Since 2004 Warwickshire’s Compton Verney – an eighteenth-century Georgian mansion set in stunning Capability Brown-designed grounds – has staged high-quality art exhibitions comprised of loans from national collections. Today it opens what looks to be a fascinating summer show on the subject of flight.
The curators include works in a very wide variety of media that range from documents or illustrations of actual air travel – such as Alfred G. Buckham’s dramatic aerial photograph of a plane engulfed by storm clouds (c. 1920) – to more metaphorical responses to the idea of flying.
Alfred G Buckham, 'The Storm Centre', c. 1920. Scottish National Portrait Gallery. © Estate of the Artist.
Leonardo da Vinci’s birds-eye view of a Tuscan valley, a work on paper borrowed from the Royal Collection (c.1503–4), speculates what it must be like to fly high above hills and plains four centuries before the Wright Brothers. Although his notation of place names enables a cartographical function, the High Renaissance master’s lines in ink have a lovely fluidity that encourages one to imagine oneself swooping up and down at high altitude.
Leonardo da Vinci, 'A Bird's Eye View of the Val di Chiana', c.1503–4. Supplied by The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2012.
Francisco Goya’s print Where There’s a Will There’s a Way (1816–23) pictures men in mid-air operating bat-like wings attached with ropes to their arms and legs. Here flight is symbolic of human beings’ ambition to progress past their limitations, while an etching after Dutch draughtsman Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1588) and a screenprint by Henri Matisse (1947) both revisit the Greek myth of Icarus, the cautionary tale that equates this ambition with hubris.
Francisco Goya, Where there's a will there's a way', 1816–23. The Trustees of the British Museum.
Late twentieth-century paintings connect the sensation of flight with the movement of emotion. Peter Lanyon’s love of gliding is reflected in abstract form in Soaring Flight (1960), in which freely handled shades of blues evoke the joy of being surrounded by the St Ives sky. In Pat Douthwaite’s Death of Amy Johnson (1976), in contrast, the motif of a ghostly black bird summons a sense of grief, as if it was a human spirit departing for the sky.
Pat Douthwaite, 'Death of Amy Johnson', 1976. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. © Estate of the Artist.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine