Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

The National Gallery basement and Arthur Ransome

May 15, 2017

The National, besides its usual haul of treasure, now has two must-see freebies to lure in the art hound (of which more in another post). And this in addition to the fact that the whole of the basement is now fully opened up to the public for the first time, or at least in this correspondent’s memory.

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The Fall, 458489 BSIDES. Better than the A-sides for some aficionados.

The basement, as well as housing the displaced works owing to the Michelangelo/Sebastiano exhibition taking place in some of the permanent galleries, now has a smattering of the NG’s artistic B-sides in ‘Room A’. Which makes it sound like it’s not worth the trouble to go down there. But that’s wrong. These are for the most part high quality B-sides, reminiscent of The Fall’s classic compilation, 458489, in that some of this stuff is better than what’s upstairs/on the flip side. Especially in the way that the work is curated – a broad sweep of art from the Renaissance to the late 19th Century in one room, allowing the eye to juxtapose subject, style and composition to delightful effect.

The central space is dominated by four grand canvases of battles from the French Revolutionary wars (Jemappes, Valmy, Montmirail and Hanau) by Vernet that are splendid in their drama and attention to detail, even if the carnage wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Those of a more peaceful bent might want to stroll around to Gentile Bellini’s Madonna and child, which for me is as handy a bit of god-stuff as any you’d fine in the Sainsbury Wing.

In between you’ll find a broad range of things to enjoy – the Impressionist Jongkind’s view of the Boulevard Port-Royal, Puvis de Chevanne’s Summer and a heap of Golden Age Dutch stuff were my own particular favourites until I came across a wall of Dutch seascapes from the nineteenth century. These were less familiar to me than the Van de Veldes (of which there are a couple here) from the seventeenth century, which is probably why they attracted my attention.

They are both by Paul Jean Clays, an artist of whom I knew nothing, and on seeing the first I noted in my book, ‘Ships Lying Off Dordrecht reminds me of Flushing in Ransome. Round boats coming up to meet us. Dutch flags, blue sky flash though grey cloud, can hear the seagulls and smell the rain approaching in the air.’

What I meant by ‘Flushing in Ransome’ is one of the greatest children’s books ever written (sadly overshadowed by its more famous predecessor) We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea by Arthur Ransome. In this story the Walker children (made famous by Swallows and Amazons) in a series of slightly improbable conjunctions of circumstance are swept out to the North Sea on a small yacht, the Goblin, where they are forced to cross to Holland, driven by the weather and their own determination not to fuck things up (ok, that isn’t exactly how it’s phrased in the book). If you don’t want to know how things work out for then skip the next paragraph or two!

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Ransome is also an underestimated illustrator.

After a perilous crossing in hideous weather and with a cute cat picked up along the way they are guided into Flushing by a peaceable Dutch pilot, who is flabbergasted to find that they’d made the trip all by themselves and not as they pretended to him under the guidance of a master who is too tired to emerge to talk to the pilot in person. But the real joy comes when they realise that their father by coincidence is on his way back to Blighty via Holland on leave from the Navy and he leaps ashore from his ferry to complete a happy family reunion.

I once heard someone on Radio 4 say that there was no politics in Ransome’s children’s fiction. Let’s  leave aside the fact that the whole adventure is predicated on the disruptive shock of modernity in the form of a symbol of modernity (a motor bus) knocking over a representative of tradition (Jim Brading, the Goblin’s skipper, who is no fan of motors on the road or in boats and romanticises the pre-modern technology of sail).

Putting aside the symbolism involved in the story in the struggle of tradition v modernity the contemporary political context for this novel, while never stated, is ever present. The book was published in 1937, a time when anxiety about British dominance of the sea was not just focussed on the North Sea, where the story takes place, but also in the Pacific, where Walker père has been stationed and the Japanese threat is just as obvious as the Nazi one closer to home (to readers in the 30s at least, nowadays it seems that the British prefer to forget that WW2 was a war of imperialism as much as national survival). Ransome’s story then can be read as an exhortation to the young to be stoic in the face of adversity, and a reassurance of the reserves of British resources far flung around the globe to come to the rescue of those struggling in the motherland.

Looking around for academic analysis of the Swallows & Amazons series I’ve yet to find much. It would seem an admirable project for a PhD to me, especially as as far as I can see most writing about Ransome has concentrated on his role as a sometime spy during the Russian Revolution and beyond.

Anyway, with all this going through my head it was with great delight that I saw that the pendant piece to Ships Lying Off Dordrecht was entitled Ships Lying Off Flushing.

What joy. What simple joy.

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#NationalGallery #Ransome

Two exhibitions at the British Museum

March 26, 2017

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All the publicity for the British Museum recently has been for The American Dream, a show about prints from the past sixty or so years in the States. If you pair it  with America Between the Wars at the RA you can get a pretty good overview of the art of twentieth  century America. At the cost of quite a lot of shoe leather – neither show is negligible.

The BM’s is the more extensive however, more extensive and more comprehensive than I’d imagined it would be. Up front are the star names – Warhol, Rauschenberg (haven’t we seen enough of him lately?), Johns and Jim Dine.

The last I admit was new to me, which made him the most interesting of the nominated big three, who get their own rooms pretty much. Dine’s Red Design for Satin Heart was truly a thing of beauty. I won’t reproduce it here because as a digital image it looks a bit Clintons Cards. You have to see it in situ. Dine is more interesting than Oldenburg (who has a few prints up front) in his monumentalisation of the ordinary, for example with his print of paint brushes. He makes his re-contextualised implements living subjects whereas Oldenburg it seems is more concerned with artifice.

