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Transcript of 'The Annunciation' podcast

Welcome to the Christmas picture of the month, December.

It was felt that something Christmassy, 'The Annunciation'. The feast of the Annunciation is in fact in August, as we all know. But last year they had the nice sheep and snow picture for the December Christmassy picture of the month. So we've fallen back on 'The Annunciation'.

Some time ago I was asked to give a tour of the Lady Lever gallery to a local church group. I said 'What do you want to see?' and they replied 'Anything religious'. I went through the catalogue and there are remarkably few religious paintings in the Lady Lever collections.

There is this. There is 'The Scapegoat', which would be a good picture of the month for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, or perhaps for Easter. Anything else? There is pagan stuff. Roman, Greek, pagan.

Very few religious pictures. God knows what we're going to do next December!

'The Annunciation' then. When I was asked to do this I went out and, do you know I didn't have a bible? I went out and I bought a bible, second-hand. Marvellous. Dual-text. It's got the Old King James version and then the Revised King James version. Parallel text.

Found it was useless, because if you want to look anything up in the Bible you need to know where to look. So I went out and I bought myself a concordance. Look at any word or phrase and find out exactly where it is chapter and verse.

Interesting thing. You look up Eve and you find Eve twice. Two mentions of Eve in the Old Testament, or indeed any testament. Anywhere else, she's just referred to as 'the woman'.

Mary. In many ways there is a connection between Eve and Mary. Eve, as the cause of the fall of man and the installation of original sin, is probably the most influential woman in the Old Testament. Mary, the most influential woman, arguably, in the New Testament.

It's very much Mary who actually brings it all together or is supposed to bring it all together. The Annunciation, another word not mentioned in the Bible. It's an invention. Annunciation is 'announcement', 'proclamation'. The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, only in one of the four gospels. Only in the gospel according to St Luke. In the gospel according to St Matthew, the Angel Gabriel appears to Joseph and says 'don't worry about your wife, she's going to be pregnant, you've got nothing to do with it, but don't worry. Don't put her away. It's all going to be fine'.

In Luke, the Angel Gabriel appears only to Mary and that is the Annunciation. In the other two gospels, Mark and John, the whole of the back story is skipped and they take up the story in the desert, Jesus as an adult coming out of the desert and being baptised by John.

So much for a bit of background. I'm filling you in on this because I was largely ignorant of this stuff. The O'Keeffe household now has a Bible, which I think is a good thing to have.

In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel was sent from God unto the city of Galilee, named Nazareth. To a virgin, espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And the Angel came unto her and said 'Hail thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be and the Angel said unto her 'Fear not Mary for thou hast found favour with God and behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son and shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the House of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end'.

Then said Mary unto the Angel 'How shall this be seeing I know not a man?'. And the Angel answered and said unto her 'The holy ghost shall come up on thee and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee'. She's quite lucky there, actually. Because she appears to be doubting what he's saying.

Earlier on in the chapter, the Angel Gabriel appears to Elizabeth's husband. Elizabeth is very old and she's passed child-bearing and he appears to Elizabeth's husband and says 'Your wife is going to give birth to a son'. And he says 'How can this be, she's over sixty. She's passed it'. And the Angel strikes him down for actually doubting the word of God.

And the Angel answered and said unto her 'The holy ghost shall come up on thee and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Therefore, also, that holy being which shall be born of thee shall be called the son of God'.

The whole idea of Mary as a virgin being impregnated; she is the personification of the Immaculate Conception. It is not the virgin birth as such, it is Mary. Up until Mary every human being was born with original sin. As a result of Eve. Going back to the Old Testament.

Mary, because she's got to give birth to a divine being, can't have a speck of original sin about her. So, when she's born, when she is in the womb, her original sin is extracted. So, she's actually born perfect. She is, therefore, the suitable and fit vessel for the god-like Jesus.

Eve, we go back to Eve. We've got Mary there. The Angel appearing to her there. The arch. There are two spandrels either side of that arch and above the right-hand spandrel is an inscription in the rock. It is 'maledicta terra in opere tuo'. It's from Genesis, chapter 3, verse 17. 'Cursed is the ground for thy sake'. The full verse goes 'And unto Adam he said 'Because thou hast harkened unto the voice of thy wife and hast eaten of the tree of which I commanded thee saying 'Thou shalt not eat of it', cursed is the ground for they sake' - 'maledicta terra in opera tuo' - 'In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life'.

