St Philip’s Cathedral Birmingham – Burne-Jones Stained-Glass

This visit to Birmingham Cathedral provided another sense of an ending for the course and unified some of the elements. Towards the beginning of this course one of the annotations was of the Rose Window at Chartres, one of my final pieces of work was the essay on the religious paintings of Edward Burne-Jones.

I remember commenting at the time of writing the annotation of the Rose Window about the difficulty of doing such an exercise when using images from a textbook rather than seeing the original work. When studying stained-glass windows, the experience of standing in front of the window is immeasurably greater than simply studying a photograph. Visiting Birmingham Cathedral confirmed this view in five distinct ways.

  • Stained-glass windows are predominantly installed in religious settings and it is only by observing them in such settings that you get the full effect of what the artists strive to convey. Waters (2009) says “the images fit that context like an illumination on a mediaeval manuscript”.
  • The colours of the light passing through the glass changes as weather conditions outside change and this cannot really be conveyed in photographic images.
  • The scale of the work can only be experienced by physical presence.
  • In some cases (e.g. Birmingham Cathedral) several images are portrayed together in different windows. When this is illustrated on a page, it is of such small scale that the overall effect is lost. In the case of Birmingham at the east end of the Cathedral three separate windows portray The Nativity, The Crucifixion and The Ascension. The experience of observing these three together cannot be replicated in a book.
  • The shape of the image cannot be conveyed only experienced. In the east wing of Birmingham Cathedral the central window portraying The Ascension is flat, but the windows flanking it on either side, portraying The Nativity and The Crucifixion are curved and this gives a different sense to how you perceive the image.

The window at the west end of the cathedral portrays The Last Judgement and Waters (2009) states that it “displays the pinnacle of Burne-Jones achievement and claims its place among the masterpieces of stained-glass”.

It was really interesting to see these images as a final aspect of completing my essay on the religious paintings of Edward Burne-Jones. The first window The Ascension was installed in 1885, The Nativity and The Crucifixion were installed two years later. The sketch for The Last Judgement was prepared in 1889. For my essay, I looked in particular at The Star of Bethlehem which was commissioned in 1887 and completed in 1891.

The designs of the stained-glass windows are perhaps more intricate, the notes in the Cathedral point out how each is divided horizontally representing heaven and earth. There are great similarities between the watercolours, oils and stained glass work that Burne-Jones produced at this time. This can be seen in the portrayal of the tall, thin figures and the expression on their faces.

Waters (2009) quotes Burne-Jones “I couldn’t do without mediaeval Christianity. The central idea of it and all it has gathered to itself made the Europe that I exist in.” He also states of Burne-Jones “not believing in the damnatory and judgemental aspects of the Christian church, he concentrates on universal salvation and the forgiving aspects of the Christian dogma”.

I think that, as I found in my research into Burne-Jones paintings of religious scenes, so too the stained-glass images picture the aesthetic beauty of the scene and convey his own inner religious beliefs rather than “damnatory and judgemental aspects”.


WATERS, B., 2009. Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite glass in Birmingham. 2nd rev. edn. Abbots Morton: Alastair Carew-Cox.

The Pre Raphaelite Landscape

I was fortunate in being able to attend a gallery talk at the British Museum on the Pre Raphaelite landscape. This was as part of their Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950 exhibition. The talk was given by a member of the Prints Department at the Museum.


The talk started with John Ruskin and his belief in ‘truth to nature’. Ruskin made many,  many sketches of nature, in fact the more he drew from nature the more he loved it. Ruskin encouraged his students to go outdoors to paint, not to be professional painters but to be better people!


John Millais and Holman Hunt took the advice and started to paint in oils directly outdoors – rather than paint from sketches in the studio. They mainly used their landscape as a background for their works whereas Millais’ brother William painted just the landscape and mainly in watercolour. He use very bright colours (yellows and indigo) and painted very great detail using a stippling technique. Indeed Pre Raphaelite work was characterised by very bright colours and great attention to detail. As evidence of this the speaker referred to W H Millais’ Scottish Farm.


