Herbert Tyson Smith mermaid and John Singer Sargent’s “In the Generalife Gardens
- Credit: Derek Trillo
With museums and art galleries closed, curators share what they would have chosen from their respective collections to take home to study and enjoy during the lockdown.
‘If I could choose just one object to study at home it would be John Singer Sargent’s painting “In the Generalife Gardens”,’ said Stephen Whittle, principal manager, Museum, Gallery and Operations at The Atkinson in Southport. ‘Painted in 1912 in the sunlit gardens of the Alhambra in Andalucia, Sargent’s beautiful scene of dappled sunlight and sparkling water is one of many outstanding Impressionist paintings in the collection,’ he said.
‘Like many of us living in lockdown, I’ve taken the opportunity to dust of my paint box and I’ve looked to my own garden for inspiration. Sargent’s painting provides a masterclass in outdoor watercolour painting.
The subject matter is very modest, a few plant pots, a small fountain and a garden path, but the quality of reflected light and luminous shadow is effortless and atmospheric.
‘In the early 20th century Sargent was one of the world’s leading society portrait painters. But his high workload took its toll, and you can sense the relief and the sheer enjoyment he took in painting this uncomplicated scene in his signature Impressionist style with loose, confident brushstrokes.
‘The opportunity to study Sargent’s work at leisure might not turn me into a great painter but it would deepen my understanding and enjoyment of a great watercolour artist’s work.’
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‘This aquatic beauty would look lovely preening herself on my mantlepiece at home,’ said Dr Amanda Draper, Curator of Art and Exhibitions at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool. It’s called ‘Mermaid’. ‘The sculptor, Herbert Tyson Smith, patinated the bronze very cleverly so her burnished figure seems to emerge from a verdigris sea foam,’ she said. ‘Her back arches and, with her tail, forms an arabesque as she gazes at herself in a mirror. Her striking Art Deco styling is typical of Tyson Smith’s work, although he is better known for his architectural sculpture.
‘Mermaid was presented to the Viscountess Leverhulme in July 1933 to mark her opening of the Leverhulme Building, part of the University of Liverpool’s School of Architecture. It is likely to have been purchased as an
“off the shelf” sculpture, rather than a special commission, because a matching merman is known to exist.’
Liverpool-born Tyson Smith (1883-1972) studied at their Department of Architecture and Applied Arts. He served during the First World War, at one point installing machine guns on aeroplanes for the Flying Corps and subsequently had a studio at the former Blue Coat School. He was commissioned for numerous war memorials including Liverpool’s Cenotaph at St George’s Hall and those in Southport, Birkenhead, Fleetwood and Accrington.
‘We can’t be certain what she thought of it, but the little sculpture did not to prove a lucky charm for the Viscountess; she and her husband were to divorce three years later and he quickly re-married,’ Amanda said. ‘We purchased the sculpture in 2002 and I’d like to find out more about what happened to it between 1933 and its arrival at the VG&M’.
Ladies’ antique workboxes remain plentiful for today’s collectors but this beautiful example is special: it was made in 1808 by a known individual working for the renowned Gillows of Lancaster, one of the country’s leading cabinet-makers and suppliers to the landed gentry.
It’s also the favourite object of Lynda Jackson, and is normally on display in Judges’ Lodgings Museum, Lancaster’s oldest town house, built by Thomas Covell who locked the witches in their underground dungeon during the Pendle Witch Trials.
Why is it Lynda’s favourite? Because it is inlaid with 72 different woods from all over the world including Kangaroo wood (presumably from Australia) and wood from Lancaster Castle entrance. Robert Gillow’s success was due in no small part to the popularity of furniture made from the mahogany he imported from Cuba and the West Indies.
‘The workbox is characteristic of a type of furniture then popular, in which rare specimens of marble, seashells or wood were incorporated into its design,’ Lynda said. ‘It was made for Miss Elizabeth Giffard of Nerquis, Wales, by Francis Dowbiggin, who was employed by Gillows of Lancaster. Francis was part of a family of cabinet-makers and his son, Thomas Dowbiggin (1788-1854) was a celebrated royal cabinet-maker.
‘It’s also a great personal object and Elizabeth Giffard seems an interesting character. She was interested in the new discoveries being made around the world, collected an extensive library and grew prize pineapples on her estate. She remained unmarried, and ran the estate with 11 live-in staff.’