Then up comes Ruscha. Was I rattled by the Ruscha? (There’s one for all the Pavement fans out there.) Well, not really, it seemed that his processes – for example his use of gunpowder in print-making – were more interesting than the things he produced. Once you’ve seen three or four rooms half-full of slick stuff satirising ad-land you start to wonder whether the satire was ever there in the first place, except as a counter-cultural rhetorical device.

It was at this point (about halfway through) that I came to the opinion that the exhibition was far too big to take in in one go. But I ploughed on because in London, with so much going on, one’s best intentions of going back to a place rarely see fruition. And this is where I got a bit annoyed.

Minimalists were up next but then what’s this? The last three rooms are dedicated to Aids, women artists and black artists. And I question the whole basis of that. Because your average punter is likely to be art blind by the time they get to these rooms and therefore possibly miss some compelling work.

If the curators were going to switch to such an explicitly thematic approach I wished they’d front-loaded these rooms so that they were the first things that the public sees. Were they scared that if the punters couldn’t see a friendly Warhol from the door (well, not that friendly, it’s an electric chair) that they wouldn’t dare venture inside? Do the public have to be sold the familiar constantly?

I’m not arguing that Raschenberg/Warhol/Johns et al aren’t interesting or important, just that their work is so familiar that you only need to close your eyes to conjure it up. On the other hand I hadn’t seen ANY work by the artists in the last two rooms devoted to women and ethnic minorities (oh, except for another Warhol, who is represented by a depiction of a race riot, which seemed banal in the extreme next to much more complex work by less famous artists on the same subject of racial tension and radicalism in late twentieth century America). The unfamiliar isn’t necessarily obscure because it’s less interesting. As the Guerilla Girls point out.

So I would recommend going to the exhibition and starting at the last room. Your mind will be freshest to soak up the wonderful work of unfamiliar artists. If you’re as ignorant of American art as I am. Do not miss Kiki Smith’s Born 2002, which has the best wolf ever. Or Dotty Attie’s Mother’s Kisses which the label po-facedly informs us ‘hints at incest.’ Hints at like the Sistine Chapel hints at Christianity.

And the other show? Well, you’d hardly know it was there given the lack of press attention or indeed publicity for it in the museum itself. Just a discreet sign pretty much by the door of the prints gallery if I’m not mistaken.

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It is a wonderful thing. You might at first glance think it’s just for the connoisseur when you see Victorian depictions of the English countryside by the yard as you enter the room. But anyone could find something to their taste in here as the art gets far more radical as you progress around the room. Which is not to say that there aren’t things of genuine beauty – of course Turner, Constable and Cotman blow everything else away.

But I was taken by the unexpected depictions of London in watercolour. Especially this week. A Nevinson of Air Street and Piccadilly Circus tube under construction has a bus fleetingly viewed through a half-built Regent St Quadrant. Joseph Parnell’s Balloons Over London showed barrage balloons over the Thames at Battersea during WW1. But not barrage balloons as I imagine them – big fat silver sausages. These balloons are dainty Montgolfier affairs. Montgolfier turned sinister.

And best of all Henry Moore, London Skyline. St Paul’s is central to an extraordinary composition of a sheltering family, seemingly sheltering in the womb of London while wraiths stalk a fractured landscape. But St. Paul’s, like The Dude, abides. London is the place for me in good times and bad. Oh, and the watercolours are free.

#BritishMuseum #AmericanDream #London #Art

Øve Arup at the V&A

August 6, 2016

With an hour to spare before meeting for a pre-Proms dinner I thought I’d have a look at what was on at the V&A. I wasn’t tempted by the knickers show but Øve Arup was definitely my bag and delivered an hour-sized piece of intellectual entertainment.

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The show only opened in June, as part of the V&A’s engineering season, but I don’t recall any publicity about it on my usual cultural channels. Which seems a shame as it’s a gem. Arup, despite being Danish, was a man whose history was inextricably bound up with London. Indeed the firm that he founded, which is now the leading engineering practice of its kind in the world, continues to be so after his death.

You can find out about the modern practice and its cutting edge development of the fields of crowd flow studies and acoustic engineering in a hi-tech, interactive section that works via a wifi linked app on your phone and touchscreens. Or at least you could if they all worked! The irony of the first touchscreen I tried to use not working wasn’t lost on the gallery assistant.*

But that was just a glitch – the show gives a good overview of Arup’s career from his arrival in London in the 1920s, through working in London during the Blitz to making his international reputation with high profile projects such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou. What is more it brings across the personality of the man with humorous sketches from his personal notebook and memorabilia from office parties and awards dos.**

I hope you’ve already decided to go and visit so I won’t describe the exhibits in detail but will pick out two titbits of particular interest to Londoners. Arup, together with Lubetkin, was the man behind the pioneering modernist masterpiece of the London Zoo penguin pool and it was a real treat to see the plans outlining the geometric and technical conception of one of the greatest sculptures in London.***

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Secondly, there is a fascinating section devoted to Arup’s work on air-raid shelter during World War 2. I’ve been guiding and teaching on the Blitz for a few years now and it was quite exciting to see the correspondence between Arup and various committees about the necessity for deep level shelters, as well as various publications that he produced for the public sphere. Perfect for someone with an interest of life during wartime in London.

It was also a delight to find a display on one of my favourite pieces of architecture – the King’s Walk Bridge in Durham. This elegant sliver of brutalism spanning the deep gorge of the River Wear has been a favourite since childhood and remains my top piece of concrete. The video of the two halves being swung into place and Arup himself the first stroller across is mesmerising and brought a sharp tinge of nostalgia for the most beautiful city in England.

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*Perhaps this was a sly reference to one high profile Arup project that is curiously neglected – the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern.

