Remembering the Joy of the Mechanical in the Digital Age.

Last week I went to visit the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition currently showing at the Ipswich Art Gallery. It is a fascinating, stylish display of visually elegant and appealing mechanical artworks.

Baba Yaga from ‘Baba Yaga’s House’ by Keith Newstead.

And, what’s more you get to push small, red buttons to make the automata work in all their whirring and squeaky intricacy.

‘Goat and Bucket’ by Paul Spooner. Mechanical sculpture.

In these digital times it’s easy to take for granted all our speedy, convenient tech. We click and scroll without a second thought as to what is actually going on beneath the screen.

‘Sit up Anubis’ or ‘Sleeping Musculature’ by Paul Spooner. Mechanical sculpture.
Pendulum clocks from 1699.

It wasn’t always so and the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition reminds us of all those bewitching clockwork and mechanical objects from the past. Some examples such as mechanical toys were purely for entertainment and some were functional equipment that was often beautiful too.

Hammond 2 Braille typewriter, 1884. Hammond’s company motto was ‘For all nations, for all tongues’. You can swap different parts around to type in 14 different languages.

Functional objects from the past on display in this exhibition included a braille typewriter, a rather attractive ‘shrimp’ sweet making machine

Shrimp sweet making machine. (Donald Storer and Richard Durrant used this machine to make shrimp-shaped sweets at ‘The Homemade Sweet and Rock Factory’ in Felixstowe between 1950 and 1988.)

and a scale model of the an early Otis lift.

Scale model of Waywood-Otis automatic lift, early 1900s. Waywood-Otis used models like this to show-off their technology to customers. Traction lifts use pulleys and counter weights to move up and down.

Of course, humans have used mechanisms to make moving toys for thousands of years.

Naturally, in an Art Gallery some of the works on display are examples of art. These delightful mechanical sculptures by Paul Spooner are exquisitely crafted, and are both beguiling and witty.

Barecats by Paul Spooner. Mechanical sculpture.

I particularly liked the manner in which the mechanics are also on display in this piece. It has become an expression of our contemporary culture to reveal inner workings. Here you can see the cogs and spindles are finely made and are assembled in a functional and satisfyingly ordered arrangement.

Spaghetti Eater by Paul Spooner. (notice the flowing taps too) Mechanical sculpture.

Another work by Peter Markey, Artist-Painter, resonated surprisingly strongly with me. It’s as if he has been spying on me!

Artist-Painter by Peter Markey. Mechanical sculpture.

‘Marvellous Machines’ featuring these quirky pieces from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, continues at Ipswich Art Gallery until 3 November 2019. If you can’t get to Ipswich a list of upcoming events displaying some of these mechanical sculptures is available on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre website. Finally, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre sell some of their work online offering one-offs, limited editions and even ‘build your own’ kits.

Artist-Painter by Peter Markey.
(Looks like I feel when faced with another weekend of decorating this old house!)

Museum pieces in the library, Christchurch Mansions

Christchurch Mansions in Ipswich is a fine historical house that these days uses its beautiful rooms to display art. Traditional art, oil paintings, sculpture and a few framed textiles cover the walls in an art gallery manner. However, some of the main rooms are still furnished as for their original purpose in a style you might see in a National Trust stately home and include using paintings and art pieces in a domestic setting.

The Rococo Drawing Room, Christchurch Mansions.

Personally, I appreciate seeing a Reynolds or a Gainsborough portrait displayed in a drawing room or library with a Georgian atmosphere. I know some folk prefer to summon up their historical imaginations and quibble about authenticity, but I enjoy visiting these ‘posed’ rooms even if purists consider it a borderline Disneyesque experience. I think informed, well-curated rooms help to provide context for the paintings especially when some of the portraits are of people connected with the house’s history.

Sir Hutchins Williams by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Oil on canvas. 76 x 64 cm

One such painting is the Reynolds’ portrait of Sir Hutchins Williams (1701-1758). Williams was the father of Mrs Anne Fonnereau (1732-1805) who had married the Reverend William Fonnereau (1732-1817) in 1758. Anne and William lived at Great Munden in Hertfordshire where William was Rector, before in later life they moved to Ipswich. The Reverend William Fonnereau eventually inheriting Christchurch Mansion in 1804.

However, it is not only art on display at Christchurch Mansions, in the library the curators have arranged a room full of smaller, functional pieces such as an antique desk that is set with writing paraphernalia and a gorgeous, elegant clock.

The Library, Christchurch Mansion.

The room contains an eclectic mix as you might see accumulated over a century or two.

French, seven day, gilt table clock with sunburst pendulum.

The library was not only a place for reading, it perhaps also provided an agreeable environment for a serious game of chess.

Nineteenth-century Indian chess set.

On a small table an Indian ivory chess set is displayed, pieces ready for the next move. These chessmen are typical of the work from the two neighbouring towns, Berhampur and Murshidabad, located in the West Bengal region of India.

East Indian Company Sepoy pawns in front of the rook.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was the custom for British families resident in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to take a voyage up stream on the Hooghly river to these two towns.

Between the knight and the queen, a tiger represents the bishop.

