The National, besides its usual haul of treasure, now has two must-see freebies to lure in the art hound (of which more in another post). And this in addition to the fact that the whole of the basement is now fully opened up to the public for the first time, or at least in this correspondent’s memory.
The basement, as well as housing the displaced works owing to the Michelangelo/Sebastiano exhibition taking place in some of the permanent galleries, now has a smattering of the NG’s artistic B-sides in ‘Room A’. Which makes it sound like it’s not worth the trouble to go down there. But that’s wrong. These are for the most part high quality B-sides, reminiscent of The Fall’s classic compilation, 458489, in that some of this stuff is better than what’s upstairs/on the flip side. Especially in the way that the work is curated – a broad sweep of art from the Renaissance to the late 19th Century in one room, allowing the eye to juxtapose subject, style and composition to delightful effect.
The central space is dominated by four grand canvases of battles from the French Revolutionary wars (Jemappes, Valmy, Montmirail and Hanau) by Vernet that are splendid in their drama and attention to detail, even if the carnage wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Those of a more peaceful bent might want to stroll around to Gentile Bellini’s Madonna and child, which for me is as handy a bit of god-stuff as any you’d fine in the Sainsbury Wing.
In between you’ll find a broad range of things to enjoy – the Impressionist Jongkind’s view of the Boulevard Port-Royal, Puvis de Chevanne’s Summer and a heap of Golden Age Dutch stuff were my own particular favourites until I came across a wall of Dutch seascapes from the nineteenth century. These were less familiar to me than the Van de Veldes (of which there are a couple here) from the seventeenth century, which is probably why they attracted my attention.
They are both by Paul Jean Clays, an artist of whom I knew nothing, and on seeing the first I noted in my book, ‘Ships Lying Off Dordrecht reminds me of Flushing in Ransome. Round boats coming up to meet us. Dutch flags, blue sky flash though grey cloud, can hear the seagulls and smell the rain approaching in the air.’
What I meant by ‘Flushing in Ransome’ is one of the greatest children’s books ever written (sadly overshadowed by its more famous predecessor) We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea by Arthur Ransome. In this story the Walker children (made famous by Swallows and Amazons) in a series of slightly improbable conjunctions of circumstance are swept out to the North Sea on a small yacht, the Goblin, where they are forced to cross to Holland, driven by the weather and their own determination not to fuck things up (ok, that isn’t exactly how it’s phrased in the book). If you don’t want to know how things work out for then skip the next paragraph or two!
After a perilous crossing in hideous weather and with a cute cat picked up along the way they are guided into Flushing by a peaceable Dutch pilot, who is flabbergasted to find that they’d made the trip all by themselves and not as they pretended to him under the guidance of a master who is too tired to emerge to talk to the pilot in person. But the real joy comes when they realise that their father by coincidence is on his way back to Blighty via Holland on leave from the Navy and he leaps ashore from his ferry to complete a happy family reunion.
I once heard someone on Radio 4 say that there was no politics in Ransome’s children’s fiction. Let’s leave aside the fact that the whole adventure is predicated on the disruptive shock of modernity in the form of a symbol of modernity (a motor bus) knocking over a representative of tradition (Jim Brading, the Goblin’s skipper, who is no fan of motors on the road or in boats and romanticises the pre-modern technology of sail).
Putting aside the symbolism involved in the story in the struggle of tradition v modernity the contemporary political context for this novel, while never stated, is ever present. The book was published in 1937, a time when anxiety about British dominance of the sea was not just focussed on the North Sea, where the story takes place, but also in the Pacific, where Walker père has been stationed and the Japanese threat is just as obvious as the Nazi one closer to home (to readers in the 30s at least, nowadays it seems that the British prefer to forget that WW2 was a war of imperialism as much as national survival). Ransome’s story then can be read as an exhortation to the young to be stoic in the face of adversity, and a reassurance of the reserves of British resources far flung around the globe to come to the rescue of those struggling in the motherland.
Looking around for academic analysis of the Swallows & Amazons series I’ve yet to find much. It would seem an admirable project for a PhD to me, especially as as far as I can see most writing about Ransome has concentrated on his role as a sometime spy during the Russian Revolution and beyond.
Anyway, with all this going through my head it was with great delight that I saw that the pendant piece to Ships Lying Off Dordrecht was entitled Ships Lying Off Flushing.
What joy. What simple joy.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).