Home entertainment for grown-ups

As we come to the end of the sixth week of UK lockdown due to the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Alice Strang, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, finds ways to keep ourselves occupied in works in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection.

Sir Roland Penrose Woman Tuning Wireless About 1947 © Roland Penrose Estate, England 2016. The Penrose Collection. All rights reserved.

Whilst we stay at home in order to protect the NHS and to save lives, many of us are appreciating more than ever the information and entertainment brought to us through our radios. Woman Tuning Wireless of 1947 by London-born, self-taught Roland Penrose, reveals his close friendship with many Surrealist artists of the period. A figure can be understood amidst the distortion of form and lively colour. Particular attention is paid to her arms and hand. Outstretched fingers reach towards the radio, whilst others manipulate a dial on its top in order to get a clear signal. A common and necessary action in the 1940s, it has been rendered virtually redundant by the birth of digital radios, which now broadcast twenty-four hours a day.

Duncan Grant Vanessa Bell Painting 1915 (incorrectly dated 1913) © Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved. DACS, London 2023

Being creative is good for the mind and the soul, whether you are a professional artist or not. Rothiemurchus-born, Westminster School of Art-trained Duncan Grant’s Vanessa Bell Painting of 1915, shows his fellow Bloomsbury Group member working in a boat-house on the Sussex coast.

Viewed from behind, Bell is shown absorbed in painting a still-life of kitchen utensils. Space is ordered in receding layers from the chairback in the foreground, to Bell in her red dress, to her propped-up canvas and finally to the wall in the background.

The tender focal point of the work is Bell’s bare neck, revealed between hair bun and dress neckline, rather than the action of her hand working on the canvas at the lower right. 

Robert MacBryde The Chess Player 1944 © Estate of Robert MacBryde

Many of us are re-discovering the board games of our youth during lockdown, or are developing our skills at those we have kept up. Maybole-born, Glasgow School of Art trained Robert MacBryde’s The Chess Player of 1944 captures the concentration required by the game.

The match is well advanced, with many pieces relegated from the board. It is tipped up, in plane with that of the canvas, making it the focus of the work. The woman gazes at it, white piece in hand, considering her next move, her legs relaxed underneath the table.

We are placed in the position of her opponent, calculating her options and our possible response to them, as victory or defeat edges closer.

Cecil Collins Fool and Flower 1944 © Tate, London 2017

Nurturing plants, whether in pots on windowsills or in gardens can be enjoyable and beneficial for all ages, especially when access to the outdoors is restricted. Plymouth-born, Royal College of Art trained Cecil Collins hints at a tender relationship between humanity and nature in his Fool and Flower of 1944.

The elongated fool, dressed in costume including an elaborate hat, reaches down towards a single flower growing in the ground. His is a theatrical gesture, as if caught mid-scene reaching to stroke the subject of his attention, whilst marvelling at its beauty.

The setting is basic, a black and white print highlighted with tones of yellow and orange, with much of the paper left bare. 

The image is one of simple pleasure, of a kind we are striving to find during these uncertain times.

By Alice Strang, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, 30 April 2020