A chess set was a typical souvenir purchased by these visitors and was eventually brought to Britain when the family finally returned home. This set comprises of intricately carved figures, one set has pawns clothed as East Indian Company Sepoys and the other set are Marathi spearmen.

The king and also an example of one of the Marathi spearmen pawns.

What is the painting?

Reminds-me-ofDuring a recent visit home my daughter was trying out my new, preloved camera and the new, also secondhand, prime lens. You can see she was having a go at capturing the ‘infinite’ reflections disappearing down the tunnel created by a pair of mirrors opposite each other.

However, when I saw this photograph downloaded from the memory card it immediately reminded me of a very famous painting. My daughter’s photo had not remotely been an attempt to copy the original Manet painting. That would have been a technical feat, with the intriguing image the artist achieved on canvas, but I do think there is a familiar quality about this photo’s composition. I think that my daughter’s fringe, the mirrors and the cluttered sideboard are also significant details. A little slice of life imitating art, don’t you think?

Transition1

Transition3

The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres, by Edouard Manet
‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ (Un bar aux Folies Bergère) – Edouard Manet. Oil on canvas. 96 cm (38 in) × 130 cm (51 in) Courtauld Gallery, London

 

 

Claire – Outrageously flamboyant

Claire-GraysonFrom 4 November 2017 – 4 February 2018 the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is hosting the exhibition ‘Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry’s Dresses’. Regular readers of this Blog will know I am a big fan of Grayson Perry and his work. And, Claire is a force of nature.

Claire Turner Prize dress
Turner Prize dress, silk satin, polyester and computer controlled embroidery, designed by Grayson Perry, 2003.  Worn by Perry as his alter ego Claire when he collected the Turner Prize for Art in 2003.

The Exhibition is displaying ensembles designed by students of Central St Martins for this world-famous,  cross-dressing artist as well as outfits designed by Grayson Perry himself.

Sarah Hall Central St Martins
Dress, printed polyester and wool, designed by Sarah Hall, Central St Martins, London, 2009. Deliberately unsettling imagery reflecting the designs of Perry’s ceramics which often have darker meanings upon closer examination.

Angus Lai and Grayson Perry
Dress, printed polyester satin, designed by Angus Lai, Central St Martins, London 2014. And Angus with Grayson Perry in a similar dress in a shorter length. Photo David Levene for The Guardian

A friend of mine recently went along and took some photos to share with me as I can’t get to Liverpool to see these fabulous, outrageous creations.

dress and matching bonnet
Dress and matching bonnet, printed and appliquéd cotton, mixed fabrics and ceramic buttons, designed by Grayson Perry, 2008.

The Exhibition is taking place in the Craft and Design Gallery of the Walker Art Gallery.

high priestess cape grayson perry 2007
High Priestess Cape, silk satin, rayon and computer controlled embroidery, designed by Grayson Perry, 2007.

There is a perennial question ‘Is it art or is it craft?’ that bothers some folk, but I think we can say that both in his Turner Prize winning work, and, his personal expression as Claire, it is all first rate visual culture with no need for post-medieval boundaries.

Here’s a short video from the Walker Gallery of Grayson discussing the Exhibition.

 

Art for Christmas cards anyone?

st-mark-preaching-in-alexandria-gentile-and-giovanni-bellini

Years ago I received a charity Christmas card which featured what I took to be ‘The Three Wise Men’. Last month, at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, I saw the very large Gentile and Giovanni Bellini painting, ‘St Mark Preaching in Alexandria’. This painting had originally been started by Gentile Bellini, but following his death it was completed by his brother Giovanni. It is a fascinating Renaissance Venetians’ version of an imagined Islamic Alexandria.

St Mark preaching in Alexandria by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini
‘St Mark Preaching in Alexandria’ by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Oil painting circa 1504-07. 3.47m x 7.7m Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Whilst photographing some of the captivating detail, displaying both the vivid imagination and skill of the Bellini brothers, I noticed three bystanders in non-Western dress. Here were my Christmas card kings.

imagined-egyptians-bellini

There has also been a fashion for embossed, golden cards for Christmas. I’m not sure if this version of St Peter by Crivelli has been used yet, but the relief work depicting the keys and crosier could easily be embossed. Perhaps St Peter is looking a touch too joyless for Christmas.

Madonna and Child with Saints, San Domenico Triptych
St Peter part of the Madonna and Child with Saints, San Domenico Triptych. Carlo Crivelli 1482 Tempera and oil on wood. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

A small amount of gilt and glitz is acceptable at Christmas, but I think I prefer the more muted colours of frescoes. How about this fourteenth century painting by Simone da Corbetta. It fits the bill visually and would appeal more to a 21st century sensibility with the wan-faced, tall and thin female saints.

Simone da Corbetta part of Madonna and Child
Part of medieval painting – Madonna and Child (not shown), St. Catherine, St. Ursula, St. George and the donor Théodorico da Coira by Simone da Corbetta. 1382 Fresco transferred to canvas (235cm x 297cm) now at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

And, finally, there’s plenty of inspirational, ornate sculptural work hidden away in churches. However, church interiors are frequently gloomy and a tripod (not popular with guides and security) is often required to capture an interesting, potential Christmas card image in focus or, maybe, not quite!

