A new exhibition at The Herbert in Coventry brings together some paintings from the gallery’s collection that are not regularly seen, and some loaned from major collections in London.
In Face-to-Face – Portraits Through Time it’s fascinating to see paintings in particular of figures from the city’s historical past. The exhibition is organised into groups under headings, though many works could really fit in several sections.
In status there is a portrait of Simon Norton, dyer and former mayor of Coventry was dated 1641, the year he died and left money to Bond’s Hospital in the city, as the caption explains, and also I’ve read elsewhere to pay for a C of E minister at St John’s Church if it ever became a parish church; at the time it had been handed over to the council to administer. Amazing to see him in his rich red robes.
There is also John Rotherham of the watch making family, painted with a horse and dog in 1832 by locally-based painter David Gee, really in the pose of a country gent, showing the class his family’s work and wealth meant he now aspired to.
The Waters family of Coventry, behind the well-known wine business, are also depicted.
Alfred Herbert, industrialist and head of the Coventry business, was painted by Leonard Boden at the age of about 90, showing confidence and self assuredness and also nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. By contrast, also from the Herbert’s own collection is Peter Howson’s Man With Cigarette, a non-realistic depiction of a hard-done-by looking man with downtrodden eyes, dragging on the cigarette, with most of the colours different shades of red.
Another Arthur Gee painting shows the children of Arthur Gregory of Styvechale Hall in Coventry playing with their old dog Nelson from 1838, an idealised image of well-off people at leisure.
In contrast, a Christine Vogle photograph from 1975 shows a family group in a women’s hostel, their bags still packed in a cramped room.
Masterji, Coventry’s recently much-celebrated portrait photographer has a work included, Mr and Mrs Khan, a couple posing smartly before the camera.
A section on commissions includes Miss Newark, but David Gee again, a young woman painted in 1859 with her hands on a book, showing her studiousness, and a Stanley Spencer portrait showing Priscilla, a young woman from Cookham depicted at home, complete with roadworks visible through the window. It was a commission from her family, painted while the teenager was undergoing cancer treatment, and died soon afterwards.
In the power section there is Bearded Man with a Falcon from 1500, on loan from the Courtauld, and showing the strong-looking central figure painted in rich colours, attributed to Lazzano Bastiani. The National Portrait Gallery has loaned a typically-tough looking Henrvy VIII, and the Herbert’s own more than life sized portrait of Queen Mary II dominates that wall of the gallery, not a very human image but showing the richness of her powerful position.
Bryan Organ’s 1981 painting of Diana, Princess of Wales, painted the year of her marriage to Charles shows her seated, central amongst well-decorated surroundings, and we are reminded it was a very different image at the time as she was seated casually and wearing trousers, representative of what she brought fresh to the royal family.
The “Recognised” section features portraits of people done because the artist wanted to depict them, rather than anyone commissioning the work. It includes Giant Head of Gbenga, painted by Naham Shoa, a huge 2001-2, a large close-up portrait with the light falling on one side of his face. Coventry-based Jason Scott Tilley’s 2012 photograph of a graceful dancer in Jaipur is also included.
Self portraits include Sarah Lucas’s Self Portrait with Mug of Tea from 1993, an image showing her in more traditional male pose, legs apart and dressed in masculine style. Thomas Gainsborough’s 1758-9 self portrait was painted probably while he was looking for work after moving to Bath and wanted to show off his skills at accurate representation. Victoria, a photo by Lisa Gunn, challenges images of disability and sexuality, the artist pictured from behind in her wheelchair, wearing a half-open corset.
The Fame section includes an 1806 mezzotint image of Horatio Nelson on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, a picture showing him looking heroic, and distributed on his death. The Creative area includes a photo of author Jacqueline Wilson by Maud Sulter, her large silver jewellery showing her independence, and a great Germaine Greer painted by Paula Rego from 1995, traditional images of graceful or regal portraiture going out the window, with the academic in a comfortable shapeless dress, her legs splayed as she things of more intellectual things than what she looks like.
The exhibition seeks to explore an apparent age-old obsession with the human image, showing some interesting locally-held paintings which most people are unlikely to have seen before, and asking questions about why people are depicted as they are, why at all and what messages are being conveyed.
The exhibition is on until June 4.