Sunday, 22 November 2020

Ham House

Precious little open, it is a lockdown after all, but you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise as all of west London is out and about walking the high streets of Chiswick and Richmond to buy take away coffee, promenade along the river, or look for deer in the park. Booking anywhere to walk, like Kew Gardens, takes the forethought I am seldom capable of, hence, there is no chance of going there on a weekend. Instead we opted for a stroll around the gardens at Ham House. 

The box and yew parterre, interplanted with mounds of close clipped lavender and bordered by high yew hedges, is something out of A Draughtsman's Contract - very much the perfect winter garden (picture from slightly earlier in autumn last year though). I can only imagine its beauty enhanced by a frost. The kitchen garden is all but over, except for a row of splendid netted cabbages, and the ruby chard still shining on a pretty grey day. 

Very much worth the booking - it's owned by the National Trust and all its gardens remain open in this winter pandemic season. Plus coffee and a cake are still possible outside the cafe. Dress warmly, of course, and take a further stroll along a very pretty stretch of the river.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness

To complete all matters Jarman this month, we chose a hot Indian summer's day for a trip to Dungeness to visit his fabulous gravel garden (see earlier Garden Museum post). Whilst not exactly the best season as summer slips into autumn, there was enough in flower or just finished to have a good impression of how beautifully the shingle has been used to create shape and colour. 

I've wanted to visit the garden for years, and more so now that this year the cottage has been saved for the nation, so this was a special treat on a perfect day.

No entry to the cottage itself as the resident gardener makes their home there, but there is plenty to contemplate on a stroll around, in and amongst the plantings, found beach objects turned to sculpture and the like. I would have welcomed a convenient bench to sit and contemplate the scene for longer, but it was roped off. No matter. The eponymous view of the nuclear power station as not awful as people make out. 

A place of austere beauty in the shadow of concrete brutalism, and you have to be able to see loveliness without much greenery in order to enjoy it. John Donne's poem (Busy old fool...) in large letters on the side of the cottage helps.

The beach extends some minutes' walk to a sharply shelving sea with views on this clearest of days of white cliffs near Folkestone and France in the far distance with cargo ships in between. 

It was quiet: just a few garden and Jarman buffs and hardly a soul by the water. Not a place to swim, for that you need to head to the sandy and more traditional seaside delights of Camber Sands some two miles distant. 

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Gauguin and the Impressionists - Royal Academy

Probably the most over-promised and under-delivered exhibition I have been to in an eon. Masterworks from the Ordrupgaard collection in Denmark, were rarely masterful. It is almost as if the Danish industrialist ran around desperately buying up pictures without bothering to check whether Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and others had actually painted well. 

I was sorely disappointed by the whole, and by the fact that eight paintings by Gauguin do not an exhibition title make, nor does a room of pre-Impressionist works by Corot, Ingres etc. exactly endear me to the as advertised title. 

Be warned this is a three room show of, OK, work, but it was hard to find any truly stand out pieces to wow me. I'm a jaded viewer of this period in art. It no longer holds much of a thrill. And I hate Renoir. I should know better.

Return to the British Museum - sort of

The BM has reopened. So much, so good, hurrah! 

But it's not the BM as we know it, where you can pick a few galleries on a topic of your choice and wander at your leisure. Nope. You have to follow the one way system round only the ground floor galleries. To be honest, there is only so much Egyptian statuary and so many Greek vases that one wants to look at in one lifetime. Also, the Elgin marbles, well, yes, but seen them too often, especially when the kids were little. 

So, unless you have a burning desire to do all these things again, then best wait till one of the forthcoming exhibitions - on the Arctic, and Tantra -  open later in the autumn. The Benin bronzes aside, I wish I had. One bonus was Grayson Perry's Memorial to the Unknown Craftsman. That was worth seeing.

