Sometimes you visit a local museum and you find a small, interesting display that appears to have nothing to do with the locality of the museum at all. Ipswich Museum has several sections which at first glance have no obvious connection with Suffolk let alone Ipswich. Then you stoop to read the appended information and find that a small collection or special item was donated by an Ipswich or Suffolk resident.
These types of display sprung to mind when last month I was reading about Ipswich Museum and saw a comment querying the relevance of non-local content. I know it is usual for a town’s local museum to focus on exhibits that have local connections especially any that can be spun for a local audience.
However, we don’t simply visit museums for ‘home’ histories, but also to find how our town connects to the wider world. And, Ipswich has been a port since the 8th century and a trading site for nearly 1,500 years.
Despite neither being produced nor discovered in Ipswich this cabinet of Islamic calligraphy and decorative ceramics is both interesting and beautiful, and provides the visitor with a display of another culture’s creative expression.
The exhibits may well have come to the museum as part of a donation from a local Victorian ethnographer, or, a passionate 20th-century collector obsessed with the history of ceramics and that in itself is of interest.
Nevertheless, however these pieces came to be in Ipswich I have found them an excellent source of inspiration. I have particularly admired this fine twisted serrated leaf entwined with flowers, known as the ‘saz’ motif, which I have used for a face mask or two.
How amusing that I’ve come to write and post about change and the reuse of the original to find that the WordPress interim editor has morphed into the new all singing all dancing mobile friendly editor. As I get to grips with the new which is amended and overwritten (I’m presuming this as I’m not really familiar with what’s going on underneath the bonnet of this ‘editor machine’), I know I’m working in a long and well-trodden tradition.
Ever since they started scraping and reusing vellum the possibility of a palimpsest has existed. Glimpsing patches of an earlier image or some older text beneath more recent writing has been a boon to scholars working with ancient manuscripts. Obviously, in less comfortable times humans have reused all kinds of scarce resources as a matter of course. Often when buildings were damaged by fire and not rebuilt surviving quality materials such as expensive stone and brick were speedily carted off to be used elsewhere. However, sometimes prestigious ruins were simply incorporated into a new different building.
There is a fine example of an architectural palimpsest in Bury St Edmunds incorporating parts of the surviving structures of the old Benedictine Monastery into a newer building.
Not much of the monastery’s Abbey Church survives today, but the freestanding ruins provide an intriguing reminder of how magnificent the original St Edmunds Abbey must have been. Interestingly, it was the place where a group of English Barons held a significant secret meeting over 800 years ago. At this rendezvous, probably around the 20 November 1214, they swore an oath to compel King John to accept The Charter of Liberties. The following year at Runnymede this charter would be assented to by the king and is known as Magna Carta.
Nowadays, at the entrance to the Abbey Gardens there stands a mid-14th century gatehouse which would have been the secular entrance to the monastery. Whilst further down the road, still formidable in all its imposing magnificence, is the Norman Tower which was the original clerical entrance for the Benedictine monks.
Medieval Abbey Gatehouse (mid 14th century)
The Norman Tower (early 12th century)
I’m always looking for inspiration from architectural details and there was plenty to photograph in Bury St Edmunds. I like the process of considering the Norman Tower, then the medieval Abbey Gatehouse and then, finally, the very recently finished (2000-2005) gothic revival tower of the Victorian St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
Medieval gatehouse detail
Gothic Revival tower (early 21st century) St Edmundsbury Cathedral
For special occasions and celebrations many folk like to stay somewhere a little different, unique, historical or even perhaps theatrical, and now, added to the list of interesting residences available to let, there is ‘A House for Essex’ by Grayson Perry. This house is a fusion of art and architecture commissioned by Living Architecture and built into existence from the collaboration of Grayson Perry with the architect Charles Holland of FAT Architects. Grayson Perry says of the house,
“It’s an ornate, terracotta covered temple and it’s by far the biggest artwork I’ll ever get to make.”
This three year collaborative process was made into a television documentary where Perry’s original drawings (more like illustrations for ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ with a twist of Gaudí) become a breathtaking holiday home. Clips of the house can be seen on YouTube during a three minute news item interviewing Grayson Perry. Plus, if you’d like to see more fascinating photos including shots of the interiors visit ‘A House for Essex‘.
“There’s a story behind its creation and it’s even more bonkers than you thought!” muses Perry.
It turns out the house is a kind of autobiography and at the same time a biography of a fictional woman called Julie May Cope. It is also a 21st century shrine to Julie and mining her imagined everyday life provides much of the content of this artwork and its overall tone. It is an “Essex Taj Mahal” says Perry and he remarks
“The house is devoted to a fictional Essex everywoman.”
