I’m not sure what the Scrooge equivalent is for Valentine’s Day, but I am it. I do feel sorry for those singletons who are reminded in every one of London’s nooks and crannies that they are flying solo on February 14th. And it’s the general forced cheesiness of it all that makes me queasy. So this year, I’m ditching the roses and the violets and going for a fleshy, full-blooded whistle-stop tour of London’s saucy erotic art scene instead.
For Neon Junkies
You can check into God’s Own Junkyard but you might never want to leave this neon Walthamstow wonderland of disco balls, film props and retro signage. There’s even a café called the Rolling Scones if you need a pause from the razzle-dazzle. You can stare, buy or hire these swanky pieces, some of which are on the naughty side of neon. God’s Own Junkyard
Fancy seeing you here
The Wallace Collection is full of badly-behaved art, and if you must get into the Valentine’s vibe, you can wander around the rubiest of red galleries showcasing some of my favourite paintings. There’s even a pretty in pink café (and yes, Cupid is serving Valentine’s tea there).
The Swing by Jean Honoré Fragonard was originally named Lucky Happenings on the Swing (Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette), and it’s the painter’s most famous piece. It shows a young woman being pushed by a man (thought to be a cuckolded husband) in the background. In the foreground, we have a man looking up her skirt, possibly her lover, certainly an admirer. It’s a Rococo masterpiece and takes the top prize for me in the “Rude” Hall of Fame.
Cupid (desire) and Pysche (soul) are often depicted as children, but their tale is one of adults, passion and jealousy. Their story was adapted into the French novel La Belle et La Bête (aka Beauty and the Beast, a screen version of which is coming to a cinema near you in March!)
Take a leisurely stroll around the Wallace Collection and you’ll come across some darling miniatures such as this one above: Venus and Cupid Asleep by Jacques Charlier.
A Woman at her Toilet, by French painter Antoine Watteau, is the subject of a Gallery Talk at the Wallace Collection with Laura Langelüddecke, Assistant Curator (28 February at 1 pm in the Small Drawing Room). I wonder who she is gazing at? Wallace
A Scandal in Paris
Modigliani’s Female Nude caused quite a sensation when it was first exhibited in Paris, so much so that the police closed down the painter’s only solo exhibition in 1917 on the grounds of indecency. The Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House unashamedly flaunts the lady on its walls. Courtauld Gallery
Volupté at The Tate
Maria Bartuszová’s beautiful and sensuous organic sculptures are created using plaster which is poured into rubber balloons and tubes: ‘I shape the rubber by pressure or pulling and I let the plaster harden in the rubber – sometimes I do it in water and thus I partially eliminate earth’s gravity …’
It took Eric Gill seven months to carve Ecstasy out of Hoptonwood stone. He was influenced by the embracing couples in the temple sculptures of India.
A very naughty boy
If you haven’t been to see The Rake’s Progress at the John Soane Museum, you really should go. It’s an absolute treat (more on that in my post here: Midnight in Paris) The Orgy is the third painting in the series, and it sees a debauched and drunk Tom Rakewell enjoying the company of prostitutes in Covent Garden’s Rose Tavern. If you look closely, one of the prostitutes is relieving Tom of his watch. Another woman is getting undressed, and the motley crew all appear to be very merry. The women are covered in black spots (these are not beauty spots, but are marks of syphilis). Things are about to get very messy for Tom! John Soane Museum
It’s Allegorical, my dear
Cute little Cupid, with his cherubic features and his bow and arrow, the symbol of love and erotic passion. But Cupid is also cheeky and mischievous, and he often seems to have a rather cosy relationship with his mother, Venus.
LEFT: Cupid watches over two pair of lovers in An Allegory of Love by Garofolo (National Gallery, London). I love Cupid’s expression in this painting: I think he looks mildly embarrassed. RIGHT: An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Bronzino (National Gallery London). Cupid kisses his mother Venus with Jest (boy with roses). Fraud, Jealousy and Pleasure are in the frame, together with Time (the bearded fellow). What a party!
Here’s Cupid again, with his mother Venus. It’s the only surviving nude by Velázquez, composed during the Spanish Inquisition when au naturel paintings were extremely rare. The work was attacked and badly damaged by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914. Luckily for us, it was restored to its former glory.
The Lady Sizzles
Samuel Courtauld called Flaming June, “The most wonderful painting in existence … a gorgeous piece of flamboyance.” As Victorian artwork became unfashionable, she disappeared for decades, only to be found again stashed in the back of an art gallery. She made her way to Puerto Rico and to the Museo de Arte de Ponce, now her permanent home. Luckily for London, Flaming June is back until the 2nd April in her original home: The Leighton House Museum. Lord Frederic Leighton was President of the Royal Academy and the only artist ever to have been enobled. His former home has been turned into a gem of a museum, tucked away in Holland Park. Leighton House Museum
Who needs all that schmaltzy Valentine’s fanfare when you can have Capezzoli di Venere, or Nipples of Venus on Valentine’s Day? (Rococo) Or you could opt for a bite of the Kama Sutra from Philip Neal in Turnham Green (Philip Neal)
The Londoness Vault
My father, the abstract-geometric artist Volf Roitman, was an incurable romantic. For as long as I can remember, he gave my mother an aromatic bouquet of flowers every Sunday. One Valentine’s, he made her this pretty card: behind each of the “windows” is a little love note.
LEFT: a painting by an artist called Esther which my parents discovered in a gallery in St Paul de Vence many moons ago. I nagged them for years to give it to me, and they finally capitulated. I have since tried to get information about Esther, but to no avail. CENTRE: My parents were both writers, and collaborated on an erotic book for women together. It was published in France as Le Nid du L’Oriot or The Oriole’s Nest. I’ll say it now, it’s never a good idea to read an erotic book penned by your parents! RIGHT: I found this baby in Kerala, India: it’s a Kama Sutra pop-up. I won’t give you a zoomed look-in as it is quite audacious!
Ode to a Prince
I have to end my post with a less cynical view of romance: The Albert Memorial. Shah Jahan may have commissioned the Taj Mahal as the mother of all shrines for his love, Mumtaz Mahal, but we Londoners also have a shiny, incandescent masterpiece of our own in Kensington Gardens. OK, ours didn’t require 120,000 artisans and it didn’t cost the equivalent of $827 million, but I think the Albert Memorial pulsates with Victoria’s love for her prince, who died prematurely of typhoid fever at the age of 42. Designed by George Gilbert Scott, the memorial took ten years to complete and cost a mere £10 million.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all you Cupids and Venuses out there!