Before the Tomb'
ART As death is now coming back into fashion again, there is comfort in such outrageous revelry in mortality. The tomb designs open with the last gasp of the memento mori, a clutter of skulls, cadavers, timepieces and bubbles, and move on through the dead-but-won't-lie-down baroque school, to the triumphant solidity of the Angus- tans. There they sit, their hair close cropped, attired in togas and sandals, like petrified extras for Ben Hun, reminding the onlooker that their thoughts are still firmly on this world rather than the uncertain amenities of the next. One recalls John Weever's splendid pronouncement in his Funeral Monuments: It was usual in ancient times, and so it is in these our days, for persons of especial rank and quality to make their own tombs and monuments in their life-time; partly for that they might have a certain house to put their head in (as the old saying is) . . . and partly to please themselves, in the beholding of their dead countenance in marble.
Browning's bishop obviously had the right idea, an extravagance which only pop groups can afford to indulge in these days.
Of the artists in question only one, Flaxman, is of international standing, while only two others, Rysbrack and Roubiliac, are of any great repute. Apart from the brilliant draughtsmanship of Flaxman and Rysbrack, the drawings are more of documentary than of aesthetic value. They demonstrate clearly the processes whereby our forefathers erected their tombs: initial sketches and drawings by the sculptor, the production of alternative designs, conferences with the architect and the making of a mode/b. These maquettes are really the most beautiful things in the exhibi- tion. Often they remind us, as in the case of tombs in that deplorable indoor cemetery, West- minster Abbey, of the quality of monuments one had long since given up the struggle of trying to look at. An instance of this are the drawings and terracotta of Newton, reclining grandly in classical garb. In the Abbey the tomb is almost sunk without trace in the blinding technicolour of the choir screen.
The exhibition closes with a series of hair- raising designs for a number of well-known London landmarks. Those for the Albert Memorial arise like a series of nightmare trans- formation scenes in a Victorian pantomime: wedding-cake classical by John Durham. oriental- romanesque by James Ferguson and, finally, jewel-spattered Gothic by Scott. Opposite there is a comic drawing by James Wyatt for his gargantuan equestrian statue of Wellington. On the plinth a couple, all frock-coat, crinoline, top hat and poke-bonnet, stand peering upwards at the horse's sagging stomach. A chap rushes to their aid up a step-ladder to the loft.
In sharp contrast, at V. and C. Sternberg in South Audley Street, there is a voluptuous show of tapestries. It is just the thing for a winter's day, to hurtle from the cold, wet and general gloom into an unending series of bowers en- veloped by gorgeous hangings. Tapestries must surely be the ideal form of interior decoration: they deaden sound; they conserve the heat; they can be taken down and replaced at will; they can be cleaned and put back again; and they fade superbly. No wonder in the great inventories of Renaissance palaces tapestries always rank higher than paintings. One can understand, for instance, why Henry VIII could hardly wait to get his clutches on the fallen Wolsey's collection.
The exhibition contains items ranging from late-fifteenth-century Brussels to early-nineteenth- century Beauvais. There is a superb set of three mid-sixteenth-century Brussels tapestries telling the strange story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, who end up as lions tugging Cybele's chariot through the heavens, punishment for having copulated in the temple of Venus. Other tapes- tries, like the sugar-pink Family of Darius before Alexander after Lebrun, remind us of the links this art has with the history of painting. Some- how, however, the subjectless, commonplace, verdure tapestries have the most allure. Nothing to contemplate but landscapes in full-blown summer lusciousness with great clumps or invit- ing avenues of trees, distant hills, huge fore- ground shrubs and ferns with the odd bird stand- ing around on a hillock. Colour unbelievable, as though the landscape had been slightly scorched by hot sun : brown, yellow-brown, green, blue- green, blue. An arcadia without diesel fumes, low-flying aircraft or newspapers to bore us with President Johnson's operation.
This show prods the mind that it is almost two decades now since we had a major tapestry exhi- bition. The last I remember was in 1947 at the Victoria and Albert Museum when the French sent over some of the most precious and lovely of their tapestries. I was twelve at the time and remember being very puzzled by the imagery of the Apocalypse.