Last week I was in London. I was supposed to meet my sister in the evening, but as she lives in Devon she didn’t make it. It was a shame, but the railways had requested people only travel if their journey was essential. Some folks have been deep in snow, others are facing drought, but parts of the West Country in the UK has been flooded since before Christmas.
After my meeting I took the opportunity to take some photos of London that looked more like Los Angeles, 2019, from the film ‘Blade Runner’.
But then I found one shot that made me think of a very expensive painting ($87 million) by Rothko. It is the colours, yes, but also there is a hint of possible brush marks.
Another New Year. A moment to pause and think about endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings. Due to a strange set of circumstances and horizontal rain in a howling gale I found myself in Southwark Cathedral on London’s South Bank on New Year’s Day. It was early for London, 10.00 am, and there was a young chap fast asleep across some chairs in the nave. Southwark Cathedral is not large. It isn’t tall and stark like the Norman built, Romanesque Norwich Cathedral. Neither does it have an intricate and ornate west face like that of the Gothic Exeter Cathedral.
Instead it is a much repaired and rebuilt church with only traces of its Norman heritage visible. One remaining Norman architectural detail is a doorway in the north aisle of the nave. In 1212 the church was devastated by fire. It’s rebuilding began around 1215 and was one of the first expressions of Gothic architecture in London. Subsequent fires and neglect have led to further renovations, but the medieval structure of the choir and the retro-choir still remain, making Southwark Cathedral the oldest Gothic building in the city predating the commencement of the present Westminster Abbey by 30 years. Changing, renovating, rebuilding. St Mary Overy renamed St Saviour’s and then renamed again to become Southwark Cathedral in 1905. Time does not stand still.
Interesting as the building was, the most striking markers for the passing of time were three of the tomb sculptures. Firstly, an effigy of an unknown knight. This wooden effigy is one of the earliest wooden monumental effigies in England dating from about 1280. The knight is thought to be a member of the de Warenne family who had been benefactors to the Priory church of St Mary Overy. He looks knightly, muscular and strong and dressed with chain mail coif and sword. He appears ready to continue the good fight.
The second sculpture is a stone effigy of an Elizabethan worthy, Thomas Cure Esq. Thomas Cure was the Queen’s saddler. He had also been saddler to Elizabeth’s siblings Edward VI and Queen Mary. As the Queen’s saddler Cure was a man of means. He owned a ship and its cargo in 1573 and acquired the manor of Widefleete in Southwark in 1580. He was also a Parliament man coming in for Southwark and East Grinstead. He died in 1588 and his stone effigy is in the style of a cadaver, a very direct memento mori.
A decomposing body as opposed to a skeleton atop a tomb is known as a transi. Although this example is more of a withered body than a rotting one it’s purpose is to remind us that we, too, will one day look like this. This tradition in funerary monument design lasted over three centuries, but by the time we reach the 17th century funerary fashion has moved on and has become more gentle and reflective. This brings me to the third example of a tomb sculpture that of ‘Lionel Lockyer, Physitian’.
He looks calm, thoughtful and perhaps a bit superior. Actually I think he looks rather self-satisfied, but then I now know he was a famous quack doctor. He made his fortune from selling ‘Pilula Radiis Solis Extracta’, pills containing captured sunbeams called Lockyer’s Pills . Obviously from the look of his grand tomb and the large sculpture capturing his likeness he did a roaring trade ripping off the desperate and gullible. So, out with the old and in with the new? It seems more like history repeating itself as we see the end of yet another year littered with examples of financial mis-selling scandals here in the UK.
