Thursday, July 17, 2008

Boulter’s Lock

Imagine that you were an artist from a hundred years ago, and this was the scene that met your eyes.

This is Boulter’s Lock, a popular gathering point for pleasure boaters along the Thames west of London. There’s a mix of personalities and a variety of watercraft crowded together waiting for the lock to be opened. Everyone is dressed for a fashionable day outdoors.

But what chaos! Everything is moving and changing. How would you design a coherent picture out of all these raw elements?

Here’s what Edward J. Gregory (1850-1909) exhibited in 1897, called "Boulter's Lock, Sunday Afternoon." It’s one of the masterpieces of Victorian painting, and today is the pride of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. But it’s hardly ever mentioned in art history class because it doesn't fit neatly into the streamlined narrative of most survey courses.

That’s too bad, because it’s a supreme example of composition. Note the clustering, spokewheeling and shapewelding in the main boat in the lower center of the picture. As a contrast to that crowded boat, the boats nearby have only single figures in a remarkable variety of postures and expressions, and those figures speak volumes about the social classes of the time. The Art Journal said, "it is in fact the three volume novel in art, the guide book and encyclopaedia of the manners and customs of the English people'."

Gregory worked on Boulter's Lock for about ten years. He was a remarkable painter. How many people would dare to paint reflections and cast shadows crossing in shallow water?
More details about the real Boulter's Lock on Wikipedia and this local website, link.
Lady Lever Art Museum's page about the painting, link.
Art Renewal Center, three paintings by E.J.Gregory, link.


Glendon Mellow said...

While pursuing my fine arts degree in university, by far the worst adjective that could be applied to a period, style or piece of art was calling it academic.

Here in Toronto, my favourite room of the Art Gallery of Ontario was the red-painted Victorian Salon, with its walls jammed with masterful realistic scenes. In another area, glowed a beautiful but unfinished Bougereau.

All forbidden and academic art when discussing what was important to progress in the history of art.

Boulter's Lock is a masterpiece and it is good of you to say so.

Father Thames said...

See and scroll down for a boater's perspective on this painting!

Unknown said...

I love a painting that makes you smile because it's so beautiful and masterly.

I love that room too, Glendon.

Dianne Mize said...

The snobbery of academia as well as mainstream attitudes have overlooked more than one masterpiece. I love this piece and I confess (with embarrassment) that I had not seen it before. It's a fine example of how a masterful painter can put chaos into order. Thanks for, once again, pulling something wonderful out of the archival cracks.

Diantres said...

i wish to see a larger version of this painting of the web. ;_;

Glendon Mellow said...


The salon room is excellent, isn't it?

Of course we'll see what it looks like after the major reno.

christy said...

you might be interested in this new blog i recently came across! it is all about forgotten treasures like this one by lock. it's not all realist work, but you're sure to find something you like.

Erik Bongers said...

Long time since we had a post with such an outspoken personal view on art :)

But first : Hey, I've been paying attention in class and at the risk of being considered that horrible student that is trying too hard to become the teacher's favourite :
"Sir ! Sir ! I've found another one, yes Sir ! The painting also contains a good example of flagging. Look at the figure in front of the white sail!"

On the matter of the word "Academic".
I remember years ago an art teacher at that was reviewing my work at the end of a semester. He hesitated before remarking "Your work is ermmm...rather...errmm.. aca...ermm...academic."
He waited with a look as if I was going to hit him, but I smiled, to show I considered that remark a compliment. Nevertheless I quit that art education after 1 year and a half and started a carreer in...computers.

And a third remark:
C'mon guys ! This is a post that expresses personal taste!
Dare to respond that you don't (fully) agree!
Being all in agreement is like being surrounded by all smiling people. It's creepy.
So here I go:
If there's one thing about Victorian (or academic) painting that I don't like it's the lack of emotion. A painting like this one does nothing to me at the emotional level. True, it's extremely well and intelligently composed and demands to be 'read'. So it's very narrative or legible. But it has no emotional impact on me whatsoever and that's important to me. There's nothing striking, awkward, repulsive, shocking, tender, sad, sensual, spiritual, cold, empty, void, ...ok, ok, you get my point.