There is much to admire about this building. Ornate and ornamented it is the antithesis to the spare, ‘less is more’ contemporary architectural sensibility which dominates much of our recently built more innovative buildings. I think it is exciting that this chapel-like structure with its bold elaborate external finish passed the planning committee and got built in Essex. The polychromy and the almost Romanesque Revival semicircular arched windows reminds me of some of the grander Victorian buildings such as the Natural History Museum in London.
As an artist famous for his pots, tapestries and sculptures it is no surprise that his dream house is expressed as a combination of bas relief ceramic tiles, sculptural adornments and narrative wall hangings. For example all the tiles have been manufactured from Perry’s original clay work and it is in the detail of these designs and the art filled interior that his story of Julie is told.
Personally, I don’t see any issues with such an unusual building as Julie’s House adorning this part of rural Essex. The local setting is not just wheatfields and the River Stour, but in the background is Parkeston Quay, Harwich and across the other side of the estuary is the Port of Felixstowe, the UK’s busiest container port. I am a little biased about this part of the world as the river/estuary area from Manningtree down to the North Sea is one of my favourite places. But, the one aspect of the house that I do find disappointing is that it is essentially inward-looking. You look at the house almost as a discrete isolated whole and not at it within it’s setting. And, then inside, the whole artwork interior appears to encourage a confined engagement leading to contemplation and reflection. No overt connection is made with the external environment and, sadly, there’s no enormous panoramic window framing the glorious Stour Estuary. I suppose as a chapel-like building focussing inwards is appropriate, but perhaps a wayside chapel sited on a road into an Essex town would have made for a more believable backdrop for this ‘story house’ art. However, who wants to spend their celebration weekend on the busy A120 trunk road into Colchester!
Originally, a hall house in Old Barge Yard, Norwich, Dragon Hall was remodelled and extended during the 15th century by successful merchant, alderman and member of Norwich’s Guild of St George, Robert Toppes (c.1405-1467). Toppes wanted a building that was both a showroom and a warehouse with easy access to the River Wensum. This striking timber-framed building was known then as Splytts and the main showroom was the magnificent first floor hall (85ft by 21ft). Here merchant Toppes would have laid out his fine woollen cloth, the famous worsted wool, to be traded and exported to Europe. And, at the same time he would have set out his recent imports from the Continent to sell to his Norwich clients.
The showroom was made impressive by a high crown-post roof displaying arched braces and tie-beams. And, in the spandrel of one tie-beam we can still see the fearsome carved dragon (top photograph) showing traces of medieval coloured paint. Some of the roof timbers we see today are original 15th-century beams and these too would have been painted. The showroom/hall was lit by three projecting full-height windows on the west side and one similar large window on the east, river side, of the building. This would have been a bright, innovative, outstanding commercial space in its heyday.
Away from the showy hall the rib-vaulted, brick undercroft provided warehouse space.
Nowadays visiting Dragon Hall you can see the sensitive restoration (1979-1988) which has peeled back centuries of patchwork remodelling and, interestingly, at the same time leaves some very early reworking detail in place such as a three times altered doorway.
The beautiful peacock blue tiles by William De Morgan line the Narcissus Hall.
Looking up at the rich detail of the 16th and 17th century Islamic tiles that decorate the Arab Hall.
Leighton House Museum in Kensington, London, is a sharp reminder that bling and an overt display of conspicuous consumption is certainly not a 21st-century phenomenon. This glorious, ornate house was the private home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-96). Leighton was a painter, sculptor and illustrator, and a leading Victorian neoclassicist who was so successful during his lifetime he was knighted in 1886 and then ennobled in 1896 by Queen Victoria.
Daybed/ottoman in front of fretwork shutters in the Arab Hall.
Original 16th and 17th-century Islamic tiles (mainly from Damascus) and columns with carved capitals by the sculptor Edgar Boehm.
His home, the house at 12 Holland Park Road, was designed and built by George Aitchison under Leighton’s personal direction and was to reflect his, Leighton’s, premier status as arbiter of taste. And, at the same time the house was to augment his successful career as an artist.
Art historically he is known as a neoclassicist however he did associate with some of the other famous Victorian ‘art celebrities’ of the period such as the Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti, Millais and Burne-Jones. Walking round the Arab Hall, the Narcissus Hall, the drawing room, the Silk Room and the studio you can imagine how sensational it must have been to have attended a social gathering hosted by Sir Frederic Leighton.
The current exhibition ‘A Victorian Obsession’ (ending on Monday, 6 April 2015) is comprised of 52 paintings that have been collected over the past 20 years by the Spanish born, Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, one of Mexico’s most successful businessmen. The art, mostly by Leighton and Alma-Tadema with a few canvasses from other artists of the same period, is displayed throughout the house. In my opinion hanging such an exhibition in this rich, original interior enhances the viewing experience and also provides the essential context for looking at paintings that are often viewed as saccharin and distant from our contemporary ‘less is more’ taste.
