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Compton Verney


Gallery 1

Introduction Volcano: a burning mountain. Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, 1755 The eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, had a defining effect on European history and literature. However, it was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that artists began to take such catastrophic natural events as legitimate subjects for painting and engraving. While art was initially a vehicle for attempted scientific explanation of volcanic activity, increasingly, and particularly in response to the 1631 eruption of Vesuvius, artists began to use volcanic subjects as metaphors for social change, religious dogma and the uncertainty and brevity of life. The works exhibited here represent three approaches to the depiction of volcanoes: a picturesque view, a scientific analysis, and an off-beat narrative.

Gallery 1

Dormancy After Vesuvius had spat out its ashes, the harvests of the neighbouring countryside were abundant. Procopius of Caesarea, c.580 Spread around the world in Japan, Iceland and Italy, the gently smoking volcanoes seen here and in Gallery 2 are dormant or, as volcanologists also describe them when they are not actually erupting, ‘quiescent’. Vesuvius is currently quiescent. Hekla in Iceland had been quiescent for ninety years before Brynjólfur Thordarson painted it, so it is clear that artists show us not eternal views, but ones that have changed radically, and will continue to do so. One long-term benefit of volcanic activity is that the land surrounding it becomes particularly fertile from the mineral nutrients ejected. While Hiroshige’s views present various aspects of 19th century Japan, his Mount Fuji is a constant faraway presence. This repetition and distancing of the main subject is also characteristic of the German artist Dieter Roth.

Gallery 2

The cloud was rising from a mountain‌ I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. Pliny the Younger, AD79 Vesuvius was a popular tourist and diplomatic destination during the 18th and 19th centuries. Artists, writers and scientists, visited the mountain in large numbers. Sir William Hamilton, 18th century British ambassador in Naples, was a pioneering volcanologist who made extensive investigations of the activities of Vesuvius and Etna, and further inspired later scientists and artists. In 1815 the King of Naples took his wife-to-be to see the smoking crater. The French artist Joseph Franque recorded the event, revealing the diplomatic importance as well as the touristic value of the unpredictable mountain. Artists in the 20th century saw volcanoes from a multitude of conceptual angles, consistent with the century’s social, cultural and political flux. Renato Barisani, for example, used lava, sand and rock to create his flower-like image of the volcano Stromboli.

Gallery 3

History, myth and literature Ten thousand colours played in his eyes. from Sadak and Kalasrade by James Ridley, 1764 The volcano has for centuries been the supremely powerful metaphor in literature and art for explosive social, political and emotional passion. In landscape painting as in literature it has demanded the use of intense colours and heightened language. Whilst the political meanings of 18th century cartoons are largely forgotten, they would have been readily understood when they were first published, as were those published in April this year when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted during the early stages of the British General Election campaign. John Martin’s fantastical vision was inspired by the exploits of the fictional Persian warrior Sadak. In Eleanor Antin’s photographic series The Last Days of Pompeii it is the absence of the volcano that is so potent: as we all know, the luxurious civilization that she evokes will be destroyed within days by the eruption of the unseen Vesuvius.

Gallery 4A

Eruption Down its sides of liquid flame The devastating cataract came. J M W Turner, 1815 In the second half of the 18th century the eruptive Vesuvius became a magnet for artists from all over Europe. The lively political and economic situation in the independent Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, of which Naples was the capital, created an international market for souvenirs of the volcano. Leading volcano artists resident in Naples such as Volaire and Fabris created images of astounding power and beauty. Each of them attempted to develop his own approach to the subject which, by constant repetition for the popular market, risked becoming debased and fictionalised. Visiting artists such as Joseph Wright and Jacob More had little time in Naples to witness an eruption of Vesuvius. This did not stop either of them making extraordinarily vivid paintings.

Gallery 4B

While the approach to volcanic eruptions by 18th and 19th century artists based in Naples tended towards a formulaic quality, Icelandic, Danish and British artists found more detached perspectives. The anonymous artist who made a series of paintings of eruptions in Iceland for an aristocratic Danish patron portrayed the event with a repellent and otherworldly protruding form. Gudmundur Einarsson likens the eruption of Grimsvotn to a battlefield explosion, and Keith Grant takes an aerial perspective on Heimaey, unique to the modern world. Andy Warhol returns in his composition to the spirit of the 18th century in this powerful image that looks as much like an upturned jet engine as it does Vesuvius. Like Joseph Wright, Warhol never saw Vesuvius erupt, and like Wright he also produced this image in multiples.