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
The Virgin Mary in Heaven – detail of relief in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Exhibition Catalogue now online

Parallax-Art-Fair-Feb-2016

As I’ve been very busy preparing my work for this show at the Chelsea Town Hall, London, I have only just noticed this catalogue has been uploaded! The whole catalogue of all artists exhibiting can be flicked through here. It’s this weekend and FREE tickets are available.

My-entry-in-the-catalogue-Feb-2016

On perfection – two quotes and a short visual commentary

“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection”
Michelangelo
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
Salvador Dali
This year the Edexcel examination board set an A level art exam paper called ‘Flaws, Perfection, Ideals or Compromises’. In the era of the selfie, and where so many images are blatantly photoshopped to remove every facial flaw, I admire the examiners for selecting a title that provided sixth formers with the starting point from which to seriously investigate beneath the presented surface.

Obviously, there is a philosophical component to the exam theme too and surely any received notion of perfection is dependent on cultural, religious and contemporary expectations, and, dare I say it, always subjective. And, once we start to look we very quickly find plenty of makers who have chosen to work towards or work against ideas of perfection.

And, finally . . .

Vanitas-18th-century-Wellcome

A lesson in looking – Chardin and white chocolate truffles

Homemade-teacakesBack in May I tried out a new recipe for cranberry and white chocolate truffles. They were too sweet for my taste so I rolled them in toasted, chopped almonds to add a nutty flavour. It was a slight improvement, but in all honestly they looked a lot better than they tasted so I decided to photograph them before chucking them in the food recycling caddy.

truffles teapot
Bowl of white chocolate truffles and teapot reminding me of the paintings by Chardin.

When I sorted through the photos I’d taken this one (above) stood out and the more I looked at it the more it reminded me of something. And, then it clicked – it had a ‘Chardin’ like quality. I think it’s the restricted palette and lighting, and the pared back nature which made me think of Chardin. It was totally by accident as when I tried to deliberately recreate a Chardin style photograph I found it impossible.

Every now and then it’s useful to step back from your own work and refresh your creative juices by looking at the visual world through another’s eyes. I thought attempting a Chardin style photo would help me to look and observe in a new way. For this exercise I chose the still life painting ‘White teapot’ as my starting point.

'White teapot' still life by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. (1699 - 1779) Private collection
‘White teapot’ still life by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. (1699 – 1779)
Private collection

Firstly, I collected together the subject matter including a couple of bunches of grapes saved from the blackbirds.

First-arrange-still-life

Instantly I realised I was going to have to change the background for something plainer and less obvious.

Change-of-background

Then plenty of looking and re-looking at the original painting and adjusting the position of the objects to work with the effect of the camera lens in an attempt to achieve an image more like a painting. Of course, a photograph does not reproduce how we focus on the world anymore than an artist’s interpretation does. But, through looking at still life works by artists such as Chardin you can certainly appreciate how skilfully and subtly artists manipulate what is in focus, what they guide us to attend to and how their compositions evoke a response from us. In the end, for me, my most interesting photograph was the shot that captured a sense of drama through the lighting. And, the lesson for my own work – ‘think tonal contrast’.

And-some-time-later-framed2

More than a museum – ostentatious Victorian living

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.

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.

'Flaming June' by Frederic Leighton.  Oil on canvas. 120 cm x 120 cm.  Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
‘Flaming June’ by Frederic Leighton.
Oil on canvas. 120 cm x 120 cm.
Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.

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.

IMGP3500

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.

The ‘bleached’ filter aesthetic

The advert for Coach - photographer Steven Meisel, stylist Karl Templer and art director Fabien Baron.  Spring 2015 from Vogue Italia.
The advert for Coach – photographer Steven Meisel, stylist Karl Templer and art director Fabien Baron.
Spring 2015 from Vogue Italia.

Last week a couple of photo shoots caught my eye. One was this advert for ‘Coach’ which shows a professional shoot where the images have been treated to a post-production working in a very similar manner to filters on a camera app on your smart phone or the filters on Instagram.

Fashion feature for the Sunday Times 'Style' magazine. Photography and set design by Elena Rendina.
Fashion feature for the Sunday Times ‘Style’ magazine. Photography and set design by Elena Rendina.

And, the second was a shoot for a magazine which also produced images with a bleached out effect. Now using filters in photography is nothing new, but I was just wondering whether this recent shift in the look and feel of these fashion pictures, is an attempt to close the gap between the immediacy and youth of mobile social media uploads, and the more sedate rendering of a formal fashion magazine spread.

Below is my series of three images using Instagram. It shows the original (left) and a couple of standard filters – not exactly subtle when viewed on my phone let alone on a bigger screen.

And then, I thought I’d take the same image and try a little Photoshop manipulation to see if I could achieve a ‘bleached’ kind of look but not as harsh as the Instagram filters.

And finally, this is what I settled for. I like it as a picture, but it doesn’t give the most accurate representation of the scarf!

Added a warm filter layer.
Added a warm filter layer.