Last night the final episode of Wolf Hall left us in no doubt how terrifying it must have been to live at the court of King Henry VIII. The whole series, like the books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), has been an intriguing observation of power and the manipulation of power. But, unlike other 21st-century historical fictional accounts of the Tudors full of 21st-century people dressed in costumes essentially behaving in a very modern manner, the characters of Wolf Hall evoke another time. Perhaps it is nearer to a true Tudor sensibility. It somehow has a feel as though this re-presentation (hyphen deliberate) floats out from the documents, art and culture surviving from the period.
Last weekend I visited the ‘Real Tudors’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and had the opportunity to scan across six different portraits of Henry VIII as I slowly turned on my heels. Putting the different styles and skills of the various artists aside, we are looking to find the essence of the monarch caught somewhere in the brushstrokes. As I stood and looked and looked, I realised how hard it is to see Henry the human being. The difficulty with these portraits is they are of a royal personage painted at a time when to be royal was to be almost a god. The other issue with these images is that some are copies of an original portrait or even copies of copies long lost in the last 500 years. In the end I considered we will only ever have an extremely mediated view of Henry and as with our contemporary queen, their public face is all about this strange, archaic notion of royalty and nothing to do with an ordinary human sitting for a portrait. I would show you these Henry portraits but, . . .
Wearing my Art Historian’s hat I find I have again to moan about access to public images held by a national art gallery. The National Portrait Gallery does not permit any photographs at all. In fact there are little signs here and there through the galleries reminding us not to take pictures. These images are part of a nation’s heritage and, of course, they are available to see and buy on their website, but that is not the same as taking my own shots.
At least we are still permitted (and we are very, very grateful) to photograph royal palaces from the street. During the period between 1531 and 1536 Henry VIII had St James’s House built (now known as St James’s Palace). The Wolf Hall drama is also partially set during these years and today we can stand in front of the original Tudor gatehouse and imagine Thomas Cromwell riding through these gates perhaps to speak with Anne Boleyn the day after she was crowned queen.
The parish church of St George, Bloomsbury, is a glorious example of English Baroque architecture. It was consecrated on the 28th January 1730 and is the last parish church designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Within 20 years the church with its idiosyncratic spire (stepped like a pyramid) was a well-known building on the London skyline and as such appears in Hogarth’s famous print ‘Gin Lane’.
It has a very grand classical portico, but you have to look up 150 ft to the base of the spire to see the sprawling lions and rearing unicorns (best viewed with binoculars). Each 10ft sculpted animal is not an original as these were removed in 1871. The civic minded Victorians feared that in their decaying state a beast could crash down and cause a fatality. Fortunately, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s original drawings for this striking architectural ornamentation have survived and as part of an extensive programme of renovations in 2006, the sculptor, Tim Crawley, was able to re-create these dramatic pieces. Hawksmoor’s interpretation of the ‘lion and unicorn’ theme has the animals fighting over representations of the English crown.
This provocative imagery displayed on a spire topped with St George was considered inappropriate by the Commissioners who initially refused to pay for the work. It is not that the lion and the unicorn used for architectural ornamentation is unusual, but that they are shown fighting over the crown. The lion represents England and the unicorn Scotland as in the traditional heraldic symbolism used from the reign of James I (1603) onwards. The pertinent point here is that at the time of the design and building of St George’s the dust was still settling on the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland that created the United Kingdom.
And, of course, there’s the old English/Scottish/British nursery rhyme:
The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.
Sir Thomas Erpingham was a fifteenth-century English nobleman who distinguished himself when in charge of the King’s bowmen at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. As an important and significant Norwich figure he made substantial donations to the city’s religious institutions. Charitable donations during the medieval period were more than just duty, they allowed an individual to display their status, but, more importantly, financially supporting the church purchased a speedy journey through purgatory and up to heaven. A wealthy knight like Thomas Erpingham made a very significant earthly and heavenly mark when he provided the funds for the building of a new gatehouse at the entrance to Norwich Cathedral.
The gatehouse was built between 1420 and 1435 and has a single arch supported on each side by semi-hexagonal buttresses. The arch is divided into two decorative schemes, the inner order is the twelve apostles (probably) set in a series of niches, and the outer is a series of twelve female saints. The carved foliage, used as a visual linking device running up the arch, has been weathered over the centuries, but you can still see that it is oak leaves and acorns. The buttresses are covered with shields and devices of the families of Erpingham, Clopton, and Walton (those of Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wives), but I couldn’t pick out the forget-me-not design which apparently also makes up part of the Erpingham heraldic achievement.