**This contrasts significantly to a similar show at the RA a year or two ago about Richard Rogers which was a long on on pompous hagiography and short on charm.

***I say sculpture because it was notoriously unpenguinny.

 

 

Chichester and Arundel

July 7, 2016

Having spent a few days away from London I would normally have returned to my desk with a slew of reviews to do from the place that I’ve been. But on this occasion that isn’t the case as I was away for a conference of the Society for the Study of French History. So this piece is more of a reflection on that conference, a sidestep into my own little obsession of going to galleries and then a thought upon a moment of touching serendipity in a church.

It was my first time at the SSFH conf, presenting a paper that I’d previously given in Middlesborough but this time to a group far more likely to be more interested in the French than sporting aspect of my research. As usual it taught me the value of presenting to an audience whose specialism lies beyond one’s own. My co-pannelists (Will Pooley and Russell Stephens,  both of whose papers were very good (and you can’t say that about everything you go to at a conference)) were talking about witchcraft and nineteenth century political cartoons so could hardly have been farther from my own field of early twentieth century sports culture. Yet in a sparsely attended session (it was the last of the conference after all) the discussion ranged freely enough to spark a few ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me with that outside input. And I now know a shitload about witch trials and phallic imagery in the reign of Napoleon III. Result!

The other good thing about conferences (apart from the socialising, or maybe as part of it) is that it can clear the mind of applying for jobs and getting rejected, writing but ever feeling that you’re not writing enough and teaching but worrying that you haven’t given your students all that you could or should. Because by talking to other early career researchers, and I mean talking to them not reading their angsty tweets and blogs, you feel more normal about your own angst and setbacks. 

But of course much as I love conferences I do also like to get out of them and wander around. By contrast to Middlesbrough Chichester seems to be suffering from no economic dislocation, even in the early days of B****t. And this shows in the gallery attendance at Pallant House. It was solidly busy on a warm Sunday afternoon with families, young couples retirees and wannabe flaneurs like me. 

Deservedly so. The twentieth century art collection is outstanding, with my own favourite being a Patrick Caulfield room kitschly mysterious and entirely covetable. The temporary exhibition of work by Christopher Wood deserved more of my attention than I had the energy to give. So well worth 10 quid for entry.

But talking to a local who was back for the conference she said that she wouldn’t be going because she didn’t think she had enough time free to justify spending that kind of money. Which again reinforced my opinion that such galleries should mitigate the entry charge by extending the ticket for a year, as they do in Queen’s Gallery and the London Transport Museum. This would maintain revenue while also encouraging multiple visits by Chichester residents, thus resolving that conundrum about how to find a balance between earning the tourist bucks without fleecing the locals. But if you’re in the area go there – it’s worth ten quid.

And also go to the Cathedral, which is free. Preparing for my paper I sat in the nave while the organist went through a quite challenging repertoire of what sounded like Messaien to my untrained ear. And then on the way out I saw this:-

It inspired the final poem of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings (go here for a reading of the poem by Larkin himself) one of the few collections poetry that I know well. And very apposite in the week of my own wedding anniversary. A good omen.

A short guide to Southwark jury service

June 16, 2016

My munching time has been severely curtailed of late due to a six week stint as a jury member at Southwark Crown Court. But fear not, the reviews shall return with fearsome frequency now that I’m at liberty and the holiday season has begun.

In the meantime I thought a little taste of what it is to be a juror might be of use to those who haven’t yet been called to do their citizenly duty. Obviously I’ll not go into the details of what I was involved in there – that would be against the law. But I will say that being a juror is a uniquely rewarding experience in that it is one of the few times in your life where you’ll be asked to think and debate for altruistic purposes and with the certain knowledge that what you say will be listened to seriously and have an actual real-life outcome. Don’t avoid it, do it.

Message over, on with the faff.

HMS Belfast

What the hell (you may be asking yourself) is HMS Belfast doing as the header image for jury service. Well, you may have seen the Royal Navy’s finest on your way over London Bridge from time to time and thought, ‘Oh, I really must go and see that outpost of the Imperial War Museum that once fired the opening round of the pre-D-Day landings barrage.’ Or you may be thinking, ‘Wow that’s a bloody great warship in the Thames, what the shit’s that doing there?’

It’s guarding Southwark Crown Court.

That’s right, Her Maj takes justice seriously and just to show how seriously she takes it she’s parked twelve 6″ guns in four triple turrets outside SCC to discourage miscreants and show villains that she means business.

Day One

Day one of jury service is like the first day of school. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing except for you. Those who’ve been doing service for a week or more will flick elastic bands at you or flush your head down the toilet (if they can get it to work, just think of the horrific consequences should you have the misfortune to be in the 50% of cubicles whose flush does not work). Security guards will tut as you set off the scanner once again with an inappropriately secreted personal item. Don’t worry, by day three you’ll know the rules and be able to reel off the security code for the door without even looking at a series of numbers ballpointed on the palm of your hand. But how do you achieve this level of wisdom before you turn up?

Prepare for a queue

Monday queues are the worst as the fresh intake of jurors has yet to be separated into sheep (switched on, publicly-minded servants of their fellow citizens) and goats (the workshy, the I’m too important to take two weeks away and the genuinely unable to do JS). So be prepared for a queue out the door and the possibility of it raining while you’re waiting.

Bring a book

If you’ve got this far I’m assuming you can read so yes, bring a book. You may have to wait all day to be called. And then get sent home without being called. Take a good book of your choice. They have books in SCC but you don’t want to read them. You want to read yours. Ah, you’re thinking, but I can read a book (or similar) on my phone/pad/laptop. You can but a book won’t let you down. SCC is set up for technology from the 1980s. So bring a book. Or a ZX81. Also, having your own book will make you look clever and impress your potential fellow jurors.*

Forms

You will already have filled in several forms before arriving at court. Be prepared for more if you care about claiming expenses. Do not talk about this process, your fellow jurors will already be bored by it themselves.

