An English Interior: John Kindness at the Foundling Museum
Catalogue essay for John Kindness exhibition at the Foundling Museum, museum devoted to the history and experiences of London's foundling children Bloomsbury May 2008. Gill Hedley is a writer, an independent curator and a consultant on contemporary visual arts. John Kindnessartist
The painted interior is as old as art itself.
In English domestic interiors, especially from the 18th century onwards, hand-painted paper was often the successor to tapestries or panelling. Patterns were the most usual form but often whole scenes were represented. Borders, originally used to hide tacks that held the wallpaper in position, became important because they could visually alter a room's proportions. Many were printed to look like architectural features or picture frames, to add grandeur to the room. Often, they outlined doors, windows or details such as a fireplace.
John Kindness’s installation takes its immediate appearance from this tradition but his wallpaper becomes like the pages of a marvellous book that invites us into a series of re-tellings of stories by two masters of graphic art.
William Hogarth was the first English artist to make comedy central to much of his work and his satirical prints are often referred to as the precursors of comic strips. His engravings were so popular and images so often stolen that Hogarth lobbied for the Copyright Act of 1735 to protect writers and artists.
Here, scenes from his engravings alternate with images of Desperate Dan of The Dandy comic, at its peak of popularity from the 1930s to the 1960s, and still published today.
Dudley Watkins’ images of Desperate Dan and others have left a cast of characters and their adventures engraved into the sub-conscious of many generations. We can find Desperate Dan exploding a building and its contents, rolling a giant snowball through town gathering up all in its path and even a huge shark in glass tank. The combination of anarchy in the event and complete control in the design is compelling and it can be no surprise that images like this have been freeze-framed in the minds of artists. John Kindness notes that both Hogarth and Watkins “ ... have a genius for turning total chaos into brilliant pictorial order.”
Kindness has designed his borders in what appears to be the conventional vine scroll pattern. In fact it, too, is a restoration of chaos into order. The design derives from lace patterns interleaved with elements taken from photographs of rubbish dredged from the river Lee in Hackney.
The use of muted colours, indigo and umber, reflects the period when the taxes on colour dyes was so severe that cheaper earth tones were used. The curvy strokes of gouache and charcoal that Kindness employs to create volume and dynamic structure derive from vernacular painting particularly the Kalighat style from 19th century Calcutta. This style was used to depict satirical scenes, often – just like Hogarth and Watkins - through inversions of social conventions.
Effortlessly, all three artists create a style of their own. Watkins’ Armoured Car recalls Japanese netsuke, Leonardo’s inventions and Durer’s Rhinoceros. Hogarth defined “the serpentine line of beauty” – a snaky S – which is the underlying structure of many of his anarchic scenes.
Kindness pays special homage to both his heroes above the “fireplace” where he morphs Dan and Dawg into Hogarth’s self-portrait with Trump.