Degas – A passion for perfection

I visited this exhibition in Cambridge yesterday with my painting and drawing pals Stella and Karen. It  was a great day out. The exhibition, at the Fitzwilliam until 14 January 2018, was first class, Cambridge was buzzing with people and bicycles, the sun was shining and Fitzbillies served us a very tasty late lunch.

This exhibition marks the centenary of Degas’s death (he was born in France in 1834). The show includes his paintings, pastels, drawings, watercolours, prints and sculptures including  the subjects Degas most favoured – dance, cafe scenes and nudes including women about their toilette.

The exhibits are drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s extensive collection together with 70+ loans from around the world, and include the work of artists who influenced Degas (including Picasso and Cezanne) as well as works from artists influenced by Degas (including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin and Henry Moore).

Space and composition

I’m  studying composition and space at the moment and so viewed the show with these in mind. It became apparent to  me very quickly that Degas was a master of composition and made every inch of the picture plane work.  Here are a few examples:

Three Women at the Races, c.1885 - Edgar Degas

Three Women at the Races, c.1885 (pastel). Degas often cuts his figures off at the edge and it makes for a striking composition. The light background made up of pleasing negative space works perfectly to pull the group together. Although we are looking at their backs, we can see and feel the communication and interaction between the three figures. Every part of this picture is actively contributing.

Female Dancers in Violet Skirts, their arms raised, c.1895-8 | The Fitzwilliam Museum

Female Dancers in Violet Skirts, their arms raised c1895-8 (pastel). This, the cover image for the show, is another superb composition. The skirt and legs are cut off but instead of making the image look clumsy it makes it alive at the edges. The almost conjoined relationship between the dancers is interesting and again, pleasing negative shapes throughout.
















Image Window

At the Cafe (1975-77) One of the most fascinating pictures; the grey faced woman on the left is isolated in her despair, there is a half figure of woman with warm skin tones on the right but despite her attempts she can’t reach the woman in despair. The large amount of space in the background and white expanse of table cloth emphasise the distance between them.

Breakfast After the Bath - Degas

Breakfast After the Bath – Degas – 1891

Through the keyhole

As Degas developed he began drawing nudes in a realistic way, moving beyond a historical tendency to depict women as goddess like models of perfection, to observing them in everyday day life and in particular at their toilette – bathing, drying their hair, scratching etc. He described this as akin to “looking through a keyhole”. In these pictures the women often look quite ungainly while, for example, clambering out of the bath tub. At the time Degas was criticised for “this wilful assault on conventional notions of female beauty.”

By including a nude by Lucian Freud and two naked men with limbs akimbo  by Francis Bacon the curators are showing us how Degas led the way in depictinging a less idealised and more literally naked view of the human figure.

Degas – brief biography sourced from Wikipedia

Edgar Degas (born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, French; 1834 -1917) is known for his paintings, sculptures, prints  and drawings. He is especially identified with dance and more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. He was a superb draftsman and particularly masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and for their portrayal of human isolation.

The show runs until 14 January 2018 at The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge and is well worth a visit. More information at:




Sketchbook Wexford – Fishing tackle at Duncannon Quay

These two sketchbook drawings were made drawn while on holiday in Ireland after spotting this lovely ready made ‘still life’ of tangled fishing tackle on the quayside. Maybe in the fishermens’ eyes it is not tangled  but piled up neat and ready for the next sailing.

What works / could be improved.

The watercolour underpainting and then drawing on top without worrying about  matching up exactly is successful. These would be a very tight drawings if the colour was added in a more precise way. Also, the coloured ropes under that have no equivalent line drawing over work and the areas of rope that have no detail create variety in the drawing language.

Drawing 1 is very busy and makes the viewer work hard. Some more areas where the ropes are only partially drawn (as per bottom right) might help to break it up and let the viewer in. Having said that, it is a pile of jumbled up fishing tackle and the drawing captures the complexity and muddle of it all. Thank goodness for the bit of white space at the top.