The talk touched on the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones, and there were a couple of examples of their work in the exhibition. The speaker considered that the work of these two artists was not about ‘creating a true picture but about creating an atmosphere’. It was interesting though to see their use of landscapes within their pictures, for example Rosetti’s Arthur’s Tomb 1855.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Arthur's Tomb, 1855, Watercolour, with bodycolour and graphite. 
© The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


We then moved on to the work of George Price Boyce who was an architect but who gave it all up to become a landscape artist. Apparently, he always took notes about the changing light conditions.


From there we moved to Alfred William Hunt who was one of the artists for whom truth to nature was most important to his painting. He regarded it is fundamental to show the truth as this was to show God’s desire. He would take binoculars on his trips to see natural detail not necessarily visible to the human eye. He painted great detail but also achieved a great atmospheric feel to his paintings. He always finished his watercolours in the studios with a stippling technique.It was a fascinating talk that taught me a lot about some of the artists that were on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite circle and whose work I was not very familiar with.


The Greta at Rokeby. Alfred William Hunt (1830-1896). c. 1863. Watercolour on paper. 246 x 344 mm (10 3/8 x 14 3/16 inches) You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.

I have now enrolled on my next OCA module which is Photography 2: Landscape. This talk seems to have very neatly bridged the two courses, completing the History of Art module where I was looking in detail at the Pre-Raphaelites; and starting a Landscape course

Sociological Context

I was reading an article in the Guardian in which the play Art is discussed by three writers. The article was very interesting in the way it discusses what the play says (or doesn’t say) about the contemporary art world. I was, however, taken by one comment made by the Guardian art critic Adrian Searle. He thought that some artists were lucky, or adept at catching a wave “they are remembered not because the work was great, but because of its sociological context”. He continues “the diamond skull of Damien Hirst is precisely that, and I think Jeff Koons is a lot of that. What has he (Koons) added to Andy Warhol? Not very much”.

All art is viewed within a context and all art is a product of its sociological context (whether as a result of or a protest against) what I found interesting about this comment was the suggestion that some artists react to a sociological context in order to increase the marketability of their art.

I’ve seen work by Jeff Koons in the Artist’s Rooms exhibition but cannot recall having seen any work by Damien Hirst other than that in books or magazines. I was personally, not very taken with Koons as I have written elsewhere. But this article made me think more about his work and relate it to Warhol’s. I found myself agreeing with Searle’s comment that Koons did not really add much to Warhol’s work. In fact, although it was interesting to see, I found it rather empty and unfulfilling. The Warhol work I have seen challenged me to think about it, something that most Koon’s work lacked. Some of Warhol’s work is also intensely political, not a description you would apply to Koons or Hirst. Images such as Electric Chair, Vote McGovern, or Birmingham Race Riot all have strong messages

So was a sociological context of the work by three artists (Warhol, Hirst and Koons) so very different? Warhol was operating at a time of considerable change reacting against the establishment and this comes through in his work. It could be argued that Hirst and Koons were creating in a more materialistic time and that this is reflected in their work. I would certainly argue that Diamond Skull is very much a reflection of its time, this point is made very strongly by Searle too. Reading and thinking about this article clarified some of my thinking about art and its context.

As I said all art is influenced by context but it would seem that for some art, or even artists, sociological context is all. But I think that the best art transcends this, the best of Warhol’s work is remembered for what it says and what it challenges as well as for the social context within which it was produced. But the work of Hirst and Koons may simply be remembered for why and how they were created rather than for any enduring stimulus or meaning.

The American Dream-Pop to the Present – Exhibition at the British Museum


Having been to the curator’s talk a few weeks ago I was keen to see this exhibition at the British Museum and relate my feelings about it to the intentions of the curator. The exhibition gives an opportunity to see the British Museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary American prints along with a number borrowed from other collections.

The exhibition starts with some of Warhol’s famous screenprint series – those of Marilyn Monroe but also those of the electric chair. I found the electric chair series really quite moving – this instrument of death portrayed in isolation, with various coloured prints used to give a different view of the subject. The final print was different from the others, with red lines hand-painted onto the screenprint. To me this emphasised the deathly nature of the chair and Warhol’s deliberate intervention on this last image seemed a deliberate act in boosting this point.

