course: Staterira.

The Police?

I don’t need to mention that awful song again do I? ‘Sell your body to the night’, yuk.


Well you can understand Huygen’s knowledge of art when you discover that he was one of the first of Rembrandts patrons and he recommended him for his first significant commission.

Rembrandt: ‘Portrait of Maurits Huygens’, 1632, oil on oak. 31 x 25 cm. Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

This portrait of Huygen’s brother leads some critics to believe that the other figure in this painting is not his clerk, but his brother, also employed by the Stadtholder, what do you think?

Travel and Visual Language

Or the painting?

Thomas de Keyser: ‘Portrait of Constantin Huygens and his (?) Clerk’. 1627, Oil on oak. 92 x 69 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Painting Within a Painting

Above the mantelpiece is a marine painting in the style of Jan Porcellis, whom Huygens admired, and it tells us about travel of course, he had spent time in the English court, and that is another pointer to this form of composition. Paintings within paintings, painted spaces within painted spaces, are always important signposts.

Visual languages have meaning too, often to do with status, or the wish of the portrayed to achieve a higher status (think of the flak jackets). The same is happening here. As second-generation immigrants from the Catholic Southern Netherlands, the Huygens needed noble status, and how do they do that? Promotional image making: knowledge; wealth; success, all evident here, but look at the basic forms of the composition itself. In his time in the English court, Huygens would have seen the grand but less formal paintings of the nobility and royalty in the Stuart court and the collection of the Earl of Arundel in particular. Notice the simple point that he is sitting whilst others stand; a royal prerogative. This painting appropriates the language of nobility and power, marries it with Vanitas themes (to avoid accusations of arrogance) Again this part of a Northern tradition,

Jan van Eyck: ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, 1434, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

it was what van Eyck was doing with the Arnolfini Portrait of two nouveau riche aspirant Italian cloth merchants some two hundred years earlier


Those Vanitas themes are most prominent on the table, the lute referring to his interest in music, as well as books and architectural drawings (with the Dutch architect Pieter Post, he designed his own house), luxury goods of little use in the long, long afterlife. The globes, those two huge round orbs behind the table, refer his interest in geography and astronomy (he designed telescopes and other scientific instruments). Truly a Renaissance man and keen to tell us so.

Thomas de Keyser: ‘Portrait of Constantin Huygens and his (?) Clerk’. 1627, Oil on oak. 92 x 69 cm. National Gallery, London

By Their Boots Shall Ye Know Them

It’s all in the uniform of course, the clothing. Look at the sombre but expensively tailored clothing, the uniforms of these two. The clerk (if it is a clerk, not Constantin’s brother) wears shoes, he is an indoor clerk. Whereas Constantin wears splendid riding boots, almost theatrical in their bootness; a travelling man, in considerable style.

Notice also the hands and gloves, which make a complex centre of attention on the left and, via a gently curving line draw attention to his un-gloved hand lying on the architectural plan on the table. The gloves are fringed with Orange, either a discrete reference or a piece of specific uniform for those working for the House of Orange, its shows he is ‘hand in glove’ with his employer.  

Return Journey, on the Platform

I watch two men in clothing that stands out somehow. It is too clean, the check shirts are buttoned too firmly, the clean jeans have an ironed crease, the black shoes are shiny. They are closely questioning a much younger man in grubby grey tracksuit bottoms and a T shirt with ‘Keep Calm’ etc printed on it. It is quickly apparent that they are plain clothes ticket inspectors, they wear their ‘plain clothes’ slightly theatrically, to make it clear that it is a costume relevant for their importance and occupation,

“I wouldn’t lie to you, you know. I’m going to Swanley to get the money to come back. I ain’t got no money and that’s straight up. But when I get there, Swanley I mean, then I’ll get the money to come back, know what I mean.”

The inspectors are puzzled by the rationale behind a journey to get the money to pay for the journey to get the money, perhaps they have not seen enough Pinter or similar. Do we feel as if we’re in a play? We are anyway; beneath the blue suburban skies my train arrives and takes me away.

Early Morning Train

Jammed into my seat, I watch two suited men silently jostle their laptops to gain space on the narrow table. There is exactly not enough room for two open laptops. The loser has to angle his virtual portal, the winner gets the flat keyboard and no reflections; happy days. Watching this battle for space is one of the minor joys of my morning commute.

The Painted Space within a Space

As in paintings, the lesser space within the greater is equally helpful in understanding the wider space around us, as for example in the Loggia in Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Flagellation’.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino.

That painted space can also be small, a window or mirror (The Arnolfini of course).

Renoir: The Umbrellas

Or smaller still, can we include those objects that contain something relevant, the skulls and shells in Vanitas paintings? Containers that once held life are now just empty space; the lack of current content being the point of the painting. Thinking further on a container that might, or might not, be empty look for example at the band box in Renoir’s ‘The Umbrella’s’ in the National Gallery, London.

Renoir: ‘The Umbrellas’ 1881-5, 108 x 115 cm. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Famously, this painting was made in two halves (the right hand in 1881 the left in 1885) and is therefore a favourite for History of Art teachers trying to show ‘development’.

Renoir: ‘The Umbrellas’ 1881-5, 108 x 115 cm. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. With time division

There is a noticeable change in colour and brushwork here, from the earlier stages of Impressionism to what is often called The Crisis (well amongst those who have to set and write essays about it). That crisis shows itself in the return to darker colours (French Ultramarine as opposed to the lighter Cobalt Blue on the right), creating harder edged form with chiaroscuro as opposed to using colour to make pictorial depth. The band box, sometimes called a hat box, is carried by the girl in the left centre, it was used to fetch and carry small objects around the city (Paris), usually for the Millinery trade. The best text for this by the way is ‘Painting the Difference: Sex and Spectator in Modern Art’ by Charles Harrison

Two Little Birds

We stop at a station, two sparrows are fighting on the platform, small fluttering movements in tight swirling flight patterns. Both try, unsuccessfully, to gain height for advantage, then swoop to fight on the ground.


The composition and the narrative of The Umbrellas pivots around that box. It tells us that she has a purpose; why do we need to know that? This painting is set in Haussmannised Paris (the complete redevelopment of the centre, the first invention of the modern industrial city, a place of elegant boulevards, ostentatious wealth and crowds; of spectacle.) One of the characteristics of new urban life is the removal of the old certainties.

Dress to Impress

Clothing in late 19th Century Paris no longer denotes status, cheap copies of all styles are available, prostitutes wearing versions of haute couture exploit this dissonance. As Harrison points out, many images from the period represent mistaken identity, men warmly greet women they assume are of equivalent status, but then realise they have got it badly wrong. The central girl’s clothes are, as part of Renoir’s developing style perhaps, timeless. Whereas the clothes of the woman on the left, with the umbrella and children, are specific and dateable. Renoir had done something similar with his painting, La Loge, in the Courtauld, contemporary critics were unsure as to the status of the woman in the box (la Loge): cocotte or lady?

The Train Gang

The war for supremacy of the table has entered a new phase of the campaign; the phone call. Loudly calling your PA to check on today’s vital meetings; yes I’m so important that my PA is standing by at 7.30 in the morning. The counter sally is to phone other meetees to check the length of your agenda.

The Girl with the Band Box

There are clues in the Umbrellas, the girl with the band box is bare headed and without gloves. Always indicators of low status, as Manet shows in Bar at the Folies Bergere. Behind Renoir’s girl, a man is leaning up close, is he:

  • Offering her his umbrella against the rain? His status is clearly high, it is an unlikely offer unless he is confused by the classic nature of her dress. Will that offer end well?
  • Propositioning her? The band box, as a badge of office, denotes the sort of low paid job taken by country girls come to the city. These girls often resorted to prostitution, barmaids at the Folies Bergeres had much the same reputation.
  • Saving her? This depends on a reading of the ‘Internal Spectator’, who are we looking at her or, who is she looking at? Are we a female companion, as in for example Morisot’s ‘A Summer’s Day’? Unlikely given our knowledge of Renoir’s character. Are we another predatory man, like the presumed client/ viewer in Manet’s Olympia? Or, are we her rescuer who will save her from the predator?

Renoir was not a subtle painter, nothing about his work or attitude to women leads one to assume any empathy with her plight. For his approach look at the woman and her girls on the right, the earlier painted figures in Cobalt Blue. Contrast the two figures who look directly at the viewer, the girl with the box, mute poor and vulnerable and the sickly sweet overdressed little girl with the hoop and smug smile and all the security that the artists can give her.

Open the Box

Back to the band box, when you look at the painting itself, there are two possible readings, closed or empty.

Renoir: ‘The Umbrellas’ 1881-5, 108 x 115 cm. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London. Detail: Band Box

We see the black shiny cloth cover or, the darkness is the interior, the inner cloth covering the wood from which it is made. Are the marks on the left of the dark space the reflections of her hand and sleeve? Or, are they part of the covered interior? The way that the deeper blue continues up to the right, as though following an interior curve, leads me to assume emptiness. The parallel grey strokes also indicate the flat bottom of the box. On balance, although it is debatable, after looking for some time, I would say that the box is empty. I.e. she is not actually at work at that moment, or is possibly returning from an errand. Funds are therefore likely to be low. The smallest painted space within a space contains no respite for the girl.