And a 4th comment.
I've read a certain sentence once too many on this post.
One who says that a painting IS a masterpiece is one who thinks to have the devine insight to be able to recognize a masterpiece and one who considers a masterpiece a universal godgiven fact.
Ok, I'm preaching again, but I can't help myself. To me, there's no such thing as good taste, only respect for eachother's taste.
Stop saying that a work is a masterpiece as it implies that people who disagree have a certain blindness.

But don't let that stop you comparing tastes!

Erik Bongers said...

Hey Christy, that's a great art inconnu site. Added it to my favorites.

Unknown said...

Gosh, his reflections in the water are amazing!

James Gurney said...

As always your profound insights deepen the conversation. My response to this painting is entirely subjective, of course, and based on a poster-size reproduction I have at home (Sorry, Diantres, I couldn't find a bigger one on the web).

Seeing the whole and its parts gives me more than mere pleasure in its aesthetic surface and its narrative detail: the whole painting expresses to me a feeling of a joy of life and dolci far niente, which is just as worthy an emotion for art, I'm sure you'll grant, as the darker emotions.

To be accurate, the painting is not a purely academic in the sense that it was seen as very progressive in its day. Contemporary critics objected to the figures on the bridge handled in light values, or the thick paint in the reflections (I agree, Andy, the water is amazing), or the cropping, which is very like Degas and eastern art.

Regarding "masterpiece" or "chef-d'oeu·vre" or "capolavoro" or whatever you want to call it, I think there are some objective measures, and it's not some pronouncement on high. May I suggest that a painting is a master work if it's 1. loved by the public over more than half a century, 2. the best work of an artist's career, and 3.typical or resonant of its zeitgeist. So perhaps we could agree that Picasso's Guernica is a masterpiece even if it may not be someone's "cup of tea."

Making A Mark said...

The first scene looks very much like a scene I regularly used to look down on from the Silver Street Bridge in Cambridge on a sunny summer's afternoon in the 70s when all the punts were really busy! That photo took me right back in time!!!

The water is wonderful and I agree about the value of the composition. What's very odd about it is the angle and height of the perspective. The artist who is 'seeing' this scene is not apparently in the water (or is he?) as the angle is too high but then again neither is he on a bridge as that would have meant looking down from an even higher angle (and as indicated I've a lot of experience of looking down from a bridge which didn't offer much clearance!). A puzzle........

For me, the only artist whose compositions have had me in the boat right next to him is Sargent - but then he was painting while actually in the boat!

So far as Art Inconnu is concerned - interesting, but I think the author stretches the concept of 'fair use' a tad too far by posting images of a painter who died in 2000 without any comment at all even if he did provide source attribution. I personally wouldn't want to get into a debate or tangle on copyright matters with the Marlborough!

Erik Bongers said...

Of course, I did exaggerate a bit just to stirr things up a little, but I'm glad I did as it resulted in some interesting thoughts.

I like the definition of 'masterpiece' you[James] give here, mainly because it moves from the objective (a work IS no longer a masterpiece) to the subjective (a work CAN BE CONSIDERED a masterpiece IF...), and that's really the way I like it. But I also like the criteria themselves.

Thanks for zooming in on the example painting : knowing better why someone appreciates a certain thing helps in being able to appreciate it yourself.

Learned a new italian phrase here.

And finally: sorry to those that used the expression "...IS a masterpiece." I do realize that the statement is used to express personal taste rather than to impose taste in a dictatorial way! But as I said - wanted to stirr a little.

Glendon Mellow said...

Nothing wrong with stirring things up, Erik. Just be careful: shock value has become kind of academic.