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John Beard at Messums Wiltshire

Culture-fix alert! Pay attention at the back! We don’t often recommend art, so when we do it’s something special. John Beard's After The Raft of the Medusa at Messums Wiltshire is so worth a visit.

John Beard with his After The Raft of the Medusa

Where?

Messums in Tisbury is one of only a few places bringing world-class art to Wiltshire, of the kind you would easily travel to London or Paris to see. If you haven’t been yet, now is a pretty good time. And besides, you’ll love the setting in early summer, and the chance to try out the new restaurant.

John Beard’s monumental After the Raft of the Medusa sits in the thirteenth century tithe barn, making visiting it a church-like experience. Go for a bit of quiet-time – call it self-care!

So what’s it all about?

The work is a reproduction, well maybe more of a reflection on than a reproduction, of Théodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa of 1818 (original in the Louvre), an important work of French Romanticism you will likely recognise. Beard has recreated it in black and white oils and wax in 24 panels.

The original was a comment on immigration, racism, corruption. The comparison to our current crisis is unmistakable.

The Medusa was a French navy ship that got into trouble off West Africa in 1816. Of around 400 passengers, the most lowly 150 were put on a makeshift raft. The raft was supposed to be towed to safety, but when the corrupt captain realised the raft was slowing them down, well, you can guess what happened. It’s said only 15 survived.

The original’s colour made the painting of its time. By reproducing in black and white we see it anew, historical distance partially stripped away. It kills the romanticism and comments on the darkness of the situation.

Fancy taking a closer look?

There is a gruesome amount of realism here, with starvation, murder and cannibalism. But one thing that isn’t realistic is the pyramid-shaped composition of the figures. By using the grand scale and composition normally reserved for historical and biblical subjects, the artist is saying that this contemporary subject is equally worthy. Way controversial at the time.

And while you’re lingering, have a look at the foreshortening at the front of the raft. It’s tipped towards us, inviting us in.

I could go on, but just go, discover for yourself. After the barrage of images and information that is modern life, there is something weirdly soothing about contemplating just one thing for a while.

Anything else on?

Also well worth a visit, in the Long Gallery, is an exhibition of Beard’s dreamy landscapes of Wiltshire’s Fovant Hills which he painted during lockdown.

Phew-ee, after all that culture you won’t have to be reminded about the new restaurant. Go on, I reckon you’ve earned it.

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After the Raft of the Medusa is on until 14th July, and the landscapes until 13th June. Book a timed slot to visit at Messums Wiltshire.

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