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.

tate

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.

 

Postcard from Notts

Postcard from Nottingham

I’ve been “Tied up in Nottz” for the past few months… here’s a postcard from “Nottingum”

Rough Trade have just opened the doors of their new record shop/ café bar on Broad Street at the heart of Hockley, and Nottingham gains another hip hang out to add to the Broadway Cinema, Lee Rosy’s Tea Shop, established record shop The Music Exchange and an ever growing selection of cafés and independent shops.

With industrial chic inside and free air for your fixie outside, Rough Trade arrives just in time for vinyl junkies and lovers of cult fiction to fill up their Christmas stockings.

Rough Trade Nottingham

Down the road, more music emanates from a street piano. A chap known as ‘Dave Keys’ knocks out some tunes under the ‘Nottingham Legends’ mural where local luminaries such as Jake Bugg and Samantha Morton are immortalised alongside literary creation Byron Clough and the legendary Su Pollard.

notts heros

The Hockley area along with the Lace Market and the redeveloped Sneinton Market is being marketed as Nottingham’s Creative Quarter – “Nottingham’s flagship project for economic growth, enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit.”

It will also soon be home to the National Videogame Arcade (opening next March) with five floors of games themed archives, exhibitions and activities to compliment the annual Game City Festival.

Meanwhile check out the array of vintage clothes shops including old favourite Wild Clothing, White Rose and Oxfam in the original Boots the Chemist building on Goose Gate and the massive Sue Ryder charity shop a couple of doors down.

 

Strange Wales: The Laugharne Weekend

“The Strangest Town in Wales” was how Dylan Thomas first described his adopted home of Laugharne (pronounced Larn – the ‘laugh’ is silent).

This “beguiling island of a town”, a “legendary lazy little black-magical bedlam by the sea” has some unusual characteristics conferred by retaining the last surviving medieval corporation in Britain. It also has some impressive Georgian mansions, a ruined castle and beautiful views of Thomas’s beloved “heron priested” shore of the Taf Estuary.

sunny view from laugharne castle

View of the estuary from Laugharne Castle

Stumbling upon the Strange Wales festival weekend in spite of their rather jumbled online presence (usually there is one Laugharne Weekend, this year for Thomas’s Centenary there are three), I headed out of my comfort zone to see what unpredictable happenings were taking place.

At first it felt like a product of the special festival atmosphere, but one gets the feeling that Laugharne is like this most weekends – folks tumbling out of pubs and taking their pints into the church; the Tin Shed, casually billed as a 1940s experience doubling as a bar, handy for the gigs in the Millennium Hall.

Cate Le Bon at Millennium Hall, Laugharne

Cate Le Bon at Millennium Hall, Laugharne

The celebrated Browns Hotel, and at least three more pubs makes for an interesting route through town. The Georgian scale of many of the buildings, larger than those usually found in a similarly sized Welsh village, are the legacy of a history as a busy cockeling port and the Castle, ruined by Cromwell’s soldiers during the civil war. Eccentricity is embraced here, creativity encouraged and there is a looseness to proceedings that means nothing is ever quite on time.

On Friday I arrive in time to catch the night’s Millennium Hall gig – Sweet Baboo with some campervan inspired acoustic indie then Cate Le Bon, playing most of her album Mug Museum, the end of a long tour which leads to some hi-jinks with carrots, and a closing cover of a Thin Lizzie number which sees the band relax.

In the congregational church up the road there is a woozy late showing of Gruff Rhys’ film American Interior, where the Super Furry Animals songwriter traces his ancestor John Evans’ journey across the states in search of a mythical Welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans.

The Boathouse, where Dylan and Caitlin Thomas lived

The Boathouse, where Dylan and Caitlin Thomas lived

Left to my own devices on Saturday, I head first to the Boathouse, the house where Dylan Thomas lived from 1949 until his death in 1953. Here he wrote some of the major works of his late career including Under Milk Wood (which Laugharne inhabitants likes to claim is based on the characters of the town). After taking in the views and old HTV documentary, I peer into the recreation of his writing shed, perched on the cliff edge and decorated with pictures of his influences and dozens of crumbled papers beneath the writing desk. A walk along tree looped lanes finds the Poet’s grave, an unassuming flimsy white cross heading a plot scattered with cheap boozers trinkets and tributes from all over the world.