The reason that it is placed there above Mary. The reason also that we have a carving in bas-relief there of the expulsion from Eden of Adam and Eve is to make that connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between Eve and Mary.

I was at an exhibition at the V&A last week 'Renaissance domestic life in Italy'. There was an interesting thing about devotion in the Renaissance and the religious views of the time and what was accepted by anybody who had religious devotional artifacts in their home and in their private chapels. The point was made that 'Hail Mary', in Latin 'Ave Maria', 'ave' is 'Eva' spelt backwards.

I thought this was rather interesting. So, the actual 'Ave Maria' is making a statement about Eve and Mary. Whereas Eve actually starts off the whole original sin thing, Mary is there to redeem mankind. On the left spandrel, partially, or practically obscured by the leaves and by the angel, there is another carving. You've got the expulsion of Adam and Eve on the right, with the angel with the flaming sword, turning them out of Eden.

And in that one over there, I couldn't tell what it was. I came here about a month ago with a pair of binoculars and I stood over there and I was looking at this and I couldn't make out what it was. There is a sort of human figure. It was only when I looked at an illustration, a very, very good reproduction of this, you can actually see what it is. It is a male torso like that, reaching up to an apple and the bottom of the male torso is a snake and it is Satan.

On that side, reaching for the apple to give to Eve. You won't be able to see it, take my word for it, it is there.

'The Annunciation', 1879 it was painted by Burne-Jones. The architectural detail here is derived from sketches he made in Rome in 1871. The tree has been described as a bay-tree or more specifically a bay laurel. Oscar Wilde described it as an olive tree.

The model for Mary was a woman called Mrs Lesley Stephen. Mrs Lesley Stephen was pregnant at the time this picture was painted so we actually have a pregnant model. Interestingly, Mrs Lesley Stephen gives birth to a daughter. The painter who becomes Vanessa Bell. She also gives birth to Virginia, who marries Leonard Woolf and becomes Virginia Woolf, the novelist.

The woman we see here in this picture is pregnant with another painter, Vanessa Bell. Interestingly, Vanessa Bell is born on the 13 May 1879, the very month that the picture is first exhibited to the public. A nice tidy little winding down of the story.

It is first exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in New Bond Street, a new gallery, in fact it was called sometimes the New Gallery. It was the brainchild of a man called Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche. His wife Blanche was the daughter of one of the Rothschilds - loaded with money the pair of them. A lot of money and they built this purpose-built gallery. It opens in 1877. It was meant as a showcase for young contemporary artists, English and foreign.

At the first exhibition in 1877 Burne-Jones exhibited this - 'The Beguiling of Merlin'. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones' friend, was also asked to exhibit in this inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery. He refused because it wasn't exclusive enough for him. The policy was that it would be open to all young contemporary artists including artists from the Royal Academy. Rossetti couldn't handle this and he refused to exhibit at the inaugural exhibition.

They never asked him again and he became rather peeved as time went on and he never exhibited there. Burne-Jones on the other hand exhibited there practically every year. The interesting thing about the Grosvenor Gallery was that you'd have one exhibition every year, open to all comers, rather like the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. But unlike that, everybody could send in a lot of work and the work would all be shown in blocks.

Burne-Jones exhibits this along with five others. They were all shown in one block, unlike the Royal Academy where if you send in five or six paintings they could be anywhere, they are all scattered all over the place. But the Grosvenor Gallery was artist-friendly from that point of view. If you were an artist you could really make a big splash. It was like having a little one man show. When he exhibited 'The Beguiling of Merlin', along with seven other pictures, it made him an overnight success.

Nobody had known about him before and this really made him. Every year afterwards he exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and he exhibits this one in 1879 and this one here in 1882 - 'The Tree of Forgiveness'. We've got a rather nice chronology here, 1, 2, 3.