Instructions

Instructions will be delivered via a prehistoric DVD attached to a telly stuck on the ceiling or over a tannoy. Or not at all. It’s your job to guess which ones are important to you without revealing any uncertainty. Uncertain jurors, like lame zebra, are the first to be predated upon by the strong.

Humour

All court employees are professional comedians. Remember, they’ve been doing this act for years and they know it’s funny. So make sure you laugh at the appropriate moments.

Food

Or ‘food’. It may be a chore to go outside but it is definitely worth your while.

Coffee

See Food. With bells on.

The Southwark Crown Court Experience

So let’s assume you’ve been picked and you’re now a pro-juror, what tips do I have?

The jury

You and your fellow eleven citizens will spend a lot of time in one another’s company. More than you will have spent with anyone except your wife, your kids, your ailingest relative or even many of your work colleagues. And certainly more than you’ve spent with someone you actually wanted to spend time with. Often in a tiny room. These people won’t be your friends but they will be your team so do the nice with them even if they really get on your tits. It might turn out that they’re as worth knowing as you are, and even genuinely good people.

Lunch

DO NOT, unless you really have the most severe hangover/cold/agoraphobia going, lunch in SCC. Go somewhere better instead.

Sightseeing

Jury service is an opportunity to see things you’ve never got round to seeing. As well as the behemoth of Belfast you have the Old Operating Theatre, The London Fashion & Textile Museum, Guy’s Hospital Chapel, even Tower Bridge within walking distance. And massive amounts of good things should you be fortunate enough to get a long lunch or late start.

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The Old Operating Theatre lies in the former chapel on the left. Guy’s Hospital chapel is on the right of this street. The Shard is dead ahead but you don’t want to go there.

But not the Shard please. And definitely not the ‘London Bridge Experience’. Please god, those poor tourists. And failed actors.

Lawyers & judges

If you thought the court staff were funny wait till you hear the lawyers! They have better jokes because they’re paid more. And the judge has the best jokes of all because he can lock you up if you don’t chuckle. Or if you chuckle inappropriately. So play it safe when the judge cracks a joke and just smile winningly.

The defendant 

Mysteriously humourless!

 

Okay, so that’s a start but I may add more as things occur to me. Jury service is like that. One second you’re lining up to pot a tricky black to snatch the frame, the next your mind is filled with the contents of Jury Bundle 141 (which involves a particularly opaque series of financial transactions) and you’ve gone in off and the beers are on you. Yes, to paraphrase Stephen Dedelus on Bloomsday, jury service is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.

*If you’ve forgotten your book I can recommend the excellent Riverside Bookshop in Hay’s Galleria for a last-minute purchase.

 

 

 

Delacroix Days

April 28, 2016


The picture at the head of this piece is of a postcard I brought back from Paris, it must be ten years ago. A self-portrait by Eugène Delacroix, a man well aware of his own dudosity. So what joy it is that there should be such a fantastic show at the National Gallery not only celebrating the man’s work but also his role as the inspiration to the next generation of painters. Men (for the most part alas) whose celebrity outstrips his own in contemporary times. It’s good to have him placed front and centre, for another month at least, in what is a wonderful show.

What perplexed me was that although Delacroix’s diaries are referred to in both the catalogue and the labels there isn’t a copy on sale in the NG shop – surely an opportunity has been missed! The reason I was looking for a new copy was that I had mislaid my pocket-sized edition published by Phaidon, one of a series of written classic works by artists and writers of which I have tried to obtain a full set.* Well, they had plenty of stuff by other people but nothing by the lad himself. A shame.

I won’t describe at length the wonders within the exhibition as there’s still plenty of time for people to go and look for themselves. But I will pick out a plum that explains why it is a must-see thing. One of my favourite pieces of Delacroix’s is that of Christ Sleeping During the Storm. To my mind it works as a metaphor for stoicism – the apostles fret, the storm rages, land is in sight, Christ takes a nap. Patience and faith (which work for both the secular and religious among us I think) are the keys to wending a way through the storms of life.

It’s a painting I’ve seen in the NG before but the difference as it is hung now is that it’s shown beside a Redon of a similar subject. Redon is an artist with whom I’m relatively unfamiliar and what I’ve seen of his hasn’t particularly appealed – that hot, over hot, splurge of sexual-psychological anxiety associated with the fin de siècle is not to my taste. But with his response to Delacroix he kind of clicked for me.

Redon removes the tempestuous drama that Delacroix the romantic puts into his composition and makes the scene more transcendental. Nature for Redon is not threatening the sailors. Neither is God. It’s the bare unforgiving sun in the sky and the isolation of the boat, the loneliness of the scene that come across. No land in sight, a ship cast adrift under a godless sky. It shows the shift from a Romantic to a modern sensibility.  From an appreciation of the beauty and danger of nature, and of human nature, to a turning inward of the mind. And each of the works is beautiful. It’s not the only time this kind of juxtaposition works in the show, it happens time and time again.

But there are two things that I would say that you don’t get from the show but that do become apparent from a trip to Paris.

The Delaxroix Museum comes as part of a ticket for the Louvre and is well worth visiting as a warm up act for the main event.


The house is where Delacroix lived and worked in Paris with a beautiful little garden laid out as he would have had it. 