Hidden London - Derek Jarman at the Garden Museum

In lieu of a trip to Dungeness to see the real thing, check out the recreation of Jarman's beach cottage at the hidden way Garden Museum, which is tucked under the shadow of Lambeth Palace in a deconsecrated church, and easily missed. 

Paintings, small sculptures and his garden notebooks are on display along with films from the shingle garden and a series of haunting photographs, including one of him towards to end of his life showing the ravages AIDS related complications had taken on his body. Awful to see and remember the scourge AIDS was before effective drugs for HIV management. 

An interesting, but tiny exhibition in which I learned that Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd seemed to have met Jarman on a random trip to the seaside at Dungeness, culminating in Jarman sharing his plant list with Chatto. It is this encounter and list that was the genesis of her famous gravel garden. Who knew that little nugget of garden history? 

I rather liked reading in Jarman's notebook that he bought a dozen wallflowers at a boot fair for £1. So it's not just me then. More than admiring his beautiful handwriting, inked over initial pencil marks, one journal page includes a moving poem about AIDS victims with the refrain 'Cold, cold. cold they died so silently'. 

Other reason to visit the museum, which to be honest is rather dull even to me a garden nut, are the semi-tropical courtyard garden in the former graveyard packed with the kind of lush planting that might survive the average British winter, and two of its tombs. 

William Bligh, Captain of the Bounty, is memorialised for this and as the man who took breadfruit from the South Pacific to the West Indies, but not for any of his other expeditions, or acting as governor of New South Wales. Breadfruit was meant to be a food crop for the enslaved Africans on its plantations, but the small matter of a Mutiny put pay to plants being sourced in Tahiti as the Bounty did not make it there, hence a later and more successful expedition. 

A grand limestone tomb cornered by four carved trees and with scenes of exotic species and plants is that of John Tradescant, the elder who died in 1638. Plantsman and gardener, it is somewhat fitting that he ended up being part of a museum dedicated to his expert subject. 

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Returning to the gallery

Like every other art lover, I've been starved of the objects of my affection for five long months. I choose that verb with care; art is literally that nuturing to me, and looking a pictures and exhibition tours and even taking myself around Casa Azul interactively is absolutely no substitute for the real thing. My joy was unbounded when the galleries reopened. Yes, one has to be organised and book in advance, even as a member, but this is simple enough.

First off I went to White Cube in Bermondsey for Cerith Wyn Evans' glass sculptures. I've always loved his flutes and, as well as one of these, there are cracked windscreens and some lovely calligraphy influenced by the Japanese paintings. Free and empty of no more than half a dozen people when I went, it was one big of sigh of relief to be back.

Next the Tate opened, so I've now had time to see the Beardsley, which was only on display for a nano-second before the lock down. Again, one of the great benefits of limited numbers is that there is no straining to see the art works. Take as long as you like and people are pretty courteous at sharing the space. I spent a happy morning penis-spotting. Gone on, admit it, so will everyone who comes to this show, taking particular pleasure in the ones that missed the censoring eye of his publishers. The Salome prints are familiar, but there are a great number of other things to explore and enjoy.

And to round things off for the first fortnight, Warhol at Tate Modern, was a surprise. Just when you think you have seen every possible thing about and by Warhol, there were works that were new to me, and at least one (Marilyn's lips) that has never been exhibited in the UK before. Careful crowd control made this a very worthwhile trip. Hurrah and bravo. It is so good to be in one of my favourite places, and for it to be empty, as, if truth be told in recent years, I have found Tate Modern to be a bit of a scrum.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

The Thunder Mutters

I am honoured and thrilled to be included in this wonderful series of podcasts by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow

Do listen in to new work from me from Lilac Elegies.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Becomings - an exhibition by CSM students

Teo Burki

It seems so long ago now since we were allowed to gather together to celebrate, well, anything, so before this splendid show disappears from the memory, here’s some impressions. Opening on 12 March at the A.P.T Gallery in Deptford, the private view was a well-attended affair with lots of bubbly, and sushi, that proved difficult to eat whilst practicing good CV hygiene. But, enough of the food and onto the art.