Henry James was a great fan of Burne-Jones and he said that 'In the Palace of Art, there are many chambers and that of which Mr Burne-Jones holds the key is a wondrous museum. His imagination, his fertility of invention, his exquisiteness of work, his remarkable gift as a colourist. All these things constitute a brilliant distinction'. The Grosvenor Gallery identified very much with the aesthetic movement and Burne-Jones becomes the main personification almost of the aesthetic movement.

Just as the Grosvenor Gallery kickstarts the aesthetic movement, it also kickstarts the career of Burne-Jones. Every year he exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. The year he didn't - 1881 - his number one fan, Henry James, wrote 'A Grosvenor without Mr Burne-Jones is a Hamlet with Hamlet left out'.

1881 was also the year that Patience was first produced - Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Patience' - the most wonderful satire on the aesthetic movement. You have in that a duet between the two poets - Reginald Bunthorne, the fleshly poet, and Archibald Grosvenor, an idyllic poet. You have this marvellous duet in which are the words 'a pallid and thin young man, a haggard and lank young man, a greenery yallery, Grosvenor Gallery, foot in the grave, young man'.

Grosvenor Gallery is absolutely fundamentally aesthetic and 'Patience' is very much a satire of the Grosvenor Gallery, as well as the aesthetic movement. All of these adjectives, 'haggard and lank', this chap here is not exactly, well he is haggard actually. Body's alright but look at the face. Deep drawn-in face and half-dead looking. Also, Mary, very miserable, ill-looking.

At the 1879, Grosvenor Gallery exhibition, Burne-Jones exhibits this, along with four other pictures. The four that he exhibits with this are the story of the greek myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, a series of four paintings, all the same size, in which Pygmalion sculpts a nude statue and falls in love with it and Venus comes along and I think in number three of the series and imbues it with light and in the morning Pygmalion gets up, goes to work in front of his sculpture and she comes to life and comes down off the pedestal and embraces him.

Wonderful stuff. Pygmalion, four paintings, together with this. The press notice in 'Grosvenor Notes' by H Blackburn - 'This is the most complete and important of the artist's later works. The public exhibition of which may also be said to be due to the existence of the Grosvenor Gallery'. Which means, in effect, that Burne-Jones would not exist without the Grosvenor Gallery. Saunder's Irish Daily News, not a great journal, but it had a correspondent called Mr Oscar Wilde as critic for a time.

Wilde writes of Burne-Jones, 'these are works of the very highest importance in our aesthetic development as illustrative of some of the more exquisite qualities of modern culture. In the first, the Virgin Mary, a passionless, pale woman, with that mysterious sorrow whose meaning she was soon to learn mirrored in her one face. Standing in grey drapery, by a marble fountain, in what seems the open courtyard of an empty and silent house. While, through the branches of a tall orange tree. Not a bay tree, but an olive tree. Unseen by the Virgin's tear-dimmed eyes, is descending the Angel Gabriel with his joyful and terrible message. Not painted as Fra Angelico loved to do, in the varied splendour of peacock-like wings and garments of gold and crimson, but somewhat sombre, in colour'.

This is one of the great things about this painting. To begin with, the Annunciation very often deals with a seated, praying Mary, with an angel coming in and Fra Angelico used to paint with great technicolour wings. This is all very, very sombre. It's sombre, I think, for a purpose because it almost seems to be merging in to the bay leaves, the laurel leaves. It's almost as if it's an apparition actually coming out at you from the tree. It's painted in 'somewhat sombre in colour, set with all the fine grace of nobody fashion drapery', says Wilde, 'and exquisitely ordered design. In presence of what may be called the medieval spirit may be discerned both the idea and the technique of the work'.

He is suggesting that Burne-Jones is looking back to early renaissance, late medieval work. The Times, interestingly, found fault with the Angel's drapery, describing it 'in an infinite series of stiff and heavy pipings which give the figure the character of an old German woodcarving'. The critic from The Times obviously was ear-wigging the other people in the gallery at the time, he says, 'We heard some irreverently whispering a figurehead'.

He's suggesting that it looks like a figurehead on a ship. 'All of this quite destroys the effect of buoyancy which is certainly essential in an angel'. An angel's got to be buoyant, or at least lighter than air. The Times' critic also found fault with the other figure. He criticised it on the grounds 'the needlessly sad and sorrowful character figure of the Virgin, on whom the weight of anticipated woe, the shadow of the cross, could hardly yet of fallen'.