The Train Gang

Like a set piece battle, the sort represented in Ucello’s: ‘Battle of San Romano’, we have entered the final skirmishes, the pushing of the laptop lid beyond 90 degrees, moving your machine forward at each jolt of the train; sparrows trying to gain height. At no point do the two protagonists ever make eye contact.


You could, and some viewers have, put forward the notion that the figures around the girl, the bourgeois mother and well-dressed children, are projections of her wished-for future.

Renoir: ‘The Umbrellas’ 1881-5, 108 x 115 cm. Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

In the same way that it is possible to assert that the Gonzaga figure in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation is creating the scene, can we say that the girl is dreaming a future? A future that could be brought about by the man behind her with the umbrella, or more likely by us the viewer; her look has a sense of appeal in it. A similar scenario that could be constructed out of the reflection in the mirror of Manet’s bar. Whatever the answer, this is a painting about what it was like to be looked at as a young woman in Paris in the later 19th Century, and for that matter what a young Parisian woman looked like. “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” as John Berger wrote in ‘Ways of Seeing’ many years ago.

Back to the Train Gang

The battle next to me has been won; the man on my right is looking smugly into his own virtual space, he is being transported to somewhere else; the future? And where might that be? An exciting Powerpoint about growth forecasts (not great by the look of it). An ostentatiously full future of course, no possibility of mistaking this man for a chancer. At the terminal he will proceed the City, to exert his financial power. Perhaps to demand that the workers whose pensions he lost must take less than the minimum wage, poorer working conditions and ‘flexible working conditions’. FTSE directors pay increased by 55% last year, average pay increase in the UK last year was 0.9%.

Early Morning Train

Hot and crowded, this is a train with five cramped seats in a row; in a two then three formation with a narrow passage between. People try to stand in this gap; standing room by the doors is full. At one end of the carriage, just beyond those doors, is a separate area with twelve first class seats, generously surrounded by space. All are empty bar one. A man sits alone, in splendour. The rest of us sweat and stand and stare at him in his isolation, in his splendid palace.

One Space Seen from Another

Looking at this carriage as a composition, a distinct space within another one, makes me think of paintings, of the smaller painted space within the larger painted space. This set up often occurs in early Northern European art, symbolising the Virgin Mary as the portal to heaven for example. It is a theme that must have been familiar enough for Van Eyck to use the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait in 1434, and the window to the left as a form of referent to that type of composition.

Jan van Eyck: ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, 1434, oil on panel. National Gallery, London

The train passes through an empty country station, at the end of the platform are two cats, one pure black, the other black and white. The piebald cat stands looking towards London, the black one sits staring towards the coast. They are close together almost touching, yet appear to pretend the other does not exist.

Space to Space

The space within a space arrangement is a form of Golden Section. The relationship of the smaller to larger area is the same as the larger to the whole. Mathematical ratios draw attention to the sets of relationships that govern the entire process. In the same way, the relationship of one painted space to another allows the artist to consider making the whole pictorial space and presenting it to the viewer.

The Ideal City and the Flagellation

Does that sort of Northern composition travel? Can we see it for example in Italian art? Try looking at Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Flagellation’,

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino.

a painting that has been much analysed and mythologised. I recently visited ‘The Ideal City’ exhibition in Urbino. The ‘Flagellation’ was exhibited under that title. The main draw to the show was the comparison between the Ideal City image itself and others, e.g. ‘The Ideal City’ from Baltimore.

Unknown Artist: ‘Ideal City’, Last Quarter Fifteenth Century, Oil on Panel, 67 x 240 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino

A fascinating exhibition, but what stood out was the range of available forms of communication; successful or otherwise. The wall texts for example had been translated into the most tortuous English possible.

Herr Professor

Standing in front of the ‘Flagellation’ an elegant, white suited, white haired German History of Art teacher spoke into the air and pushed back his hair. Behind him his young students texted, showed each other pictures on their phones, some wrote down his every word clearly not listening to any of it. This lack of interaction pointed up how one space in Piero’s painting communicates with the other, through the language of mathematics (the geometry and linear perspective) and of art (light and form). We might not know the exact intentions behind this image, but these lines of communications were stronger than those between the hair stroking Herr Professor and his charges.

The Theories

In the Flagellation (1458-60), a group of three stand in the foreground, on red tiles crossed by white.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino. Detail: the group of three

To the left, in the midground is a loggia, (the praetorium) in which Christ is whipped.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino. Detail: the praetorium.

The whipping pillar stands within a complex series of black and white tiles, on a circle within a square. A seated figure on a dais wearing a splendid hat watches.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino. Detail: seated figure.

He frames a doorway, in that further space we can see a set of stairs leading upwards; it is brightly lit.

This might or might not have been painted for Federigo da Montefeltro, the condottiere (mercenary commander) who ruled the small state of Urbino from 1444-1482,

Piero della Francesca: Federico da Montefeltro.1472-4. Tempera and oil on Panel, 47 x 33 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

or for Ottaviano Ubaldini, Federigo’s Chief Counsellor and Treasurer, a famously well-read humanist. It is possible, just, to identify the bearded figure with portraits of Ottaviano, and the other with Ludovico, il Gonzaga Marquis of Mantua. None of the figures looks like Federigo, who was not shy of including himself where necessary.

Evidently, the Flagellation was made for a cognoscente. Northern art was familiar in Urbino, Justus of Ghent produced many paintings for it, Ottaviano owned a van Eyck painting. The games played with space here and in the Studiolo (several of the inlaid doors in the exhibition) display ease with characteristic Northern uses of pictorial space.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino. Detail: the group of three

The Threesome

Art historians get most excited about the identity of the group of three, and their relationship to the flailed Christ. Opinion differs greatly as to who they are. Is what we can see what those three can actually see or, are they conjuring up the scene? Marilyn Lanvin suggests the specific identities above (Lanvin, Marilyn, 1972. Piero della Francesca: the Flagellation. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-46958-1) because two key figures of the period had recently lost sons (Ottaviano in 1458 and Ludovico’s adopted son between 1456-60).

A Visionary Scene

The conjuring up of visions, or visions within visions is also reasonably familiar within paintings, eg The Visions of St Jerome. According to this reading the figure in the centre is either an angel, or an image of the risen Christ, note the halo, or wreath of laurel leaves behind him (symbol of victory/ glory) and the similarity of the pose of Christ and the youth.

Or, the figures are representations of Oddantonio da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino and his advisors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell’Agnello murdered just before Federigo took over. Or they are, including Oddantonio, Federigo’s predecessors. Or, the seated figure is the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos, and this is a painting about the re-unification of the two wings of the Eastern and Western Christian church, or it might be about the siege of Constantinople (1453) and the figure is Sultan Murad II, the Ottoman leader, or…

Signorelli Gets to the Bottom of the Story

By the way, we know that these figures are a crucial part of the composition by comparing them to similar compositions on the same theme. Luca Signorelli is generally thought to be Piero della Francesca’s pupil. Signorelli’s take on the subject was shown in the same room as ‘The Flagellation’.

Luca Signorelli: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, c.1480, Tempera on Panel, 84 x 60 cm. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

The later work is splendidly dissolute with, as one of my companions put it, ‘lots of cheeky buttock work’. No evidence of the careful, measured relationship between the three and the whole space. Take them away and the entire meaning changes. Fill it full of sinuous curves and the muscular male behind and it changes even further. We had a long time to look at this whilst we waited for the teaching to finish.

So, You are a German Historian of Art

You have a linen suit creased just so, your horn rimmed spectacles sit, academically you think, on your aquiline nose, your hair is lovingly placed over your head, so. You have the words of your illustrious predecessors: Wolfflin; Wittkower; Panofsky running through your veins like blood, yet still your students do not listen. You are surrounded by communication, of one sort or another, so you say, let us think about the communication of one painted space to another or, how does one space talk to the other; who is texting whom? Actually he didn’t say anything of the sort, just kept chuntering on to a point some two feet above the painting, for a very, very long time.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino.

The three figures stand on a straightforward red and white tiled floor receding into the distance. In the praetorium the tiling is more complex, As Martin Kemp points out in ‘The Science of Art’, that tile pattern is based on Pythaogorus and the length of the diagonal in his famous triangle; an irrational number, in this case deriving from the external proportions of the panel. The tile pattern outside the praetorium is made from simple divisions into eight, no square roots here. This is the language of mathematics, Piero della Francesca was one of the most successful mathematicians of his period, a copy of his ‘De Prospectiva Pingendi’ was on display in the next room. In the relationship between these two spaces we have the ratio of the mundane, the everyday to the glorious and the geometric; the secular to the sacred.

The Viewer Within

In the performative role of the Internal Spectator, often the painted figures closest to the viewer, we see the painted world through their eyes. The closest of the three figures to us is in profile; the man in the glorious robe. Lanvin identifies him as Ludovico Gonzaga. If anyone is conjuring up this scene it is him, looking into this world from the edges, not perhaps the putative Ottaviano who looks out of the space

Back with the Train Gang

In my train carriage, there is no aural communication between us second class folk and the lone first class passenger. He can be in no doubt how the rest of us feel through other means: body language; disposition of space; the visibility of his floor as opposed to the rows of dark suited legs and shiny black shoes and walking trainers that obscure ours. Perhaps that is why he stares so intently at his I-pad. Is there an internal viewer in this composition? Next to the door surrounds, a short round woman with short blond hair is asleep. Her red T shirt matches her complexion as she snores. Her laptop computer, open on the table ledge by the window, bleeps. On her wrist is a very large gold watch. Her congested breathing gets louder. No other passenger pays any attention, perhaps they are used to it. Is she our guide to the true meaning of this composition?

Light in My Darkness

The spirituality of light is well known in art, particularly in Northern Renaissance paintings. Often the light indicates the presence of God, or the holiness of the Virgin Mary.

van Eyck: ‘The Ghent Altarpiece (closed)’ tempera and oil on panel, 3.5 x 4.6 m (closed panels), Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium,

In the piazza, outside the praetorium the light is from the upper left; a traditional placing. As Lanvin and Kemp show, the light in the praetorium has a different source. One of those analyses that Art Historians come out with after hours of reading not looking, I thought.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino. Detail: the praetorium.

But, actually in front of the work, yes that light is very obvious, especially the shadow cast by the roof beam. That central coffered area above Christ is lit up as though rows of fluorescent tubes sit around the cornice. It is light that only Christ can see, coming from somewhere just above his eye level between the second and third column.

There’s a Sign on the Wall, But She Wants to be Sure

But, what about the furthest space, the space within the space within the space? The one with the stairs.

Piero della Francesca: ‘Flagellation of Christ’, 1458-60, Tempera on Panel, 58 x 81 cm. Galleria Nazional delle Marche, Urbino. Detail: seated figure.

There are eight stairs, octagons occur throughout the construction of the praetorium tiled floor and the tile pattern in the piazza is divided into eight parts. Didn’t Christ rise from the tomb eight days after entering Jerusalem? What about that other key factor for the major inner space, light? Where is the light in that furthest stair filled space coming from? From the right, possibly the same source of light that Christ looks toward, the different source of light within the loggia, to that, from the left, that lights up the three standing figures. There is no other way to put this; this is the stairway to heaven. No doubt Rolf will be at the top to serenade the three figures when they climb it, “Convenerunt in Unum” (“They came together”) as it originally said on the frame.

On the Railway Platform, Afternoon

Opposite me, on the up platform, a man in blue overalls drinks a can of diet coke and eats a giant Mars bar. There are three fluorescent stripes on each of his trouser legs; a man of equivalent importance to his (substantial) poundage. Is it logical to assume that stripes, placed on clothing in certain positions in certain ways, denote importance?

Yellow and Orange Fluorescent Tabards

The Fluorescent Tabard: the New Cloak of Invisibility.

The number of fluorescent stripes on orange or yellow tabards, on sleeves or trouser legs of workmen/ firemen etc. should tell us their rank. In fact the opposite seems to be true, the yellow tabard is the new cloak of invisibility, and the poor souls you see working at night (repairing roads perhaps) despite entire officer classes of stripes, seem to be at the bottom of any class structure.


Where else does this reversal work? The scruffier the schoolchild, the greater their importance in their peer hierarchy? I once went to a History of Art conference at the incredibly grand Westminster School, next to Westminster Abbey. As I walked through the porters gate, a vast black car deposited the filthiest school boy I have seen for a very long time. In other contexts he would have been of great interest to the social services, yet he was a boy of some importance, greeted by the porter no less, as his chauffeur drove the enormous black conveyance away.

Princes as Beggars?

We are not talking about disguise here, the Shakespearian complexities of the beggar revealed as the prince. All concerned in this reversal know who they are. Neither is it a form and function debate, the dissonance between occupation (function) and formally considered outward appearance (form) is clearly deliberate. Are the abundance of fluorescent stripes merely someone, as it were, using existing cultural signifiers to ‘talk up’ their status.

“Good Morning. This is the Guard speaking, would any passengers requiring the purchasing of tickets for their onward journey this morning please make themselves known to myself as I pass back down through the train this morning”

Uniform Response.

Sometimes we genuinely mistake a person’s status, function, rank through their clothing, Veronese’s ‘The Family of Darius’ plays on this. Although I first came across it as an example of an artist exploiting the power of the colour red, and that perhaps is the clue.

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’, 1565-7. oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London

Can one ever take the violent artificial virulence of fluorescent orange or worse, yellow, as indicator of gravitas? If you want power from that end of the colour spectrum, look at the red of the central standing figure who waves his left hand.

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ 1565-7, oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Alexander and Hephaestion?

He is painted in red lake (derived from crushed cochineal beetles) his companion in yellow and orange is painted in orpiment and realgar. Realgar is a relatively rare, and powerfully poisonous, arsenic containing mineral, you can also see it in fellow Venetian, Titian’s, painting of the Bachante’s drapery.

Titian: ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, 1520-3, oil on canvas, 177 x 191 cm. National Gallery, London

The yellow leg of Veronese’s figure is painted in orpiment, a similar mineral to realgar, This characteristic Venetian use of these two pigments, doesn’t spread to the rest of Europe till later centuries. In the same period the English apparently used realgar to kill rats.

The same system (strong, expensive pigments for important figures) works in the rest of the painting,

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ 1565-7, oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Sisigambis

for example the deep ultramarine blue of Sisigambis the kneeling queen, plumb centre, topped by ermine the fur of rulers. Ultramarine, the most expensive colour, deepest blue, painted in thick sweeping strokes. Unlike, for example, the blue of the lesser princess (daughter) behind her where the ultramarine is far less and the under-painting of azurite (cheaper pigment) more visible. The sky by the way is painted in smalt (a mix of powdered glass and cobalt, much cheaper than the ultramarine pigment made from Lapis Lazuli, a mineral taken all the way from mines in Afghanistan).

So, how does this tell the story?

Alexander, the Macedonian/ Greek had beaten the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 330 BC; the clash between West and East we are still familiar with. After the victory, Alexander visited the defeated family. Darius’ mother, Sisigambis, pleads for her life and that of her family, grandson, two granddaughters and Darius’ sister, also his queen. Traditionally they, the girls especially, would have been raped, slaughtered or enslaved. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong man to plead to, directing herself to Hephaestion, Alexander’s close friend and companion, not the man himself.

Who is Who?

This brings us to the central debate about the painting, and one that Veronese himself set up by his manipulation of our ideas about colour: which figure is Alexander and which Hephaestion?

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’, 1565-7. oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London

The figure in red with the hand gesture is the most powerful Sisgambis directs herself to him, but he gestures to his companion who is, notice, closer to attributes that represent Alexander, ie the great horse Bucephalus and shield.

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ 1565-7, oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Bucephalus

Opinion is varied on this point, Goethe by the way was insistent that Hephaestion was the figure in the rose cloak, whereas Nicholas Penny in the National Gallery Catalogue to the Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings is insistent that it is the other way round. That gesturing figure wears armour based on antique sculpture and has a page holding up his long red cloak, you can just see the boys head between the two men.

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ 1565-7, oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: page boy

Whereas the darker figure wears armour contemporary to the period in which the painting was made. Does this help us? Not much. What gives the clue I think, is the small boy clinging to Sisigambis, he is painted in red, but in the shadow.

Paolo Veronese: ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ 1565-7, oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: Sisigambis and Grandson?

Traditionally shadows would have been much darker, to create depth. The red boy is described either as a page boy, or more credibly as the younger son of Darius, hence his proximity to the Queen. Veronese uses red to denote a key player in the story, but hides him behind his grandmother who pleads for his life. Now you can either say that Veronese will paint all his kings in red, or that Sisgambis expects all kings to be dressed in red and behaves accordingly. But Alexander, who does things differently, e.g. not mistreating his captives, wears orange and red and stands close to his horse; which is it?

On This Side of the Picture Plane…

Meanwhile, on my train into work, we pass through a small town station. A bearded man stands, confidently on the platform. He wears a red top hat, his suit is lime green and close fitting, his tie matches this virulence, as does a lemon yellow shirt. His shoes though are brown, long red clown shoes would have made the get up and its function clear.  This mismatch is unsettling.

The Three Stripe Fluorescent Trouser

The Paradox of Apparent Movement

Stuck, unable to go anywhere, waiting for a train, I was thinking about our acceptance that a painted image contains movement. Why, when looking at that static image do we: happily predict what will happen next; what has happened before and what, from analysis of that movement, is the mental state, ideological position and historical context of all involved? Do we like looking at paintings because there is a comforting pleasure in knowing, or working out, what will happen next? Or perhaps when looking at a landscape painting, knowing that nothing will happen next, that we are in a comforting world of ‘not going anywhere’?  

“My cousin right, she wants to go to Tenerife to swim with Dolphins”

“Oh, I don’t fancy that, they’re big fish. No, I couldn’t do that. I want to go to Australia”

“What, and swim with Aboriginals?”

The Story in the Object

Viewers in the National Gallery, London, seem more interested in the story of the object, than the story in the object; is that because these stories have been lost? Look, for example at Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’, 1601, the earlier one in the National.

Caravaggio: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, 1601. 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London

At the centre of a shallow rectangular pictorial space, a young man gestures meaningfully with his right hand and waves his left over a loaf of bread. To his left an older man symmetrically stretches out his arms. Above the young man to his right, another man stands, casting a circular shadow over that younger seated one. Nearest to us, in the left foreground, a man with a hole in the elbow of his jacket pushes his arms down onto the arms of his chair, as if to lift his body upwards.