Gallery 4C

The walls of the theatre trembled; and, beyond, in the distance, they heard the crash of falling roofs. The Last Days of Pompeii Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1834 The terrible human cost of volcanic eruption is graphically expressed here. Notwithstanding the distances in time and place between them, these painters face the brutal fact of volcanic destruction, and reflect variously mass-exodus, narrative horror, and individual fortitude. The English amateur artist Edward Swinburne, the Italians Scipione Compagno and Eduardo Dalbono, and the Icelander Ásgrímur Jónsson portray the dire situation of small groups of individuals under a volcano’s threat. HenriFrederic Schopin translates the fictional account of the destruction of Pompeii into a powerful figure composition.

Jannis Kounellis presents the volcano, or its human after-image, as the cowled head of a woman made out of sacking, coal, a coffeepot and some books. These can be interpreted collectively as a figure of death, or alternatively as a metaphor for shelter, warmth, and both bodily and intellectual nourishment. All these aspects can be the result of volcanic eruption. Joseph Yacoumb, a drifter who took to drawing late in life, has found stark simplicity in a dried-out crater in Hawaii. These two artists move the overwhelming subject of volcanoes and their action away from imaginative record to evocative symbolism.


2 4A

4B 4D


4C Lift

Chinese Galleries

Resource Room




Gallery 4C

Aftermath All nature is a single symphony, all of it music. You are so receptive to music out in the lava field. Johannes Kjarval, 1954 After the cataclysm the landscape returns to quiet and to apparent extinction in the work of Finnur J贸nsson, Johannes Kjarval and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. While these artists show nature re-establishing itself, Filippo Palizzi takes matters a step further by depicting a quiet regenerative moment in the excavation of Pompeii in the 1860s, some 1800 years after the great eruption.

Gallery 4D

The sky one second intense blackness and the next a blaze of fire. Captain of the SS Charles Bell at Krakatua, 27 August 1883 When the volcanic island Krakatua exploded in 1883 its effects were felt around the world. The sound was heard thousands of miles away on the western coast of Australia and in Sri Lanka, and tsunami crossed the Pacific. 36,000 people died. The observatory at Edgbaston, Birmingham, noted changes in air pressure as shock waves passed around the earth: displayed here is a barograph record of the  phenomenon. The captain of the British ship SS Charles Bell wrote: ‘the sky one second intense blackness and the next a blaze of fire; mastheads and yardarms studded with corposants,* and a peculiar inky flame coming from clouds’. As the weeks passed, other transient effects were observed. In London, William Ascroft noticed unusually lurid colours and lights at sunset. He made hundreds of studies of the gradually changing, chromatic Chelsea skyscapes.

*A corposant is an electrical discharge that can collect around solid objects giving an extraordinary glow. It is also known as St Elmo’s fire.

Gallery 5

Ilana Halperin Ilana Halperin has worked with volcanoes in Iceland, Italy, Hawaii and elsewhere. Her series of etchings Emergent Landmass refers to the brief life of the Mediterranean island that emerged from the sea in July 1831 and disappeared again six months later, to much international consternation. Potentially of great strategic importance, the island was claimed by the British (as Graham Island), the French (as Ile Julie) and the Sicilians (as Ferdinandea). But then it sank, and it has not re-emerged. In 2009 Halperin travelled to Hawaii. There she made photographic works at the point where the lava entered the ocean, which led to her set of seven graphite works with text and drawings. Her project Physical Geology re-visits historical geological art processes such as lava forging and cave casting to develop ‘physical geological art works in slow time and fast time’, art objects formed within a geological, or deep time context.

Gallery 6

James P. Graham The film-maker James P. Graham has for some years been working on the Mediterranean island of Stromboli, filming its volcanic activity with a circle of twelve cameras. With these he created and developed his 360º work Iddu (2002–07). In the 60º version of Iddu (‘him’ in Sicilian dialect) displayed here, the viewer is an active participant, made only too aware that the natural forces that sustain life could also destroy it.

Gallery 7

Michael Sandle The British artist Michael Sandle (b. 1936) made this series of four large drawings from newspaper photographs of the spectacular 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, USA. The side of the mountain blew off, creating a 150 mph landslide and total devastation in this sparsely-inhabited part of the American wilderness. Sandle’s drawings, breathtaking in scale and substance, have the immediacy of freeze-frame film images which momentarily hold back the inevitable sequence of the explosion.

David Clarkson The paintings by the New York artist David Clarkson take the natural detachment of volcanoes to an extreme, and use the moving image in a manner quite at odds with James P. Graham’s. Clarkson’s sources are the CCTV images of volcanoes in their living state, but here flattened in substance, and with diminished colour that distances them emotionally from the viewer. Further distancing comes from the inclusion of computer rubric giving date, time and place at the edges of some of the works.

Volcano Resource room

Visit our exhibition Resource room where there are activities for all. Here you can browse through books, watch early news footage of volcanoes, see a documentary on the making of James P. Graham’s film piece Iddu, leave your views on the exhibition and design a postcard to take away.


EXHIBITION TOURS Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, 12 noon A one hour tour of the exhibition. Included in admission price.

TALKS Tickets £13, concs £11, includes gallery admission Members £5. Volcano: Pompeii to Eyjafjallajökull Sat 31 July, 2pm Dr James Hamilton, guest curator of Volcano, will be talking about how the exhibition came together and artists’ enduring fascination across the centuries with volcanoes. Visits to Vesuvius: Volcanic highlights of the Grand Tour Sat 14 August, 2pm Dr Patricia Andrew, researcher and lecturer, explores the eighteenth century British connections with Vesuvius and the national enthusiasm for visiting volcanoes and studying the newly rediscovered cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Stromboli: Creative and destructive force Sat 25 September, 2pm Volcano artist James P. Graham and volcanologist Janet Sumner recount their dramatic encounters with the famous island volcano and discuss its influence on their work and the relationship between art and geology. Excavating the idea of Pompeii Sat 2 Oct, 2pm Archaeologist Dr Karen Holmberg discusses the role of the volcano in the western imagination. Pompeii was the birthplace of archaeology, psychoanalysis, and volcanology which have shaped a great deal of modern art, literature, and culture.

TALK AND TOUR Mountains of Fire: The science and art of volcanoes Sat 16 Oct, 3pm Join University of Birmingham geologist Dr Carl Stevenson on a tour of the Volcano exhibition as he takes a scientific view of a selection of art, from images based on eye witness accounts, to more imaginative views of volcanoes dormant, erupting and extinct.


FAMILIES All activities included with admission price. Summerspace Tuesday 27 July – Sunday 5 Sept, 12pm – 4pm Pick up a free family trail and enter our atmospheric volcanic space where the whole family can take part in fun, volcanothemed arty activities throughout the summer.

ADULT WORKSHOPS Spectacular landscapes Sat 21 August, 10am – 4pm. Tickets £65 Learn oil painting techniques focusing on an expressive style of landscape painting, with volcanic landscape artist Charles Bezzina. Creative writing – Volcano as metaphor Sun 26 September, 10am – 4pm. Tickets £50 Published poet and tutor Jacqui Rowe leads this workshop which uses our Volcano exhibition as a stimulus for writing. For the full range of Volcano related adult workshops and family activities, please pick up a What’s on guide or see

Exhibition curated by James Hamilton, assisted by Alison Cox, Head of Programming, Compton Verney Graphics by O-SB Design

Supported by

Compton Verney

Compton Verney Warwickshire CV35 9HZ T. 01926 645 500 Registered charity no. 1032478

Volcano: Turner to Warhol - Exhibition guide  

Exhibition - Volcano: Turner to Warhol 24 July 2010 to 31 October 2010 at Compton Verney. This is the first exhibition to celebrate the extr...

Volcano: Turner to Warhol - Exhibition guide  

Exhibition - Volcano: Turner to Warhol 24 July 2010 to 31 October 2010 at Compton Verney. This is the first exhibition to celebrate the extr...