London-based, I study art and exhibitions. Occasionally, I make art and exhibitions. I also write, and I work as a private tutor in the humanities.

Kirsten and MontaigneHaving finished an MA in Curating at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2014, I’m now working on a PhD on Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and William Hogarth (1697-1764) at Birkbeck. One day a week, I’m also working at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, on the Artist’s Studio Museum Network.

Previously, I’ve worked at the National Gallery and the Royal Collection, and was the first Guest Curator at Bethlem Museum of the Mind with the exhibition Bryan Charnley: the Art of Schizophrenia (16 February – 22 May 2015).

Though I mostly write for other people (selected highlights are listed on my writing page), I occasionally update this site with thoughts on all of the above, or the odd exhibition review.

You can find me at kirsten dot tambling @t gmail dot com; I’m also on twitter.

Exploring Etching

Insofar as the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is at all popularly known, it is generally for his paintings – the Embarkation for Cythera in the Louvre (below) and the so-called fêtes galantes, many of which are in London’s Wallace Collection. However, in the course of my PhD research into his career, I’ve also come to know him as an engraver.

Some of the very few examples surviving include include Recruits Going Off to Join the Regiment  (c.1715), which I like to think Goya had seen when he created his own etched Disasters of War series. There are also a few fashion plates from his first years in Paris (this typically ambiguous figure is showing off the latest trends of 1710).

Antoine Watteau, The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera, Louvre, Paris
Antoine Watteau, The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera, Louvre, Paris

As I’m currently working on a PhD on Watteau and his thematic connections to one of the eighteenth century’s most famous engravers, William Hogarth (1697-1764), I wanted to finally understand how classic printing techniques actually work. I’ve read so many accounts of etching, but as someone without much of a technical brain, I’ve never been able to truly get my head around it. So I went on a three-day etching course at East London Printmakers, a great co-operative near London Fields, to learn more.

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Shadows of Sherlock Holmes

Sidney Paget, illustration to The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, 1893 (Special Collections Toronto Public Library)
Sidney Paget, illustration to The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, 1893 (Special Collections Toronto Public Library)

Arthur Conan Doyle claimed never to have visited Baker Street, then a monotonous eighteenth-century tributary of the Marylebone Road. He was presumably more familiar with the streets a few roads over: the fictional nervous disease specialist Percy Trevelyan, client in The Resident Patient, assures Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson that ‘a specialist who aims high is compelled to start in one of a dozen streets in the Cavendish Square quarter’ and in the 1890s, while trying to establish himself as an eye specialist, Conan Doyle lived precisely here, on Upper Wimpole Street – the ‘long unlovely street’, also haunted by the bereaved Alfred Tennyson of In Memoriam A.H.H., which runs almost parallel to the site of 221B.

Holmes, by contrast to his creator, operates from the less fashionable, rather undefined, area further to the west. On Baker Street, he is within shooting distance of the medical profession, but rather on their geographical margins. Yet, as a ‘consulting detective’, structurally Holmes occupies much the same position as the medical specialist: outside the echelons of the mainstream British law-enforcers, he, like Percy Trevelyan, embodies knowledge gathered over years of study, upon which he can draw as required. ‘There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds,’ Holmes tells Watson in A Study in Scarlet, ‘and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first.’

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Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cezanne (Review)

Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love
Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c.1633, oil on canvas (Prado Museum, Madrid)

‘Even had he not felt a natural fondness for fat girls,’ writes Kenneth Clark in The Nude, ‘[Rubens] would have looked for accidents of the flesh as necessary to his system of modelling. That suggestion of movement flowing across a torso […] Rubens could reveal by the wrinkles and puckers of delicate skin.’

Clark’s attitude to women is antiquated, even for 1956, but his description does touch on something essential to Rubens’ art: his canvases are fleshy, tremulous with the movement of all those quivering brushstrokes, that pearly flesh shot with flashes of red and blue. This is the Rubens so visible in the nudes of Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville, both of whom are represented in a contemporary coda to Rubens and his Legacy at the RA. But that energy is also intrinsic to the vibrant Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (c.1617), which combines energetic brushstrokes with a dramatic diagonal composition, and the Garden of Love (1633-5) (above), a rich evocation of (clothed) aristocratic lovers in a fantastical setting.

Both are exhibited here, alongside those puckered nudes – Pan and Syrinx, for which Jan Brueghel did the landscape, and Fortuna, delicately balanced on a bubble. Many missing Rubenses are represented by engravings by Louis Sailliar, Christoffel Jegher and others. In engraved form, the canvases’ ‘system of movement’ is revealed not by the painted ‘wrinkles of delicate skin’, but by the either/or lines of the engraver’s tool: these black and white reproductions invite us to consider how Rubens, this most three-dimensional of painters, might also be fundamentally interested in line.

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Chicken Show, Roman Road Gallery (Review)

I wrote the below a few months ago for a project that never happened. I enjoyed the chickens, so here they are again. 

Chicken Show
Photo by Ollie Hammick

London’s Roman Road runs from Bethnal Green tube station all the way up to Bow. It has a Costcutter on one corner, a Hallmark-style greetings card shop that’s been there for years, and several shops selling fried chicken and various kinds of takeaway – much of it the sort of food people grab on their way home from the pub, throwing greasy bones and empty boxes back into the street.

The gallery in Roman Road – also called Roman Road – is itself an unimposing former shop, managed and directed by Marisa Bellani. But recently, passers-by have been drawn to look through the window at three new occupants: a tan chicken, a black chicken and a white chicken, apparently quite content in a room full of hay. This is part of the group exhibition Chicken Show; the chickens themselves are unknowing participants in Chicken Museum, an installation by the French multimedia artist Thomas Mailaender (first exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles in 2011).

Inside, on the white walls (at chicken-head-height) hang various Buzzfeed-style images, carelessly assembled on the white walls. It’s all the sort of content we are surrounded with every day: amateur photographs, disposable, and often humorous or grotesque. One shows a group of dead chickens plucked and arranged as in a hot tub, the kind of crude surrealism typical of the internet meme. Indeed, Mailaender’s ironic inversion of the reverent museum hang here invites comparisons between these images and the kinds of ‘fine art’ we expect to see in a white walled gallery. After all, Buzzfeed images, not Britain’s ‘art treasures’, are the visual works many of us probably spend most of our time with. Indeed, while there was an obvious challenge to the ethics of fast food chicken here, I also found myself wondering whether the calm non-interaction of the birds with the images on the walls in fact said more about our own relation to art and the museum than about humans’ relation to chickens; like the chicken shop visitor, the birds were constantly grazing.

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Hodge’s History of Cats

I wrote a while back about making a book about cats for Dr Johnson’s House Trust. It’s now complete and available to purchase directly from Dr Johnson’s House, Gough Square or on their online shop.

‘Hodge’s History of Cats’ covers cat and pet-keeping from the medieval and early modern period to the height of the eighteenth century, a moment of profound change for our relationship with animals, and particularly cats. It’s hard to believe today, in the age of the internet and Instagram cat, but for many years cats were hated and ill-treated by people who feared their traditional connection with witchcraft and the devil. Only with the increasingly swaggering confidence of eighteenth-century man’s colonial expansion did people start to normalise pet- and cat-keeping as a normal aspect of (mostly middle-class) life.

This book explores how cats were conceptualised and treated in the eighteenth century, when they were increasingly the companions of intellectual and literary giants such as Horace Walpole, Christopher Smart, William Cowper, Jeremy Bentham and, of course, Samuel Johnson, whose cat ‘Hodge’ has his own statue outside the museum dedicated to his owner in Gough Square. It’s illustrated throughout with details from contemporary Hogarth engravings, my own drawings of the House, and printers’ devices drawn from the book collection at the House, which includes several books owned by Dr Johnson himself.

I hope he’d be pleased.

Written, illustrated, designed and typeset by Kirsten Tambling; available for purchase through Dr Johnson’s House Trust

Into Bronte Country

The dales
The dales

I was up in Haworth over the weekend, investigating ‘Bronte country’ as part of a dissertation on literary house museums.

The dales open out from the back of the Bronte parsonage museum, and are the evocative heart of an area popularly known as ‘Bronte country’. Here, Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell Bronte would walk and, apparently, write: the ‘Bronte waterfall’ retains a ‘seat-shaped stone’ upon which Emily Bronte – the most nature-obsessed of the family – would compose poems. On top of a steep hill is Top Withins, a ruined farmhouse said to have been an influence for the eponymous Earnshaw home in Wuthering Heights – though, as a plaque in the wall ‘placed in response to many inquiries’ asserts, it bears no physical resemblance to the house she described, except its isolated situation in the moorland.

As with many ‘writers’ countries’ in England, and elsewhere  – Wordsworth’s Lake District, Hardy’s Wessex – there is a strange mingling here of fact and fiction: Top Withins is not Wuthering Heights, but Wuthering Heights’ very unreality links the two places together, via Emily Bronte’s imagined inspiration.