Good Lord, it’s You!

The original sixteenth century viewers of this painting would have recognised the story, and known that it is about sudden recognition. It is in the bringing together of the gestures: with the immediate story; with the past that led these figures up to this point; with the subsequent future affecting us all, that this painting extends the movement beyond what we immediately see. That bringing together, or conjunction, leads us back to the dusty road en route to Emmaus and the inn where the painted action happens. On that road the older, seated men had met the younger, discussed the recent crucifixion of Christ in Jerusalem, and the disappearance of his body from the tomb and the appearance of angels saying that he was alive. They persuade the, as yet unknown, younger man to eat with them.

“30. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

31. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him….

35. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in the breaking of bread.

36. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you”

Luke 24. 30-36.

The Significant Gesture

They (Cleopas and possibly Peter, possibly James) recognize the resurrected leader of their group (Christ) through one of the last gestures that they saw him make (breaking bread at the Last Supper).

Caravaggio: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, 1601, 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Detail: Christ’s gesture.

The actual last gesture, as it were, that they saw him make is reflected in the outstretched arms of the right hand disciple: the crucifixion.

Caravaggio: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’; 1601, 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London. Detail: Disciple with arms outstretched.

I suppose you could call this conjunction; potentialities. There is a range of those potentialities, the striding movement of walking for example, and don’t these worn, sunburnt and slightly battered figures look like they have done a lot of walking in their lives. Notice by the way the cockleshell on the leather jerkin, the symbol of the pilgrim, the walker. The significant, human movements that pinpoint or focus, key points of the story. Notice also that those gestures scoop in the viewer, draw us into the heart of the story.

“I’m not going nowhere because I literally can’t walk no more than, like, one mile an hour”

“Like, I can’t even do that”


Viewpoint is always crucial in a painting, where are we the viewer situated by the artist’s construction of the pictorial space? In this case, we are below the head of Christ, at roughly the same level of the two disciples. Although we are not close up to the table, that viewpoint is certainly from someone seated in front of Christ, drawn into his circle. The vigour of the painted gestures demands that the viewer makes equivalent movement this side of the picture plane, in our own recognition of the story and its importance.

I have just remembered, thinking back to earlier posts about what we as viewers bring to our viewing position. A boy once told me that this painting was all about telling lies and fishing:

‘You see that bloke on the right Sir, well he’s telling the others that he caught a fish and it was thiiiiis big (boy stretches out his arms in imitation) and the others Sir, well you can tell they don’t believe him”

Hurry Up and Wait

I wrote part of this waiting for my train, in the ticket area of the station. A rectangular area, parallel to the tracks. At one end: ticket sales, here the endless complexities of ticket types are negotiated. At the other: a newsagent, usually shut. Doors on each long side exactly bisect the space. These doors are automatic, over sensitive sensors open them unexpectedly and violently with an uncontrolled shake at their full extent. The track faces due north, the prevailing wind is westerly. Each time the doors suddenly fling themselves open, the wind charges through as though it is late for the fast train to London Bridge.

On each of the four benches, like points of the compass, are static middle aged men:

  • To the North West, one in brown cords and shoes, green socks and light blue striped shirt, blue jacket and bright orange Apple laptop.

  • To the North East, another, in grey suit, white shirt, pale grey tie, permanently speaking on a black shiny mobile.
  • South East, in a charcoal suit, cream shirt, black bag on lap, reading white A4 documents.
  • And me at South West, all in black with a black A5 notebook.

We are all waiting, our gestures are subdued, our composition is precise, and appropriately measured for the subject.

The Composition of Pictorial Space

Figures in pictorial space are often symmetrically arranged, usually about a central axis, ie placing the viewer directly in front of them. Think of Egg’s Travellers, that I have mentioned before,

Augustus Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862 oil on panel. 65 x 79 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

that overt symmetricality has meaning, as does the lack of precise composition in Veronese’s: ‘Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood’ .

Paolo Veronese: ‘Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?’, 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

In Supper at Emmaus the viewing point would seem to be directly in front and significantly below the normal eye level so that the vanitas bowl of fruit on the lip of the table appears to be falling on top of you.

Caravaggio: ‘Supper at Emmaus’; 1601, 141 x 196 cm, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London. Detail: Fruit Bowl.

The light in my waiting room is even and clear as fits the scene, but in Caravaggio’s inn, some three days walk from Jerusalem, the light is stark: bright highlights; pools of meaningful darkness; the shadow/ halo around Christ’s head; the darkness of the tomb from which he has risen.

A well dressed couple pass through from west to east, I just catch the end of their conversation:

 “We’ve got enough for the moment, we’ve got the six nuns in Peterborough”

Unlike the vigorous painted gestures, our bodily movements in the ticket area remain subdued, slow and undemonstrative. We are not going anywhere, no dramatic revelations of redemption here.

“South Eastern Trains would like to apologise for the delay to your service this morning, this is due to the late running of the train”

On the Platform

An empty station, Friday afternoon. I am on the platform alone. A man walks purposefully down the long empty space, it is hot, the sun very bright. He stops less than one pace in front of me. He is middle aged and red faced with a shiny suitcase on wheels, resting over the handle is a vividly crimson, highly decorated Chinese silk suit. He does not acknowledge me, although I could probably breathe down his neck if I wanted to, I do not, so I don’t.

Art about Waiting

Paintings are busy spaces, and the people depicted are busier still. They are always doing something, about to do something, having something done to them.

Conversely, travelling on public transport is all about waiting, long periods not going anywhere, not having anything done to you etc. There are few works of art that fit this state.

A Large Ferry

There is a painting in the National Gallery, London that shows stasis: Jan van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665.

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

It is calm, still, waiting for the tide, or a wind; the ferry by the way is the boat in front, lying diagonally. Apart from the gentle tonality, I have always been fascinated by van der Capelle’s treatment of the ground plane.

“This is the guard speaking with a message for the customer who just got on with a large plain (plane?) cross; you left half of it behind on the platform. I’ve got it here with me now. I’m in the fourth carriage from the front waiting for you”

Albertian Space

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

Traditionally in Albertian space, the ground plane, the Renaissance pavement, is an opaque, unyielding surface, where figures can stand, buildings can be constructed with no fear of falling through that solid ground. Even in marine paintings, the sea is usually fairly solid and boats sit/ float on top of it like a ruffled carpet on a hard floor. The power of a painted storm is the obvious departure from the comforting horizontal format.

For Albertian space to be convincing, we must feel we can traverse it, usually on foot. In this van der Capelle image the ‘pavement’, the skin of the world is the thickness and transparency of a soap bubble; we would fall through. But fall through to where? The reflected world is equally real, as though, in fact, it is us that is upside down and the reflection is reality. The boundaries between one world and the next are confused. In a very calm world there is unease. To some extent this is the familiar artist game with mirrors, playing with spaces within pictorial spaces (think of The Arnolfini portrait, or Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres). These mirror reflections are in planes parallel to the picture plane, parallel to us looking at them. The game relates to the role of pictorial space in the first place; the function of illusion. Can we say the same with a horizontal plane?

Outside the British Car Auctions, in front of an enormous queue of waiting cars, two young men are playing football with a very white ping pong ball.

The Reflective Ground Plane

To get closer to what is happening in ‘Large Ferry’ try comparing it with another familiar image of reflections in calm water, Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’,

Poussin: 'Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake', 1648. oil on canvas. 118 x 198 cm. National Gallery, London

look at the lake in the mid ground, the reflections of the buildings do not, surprisingly perhaps, destroy the flatness of the surface, the watery ground plane still happily continues on its journey to the infinite horizon. Or, any of Turner’s reflections in calm waters:

J M W Turner: 'The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up', 1839. oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London

‘The Fighting Temeraire’, or

J M W Turner: 'Norham Castle Sunrise', 1845. oil on canvas, 90 x 121 cm. Tate Britain.

‘Norham Castle Sunrise’, you could traverse these flat, reflective ground planes without once thinking of falling through. Their function is to create space, to reflect the sky, to promote the narrative; but they are always an unyielding surface. Depth in these paintings goes horizontally, into the space not, as it were, down through it, as we can see in ‘Large Ferry’. Down into another world? Where does that other world lead to, do they do things differently there? This is the familiar trope from children’s fiction: the land behind the wardrobe; the rabbit hole; the looking glass. As Auden wrote in ‘As I walked out one evening’

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead’


The Viewing Experience

Maybe this sense of unease is why this room of unassuming Dutch landscape paintings is always empty. Or, it might reflect my thesis that our behaviour this side of the picture plane is, to some extent, governed by the organisation of the space on the far side of the picture plane. This painting is hung in one of the quietest and calmest areas of the National Gallery, I have rarely seen anyone in this room, the few viewers rarely stay for more than a minute or two. Numberless hordes pass nearby, yet, like this painting, all in Room Twenty Two is still: waiting.

Morning Train

As we pull into a station two large herring gulls are slowly tearing apart a McDonalds bag, the train leaves and the birds walk with a proprietorial air down the platform.

