Volcano! At Compton Verney
We had been meaning for ages to go and see the exhibition at Compton Verney on Volcanoes in art from Turner to Andy Warhol, but had been letting the time slip by (just like we didnt make it to see last year excellent show there on "The Artist's Studio"). The trouble is that it is two and a half hours drive from Cambridge each way, which makes it a bit of a long trip for a single day at a single exhibition.
But happily our friend from the Getty showed up in the UK wanting to see it, so we went over and stayed the night in Evesham (at a hotel with wonderful food, eccentric drink -- never seen Chinese wine on a wine list before, and simultaneously been warned off it by the maitre d -- and rather unnervingly filled with teddy bears). From there it was a quick nip to the Compton Verney show.
There were some great things here and some intriguing pictures (particularly of Vesuvius and Pompeii, I have to say that I didnt get much moved by the Iceland images); and the gallery itself, plus shop, was beautiful, in the restored house and grounds of Compton Verney. But there were some odd downsides too.
For a start, the catalogue was annoyingly thin. I kind of understand why you might want to avoid the door stopper style, with a vast entry on every piece exhibited -- but to have a very selective essay, which didnt even include a simple list of the works on show was infuriating/sloppy (I ended up copying down the labels from the walls into the back pages of my copy of the catalogue).
And some of the throw-aways were just as bad. It surely isn't fair or true to write off Bulwer Lytton as a "vain, effete, aristocratic figure". And, as for the display case labelled "ancient, medieval and twentieth century novels in which volcanoes are a theme" which included Plato's Phaedo and Virgil's Aeneid. . . where, oh where, are the classicists when these shows are being put together, I thought.
But this is to carp.
I got a huge amount out of some pictures I hadn't seen, or at least not paid much attention to, before. There was a tremendous little picture (right) by H-F Schopin, called The Last Days of Pompeii. The "catalogue" rather breezily claimed that it was a response to Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days novel -- but it seemed to us much more like a reaction to the vast 1830s canvas of the same subject by Briullov, now in St Petersburg, and not really much to do with the novel at all.
And there was another memorable image by J-B Franque of a party of aristocrats, led by the King of Naples going to inspect the crater of Vesuvius in 1815. This too was more complicated than the caption suggested (and it didnt even get a mention in the "catalogue") -- though I have to say, in huge praise of the gallery, that the custodian on guard lent us her magnifying glass so that we could look at the details we wanted to more carefully (there was some hard to decipher writing and strange heads popping out of the shadows).
Then finally (and another omission from the "catalogue") I was struck by a small painting by Gioacchino Toma of a train running in front of Vesuvius, both machine and volcano pouring out smoke. A simple point about nature and culture, but one that was nicely repeated by James Graham's wonderful video installation of Stromboli. There was a lot to be said for this clever two-screen show, but I loved the way that the noise of Stromboli's eruption really did sound like a steam train.
So please do some more shows like this, Compton Verney -- but do give us at least a proper list of what we are seeing.