Archive for August, 2015

On Somerset House

August 25, 2015

In my London lifetime Somerset House has been transformed from a large office block with a beautiful gallery* nestled within to a cultural complex of public areas, gallery spaces, university, pop up cinema, music venue with a variety of shops, restaurants and cafés to suit most pockets.** This process, being gradual, has largely been unheralded compared to the flashier developments on the South Bank, at Tate or at Kings Cross. The purpose of this blog is to celebrate Somerset House and to draw attention to two exhibitions in particular that merit a visit before they close.

One the joys of the building is its nooks and crannies. I’ve never made it to any of the site specific shows that from time to time take people through the building and use its corridors and chambers as a production backdrop and take you through the belly of the beast. But if you want a structured visit to the site (bowels included) you can join one of the regular tours that are run by Blue Badge Guides each Tuesday. Highly recommended.

If you prefer to browse the site in your own time Somerset House offers a palimpsest of architectural styles, textures in stone and brick, and odd perspectives.

Gateway to the new wing

Gateway to the New Wing

The newest of these (for me at least) is the New Wing***, entered from the courtyard through a suitably forbidding gate given that it once housed the offices of the Inland Revenue. Nowadays it has a couple of restaurants (I shall try them soon I hope) and exhibition space. But what I liked about its being open to the public are the quirky views you get of familiar buildings.

Somerset House

Between blocks, Chambers to the left and Pennethorne to the right

Look to the left as you pass through the gate and you get a deliciously symmetric view of terracing closed off by a classical gateway. In the nineteenth century the older block would house Naval clerks and administrators dealing with Sick and Hurt, Navy Pay and Victualling. To the right the newer building housed the beancounters of the Revenue. Each of them staring across a terrain of slates and chimneys covering yet more warrens of offices and stores below ground. The Naval connection especially is a reminder of how something that was once fundamental to London life, the sea and the people who worked on it, is somehow now marginal.

Bricks and stone

Bricks and stone

Look to the right and you have a little play of textures, of nineteenth century stone and brick sandwiching a twentieth century interloper. Down the alley between red and yellow brick there’s an owl. Go through the door to the other side of the building on Lancaster Place and you see a fresh perspective of Brettenham House, one of my favourite buildings in London. Not because it’s spectacular (far from it) but just because it occupies a slither at the north end of Waterloo Bridge in a very dignified way. I especially like the neo-classical lettering above the main entrance.


Brettenham House, better seen in the flesh.

If you like it as much as I do you can take a coffee on the terrace and watch the buses pass by in front of it. The terrace on the river side of Somerset House is rather disappointing as a viewpoint owing the plane trees blocking the way. Lancaster Place terrace offers the opportunity to lounge around while hassled commuters, harum-scarum cyclists and wide-eyed tourists tootle along in front of you.

I’d earned my coffee through having visited not one but two exhibitions beforehand. The second of these was Unseen Waterloo: The Conflict Revisited


This was a peculiarly fascinating show. The photographer Sam Faulkner has 80 life-size portraits of men who re-enact the Battle of Waterloo of a variety of ranks, regiments and nationalities. This against a backcloth of the same fabric used to make British redcoats. At first I was struck by the beautiful construction of the uniforms; the sheer volume and intricacy of tailoring; the elaborate practicality of pockets and appendages; the decorations at once obscure and familiar; the cap badges and carefully delineated ranks; the equipment profuse and murderous (including an axe).

Then I saw that the diversity of paraphernalia mirrored the diversity of the people (although I saw no women, it would have been good to have had some camp followers among the militaria). All ages, including boys, from all over Europe, reflecting the fact that the battle itself two hundred years ago was fought not between Englishmen and French but between all the territories of Europe. And also that within the British Army there was a great agglomeration of men from around the Empire (as it then was), the former colonies in North America and subjects of the King in Europe as well as those of his allies. Such too would have been the case in the Royal Navy, in whose former rooms the exhibition is situated.

The exhibition is free and it is a stunner.

I came to Waterloo from the West Wing, passing by The Jam: About the Young Idea, currently occupying the Rock Nostalgia slot in the Somerset House programme. I like The Jam but do I like to spend to spend nine pounds on a trip down memory lane when I could just put a record on or watch their debut on TOTP on youtube? Not bloody likely.****


I’d come from a tremendous (and free) exhibition, Out of the Chaos, by an organisation of whose existence I was completely unaware, Ben Uri. The exhibition has a dual purpose. The first is to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Ben Uri, an organisation founded to promote the work of Jewish artists living and working in London following the wave of emigration from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century.

The Spong Dancers in the Arab Hall. Who wouldn't want to see that?