Dylan Thomas's writing shed.

Dylan Thomas’s writing shed.

Back at to the unofficial festival hub, a reconditioned mobile library dubbed the Book Bus, where a few of the literati are gathered to browse through DT aficionado Jeff Towns’ collection of Dylan-iana. Then into church again to catch the last half of the 1997 film Twin Town.

Following up on his debut’s anarchic spirit, director Kevin Allen has returned to Wales to film Under Milk Wood. Here he presents a teaser trailer. Sharing some cast members with Twin Town, including Rhys Ifans, it promises to be a surreal, dream-like romp, filmed in both English and Welsh language versions. Allen takes questions from the audience, many of whom took part in the filming as extras. He claims that the somewhat bawdy play, originally written for radio, will gain a new audience from his highly visual interpretation and if he had his way the poster would bare the legend “it’s all about the shagging”.

A quick dash to the Rugby Club to catch the end of a noisy set by young Cardiff-based band Joanna Gruesome, then it’s back to Browns for a few pints with some new friends. The rest of the evening – Krautrock from two man outfit R. Seiliog and then luminaries of the Post Punk scene Young Marble Giants take to the stage for the first time since 1979 – goes by in a pleasant haze.

On Sunday, a restorative B&B breakfast and it’s back down to the explore the castle in the sunshine. An unassuming summer house in the grounds provides another writers bolt hole, once owned by Richard Hughes (author of A High Wind In Jamaica) and also used by Dylan Thomas.

"Gonzo Bookselling: 1. Find An Event, 2. Immerse Yourself, 3. Become the Story."

“Gonzo Bookselling: 1. Find An Event, 2. Immerse Yourself, 3. Become the Story.”

Hannah Ellis, the poet’s granddaughter, teacher- turned advocate of creativity in education, speaks eloquently on her hopes for a future Dylan Thomas Foundation, to bring his work to a new generation. Dylan failed at school, his imagination and creativity perceived as bad behaviour. Wandering around Laugharne, getting into mischief, exploring and going with the flow helps one realise how constrained one can be by such convention.

The unseasonal late sunshine is too bright to give up for a Wickerman-esq documentary in the church and soon the lure of golden ales and a John Martin tribute draw us back to the Tin Shed.

Later, after a minimal electro set from newcomers Trwbadour, local bookshop owner and former music journalist George Tremlett is upstairs at The Cross Inn talking about his co-authorship with the poet’s widow Caitlin of a definitive biography – his involvement suggested by Ted Hughes after reading his interviews with 1970s pop names including Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Thomas was rock ‘n’ roll ahead of time and his influence had been weaving a spell over Tremlett for years before his involvement with the project. He goes on to debunk myths about the circumstances of the poet’s death and to suggest that we shouldn’t allow reputation to stand in the way of the immortality of the work.

Islet at The Millennium Hall, Laugharne

Islet at The Millennium Hall, Laugharne

Back down at the Millennium Hall, Islet take the stage banging on a variety of percussive bars, bells and drums. They are a band full of energy and invention, gestures and rhythms and it makes for the best performance of the weekend.

Gruff Rhys, this time in person, is in contrast a whimsical, witty presence and tells the story of John Evans complete with his specially commissioned puppet, through a selection of songs and anecdotes which slips from English to Welsh and back again so smoothly that it’s almost possible feel like you’re learning some scraps of the language as he goes along.

Outside, the weather has turned cold and skipping more films in lieu of a lift back up the road, the B&B beckons once more.

Waking up to one more over the top breakfast and the odour of egg and bacon, there is time for then one more look at the gloriously shiny bay before taking a bus to the relative normality of Carmarthan – so different Laugharne already seems like a fevered dream.

View from Laugharne Castle

View from Laugharne Castle