If I only rarely write about the visual arts here, it’s because I have practically nothing to say about them. I think I was away from school the day we were taught how to appreciate art. Mr Wright would wax lyrical about Dürer from time to time, but if he communicated the reason for his passion then I have forgotten it. I can identify individual aspects of an artwork that are impressive, but understanding art is not something that comes easily to me, and while I am capable of telling two artists apart, and even distinguishing between artists within a particular movement, I have no ability for making value judgements. I fear I am the embodiment of the man who doesn’t know anything about art but knows what he likes. And I’m not even sure about that most of the time.
One artist I have formed an attachment to in recent years is the Austrian Georg Ehrlich (1897-1966). Though also a sketcher and an etcher, he devoted himself primarily to sculpture. I first became aware of him as the sculptor of busts of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, of whom he was a friend, which are kept at the Red House in Aldeburgh. In summer 2006, a friend who works at the Britten-Pears Archive showed me and my family around the house, and I was able to see the Britten bust in person.
An element of the success of any portrait or bust may be the extent to which it captures the character of the subject. I have always been impressed by the amount of Britten’s personality in this piece – the rather severe hair and furrowed brow indicating his austerity, redeemed a little by the childlike mouth. Bronze seems the perfect material for Britten. (Niles: [Maris has] already flown in a sculptor from Sweden to capture her likeness in ice. Frasier: Ah, the perfect marriage of subject and medium!) And those non-eyes, which recur in Ehrlich’s sculptures, either scratched out as in the bust of Britten or as little scooped-out hollows. The absence of the windows of the soul is disconcerting. In this instance it makes me aware of the vulnerability of the subject, that even in bronze he may be susceptible to attack.
If the vulnerability of Britten in that sculpture seems a prominent characteristic, it may not come as a surprise that Ehrlich specialised in children and animals. The picture above is of a terracotta bust of the adolescent Alan Clark, dating from 1943 when the future Tory hellraiser would have been about fourteen years old. It provides a very sweet picture of the boy, but there is an archness in the eyes and the curve of the mouth that encapsulates the mischievous spirit that persisted into his final years.
Ehrlich was Viennese by birth, but became a British citizen in 1947, as a result of which there are a decent number of his pieces in the country. I haven’t yet sought out the two which reside in the Tate, but a couple of years ago I went to see the reclining figure above, which can be found in Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery (an excellent town to visit if you live in its environs, despite the negative connotations that encumber every new town – and it also boasts this marvellous bookshop).
At around the same time I made a pilgrimage to see The Young Lovers, who stand fringed by trees and flowers in the Festival Gardens by St Paul’s Cathedral. I think my affection for this piece may be informed as much by its surroundings as by the tenderness of the sculpture itself. The Festival Gardens are a place of refuge and quiet beside the roaring traffic of Cannon Street. Do click on the pictures to view them in greater detail.