Delivering his third talk in the Reith Lecture series, Grayson Perry contemplates whether contemporary art still has the power to shock. He delivers his lecture called ‘Nice Rebellion, Welcome In!’ in a lively, entertaining style with no stuffiness, but don’t be fooled he is seriously questioning the importance of sincerity in our postmodern, ironic world. Available to listen to at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03f9bg7
Drawing on his own experience Grayson Perry recounts how he found the world of 1980s postmodernism had already been there and done it all. The art world’s relentless quest for the new, innovative, cutting edge idea had used up ‘shock’ and negated its power. Anything could be art and nothing could shock anymore. Grayson suggests even the lifestyle of the artist has been democratised and incorporated into everyday living, all kinds of people are bobos. That is ordinary folk that now have a little bit of bohemian-ness about them. Bobos is short for bourgeois and bohemian (coined by David Brooks in 2000 in his book ‘Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There). Grayson mused that, “Since the 1960s everyone’s become a bit of an artist”.
Of his own debut into the world of contemporary art Grayson Perry had wanted to shock and had wanted to announce, “You’re the old people who made rusty metal sculptures we are the new people who are making this sort of work!”, but it had all been done. Talking of rusty metal, Richard Serra springs to mind and particularly for me, as by chance, my sister and I looked around ‘Fulcrum’ a couple of weeks ago. Richard Serra has been disturbing space and us with his enormous rusting steel sculptures since the early 1970s. His site-specific work nowadays may still be called challenging and is sometimes controversial due its sheer size, in this case 55 feet/16.8 metres of rusting steel, but it does not shock. More of Serra’s smaller scale work can be seen at http://www.saatchigallery.com/aipe/richard_serra.htm
Through the course of the lecture Grayson Perry develops the idea that art is in its end game and although there will always be new work it is only ‘tweaking’ a past idea. And, he suggests that what will separate out the good artist will not be all the postmodern knowing and cynicism attached to their work, but the artist’s sincere intent in its creation. Finally, as a parting shot Grayson commented that a contemporary art work could possibly shock by being beautiful!
Here are a couple of pieces of ageing metal, both functional, one’s a flagpole and one’s a hot water cylinder. Beautiful? Art?
One of the three Leopardi bronze flagpoles in St Mark’s Square, Venice. c.1505
Today, 21 October, is Trafalgar Day in the UK. A school history textbook date when in 1805 Vice Admiral Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar. He was commanding the British navy when he was fatally shot on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory during the battle that saw the combined French and Spanish fleets defeated.
Nelson was a son of Norfolk born at Burnham Thorpe in 1758 and had become a national hero following the Battle of the Nile in 1798 when his ships successfully destroyed Napoleon’s fleet. He was also the subject of 21st-century style gossip when he lived with his friend Sir William Hamilton and Hamilton’s wife, Lady Emma Hamilton, first in Naples and then later at Merton Place, South London. Gillray’s satirical cartoon pokes fun at Emma Hamilton depicting her as Dido posed in distress watching Nelson’s fleet disappearing as an old man is seen sleeping behind her. The text at the bottom of the print reads
‘”Ah, where, & ah where, is my gallant Sailor gone” ? –
“He’s gone to Fight the Frenchmen, for George upon the Throne,
“He’s gone to Fight ye Frenchmen, t’loose t’other Arm & Eye,
“And left me with the old Antiques, to lay me down, & Cry.’
During the 18th century printed matter became widely available and a variety of newspapers, pamphlets and prints were in circulation. The contemporary ‘media’ reports of Nelson’s achievements and also the speculation surrounding his relationship with Emma Hamilton fed the nation’s interest in Nelson and contributed to the making of a national hero. Viewed in this light it was only natural when Nelson died in battle that he should be honoured with a state funeral. A state funeral for a commoner was an unprecedented situation, and when the news of Nelson’s death reached London from Cape Trafalgar, the Lord Chancellor’s Office began detailed preparations in order to provide the English public the opportunity to mourn their hero.
Nelson’s body had been preserved in a casket filled with brandy for the journey back to London, and on 21 December 1805 was placed, as instructed in his will, in a special coffin made from the wood of the French ship, L’orient. L’orient had been a French battleship blown up at the Battle of the Nile. It would appear that when Nelson wrote his will he was conscious of his public status and his preference for a plain coffin significantly made from the L’orient wood, served to remind the public of his navel prowess. However, for the funeral ‘event’ the plain wooden coffin was encased in an elaborate gilded black casket. During the three days of the lying in state (4th to 6th January 1806) at Greenwich Hospital it is estimated that over 100,000 people came to pay their last respects. Then on the 8th January 1806 the coffin was transported up the River Thames to Whitehall by the King’s Barge accompanied by a flotilla of boats forming the Grand River Procession.
