Art inspired by theatre, literature and music


The Guildhall Art Gallery is mounting a fascinating new exhibition examining how visual artists have drawn inspiration from the literary arts. Inspired: Art inspired by theatre, literature and music will explore the relationship between poetry, plays, novels and music with the visual arts.

Guildhall Art Gallery, owned and operated by the City of London Corporation, is located in a historically and culturally significant location, Guildhall Yard – the site of London’s Roman amphitheater – and houses a nationally significant art collection. Founded in 1886, visitors can admire works of art dating from 1670 to the present day, including 17th century portraits, Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces and a huge range of paintings documenting London’s history.

Novels were increasingly popular in the 19th century and, in response to industrialisation, many Victorians enjoyed nostalgic and romantic novels and poetry, turning to Shakespeare’s history plays, Tennyson’s poems, medieval folk tales and Greek myths. This was reflected in much of the art of the time, and the Guildhall Art Gallery delves into its famous 19th century collections to explore the dialogue between art and literature. Inspired goes one step further to examine how theater and music were additional sources of inspiration for Victorian artists.

Visitors will see the influence of the theater in plays like John Philip Kemble as Coriolanus by Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). A painter, draftsman and president of the Royal Academy, Lawrence learned from his father to recite passages from Pope, Collins, Milton and Shakespeare to his clients. Lawrence’s portrayal of British actor John Philip Kemble, the shadow-covered representative, revels in the theatricality that Shakespearean tragedy offers. Meanwhile, pivotal moments in theater history, such as the fire at Drury Lane, are captured on canvas in Old Drury Lane on fire, London 24 February 1809 by Abraham Pether.

Haydon, Benjamin Robert; Milton and his daughters at the organ

Fans of Pre-Raphaelite art will be able to see pieces by famous names, including William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-1896), and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood treasured the romantic poets and the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle that the world itself should be read as a system of visual signs. Artists compiled a list of “heroes” who embodied greatness, including Keats, and carried their inspiration into paintings with great attention to detail, bold color and elaborate symbolism.

Holman Hunt’s study for the Vigil of Saint Agnes (1847-1848) draws on Keats’ romantic narrative poem to tell the story of Madeline and Porphyro – forbidden lovers from conflicting families. Watts’ Ariadne at Naxos, 1875, depicts the Greek myth Ariadne, the Cretan princess who helped Theseus kill the Minotaur. In some versions of the story, Ariadne is abandoned on the island of Nexos and dies, but Watts depicts her being rescued by and marrying the god of wine.

Also on display will be sculptures that see the performing arts celebrated in stone. Sculptor Jaroslaw Gierrcarz Alfer commemorates Chopin’s last concert in London in 1848, which took place at the Guildhall itself. Chopin’s talent, his highly publicized love life and his untimely death made him a major symbol of the Romantic era, while mythological figures like Clytie became a symbol of unrequited love for Watts. “I paint ideas, not things,” Watts said, and his Clytie sculpture depicts his story as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses with the intriguing symbolism for which he is famous.

A large collection of watercolors will also be on display, including Ophelia’s Madness by Fred Walker and Cedric’s Toast, 1859 by John Gilbert. Gilbert’s watercolor depicts a scene from Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish historical novelist who was a leading figure in European literary romanticism.

English essayist, poet and playwright Joseph Addison (1672-1719) is also featured, appearing in a painting William Powell Frith (1818-1909) which depicts him alongside the fictional country squire character he created in 1711, Sir Roger de Coverley. These famous names in English art sit alongside works by French painter Emily Levy (1826-1890) such as Paul and Virginia, 1866 and Scottish artist William Dyce (1806-1864).

Wendy Hyde, Chair of the City of London Corporation’s Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee, comments: This fascinating new exhibition – which uniquely fuses art, theatre, literature and music – will become a major topic of discussion here in the heart of the city. London is coming together and the arts are key to its post-Covid recovery. Must-see exhibits like this help create the positive sentiment that reinvigorates the Square Mile and beyond. Inspired will leave gallery goers feeling inspired themselves.

The City Corporation, which owns and operates the Guildhall Art Gallery, is the fourth largest funder of heritage and cultural activities in the UK and invests over £130 million each year. In partnership with the Barbican, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of London, the City Corporation is leading the development of the Culture Mile between Farringdon and Moorgate, a multi-million pound initiative to create a new cultural and creative space. destination for London.

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