Perfect for a pause in a busy day. I was interested by a display about Delacroix’s time in London. I hadn’t realised that he’d been to England (to my embarrassment, what kind of a London guide am I?). It had always puzzled me as to why his house was decorated with a replica of a Lapith v Centaur duel from the Parthenon Sculptures at the BM. Now I knew. Delacroix visited the British Museum in the company of his English friend, Thales Fielding.** The NG exhibition goes to town (rightly) on how significant Delacroix’s visit to Morocco was for his art but curiously for a British institution omits any lengthy reference to the impact of London on his art. Which is a shame.


In the Musée D they have a couple of beautiful watercolours done by the artist of tombs in Westminster Abbey. In the picture above you can see the replica of the BM panel and to the left the portraits of one another that Fielding and Delacroix made during his stay in London. It’s a joy to visit the studio as it shows you the intimate side of Delacroix that comes across in prose in his diary but which is missing both from the NG show and from the place that we went to next, the Louvre.

In the Louvre you have the big beasts. Sardanapalus, The Massacre at Chios, Les Femmes d’Alger. At the NG they have sketches and versions of these canvases but it’s not quite like seeing the real thing. Especially Sardanapalus which is a twisted mash up of sex, violence and soft furnishings. And of course then there’s Liberty Leading the People.*** Not even a sketch of this in London. And you do have to see it because in the flesh it is breathtaking and Important with a capital ‘I’ like no other painting of the nineteenth century. Politically revolutionary from an artist who otherwise I don’t see as overtly political. 

And this is missing from the NG’s thesis in London. Yes, Delacroix hands on a new sense of nature to Monet and Renoir, orientalism to Bazille and the rest but I wanted the politics that Manet picks up and makes such a big part of his work. Doesn’t Liberty have as a descendant the National’s own Emperor Maximilian? 

So go to the National for flowers, North Africa, nature and God. But then, if you’re lucky enough to have the time and the means, go to the Louvre for the politics.


And Murat. I don’t normally take photographs of paintings but I just couldn’t resist Joachim Murat in peach jodhpurs atop a tiger-skin saddle. 

* Yes, I know that’s what the internet is for! But if I’m buying for pleasure and not for work I prefer to go book-hunting myself and use serendipity as my guide. So after leaving the NG the first time I went to see Delacroix I first ransacked all the bookshops in Piccaddilly – ooh, isn’t there a Phaidon shop ON Piccadilly? No, of course not, that shut years ago. Then up Charing Cross Road, no luck. Up to Bloomsbury for a last chuck of the dice in Skoob and Judd Street. But then I thought of the second hand section in Waterstone’s Gower Street and (marvels!) not only did they have the book they had it in a fat French edition (£15) by Plon that is just a thing of wonder (‘un monument unique’ it says on the back and they’re not wrong). I plan to progress in a stately fashion through its pages but also ransack it at random for quotes about various shit that I’m interested in, and paintings/artists too.

** I read a column in The Spectator last week bemoaning outlandish modern names. As if this shit hasn’t been going on for years. I mean, Thales?!

*** There’s a really good In Our Time podcast on it on the BBC, well worth tracking down.

The Soane Museum

January 21, 2016

With an idle hour or two between teaching and meeting a friend at St Pancras I found myself wandering down to Somerset House, drawn by the lure of coffee at Fernandez&Wells and art at the Courtauld. Walking through Lincoln’s Inn fields I noticed that for once there was barely a queue outside the Soane Museum. Serendipity is a good thing. I had an exactly Soane-sized hole in my afternoon.

The last time I went to the Soane it was for an evening function with the whole museum lit by candlelight. This time, it being a public day, it wasn’t quite so atmospheric but nevertheless low lighting within and a gloomy afternoon without meant that the Soane’s peculiarly crepuscular feel was undiminished. The peculiar light, and the classical nature of the bits and pieces that scatter the rooms, put me in mind of the Rothko room at Tate Modern. They share a sombreness that silences even the squawkiest of visitors.

Which doesn’t sound like much fun! 

But it is. While his museum feels sombre it is clear that Soane had a sense of humour, which is particularly apparent in his Gothick Monk’s Room in the basement. Photography isn’t allowed so I can’t SHOW the uninitiated what treasures lie within but only describe a very personal selection of highlights, some of which will have universal appeal and some of which may be peculiar to me. The Soane is that kind of museum. It’s a collection that the architect himself developed over years, adapting the building to accommodate new acquisitions and to record tragic events in his own family (the death of his wife, his eldest son’s early death from TB and his younger son’s wastrel ways), as well as his friendship with some of the great figures of the Georgian age.

As I said,  the most apparent parts of the collection are the architectural features, some original and some plaster casts, that are spread throughout the building. It’s worth getting into all the nooks and crannies (and the whole house is a feast of n’s and c’s) to find your favourite. Amidst this plethora of classical works it is easy to forget that the museum is also one of the great art collections of London. Hogarth features highly (An Election Entertainment being my favourite) but on this occasion it was two works by the British Indian painter Hodges of Agra and Futtypoor that caught my eye.*

  

Of the collection of Great Man Memorabilia the two things that stood out were a maquette of Pitt’s statue in Westminster Abbey and a beautiful little miniature of a young Napoleon. Not in the same room alas but nevertheless a nice juxtaposition in the mind. And Walpole’s desk, which proves to be the desk of a midget. 

The last item that I’ll mention was a model and painting of Soane’s design for his wife’s mausoleum. She dies young and like Queen Victoria half a century later, he blamed the death on his son and failed to come to terms with her loss. The painting of the tomb showed it with that of Rousseau in the background in the idyllic setting of Ermenonville.

The reality of the tomb’s site is somewhat less Arcadian. On leaving the museum I walked up to St Pancras, where the tomb is to be found in the churchyard of the old church. The church is somewhat Soanesian in its eclectic amalgam of styles.

  

The church is out the back of St Pancras station on the way to Camden. As you walk north past the shiny new station, British Library and Crick Institute a bit of old London that I’m sure Soane would have approved of is clinging on for dear life. 

  

Then to the tomb itself. It looks a bit mournful (well, I suppose it is a tomb!), not to say neglected. At first this made me sad, that an object whose design Soane had taken so much care over should end up bedraggled in a grotty corner of North London. The contrast with the hyper curated and cared for space of the museum could hardly be greater. But then thinking over his love for Rousseau and his own sense of the Gothick I reflected that maybe he wouldn’t be so concerned that the tomb has been left in a state of nature, to decay over time and add to the melancholy romance of his wife’s early demise.


So I would urge a visit to the museum and then a brisk 20 minute walk to the churchyard. The museum is free but numbers are limited, so be prepared to queue. You won’t regret it.

* Hodges’ work features heavily in the Artist and Epire exhibition at Tate Britain, which I hope to blog on soon. It’s a good exhibition but has its flaws. Another highlight of the collection of paintings is Soane’s own portrait by Thomas Lawrence (who I’d commission to do my own portrait if he were still available – his depiction of Castlereagh makes a Byronic hero of someone that Byron himself loathed. A masterstroke of irony to the arch exponent of the gap yah). 

La Philharmonie and a Musical Museum for London

December 18, 2015

There was exciting news for London music lovers this week as the City of London announced plans to create a new concert venue on the present site of the Museum of London. This follows the appointment of Sir Simon Rattle (surely to be a Lord sometime soon) as leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2017. Rumours previously had been that the government might seek to host the new development in the Olympic Park as part of a new major cultural hub. However, it seems that City intends to replace the grubby-sounding Barbican Hall with a world class venue.

I can’t help thinking that backers of the Olympic Park move must have looked over the Channel at La Philharmonie and had second thoughts. While the acoustic of the Parisian venue has been acclaimed the years it took to get built, its various problems – spiralling cost (finally coming in at €386 million) and the continuing conflict between its architect and client (Jean Nouvel and various branches of the French state) – paint a very sorry tale.

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La Philharmonie

On a visit to Paris this weekend too I had mixed feelings about the site. The Philharmonie forms part of a musical complex (La Cité de la Musique) which combines the functions of a variety of concert venues, conservatoire and museum. It was the museum that I was there for. I haven’t yet been able to get a ticket to a concert, both times I’ve tried the venue has been sold out. This is an encouraging thing given that the Philharmonie is in La Villette on the outskirts of central Paris, in a traditionally working class area and home to many first and second generation immigrants.*

This shouldn’t discourage visitors to Paris from visiting (although it was practically empty the day we visited, which is a shame). The Musée de la Musique is a thing of wonder. Over the course of 1,000 objects and 5 floors it tells the story of Western music from the 17th Century to the present day, as well as giving an overview of the multitudinous diversity of music around the globe today. Being in Paris for just a day I only had time to explore the first three floors, which tell the story of Western classical music from the Baroque to Romanticism. What did I like?

Well, I’m now a big fan of the serpent.

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The Musée de la Musique, snake-infested.

I’d heard of the serpent but had no clue what it was or what it did. I’d assumed that it was something that died out in mediaeval times, but no! They were blowing serpents till the nineteenth century in some regiments of the French army. Now I want a serpent.

As a trumpet fan (and sporadic learner) the many exotic lumps of brass had a particular appeal. Some kind of Darwinian process is in evidence with offshoots and variants finding themselves ill-adapted to survival falling out of use to become mere echoes of what might have been in the relentless march of technical innovation.

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A whole lotta horn.

And after these tasty treats there were other delectable morsels like Chopin’s Erard piano, Stradavari by the number and a whole bunch of Lisztian memorabilia. One of my favourite details of the museum was the way in which they clumped together a group of instruments in a case to show you the orchestration of individual significant pieces in musical history, such as a Rameau opera or a Beethoven symphony. These would then play for you through earphones as you stood in front of them giving, if not a concert experience, at least an intimate glimpse into past performance practice.

So yes, I was enthused. But what has this got to do with London?

The building of a new concert hall in London is surely the opportunity to do something similar. London has excellent bijou music museums and I urge people to visit them.** As I wrote in a previous post the Royal Academy’s collection is worth an hour of any music fan’s afternoon. But London lacks a museum that tells the tradition of music-making in London, if not the whole of the United Kingdom. While our pop music is rightly celebrated (even if museums about it don’t seem to be able to take off) the classical tradition seems to be something for specialists and doesn’t have a place in the centre of our cultural landscape. London’s music scene is outstanding (as I’ve remarked previously) and the establishment of a museum at the heart of a new concert venue in the City of London would be an outstanding contribution to cultural life in the city as a whole. We should celebrate London’s past and continuing role as a vast entrepot, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its classical music scene.

 

*A bit like my home in Haringey. I urge people to go to Paris for a day, for the weekend, for however long you can. The city was distressingly un-busy. I want Paris to be full of good people, just as I wish good people to come to London.

** I wrote about one in a previous post (The Royal Academy of Music Museum) but there is also Handel House and the Foundling Museum (with its collection of Handel memorablia) that I know of off the top of my head but I’m sure that each of the major music schools has its own.

Back in the north

November 28, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I went back to the north for a conference in Middlesbrough.* Some academics complain about having to go to conferences but for me, no matter where they take place (even Holloway Road), there’s always something to be learnt by getting out of the conference and having a good wander around.

