Fortresses in the frame
Evocative and symbolic, the imagery of castles proves an excellent subject for an exhibition, says Tim Richardson
For the British, a castle is at once romantically remote and intimately familiar. And the paradoxes multiply. Frequently ruinous, a castle no longer performs its ancient function, but retains a powerful aura. Unlike a cathedral, a castle is not woven into the warp and weft of a city: it is exceptional, standing apart, literally and metaphorically, often in a highly picturesque location (part of the appeal for artists). A castle is so large that it cannot be missed, yet it projects an enigmatic quality. A place of security, a castle is also a place that, historically, most citizens would rather have avoided.
However, it is also a good guess that most people, what- ever their social background, will have been taken to see at least one castle in childhood, clambering the battlements and imagining knights in armour or damsels in distress. A ruined castle is arguably more access- ible to visitors (in every way) than a furnished country house. The layout seems familiar and the very emptiness creates a space for imaginative intimacy.
These contradictions make the castle a rich topic for an exhibition and Southampton City Art Gallery, and its sponsor, the Punter Southall Group, should be congratulated for taking the initiative with ‘Capture the Castle’.
Like its subject, the exhibition also has something of a split personality. A well-produced catalogue includes essays on the history of castles, their symbolism, their place in the developing Picturesque aesthetic and on specialist topics, such as etchings and the Gothic revival.
To read these, and to absorb the number of guidebook-style watercolour reconstructions of ancient castles (mostly by Alan Sorrell) in the exhibition, one would assume that a historical and narrative approach has
‘A castle is at once romantically remote and intimately familiar’
been taken. But that is just part of the story, as at least a quarter of the exhibition is taken up by interpretations of the castle theme by modern and contemporary artists, including paintings (of varying quality and interest) that are conceptualist or abstract in tone.
These are not mentioned at all in the introductory captions to each room of the exhibition and they seem to sit rather awkwardly with the rest. It is as if some guerilla co-curator has crept in to disturb the antiquarian peace.
Once the visitor has accepted this anomaly, the exhibition can be approached in a similarly freewheeling spirit. One would expect to find J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin here— the latter’s Macbeth-inflected watercolour of Bamburgh Castle is a highlight—but there are numerous other absorbing studies of castles by artists such as Leonard Squirrell, who manages to imbue the castle in
Morning at Durham (1935) with an almost domestic air, and Joseph Webb, who takes the opposite approach with a hard-edged etching of Chepstow Castle.
Some artists play on the idea of the exceptionalism and isolation of castles; others present them as absorbed into the landscape over the centuries. Philip Wilson Steer takes the latter approach with his interpretation of Chepstow, a 1905 oil realised in a palette of ochres, browns and the darkest of greens. The work has its compositional shortcomings, but there is an intriguingly fluid quality to the scene as river, cliff, castle and sky seem to meld with each other.
Thomas Rowlandson captures the mundane domesticity of garrison life in a pair of watercolours of Hurst Castle, where the cannon seem almost comically enormous next to the lounging soldiers and their womenfolk.
Of the contemporary art, I particularly enjoyed Norman Ackroyd’s dark and moody etchings—the Mcneils’ Kisimul Castle at Barra in the Outer Hebrides seems to be disintegrating into the sky—and Ffiona Lewis’s scratched oil painting of her local castle, Framlingham in Suffolk.
The most rewarding passage is a trio of contrasting paintings hung together in the penultimate room. Two date from 1971: John Piper’s delicate screenprint of Caernarvon in a palette of mauves and blue-greys and David Gentleman’s schematic, Pop Art-inflected ‘plan view’ of Caerphilly, with bulbous turrets. The third is a 1930 London Transport poster of Windsor by Walter Spradbery, in which the flanelled punters, rippling Thames and benign castle, orange in the evening light, create an inviting and utterly complacent scene.
A castle is clearly what the artist makes of it, but this exhibition shows that the result is always likely to be powerfully engaging.
‘Capture the Castle: British Artists and the Castle from Turner to Le Brun’ is at Southampton City Art Gallery, Commercial Road, Southampton, Hampshire, until September 2 (www.southampton cityartgallery.com; 023–8083 3007)
Next week: ‘Ravilious & Co’ at Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Untoward by Royal Academy president Christopher Le Brun: ‘The castle is an enduring symbol as secure and familiar as any’, he writes
Norman Ackroyd’s etching of Kisimul, Barra, Mcneil’s Castle (2016)
Caerphilly Castle (1971), a screenprint by David Gentleman
The Eagle Tower, Caernarfon by Paul Sandby. Hailed as the ‘father of English Watercolour’, Sandby began sketching tours of Wales after an acclaimed series of drawings of Windsor