Nov 29, 2008

Lifestyle - A painting called 'Hope' wins fans as Barack Obama's inspiration

Ben Quinn

It's a bit off the beaten tourist track, and anyone looking for it may find a street map useful.

Yet in the past two weeks, this cozy little art gallery nestled in central London has attracted a growing trickle of visitors in search – literally – of hope.

In this case it takes the form of a painting which may have helped inspire Barack Obama.

Entitled "Hope," the canvas hanging inside London's Guildhall Art Gallery as part of an exhibition by Victorian painter George Frederic Watts might appear unremarkable to some.

In drab browns and grays on a blue background, it depicts a young blindfolded woman strumming on the last unbroken string of a harp, her ear to the instrument.

Obama's controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright invoked the image as a symbol of inspiration during a sermon in Chicago 20 years ago.

The harpist, he preached, "is sitting there in rags ... her clothes are tattered as though she had been a victim of Hiroshima… [yet] the woman had the audacity to hope."

The imagery stayed with Obama. The young politician adapted that phrase in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention – which marked his breakthrough onto the national stage – and again in 2006 as the title of his second book.

These days, a little Obamaphilia is rubbing off on the often forgotten Guildhall Art Gallery, established in the historic heart of London in 1885.

Destroyed in 1941, it was reopened as a new gallery in 1999 and displays 250 works of art at a time.

Staff say they are surprised at the level of interest in the current Watts exhibition, and specifically in "Hope," and insist that the timing of the exhibition was purely coincidental.

Thanks to its "Obama connection," which has been reported in a few articles in the British press, the exhibition has sparked interest not just among art lovers but among those who normally care little for a few brush strokes.

Typical of this was the arrival on Tuesday of a sizeable group of Japanese tourists who flocked to "Hope."

Shortly afterward, visitors included Rainer and Almud Bonhorst, on vacation from Germany, who made time to come and see the painting.

"I read about it and we came here for that reason," says Mr. Bonhorst, editor in chief of the Bavarian newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine, who says he read about the painting in a London newspaper and intends to write about it himself.

"It's enigmatic, and that is what I find fascinating. If you put the story into this picture it gets more interesting," he adds.

The 1885 painting, owned by a private collector, is one of two versions. The other hangs in the better known Tate Britain gallery on the other side of town.

Other works by Watts (1817-1904) on display at the Guildhall reflect a painter concerned with the plight of the poor and the suffering, with works such as "Found Drowned" and "The Irish Famine."

Despite falling out of fashion shortly after his death, he was well-known during his life for allegorical paintings, the most famous of which are "Hope" and another painting, "Love and Life."

As an admirer of Watts, the US president-elect will have ample opportunities to admire the latter, which the Englishman gave to the American people.

Where was it eventually installed on the orders of Theodore Roosevelt?

The White House.

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