September 23, 2023

Postcard From Britain - Blenheim Palace

There is only one thing better than spending vacation time in an art museum, and that is visiting a great country house in England. Natural beauty, history, architectural delights, and fine art abound in those places and Blenheim Palace certainty has all of those features. To me, locations like this, not a tropical beach, are paradise. 

Some background first: from roughly the 13th through the 19th centuries, Britain was at odds with France and its allies. In the first years of the 1700s, the two countries were at war yet again. A decisive battle was fought that went in favor of the British — the battle of Blenheim, fought on German soil. Leading that battle was British General John Churchill. His service to his country won him the thanks of a grateful monarch in the form of a huge piece of land and the subsidies to have a grand house built on it. Today we know it as Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire — home to the Dukes of Marlborough, of which John Churchill was the first.

Blenheim was created as, and remains to this day, both an enormous war memorial and a private home.

When you enter the Blenheim Palace grounds from the streets of Woodstock you go through a triumphal arch gateway that was commissioned by John Churchill’s wife, first Duchess, Sarah Churchill. The gateway is a memorial to her husband and was built about 20 or so years after his all too early death. She really wanted us to remember him, so she commissioned memorials for future generations of visitors.

The inscription on the top (of the side facing the town of Woodstock) reads: “This gate was built the year after the death of the most illustrious John, Duke of Marlborough, by order of Sarah his most beloved wife, to whom he left the sole direction of the many things that remained unfinished of this fabric. The services of this great man to his country the pillar will tell you which the Duchess has erected for a lasting monument of his glory and her affection to him. 1723”.

The “pillar” Sarah referenced in the gate inscription is a large triumphal column she had built a good distance away from, but directly in line with the front entrance of Blenheim Palace itself. It resembles Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. It too serves notice of the great service to England done by the first Duke. He stands on top, clad in classic Roman garb (all the rage in memorials to deceased leaders of the time). Here are a few of my shots of the pillar...

In walking back from the pillar to the palace there are many beautiful scenes. Below is my very raw shot (taken late the second day we spent there) on a walk back from the pillar. This became my reference for my oil painting of the great bridge with the palace off in the distance. The design and construction of the great bridge, and how it dovetailed with the rest of Blenheim park is a story for another post but, one can find many pleasing compositions to capture in this particular part of the grounds. I could almost not wait to get back home to paint it!

European politics and foreign relations being what they were, it was a big deal for the English to defeat the French. The British monarchy were great for pounding their chests in the wake of their victories, and Blenheim Palace is somewhat about that too. The image below shows an example - a sculptural detail on top of a double column in the main courtyard at Blenheim. A close look shows that the Lion, (symbol of England) is mauling and about to devour a cockerel bird (symbol of France at the time).

From this position, if you turn to your right, you see the main body of Blenheim Palace. It is similar to standing in front of the Vatican, in that the main structure sits in front of you, and you are hugged by two wings on each side.

Blenheim continues to be used as a backdrop for many films and television series. My favorites being an episode of Lewis, and of course the very last scene in the series finale of Endeavour (on PBS and Prime here in the states). A fantastic and fitting final scene to that great series!

When you go into the main entrance of Blenheim Palace you find yourself in a beautiful open space which establishes the awesome surroundings and splendor of the interior. Original and reproduced, captured French battle standards of the vanquished French armies are displayed in various rooms.

Aside from marveling at the fact that for centuries this entire place was a private residence, the great thing about seeing the interior of a place like Blenheim Palace is the ability to see a private collection of fine art. Pieces that you will almost never see in public museums. Art that has been in a family for many generations and remains in situ always seems extra special to me.

In a section off to the right of the main hall hangs an impressively huge oil painting of the first Duke, John Churchill and his family. Sitting on a table in front of the painting is a beautiful silver sculpture.

The sculpture is actually a dining table centerpiece that was used in many formal dinners hosted by the various Marlboroughs throughout the centuries. It depicts the moment a victorious General John Churchill sends what is known as his “Blenheim dispatch”. Basically after leading the British to victory in the battle of Blenheim, in Germany, he takes a moment to write to his wife Sarah, saying something like “… tell the Queen she has had a great victory at Blenheim.” Below are a couple details of the sculpture. This scene is immortalized throughout Blenheim Palace in paintings, sculptures, and tapestries.

The interior of Blenheim palace is as beautiful as the countryside surrounding it. One of my favorite rooms is the red drawing room.

In this opulent room hangs a portrait by one of my favorite artists of all time, John Singer Sargent. It depicts the dour 9th Duke of Marlborough and his not so loving bride, the multi-million dollar American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, along with their children (the heir and the spare).

John Singer Sargent was such a sublime talent that his gentrified sitters allowed him to depict them however he pleased. In this painting Sargent cunningly puts the 9th Duke a step down giving us the impression that if he were to step up, he would be the same height as the lovely Duchess.

In reality, she was much taller than he was. It was probably fairly radical in those days to depict the lady above the gentleman in a formal portrait like this, but Sargent was given the freedom to do it. He was a master of composition along with every other aspect painting.

By the way, many people think that the popular Downton Abbey series was based on the real life family at Highclere castle. While Highclere was the location used (and has been cashing in on that), the actual characters and story Julian Fellowes created were inspired by the late 19th century families at Blenheim, especially Consuelo Vanderbilt. Anyway, the red drawing room is just one of many amazing rooms holding treasures to marvel at while on a visit to Blenheim. I’ll share other locations in a future post.

Historic sites like Blenheim are just one reason I love to visit the U.K. If you geek out on British history and enjoy exploring great British houses as much as I do, maybe check out Julie Montagu’s YouTube channel “American Viscountess”. I recently saw on her Instagram that she will be doing an episode on Blenheim Palace very soon. Cheers!

September 19, 2023

Postcards From Summer Exhibit

Here are a few postcards from the CrossCurrents regional fine art exhibit a few months back. This was before my recent shoulder surgery that made everything in general a little more complicated.

The Stifel Fine Arts Center was a former private home built in 1910 and sits just south of Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia. The center is part of Oglebay Institute and engages more than 13,000 people each year with a full calendar of fun events.

This was the 43rd year for the CrossCurrents fine art exhibit and my first time displaying oil paintings there. Both pieces I entered were accepted. Pretty nice considering one of them was my first landscape painting in over a decade.

The next stop for both of my paintings will be my solo exhibit in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania in October.

August 15, 2023

Lorenzo De Medici drawing

Here is a recent drawing I did from one of the many reference photos of busts and sculptures I shot on trips to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. This is Lorenzo De Medici (Magnifico).

I Used Generals 2B charcoal pencil on this crazy paper that looks like canvas, but feels like plastic. I got the paper at the ad agency I used to work for. It was on a pile of sample pieces of paper that a sales rep had dropped off years before. It was going to be thrown in the trash, so I salvaged it. Really tough to get a wide variety of values with it, but sometimes that can be good since all you need is three values for an effective drawing.

Sometime I will draw directly from sculptures while in a museum, but I always shoot reference anyway. When shooting reference like this in a museum, never get up close, and preferably don’t use your phone. The image gets skewed too much I feel. The right way to shoot sculpture busts is by doing what good portrait photographers do— stand back as far as you can and use a long zoom lens to bring your subject in close.

The lens I use is 210mm, but you don't need to be that far away. Another tip is to try to include something in the frame that you know to be true, like the edge of a wall or doorway to the next gallery. That way you have a plumb line of sorts to guide you when processing and straightening the image as needed before drawing it.

Lorenzo De Medici was loved by some, hated by many, and ruled late 14th century Florence like a mafioso at time when the city was losing influence to Rome. But dammit he kept bread prices low for the working class! His family home is now a police station, which is probably why our tour guide wouldn’t take us inside.

December 14, 2022

Pewter and Pear Painting

 As promised, below are a couple progress shots of this little 5x7 painting I recently completed. The pic below shows pretty much my view of the subject as I sit at my easel. The surface for this is a hard, pre-primed board that I taped to a piece of black foam-core so I can paint the entire surface to the edges. What is behind that, is just an extra easel that I placed there to keep from getting blinded by my spot light hitting the subjects as I look at them. I didn't use a box for this set-up and my eye sight isn't great so I like to sit as close to the subject as possible when painting from life. This 5x7 board has been around my studio for years - Notice the lines of another still life which I never went forward with drawn under the paint. Centuries from now someone will x-ray the finished oil painting, notice that, and scholarly essays will be written about it... O.K. probably not!!

Below is the initial color block-in. I like dark rich backgrounds, so that old sheet in the setup became dark and rich. The pear is plastic, and I'm using that as my excuse for it looking more like a light bulb at this stage. The truth is, I am sadly out of practice drawing with my brush. I would much rather set down a loose but accurate pencil or charcoal under-drawing and go from there. I wanted to try something different this time and not do that. I would have loved to finish this piece in one sitting. I really respect painters who can do that. However, my working method over the years has been to go back, rework, and glaze certain parts that need tweaked.

Below is the final oil painting. Perhaps I will be happier with this result once I "oil out" the painting, which will make the sheen uniform across the entire surface. Basically that process consists of putting a bit of Winsor & Newton Painting Medium on a foam brush and quickly brushing it over the whole surface making sure it is all covered evenly.

Notice the odd looking areas of the background to the left of the cup handle, and to the right of the pear. Uneven application of painting medium when I was reworking those areas caused that. "Oiling it out" should fix that. Finally, in two to three months it should dry completely and be ready for my solo exhibit next October.

December 13, 2022

Bust of Victory

 Of all the still life subjects I have collected at antique fairs over the years, this early 20th century French bust of Victory is one of my favorites.

Recently I lit it and rendered it in charcoal on a piece of tan canson paper. The base it sits on in the pic below is actually a marble lazy Susan and not part of the bust itself. I use that a lot when doing busts like this because its so easy to turn and sketch at different angles before starting on a final piece.

Here is the final piece that was inspired by some John Singer Sargent charcoal portraits I saw recently.