Drawing 2 I drew just a section of the pile and filled the picture plane. This is a bit easier on the eye and the bottom right which is just interwoven ropes enhances it. I believe the crop of this picture is the better image because the interwoven ropes and spaces around help to balance out the complexity of the rest of the drawing.

Wexford Festival Exhibition at Greenacres, Wexford Town

On the second week of our Irish adventure we found ourselves in Wexford Town. It was buzzing with activity with a fringe festival in advance of the world renowned Opera Festival. There was plenty of visual art to be seen.The stand out gallery  was Greenacres with its annual Wexford Festival Exhibition.  We saw a lot of art in independent galleries and local shows on our travels around Ireland and it was of mixed in quality. Not so in Wexford, this exhibition was first class… it was with considerable surprise that I discovered it was an open submission show.

The 181 exhibits  included many interesting sculptures as well as paintings and drawings. I was really pleased to see a Famine Ship by John Behan.

There wasn’t a catalogue but I noted the names of artists that were of particular interest and, back at home, I pulled together examples of their work into the Pinterest Board here.

What is this exercise telling me…

Quite a lot as it happens. I spent some time thinking about why the pictures I chose for my Pinterest Board have so much appeal and came up with the following:

Unusual compositions e.g. Journey to Order 8, Elva Mulchrone;  Slipway at Coliemore Harbour, Mark Cullen

Arrangements that evoke a scene or theme without being overly literal / representational e.g. Sunrise at Shipwreck Bay, Mary O’Connor

Aspects of the landscape which make an impact without being a whole vista or panorama e.g. Landfall variations, Donald Teskey

Atmosphere, the wonderful changing light and weather that is so characteristic of the west coast in particular e.g. Abstract Art, Ken Browne 

It made me realise that in my sketchbook I’m spending too much time trying to capture whole panoramasin the form of almost finished pictures but it is likely to be more fruitful for me to do closer observations of objects (natural and man made) as well as atmosphere (sky, mist, crashing waves [tough one]) and let these become a resource that I can use to create more experimental and exploratory drawings and paintings.

It’s clear to me that If I am going to ever produce work to the standard I saw at this show, I need to be open to change and move on from where I am now.

I’m on a drawing course… I need to just keep drawing different things in different ways (without worrying too much about producing finished work except for assignments and see what happens… let it happen.


Parallel project and critical review – first rambling thoughts


My recent trip to Ireland gave me time and opportunity to open up my mind to new ideas. I came home with thoughts about the Great  Famine, migration in desperate circumstances and famine ships (aka coffin ships). I’ve done some initial research and this post is to record my thoughts while they are still fresh and some ideas for how I might further my research and weave the theme into my ongoing work.

Between 1845 and 1852 over one million Irish people died from starvation and disease. A further one million emigrated. Ireland remains the only country in Europe where the population today is less than it was in 1845.

Thoughts related to my parallel project and critical review are all mixed up at the this early stage…


We got the ferry over to Dublin from Liverpool and went to see Anthony Gormley’s  Another  Place (100 statues looking out to sea at Crosby) and this set off a train of thought about people leaving or returning and how poignant and life changing ‘another place’ can be.


Everywhere around Ireland there are reminders of the communities of people who died or were forced to emigrate because of the The Great Famine  (also called the Great Hunger):

  • Numerous graveyards  in remote places, often with with simple rocks as headstones.
  • Ruins of small houses, now little more than piles of stones, that large families occupied. The Irish have shown little interest in restoring these (unless as a museum and there are many small famine museums and monuments), preferring to build big, modern bungalows. My mother in law explained that the old stone homes were usually far too small to be the basis of a modern family home and the Irish didn’t wish to be reminded of their poverty stricken past. I’ve a feeling this is an important insight.
  • Dry stone walls demarcating the land from which people scratched a meagre  living.


