Desert Island Pics

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 McTaggartThe 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.


About The Weary Traveller

I like to walk up and down hills. I've been so very fortunate to have lived most of my life in the Far East (Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the Middle East (Qatar, Oman and U.A.E). I now live and work in Bangkok. I'm past the half century now and can't help but feel that some of the mountains that I've climbed lately I should have done yesteryear. The mind is willing if the legs are not always so. Here are some stories and realized dreams of hills climbed and, dales and deserts crossed. With a bit of art thrown in. I hope you might enjoy.
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8 Responses to Desert Island Pics

  1. Nice selection but I still don’t get the Rothko!
    Did you consider commissioning reproductions while you were in Vietnam? They used to sell well in my Dubai shop although quality varied. This gallery is quite good;

  2. pat hannay says:

    Actually whilst in Hanoi I did pick up some Litchtenstein’s. Generally they were pretty good on him, Geogia O’Keeffe, Lempicka etc but dodgier on the Old Masters.

    I’m sure Rothko will grow on you.

  3. hannay mi says:

    interesting- having viewed this post a few times i can now, hopefully, cogently express my opinions on this (drum roll).
    rothko is rubbish (fact) – good only for self obsessed tribeca media magnates
    derain- looks like a second rate ‘niaive’ artist to me. the chinese ones better by the way
    melville-nicely decorative i guess-at a pinch
    gainsborough- commemorative biscuit tins material
    dont get me strated on w homer- sentimental clap trap with people on boats as i recall

    however, now i have that out my system
    olive trees van g- always thought those the best
    mactaggart- the children bits grate – but i adore him
    that rembrandt is extraordinary- and i do admit i have you to thank for explaining it to me when we saw it way back when.

    and finally- why on earth would u take a goya to a desert island? sunlight uplands he aint

    no scottish colourists – shame on you.

    and just so that you know the best picture ever ever ever is ‘whistlejacket.’

    • Now a critique on your critique:

      Your Rothko invective is understandable. I don’t expect him to beloved by anyone associated with Seagrams. Take time out to really look at his work – you might find it an adventure.

      I was very surprised at your Gainsborough comment. I thought that picture would be right up your street. It’s wonderful – if people put it on a biscuit tin then albeit.

      Winslow Homer “sentimental clap trap”!? I can’t begin to fathom that comment on one of the world’s great watercolourists.

      Scottish Colourists. Don’t get me wrong I love them and if you asked me 5 years ago yes I would have picked one. However now I like the Glasgow Boys even better. In any event they could be categorized as “post-expressionist” or even “fauvist” and I picked two of those already.

      Oh and in my personal opinion the best picture ever ever ever is Turner’s Snow Storm attached.

      • hannay mi says:

        turners water colours streets ahead more interesting than w homer- and by the way his ‘fighting temeraire ‘is his best work .
        constable ‘dedham vale ‘ in the scottish nat gallery? i can only charitably assume you have missed it.
        and hobbema? although that koekkoek looks quite interesting actually
        you may look, my good friend, but you cannot see.
        p.s. just so that you know, id rather be in a traffic jam on the m25 than go on an ‘adventure’ with rothko

      • Fighting Temeraire the best? Certainly the most popular which is a different thing.

        Dedham Vale I always thought a bit Deadhand Vale myself.

        Hobbema OK now you are talking! I’ll swap the Koekkoek for one.

  4. hannay mi says:

    actually the ‘dedham vale’ in the v& a is better than the sng’s.
    however, to play your game, if i was allowed one piccy from the sng it would monet’s haystack.

  5. Middle Tim says:

    Splendid. Just got round to reading now. Some interesting picks, especially the Rothko. Seems to have garnered some other comment too. Not sure if you’ve managed to catch Graham-Dixon’s series on American art on the Beeb. Try and look it out if you can. Excellent, and sure you’d enjoy.

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