o On his death in 1917, Degas’s heirs discovered over 150 wax statuettes in his studio. It was a complete surprise to the world that he had worked so intensively as a sculptor. The waxes were never intended to be exhibited, but were experimental works exploring in three dimensions the same subject matter and preoccupations as his paintings. Degas may even have used these wax figures as models in his drawings and paintings.
Seventy-four of the models were cast posthumously by his heirs in an edition of twenty and they regularly trickle on to the market. From 26 May until 25 June, Browse and Darby are holding an exceptionally rich exhibition of twenty-five bronzes, some of which are on loan and some for sale. They include “Le tub”, one of his most prized and radical works, in which the viewer looks down upon the figure of a girl curled up in a bath tub, and three different studies of dancers in the arabesque position. Sickert recalls visiting Degas in his studio to find he had lit a statuette by candlelight and was turning it to study the succession of silhouettes it made against a white sheet. This scenario will be dramatically recreated in the gallery.
o Glyn Philpot paid the price of “coming out” with his explicitly homosexual painting “The great Pan”, which he submitted to the Royal Academy in 1933, aged forty-nine. He was publicly rejected, impoverished, and died four years later. The story of his life as a portraitist, sculptor, figure and still-life painter has been told in The life and art of Glyn Philpot by J.G.P. Delaney (Ashgate, £25) to be published this month. To coincide with it, The Fine Art Society is holding an exhibition of Philpot’s paintings, drawings and sculptures from 24 May to 4 June.
o With the Chelsea Flower Show this month, Hazlitt Gooden & Fox show the flower paintings of Carolyn Sergeant whose exhibition two years ago sold out before it had even opened. Her work stands out head and shoulders above botanical illustration for she is a painter first and a painter of flowers second. Her work captures a sense of the organic habitat of each flower. These are not botanical specimens sterilely dissected and analysed for posterity. They are wild flowers gathered from the hedgerows, which, arranged in surprising combinations, still give a sense that they are alive and growing. Delicate hare bells bow to the wind and vigorous brambles climb randomly upwards to the light.
The placing of each flower on a page is as important as the actual rendering of it. All inessentials are striped away and while the structure and colour of each bloom is rigorously analysed and set down, there is still a sense of the fragility of nature.
o Bernard Shapero Rare Books concentrates on the history of a single, exotic, bloom, the tulip, from 12 to 22 May. “Tulipomania” covers the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, focusing on the frenzied obsession with tulips in the seventeenth century when a single bulb could sell for the price of a town house in Amsterdam. The show includes some of the greatest botanical illustrations of the period including thirteen rare plates of tulips by Basilus Besler who created the Hortus Eysettensis of 1613. Also available are the only two known images of tulips by Redouté, painter to the Empress Josephine.
o There will be an opportunity to see whether today’s botanical illustrators can compete with these past masters in colour, impact of design and accuracy in an exhibition of contemporary botanical illustration at Daphne Johns Contemporary Art from 17 to 28 May. The work of students completing of a year long course in botanical illustration run by the Chelsea Physic Garden will be displayed. The course was set up five years ago to revive this disappearing skill. In the tradition of their forefathers, the students dissect the structure of the plants with rigorous accuracy describing them in a way no camera ever could.
o While on the subject of flowers, Peter Coke’s shell creations on show at the O’Shea Gallery from 14 to 28 May are as marvellously fashioned as the finest shell work of the eighteenth century. This show is inspired by the flower creations of the Russian goldsmiths Fabergé. They are executed with such wit and dexterity that, far from being kitsch, they intrigue and amaze with their technical virtuosity.
o Working with shells in quite a different manner is the Russian artist Peter Zaltsman who has revived the art of carving cameos into sea shells. His work is shown at Thomas Goode from 20 May to 5 June. Born in Leningrad, Zaltsman has lived in London since 1990 but Russian themes pervade his incredibly intricate work. Carving layer by layer into the shell and using only the natural colours of the sea shell he creates a miniature three-dimensional world peopled by the heroes of Pushkin and with elaborate eighteenth century perspectives based on the architecture of St Petersburg.
o Best known for his wood engravings and murals which follow the whimsical English tradition epitomised by Rex Whistler and Edward Bawden, Richard Shirley Smith applies the same meticulous skill to his watercolours, which go on show at Chris Beetles from 5 to 21 May. Executed in pale pastel colours, these are still-lifes of carefully composed props, figments of his vivid imagination and objets-trouvés from his many travels, often set against a background of classical ruins.
o Another artist with his roots in an earlier, English tradition is the landscape painter, Simon Palmer, who exhibits at Gallery 27 from 18 to 22 May. These works are in the neo-romantic vein of his namesake Samuel Palmer with echoes too of Stanley Spencer and his contemporaries Nash and Sutherland. The work is, nonetheless, so original and inventive that one is quickly convinced that Palmer has arrived at his style and subject matter quite independently. These are images based partly on direct observation and partly on imagination but they are certainly no pastiche.
Palmer takes as his starting point the landscape of his native Yorkshire dales but tempers that reality to suit his purpose. He becomes a romantic interpreter between the landscape and the viewer. Trees rear snake-like in the foreground dwarfing a tiny insignificant figure isolated on a country lane. People perform apparently pointless tasks against his intricately patterned landscape with their high horizons. There is a Brueghelian sense of the changing seasons and of man going about his business irrespective of the vast and ever changing panoply of nature which enfolds him.
o Zeng Shanqing is one of many Chinese artists who suffered for their profession under the Cultural Revolution but have now been reinstated. His marvellously deft brushwork is in the tradition of the finest Chinese calligraphy combined with the freedom and energy learned from American abstraction and can be seen at Michael Goedhuis 27 May-4 June. He paints traditional subject matter with boldness and economy. A few swift strokes of the brush can conjure up herds of galloping horses or Tibetans crammed together in worship.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A major Degas bronzes show this month'