The following day the coffin was transported in a procession through the crowd-lined streets of London culminating in a funeral service at the nation’s church, St Paul’s in the City of London. Along with Nelson’s relatives all types of dignitaries attended the service, but neither Emma Hamilton nor their daughter, Horatia, were invited. The coffin was carried on a funeral car designed to look like HMS Victory and covered with a black velvet pall with the white ensign from HMS Victory draped over the coffin. Sailors from HMS Victory accompanied the coffin into St Paul’s and at some point during the funeral service the white ensign was torn into pieces by the sailors and shared out between them. These pieces were some of the earliest Nelson mementos.
Over the following two centuries Nelson has remained a significant national hero and during this time all kinds of memorabilia has been made and collected, and is still manufactured to this day.
A 19th-century pearlware commemoration jug. Sepia transfer prints show Nelson, HMS Victory with images of trophies and inscriptions.
Pottery loving cup decorated with illustrations of the Battle of Trafalgar and figure group including Nelson. 20th-century mug made by Cavendish Fitzroy, London.
Blue earthenware tankard with inscriptions and images in relief with a rope design handle. Number 310 of 500 made by Great Yarmouth Potteries, c 1990s.
Fascination, interest and historical research continues and the latest findings are to feature in the National Maritime Museum’s new Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery which opens, today, 21st October 2013, the 208th anniversary of the battle.
Just a brief note – my daughter and I walked through Hyde Park yesterday morning. We enjoyed all the energetic dogs running in the fresh morning sunlight. We also admired the hardy souls at the front of the queue already camped out round the Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms. (Sadly, due to other commitments I couldn’t join the queue to be a promenader and hear Joyce DiDonato sing in the evening.)
As we walked round the building, chatting to each other, minding our own business, a shifty man hissed ‘Last Night tickets’ at us. My daughter a regular festival/gig goer just laughed and said there are always touts hanging around any event. Now, I am sorry, but I am going to moan – touts, and I am afraid people who buy from touts on the street, just promote the unsavoury side of the secondary market in show tickets. There has been an on/off rumbling about the secondary market for tickets sales in the UK for the last couple of years. And, in particular, the reselling of debenture tickets for premium events such as Wimbledon and charity music events at the Royal Albert Hall.
My daughter and I are fans of eighteenth-century music. Bach, Handel, Telemann, Arne etc, etc, so here’s our somewhat earthy, Baroque view of ticket touts.
Treason – Richard Newton, 1798 – Tate.org.uk
Whippet, Hyde Park
Now from the ridiculous back to the sublime, well a beautiful display of Gothic Revival, the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park.
Ooh, nearly forgot, talking of Thomas Arne, absolutely loved Joyce DiDonato’s interpretation of ‘Rule, Britannia’ at the Last Night (just seen it thanks to YouTube).
Pots have been objects of cultural expression across many centuries and cultures. Although not as resilient as stone, but less ephemeral than textiles and books, ceramic works have been collected and cherished by all kinds of us. Lustreware, the use of metallic glazes on ceramics, dates from about the ninth century with the earliest surviving examples showing lustre glazes decorating glass vessels.
The Ceramics Department at the V&A Museum in London is always worth a visit and recently I saw these beautiful examples of Wedgwood Fairyland Lustreware. They are the work of one of Wedgwood’s painter/designers called Daisy Makeig-Jones (1881-1945) who joined the firm in 1909. These charming pieces are bone china, printed and painted in underglaze colours with gold and lustre and are thought to date from about 1923.
