Phill Jupitus encounters Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

by Phill Jupitus, 18 August 2014

The first gallery I remember visiting under my own steam was The Tate. I was about eighteen, and vividly remember the odd feeling of standing in front of Lichtenstein's diptych 'Whaam!' I was a massive Jam and Paul Weller fan, and naturally piggybacked myself onto anything that he talked about in interviews. (Except bloody clothes. That's just dull.) I stood there for twenty odd minutes. I'd move close to take in some detail, and then slowly retreat from the image until I was at the other end of the gallery. Seeing it varyingly as detail and technique, whole image and finally as a piece in a room.

I first came to The Fringe in 1991 and over many ensuing full tilt Augusts through the haze of repetitive gigs, booze, grim reviews and too many 3am pizzas, I began to seek sanctuary from the madness in the galleries of Edinburgh. No leafleting, no rush, no pushing, no shouting, just room after room of beautiful work.

Phill and his favourite painting

I wish I could remember the very first time I saw 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw' by John Singer Sargent. If only so I could celebrate the anniversary. I can tell you how I felt, which was utterly overwhelmed. The longer I stood and looked at this painting, the longer I wanted to stay. From the lightness of stroke, to the vague golden oriental characters on the curtain behind her, to the pendant she wears, to the purple sash about her waist, to her eyes and then her left arm. As the young people would have it O. M. G. her left arm!

This pattern began to repeat itself, I couldn't visit Edinburgh and not come to see her. Even if it was only for a few minutes, just to say hello. A few years ago she was moved from her usual spot. And I freaked out. I scurried round and found an attendant, "Where's Lady Agnew?" I blurted in a manner that was borderline panicky. The long-suffering staff member recognised the fever in my eyes, smiled, arched her eyebrows, looked over her glasses and said "Oh... you mean the hussy?".

 

Another incident underlining the fact that my Lady Agnew mania was now common knowledge took place in the spring of 2014. I strode through the doors on The Mound for yet another unscheduled half hour of quality time with Gertrude. As I was crossing the lobby, an attendant sat at the desk, idly perusing a Daily Record. Without even looking up, he barked "She's not in!" I looked puzzled, and mumbled "Who?". Another smile crossed another long-suffering face. "Lady Agnew. She's on loan." My crestfallen look prompted him to say "Dinnae worry Phill, she's back in July!".

 

Cut to a Monday a few weeks ago, and me speeding up the A1 from Lincolnshire for a very special appointment. The American Impressionism exhibition was shortly to open and is an incredibly enlightening look at how the prevailing shift of painting style in Europe finally headed west, and changed the emerging art of the United States. This exhibition features the sainted Lady Agnew. And more of an act of mercy than anything, the National Galleries of Scotland very kindly asked if I would like to be there when she arrived home.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1865 - 1932), John Singer Sargent, 1892

So, bleary eyed but excited I found myself ushered past the ropes into the galleries of an exhibition at the final stage of its preparation. Curator Frances Fowle explained how the show came to be, and how she chose location and hanging height and answered dozens of questions I'd had buzzing around my head for decades as an art nerd. She then took me round a corner into a space dominated by a bare wall and a massive wooden crate. "Right, now you're here we can get her out..." And the diligent staff began the process of removing my favourite ever piece of art of all time from her climate controlled transit crate, and somewhat unceremoniously leant her up against a wall.

I was then introduced to gallery conservator Lesley Stevenson who took me through the process that has to be gone through whenever a piece arrives: she checks the condition of the frame, the canvas and backing, meticulously going over every inch. A particularly brilliant moment was when she pointed out all the various 'battle scars' that painting had sustained since being painted in 1892. You can't see them at all, but there is a repaired five inch tear right in the middle that you can only see when you get really close and are shown it by an expert. Like I was. Boom!

Frances and the team talked about where to locate her and marker tape was applied to the wall, power drills, brackets and screws employed, and a really cool kind of portable elevator cum jack thingy was brought in and Lady Agnew was slowly raised into place. It might not seem it to you, but it was quite simply one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life.

Do yourself a massive favour and come to see the American Impressionism exhibition. It is, in a word; amazing. I'll be the big idiot stood in front of the Sargent, tears of joy in my eyes.

Lady Agnew Installation

 

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