Extraordinary. So The Times actually criticises her for looking sad, whereas Wilde actually accepts the fact that she's looking sad because she's anticipating the Crucifixion and the Passion of her only son, The Times is essentially telling her to lighten up and pointing out that at this point she'd have no idea what was going to come.

The Saturday Review says 'Mr Burne-Jones has a picture of The Annunciation which has undeniable force and beauty and undeniable oddity'. My favourite is from The Builder. The Builder, we normally think of The Builder as low-slung jeans and builder's cleavage. The Builder is still in fact a reputable architectural journal, something like The Architect's Review. The Builder at this time would send a correspondent along and dismisses 'The Annunciation' with 'Of Mr Jones's 'The Annunciation', we can only say that we cannot understand the motive for painting it'. Presumably because he felt like it.

The picture is bought at the Grosvenor Gallery's varnishing day, before the actual opening it was at the Varnishing Day, the day when artists can come in and touch up and put varnish on their works, adding final finishing touches. The French still call the Private View, the Varnishing Day. It was bought by George Howard, an artist, also the 9th Earl of Carlisle. A very rich artist. He wasn't in the art game for the money, he was a connoisseur, and it was hung in his wife's boudoir at their London home 1 Palace Green. 1 Palace Green was decorated throughout by William Morris, George Howard's friend.

Morris had the full control over the decorations, incredibly expensive decorations these are. In places, William Morris was using, presumably with George Howard's approval, gold ground versions of his sunflower wallpaper designs at 30 shillings a roll, which was a heck of a lot of money then. The boudoir, his wife's boudoir, was hung with printed cotton in deep rows to set off the blue-greys of the picture. So it was all of a piece.

Finally, Lord Leverhulme bought it from the Howard estate sale in 1923 for 850 pounds, which is interesting. It shows the way prices of Burne-Jones were falling at that time. He had bought 'The Tree of Forgiveness' here in 1918 for 1614 pounds. In the same year 'The Beguiling of Merlin was bought for 2798 pounds and five shillings. So, in the period from 1918 to 1923 prices of Burne-Jones had fallen considerably.

He bought this in 1923 for 850 pounds, presented it to the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Finally, there was a legal question raised in 1938 I find from the files. Marvellous this. 1938, the Trustees of the Lady Lever Art Gallery were written to by a firm of solicitors handling the estate of the late George Howard or the heirs of the late George Howard. It appeared that when this picture was bought in 1923 by Lord Lever, no estate duty had been paid on it. The solicitors pointed out that estate duty, a work like this would be exempt from estate duty, if it was destined for the National Gallery or any similar national institution, any university, any county council, any municipal corporation in the UK or the National Art Collections Fund.

The Trustees of the Lady Lever gallery were asked by this firm of solicitors has a constitution to which this statutory exemption applies. The Trustees had never been asked this question before and they thought about it long and hard and eventually the Chairman of the Trustees dug up from the Trust deed of the collection, clause 8. Clause 8 states that 'In the event that the Lever company being wound up or ceasing to exist and their successors in business ceasing to exist or to carry on the business then carried on by the company, the Trustees should be able to remove the collection elsewhere'.

If Port Sunlight collapses and the Lever Brothers collapses and if whoever takes it over also collapses and the gallery is rudderless and has no control, the Trustees will be able to move the collection elsewhere, in which case it will be offered first to the Corporation of Bolton. Bolton, of course, where Lever came from. If not accepted by them, to the Corporation of Chester. If not accepted by them, then to the National Gallery of British Art at Millbank, what became known as the Tate. Or to the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington.

The Trustee wrote to this firm of solicitors quoting this clause and said that it would therefore seem that unless the continued carrying-on of the business of Lever Brothers Limited is to be regarded as an assured perpetuity, if it's not going to be perpetual, the collection will someday come into the possession of an institution to which this statutory exemption applies.

At that time, if the whole thing had collapsed in 1938, all of this lot would have ended up in Bolton, Chester, or in Victoria and Albert or in the Tate. Now, it doesn't apply because the Lady Lever Art Gallery is part of National Museums Liverpool. So, it's alright then.

Thank you.