Fortresses in the frame

Evoca­tive and sym­bolic, the im­agery of cas­tles proves an ex­cel­lent sub­ject for an ex­hi­bi­tion, says Tim Richard­son

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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