In the seat across the aisle a youngish woman makes noises, reminiscent of a dog about to be sick. She (the youngish woman) has a transparent plastic cup and a can of Red Bull in front of her. From a carrier bag she opens a rectangular golden cardboard box and takes out a bottle of brandy. She tops up the cup and places a ham roll beside it. Her hair is red, as is her phone and all of her accessories – earrings, bracelets, flashes on trainers etc. It is 7.30 on a Saturday morning. As the train pulls away from the station she rushes towards the toilets.

“Of course, I won’t buy a new one, a perfectly ordinary biro, Why should I?”

“In the old days…”

“Of course, In the old days you could repair things, but now, I don’t see that I should.”

“In the old days…”

“Of course, in the old days, you would have signed it out wouldn’t you?”

“It would have lasted you for ever”

“Of course, you’d have looked after a thing like that, wouldn’t you?”

Both together: “in the old days…”

At the coffee shop

A well-dressed couple order extra-large and complex arrangements of what is really, sweetened milk with added cream, caramel, chocolate and finally coffee flavourings. They add a thick pink creamy looking drink each, and a couple of pain au raisins to their order. It takes them a while to organise carrying out this feast as they are both carrying large sporting bags.

“Ignorant of misfortune/ Living without worry”

Witnessing these searches for gratification makes me think of paintings of Silenus. There are different approaches to this god, Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’,

Titian: 'Bacchus and Ariadne', 1520-3, oil on canvas, 177 x 191 cm. National Gallery, London

and Van Dyck/ Rubens’ Studio’s ‘Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs’,

Attributed to Anthony van Dyck/ Studio of Rubens: 'Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs'. 1620. Oil on canvas. 134 x 197 cm. National Gallery, London.

(both in the National Gallery, London) show the usual iconography: the hugely fat figure; the surrounding Bachante; riding on a donkey in the Titian. This is the Falstaffian Lord of the Revels, clearly, but happily showing the effects of that indulgence. The teacher and companion of Bacchus/ Dionysius, the god of wine and good times; someone I’ve always felt close to. The Van Dyck figure, in particular, seems a joyful image, the brushstrokes, the palette, the smiling red face, the white hair, everybody’s favourite uncle, even if he is blind drunk and cannot walk.

Whereas the darker delineation around the stumbling Silenus in Rubens painting,

Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Drunken Silenus'. 1618. oil on canvas, 212 x 213 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

although delicately held up by the pair on the left, is an altogether different and lonely character. To add to this theme, the woman (the face anyway) on the lower left looks surprisingly like the young person on the train. Rubens’ driven, but falling demi god, is closer to the Greek mythology later revisited by Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy). The melancholic, pessimistic and wise Silenus pursued by King Midas. For example when the golden king asked what is best thing for man, Silenus replies:

‘you, seed of an evil genius and precarious offspring of hard fortune, whose life is but for a day, why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune; but for humans, the best for them is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best, for both sexes. This should our choice, if choice we have; and the next to this is, when we are born, to die as soon as we can.’

( from Aristotle: ‘Eudemus’)

 Afternoon Train.

 Man to my right eating Salt and Vinegar Monster Munch, drinking Carling Black Label, bellowing into his mobile about borrowing requirements and bank lending rates. Behind, a baby screams. In front a woman eats a very ripe banana from a yellow storage box, it is shaped like an ideal banana. Two seats down, earnest young Asian men are talking about mathematical formulae and what happens when you substitute P for X – I think. Schoolchildren are everywhere, talking about ‘Games’ and teachers and work not done, and ‘then my dad did this’ and ‘my mum did that’. And ‘she said’ and ‘I was like’ and ‘I texted her’ and on and on in a continuous stream of high-pitched jollity.

It is a relatively new train, the announcements are up as loud as they will go, the sibilance could take off the top of your head and fill it full of strong smelling, potato based, snack opportunities.

“Look, look, look what I’ve bought”


“I got ten sets of eyelashes, all sorts”

“Like, wow”

We all partake of nature’s excellence, each of us be-ing in our own particular way.

A young man is unhappy, as he speaks into his phone I gather that he has left his tent on the train; he is carrying two large rucksacks. He was expecting to sleep in the tent which must, by now, be half way to Ramsgate. It is late Friday afternoon on a small, rural station, the ticket office is closed. He had not obeyed the constant instruction:


Sympathy for the poor man without his weekend shelter prompts thoughts about our minimum requirements; what are the key elements of ‘home’? Do we always carry ‘home’ with us?

National Schools?

I have just come from a talk by the President of the Royal Academy to a group of schoolchildren. I had been about a National School of Art, a founding function of the Royal Academy. Afterwards a GCSE student asked the Pres about Tracey Emin, he was very appreciative of her time and commitment. He did not discuss whether she was, in fact, part of the new National School he was supposed to promote. Is such a collection possible or desirable in a complex, multicultural world? ‘National’ presumes a homogenous culture, a shared view of the land we share. We all share the same sky as the old posters used to say, appreciation of soft, British light might characterise those who struggle to represent its landscape.

National Characteristics: Light

It is grey and cold and drizzling on the platform, the light levels are low. Two girls are standing, half way along, towards the front. They face each other and bob slowly up and down in exact time, knees not quite touching. Just before the train arrives, the sun briefly appears on the horizon, it silhouettes the two gently rising and falling figures

What else might allow us to think of home as a set of shared national characteristics?

National Characteristics: Channelling your inner minor official

Time on public transport brings to mind that national inability to operate or cope with minor authority. Give any British man or woman a cap, a radio, a low level position of importance and we become instantly unbearable, we suppress individuality and joy in ourselves and others. That overwhelming British urge to stop someone enjoying themselves. Is that a recognisable icon on our national desktop?

This morning, on the bus, the new driver did not know the way. The driver made it as clear as he could that it was the passengers fault, we in turn did not help, did not show him where to go. He was lost and grumpy in charge of a double decker bus on winding country lanes; we were on a rudderless ship.

National Characteristics: Making it Big

As I watch the tent-less man, I can see another familiar theme on the pull down menu; sat on a bench is a young man on his mobile. He wears a vivid red and white shiny tracksuit and a crisp, purple New York Yankees baseball cap, the price ticket in dollars proudly displayed. His accent though is clearly local as he continues a monologue about his sexual successes. Could such a fidgety, awkward youth, blessed with such poor, pale skin expect his listeners to believe his spectacular history?

St Jerome

A small painting in the National Gallery shows a different conceptual desktop,

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

it is ‘St Jerome in his Study’ by Antonello da Messina painted, probably about 1475. The saint is symmetrically framed by a stone portal, a frame within a frame. A peacock, a finch and a perfectly elliptical water bowl stand outside the illusory stone frame. The saint sits reading inside a Gothic nave, in profile, in a wooden carrel; a rather complicated piece of furniture centred on a desk. Shelves surround him with carefully placed significant objects (including a cat. Notice by the way, the saint’s attribute, the lion in the arcade on the right). We can see landscape through the clear windows (no stained glass) to his left and right and sky with birds in the windows above.

Georges Perec

As Georges Perec points out in ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’ (Penguin Classics 2008, page 87)

“The whole space is organised around the piece of furniture (and the whole of the furniture is organised around the book). The glacial architecture of the church (the bareness of the tiling, the hostility of the piers) has been cancelled out. Its perspectives and its vertical lines have ceased to delimit the site simply of an ineffable faith; they are there solely to lend scale to the piece of furniture, to enable it to be inscribed. Surrounded by the uninhabitable, the study defines a domestic space inhabited with serenity by cats, books and men.”

Space within Space

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. (Centre Detail) oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

This painting features spaces within spaces within spaces, from the stone doorway, to the rectangular box shelves, the carrel itself with the stone box of the church, the tunnel of the arcading on the right and the different heights of the horizon through the two lower windows. An idealised landscape, the familiar notion of paradise in the types of Northern European art that had so clearly influenced this Southern European painter. Look for example at the view in Van Eyck’s ‘Madonna with Chancellor Rollin’.

Jan Van Eyck: 'The Madonna and Chancellor Rollin', 1437. 66 x 62 cm. Oil on Panel. Louvre, Paris.

 Antonello’s left hand landscape view does, coincidentally I presume, bear strong similarity to the methods that Poussin would later use to represent small towns, eg in ‘Landscape with a Snake’.

In his writing, Perec has organised the species of spaces so that each section works outwards starting from ‘The Page’ and ending with ‘Space’. Reminiscent of that schoolboy address that starts “If this book should dare to roam/ box it’s ears and send it home” and each further line moves from continent to hemisphere to planet to near space and ends with: The Universe. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with Perec that the ineffable faith is delimited. Look at the painting starting from the picture plane, the stone portal emphasises the world of the viewer on this side of that plane.  Go through the doorway and you enter the world of the spiritual mind (a series of interlocking themes and spaces within the overall temporal space of ‘The Church’); ineffable faith inscribed throughout each piece of iconography and the very way that the spaces are organised. Finally look through the windows; a release, a timeless space.

Note that the light from the windows has a different source to that (ordinary human space) which for example casts the shadow of the peacock.

