Saturday, 5th October 2019 – Mary Quant: The V&A; Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing: The Queen’s Gallery, London
We had a day in London with the emphasis on exhibitions. The plan had started with an intention to visit the Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, and once I’d bought timed tickets for that, I noticed that there was an exhibition of the work of Mary Quant at the V&A. That sounded interesting too, we we made plans to do that in the morning, stop off for lunch somewhere, and then see the drawings. A train to London Euston and a taxi from there to the V&A and we were ready to see what was on show.
The Mary Quant exhibition was billed as “from miniskirts and hot pants to vibrant tights and makeup, discover how Mary Quant launched a fashion revolution on the British high street, with over 200 garments and accessories, including unseen pieces from the designer’s personal archive”. It could have been a dull collection of items in glass cases, no matter how interesting the items themselves. It was anything but with he addition of film and sound recordings, newspaper and magazine articles, and tangential details here, there and everywhere. The museum holds a lot of items in its collection, and had also been loaned clothing by people who owned and wore them, and that added to the interest.
Quant came from south London, of solid Welsh stock in the form of two schoolteachers who would not permit their daughter to embark on a fashion course, instead pushing her into studying illustration at Goldsmiths College. While she was there she met her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, who was very involved in the business alongside his wife.
After graduation in 1953 Quant went to work as an apprentice at the milliner’s, Erik of Brook Street. Two year’s later, she was in business on her own account after she and her husband bought Markham House on the King’s Road in Chelsea, and opened a restaurant in the basement and a boutique, Bazaar, on the ground floor, working along with the photographer, and former lawyer, Archie McNair. Although they worked together, Quant concentrated on design, Plunket Greene looked after sales and marketing, and McNair contributed legal expertise and business sense.
The young designer wasn’t really a designer at this point, buying in stock, but when seh didn’t like what she could by, she started training, going to evening classes on cutting and adjusting bought patterns to make the clothes she really wanted. There followed a phase of making stock overnight and selling it in the shop the following day. The shop became a hit with the young, offering alternatives to the “mature” styles of other designers, and providing a much livelier shopping experience, marked lack of formality.
Offering modern “relaxed clothes suited to the actions of normal life” in bright, bold colours, nothing seemed to be off limits and the store did well. By 1957 a second Bazaar store opened on the King’s Road, in a space designed by Terence Conran. In the 1960s she may not have invented the mini-skirt, but she certainly popularised it with the aid of that era’s most high-profile model, Twiggy. The high hemline went with the new Mary Quant tights and underwear range, which were produced under license and came in a vast range of colours.
She was also the first designer to use PVC, no matter how impractical it was to wear!
Expansion was the thing in the 1960s with a design contract with American department store JC Penney, and the launch of a the mass market Ginger Group line in the UK that put the clothes within reach of most women. there was also an OBE, an autobiography and a third shop on New Bond Street. With an estimated seven million women owning at least one of her products, and many more using the Daisy cosmetics range, she could truly be called a mainstay of British fashion.
In the late 70s the range expanded, with bed linen, carpets, paint and wallpaper through ICI, swimwear, hosiery, jewellery, the Daisy fashion doll, and make up and skincare products. Not unreasonably she was finally made a Dame in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list, and published a second autobiography.
It was an absorbing exhibition with plenty to enjoy. If you are at all interested in design and you find yourself in London, it runs until February 2020.
In the afternoon, after a rather good lunch at the nearby restaurant Lorne, we walked down to Buckingham Palace and queued up to get into the Leonardo exhibition, held to marking the 500th anniversary of his death. The Royal Collection contains a large number of da Vinci’s drawings and around 200 of them were on display, after a travelling exhibition during the first part of the year where groups of drawings were exhibited in different cities in the UK.
These drawings have been kept together since the artist’s death in 1519 and were acquired by the Crown during the reign of Charles II. It’s fair to say that they really do point to a mind that absorbed everything, and was fascinated by everything as they include drawings that cover painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany. We decided that if we could refer to Augustus the Strong as Augustus the “Ooh, Shiny! Must have!” then Leonardo was very much “Ooh, shiny! Interesting! How does that work? What was I doing before…”
An excellent free audio guide was provided so we had plenty of information to hand, and to the relief of both of us, although it was busy it wasn’t hellish and you could actually get near the works without having to wait 20 minutes and then elbow a massive bloke out of the way to let you see anything! After some exhibitions we’ve been to, this was a major improvement. Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born in 1452 and died on 2nd May 1519, and was the textbook definition of a polymath, with an interest in pretty much everything including invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, and cartography. This exhibition provided a comprehensive overview of those interests, with preparatory drawings for paintings, notebooks, sketches, scientific diagrams and thoughts on the nature of painting. It seems a wonder, given how much of a grasshopper mind he appears to have had, that anything every got finished before he was off on some other avenue of enquiry, though I suppose this may explain why there are so few paintings in existence.