The Spong Dancers in the Arab Hall. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

If you have any familiarity with the history of the East End names like Israel Zangwill, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein will leap out. What I liked about the exhibition was that it weaved together artwork and documents to tell the story of the Jewish community in London through the twentieth century and into the present day. From a community of outsiders, with separate language and culture very quickly (and not without challenges and opposition of course) Jewish artists and intellectuals soon came to be central to the cultural life of the capital and by extension, the nation. In the room dealing with World War 2 exhibits on the consequences of the Holocaust underlined the evil effects of racist ideology. Britain itself took the ruthless decision to intern a large number of Jews of German origin and this is covered in documentation and artwork of camps on the Isle of Man. But there is also a small, dignified illustration by Barnett Freedman of D-Day Preparations showing a group of men being addressed in a hall in the run up to Operation Overlord that illustrates how the Jewish community was shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Britain in the battle for a democratic way of life.

My own favourite picture was Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach. It is intense, joyful and London in sticky bright abstraction.

Here is the lesson.

Here is the lesson.

The exhibition’s second purpose is to campaign. Ben Uri is now looking for a permanent home for its collection which grows as the organisation continues to sponsor contemporary artists. You can read about the campaign here at their blog. I really want them to succeed and plant a museum in a space in the centre of the city that will act as a beacon of tolerance in these often intolerant times.

The basement where the exhibition takes place is the only downside to an extraordinary must-see show. These works need room to breathe. However, it does afford a glimpse of another immigrant success story, whose leadership saw this country through the trials of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought to mind in Waterloo above and in the history of the Navy Board, for whom Somerset House was built.

George III - wartime leader; patron of the arts; sion of a successful immigrant family.

George III – wartime leader; patron of the arts; sion of a successful immigrant family.

* The Courtauld – also an art college. They have an excellent exhibition on at the moment concerned with unfinished art. The thesis of the exhibition didn’t really interest me very much (concerning how the concept of ‘finish’ has changed since the Renaissance) but as usual with the Courtauld the quality of the work is worth the fee alone whatever the intellectual underpinning of the show. Standouts were Manet and Degas but I’m sure you’ll have your own favourites if you visit.

** There are few better places in London to sit and contemplate the world than the courtyard of Somerset House. With a stumpy from Fernandez and Wells to hand and the noise of the Strand left behind one can sit and read in an unusually peaceful al fresco setting.

*** The New Wing actually dates to the 1850s, which made it new compared to the rest of Somerset House, which is of the 18th Century.

**** Especially with the threat of text by Gary Crowley lurking in the shadows.

On biography

August 15, 2015

Is it possible to write in August? When England make the most dramatic turnaround I’ve ever seen in an Ashes series? When the football season starts almost before it seemed to stop? When there is so much thing to do in London that you can’t walk across the street without stumbling into another festival?

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Well, sometimes you have to. In August I had a deadline to complete a chapter for an edited collection on South African cricket.* My chapter discusses the career of Percy Sherwell, the first player to captain South Africa on a tour of England in 1907 and the first player to captain South Africa to a win at home against a touring MCC side a few years earlier.** My idea was to examine Sherwell, a largely forgotten figure nowadays, as a representative of the British South African community and the way in which his career as a businessman and sportsman was exemplary of the hyphenated existence of Anglo-South Africans. And that’s what it did.

All I was interested in as a historian was Sherwell as symbol and I assembled my material and wrote the piece thinking I’d done a decent enough job from that point of view. It took one of my fellow authors to point out to me what a dunce I’d been (more politely than that it has to be said) in writing the piece for myself and not for the reader. The book after all is a book about South African history but it is also about cricket history. Any potential reader is likely to be interested in Sherwell as a man in the world as well as a symbol. They would want colour – what kind of a man was he? What other achievements did he have aside from the bare bones of his cricketing career?

So I redrafted the piece to add in the biographical elements and rather enjoyed it. Academic writing often forces you to jettison material that isn’t strictly relevant to the thesis you’re proposing, which means that a lot of interesting stuff gets left on the cutting room floor in the pursuit of intellectual rigour. And I enjoyed writing the piece much more for being reminded that sometimes a reader likes to be entertained.***

It wasn’t the first time I’d written a biography; last year I was asked to write a handful of entries for the Dictionary of Caribbean and Latin American Biography. Trying to encapsulate the achievements of Sir Vivian Richards on and off the pitch in less than a thousand words was something of a challenge (a vastly enjoyable one!) and not really what I would count as a proper biography of such a significant political and sporting figure. But having written those pieces and with Sherwell in my mind I started seeing biographies everywhere, especially in documentaries.

In Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish A Room, Roddy Cutts (a bland post-War Tory MP) interjects into a conversation about family members who have died in service,

I don’t like hearing about death or people dying in the least. It upsets me even if I don’t know them – some film star you’ve hardly seen or foreign statesman or scientist you’ve only read about in the paper. It thoroughly depresses me … Let’s change the subject.****

A modern day Cutts would be very uncomfortable in our current times when it seems that every other documentary is about the early death of a musician. Kurt: Montage of Heck, Heaven Adores You and Amy are the standouts of recent years but I’m sure there are more. The common theme of these films is that their subjects had troubled personal lives and self-inflicted early deaths. I haven’t seen any of them.