As with many fine, expensive pieces they are some of the best examples of lustreware which had been popular throughout the nineteenth century following the introduction of pink and white lustreware in 1805 by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons. This spawned a whole number of lesser, but more affordable versions of pottery lustreware.
Some 150 years later my great-aunt received this version as a wedding gift. A Staffordshire Potteries much diluted version of the pink ‘Moonlight’ lustreware of Wedgwood.
This pink jug has an iridescent sheen created by adding a metallic film over brush marked glazing. It was made by the Kensington Pottery Ltd (1922-61) sometime after 1937 when the company changed their mark from KPH to KPB.
Several weeks ago I was musing about the ‘then and now’ photographs of busy city centres. And, this morning a friend of my father’s sent him this link. It is a six minute film shot in 1926 by Claude Friese-Greene and recently released by the BFI, filming various famous places in London in colour. The film shows a busy working River Thames, City of London workers on London Bridge, promenading ladies in Hyde Park, and a heaving Petticoat Lane Sunday Market.
(Sorry if you’ve already seen snippets of this via Kevin Spacey or Stephen Fry from Twitter – apparently some fragments of this footage have gone viral!!)
I have walked over London Bridge into the City many times and it is fascinating to see how busy it was in 1926 full of traffic, half of which is horse-drawn. And, rather poignantly I know that during the 1920s my late Grandmother was living in Crystal Palace and caught the train to London Bridge Station and walked this way to work, but over the previous nineteenth-century London Bridge (now in Arizona).
It is fascinating to see panoramic views of London along the river with trees and steeples and not a modern glass and steel office block in sight.
Towards the end of the film the Palace of Westminster is shown from across the Thames with an amiable looking Bobby strolling up and past the camera. And, just last week we saw these two ladies policing the streets in a rather quiet empty City of London on a hot Sunday afternoon.
There is something wholesomely appealing about market shopping. Obviously there are markets and markets, but we are part of an age old continuum of face-to-face trading when we shop at a market especially if it’s outdoor with a great variety of stalls offering all kinds of wares.
In London there are several very famous markets, my favourite is the Columbia Road Flower Market, but the other weekend I revisited an old haunt I’ve not been to in over a decade. How Camden Lock Market has been developed and expanded was really surprising. Camden has gone ‘all’ market – now a major tourist destination, and it was heaving.
At it’s core it is still fairly true to the alternative/vintage/hipster fashion experience, but also now there is a huge range of food stalls offering dishes from every cuisine you can think of. We sampled Japanese, Lebanese, Spanish and Mexican – all very tasty and freshly cooked.
Food outlets at Camden Market.
Buying food, Hong Kong market – halfway round the world from the UK
Mass tourism allows us to visit markets all round the world and I think it is a special part of a trip if you can shop with the locals. Buying food becomes a treat and not a chore. Ideally with the more transitory nature of market stalls street merchants can try out the bohemian or the alternative, offering us customers something different or unusual. And it gives the small trader opportunities when selling only a limited stock of their homemade products or homegrown produce.
And, then, sometimes an entire market is a new experience.
In a previous post I mentioned in passing that at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition you could also see a sequence of tapestries by Grayson Perry.
Of course Grayson Perry is well-known for ceramics (his pots) for which he won the Turner Prize in 2003, but these tapestries are a change of medium rather than content. They exhibit a continuation of his challenging often acidic, social commentary in a visual form. I loved them. I had already seen the television programmes ‘All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry’ that documented his artistic process and I was thrilled to see the finished tapestries. In these works he is visually dissecting the relationship between people’s taste and their class.
The series called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, is hanging round Room X at the Royal Academy. We see six large tapestries that make a clear reference to Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’- indeed, the protagonist in Perry’s work is called Tim Rakewell. The concept, research, working sketches and the final production of the tapestries form the four part television series.
The size of tapestries (two metres by four metres), their vibrant colour, together with the exquisite detail and totemic elements included for each depiction of the ‘progress’, were both visually stunning and frequently amusing – well they do say the British are obsessed with class. It is quite a few centuries (despite the sincere efforts of William Morris) since tapestry was considered to be ‘the’ medium for conspicuous consumption and that of itself is precisely why this series, in this woven form, is so acute.
Alternatively or additionally the Arts Council Collection has launched an app for iPad and iPhone produced by Aimer Media with commentary from the artist, art historical references and a guide to the making of the works. This is Grayson Perry’s first app and gives users the chance to see the tapestries up close with detailed zoom facility. The digital guide, Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences, is available from Apple’s iTunes Store (£1.99).
And, finally, Grayson Perry is to give this year’s Reith Lectures. The lectures will be broadcast in October and November as part of BBC Radio 4’s celebration of arts and culture in 2013.
Last weekend I was in London and had time to visit this year’s Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy. I’ve been a few times before, but not recently and it was heartening to see they don’t seem to have crammed in the work quite so ferociously as they did in the deep dark past.
But still some rooms have such densely packed walls that it is difficult to extract the wheat from the chaff.
With the usual restrictions on photographing exhibitions I have found that The Economist’s Culture Blog has a small gallery of the show which gives a good overall impression.
Now, it is very easy to be swept along by other people’s views especially where ‘art’ is concerned, but in the end you are the only viewer in your head and so your personal opinion is your personal opinion. I make a point of not reading reviews before I go to an exhibition, a performance or even a film – I try to go in a state of openness to a new experience, but I am also aware that I bring my own prejudices. Sometimes it is virtually impossible to avoid the great and the good giving us the benefit of their wisdom when an event is endlessly trailed and heavily promoted. However, this time I’d missed all the usual fuss associated with Summer Exhibition and arrived early with catalogue and pen ready.
First impressions, well lit, light in feel and light in content. This painting bucked the trend. Neither of these photographs do the central picture justice. It is a striking oil by Jock McFadyen RA called Tate Moss. It is quite large, it even felt large in a spacious gallery room, and shows a derelict, industrial warehouse with graffiti. Despite its sombre theme the blues and green lighten the impression and I could see it gracing the boardroom of a FTSE 100 Company to remind the directors of their own business mortality.
I don’t normally speak to strangers (I am very English), but I had just written a brief note about a grouped set of canvasses when I heard the stern comment ‘Derivative’ as the man in front of me turned to his companion. He glanced at me seeing my smile and I explained I’ve literally just noted ‘quite derivative’. “Absolutely” he barked and left for the next room, thinking about it I hope he wasn’t the artist, a well-known RA, – he did look the right age.
Don’t you think that a work of art selected for such a prestigious show as the Summer Exhibition should step out from the banal and the mundane and agitate some kind of response in the viewer? Maybe more of these pieces achieve this when viewed alone or in a less art-filled environment. I thought this ‘Little Blue Pinocchio’ stepped out (actually almost out of the frame) despite being hung high on the top row – also visible in the second photo above.
Walking through the galleries I was struck by the overall paleness/monochrome nature of the show as if the low key presentation was attuned to the general art mood (there have been many cuts to art organisations’ budgets). The most striking of the monochrome works was a series of large ink drawings consisting of three studies of Icelandic geological features, by Emma Stibbon RA. Again, the photograph does not do justice to the work as in real life the scale and detail combine to generate an intense yet restrained visual impact.
But as usual, and it is always the way, the most stunning and interesting work – the one for me anyway – (other than the splendid Grayson Perry tapestries) had no reproductions available. It was No.580 an acrylic with gloss by Gulcehre Ciplak called ‘The Long List, You Are On It Too!’. It depicts a dining table with unused, empty plates and three turkeys wearing collars and ties staring indignantly directly out at you. The direct gaze is challenging and seems to say ‘What are YOU going to do about this?’
OCTOBER 2013 – update if you want to see Gulcehre Ciplak’s fascinating painting she has now uploaded a photo to her website
If you are in London and have a spare couple of hours then I recommend a visit not least to see the grand finale of the Grayson Perry tapestries. The exhibition is on until 18 August 2013.