Tate’s migration exhibit has connections north of the river

PUBLISHED: 09:30 19 July 2012

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth)
circa 1876
Oil on canvas
686 x 918mm
James Tissot 
The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth)  c.1876 
Photo: Tate Photography 

Terms of Loan

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) circa 1876 painting Oil on canvas 686 x 918mm <> James Tissot The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) c.1876 (N04847) Tate Photo: Tate Photography Terms of Loan

Tate, London 2009

Hampstead and Highgate’s rich history of migrants is seen through an artistic lens at the Tate’s current exhibition

Tate Britain’s exhibition Migrations: Journeys into British Art explores how artists born abroad and coming to live in Britain shaped our art and ideas over the past 500 years. Reviews have been less than kind: the Guardian described it as lackadaisical and the Evening Standard as chaotic. Yet it offers rich rewards for those who enjoy learning about the era in which the artists lived, particularly if north-west London is a special interest.

Consider one of the earliest works: Jan Siberechts’s 1696 View of a House and its Estate, Belsize, Middlesex. The Flemish-trained artist specialised in country estates and here he painted the house of a banker and goldsmith surrounded by fields when Belsize Park was a rural retreat. In the foreground is Rosslyn Hill, with a coach heading for Hampstead, and in the background the smoking chimneys of the city. Siberechts favoured the bird’s-eye viewpoint maximising detail, and the vegetable and fruit garden in this painting is thought to be the best recorded of that period.

The exhibition is organised in roughly chronologically order with themed rooms. Dialogues between Britain, France and America includes James Tissot, a Frenchman who lived in St John’s Wood, whose work was considered risqué by Victorian standards; flirtations between a man and two women, as in The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth), were a favourite subject. His paintings combined the frivolity of French fashion plates with the narrative element common in contemporary British art.

North London connections abound – and fascinating exhibits too - in the next room which combines works by Jewish artists made early in the 20th century with a selection by refugees from Nazi Europe. Sir William Rothenstein’s 1903 Mother and Child is an elegant composition in cool colours depicting the artist’s wife and son at their Hampstead home. It demonstrates his rising social status by the setting and his artistic allegiances by showing the main figure in profile, under the influence of Whistler. In Jews at Prayer 1919, Jacob Kramer uses the ceremonial prayer shawl, the tallit, worn by Jewish men – here probably during Yom Kippur - to emphasise his simplification of the figures.

But it’s with the mid-century works and particularly a case of correspondence relating to artists who had settled or were to settle in our area that this exhibition came alive for me. The eponymous creature in The Crab 1939-40 is Oskar Kokoschka’s symbol for British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who remains aloof while a tiny swimmer representing Czechoslovakia drowns. When the Chief Constable of Cornwall suggested it might be a security risk for OK to live near the coast, Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, wrote “Quite apart from the fact that he has always been anti-Nazi, I think he is far too dreamy and undependable for the Nazis to use him as an agent.”

One of the most poignant works is Marie-Louise Von Motesiczky’s painting Still Life with Sheep 1938, of family heirlooms including Chinese cloisonné sheep arranged on an ironing board in a hotel bedroom in Amsterdam. It suggests homesickness and an attempt to establish a home in transit. Her journey from Vienna - annexed by Germany the day before she left – was to end in Hampstead.

The postwar section is strong on film, including one commissioned by Camden Arts Centre in 1969. For A Study of Relationships between Inner and Outer Space, men, women and children are stopped in the street to be asked if they would be excited to hear that a man had landed on the moon. A young lady with blonde hair backcombed à la mode replies, “I find everything about men exciting.”

Until August 12 at Millbank SW1. Daily from 10am to 6pm and until 10pm on Friday. £6, £5 concessions.

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