With little in the way of formal education, he seems to have spent the rest of his life learning and his curiosity appears to have known no bounds. In the mid-1460s, his family moved to Florence and he became a “studio boy” in the workshop of Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his time. By the age of 17 he was an apprentice, a role that lasted seven years in a workshop that was also associated with Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi. Here he would have had theoretical and practical training including drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, and wood-work, as well as artistic skills.
By 1472 Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors of medicine, and his father set him up in his own workshop. He may have been in the employ of the Medici by the end of the decade, and in March 1481 he was commissioned by the monks of San Donato to paint The Adoration of the Magi. However, he abandoned that and in 1982 offered his services to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. He stayed in Milan for the rest of the decade, painting the Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper during that time. He was also employed on many other projects including floats and pageants for special occasions, designs for a dome for Milan Cathedral, and a model for a huge equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza. Equestrian monuments would become a running theme, with at least three being commissioned and none of them being made. I suspect an approach to create one might have caused a certain amount of resistance in da Vinci by the end! This was the first and it didn’t happen because in November 1494 Ludovico gave the bronze that would have been used for it to his brother-in-law to be used for a cannon to defend the city from Charles VIII.
When Sforza was overthrown, Leonardo fled to Venice where he worked as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack. When he was able to return to Florence in 1500 he and his household stayed at the monastery of Santissima Annunziata and were provided with a workshop where it is said that Leonardo created the cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist. A further phase in Leonardo’s life came in 1502, when he went to work as a military architect and engineer for Cesare Borgia. This was when he created one of the works I particularly liked, a town plan of Borgia’s stronghold of Imola, a city I know. Given the rarity of maps at that time, it impressed Borgia enough to get Leonardo the job as his chief military engineer and architect. A later map of the nearby countryside was part of a project to construct a dam from the sea to Florence, in keep the canal usable all year round.
In 1503 Leonardo was back in Florence and working on his portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the Mona Lisa. In 1506, Leonardo was summoned to Milan by Charles II d’Amboise, the acting French governor of the city, and may have commenced a project for another equestrian figure, this one of d’Amboise. He was otherwise left to pursue his scientific interests, which was probably just as well because this was another equestrian work that never happened. The third and final equestrian monument was commissioned in 1512 for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, but an invasion of a confederation of Swiss, Spanish and Venetian forces put a stop to that by driving the French from Milan. Leonardo remained in the city despite the turmoil, only leaving the following year when Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son Giovanni became Pope (Leo X) and Leonardo went to Rome, living in the Apostolic Palace, where Michelangelo and Raphael were both active. He was given an allowance of 33 ducats a month, and seems to have again been allowed to do whatever he wanted within reason. He was commissioned to paint a work for the Pope, but the commission was rescinded when he was sidetracked by the quest for a new kind of varnish. Meanwhile he became fascinated by botany, was involved in a plan to drain the Pontine Marshes, and he began working on a treatise on vocal cords, attending dissections to gain more knowledge.
In 1515, with the French having recaptured Milan, Leonardo was present at a meeting between King Francis I and Leo X in Bologna and a year later he was entered Francis’ service, moving into Clos Lucé, a manor house close to the royal residence, the Château d’Amboise. He created plans for a massive fortified town to be built at Romorantin, and developed a mechanical lion which was used in a pageant, where it walked towards the king, and when struck opened its chest to reveal a cluster of heraldic lilies. Also during this time, his apprentice, Francesco Melzi, drew a portrait of Leonardo which was included in the exhibition, and when Leonardo died Melzi was the principal heir and executor, receiving, as well as money, Leonardo’s paintings, tools, library and personal effects, including the collection of drawings on display here.
Francis I was later reported to have said: “There had never been another man born in the world who knew as much as Leonardo, not so much about painting, sculpture and architecture, as that he was a very great philosopher”.