When I wander around various galleries, I am often lost in wonderment when I stand in front of a massive painting. I can remember when I was in Venice last year and visited the Accademia Galleries and stood before the giant work of Paolo Veronese entitled Feast in the House of Levi. I was amazed at the magnitude of the work which measured 5.6 metres x 13metres and I could only wonder at how he managed to physically paint such a large scale picture. How long must it have taken him? Maybe he had some of his apprentices to help him but still it was an outstanding undertaking. I find equally impressive miniature paintings and I am always filled with a sense of amazement at how these delicate paintings have been achieved. My Daily Art Display featured painting today is one such miniature and I want you to feast your eyes on this lovely work of art entitled A Primitive City painted by the English artist Edward Calvert.
Edward Calvert was born in Appledore in the county of Devon in 1799. His early schooling and art education was at Plymouth but coming from a seafaring area the young Calvert joined the Navy and spent five years serving his country. A death of a close friend in naval action resulted in him leaving the force and coming ashore. In 1824 he moved to London and it was here he, at the age of twenty-five, enrolled at the Royal Academy, where one of the professors was the artist, Henri Fuseli. It was whilst in London that he met the ageing English painter, William Blake. Blake and his paintings were one of his first great artistic influences and one that would remain with him for the rest of his life. Blake’s art work inspired a number of aspiring artists and Calvert and some like-minded Romantic artists, who had fallen under the spell of Blake and his work formed an association known as The Brotherhood of the Ancients often simply known as The Ancients. The leader of the group was Samuel Palmer but one of the most of the most important members of the group was today’s featured artist, Edward Calvert. Others in the group were George Richmond and John Linnell. This group of painters, who all had a love of the spiritual art of the past, would often meet at the home of Blake, which they used to refer reverentially to as the House of the Interpreter. They would also congregate at Palmer’s house in Shoreham, Kent to discuss Blake’s visionary ideology and to paint pastoral images with a mystical perspective. They brought a new dimension to Romantic Art. They brought a wondrous vision of a golden age set in quiet landscapes amidst a pastoral innocence and abundance.
Edward Calvert who was a man of private means left the Academy and concentrated on another love of his, wood-engraving. He lived with his wife in Dalston in the London borough of Hackney for most of his life. Calvert’s love of pastoral depictions disappeared gradually but his interest in ancient Greece increased. He visited Greece where he sketched prolifically. Eventually, he gave up his printmaking and for the rest of his life his art was just for himself and for his own pleasure. He would work in oil, watercolour and gouache and for his subjects he liked to focus on pagan mythology. Latterly, Calvert became a recluse and died in 1883, aged 84.
My featured painting today is a tiny watercolour miniature, measuring just 7 cms x 10 cms (not quite 3 inches x 4 inches), entitled A Primitive City, which Edward Calvert painted in 1822. The quality of this work of art is amazing with its clarity of line and jewel-like colouring and the amount of detail that is shown in such a small space. It is an evening scene and in the background on the right, we see the waning moon as it hovers behind a distant walled city. In the right mid-ground we see a peasant leading a donkey which staggers slowly heavily laden with two large baskets of grapes on its back. Behind the donkey there is another cart, crossing a rickety wooden bridge, being pulled by a bullock, which is loaded with sacks of grain and driven by a woman. The grapes and grain symbolise the Eucharistic wine and bread. The pastoral theme is emphasized by the shepherd and his flock which we see depicted in the left mid-ground of the work. If we carefully look at the city itself we see a woman drawing water from a well and above her we see another woman watching her from her viewpoint on the staircase between the two towers.
There is an innocence to the scene and this is accentuated by the beautiful, almost naked, young girl we see to the left of the picture who is about to take a swim in the nearby stream, which runs across the foreground of the painting. We can see Calvert’s love and interest in Classical art in the way he has depicted the woman, as the stance of the scantily-clad young lady is almost certainly derived from the Venus Kallipygos, which is in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It could well be that the presence of the river was Calvert’s idea of symbolising the river of life and the nakedness of the young woman symbolic of innocence. Above the girls head we see that the trees are full of fruit symbolising abundance.
This was Calvert’s vision of the perfect idyll, tranquillity and abundance. It should be remembered that this work was completed before Calvert went to London and became part of The Ancients , which just goes to show that his ideas for artistic subjects were similar to those of artists he was yet to meet.