Lansdown Hercules

“California Dreaming” – Hidden art treasure houses of the West Coast in the Golden State

With an ever expanding art collection and the Getty museum fast filling up, oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty turned his eye to a new museum. Completed in 1974 he created a real gem high up on the coastal hills above the Pacific, based on the Roman villa of Papyri at Herculaneum.

The collection includes 44,000 Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. The list is a roll call of stunning work mostly originally collected by the English aristocracy on the Grand Tour.

The Landsdowne Heracles was originally discovered in 1790 at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. It resided in London at the First Marquis’s town house until a 1930’s road widening plan saw parts of his collection including this piece sold off. Getty acquired this outstanding sculpture in 1951 and placed him back in a setting Hadrian would recognise.

Placing objects such as these in the halls and frescoed rooms reminiscent of the 1st Century A.D really sets them in context and transports the visitor back to Roman days. The benefit of the American approach to history is that you see an intact “Roman” home, something very hard to do in the Ancient World. The heat of a Californian day warmed the house and the scent from conifers and pines surrounding it transported you straight to Italian shores.

The floor-plan highlights just how clever Roman architecture was at providing light and shade. Whilst California withers in another year of drought and the villa finds itself bereft of water features as a result, the coolness is welcoming in shaded cloisters and arcaded rooms. On the first floor, a wonderful terrace allows you to view the gardens from above and take in the distant views to the Pacific Ocean as it glimmers under a hot sun.

Other treasures include Victorious Youth. One of the very few life size Greek bronzes to have survived to modern times.  There are also other collections many of which the Getty Museum, on the other side of the valley, has taken a hand in conserving or restoring.

Whilst I was there an incredible silver and silver/gilt collection was on display. After 4 years of conservation by the Getty, stunning objects dug up by a French farmer in 1830 at Berthouville where gleaming again.

This hoard was originally dedicated to the Gallo-Roman God Mercury and may have been associated to a shrine to the God. Bowls, plates and ewers alongside a statue of Mercury, the largest silver figure known to have survived from the Ancient World.

 

It isn’t often that you find an art gallery today which really knocks you off your feet. The Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena is one such place.

Most museums and galleries have a Global reputation which is well known or we hold them in our own personal esteem. I really think that the friends of the Norton Simon and people of Pasadena must regard it thus and treasure it very highly.

If I can be frank it looks like an ugly 1970’s public toilet from the outside. A low series of concrete boxes clad with dark brown salt glazed tiles look very municipal and you might be forgiven for walking past it and over the thundering freeway heading into LA.

However the walkway to the entrance starts to give away the treasure that lies inside. Barbara Hepworth’s Four Square (Walk Through) 1966, greets you in the centre of the car park. Close by Rodin’s Thinker must be puzzling about the drought or the traffic. Whilst the 1889 Rodin, Burghers of Calais with the keys to the City and Castle in hand are tormented by their impending fate.

An impressive sculptural arrival joined by nature as two sentinel golden bean trees watch over the main door to guide you inside.

Once you enter the museum it becomes really overwhelming and incredibly exciting. Rooms are beautifully finished in warm colours toning with the art. Dark greys, deep reds and wonderful design throughout.

As you pass through at one turn you find enough Degas ballerinas in bronze and on canvas to produce an entire ballet. Then at the end of a vista the largest painting from a group of monumental works by Manet of a Ragpicker is incredibly captivating. His canvas size is amazing and the composition very clever as Manet eliminates perspective, the skilfully placed still life of rubbish, spills off the canvas but roots the figure to the ground.

Old Masters, Rembrandt, van Ruisdael, Goya, delightful Impressionism and half a dozen van Gogh’s in one room alone. A vibrant Picasso from 1932 of his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, “Woman with a Book,” sings with rainbow hues. Black lines create a strong curved rhythm throughout the painting.

His seriousness as a major American collector became very clear in 1964 when Norton Simon purchased “lock, stock and barrel” the entire European art inventory of the Duveen Brothers in New York. Hundreds of objects, furniture, its library and the building itself at 18 East 79th Street became his for a headline grabbing 4 million dollars. He had shrewdly added Claude Michel, Largilliere, van Dyck, Rubens, Fragonard and Botticelli to his collection. Selling off later major works by Romney and Gainsborough so he didn’t compete with the nearby Huntington Library.

Norton Simon was a businessman with great vision and drive which allowed him to become a daring and shrewd art collector.

If you ever get the chance to see for yourself this exceptional collection of 2,000 years of Western and Asian art through 4,000 objects in one of the World’s foremost art collections- please take it!

I leave you with Norton’s own words on art;

“When I first started collecting art, my thoughts about each picture, about each sculpture, were essentially inwardly directed. What does this picture mean to me? The more I looked, the more I felt my perception sharpening, the more I felt the nurturing aspect of art, the more I became convinced that art is the major form of human communication…” Norton Simon, 1974

 

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