I’ve started a new venture, guided walks around the buildings of architect Watson Fothergill in Nottingham. I’ve conducted two walks so far, and I am planning more events soon. At the moment the details are over on WatsonFothergillWalk.wordpress.com
I’ve invested in a National Art Pass this year (having taken advantage of their offer of 3 months for £10 last summer). On a recent trip to London, I used it to visit the Andreas Gursky retrospective at the newly re-opened Hayward Gallery on the South Bank.
Gursky’s Mega-photos have been on my radar since I spotted one at Tate Modern and saw this documentary (BBC’s The Art Show, back in 2002).
The German photographer’s work is in hyper-real high-definition, often a lot trickier than it at first appears. The starkness of the images really suited the Brutalist architecture of the Hayward, a gallery that should be cold and car-park like, but somehow manages to be light and spacious and perfect for contemporary art.
I enjoyed the show, but this particular photo, of JMW Turner paintings, made me start looking at how the pictures were hung and who was looking at them…
The name Jason Evans rang a bell but it was not until I arrived at the opening of this show that I realised from where. Evans is a photographer who works in music and fashion, and years ago I’d met him briefly when I was Japan, he was photographing that band that I like…
At the opening I couldn’t resist introducing myself and this blast from the past rather freaked him out, he remains something of a Radiohead insider. Aside from this weird coincidence, I was drawn to the work in the exhibition, especially the re-contextualized shop signs and the vivid narrow boat-style sign writing taking up a whole wall.
After visiting, I got involved with Meeting to make ends try (Philip Hagreen t-shirt action), as I’ve been working (casually) in the library service and met the criteria of “public facing” worker. Lots of other volunteers around Nottingham have been photographed by Evans and these pictures have been shared on social media with the hashtag #youregonnaneedabiggerboat
The image is one of a series of 16 wood engravings which featured in the exhibition. Philip Hagreen made them in the 1930s-40s for Catholic political magazine The Cross & The Plough and they are now held by the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.
Going back to the Bonington for the closing walk-through with Tom Godfrey and Jason Evans opened up some of the themes of the exhibition, and I’m glad I returned for a closer look.
Jason Evans lives on the Kent coast and his own contributions to the show were very much influenced by flotsam that he finds on the beach. The central piece, Wool and Clay, was made up of his living room rug and eroded bricks. The unrecognisably smooth shapes matched the colours of the carpet. The piece played with ideas of ownership, houses and mortgages. Bricks are made near Pegwell Bay, said Evans, people are moving out to the coast as they can no longer afford to buy houses in London, when it comes down to it, all you’re left with is bricks… “Pegwell Bay is the place where the Romans first landed in Britain, where Christianity first landed in Britain and where the band CAN arrived to support Black Sabbath… it has significance…” A pleasing, to my ears at least, echo of Psychogeographical ideas about place, connections and coincidences .
With no wall text, just a fluorescent hand-out sheet with a short note and the names of the works, interpretation was left to the viewer, Evans wanted the work to be open to the community, not just the usual contemporary art crowd. Styling himself as a photographer and curator rather than “an artist”, Evans fretted that he might be straying into Jeremy Deller territory, but I see nothing wrong with that. So much contemporary, conceptual work feels cut off from a more general experience of the world. This felt like a show that welcomed you in, had moments of familiarity, moments of nostalgia and even of participation – the aforementioned T shirt project and an in-gallery photo opportunity, inviting interaction with a found object, a large length of rope washed up by Hurricane Doris on the Kent coast earlier this year, now sat on the gallery floor bearing the title Metaphor.
The other work collected here all comes, in some way, from the working world. Clark Brothers’ retail signs (“There are no brothers, just one man in his shop in Manchester”, notes Evans, “it just sounds better.”), Sign-writer Dick Hambidge’s albums of photographs of his work photographed in turn by Evans, and Nottingham-based Narrow Boat Painter Robert Naghi’s painting, blazing the title of the exhibition on the wall at exaggerated size. This is creativity used in the service of small-scale commerce from a pre-digital, pre-internet age. On the one hand it makes those of us of a certain vintage yearn for a world now almost completely disappeared from 21st Century Britain, but conversely it also makes appealing visual material to be captured by the Instagram generation. (As you can see from the state of my photos, I belong to the former group.)
Do the “digital natives”, the young art students of NTU, experience the same nostalgic melancholy that these works inspire in people who can remember when hand painted signage was all around us? “Photo albums are always a little bit sad,” says one younger visitor. Another points out that in Latin American countries, where the signs are still hand painted, these crafts are still ongoing.
This show felt like a celebration of these specialised trades as well as an elegy for a time before absolutely everything was in the business of just selling you something. That said, I left with an overwhelming desire to go into Clark Brothers and buy some signs next time I’m in Manchester.
A trip to London requires planning, an ample budget and a lot of friendly sofas to sleep on. All these elements came together last week and I went in search of some refreshing cultural adventures.
For the last several months I’ve been working on something in Nottingham (that I hope to be able to tell you about soon). The project has renewed my interest in architectural history (see my earlier blog on Watson Fothergill) and sent me off in several directions.
Trying to track down the provenance of a stained glass window attributed to William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, but produced after both their deaths, led me to the local library and Fiona McCarthy‘s hefty biographies.
Having enjoyed both books, particularly William Morris: A Life for Our Time, I resolved to see some of their art and in the case of Morris, the house he built on the outskirts of London.
I had a wish list of things I wanted to see while I was in London and I managed to pull quite a few of them in along with a few other pleasant surprises along the way.
First, The Wellcome Collection, within striking distance of Kings Cross/ St Pancras and with a friendly cloakroom to relieve me of my suitcase for a few hours. I queued for a while to be admitted to a room full of coloured mist, a reboot for the senses – an art installation, States of Mind, a prelude to a larger exhibition about “consciousness” due to start next year.
With time to wander, I fulfilled a long held ambition to find the grave stone of Mary Wollstonecraft in Old St Pancras Church Yard. This is also home to the Soane monument (the shape of which inspired the design of the telephone box – a fact I learned on my last visit to London when, unable to get into an overbooked exhibition at the British Library, I visited the unexpected delight of Sir John Soane’s Museum, of whom more later). Loose ends were starting to be tied up, it was Fiona McCarthy’s insightful biography of Lord Byron that had piqued my interest in Shelley and Mary who were known to tryst at her mother’s grave…
The following day I had planned to visit the V&A, whose tearooms alone are a treasure trove of Morris & Co designs, but on the way there I got distracted. I’d spotted a striking poster for an exhibition at RIBA – on Palladian architecture. Having never visited their Portland Place HQ before, I was impressed by the building and even more taken with the clean, well arranged exhibition of drawings and models.
By the time I reached Kensington, the full armageddon of half-term week in museum-land had hit and I abandoned hopes of the V&A in favour of retaining a shred of sanity. Towing a case around London limits what you can do and I fell back on one of my favourite places, which just happens to have a spacious free cloakroom, The National Portrait Gallery. I seemed to be the only person who’d read the small print and found the app to accompany Simon Schama’s Face of Britain exhibition and I let his distinctive tones guide me… The dots continued to be joined – a portrait of William Morris’s wife Jane appeared in the ‘Love’ section.
The next day, relieved of the burden of my case, I decided to pull in another visit I’d been thinking about for a long time. The Banqueting House, the last vestige of Whitehall Palace – and Britain’s first Palladian building. An exercise in well guided tourism – with not only a comprehensive audio guide, but also an eager and entertaining steward keen to talk the handful of visitors through the history of this hidden gem. Currently undergoing restoration on the outside, the stone work was originally refaced by Sir John Soane (and the connections on this trip just keep mounting up).
I then took a train out to Bexleyheath and found The Red House, which William Morris and his wife had built and lived in between 1860 and 1865. Despite being there for only a short time, it was pivotal in the creation of his design business, eventually called Morris & Co and its very walls tell stories of the decorating parties held there with artists, poets and other luminaries of the period all contributing to the patterns and schemes which the National Trust are still discovering hidden under the modern wallpaper. The purpose-built house has a studio space to make even the most casual artist jealous, full of space and light. It was easy to imagine the “Topsy” of McCarthy’s biography in these rooms. I picked a windfall from the orchard and put an oak leaf in my pocket, hoping that some of the inspiration would rub off.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was often at The Red House, was fascinated by wombats and kept them as pets. He often drew caricatures of his friend (and rival for the affections of Mrs Morris) where the roly poly animal stands in for the artist. He even named one of his wombats Topsy. The National Trust have instigated a Wombat Hunt for The Red House’s younger visitors. Cuddly marsupials abound in each room…
A conversation over the Wallpaper pattern books in the Morris children’s old bedroom prompted me to investigate the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow and the next day I headed out to the furthest stop on the Victoria line to find a rather wonderful Georgian Mansion where Morris lived for part of his childhood.
It has been refurbished as a gallery with space for contemporary exhibitions as well as an archive of objects from his life and work. My favourite items being his extra large cup and saucer and the leather satchel he took around the country when engaged in socialist lectures later in his life.
Above all, Morris seems to have been someone who possessed great enthusiasms, about poetry, art, fairness and fellowship. The gallery does a great job of bringing these to life. The accompanying exhibition documenting Bob & Roberta Smith’s campaign to save arts education for children chimed well with the themes of Morris’s own life and the continuing relevance of his ideas.
I headed back on the Victoria line to Pimlico and Tate Britain, to wallow in the room full of paintings by Rosetti and Burne-Jones.
The evening ended up with a visit to an old friend in Deptford – where there are so many stories and secret places it will need a blog all of its own…
Saturday began with a trip to Borough Market, a walk along the Thames (pausing to look in at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and taking a ride in the singing lift at the Royal Festival Hall). Tea in the Crypt at St Martin’s In the Field (another Palladian building), then using up the last of my energy for one more exhibition – Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery, which was crowded and expensive but still impressive.
Billed as “A mysterious gourmet tour of Primary in eight courses,” this evening of food, art and exploration promised to combine the culinary talents of Small Food Bakery’s Kimberley Bell with work by many of the artists who find their home in this artist-led space.
The evening began with ‘Khlebosolny’ a ritual welcome across the threshold comprising sourdough bread symbolising hospitality and friendship, and salt symbolising preservation and longevity. Performance artist Chris Lewis-Jones, dressed as a waiter, played the accordion at the door.
Atmospherically lit and decorated, the central project space was transformed into a moody dining room – but first a trip to the bar for a Midland Bramble cocktail made from gin, lemon and locally made cherry wine.
The next course led us to Russian born artist Yelena Popova’s studio for The Black Square, a Constructivist inspired vodka cocktail full of fruit juices, vitamins and minerals.
Thus enlivened, we were led into the next space and presented with specially selected pieces of chocolate, while behind a screen, Rebecca Lee performed a piece for flute by Debussy.
Back in the bar, performance artist Simon Raven was swathed in silver foil to perform Human Canapé, his comment upon actors being hired at minimum wage to re-stage seminal performance works at an LA Museum of Contemporary Arts Gala. Cheese and pineapple on sticks, stuffed olives and performance art make one rather thirsty, so it was back to the bar for another cocktail.
The next course led us into a private view at TG, the gallery space within Primary. The latest instalment of their installation, ‘Occasional Table’ was accompanied by nettle crispbreads topped with cheese and a stimulating slice of red chilli.
Eggs, heads and dust, the sixth course, offered hard boiled eggs, a selection of powdered vegetables and spices served with infused oils. A glass-topped case filled with one of Nadim Chaudry’s works made up of chicken skulls served as a table at which to eat the eggs and discard the shells, leading to some interesting reactions from diners. The used plates looked like colourful discarded palettes.
Back in the main hall we took our seats to witness Frank Abbot investigate a variety of historic and contemporary chopping and slicing devices, combined with a range of surveillance technology and home video equipment – part JML demonstration, part slapstick performance this made up SALAD – Live! which sadly didn’t end up on our plates.
The next course devised with “farm artist” Georgina Barney, comprised a beef broth (with spirals of mooli) then slow roast brisket served with dripping on sour dough toast formed a portrait of the Blackbrook Longhorns. The breed are a living tribute to breeder Robert Blackwell whose worked helped usher in modern food production through selective breeding. Vegetarians were offered an edible tribute to agriculturalist ‘Turnip’ Townsend, who famously promoted a system of crop rotation which increased yields and helped fuel the industrial revolution.
This was followed by a selection of geometric deserts, inspired by the home interior products of Joff and Olly, designers of Lane, whose studio also resides at Primary. A rose and liquorice battenburg, lemon and pear jelly and a blueberry and strawberry pannacotta brought colours to the sharing platters.
Coffee allowed an opportunity to visit Wayne Burrows‘ studio for a reading with The Holcolme Tarot, a fictional pack of cards exploring ideas of meaning and randomness… my reading: Pandora’s Box, Altered State and Marriage symbolising chaos coming back into balance…
Finally, replete with local wine from Nottingham’s Eglantine vineyard, a visit to ‘A Séance with the Green Fairy’, where no one was quite sure if we should be making contact with the other side or just eating the homemade absinthe fondants and fudges while artist Simon Withers lurked in the darkness.
Primary is full of ideas and the artists who work there have found a way of collaborating together to great effect. Hopefully events such as this will help them raise the funds they need to continue their work well into the future.