Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Sacraments, Mercy, and the Last Days of Fitzrovia by the Windowless Consultant

After the previous post, the comparison with the Prado, I needed to revisit the National Gallery, see the paintings I knew in the new light, discover others never noticed.

The Prado has a small selection of Poussins, but it's nothing like, as I recalled, that in the National, and I made my way to the room dedicated almost exclusively to the Seven Sacraments with great pleasure. I hadn't seen these for a while - not since before a recent trip to Edinburgh, where I'd spent time with the earlier and rather different version they have. I would now be able to make the comparison I'd been meaning to ever since. Interestingly, although I'd always considered them one of the most powerful groups in their profound mystery, there had never been postcards available in the shop, and in the Taschen Poussin in the gallery shop, they are not reproduced, being, we're told, inferior to the Edinburgh set. This inferiority had by no means been my impression. The National Gallery series, I recalled, made in some, for instance, a much more abstract use of framing triangles, circles and squares to freeze the actions of the paintings into that strange, almost magical intensity of relations among parts that distinguishes Poussin's works, where, for instance, in a device he often makes use of, the simple fact of a figure's being partially cut off from view on movement by an intervening upright - a person walks behind a pillar or through a doorway - seems to imply motion, not out of our sight, only, but between dimensions, out of ours; not passing out of visibility only, but into something else.

My search seemed, though, to be cut off by a re-hang, the Poussins nowhere to be found, and staff I asked were unable to help.

It was on my way to the downstairs computers to locate the paintings that I chanced on a little temporary exhibition being held there at the moment - Edward Cayley Robinson's Middlesex Hospital group Acts of Mercy and recalled that this was something I had been meaning to see.

The Middlesex Hospital is a place I'd occasionally considered a post about, and its effect on Mortimer - or, in its prolongation to the East - Goodge Street. I thought it would be interesting, if depressing, to record the effect of its redevelopment by the Candy brothers into NoHo Square, the name, with its functionless central capital serving as a plastic portico, seeking to align the area off with New York by the magic of branding alone, revealing the attempt to send what is a little island of Fitzrovian independence the way that Marylebone High Street so recently went - tarted up out of dowdy neglect and into the exclusive plaything of the international elite who can afford the sort of housing developed by, well, Candy and Candy for the likes, at Chelsea, of the court of Qatar.

The only thing that had been stopping me had been that the story had already begun, the buildings knocked down before I even knew about it, so the post, beginning in medias res, would be without the necessary visual record. I had never once noticed, I have to admit, passing on innumerable occasions in the past, what the hospital looked like beyond its being red brick with greying stone details. Here, then, at the National, would be an opportunity to redress this.

Robinson's series was a double record of the Middlesex, since not only do they depict scenes of the hospital itself, both inside and out, but also, having been painted for the hospital to be displayed in situ, they are in fact a little piece of it itself, removed from the entrance lobby, for the first time since their installation in 1930, only on demolition.

Robinson was clearly something of a Symbolist, the realism in his paintings set off by a strangely timeless poise giving his figures hints of that mystery that haunts the viewer in Poussin. The canvases are of very large scale, bringing the refectory, the courtyard spaces, with classical foreground porticos framed by Bloomsbury terraces back- from Mortimer Street into the National Gallery's Sunley Room and shrugging off the lack of substance, the hospital twice demolished (the Robinsons are of a previous, reputedly more elegant incarnation), with an ethereal lightness. The viewers in the gallery space entering the friezes of orphans, patients, nurses, families and doctors they contemplated would be a perfect photographic document, I realised, of the hospital that was. In the etherealisation of the transformation to a symbolist framework, the physical sustenance of the orphans became the spiritual of the gallery visitor, coming together with the paintings, given a temporary home, to recreate the hospital in the imagination before its destruction in reality. I left excited that perhaps I'd be able to pursue the Mortimer Street project after all, using shots of the series in this new situ standing for the old, the Sunley room a street saved, briefly, from, if not total destruction, damage beyond recognition.

If that seems naïve - if I should, perhaps, have realised that, since the paintings belonged not to the gallery, but to the Welcome Trust, they wouldn't have even the right to give me that permission - so, perhaps, should my blind confidence that I would again be viewing the Poussin as so often before.

The paintings, like so many others in what we call the permanent collections of what we call our public galleries, I thought of much as I thought of what we call our public spaces - part of our shared landscape, something that would always be there, unproblematically, to visit, whenever I'd need whatever that sustenance is that paintings bring. In fact, it transpired, they were a loan, dependent on the continuing largesse of the Duke of Rutland, an informed and enlightened guard at last informed me, a largesse which the continuing health of the art market has recently been putting such under excessive strain that the man has decided to explore other ways of enjoying his family's rights to privilege.

If the art market's managing to keep it up, the property isn't, and the Middlesex land has dropped sufficiently in value to spare Mortimer Street at least a little more time to itself, albeit diminished, gaping in its middle at the site once given over to charitable causes. This post, then, if it can't reproduce what the street once was, can at least seek to show what it soon no longer will be.