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. (Detail) oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London


Penny Jolly has pointed out (Antonello da Messina’s ‘St Jerome in his Study’ : An Iconographic Analysis The Art Bulletin, Vol 65 No 2 (Jun 1983 pp 238-253) that each of the painted objects fit into a complex ‘iconographical program’ as characteristic of Flemish art as his use of painting media (traditionally Antonello was the first Italian artist to introduce oil paint to the South, although this is now disputed).  The iconographic references tend towards associations with the Virgin Mary, as Jolly points out the composition and arrangement of St Jerome owes something to paintings of the annunciation. The towel (although used), the bowl of water, the trees referring to walled gardens and so on; all these are, or could be, disguised Mariological symbolism.

Jolly assets that the right hand landscape is the uninhabited wilderness Jerome lived in as a hermit, and the left hand view, with it’s proximity to the cat, (sexual temptation/ erotic associations etc) shows a view of the city associated by Jerome with wordliness.

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. (Centre Detail) oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

Close examination doesn’t quite prove this, the city could of course be Jerusalem: “Do you keep your windows open on the side where light may enter and you may see the City of God” as Jerome said in Epistle 22. 

And, the right hand side looks closer to the sort of organised agrarian landscape you can see in the right side of for example, the effects of Good and Bad Government in the Town Hall in Sienna.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti: 'The Legend of Good and Bad Government (Good Government in the Country)1337-9, Fresco, Sienna.

Painted Space

Like most art historians, Jolly concentrates on de-coding iconography and says little about the composition of pictorial space, usually a figurative artist’s overriding concern.    A carefully placed series of spaces, containing other spaces, the pictorial logic holds throughout; it is convincing, rational, planimetric. The Carrel and its contents, including the saint are parallel to the picture plane. It has for example, none of the oddities of later Florentine Mannerism,

Jacopo Pontormo: 'Joseph with Jacob in Egypt', 1518, oil on panel, 96 x 109 cm. National Gallery, London

try looking at ‘Joseph with Jacob in Egypt’ by Pontormo (expressing perhaps something of the nature of dreams fundamental to the story, certainly of the mysteries of death fundamental to the parts of the story shown here and the style.,

Lorenzo Monaco: 'Coronation of the Virgin', 1414, egg tempera on panel. national Gallery, London

Or the absolute rigidity, pictorial and ideological, of early Renaissance images such as Lorenzo Monaco’s ‘Coronation of the Virgin’. The way each painted area interacts with another is as much part of the meaning as the precise signification of the peacock (“symbol of celestial immortality and incorruptibility” Jolly p 240).

Perec as, I suppose, a Twentieth Century Modernist sees Jerome driving his desk into infinite space, as it were. Doesn’t the composition, with its sequence of steps and arrangement of layers, work the other way?

Antonello da Messina: 'St Jerome in his Study', 1475. oil on panel. 46 x 36 cm. National Gallery, London

Like Jerome, we have to start at the door outside the box, a box we might call home. Note that he has come from outside, he has taken off his hat, his own cap of office, minor officialdom plays no part here. And , we know that he is now on holy ground because, in common with so many other Flemish paintings, he has taken off his shoes. Grasp hold of the significance of these wordly goods, and there are many of them around him, to arrive at the calm centre. We have to examine the objects that make up our ‘home’, study their relationships guided by a key text, before we can look out of the window to paradise.

I try to do this on the train home, but the image of the poor young man, still trying to track down his tent as the batteries fade on his phone, and the monotonous insistence of the red suited would-be sexual athlete who boards the train with me, make looking out of the window in a contemplative mood, difficult.

“Take all of your personal belongings with you” a phrase constantly repeated in all train announcements, spoken in the indignant tone of a teacher at the end of a long day. Like bored students, we commuters are irritated and indifferent. Apart from pedantic annoyance at the tautology: what is an impersonal belonging I wonder? This phrase prompts other thoughts: what is the nature of belonging anyway? The notion that we need to belong, to be a part of various forms of wider human association is a common one:

“All objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural condition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect. Before any critical distance, we belong to a history, to a class, to a nation to a culture, to one or several traditions”

Ricoeur, Paul. ‘Hermeneutics and The Human Sciences’, ed and trans by Thompson, JB. Cambridge University Press, 1981. Page 243

 Belongings, personal or otherwise, define us and how we belong. The role of belongings as a means of thinking about who we might be and how we relate to each other and our future, spiritual or physical, is common in art, from Vanitas to Van Gogh’s twin paintings of chairs, to physical beds in galleries to pots with words and pictures on them.

Paolo Veronese: ‘Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?’, 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

This painting in the National Gallery brings some of these points together. I have been puzzled by it for a while. It is apparently by Paolo Veronese, yet it is small with a strong Mannerist style.

In the centre of painting a young woman in a light blue top showing a fair amount of chest and a mustard yellow, voluminous skirt, has collapsed to the ground. In her right hand is both, a broken necklace (or possibly a string of jewels wound from her hair) and the hand of the woman behind her, we can just see the other end of the necklace appearing on the right of her neck. She is being supported by that hand holding woman in red and green behind, who also manages to point at Christ at the same time. Christ is making some sort of blessing gesture, his right hand pointing downwards. Surrounding these three are large numbers of figures, most of them look towards the young woman.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' detail of Fallen Woman

The action seems to take place in a shallow pictorial space, a lobby with the fluting of large classical columns (Greek Doric) visible behind. There is an open portal to our left, a dog’s head and the back of a nude boy is framed in it and behind, columns (Ionic)  appear to flank a circular opening, a figure is looking down, which makes the viewer suppose we are at least one storey high, a small crescent of sky can be seen.

The Subject: Belonging, Composition and Types of Perspective

There is some debate about which Biblical story we are looking at, and that is where the notion of belonging comes in I think. The collapsed figure is tended to by the woman beside her and, presumably, by Christ. The man with the book to her left and the man in green behind him look less keen. It is the breaking of the necklace, the losing, or indeed loosing, of her personal belongings, the string of jewels, that either sparks off this whole event (whatever it may be) or symbolises it. Although small, that jewellery is centre stage, and this is a very stage-like frieze of figures. We know that Veronese intended this to be so, by simple Early Renaissance devices. She is positioned exactly on the vertical axis. Look at the pavement on which the figures stand, follow the orthogonals (parallel lines that lead to a vanishing point) created by the darker pink bands leading into the pictorial space. At first sight, they appear inconsistent, although they all point to the necklace and more specifically to the broken section below the two clasping hands of the women. If you look at the orthogonals on the image below,

Paolo Veronese: Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?', 1548 oil on canvas. 117 x 163 cm with orthogonals

you will see that they appear to be reminiscent of a ‘herringbone’ pattern, in which the parallels meet symmetrically in mirror fashion on a descending vertical axis, rather than converging to a single vanishing point. Erwin Panoksky in the Introduction to ‘Early Netherlandish Painting’, and also in ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’ (Section II), describes the herringbone pattern (or vanishing axis perspective) as deriving, ultimately from, classical painting (Greek vases and Roman murals, usually for things like roof beams). It is also the mediaeval precursor to the fully fledged linear perspective discovered by Brunelleschi in the early 1420’s. The obvious question is this, why does a young, very proficient artist in the middle 16thCentury use such an archaic device? The answer must lie in the way that the artist directs the eye towards the string of jewels. The series of vanishing points continue the line and form of that broken string, a line that falls, deliberately, exactly on that vertical axis. It is like a big arrow: look this way.

Before its first showing at the National  Gallery (1876) this painting was assumed to be ‘Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery’, when Christ asks the Pharisees who are about to stone a woman to death ‘He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone’. Once on public display it was then assumed to be ‘Mary Magdalene Laying Aside her Jewels’, although there is no biblical text for such an image. A recent article (By David Rossand in The Burlington Magazine: ‘Veronese’s Magdalene and Pietro Aretino’, June 2011) has again suggested that this is indeed the Magdalene, if so where are her other attributes, the jar of ointment perhaps? Is this where the nude boy, (who must refer to Cupid) and the dog (to fidelity?) fit in to the narrative?

Analysts in the 1990’s proposed the current title, the story of the sick woman (the issue of blood) grasping hold of Christ’s clothing in a crowded place, convinced that he can heal her, convinced of her faith, he does so. This is a painting by a young man, about 20 if the dates are right, young Veronese copied Parmigianino’s drawings which would explains the Mannerist style; the elongation of the figures and their serpentinata poses.

Belonging to?

What sort of community, what sort of belonging are we being shown? What does the book, so lightly held by the white cloaked man, contain? What? Rules? Or the names of transgressors? Christ’s New Testament?

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' String of Jewels detail

That string, look at the shape it makes, firstly that shape resembles the arrangement of key figures around the fallen girl and Christ a swirling open form, close to a spiral. Secondly, although it is probably a coincidence, the shape of the string is a question mark. Apparently the forms of punctuation didn’t really settle down until the full acceptance of printing; about the beginning of the 16th century. So we cannot assume a common usage of the question mark in 1548, but as a means of highlighting our, contemporary difficulties with the narrative, that question mark is perfect, her ‘personal belongings’ falling across her chest point exactly to the heart and the uncertainties of the story

This is a woman who is either losing her place, her ‘relation of belonging’ as Ricoeur put it, to a particular community. Or, she is being welcomed into it by the central charismatic figure, against the misgivings of others perhaps because of past transgressions. There is enough evidence to support either supposition. But, I would favour the latter, the spiral of figures around her and Christ is not dissimilar to the disordered and broken circle the fallen woman holds in her hand. That similarity surely indicates parallel ‘relations of belonging’

The Space within the Space

There is more evidence in the formal arrangements, in the composition of the work. Behind, through the opening, is a presumed architectural circle, a perfect form.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' Detail of Inner Space

As always a separate space within the pictorial space of a painting (often a window, in this case the brightly lit circular architectural form on the left) has a narrative and a formal function. Formally, it relieves the claustrophobia of the foreground; it allows Veronese to make a scene that is dark, crowded and intense, without making it overpowering and awkward. Put your hand over the lit inner space and the other forms become incoherent and overheated; frantically boiling melodramatic emotion. Add the calmness of pale circular forms, receding verticals and the tiny crescent sliver of blue gently echoing the curves beneath it, and you have an ordered space of reason (perfect geometric forms like the circle) and light.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?', 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

In narrative terms, we must assume that the lighting and simplicity of this inner architectural space relate to Christ, i.e. a temple. He is after all, the only clearly identifiable figure in the work and as such is nearest to the opening. (“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14.2). This fictive architecture seems a mix of Bramante and Palladio, there is something of the ambulatory of The Redentore in Venice, or the first floor of the cloisters at Santa Maria della Pace in Rome about the arrangement. Not much though, the cloisters are rectangular, Corinthian and Veronese had not been to Rome and didn’t work in Venice until 1551. Nonetheless, as Nicholas Penny points out in the National Gallery Catalogue (Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings Volume II) he came from a family of masons and had worked with Michele Sanmichele, the great Veronese architect and to whom this section might relate. Despite Penny’s point about the closeness of the intercolumniation in the lobby, Veronese was a man who therefore knew his high level architecture and putative meanings. This little painted fragment shows classically inspired architecture of order and rationality, note that it is Ionic, the next step up the Architectural Orders from the Doric of the lobby area; that inner space is a sanctum, a temple, a spiritual destination. Stick with the man in the halo and that is where you will get to. This is the destination of that clustered community around him, that group of people belonging to each other, as opposed to disapproving and disorder to the right of the painting.

Veronese knew what he was doing

I think we come to the supposition that, if Veronese had wanted to specifically and clearly identify the fallen woman, he would have done so. He knew, or would come to know, exactly how to play with notions of identity in paintings.

Paolo Veronese: 'The Family of Darius before Alexander', 1565-7. oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London

Look at his vast painting of the ‘Introduction of the Family of Darius to Alexander’ 1565-7 with the famous misidentification by Darius’ mother, Sisigambis when she mistakes Hephaeston for Alexander. Veronese made this sort of thing one of his key themes. Had he wanted us to know who was who in this smaller, earlier painting he would have done so. I suspect though, rather than setting up complex puzzles for later art historians, it was an ambitious young artist widening his opportunities. The wider the field of identifiable characters, the greater possibilities for future commissions.

Back to the train gang

Sadly though, in my case travelling on a packed afternoon train, wedged into a narrow seat by a large man steadily eating a reeking and noisy packet of crisps, there is no possibility of rescue to a glorious inner sanctum, not even to the empty First Class seats. Opposite me, a man in a black leisure wear sporting a black baseball cap, with BENCH printed asymmetrically across it, has been trying to buy a double garage over the phone. He is having trouble explaining what he wants, no matter how many times he repeats himself (7 metres by 5 metres with double doors and a shingle roof) whoever takes his calls cannot help. Does a garage come under the heading of a temple, a place of calmness and rational order: that’s a shed isn’t it? A shed is where you put all those ‘personal; belongings’ that have no obvious place to be, but you can’t bear to part with, unless of course you have left them on the train.

Augustus Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862 oil on panel. 65 x 79 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

To Birmingham to see the ‘Lost in Lace’ exhibition, I would highly recommend it, some fascinating textile work, beautifully curated by Professor Lesley Millar. Also to the multicultural festival outside the Museum, threatened by the appalling English Defense League, staging ‘a static march’. A static march involves drunk, shaven headed uglies bussed in to stand outside pubs shouting, whilst wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and, oddly, the Star of David; anti-Muslim activists getting together apparently. Strange for those of us who marched against similar far right thugs in the 1970’s, I remember the largest shouts then were viciously anti-Semitic.

Next to the Rotunda, before you go into the Lost in Lace exhibition, is a small collection of original Victorian lace that puts the later work in a very useful context. On my way across the space I came across this painting, by the wonderfully named Augustus Leopold Egg. I had previously thought about ‘The Travelling Companions’ in relation to Eric Ravilious’ ‘Train Landscape’ (see ‘Railing Against It’ in previous posts) and notions of the Internal Picture Plane. I think it is worth looking at again.

Egg was part of the circle around Dadd , Egg knew Holman Hunt well, though not as a formal member of the Pre Raphaelite group. ‘The Travelling Companions’ is a relatively late Egg painting and contains some affinities with the PRB aims, in the care of the observation work for example, but it doesn’t share Hunts exact, opaque technique and tiny brushwork. Neither does this have the ponderous, thumping morality of Egg’s earlier work, eg his triptych, ‘Past and Present’, 1858. As you might expect from a friend of Dickens, there is still a didactic nature to ‘The Travelling Companions’.

It is smaller than reproductions lead you to imagine (653 mm x 787 mm) and, painted in 1862, very much at home amongst the Victoriana of the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery,

The companions themselves are almost identical, their symmetricality is stressed by the position of us the viewer; directly between them. They are wearing identical but, given the amount of cloth, presumably handmade dresses. It reminds me of a set for a photo shoot in which one half of the carriage has been cut away to fit in the crew and the camera. In the original Victorian carriages the bench seats were parallel, so our viewing position is either from outside or just inside the opposite window. A later image by Tenniel for ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’, clearly based on Egg, demonstrates that there was some sort of external running board used by conductors.

John Tenniel: ‘Alice on the Train’, engraving, 1872

Are we in that position? Judging by the lack of framing furniture, we can assume not. Are we then a fellow passenger, standing to leave? Again there is nosupporting evidence, the train is not arriving anywhere for example. Neither is there room for us as a potential passenger, those huge grey silk dresses squeeze out any other occupants. This is a private, almost domestic space, oddly for such a dislocated experience as travel. We see from a formal rather than an obviously anecdotal position. We see the inside of the carriage and the view beyond from the authorial voice; we are being shown something for a reason.

That exact symmetrically immediately demands a sort of spot the ball/ what’s the difference approach from the viewer, the precision of the technique allows the viewer to make those sort of observations. The obvious differences are:

  1. 1.    The view outside
  2. 2.    The women, who are they?
  3. 3.    One reading/ one sleeping The book versus dream
  4. 4.    The hats
  5. 5.    The gloves, or lack of
  6. 6.    The basket/ flowers
  7. 7.    The hair

Where are they going? Where have they come from? The triptych of the internal picture plane (the carriage window), it is exactly parallel to the picture plane itself. The framing of the view allows us to think of this secondary picture plane in pictorial terms, although Egg was not a landscape painter. Technically it both provides visual interest and relieves the claustrophobia of the small hot carriage; by doing so of course it reinforces the closed nature of this small dark space. That view also explains the lighting; it comes from the opposite set of windows.

The internal picture plane is a familiar device, probably Northern European in origin. The view through a window in Ghent, or fruit trees in a garden and sky beyond; a framed view that refers to images; the act of looking at and through them in the Albertian sense. That interest develops, when van Eyck placed a mirror on the back wall of the painted space in the Arnolfini Portrait, how did that extra pictorial space affect the image perceptually and intellectually? Velasquez immediately springs to mind. Enough of the surface of this painted area, within the bounds of the work, needs to be visible for it to be called an internal picture plane; it needs to be more than an object or an attribute. That plane has to create imaginary pictorial depth that is probably analogous to, but in some way separate from, the homogenous space of the major picture plane that must surround and enclose it for this pictorial element to work. The new space inside, as it were, the existing pictorial space, has to be at least as powerful as the original. It has to be a convincing fiction that keeps all the characteristics of a convincing fiction (autonomy, agency etc), whilst living within another fiction, hence the enjoyment in painting paintings within paintings.

Augustus Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862. Detail

Note that the view inside our view of ‘The Travelling Companions’ is entirely static, the only sense of movement is in the slight sway of the tassel. The view is different through each panel. The curtain on the right has been slightly drawn to shade the book. The blue of the sky on the right is a shade or two deeper than in the other two panels. The curve of the outside window panels echoes the curves of the two girls, on the left the sleeper is just a little more slumped, her window is free of curtain so we get the full 45 degree curve and a small, almost abstract residue of horizontal sea with a slight froth of land on top.

There is a small white town on the edge of the bay, on the land that points like an arrow toward the left hand panel. This is apparently a view of Menton, on the border between France and Italy. Given that the composition of the painting features the crumpled border between two figures and a clear vertical axis, are we meant to assume something here? Menton had only just moved from the control of Sardinia to France, though there seems no obvious reference to this, nor that the city is famous for its lemons, nor that menton is the French for chin. Nor, oddly that Webb Ellis, the ‘inventor of Rugby’ was living in the town at the time Egg made this painting and died there ten years later. Also, and tangentially relevant, in 1892, Charles Spurgeon, died there. Spurgeon the British Baptist preacher was the most popular London minister of the nineteenth century, crowds of 6,000 came each Sunday to his Metropolitan Tabernacle.

