Armchair Voyages with Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy

Artwork by Joseph Cornell: Planet Set, Tete Etoile, Giuditta Pasta (dedicace) 1950. Credit:

The Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, Wanderlust, is like being given an intravenous drip feed of retro travel photos, postcards and scrapbook materials. It’s like swallowing hundreds of ‘vacation’ Pinterest boards in one go. For anyone with an incurable sense of escapism, this is a drug, and it’s delivered by a little-known bachelor from Queens, New York, who never went abroad.

A self-taught American artist, Joseph Cornell created mixed media collages using anything from Baedeker’s travel guides to old maps, tickets, compasses, adverts and newspaper clippings, calling his collections ‘explorations’.

His art captured the spirit of adventure, with references to astronomy, luxurious hotels and incredible journeys, yet Cornell himself was forever tied to his home and family – his own grand adventures were restricted to Manhattan trips, wandering around galleries or chatting in cafes. He was proud of his family’s Dutch roots (they emigrated from Holland to America c.1660) and could talk about European art and culture as though he’d seen it first-hand.

Whilst he didn’t set out to make money or develop a following, Cornell achieved success and found friends within other art movements: the Surrealists, like Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, but also Mark Rothko (who called Cornell’s work ‘uncanny magic’) and Yayoi Kusama (he donated some of his paintings to Kusama in the 60s, so she could sell them and live on the proceeds).

Joseph Cornell Wanderlust gallery piece inspired by Italy and dancer
‘Naples’, c. 1942. Credit: The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman. Photo by Quicksilver Photographers for Christies.

The Exhibition

The Royal Academy has sensitively highlighted the different series of shadow boxes he created, as well as his video collaborations. You find out about his love of inventing fictional characters, such as ‘Berenice’, a scientist and explorer, alongside his interests in science, dance, music, magic and religion. An eclectic selection of famous figures that inspired him, such as Emily Dickinson, the Medicis, dancer Fanny Cerrito and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, also take centre stage.

Look closely beyond the initial chaos and you’ll see the precision and forethought involved in making his shadow boxes. There are clashes of science and childhood games in Untitled (Penny Arcade, Pascal’s Triangle) and reimagined aristocrats in the Medici Slot Machines series. His Thimble Theater film, set to the childlike sounds of a circus organ, splices film footage into a new and unusual montage.

Peel away the layers of his work in a piece like Naples, inspired by the hometown of Fanny Cerrito, and you realise how cleverly everything was arranged. A box handle turns the frame into a suitcase; sea shells and paint hint at Fanny’s performance as a water sprite in a ballet; the Naples luggage label hangs delicately inside a wine glass, mirroring the lines of washing in the Neapolitan photo backdrop. As the exhibition catalogue explains, Cornell kept a dossier on Naples and was upset that it had suffered so much damage during WWII.

‘What kind of man is this, who, from old brown cardboard photographs collected in second-hand bookstores, has reconstructed the nineteenth century “grand tour” of Europe for his mind’s eye more vividly than those who took it, who was not born then and has never been abroad, who knows Vesuvius’s look on a certain morning of 1879, and of the cast-iron balconies of that hotel in Lucerne?’

Robert Motherwell, 1953.

Victorian style illustrated girl on balloon strings flies over mountain landscape in box
‘Tilly Losch’, c.1942. Credit: RA and the Robert Lehman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehman.

What is Armchair Voyaging?

Cornell conjured up the essence of European travel without ever leaving the United States, or spending a night away from home, so it’s not surprising he called himself an ‘armchair voyager’. As The New Yorker describes, ‘He preferred the ticket to the trip, the postcard to the place’. He could live vicariously through other people’s adventures, arguably not a million miles away from our modern love of browsing celebrity holiday shots on Instagram.

However, when he did get the opportunity to travel to Europe and stay with friends, he turned it down. How could a man with so much wanderlust – almost bursting at the seams of pieces like Tilly Losch – choose to walk away from realising his dreams?

Firstly, Cornell was a carer, looking after his mother and brother, so perhaps it would have been difficult to take time out. Secondly, having built up his own ideas of what these foreign paradises would look like, maybe he was afraid the reality would disappoint. All that anticipation and longing could quickly turn to frustration if Europe didn’t live up to the hype. And let’s not forget that anticipation is exciting in itself, particularly when it comes to travel, as a New York Times article highlighted in 2014. Sadly, during his later years Cornell regretted not travelling, admitting “There are so many places in this world I should have gone”.

