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Sargent painting outdoor landscape pictures
at Fladbury in Worcestershire, 1889.
© Private Collection

In his last book, The Ephemeral Museum, the great art historian Francis Haskell cast a sceptical eye on the emergence of today’s ‘blockbuster’ art exhibition and brilliantly evoked the phenomenon.  ‘Miles above us jets speed through the skies carrying their freight of Titians and Poussins, Van Dycks and Goyas’, he wrote, while below curators prepare ‘large new explanatory labels’, accountants check the ‘impact likely to be made on this year’s budget deficit’, ‘printers work overtime to make sure that bulky catalogues are ready on schedule’ and, he concluded, ‘academics are putting the finishing touches to the papers they will shortly read at the inevitable symposium’.

We have all been to such symposia and, although we may think Haskell is being harsh, exhibition led conferences do not always illuminate or excite.  The conference recently held at the Gallery to accompany our current exhibition, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends,was a glorious exception to this.  The day was a sell-out several times over and an enthusiastic audience heard an outstanding group of speakers at the top of their form.  Papers were original and beautifully presented and genuinely sent us back to the exhibition with new insights into the portraits and Sargent’s engagement with the art, theatre, literature and music of his time.

We were treated not just to fine words and images but film – remarkable footage of the renowned Spanish dancer Carmencita performing - and recorded passages of Sargent’s favourite music lucidly explained by Leanne Langley.   And the day ended with more music, Oliver Davies superbly introducing and performing a programme of pieces associated with Sargent and his friends.  All a fitting tribute to a great artist.

The conference held on Friday 17 April 2015, to mark the occasion of the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, was made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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