With apologies to the long running BBC Radio4 series imagine, if you will, that you are marooned on a desert island. This desert island is rather unusual in that it has a similarly deserted gallery with room enough to hang 10 works of art. Actually there are two rooms in this gallery. One room for nine pictures and the other for one (I suppose like the BBC format this would house my choice if only allowed one). This, as the name suggests, is a tropical island so it cannot be Taransay (as shown above) in the Outer Hebrides which is currently for sale (I am tempted only for the small matter of the asking price – 2 million sterling). In any event if it were Taransay that would certainly affect my choice of pictures. Not much point in taking William Mctaggart’s “Storm” when you have the real thing on your doorstep. Also in general I would choose “cold weather art” for a tropical island gallery. So a water colour from Winslow Homer’s Adirondack series is chosen ahead of one from his Caribbean series which I would pick if marooned on Taransay.
The one picture gallery is for that painting for which by it’s very nature could not be hung with the others and is best viewed in isolation (as if being on a desert island isn’t isolated enough). One other rule being that I can only select art that I have actually physically been in the presence of.
Here are my personal choices in no particular order of preference:
1. William McTaggart: The Storm (1890)
I usually play a game with myself and my kids when we go to an art gallery. You can leave with one painting under your arm. I’m interested to see their choice and it makes me look at a picture through others’ eyes. Well if I could walk out of the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh with one this would be my choice. Actually it is too big to get under arm. I think this is McTaggart’s master work. I know my brother would demure choosing instead the adjacent McTaggart The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship. Both fine paintings to be sure. McTaggart’s pictures are often blighted in my opinion by saccharine images of children but in this painting they are only subliminal images totally subsumed by the kaleidoscope of brush stroke and fury of the storm. This picture was bought and owned by the Scottish American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. His widow kindly donated it to the gallery.
2. Barend Cornelis Koekkoek: Winter Landscape (1838)
I came across this at Schiphol airport of all places. The Rijksmuseum have a small gallery there which is a wonderful idea and serves to make transit times bearable. Some might criticize this work as being ‘sentimental’, but what is amazing about this painting, as with all of KoekKoek’s work, is the accuracy and fabulous technique he applies to create his (almost too) perfect depiction of the natural world. His eye and attention to detail are all the more touching when you take a close look at it. I really hope it forms part of the permanent collection of the Rijksmuseum when they have finished their major refurbishment.
3. Winslow Homer: Adirondack Lake (1892)
This water colour is part of Harvard’s Winthrop Collection which was brought to the National Gallery in London in 2004. I think it the finest personal collection of art that I have seen (and I’ll include the Queen’s). Grenville L Winthrop, the son of the banker Robert Winthrop, certainly had a fine eye. Now there are others in the Adirondack series, i.e., Blue Boat, which are possibly even finer, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but this is the only one I have stood in front of so by my self imposed rule I will take it. It combines too my love of fishing – perfect really.
4. Thomas Gainsborough: Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750)
I just love this painting. It is so unmistakably English. Thomas Gainsborough was in his early twenties when he painted this picture which combines the two genres in which he specialized, portraiture and landscape. By his own account, he preferred the latter. This portrait was executed just after the couple’s wedding.
5. Rembrandt: Self-Portrait (1652)
Another one from the National Gallery of Scotland. I hadn’t paid much attention to the picture until a couple of years ago but now I truly appreciate its greatness. Photographs simply don’t do it justice. You have to stand before it. It is amazingly objective and “self effacing”. Rembrandt left more than eighty paintings, etchings and drawings of himself which record his appearance throughout his career, and reflect something of his changing fortunes. By the time he painted this work he was enduring great personal and financial difficulties – you can clearly see these difficulties etched in his face.
6. Francisco Goya: A Prison Scene (1810)
I can hear my readers now. “Why on earth did he pick that one?” I’m a bit surprised myself. Goya is a fascinating character and I strongly recommend Robert Hughes biography. I could have picked one of Goya’s cheerier pastoral works or tapestry paintings, i.e., The Parasol. Well I was so drawn to this cabinet picture (oil on tin plated iron) located in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, County Durham that I returned to it after doing the rounds. Not much optimism in this picture. Goya was seriously ill at the time and had lost his hearing. His subject matter became darker and more personal. It’s a fantastic depiction of gloom and light in both the physical and metaphorical sense.
Goya is considered not only the last of the Old Masters but first of the Moderns – I think that is about right.
7. Arthur Melville: Baghdad (1882)
This watercolour is in the hands of a dealer. I first saw it in Hong Kong in 2005 and then latterly in Edinburgh. Now I was torn with this picture as I wanted a Glasgow Boy and unfortunately my very favorite Stirling Station by William Kennedy is a nocturne and photographs very poorly. However it is probably the only Kennedy I like and I very much admire almost all of Melville’s work. Not only was he a Glasgow Boy but also categorized as an Orientalist and as I spent 8 years of my working life in the Middle East he ticks all the right boxes. When my Premium Bonds come up I know where I’ll be heading.
8. Andre Derain: Charing Cross Point (1906)
A rather different treatment of trees to Keokkoek! Along with Matisse Derain led Les Fauves (“Wild Beasts”) movement. Aptly named I would say. I have gradually been drawn to them. This one is in the Musee D’Orsay.
9. Vincent Van Gogh: Olive Trees (1889)
Another one from the National Gallery of Scotland. Apologies to the curators of my favorite of all galleries. This is one of a series of fourteen pictures of olive trees that Van Gogh painted while in the asylum at Saint-Remy, and its intense character may well reflect the artist’s agitated state of mind. You can see how he inspired the latter Fauvist and Expressionist movements.
10. Mark Rothko: No. 207 (1961)
This is the painting to sit in glorious isolation in the “other” gallery. I once heard an American dealer describe, without any trace of irony, one of Rothko’s works as being a “slow painting”. He meant “slow to appreciate”. At the time I was extremely cynical of abstract art (Rothko is considered an abstract expressionist but he himself rejected any labeling) and guffawed irreverently at this. Now I know what he meant. It really takes time. You can stare at these mystical Rothko canvasses for hours and just wonder.
This one just burns.