This replica famine ship at New Ross started to focus my thinking. These ships transported desperate, starving people across the Atlantic to the Americas (and other places) in the hope of a new life. They were called coffin ships because the conditions were appalling and up to 40% of passengers died before on board. You really had to have run out of all other options to get on one of these ships.


This led me to the impressive work of sculptor John Behan (born 1938). He is Ireland’s most notable living sculptor and I would go as far as to draw a comparison with Henry Moore.  He has created a series of famine ship sculptures in which the sails and rigging on close inspection, are formed of the rag covered, skeletal bodies of the dead.  I was lucky enough to see one at an exhibition at Greenacres in Wexford Town.

The Irish National Famine Monument is a large scale sculpture of one of Behan’s Famine Ships (unveiled by Mary Robinson in 1997) at the base of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo.  The mountain is a place of Pilgrimage in honour of St Patrick’s 40-day fast in 441AD;  connecting the location with hunger.

Commissioned by the Irish Government, a memorial to the Irish Famine, Arrival (2000) (26 x 24 ft.), was presented to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and sited on the Plaza at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Arrival is a variation on Ireland’s National Memorial, described above, with a more hopeful message; in place of the skeletal rigging  some 150 survivors—huddled on deck—begin to disembark to start a new life.


Are there different messages communicated through art works made for different locations and audiences – Ireland, USA, Britain? Are there location-specific differences and viewpoints?

Why does art from the Great Famine only seem to depict the victims and not the perpetrators? It was the greed of British landlords (often absent) and cruel social economic policies that led to life-threatening poverty. What little crop the Irish peasants had was often taken from them in rents and exported to Britain. Landlords sometimes paid to put their tenants on the coffin ships to get rid of them.

What do we know about the ruthless people  that owned and operated the ships? Like the traffickers today, piling Syrian refugees into leaky boats, someone was making  money. The ships weren’t true passenger ships, they were more suited to the goods they brought back from the Americas after disgorging their human cargo.

Why is there so little early art about the famine (i.e. from around or near the time of the events)? Much of the early art I’ve discovered so far is strangely sanitised;  peasants / emigrants dressed in neat, presentable clothes with smiling faces. This cannot have been representative of their lives. The art of today is much more revealing of the true desperation, poverty and cruelty that was involved. Was the earlier art somewhat shamefaced? The British didn’t give a formal apology for their role until 1997:

Tony Blair has issued a statement on the Irish Potato Famine 150 years ago which amounts to the first apology expressed by the British authorities.

At a weekend festival in County Cork to commemorate the famine, which claimed one million lives, a letter was read out from the Prime Minister in which he blamed “those who governed in London” at the time for the disaster. (The Independent 1 June 1997)

Were the Irish also late to commemorate through art the tragedy of the Great Famine ? If so, why? The National Famine Monument was unveiled in 1997 at the same time as Tony Blair was apologising on behalf of the British. I wonder if the Irish had some reluctance about looking back in art to the poverty and tragedy of the Great Famine. This thought comes from my mother-in-law’s comment earlier.

The Great Hunger/Famine in Ireland is today  taught in schools in Ireland and the USA. Is it taught in UK schools?. The American  story is a more positive one of course as represented in Behan’s piece for the United Nation’s Plaza, Arrival.

Does the art around refugees today continue to depict the victims and not the perpetrators?

I was prompted to think about this by a Facebook  (an excerpt from a Ted talk by author and filmmaker Jackson Katz) posting that is doing the rounds which questions why the media always focuses on the women who have been raped or abused and not the men who are usually the perpetrators of these crimes.


Looking back at my questions above I realise that the contexts of time and place are  important in interpreting and understanding famine art and bearing these in mind will help me to structure my research and analysis. It might even provide a basis for my critical review.

Place – where you come from influences how you might view the famine

  • From an American perspective – Americans gave the Irish immigrants who survived the journey a new beginning and a new life with opportunities.  This is a positive story, one they might be pleased to tell.
  • From an Irish perspective – the Famine was a great tragedy, a million people starved, a million were forced to leave. There was horrendous physical and emotional suffering. It is hard to revisit and be reminded of such pain, easier to tuck it away into the recesses of the mind.
  • From a British perspective –   there is  guilt about the greed and disastrous economic and social policies that led to the famine. Tempting to keep quiet  and avoid the subject.

Time – the passage of time may alter perspectives

  • Ireland is now a relatively strong economy and has moved on from a poverty stricken past. The Irish people can examine the past more openly and deeply without feeling they are inextricably tied to poverty.
  • In today’s political environment, the British can no longer hide from their culpability, particularly as Ireland so openly commemorates the lives lost and social upheaval.
  • The Americans…  I need to research this more but I do know that a great many Americans are descended from the immigrants who fled from the famine and this is a topic of great interest today.


A few months back I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and they had on show an artwork by Issam Kourbaj. Dark Water Burning World – 2016: Syrian refugees represented as matchsticks stuffed into flimsy boats. It made a considerable impact on me and I photographed the blurb, which says:

Boats made from repurposed discarded bicycle steel mudguards, extinguished matches and clear resin. The sea is neither abundant nor beautifully mysterious for many Syrian refugees. It has turned into a terrifying tunnel through which their fates are being decided: to live or die.

Dark Water Burning World is a new artwork ,inspired by 4th century BC Syrian Sea vessels, deals with the way escaped Syrians now carry visible and invisible scars scorched into them by the separation from their homeland: scars of permanent loss and continuous losing. They have not only lost their land, their possessions, their homes and their people, but also for many their pride and their identity. They have lost the tangible and the intangible, their past, presents and most notably their futures.

Kourbaj’s work typically considers, exaggerates and alters the discarded object and extends its familiar voice into the realm of the poetic.

I’m not sure how I might use this but it feels worth noting as it might be useful to contrast and compare with Behan’s work.



Graveyards, gravestones, churches, quays, ruins, beaches,  ocean, rocks, cliffs, fields and field patterns, existing street art and sculpture, my seaweed drawings, boats, wrecks. Do more sketches of these things; don’t worry about making complete pictures – just impressions. Also there  are some truly fantastic street sculptures and memorials which I’ve started to gather together in a Pinterest Board.  .


I’m thinking about how my seaweed drawings, made by the ocean tides, could be a visual metaphor for those people who died in the coffin ships. The tides pull the strands of seaweed into the ocean; they leave traces (like footsteps)  in the sand but the next tide wipes them out.

Could I do something with these in my Wednesday printmaking classes?






Sketchbook Dingle



Since drawing these I’ve had some thoughts about how to work with my memories and photos of my holiday in Ireland. I have decided to stop trying to produce complete landscape scenes and instead focus on details such as gravestones, field patterns, individual rocks etc. Later I will be able to think about how I might piece them together (using perhaps the deconstructed still life techniques we practised in the first exercise). They may also contribute to my parallel project which I’m increasingly thinking might be related to the art of the Great Famine and Coffin Ships.

Project 2: Using space

My understanding of this exercise is that it is to encourage experiment with composition of a still life arrangements that use all the space available, including the edges and the juxtaposition of bright colours and detail.

I strung up some coloured scarves and bunting using the line that I use for drying prints.

Do you feel you managed to instill energy or life into the whole drawing or does it run out of steam towards the edges?

I find myself unable to answer this easily. Drawing 1 is busy and fills the picture plane and does not run out of steam at the edges. But I’m not convinced busy is the same as having life or energy. While the translucent scarf stands out, the rest of the bunting and scarves are lost. Nothing here of the Elizabeth Blackadder use of space which when I compare my drawing with one of her kimono drawings (Still life with Iris, 2000) I can see that the generous use of a plain coloured background gives each of the individual items resonance.

I’ve created a bit of a jumble, only slightly relieved by the limited use of the white background. I’ve filled the space rather than used it to full advantage, Blackadder style, and also done the same thing in in Drawing 2. This is me rushing around before holiday and not absorbing the brief fully. Lesson in this!