I am not suggesting that the city in this view is a religious reference, but these people were here for a reason: TB. In 1861, James Henry Bennet, a Manchester doctor, and TB sufferer, published ‘Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate’ suggesting Menton as suitable place for a tuberculosis cure. The book was very popular, the wealthy wintered here, and died here. That is the view we can see through the window, are these two suffering from TB? Clearly not, they seem the picture of health. But, that city on the shore, is it therefore a guarantor of health, of happiness? It is certainly a white city, although not quite a shining city on a hill.  Egg himself was a chronic asthmatic that was why he travelled to places like the French Riviera, although he would die from asthma in Algeria. But, from this and his other paintings, he does not seem to be an overtly autobiographical painter, Egg had visited Mentone, with Dickens and Wilkie Collins. This view is about the two girls, not necessarily about medicalised death in sunny places. Travel is though, supposed to be good for you, broaden the mind and all that.

As in any English painting, their class matters, they are in a first class compartment, we assume that, given the nationality of the artist, they are English travelers. We are looking at the upper middle class tourist moving away from the grey light of home to the bright sunlight of the south. From the later 1830s, the genre of tourism diversified, the middle class entry into a European space formerly inhabited by the elite, Egg illustrates the sudden and modern rise of mass travel. But, see how little very little attention they pay to that view, it is for us the viewer. The companions are getting their inspiration from books or from dreaming.

What is she reading, is it a popular novel? A Bible? Or similar? Or a guide book? Even close up you can’t read a title, it not a yellow backed popular novel (cost about two shillings), sold to through railway bookstalls eg WH Smiths, neither is it a Bible.

A woman reading in art has, usually, a set of meanings attached: ‘Magdalen reading’ by Rogier van der Weyden, from the 1430’s, or the Virgin Mary often in the Madonna and Child composition with Christ riffling the pages of her book. Often these images remind us that she wrote as well as read, eg Botticellis ‘The Madonna of the Magnificat’ 1483,

Botticelli: ‘Madonna of the Magnificat’, 1483

where we can see the pen and ink as well as the book. This view of women reading is a sacred search for knowledge, it would have been easy to rearrange the composition to give the reading girl a halo from the window behind, the drawing of the curtain deliberately closes down that possibility.

There is another result of reading, a different sort of passion that turns up in illustrations of Dante, Paolo and Francesca’s reading of Lancelot and Guinevere leads to adultery (‘that day we read no more’), for example: Rossetti’s ‘Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1855,

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: ‘Paolo and Francesca’, 1855

the couple have the book on their lap. But, they are a couple and these are two identical women; the identification, or the implication anyway, doesn’t fit. Neither does our reader seem stirred to any other than, at the most, contemplation. What sort of future might she be contemplating? Or what sort of past might she be reading about?

The first Murray guide was published in 1836 (A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent) and the first Baedeker in English (On the Rhine) in 1861. Murray’s, were traditionally cloth covered in a characteristic red that faded, (Baedeker copying the same colour system from 1861 onwards). They had gold writing on the upper front cover, if you look very hard at the faded red book in the painting there is an ovoid smear where that writing might sit. Murray’s were known for their quotations from Byron, ie high toned. The first Murray handbook on Northern Italy was published in 1842, written by Sir Francis Palgrave father of the Golden Treasury man, after severe criticism from Ruskin (over the correct hierarchy of Renaissance painters) that edition was upgraded in 1846; so you get some idea of the clientele. They were also expensive; apparently costing the equivalent a labourer’s weekly wage.

So, the figure on the right is reading a literary travel guide to art and architecture, a handbook that was also one of the first guides to modern travel (railways and steamships) references easily recognised by contemporaries. We might see the part drawn blind as a gentle assertion by Egg, that looking at the view would be more productive, note that the view behind the reader is a little more detailed and a little more intense. But, as an activity by a young traveller this would be seen as entirely secular, entirely praiseworthy. What would be expected in the circumstances and not really liable to any greater symbolic reading by the contemporary viewer; despite the wilder assertions I have read in some Victorian Studies circles.

Augustus leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862 oil on panel. 65 x 79 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The sleeping girl, dreaming into the future as the other reads about the past? Slight flush on cheek of the dreamer, significant? Like images of woman reading, sleeping women in art might lead us to where we are supposed to be.  A ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the beautiful sleeper, who would fall in love with her watcher? In classical terms, any Victorian viewer would think of Sleeping Psyche, the mortal girl watched by Eros as she sleeps. Or sleeping Ariadne, deserted by Theseus on the Island of Naxos, about to be woken by, and fall in love with Bacchus. Or, perhaps Titania waking to fall in love with Bottom:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

Or that influential and rather strong poem: Keats’: ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, where Porphyro spies on the naked Madeline as she dreams of her future husband and then…

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.

Is our grey dressed dreamer, thinking of this sort of heady stuff, painted and illustrated many times by the younger Pre Raphaelites? Far more likely to be shown inspired by a book of verse I would think, than just lying there with your eyes closed. The underlying theme in all these dreamers is that they are evidently watched by a male viewer, the male gaze mythologised, the male gaze that leads to sexual attack of one sort or another; ‘melting into her dream’ indeed. Is there any visual evidence to support such a reading of a girl with her eyes closed and her hands demurely clasped in her lap. Perhaps.

The hands, note that the reader is wearing gloves, gloves, like hats denote social class. By the way, is there any significance in the placement of the hats, both feathers facing to the right? They seem to exist in order to point to the other minor differences; a sort of signpost. Women should be seen wearing gloves at all times, and although these two fill this carriage, it is still a public space. Realist and Impressionist paintings in Paris, in a few years’ time will make this more evident, look for example at the role of the internal picture plane in other roughly contemporaneous works. For example the mirror in Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres’,

the barmaid’s reddened arms are contrasted with the gloved ladies seen reflected in the mirror, they have the privileged position on the balcony, Suzon the barmaid and probable prostitute does not. Bare armed, bareheaded, staring blankly into the middle distance, the grander world in the mirror is closed to her, unless of course the man we can see reflected on the right hand side is her route out and up; nothing in the rest of the painting makes that

Edouard Manet: ‘The Bar at the Folies-Bergere’, 1881-2, oil on panel

possibility seem anything other than remote.

Holman Hunt uses a mirror in ‘The Awakening Conscience’, from 1853. Like the view in the Travelling Companions it introduces depth into a claustrophobic space.

William Holman Hunt: ‘The Awakening Conscience’, 1853, oil on canvas

Like the Manet, the formal relationship between the major and minor pictorial space (bar and mirror/ room and exterior garden) indicates potentialities to the viewer, even if they are not entirely revealed to the female protagonist/s. In ‘The Awakening Conscience’ the mirror reflects the garden that the trapped girl looks towards, as she begins to understand her current state. The kept woman caught, like the cat that traps the mouse under the table. The garden is the possibility of redemption. Note by the way that her un-gloved hands have no wedding ring, despite being alone in a room with a man

The removal of gloves is a licentious act, But, is our dreamer as abandoned as the kept mistress in West London rapidly on her way down the social spiral? Probably not, but there are a couple of other minor clues that all might not be well. Notice that the hair of the dreamer is looser, not quite caught up in the way that the reader seems to have arranged her coiffure. The hair of the dreamer is more noticeable in the preparatory sketch, it is less ordered and covers her ears, even so, the sleeping girls hair is still ‘en cheveux’ as the French put it?  And, if you look very carefully you will notice that the third button down from the top is undone.

Working down the pictorial space we come to the benches on which the girls sit. The dreamer has an open weave basket containing two oranges, possibly the left hand fruit is a peach, difficult to tell. There is also a crumpled piece of paper; tissue to stop the fruit bruising? Or a note? I spent a long time looking at this in Birmingham, but no,  there was no indication either way. Holman Hunt would have filled the paper with miserable song lyrics. Egg is far more subtle. The reader sits beside a perfect posy of flowers, roses possibly, but no evident thorns, the thorns of love etc. Possibly carnations, but the delicate whites, pinks and pale reds, avoiding the over prescriptive language of flowers, still do not speak of intensity or deep passion, this is grace and delicate pleasure.

 As Andrew Graham Dixon points out in (A History of British Art page 166) Egg was a Hogarthian artist, in that his narratives depend on moral choices. But, says Graham Dixon, the protagonists in an Egg painting have genuine choice, in the Hogarthian universe

‘we are all corrupt and therefore all damned inevitably. The moral of Egg’s art is that each moment of time and each human action, is full of alternative possibilities’

Are we looking at a moment of choice here? Graham Dixon would have us believe that Egg has, in effect, shown us the same woman and her two potential personalities. The clue has to be in the view, surely, what we are seeing is Egg setting up possibilities. Unlike his earlier heavily didactic work, and unlike the work of his friend Holman Hunt who, metaphorically speaking, beats you over the head with his intentions, what we have here is a painting designed to be seen on many levels.

Look at that view and the bright sunlight, note that the midground, like the train interior, is dark. There is a distance between the train and the town, we have a way to go yet. What we have here is potentials, it is up to us as modern viewers, a modernity emphasized by the means of travel and the lack of male attendants, to understand where those potentials might lead, and to choose accordingly. As the internal picture plane tells us, even a life in the sun has implications.