Sunday, 8 February 2015

From Russia with Love

I'd never heard of Elena Polenova.  So when Mr OM suggested we go visit the Watts gallery just outside of Guildford I can't claim to have been particularly excited.

I grew up visiting the Watts gallery and the nearby Memorial chapel.  I discovered it as a teenager and it was the very first place I drove to when I passed my driving test at 18.  Thankfully it's quite local to me otherwise that first solo drive might have been a little more daunting than it actually was!

 Back then it seemed an utterly magical place.  A gallery of..... how shall I put it, faded gentility..... attached to Limnerslease, the home of the Victorian painter, George Frederick Watts. To visit was like stepping back in time; I loved the cobwebs and the dust, and the buckets of water dotted around the creaky parquet floor to catch raindrops which fell through the leaking roof.  The then curator, Richard Jefferies was an ever present fixture and looked as though he'd just stepped out of one of the many portraits lining the wall, and from his animated conversation it was obvious he was having something of a love affair with the place also.  A year or two back I discovered some video's on YouTube which give you a little taste of the man himself, though sadly it doesn't do justice to his terrific enthusiasm which I found so infectious back then;

It was obvious, even to me with my love of it's wonderful atmosphere that the gallery's 'shabbiness' couldn't be sustained long term....damp is no friend of any kind of artwork..... so it was with some trepidation that I 'kind of, sort of' welcomed the news that funding had been found to restore it a few years ago. Eleven million pounds of funding to be precise.  That was back in 2008. Roll forward to 2011 and the restoration was complete.  But I somehow couldn't bring myself to go back.  By this time Richard Jefferies had gone and everything I loved about the place with it.  Or so I thought....

Yesterday was the first time I have visited since the restoration and I'm so glad that I finally plucked up the courage to revisit. Yes the cobwebs, the dust and the buckets have disappeared, along with Mr Jefferies who I suspect I had (and still have) something of a crush on, but it retains just enough of it's long remembered charm to feel like I was visiting an old friend.

And so onto Elena Polenova, sister to the perhaps more famous artist, Vasily Polenova.  Again I've found a little video over on YouTube which gives you more of an idea of the artist than I ever could by writing about her here;

I won't lie and say I was a fan of everything I saw of her work yesterday.  Some of it was a little hit and miss to my mind, or perhaps I'm one of those much berated and ridiculed people who 'knows what I like when I see it'....but ohhh, some of those watercolours she painted to illustrate various Russian fairytales.  They were an absolute glorious riot of colour and I feel privileged to have been able to see them close up, on this, the first tour of her work in the UK.  Painted on small scraps of paper which overlaid patterned borders painted separately then used to frame her work, they literally drew you into the fantasy she was illustrating regardless of your background knowledge of the tale depicted.

 Above - Visiting Father Frost 1889

Above - The War of the Mushrooms 1886-1889

How lovely is that tiny mushroom border painted here?

I could ramble on...and on....and on....but I'm guessing this is probably a good place to stop for today. I will, at some stage be blogging about the Watts Chapel however....just down the road from the gallery and something of an arts and crafts legacy left by Watt's equally talented wife, Mary and described by Lucinda Lambton (a sometimes UK broadcaster on architectural subject matters) thus;

'It's no exaggeration to say that the Watts Cemetery Chapel is one of the most beautiful, one of the most extraordinary, marvellous and magical buildings in the whole of the British Isles.'

So there!


Cro Magnon said...

I was at the Art College in Farnham in the late 60's/early 70's, and visited the gallery often. Other than all the things you mention (which I too remember), the other thing I recall was the place was always EMPTY. Just me and the paintings. It was wonderful.

Ogham Moon said...

Oh goodness YES! I think part of the appeal was that it felt like a well kept secret, known to only a select few. Sadly not so these days, but I guess that's progress for you! I loved also the little tea shop with all it's eclectic furniture and non matching teacups - they did the best welsh rarebit I've ever tasted. Sadly all that serendipity magic disappeared in the revamp. Kate :-)

Jeri Landers said...

I can understand why you had a crush on Mr. Jeffries, after watching the video, I believe I could listen to his lovely narrative about paintings for hours and hours. As for the Russian Illustrator, I liked her interesting use of ornate borders in her book art as seen in the video . Like you, I KNOW what I like, When I see it.

Ogham Moon said...

Ha! You can't have him, Jeri,....he's mine, all mineeee I tell you! Seriously though he was wonderfully enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable about Watts. He chatted to me once about a painting I was rather fixated on, which really made the whole thing come alive for me. I searched for the painting last week but couldn't find it which was rather sad. I loved the idea of 'pick and mix' borders....if you didn't like one, you hadn't ruined the whole painting and could exchange it for another, which would, of course, totally change the presentation. Genius idea!

Lunar Hine said...

Yes, beautiful watercolours. It seems we can see how much she enjoyed the stories and the process of illustrating.

Ogham Moon said...

Absolutely, Lunar. They were by far my favourite pieces of her work for that very reason!