I was disappointed that I couldn’t see the forget-me-not sculptural detail so I’ve had a good hunt round the Internet. One of my past Art History lecturers, now retired, has spent six years accompanied by his photographer wife, surveying the public sculpture of Norfolk and I’ve studied her excellent, up-close and detailed photographs and I’ve found the forget-me-nots. It is a single flower motif carved above a shield, above a falcon rising on the outer front columns of the buttresses – second panels up in this early nineteenth-century etching by Cotman – still a bit difficult to see though not as eroded as now.
Below is a ring from MagpieHouse showing a contemporary version of the single, more architectural form, of the forget-me-not motif. When you are looking at weathered architecture it certainly helps to know the basic design shapes you are looking for, but it is only when the scaffolding goes up for repairs that accurate recording and high quality photographs can be achieved.
Single forget-me-not flower motif.
The fifteenth-century forget-me-not sculpted motif is in the middle of the upper niche in this photograph on the right.
I spent last Sunday in the garden, came in wind blown and muddy, balancing on one leg to get my boot off lurched towards the door and ripped the curtain down. How clumsy? After sorting myself out I examined the curtain damage and realised it was beyond repair.
Now, I never really liked the curtains, but I chose the fabric as the least objectionable of a poor selection in a big department store about a decade ago. At the time I had been to four different specialist shops (two have since folded) before ending up in the John Lewis soft furnishings department. I ordered from their swatch samples and had to wait a couple of weeks for delivery.
It wasn’t really a painful experience just irritating and certainly not pleasurable. This time I’ve spent a couple of evenings on the computer searching through an almost overwhelming choice, have had swatches arrive speedily and have received my chosen curtain fabric this afternoon. Less than a week and with so much choice – Internet shopping – a great improvement, but I had missed something.
The Internet purchasing was efficient and the choice amazing. Even some of the eShops were beautiful too, Fabrics and Papers, for example, but I was still stuck at home on my computer. I suppose in an ideal world we’d have the choice that’s available online, but sourced locally and found round the corner in a delightful emporium staffed with smiling, helpful assistants.
Here, in Norwich, we are lucky enough to have the Victorian’s version of a mall, the Royal Arcade. A charming Arts and Crafts shopping arcade designed by local architect, George Skipper, and built in 1899. The souvenir guidebook published at its opening tells us about the agreeable activity of shopping in the Royal Arcade.
“Dainty lady and robust manhood may dally over the delights of shopping, undisturbed by the vagaries of the weather.”
Nowadays, the Royal Arcade is home to a variety of shops including longtime residents, The Colman’s Mustard Shop and Langley’s Toy Shop, and a recent newcomer Macarons & More selling delicious cakes. In the 21st century we all wish we had the time to dally over the delights of shopping and perhaps purchase a box of macarons.
I always have my camera with me to snap attractive colour combinations or interesting patterns. Architectural and sculptural details are a great source of diverse ornamentation such as the anthemion motif. The design is based on combining the lotus flower with palm leaves and has a long history of being reinterpreted and reworked over the centuries. The term ‘anthemion motif’ as a decorative expression appears to have sprung into use in the mid-nineteenth century with anthemion literally meaning ‘flower’ in Ancient Greek.
The Victorians were great organisers and cataloguers not only did they classify the wonders of the natural world – beetles and finches spring to mind, but they also applied their energy to sort and order the history of the human-made world. On the 15th December 1856, Owen Jones published the now famous Victorian reference guide to decoration – ‘The Grammar of Ornament’.
Victorian drawing of palmette detail from the Parthenon.
Illustration of lotus-palmette frieze Ancient Egyptian design.
Illustration of capital detail showing palmette and lotus flowers.
Looking through this beautiful, illustrated book of decorative details it is possible to follow the migration of the lotus-palmette motif from Ancient Egypt, through time to the Ancient Greeks and across the ancient seas giving rise to this Etruscan version currently displayed in the British Museum.
Now, in the 21st century we take for granted the near immediate global transmission of ideas, image, text and music on the Internet, yet there is something pleasing in knowing that we are part of a continuum of the interaction and exchange of designs.
It’s very easy in the middle of summer to be blinded by all the flashiness and spectacle of an abundance of colourful blooms, yet it is also when the garden is in full leaf. Green foliage, green grasses, green buds, sometimes green flowers and even green seed heads as they gently fade to their natural bleached shells.
Some leaves have been inspiring artists and craftsmen for centuries and acanthus leaf motifs can be seen all over the ancient world of the Mediterranean.
And, of course, William Morris was inspired by acanthus leaves too.
But, there are plenty of other plants with superb foliage to admire and get us designing.
Finally, it is only the second week of July, but all the aquilegias are setting their seed and providing another interesting, sculptural shape for our visual delight.