Art Antiques London, Kensington Gardens, 9 – 15 June 2011
Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, 7 June – 15 August 2011
In Kensington Gardens, alongside the newly-glittering Albert Memorial, a vast white tent rose above the grass in June. It was to be the home for eight days of the Art Antiques London fair. There are many art fairs in London nowadays, but this annual fair has a peculiarly intimate, even domestic feel about it. It absorbed an international ceramics fair last year, and as you cast your eye around the dealers’ stands you seemed to be looking into dozens of drawing-rooms, with every kind of ornamental bowl, vase, plate and teapot on the side tables and mantelshelves, and a few landscapes and family portraits on the walls.
In fact there was one exceptional family portrait – a seventeenth-century painting by Daniel Mytens of Lady Catherine Howard, Countess of Salisbury – and the present Marquess of Salisbury came in, bought it and took it back to Hatfield House, his ancestral home. Oprah Winfrey also looked in during a shower of rain.
But most of the visitors did not stand out like those. In fact what struck me was that I had come across a whole new secret tribe of art buyers.
Everywhere there were pairs of middle-aged or elderly ladies, plainly dressed. Yet, if you looked carefully, you saw that they were all wearing very good linen or tweed. They were quiet, but they clearly had well- defined goals in view. One pair strode past a superb green Saint-Cloud porcelain jug and ewer, and went straight to a couple of Chelsea artichoke tureens. They examined them like tureen scholars.
Another pair were studying a Chelsea sunflower dish, while yet two more women were clearly interested exclusively in a Regency mahogany whatnot. There were men who were evidently in the tribe too. I overheard one man in a summer overcoat in deep discussion with a dealer over whether some precious thing should be dated 1624 or 1630. Another, elderly and bent, was buying a Meissen yellow cream jug.
None of these visitors showed the least interest in a splendid Mexican Cubist silver water jug. Also, I noticed, few visitors looked out of the giant window on the east side of the tent at the Albert Memorial, though it did have the air of a large-scale exhibit that had been brought to the fair by some excessively ambitious dealer.
No, these people all knew the particular kind of objet d’art that they had studied and loved. No doubt they had their headquarters nearby in houses and flats in Kensington, and then reached out to country houses large and small throughout the length and breadth of Britain. I saw that this nation would look from the air, if the roofs were removed, like a vast landscape of twinkling glass cabinets, where the tribal treasures were displayed.
A few days later I went to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. This is always a vast show. In the numerous halls of Burlington House in Piccadilly there are 1,117 works this year – mostly paintings and prints, but also photographs, sculptures, installations, and other less easily describable creations.
There are two distinct categories of work to be seen. One is a host of works by amateur or semi-professional artists. Anyone can submit a work by paying twenty-five pounds, and twelve thousand did this year. The selection committee whizzed through them and picked about seven hundred, with a good deal of junk being selected, as usual, alongside many landscapes and fruit bowls done with modest competence.
Royal Academicians, however, have a special right to show their work. Their contributions – about four hundred this year – form the second category. But RAs are not what they used to be. Once upon a time they painted the same kind of scenes as the amateurs, and simply did them better. In recent years, numerous more experimental artists have been elected as RAs, all with their own modernistic imaginations, so there are now roomfuls of dramatically different work.
Who has been coming to see this schizophrenic show? A rather innocent crowd, I fear, hoping they might find some inexpensive but attractive picture for the wall, but hardly prepared for the productions of the new RAs.
On one wall, a long coloured photograph of a large array of foodstuffs hung next to a classical nude on a bed. A man standing next to me said to the air in a loud voice: ‘Now that’s what I call art – a naked woman and a load of sausages!’
That was at least a good, robust expression of taste. But on many of the faces of the visitors I could see only one expression: bewilderment.
It was not surprising when in one room there was a notice quoting its curator, Tess Jaray, as saying arrogantly that it ‘is only for people who are sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful. No one else will enjoy it’. Then the room turns out to include such works as Cornelia Parker’s shapeless tangle of wire that has been ‘drawn out of two lead bullets’, and Jaray’s own tedious assemblages of dots – eight thousand pounds each. Even the anonymous author of the notice on the wall goes on to say that Jaray’s work ‘has a powerful impact on our eyes’ – which is surely the most limited praise that an artist has ever been accorded.
As with so many of the modernist works here, you feel that they have been created essentially for other artists, with each artist striving to show that they are discovering ever more original materials, or inventing ever more original shapes. Cornelia Parker actually acknowledges that that is so, when she says that her work is ‘all about the potential of materials’. But none of that means much to anyone outside the closed circle, except for the critics and curators who take them up and build their own reputation on them.
Anyway the visitors I saw did not respond much. A girl put her shoe inside the dark, mysterious hollow in Anish Kapoor’s reflecting fibreglass rock – one of the best works – but all she had to say was ‘Look, my foot’s turned over!’ Genuine – but not quite enough.
Another contemporary artwork was Simon Brundret’s rubber dog, which jerked to and fro as it put its nose in a rubbish bin. That got a much more satisfactory response from a small schoolboy, who lay down and looked in the bin to see what was in it.
The majority of the sales – judging by the red dots indicating ‘Sold’ – seemed to be of the fairly cheap multiple prints, often costing around two hundred pounds. One that was very popular was a picture of two teapots hanging from old-fashioned, curved umbrella handles. That, I thought, perfectly reflected what pleased most of the visitors to this year’s Summer Show – ninety-nine percent familiar objects, plus one percent of modernism just for fun.