Of the three the one that I was most tempted to see was the Elliott Smith. I first started listening to him when I had no idea who he was, what his life was like or even that he’d appeared at the Oscars due to his having written a song that was included in Good Will Hunting (a film I’ve never seen).***** As I bought more of his albums I learnt more about him but was only marginally interested in the factual tragedy – I was hungry for his artistic output. Tempted as I was to watch the biopic (I’m not sure if it’s on general release or has been on general release in the UK, I only came across it in an article in Le Monde) I didn’t seek it out. Why?

For one thing, the kind of performance footage that a documentary can assemble, by contrast to the pre-YouTube era when you might be excited at seeing an alternative or live version of a song you’d only heard of in print, is there now at the end of your fingertips on your phone if you want it. It’s in your pocket and you don’t need an editor to slide it in between a talking head or muffle it with a voiceover telling you how so and so felt when they were there.

Secondly, who are these documentaries for? Are they for people who love the music or for people who love the tragedy? I liked Winehouse’s music but I don’t believe I ever saw a second of her being interviewed or read a story about her in a newspaper. I had as little interest in her non-musical life as I do in any other troubled individual with whom I have no tangible relationship. Ditto with Cobain, a man who died when I was at sixth form and for whom, while he was alive, I had a pretty healthy contempt as a ‘voice of the generation.’ Having grown up (relatively) a little since then I realise that he didn’t ever claim to be such a figure and my teenage self was being a judgemental little prick who couldn’t tell the difference between the nonsense that the NME wrote about him and the sense that he himself wrote in his songs.

I mistrust these biographies as being produced by people who wish to condemn the sources of pressure that made lives hell for their subjects while at the same time wallowing in the same screwed up mix of exploitative brand-building and rancid tragedy-hunting that first reared its head in my adult lifetime with the death of the Princess of Wales.

Even cricket isn’t immune to such impulses. Of the men in the picture of the 1907 South Africans the most famous is probably Aubrey Faulkner, sitting at the bottom. Faulkner was a fine batsman, the finest South African batsman of his generation. His fame, however, largely lies in the manner of his suicide in 1930. David Frith, a usually reliable cricket writer, included his story in his book By His Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides.****** The thesis that cricket as a sport is uniquely given to provoking suicide seems too slender to merit more than a newspaper article. To focus an entire book on such a study seems to privilege the private tragedy of the individuals concerned above their public performances on the pitch.

So it was refreshing to go to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this week that didn’t pretend to any great psychological depth or hint at personal tragedy. Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon, produced in collaboration with the film star’s family, is frank in its presentation of the surface rather than the depths of her life. It’s the kind of honest dishonesty that seems a more adult proposition than the dishonest ‘honesty’ of the music biopics. Hepburn’s image was tightly controlled from very early on – as a ballerina, as a model, as a minor English starlet, as a major asset of the Hollywood star system and finally as a woman in control of her own career and image. The exhibition joyfully lays out how the intersecting worlds of photography, film-making, fashion and PR combine to produce a figure, ‘Audrey Hepburn’, that is as much an outstanding artistic production as any song by Kurt, Elliott or Amy.

Similarly, while I was happy to trace the movements of Sherwell around the Empire and note his performances as a cricketer I had no desire to find out if he kicked his dog, hit the bottle every night or slept with his neighbour’s wife. His interest for me as a historian lies in how he was presented as a role model of Anglo-South African manliness, and as a sports fan for how he thrillingly held his nerve to hit the winning runs in South Africa’s first win over England in 1906. As for those singers – why should I have some right to their personal sadness? I’d rather go to the extraordinary music they made and feel how they transformed their experience into a work of art that talks to me about the life around me now. Roddy Cutts had some sense.

* All going well it is due to appear in 2015/16. It will be a successor to B. Murray and G. Vahed (Eds.), Empire & Cricket: The South African Experience (UNISA: Pretoria, 2009). My own contribution to the first volume was something of an addendum to some excellent work by a range of cricket historians.

** Non-cricketers might not be aware that back in the day England tours were officially billed as tours by Marylebone Cricket Club with only the international or test matches being designated as England games.

*** All writing should of course be at least mildly interesting; aspiring to entertain even when serious.

**** Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish A Room (Arrow: London, 2005), p. 88

***** He doesn’t appear comfortable. In Wes Anderson’s Royal Tannenbaums his Needle in the Hay is used very effectively. I hear it and it sends a shiver down my spine at the intensity of the feeling that Smith communicates. The same way now as it did the first time I heard it by chance on the radio years and years ago.

****** David Frith, By HIs Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides (Stanley Paul: London, 1991). Ironically the foreword is by Peter Roebuck.

%d bloggers like this: