Laura Gascoigne

Laura Gascoigne is the chief art critic of The Spectator

The beauty of pollution

On the back of the British £20 note, J.M.W. Turner appears against the backdrop of his most iconic image. Voted the country’s favourite painting in 2005, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (1838) was Turner’s favourite too. It remained in his possession until his death; the 70-year-old artist swore in a letter of 1845 that ‘no consideration of

The art of Japanese woodblock printing

Van Gogh owned a copy of Utagawa Kunisada’s woodblock print of the ‘Yoshiwara Poet Omatsu’ (1861), which is currently on display at the Watts Gallery. It depicts the poetess who rose from humble origins in an elegant kimono at her dressing table and was part of Kunisada’s series of paintings titled Biographies of Famous Women,

The most original sea painter since Turner? Lowry

In 1958 an elderly gentleman staying at the Castle Hotel in Berwick-upon-Tweed gave the receptionist a doodle he had made on the hotel’s notepaper. She kept it in a box and 43 years later, on the advice of Antiques Roadshow, sold it at auction for £8,000. ‘I don’t think anyone since Turner has looked at

How Miss La La captured Degas’s imagination

‘Can you come Saturday morning to my studio, 19 bis rue Fontaine?’ Degas wrote to Edmond de Goncourt in 1879. ‘From 10.30 to half-past noon, I will have my négresse and her partner who will come expressly to be at your disposal.’ Not content with dangling from a rope by her teeth, she suspended a

The craft renaissance

As long ago as the 1960s, the poet Edward James was worried that traditional crafts were dying out. Having frittered much of the family fortune he had inherited, aged five, on supporting struggling surrealists (he commissioned the Mae West lips sofa and lobster telephone from a scuffling Dali) and on backing shows starring his actress

Is there still life in British still life?

‘The tyrannical rule of nature morte is, at last, over,’ announced Paul Nash in the Listener in 1931. ‘Apples have had their day.’ Since Cézanne fulfilled his famous boast that he would astonish Paris with an apple, artists had been trying the same trick in London, with limited success. Astonishment, unfortunately, only works once. Nash

Suppress your groans: this women-only show is fascinating

In a Victorian art dealer’s shop a woman waits with her young son while the supercilious owner examines her work; behind her two top-hatted gents interrupt their inspection of a drawing of a dancer in a tutu to give her the once-over. The woman’s shabby umbrella, propped against the counter, awaits reopening in the rain

Beguiling: Yinka Shonibare, at the Serpentine Galleries, reviewed

More than seven centuries ago, the medieval cartographer Richard of Haldingham created Hereford Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi; I say ‘created’ because when he drew his map it was largely a work of the imagination. Its terra incognita is populated with bizarre creatures born of the fever dreams of early travel writers: his Africa is inhabited by

Fascinating insight into the mind of Michelangelo

You’re pushing 60 and an important patron asks you to repeat an artistic feat you accomplished in your thirties. There’s nothing more daunting than having to compete with your younger self, but the patron is the Pope. How can you say no? Besides, it’s an excuse to get away from Florence, where your work for

Kandinsky is the star of Tate’s expressionist show

‘We invented the name Blaue Reiter whilst sitting around a coffee table in Marc’s garden at Sindelsdorf… we both loved blue, Marc liked horses and I liked riders, so the name came of its own accord.’ Christened so casually by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1911, the Blue Rider was always more of an

How flabby our ideas of draughtsmanship have become

The term drawing is a broad umbrella, so in an exhibition of 120 works it helps to outline some distinctions. A good place to start is to ask what drawings are for, and that is what Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has done with its current show of sketches by Flemish masters – staged in collaboration with

The tumultuous story behind Caravaggio’s last painting

For centuries no one knew who it was by or even what it was of. The picture that had hung unnoticed in a succession of noble palazzi in the Italian province of Salerno, with its deep chiaroscuro and close-cropped composition, looked like a Caravaggio – but after Caravaggio almost every painting in Naples did. When

The ghostly charcoals of Frank Auerbach

‘In some curious way, the practice of art and the awareness of the imminence of death are connected,’ Frank Auerbach said in 2012. ‘Otherwise, we would not find it necessary to do the work art finally does – to pin something down and take it out of time.’ There’s no sense of the imminence of

The true inventor of the superhero comic? William Blake

Among the documents in the West Sussex Record Office is an indictment for sedition of a certain William Blake. During an altercation in a Felpham garden in August 1803, he is accused by one John Scofield, a soldier in the British army then at war with France, of having shouted: ‘Damn the King. The soldiers

The genius of Yoko Ono

The first I heard of Yoko Ono was when my sister’s boyfriend brought home a little book of hers called Grapefruit. It was 1970, four years after John Lennon took the bite out of an apple that led to the break-up of the Beatles. The apple had been on a plinth in Ono’s 1966 exhibition