This was a particularly tough week for the people of Middlesbrough as the planned closure of the local steel plant had just been announced, an action which would result in the loss of thousands of jobs. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in random British and Irish cities over the last few years, and have visited others in the course of researching prospective universities with my eldest son and while doing my own research. This has taken me to Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Belfast, Dublin, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Durham, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now. I have to say that of all these Middlesbrough felt the most bleak.

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The Captain Cook. Fairly bleak.

One of the themes to come out of the conference (where the majority of the papers addressed local history) was that Middlesbrough was once a town that was centred around the river, in fact was born of the river. For those not familiar with the area Middlesbrough was the original industrial boom town, even more so than its more famous contemporary Manchester. While Manchester was an established conurbation at the onset of industrialisation Middlesbrough was practically non-existent. It was built from the establishment of the iron industry in the mid-nineteenth century and grew at such a rapid rate, exporting processed iron and then steel to a global market, that it became known as the ‘infant Hercules’ or ‘Ironopolis’. The river was central to exploiting the export market for such goods, as it was for the chemical plants that also became established throughout the twentieth century.

What is less well-remembered, but was brought up by several papers at conference, was that the river was also during the boom-times absolutely central to the recreation of the townspeople with rowing, sailing and even swimming (hard to believe given the filthiness of the water in those days!) competitions being annual festive events that drew hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. I was glad to be reminded of this because arriving in the town now (by train at least) there is little encouragement for the modern visitor to go to the river.

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Bottle of Notes by Claes Oldenburg. Getting in touch with his Teesside roots.

The University campus is centred away from the river, south beyond the town centre and mima.** There are signs of a town turning a corner around the University campus. There’s the University itself, which like the University of Bedfordshire seems to be making a good fist of bringing Higher Education to a part of the world that old fashioned élitists would like to think isn’t suitable for it.*** And there’s a smattering of businesses in Baker Street, like Sherlock’s micropub, that show an entrepreneurial culture getting established that was largely absent in my North-East town up the road when I was growing up.

But mima? Hmm … a trick has been missed. Look at the Oldenburg that they planted outside the Euroarchitect-designed purpose-built shed that houses the gallery. On his website the artist claims to have been inspired by Middlesbrough’s riverside location and its links to Captain Cook, Gulliver’s Travels, a short story by Poe about a sailor caught in a maelstrom, the local steel industry and much other guff besides.

There’s a problem with this. The local elements which would really anchor the piece in the history of Middlesbrough – the sea, Cook and the steel industry – are not within staggering distance of the gallery.**** They’re disconnected from it. Or rather the gallery is disconnected from them. It’s in the wrong place.

Look at the picture of Bottle of Notes. It’s set in a nondescript park beside a sub-Stirling lump of 80s Post-Modernism. Look the other way and you have the (magnificent) 19th C Town Hall dwarfed by some beige 70s garbage. I won’t trouble your eyes with the gallery, the building holds no interest.***** Where’s the river? Where’s the steel? Where’s the chemicals? Where’s Middlebrough?******

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Victorian town hall from ‘mima’

Inside the gallery interesting things are happening. There’s a smattering of good modern art (a lot of it prints and drawings, which is telling), a temporary exhibition by a politically radical British feminist artist (interesting but not exactly uplifting on a cold November day) and a nationally important jewellery collection (sure it’s good but not my bag).

The main exhibition, Localism, is the interesting part. Its prospectus is worth quoting in full,

‘Localism’ is an ambitious project telling the story of art in Middlesbrough from its beginnings in 1829 to now. It takes a radical approach to exhibition making, inviting the public to help write the narrative with workshops that grow the show, adding to it as we go, thus creating an encyclopaedic family tree of creativity on Teesside.
It’s also more than just an exhibition as we join up people and places across the region to celebrate and debate our own cultural history and its impact on the wider world. Topics include Christopher Dresser and the Linthorpe Pottery, bridge building, the remarkable Boosbeck Industries in the 1930s and the existence of mima itself. In a thoroughly internationalised world, Localism restates the vitally important role of the local in the development of art and society.

Basically they’ve realised that the people of Middlesbrough are not especially fussed about radical feminist politics, nationally important jewellery collections or much modern art. I’m sure that quite a few people in Middlesbrough (and environs) are, just not the people of Middlesbrough. Looking at what the people of Middlesbrough ask to be displayed in the gallery through Localism they’re concerned with jobs and industry, football, crafts, education and the countryside, i.e. the things that they love about their city and of which they are proud. And they’re slowly repurposing the gallery as a museum about their town’s history, told through documents, ephemera and artworks. And it works. Localism is a perfect exhibition for the outsider to Middlesbrough. It contextualises the town. It tells you why you should visit the place and why the closure of the steelworks, while making cold economic sense, is a tragedy. The dismal walk from station to gallery past the usual signs of economic decline does not.

Walking the other way from the station, away from the town and towards the river is a bit dismal too. There are many maltreated buildings (like the Captain Cook above) which are splendid things but have no investment. They remind you that this was once one of the wealthiest towns in England and indeed the world.

 

Which one (or collection of several) of these solid Victorian buildings could have been the home for a combined museum of Middlesbrough and modern art? Buildings that would have connected the museum directly to the river, to the sea, to the world? I walked past half a dozen candidates at least on my way to the riverside. And once you’re there you arrive at a view of one of the great kinetic sculptures of the nineteenth century in a setting to make an aesthete’s heart skip.

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Transporter Bridge. The greatest sculpture in Middlesborough

Who needs Oldenburg? You can chuck that bottle in the sea and ask for your money back.

*At the University of Teesside, for their conference on sport and urban history. I talked about a French sportsman, Frantz Reichel, and the history of his statue in Paris. You can find the paper (or the bare bones of it) here.