The exhibition is set out in a series of themes as outlined in the curator’s talk. Starting with a theme of Pop Art exhibition ends with themes of politics, racism and sexism. I was particularly taken with Warhol’s Vote McGovern – where Richard Nixon is portrayed with a green skin, piercing orange eyes and yellow lips, with the words vote McGovern scrawled underneath. The Guerrilla Girls posters also strongly make the point of the treatment of women artists by major galleries and museums. (It would be interesting to work out the percentage of female artists in this exhibition!)

As Alistair Sooke points out in his review in the Telegraph “where the exhibition excels is in demonstrating the vigour of the fledging world of American printmaking during the 60s”. I also liked his comment that Rauschenberg’s Sky Garden “places printmaking on a par with history painting”. It is produced on a huge scale conveying the Apollo 11 mission with a range of references both to the mission itself and its effect. I think this print alone achieves one of the exhibition’s main aims described by Sooke as “the desire to prove that printmaking isn’t peripheral, but as experimental and profoundly brilliant as any other art form”.

Sooke attributes the decision to devote this exhibition to printmaking as a way of addressing the fact that it is marginalised and “the poor relation of art history, low down in the pecking order below painting, sculpture and drawing”. I think this exhibition definitely challenges that point.


At the beginning of the year the Guardian printed a number of articles under the theme of “the uplifting power of art”. A number of well-known writers from the fields of music, philosophy and literature, “choose the work they turn to for replenishment”. Jonathan Jones chose Watteau’s Pierrot; Alain de Botton selected Woman Taking Tea by Chardin and Ali Smith’s choice was Nan Golding’s photo of Cookie Mueller.

This this made me wonder which image I would choose if I was asked the same question. In the course my studies I have seen many great works, many of which came immediately to mind when asked about favourites. Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus and Rembrandt’s self-portraits for instance. But to answer this particular question I think I would choose Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian.

Bacchus and Ariadne, by Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Why this particular painting? There are several reasons I find it uplifting, for a start the wonderful colours used, the depth of blue in the sky is intense. Although the myth of Ariadne and her fate is not so uplifting, this depiction of the meeting of Ariadne with Bacchus is more so. Having just been abandoned by Theseus, Ariadne is discovered by Bacchus who is heading a throng of followers who have obviously been indulging in bacchanalian pleasures. The sight of his followers depicts a complete range of emotions from impish enjoyment to drunken reverie.

The most striking thing to me about the painting is the look of complete rapture on Bacchus’s face as he leaps from his chariot. Titian’s skill in portraying such depth of emotion is breath-taking.

I find all aspects of this painting uplifting, when I first studied it for an annotation I was enthralled by it, the more I look into it, the more I see in it.


The Guardian article is at

British Museum-the American dream: Pop to the Present – Curator’s Talk

I was very pleased to be able to go to a talk given by the curator of this show before the exhibition itself actually opened. It was a fascinating insight into how the works were chosen and categorised within the exhibition. It aims to tell the story of American art through printmaking over the past six decades and the exhibition will be divided into 12 sections

  • pop art (1960s to 70s)
  • three giants of printmaking: Johns, Rauschenberg and Dine
  • the print workshop: experimentation and collaboration (1960s onwards)
  • made in California: the West Coast experience (1960s to 90s)
  • persistence of abstraction (1960s to 70s)
  • minimalism and conceptualism from the 1970s
  • photorealism: portraits and landscapes (1970s on)
  • the figure reasserted (1970s onward)
  • politics and dissent (1960s onward)
  • feminism, gender and the body (1970s onward)
  • race and identity-unresolved histories (1960s onward)
  • signs of the times (2010s)


The exhibition curator outlined each of these are specific sections, the artist that would be displayed within each and their particular work and why they had been chosen. He also explained how the exhibition would be arranged; what was of particular interest was how windows had been created within the exhibition walls so that as you walk through the exhibition you could look forward to what is coming next or even look back to what you have had seen and in this way particular exhibits were related to how they had progressed over time.

It was particularly interesting to hear the curator talking about each of the artists that had been chosen, why they had been chosen and how these particular categories of work had come about and been decided upon for the exhibition itself.

I look forward to seeing the exhibition when it opens in March.

Prehistoric Art at the British Museum

Earlier in the course I annotated a cave painting from the Chauvet cave in France. It was interesting to do, but had to be done from printed and electronic images from books or online. It would have been fascinating to see the original, but, simply not possible

I was, therefore, very interested when I visited the Art of South Africa exhibition at the British Museum to see two examples of rock art on display. The Zaamenkomst Panel dates from around 1000 to 3000 years ago and depicts Sans/Bushman running between Eland (an antelope with spiritual importance). According to the museum notes rock paintings such as this relate to a ritual deemed “the great healing or trance dance” which continues in the Kalahari today. “The paintings address the relationship between healers, or shamans, and the worlds of the living and the dead”.

Image by Nkansah Rexford (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The   Coldstream Stone dates from about 9000 years ago. Red ochre and crushed white shell have been used to depict three human figures. They are shown with blood streaming from their noses, possibly shamans involved in a trance or healing dance. The museum notes describe how “the Eland bleed from the nose when close to death – shaman show similar symptoms when metaphorically dying and entering the world of the dead during the trance dance”.

It was fascinating to be able to see first-hand examples of such early art. It really added to my understanding that I’d gained from the initial work on the Chauvet cave painting. I began to appreciate the skill and care taken in the shape, composition and colours used by the artists. Having the museum explanatory notes alongside added to my knowledge of early art.

Further images can be seen at the following links:

South Africa the Art of a Nation

As well as visiting this exhibition I was fortunate my was also able to attend an introductory talk given by the curator of the exhibition,. It was interesting to hear from the museum curator (as opposed to a curator from an art gallery) what his definition of art was. He considered art as “objects that have been invested with great care, objects that have a symbolic meaning”. By way of illustrating this he referred to Esther Mahalangu’s BMW Art car 525i number 12.

Image by Strainu (, via Wikimedia Commons

He talked of archaeological objects as art for example he referred to the  Makapansgat pebble. This is a stone but which appears to resemble a human face. But the indentations forming the features of the face are all naturally found features, research shows there is no human intervention involved in producing them. It was not used as a tool, and it originated some 40 km away from where it was found. This was evidence of the early collection of an art object “the world’s earliest artwork” originally collected 3 million years ago – a piece of found art.


Image by Gumaguar (Own work)  (], via Wikimedia Commons


This this again extended my view of “what is art” as did another object referred to Headdress in Bell Jar-1852-99. This was collected as an ethnographic object and donated to the museum such, but it is now considered an artwork and a beautiful object in its own right”.

It was also interesting to hear from the curator how they had tried to pair the more archaeological objects with contemporary art visiting the exhibition afterwards this really did work well.

So, over the period of studying this course, I have moved on a long way from Gombrich’s simple definition of “There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists”. (GOMBRICH, E.H., 1989. The story of art. 15th edn. Oxford: Phaidon). I now believe that a pebble found 3 million years ago, collected and kept by someone because it was “invested with symbolic meaning” really can be described as art.

Feedback on my Final Assignment

I have now received feedback from my tutor on the final assignment and my Critical Review.

The feedback on the critical review was particularly helpful, especially in pointing out that my choice of title was not great, in fact the essay did not really answer the title I had given it! There were also a number of other pointers to how the final version could be improved. I decided to submit for the June assessment to give me time to make the amendments, rather than rush it;

One issue that did arise was over the word count for the essay, I had been basing my essay on the “Assessment Guidelines – Art history” document which is on the OCA student website and This is dated 19/01/16 so seems to be the latest available document. This says that students should submit “a 2,000 – 3,000 word critical review”. My review was just under 3000 words. However my tutor was talking of a “target word count of 2000 words” which I was well over!

It seems that there is some inconsistency in the different documents published by OCA. My tutor assured me that I would not be penalised for exceeding the limit but recommended that I reduce the essay to a maximum of 2500 words. So I will spend the next few weeks trimming it!

Project 10: Review of the learning process.

This document went through a number of iterations and I received very helpful pointers from my tutor.

Writing the final version made me think how I learn as opposed to what I have learned. This took me back to an assessment of my learning style that  I undertook at work. It is interesting to see how I am using my learning style within the distance learning context.

The final version of my review of the learning process can be found here: Project 10 Critical Review amended

Load more