Personally I love the research and planning stage of a trip, so much that I regularly make itineraries for time-poor travellers as a hobby. However, any number of things could go wrong on that trip (natural disasters, illnesses, missing a flight), and the reality may involve hardly any of the activities and sights I’ve listed for them. Maybe Cornell preferred to control his trips through imagination, not leaving anything to chance. The shadow boxes have certainty and they can be contained, unlike the real world.

Collage of Medici portraits in wooden box by famous artist
‘Untitled (Medici Princesses)’, c. 1948. Credit: Private collection, via

Learning from Joseph Cornell in 2015

Today it’s easier than ever to be an armchair voyager. If Cornell was working in 2015 he’d probably spend hours on Google Streetview, or printing out images of faraway places after trawling the internet. Maybe he’d even read travel blogs. He could have used Photoshop to experiment further with collage ideas, digitally manipulating images as a contrast to physical cutting and pasting.

Instead, he used the resources of the mid-20th century: junk shops, dime stores and book markets; by 1950 he regularly visited the New York Public Library and was drawn to its Picture Collection. Meanwhile, his studio held vast hordes of paper cuttings and useful items to put in his shadow boxes.

Here’s how to gather material for armchair voyaging:

  • Scour magazines and papers for images and text, and don’t be a snob about which ones you use. Beyond the travel pages, look for unusual fonts and headlines, quirky illustrations and backdrops to fashion editorials.
  • Ask friends to bring back leaflets, tickets and tiny souvenirs from their trips abroad.
  • Buy postcards and old photos from second-hand shops or car boot sales (this is one of my favourite things to do!). Other people’s adventures can spark an idea.
  • Make screenshots of useful quotes from Google Books, then print them out to collage.
  • Sign up to receive catalogues from tour companies, especially the ones you can’t afford, because this is all about aspirational adventures.
  • Trawl charity shops, house clearance sales, Etsy and eBay for dog-eared maps and guidebooks. Often you can get a job lot for £5.

When you’ve gathered your materials, get collaging. Take a tip from Cornell and use an old book or a box frame as your basis. If you don’t like the result, just keep building layers over the top until you get an arrangement that works.

Vintage map of Sicily in Italy used for travel planning
A map of Sicily from an old Baedeker guidebook – the kind of resources the artist loved to collect. Credit: Antique Maps and Prints.

Recommended Reading

  • The exhibition catalogue (£25) is pretty hefty but well worth buying if you’re a big fan of Cornell’s work. There’s also a wide range of related books on sale in the gift shop. If you can’t stretch to the catalogue, this ‘beginner’s guide’ on the RA website breaks down the artist and his appeal.
  • AnOther Magazine has a round-up of 10 collage artists, including Man Ray and Eileen Agar. Collage is often overlooked as an art form, even today (trust me: been there, done that, tried to make university art tutors see the point), so it’s great to see it recognised.
  • During the exhibition I kept remembering last year’s hit novel, The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, which includes a doll’s house with miniature figures as a plot device. It’s based on a real life doll’s house made for a rich woman in 17th century Amsterdam, now on display at the Rijksmuseum. Read about how the book cover was created in homage to the miniature theme. I think Cornell would approve.
Hotel shadow boxes including Hotel Andromeda on display in museums and private collections
Examples of the artist’s Hotel series, now very collectible. He uses old hotel adverts alongside images of space, nature and classic illustration.

Visiting Notes

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust is on show at the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD, until 27th September 2015. It then arrives in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, from 20th October 2015 to 10th January 2016.

The Sackler Wing is on the top floor of the gallery, up several flights of stairs, but there is step-free access via a lift. Tickets are £10-11.50 for adults (£11.50 with GiftAid), £8 for seniors and the disabled, and £9 for students and the unemployed; audio guides cost £4. Under 16s and members of the Royal Academy go free.

Stanfords Travel Bookshop has a ‘meet the curator’ event with Sarah Lea, on 18th August 2015 at 12-14 Long Acre, London. Tickets cost £3 and also give you £2 off your exhibition ticket price and £3 off the exhibition catalogue.