Visions of the North:
Reinventing the Germanic ‘North’ in Nineteenth-Century Art and
Visual Culture in Britain and the Low Countries
One-day International Conference
Compton Verney Museum, Warwickshire, UK
17 June 2016
Convenors: Professor Juliet Simpson, Coventry University; Dr. Susanna Avery-Quash, The National Gallery, London; Dr. Jeanne Nuechterlein, University of York; Professor Marjan Sterckx, Ghent University
In the wonderful surroundings of Compton Verney, this one-day conference provided all its participants with the chance to discuss and explore the ever-changing meanings of early Germanic and Netherlandish art, as seen through the prism of nineteenth-century art and visual culture in Britain and the Low Countries. The introductory note by Professor Juliet Simpson, entitled ‘Travelling North: Nineteenth-Century Art – Germanic Identities and Northern Visions’, greatly helped in setting the tone for the day to come, by encouraging an inter-disciplinary, comparative, and internationalist approach, and by alluding to the fertile cultural exchanges between Britain and the Low Countries during the nineteenth century. The Low Countries – Belgium in particular – had, indeed, a crucial role in the overall reinvention of the idea of the ‘North’. It was during the nineteenth century that newly born countries like Belgium were renegotiating their own identity, along with their cultural (and political) position within Europe as a whole. Within this quest, crucially, the Low Countries were reshaping and reviving their own ‘Northerness’ through an active revaluation and revival of their northern artistic heritage. These renewed ‘visions of the north’ were thus ‘dialectically’ exported to, or imported by, Britain, sometimes directly, sometimes via the wider cosmopolitan cultural community, some other times via other countries, like France, which had a leading role within the nineteenth-century cultural landscape.
The range and quality of the accepted papers did not disappoint. Many of the speakers were able to investigate specific case studies in great depth, without, for this, losing sight of the overall theme of the conference. Such case studies included an interesting analysis of the Netherlandish and Germanic ‘Primitives’ offered by the Senior Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery in London; a fascinating account of the rather cosmopolitan Spitzer Collection of Netherlandish and German Art; and examinations of the various meanings that Netherlandish stained glass had for private collectors in the city of Ghent at the heart of the nineteenth century. Many of the speakers offered specific examples of exchange related to Early Northern Art, between Britain and the Low Countries. For instance, a captivating paper considered nineteenth-century falsifications of Early Netherlandish paintings in Britain and Belgium as a successful tool to examine the contemporary ‘period eye’. Another paper focussed on an even wider cosmopolitan context, by convincingly suggesting that the Pre-Raphaelites ‘looked to, borrowed from and reinterpreted’ Early Netherlandish art, and this is best shown in paintings such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850). This is a very original research avenue, which goes beyond the usual link between the Pre-Raphaelites and early Italian art. The work of the cosmopolitan British artist Frederick Sandys was then at the centre a paper investigating his evident debts to Northern Renaissance Art after his European travels, probably also thanks to the exposure to nineteenth-century Belgian art. Another paper invited us to consider the crucial role of the Flemish Primitives – such as Hans Memling – in the development of the Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff’s own symbolic vocabulary, which would for ever influence Symbolist visions of Belgium as a whole.
Later in the day, the focus moved to Germanic Art and its reception in nineteenth-century Britain, with papers on responses to fifteen and sixteen-century Cologne and Westphalian paintings in mid nineteenth-century literary accounts, and representations of the German Northern Renaissance by British Victorian artists, through the convincing examples of William Bell Scott’s Albrecht Dürer on the Balcony of his House (1854), and John Evan Hodgson’s Sir Thomas More and his Daughters in Holbein’s Studio (1861), showing how these paintings should be read within the wider discourses and debates related to a ‘collective cultural identity’.
Within this inter-disciplinary landscape, literature and theoretical writing were not forgotten, and the last panel examined the idea of the ‘Northern Genius’ through an analysis of nineteenth-century literary and critical sources, such as Le génie du Nord (1923, 1925) by Belgian art critic André de Ridder (1888-1961), which provided a welcome window into the contemporary critical theorization around the theme of the conference. Importantly, this last session shed some much-needed light on the different possible kinds of ‘North’ that can be found in the creative melting pot of identity-seeking fin-de siècle culture. At the end of the nineteenth century, ‘The Celtic’, ‘the Germanic’, and ‘the Nordic’ are all different constructions of north, carrying very different connotations, which, in turn, are deeply interconnected with ideas of national character and identity. Within this fin-de-siècle imaginary landscape, the creativity of the naïve Celts is indeed very different from the rationality of the Teutonic, Anglo-Saxon, and Nordic ‘races’. This conceptualisation of ‘northerness’ jointly provided by Frances Fowle (University of Edinburgh) and Marja Lahelma (University of Helsinki) will surely offer a solid basis for a wealth of responses and new investigations of this idea in the years to come. Closing remarks by Professor Steven Parissien, the Director of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Museum, marked the end of the conference. A lovely drink reception and a free tour of the special exhibitions were exquisite final treats.
In addition to the wealth of papers, the lively Q&A sessions and discussions, this conference was also particularly memorable for a very generous booklet entitled ‘Vision of the North Spotlight Exhibition’, especially written by the convenors for all the delegates. This guide invited us all to discover four key works selected from the impressive collection of Northern European art at Compton Vernay Art Gallery and Museum, and provided us with the background and an analysis of these works in juxtaposition with other works held in other collections, such as the National Gallery and the British Museum. Personally speaking, one of the most fascinating finds at Compton Vernay was Lucas Chranach the Elders’s Venus and Cupid (circa 1525), an artwork that was chosen as the poster image for the day. The goddess of Love thus accompanied us through our explorations of different possible ‘Visions of the North’ in a thought-provoking and inspiring international one-day conference, which many might regret missing.
More information can be found on the conference website: