Art, Blog

Connecting Up London: William Morris, Architecture & Wombats

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…

Soane Monument Old St Pancras Churchyard
Soane Monument Old St Pancras Churchyard

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).

Inside the Banqueting House, Whitehall. Ceiling by Rubens.
Inside the Banqueting House, Whitehall.

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.

The Red House

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…

The window bares the moto "Si Je Puis" - "If I Can"; Striking patterns on the ceiling: a wombat: Chair designed by Rossetti.
The window bares the moto “Si Je Puis” – “If I Can”; Striking patterns on the ceiling: A wombat lurks: Chair designed by Rossetti.

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.

WM's Satchel; Extra Large Cup & Saucer as provided by the Burne-Joneses: Bob & Robert Smith Topsey
WM’s Satchel; Extra Large Cup & Saucer as provided by the Burne-Joneses: Bob & Robert Smith Topsey

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.


Manchester Walking Tours & Whitworth Art Gallery

I took a notion to go to Manchester and see the Cornelia Parker exhibition at the newly re-opened Whitworth Art Gallery before it closes on May 31. While I was in the city I braved the rain and hail to walk a couple of routes of the Manchester Walking Tours app.

I started with the Architecture Highlights tour – having downloaded the app at home, it was a case of zipping up my waterproof over my headphones, burying my phone in my pocket and heading out into the streets to discover and rediscover some of the key buildings of the city. The tour is trigged by GPS and takes account of your position, as you hit each location, the relevant information plays.

manchester buildings
New York Street, Manchester Art Gallery, The Free Trade Hall, Great Northern Warehouse.

Along the way I learned about buildings including the Portico Library, The Midland Hotel, The Free Trade Hall and the Beetham Tower.

After an hour of rain dodging I found a shop/ cafe on the edge of the Northern Quarter called Oklahoma, it appealed to my love of all things colourful and kitsch. If I had a shop, this is probably what it would look like!

Later I picked up the route of the Cultural Tour, which at 150 minute was considerably longer that the first one. Narrated by 6 Music DJ Mary Ann Hobbs, it takes in a wide variety of locations and was compiled by local tour guides. I explored the Northern Quarter and then found that the route crossed over with the Architecture tour. Having the GPS tracking you for over an hour absolutely kills an iPhone battery, and as I needed my phone for meeting friends later and I wanted to get to the Whitworth in time to see some art, I hopped on  bus down Oxford Road.  As the GPS locates you and triggers the tour when you reach each point of interest, I was able to miss out a section and pick up the trail further along.  This method takes a little getting used to, and is frustrating if you need your phone for anything else during your day out, but once I got used to moving about to find the exact spot that set off the commentary, the system worked. I need a pedometer-powered battery charger…

The Whitworth Gallery has reopened after an extensive refurbishment, and it is quietly impressive. The majority of the open plan space was taken up by a solo show by Cornelia Parker, the show included one of my favourite pieces, the exploded shed – Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991).

cornelia parker
Work by Cornelia Parker: War Room, The Distance: A Kiss With Added String, Cold Dark Matter, Thirty Pieces of Silver

After an impromptu night out with Manchester friends, I crashed on a sofa and returned the following day to pick up the section of the Cultural Tour that I missed. The Cultural Tour added a little more to the story of the Bridgewater Hall, where I found the intriguing  “Talking Statue” of Halle Orchestra conductor John Barbirolli voiced by Timothy West. Apparently there are more of these statues around, it’s a really good idea well carried out and I’d like to find the rest of them.

I carried on following the tour route to see the site of the original Hacienda club, the newly opened Home arts centre and then stumbled upon the headquarters of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. I don’t know much about Burgess beyond ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but this little place is home to a library, archive and a cafe- bookshop providing a little haven from the bustle of Oxford Road.  I’ll definitely have to go back to Manchester for more exploring.

manc 3
Music Pavement Northern Quarter, Beedham Tower & Bridgewater Hall, the back of the Hacienda building, Rain by Lemn Sissay – Oxford Road.


Pics from wikimedia Commons

Watson Fothergill, Architect

Yesterday I ventured to the other side of Trent Bridge for a talk at West Bridgford library. The topic was local architect Watson Fothergill, whose characteristic Victorian Gothic buildings can be found around Nottingham. I am particularly interested in his office building (pictured above), which can be found in Hockley on George Street. I’m hoping to include it as a stop on a tour of the area that I’m slowly working on. Fothergill was born very near where I went to school, so I was intrigued to find out more.

The talk was given by Darren Turner, himself an architect, who has taken on the task of cataloging Fothergill’s buildings. He’s even published a book, filled with sketches and as much detail as any local researcher could wish for, about the buildings that are still standing and those that have over the years been demolished.

Watson Fothergill (or is it Fothergill Watson?) and the name plate he designed for his office.
Watson Fothergill (or is it Fothergill Watson?) and the name plate he designed for his office.

Fothergill Watson was born in 1841 in Mansfield. His work dates from 1863 to around 1912 and in that time he mainly worked in and around Nottingham. In 1892 he switched his name around by deed poll, in order to carry on his mother’s family name (although it was to no avail as his own children didn’t  produce any decedents of their own.) It seems he received a large inheritance from his father in law, one of the founding partners in Mansfield Brewery, and being comfortably off never saw the need to venture much beyond the county boundaries. Fothergill was well connected locally with a half-brother on the Mansfield Improvements Commission and the influential Brunts’ Charity, which lead to several building projects.

Queens Chambers  off the Market Square, Nottingham.
Queens Chambers off the Market Square, Nottingham.

Several of Fothergill’s buildings in Nottingham have a distinctive look. Made of red brick with a striped pattern of blue, they also often have turrets, timber eaves and stone carvings. Anyone who has visited the centre of Nottingham is likely to have seen his Queens Chambers on the corner of Long Row and Queen Street, or the Nottingham and Notts Bank building on Thurland Street. You might also have passed the former Daily Express Offices on Parliament Street.

The former Daily Express Offices on Parliament Street, Nottingham
The former Daily Express Offices on Parliament Street, Nottingham

His office on George Street, built as a “shop window” for his work after he was forced to move from Clinton Street by the arrival of the railway, is one of the hidden gems of Nottingham. I only found it recently while exploring the “Creative Quarter”, it was recently up for sale and there was talk that it was bought by some Fothergill enthusiasts with a view to renovating it as a museum.

Pics from wikimedia Commons
Watson Fothergill’s Office at 15-17 George Street, Nottingham

The exterior is a homage to his mentors with busts of the architects Augustus Pugin, George Street, George Gilbert Scott , William Burges and Richard Norman Shaw honoured in stone. There are terracotta panels depicting architecture through the ages and masons at work on a gothic cathedral. The individuality of the design makes this a distinctive building for the 1890s, full of idiosyncratic details. This office, like many of Fothergill’s buildings, shows the influence of his travels in Bavaria and Venice, with details from European Gothic given a particular Victorian twist.

Although Fothergill is no Gaudi or Mackintosh in terms of the scale or fame of his buildings, his distinctive style has left its mark on Nottingham. Some of his buildings did not survive the drive for modernism that swept through the city centre in the 1960s and 1970s. Notable losses include the Black Boy Hotel, which by the time of its demolition had become “notorious” (according to my mum at least…). It was pulled down in 1970 and a large branch of Primark now occupies in the spot on Long Row where once it stood.

Darren Turner's book on Fothergill
Darren Turner’s book on Fothergill


Darren Turner’s book goes a long way to establishing a full list of extant buildings as well as clarifying the provenance of some which have been mis-identified in the past and I look forward to discovering more of them on my walks through the city.

The Nottingham and Notts Bank on the corner of Thurland Street.
The Nottingham and Notts Bank on the corner of Thurland Street.
Photos used for this post come from these informative pages on Geograph and WikiMedia Commons. They are used under Creative Commons Licence.
Art, Blog

The Uncanny Canteen at Primary

Primary, a former primary school just outside the centre of Nottingham, was set up to provide studio space and support for artists in the city, as such it offers a unique place where artists and the public can share ideas and experience work from around the world.

The Uncanny Canteen served both as a fundraiser for the Grade II listed building and as an introduction to the activities of the residents of Primary.

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.

dining room

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.

simon raven

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.

Nadim eggs

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.