Catalogue cover for the Monochrome exhibition at the National Gallery, London.

At this mad end-of-term time I do recommend that you sneak down into the bowels of the National Gallery to see the Monochrome exhibition.  Rattling as I am with that double challenge of finding hilarious or ingenious Christmas stocking presents for my three cucumber cool  kids (they are aged 18 – 21, you can see the difficulty ) and finishing a sleigh load of writing and designing work,  I have managed to visit twice.

I was astounded by Ingres’ Odalisque in Grisaille – pictured on the catalogue (above).  The gorgeous silvery calm of of her gaze lures you into the exhibition from posters rigged up high outside the gallery above the touristy razzmatazz of  Trafalgar Square.   I think I must have seen the image before in books or catalogues but had always assumed I was seeing a print perhaps of the luscious, richly coloured Grande Odalisque painting in the Louvre  and was intrigued to learn that the monochrome odalisque was a a completely separate, subtle, simplified version of the subject, painted for Napoleon’s sister.  There are no oriental fabrics or props in the black, white and grey version which gives the painting an abstract quality and allows Ingres to focus entirely on form, light and shadow and it is known that he particularly valued what he achieved here.

La Grande Odalisque – Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, 1814,  Musée du Louvre, Paris.

When I visited Scampston Walled Garden in Yorkshire this summer for Country Life (my piece on the garden will be published next year) I learnt that the many horticulture students who spend time working in this early Piet Oudolf are encouraged to take photographs of the borders and convert them to black and white so that they too are concentrated on form, light and shadow and not distracted by colour.

Scampston, Perennial Meadow – full colour and black and white.

It is an interesting exercise.   In the colour photographs of a group of plants from the Perennial Meadow,  the composition feels balanced with the yellow of the Thermopsis caroliniana, the pinky-mauve of the salvia and the blue-mauve of the Geranium Brookside seeming to make an equal contribution.  In the black and white photograph the upright form of the Thermopsis caroliniana stands out – without the clarity and dynamism of these vertical strokes the planting might feel much more muddled.  The neat inky heads of Rudbeckia occidentalis (top right) are also much more noticeable in the black and white photograph.  Again these curious flowers, which have a an almost black central cone and negligible green sepals rather than petals, provide an important staccato accent which animates the scene.

Back in the National Gallery, there are many beautiful examples of the simplicity of monochrome being used to reflect the sobriety of Lent and to suport the focus on prayer with minimal distraction.  There is a particularly lovely French stained glass Panel with Quarries and a Female Head from 1320-24 made with grisaille glass and silver stain.

Part of a Stained Glass Panel with Quarries and a Female Head, Victoria and Albert Museum London, part of the Monochrome exhibition, National Gallery, London.

I love the idea that the silver stain turns yellow in the firing process so that the panel moves gently and richly away from monochrome.  I see the same natural, quiet lustre again in the lovely handblown glass from Afghanistan from the brilliant Ishkar, a company set up to import pieces made by craftspeople affected by war.  Definitely my favourite Christmas purchase.

Gold and clear hand blown tumblers from Afghanistan from Ishkar.

One of my other favourite pieces in the exhibition was a wall hanging from Genoa – pale oil paint on the hard wearing indigo cloth developed in the city in the 16th century – this is origin of the word ‘jeans’.

Agony in the Garden 1538, oil on indigo canvas, State Property on deposit in the Museo Diocesano, Genoa.

You need to visit for yourself to appreciate the  tactile satisfaction of white on tough navy blue.  A whole set of hangings would be used to clothe a chalky white chapel during Lent. How wonderful it would be to create something simple using white on blue denim to soften an outdoor loggia.

Star of the show for me was the  Donne Triptych by Hans Memling.

Hans Memling. The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (The Donne Triptych) about 1478, National Gallery.

Again a photograph is a poor substitution for the demure delicacy of the outer panels which are slightly opened to reveal a tantalising slice of rich red and glowing gold of the VIrgin’s Gown within.

Detail of Hans Memling, The Donne Triptych, Saint Christopher carrying the infant Christ – one of the outer doors.

Hans Memling – the Donne Triptych – central panel – National Gallery.

Applied to a garden context, this is perhaps the most important lesson of the show – the powerful effect of an area of calm and restraint adding hugely to our appreciation of colour when we finally reach it.

Rationing colour is not always the solution of course. One of my favourite images this summer is of these dancing poppy seed heads against the uplifting cinnamon coloured walls of Culross Palace in Fife, Scotland.

         Poppy seed heads against the uplifting cinnamon coloured walls of Culross Palace.

Interestingly, because the composition is so strong, depriving the image of colour is a sad loss.

The last room of Monochrome is an installation by Olafur Eliasson, Room for one Colour, where the artist uses single frequency sodium yellow tube lighting to suppress every other colouring in the spectrum, transforming everything into monochrome.  This is in fact a rather fascinating and cheerful experience which has even the most staid art lover losing themselves in the world of the selfie for just a moment.

My faithful red notebook is monochrome.

And so am I.

I leave the National Gallery smiling and thoughtful and head to the Victoria and Albert museum’s exhibition Into the Woods – Trees in Photography . Here, calmed and held back by a world of different shades of grey, I only have eyes for two photographs – by Tal Shochat, Pomegranate and Persimmon 1974.

Pomegranate and Persimmon, Tal Shochat, 1974, Into the Woods, V&A.

Shochat takes perfect specimens of trees, dusts and grooms them to perfection and shoots them studio-style against a dark backdrop. Entirely unreal, but deliciously celebratory.

A few days later on a rainy early morning walk in Peckham, South London,  I spy a resplendent persimmon tree in a back garden.  The abundance and the glowing orange colour set against a shapely piece of yew topiary has me smiling from ear to ear.  A perfect city tree which is not to be forgotten as I look forward to possible new gardens in 2018.

Persimmon Tree and shapely yew topiary through wire fencing, Peckham.

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas, Non.

A young- monochrome – me on a Christmas trike.



  1. Jennifer Lee

    wow! Well done you for getting your lovely Dahlia Papers out by the end of the year. I will enjoy reading it in Scotland though already I am tantalised…
    Much love Jeffx x x x

  2. June Mays

    HI Non,

    Please send me your email address. The one I have for you is out of date.

    I was emailing to ask if you know of a trip being organized to northern Ireland in the 4-5 days prior to June 17 or after June 27. If I can’t find one, I will ask my friend Tom Duncan at Ciceroni Tours to arrange a car and driver and my visits. It is more fun to go with others! I will be part of another tour June 17=27.


    June Mays

  3. Ross Mcleod

    I got a degree in fine arts yonks ago. Ridiculously long time ago. I’ve thought about art a lot since then and when it all comes down to it and it’s all said and done – the single most important note for any struggling dauber to consider is value. The common or garden variety grey scale value, chiaroscuro, light and dark. Get a handle on that and you shall conquer all. Think it was Lao Tzu that said – “the seven colours blind the eye”.

    Love your work Non. Best wishes to you and yours.


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