** note The Artful Way They’ve Avoided Capital Letters? the Initials Stand For middlesbrough institute of modern art. The avoidance of capital letters stands for Nothing.

*** When people attack previous governments’ aspirations to get a greater percentage of young people into university-level education it’s places like Teesside that they’re thinking of as being a ‘waste of money’. In fact by bringing universities closer to the homes of more and more people you  make education more affordable for those from lower-income backgrounds, even if they have to pay for the course itself. Universities like these act as drivers of the local economy and points of aspiration for post-industrial communities in a function that ‘traditional’ university towns’ communities take for granted.

**** Although Cook is a bit of a stretch, the town didn’t exist when he was around and he’s more connected with Stockton-on-Tees upriver.

***** Oh, go on then – here’s a really long staircase with a fire extinguisher at the bottom. Worth it.

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****** Where’s the people too?! It was lunchtime on a Saturday.

The Foundling Museum

October 8, 2015

The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, is one of those small London museums that is easy to miss. They’ve had some publicity recently due to their new exhibition, The Fallen Woman, which discusses the issues of extra-marital sex and prostitution in the nineteenth century and the responses from social reformers and artists. I can wholeheartedly recommend the exhibition, which is a timely response to the execrably exploitative J**k the R*****r outfit in the East End.*

What I’m more concerned with here though is to point out that you don’t need the excuse of a special exhibition to visit the Foundling, the permanent collection more than justifies a visit by itself. The story of the foundation of the hospital in the 18th century through the strenuous efforts of Thomas Coram is well documented and I would urge anyone who is interested in the development of London to do a little reading in Roy Porter to get a sense of the background.**

Tommy C. Ledge.

Tommy C – Ledge.

Take a good look at the statue of Thomas Coram in the courtyard, which is based on a portrait by Hogarth that you’ll find inside. One of the pleasures of the museum is that it gives you a cross section of the greatest visual artists working in London through the early years of the Hospital’s history. So you’ll find Hogarth’s portrait of Coram, as well as one of his best satirical works, The March of the Guards to Finchley, works by Reynolds and Rysbrack, as well as a set of Rowlandson prints. These are all good fodder for 18thC buffs and count among the things one might expect from a visit. But one of the pleasures of small museums, whose collections are necessarily not comprehensive but often rely on the less-fêted gifted works to fill the walls, is coming across the things that you didn’t expect to see.

Freddy H. Dude.

Freddy H. Dude.

On this occasion the first of these, the Handel collection on the top floor, wasn’t exactly something that I hadn’t expected to see, it was rather a collection that I didn’t expect to find so fascinating. Handel was another major benefactor of the Hospital, holding benefit recitals for the foundlings of his Messiah in the great hall of the original building. The current collection houses the Gerald Coke Handel Collection which has all sorts of fascinating objects to it, as well as being an enormous collection of Handel manuscripts.

18th C Handel manuscripts

18th C Handel manuscripts

One of the things that I liked about the collection, and it’s a feeling I similarly got in Dr Johnson’s House last year, is how much these great figures of 18th century London depended on collaboration and clubbability to make their way through the cultural economy. Aristocratic patronage was still important to get publication or put on a show but it wasn’t the only means of making one’s way in the world. The growth in disposable income of the middle and working classes meant that their work could be genuinely popular and commercially viable, especially if two or more artists came together to pool their talents – as is documented by Handel’s partnership with Dryden to produce Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Musick. It feels like you’re peering in to the birth of modern London to see the documents of all these collaborative projects.

18th C Bacharach and David

The Power of Musick 

Such a collaborative approach is strikingly used in the contemporary artworks on the ground floor that respond to the history of the foundling children. The story of the foundlings is well told through documents, visuals and oral testimonies in a way that will appeal to children as well as to adults. A lot of people I’ve talked to about the museum find the tokens, items that mothers left with their baby that could be used as proof of parenthood if they later came to claim back their child, the most moving exhibits.

Ale token

Ale token

Just as touching to me on my visit was a work produced in collaboration between the artist Emma Middleton, the animator Shelly Wain and the child patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital. The museum, in my view, is worth visiting for this contemporary artwork alone. It’s tucked away around a corner so make sure that you don’t miss it!

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

And then there were all the little items in between the big stuff. Two of which were by an artist, Anne Susanna Zileri, who was entirely new to me. Her paintings of The Secretary’s Room and The Court Room are utterly fascinating in their muted mysteriousness. They put me in mind of de Hooch interiors rendered in the style of Hammershøi. Without any human figures her rooms have the feeling of having just been vacated, yet they are not without human warmth. These little discoveries are the kinds of thing that you rarely make in a major gallery or museum. Zileri might not work her magic in any other context, it might be that her rooms work because they resonate with the real rooms that you’ve just passed through but the testing out will be an unexpected pleasure. If I can find anything else of hers on public display.

One caveat I have about the Foundling is that at £8.50 for a standard ticket it is on the north side of reasonably priced. Entry is free with an Art Fund card but I wonder if the museum might take a leaf from the London Transport Museum’s book and encourage repeat visits by letting the £8.50 cover a calendar year of visiting. With such a diverse collection there’ll be treasure missed on a one off visit that are worth going back for.

* In my last post about the Salvation Army I was fully prepared to give it with both barrels to the tawdry industry around the Whitechapel Murders but didn’t really feel the need to add to the excellent work done by the many historians and guides who have piled in against it. I gave up doing tours about the subject very quickly after becoming a guide (although if I’d stuck with it I could quite easily have made a living from that alone) and if people ask me to guide that narrative I make them a counter-offer of a more contextualised history of the East End.

** Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London, 1994) Peter Ackroyd writes more wordily but Porter has better historical chops.


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