Visualising the Invisible; an interview with Christiana Payne and Stephen Jacobson

'Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017' is accompanied by a catalogue of the same name, edited by former RWA Head of Programme and Curator of Exhibitions Gemma Brace.

To coincide with the final week of the exhibition, Sarah Hickie, RWA Visitor Experience Manager, asked curators Christiana Payne and Stephen Jacobson to answer a few questions about the catalogue. 

The 'Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017' catalogue can be purchased for the special exhibition price of £18.50 (RRP £25) directly from the RWA. Anyone wishing to purchase a copy, who can't make it to the gallery to do so, can order a copy by calling the RWA Welcome Desk on 01179735129. Postage and packaging is priced at £2.50 per catalogue.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of putting the exhibition catalogue together?

C.P We followed the format of the earlier exhibition catalogue, The Power of the Sea: Making Waves in British Art, 1790-2014 (2014). The introductory essays take up four important themes from the exhibition: balloon flights, the experiment on a bird in the air pump, clouds and breath. I wanted to write about balloon flights as I’d really enjoyed reading the eighteenth-century accounts of them. Some of the contemporary commentary is absolutely hilarious. The essay also gave me the opportunity to write about, and illustrate, some great paintings and prints that we weren’t able to borrow for the exhibition – two of them are in America and the rest were in the British Museum, which was unable to lend owing to the sheer volume of requests they receive.

I catalogued the historic works, and for the contemporary works it seemed sensible to let the artists speak for themselves. In one case, the Eurich Air Fight over Portland, it was almost possible to do the same with an artist from the past – Eurich had written a description of his painting in a letter. But there have always been artists who prefer to be enigmatic and leave it to the observer to work out the meanings for themselves.

I loved reading in more detail about the ‘Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’, as have many of our visitors. For those who don’t know what this painting depicts, or what these experiments involved, can you share a little bit about them?

S.J During the symposium that took place during the exhibition, two of the speakers,  Alan Barnes and Stephen Leach, drew our attention to a smaller experiment taking place on the table in the foreground of the painting. This a piece of bone (a monkey skull, according to the speakers), immersed in sulphuric acid resulting in the creation of carbon dioxide.

This serves to enforce Joseph Wright’s fascination with the developing world of science and chemistry. It also shows links with alchemy and the search for knowledge, we can see the philosopher in the foreground appears more interested in this experiment than the air pump.

C.P I am very lucky to work with a colleague at my university, Matthew Craske, who has done extensive research on Joseph Wright, and his catalogue essay explains the context of the work very successfully.

Briefly, the ‘experiment’ shows the necessity of air to life. Air is pumped out of the glass vessel, the bird fights for breath and seems to be dying – but then, at the last minute, the stopcock is lifted, air floods back into the vessel, the bird revives. This painting has been misunderstood in the past, and even seen as sadistic, but Matthew has shown that the bird was going to be brought back to life. It was even known as the ‘resurrection experiment’ in the 18th century.  However, the little girls, who look so distressed and anxious, are right to be worried, as the timing had to be perfect. That is why the man on the left holds a stopwatch.

The painting is fascinating on so many counts. Wright brilliantly portrays the different reactions of the members of the group gathered round the table, from the anxious girls to the philosophical old man. And the ‘experiment’ was one of the many investigations made into the constituents of air in the 18th century, which led to the discovery of oxygen and hydrogen. This led, in turn, to the development of air balloons, and arguably to the fascination artists like Turner and Constable had for the sky and clouds.

There are some truly beautiful quotes used throughout the catalogue, do you have a favourite one?

C.P It would have to be the lines from the poem ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings

This poem provided the original title of Christopher Nevinson’s painting, Battlefields of Britain (1942). There are several paintings in the exhibition that date from the Second World War. I find it comforting to think that, despite the extreme danger the pilots were exposed to, they could still find flying exhilarating. The paintings are certainly very beautiful to look at.

S.J My favourite quote is by Charles Babbage and is taken from Mariele Neudecker’s page:

The air itself is one vast library, on whose page are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.

Which artwork, or artist, did you most enjoy writing about?

C.P As an art historian, I particularly like finding out more about artists I’d never heard of before - such as Amy B. Atkinson (1859-1916) and Ernest Townsend (1885-1944). Their paintings, Bubbles and Balloons, went really well with the much more famous Bubbles by John Everett Millais in the exhibition hang. Of course, I also enjoyed writing about the more famous artists, Turner, Constable, Ravilious. I think that one of the best things about the exhibition was the wide range of different works exhibited.

What are the benefits of exhibiting historic and contemporary works together, and, discussing both alongside each other, in the catalogue?

S.J My hope, from the beginning, was for a diverse and eclectic mix of approaches, techniques and ages that would result in a comprehensive view of the subject. 

It’s been fascinating to see how the same themes occur, but in very different formats. Berndnaut Smilde is as fascinated by clouds as John Constable was, but he actually makes them, and photographs them, rather than painting them in oils. On the other hand Helen Jones draws clouds on a large scale – and the results are quite different from anything that has gone before.

C.P The contemporary artists are particularly fascinated by breath – especially in the light of current concerns about air quality and pollution. In the exhibition, it was wonderful to be able to go from contemplating Wright’s painting to Dryden Goodwin’s drawings and projection, Breathe, based on observations of his own five-year old son breathing in and out. There’s the same scientific interest, the same acknowledgement of the fragility of life.

Publishing an exhibition catalogue, with introductory essays, makes it possible to explore themes in more detail and in a more conceptual way. This is what Gemma Brace has done for clouds in her essay. And for the theme of breath, we were lucky to have in Bristol a philosopher, Havi Carel, who has written a fascinating essay on “The Uses and Abuses of Air”.

Are there any works referenced in the catalogue you’d have liked to have included in the exhibition, but weren’t able to?

S.J Although clouds are well represented, I would have liked to have included Tacita Dean’s ‘HS40’. However, I see that at nearly five meters long it would have been a problem to fit in.