Curated by final year and some first year MA students at Central St. Martins, in what, as it turns out now, was in effect their final degree show, it was a sadly short-lived five day exhibition, but one that I am very glad I caught before virus precautions closed it. Twenty seven students showed a wide variety of work across all media from ceramic tiles, to stone carving, to painting and video.

I’m not going to comment on each person’s work, rather I want to highlight those pieces that particularly appealed to me. Art, it’s a taste thing. So, in no particular order:

Kathryn Gee (film) & Rowan Riley (textile) presented an interesting collaboration of diaphanous embroidered textile onto which a short series of images was projected. The piece was pleasingly hung in its own side room, and had the benefit of having an iron spiral staircase behind it, which serendipitously added texture to the whole. I watched the image sequence several times and enjoyed it more on each viewing.

Painting that on first encounter is precise and perfect in its dreamy realism is the stock in trade of Sizou Chen. But look closer and you’ll see the disturbing nature of the imagery of her young, if not pre-pubescent, girls; their bodies arranged in un-natural poses and some with their limbs at impossible angles. They are disruptive and deliberately challenge the viewer – why are you looking/don’t look/ see, but look away, and so on. I found myself distinctly uncomfortable, and that is the point, and more so when I watched her animations of the paintings. Unsettling with a gloss of the beautiful, and nicely done.

Another woman artist presenting sexualised images is Tijana Petrovic. Her large scale painting, a semi-naked back view self-portrait of a woman in her stockings and panties, is another deliberate provocation to which I have a conflicted feminist response. I find it troubling that a contemporary artist would paint an image that conforms tradition and in that sense plays to the expectations of the male gaze. I did not see how, if at all, this was a reclaiming of this ground; there was no defiance, no head turned staring at the viewer. Indeed the face of this woman was absent, replaced by a head full of strawberries. Surreal? Yes sure, and beautifully executed, but I guess I wanted more from it.

The part-printed canvases of Eduardo Rebelo are fine abstractions in that they are all about colour. For me they conjure the bright palette of Southern Europe and I loved their vivacity, complementarity and bold mark making. Equally vivid is the work of Teo Burki whose piece here is a riotous collage of paper and paint presenting a multiplicity of pleasing images that require work on the part of the viewer. Initially the whole is an attractive abstract, but as one moves closer and around the canvas, one is rewarded with a number of vignettes and some very balanced painting. It’s part Twombly meets Rothko meets Matisse, but is in fact none of these.

Clara Fantoni
Total abstraction comes in the unlikely form of a large plastic sheet made quite by chance as the result of it being a groundsheet for other paintings. It is the work of Clara Fantoni who has produced/found an interesting piece with both strong and subtle marks in a secondary colour palette. She has a challenge on her hands though as to how to preserve work in this ultimately flimsy material without destroying it.

K Blick is busy exploring traditional Portuguese ceramic tile making. Here she has decorated an alcove’s worth of tiles with playful images of dinosaurs and other animals in what is a patchwork of Greek myth meets Jurassic park with a crawling baby thrown in. I rather enjoyed its mysterious wit.

Sculpture came in the form of Siân Fan’s pond of perspex waterlilies, which take the representational into the digital age, as they are in part decorated with geometric shapes for their greens. I found the superimposed disruption of other leaf patterns and other flowers, and their botanical impossibility strangely pleasing. Emma Moore’s stone cutting is pleasing for its utter simplicity of line, which exposes the beauty of the natural materials she uses. Mounting the sculpture high on steel supports is an excellent choice to bring the sun to eye level. I also enjoyed the deliberately partially-made marble piece tucked against the gallery wall. Work in progress has its own merits.

Politics was represented on a large scale by Simon Hodgkinson’s bold monochrome monotype/painting, which dramatically counterpoints the catastrophic climate present with a possible greener future. I enjoyed character spotting: Attenborough as god on his central cloud, Morrison and Trump as caged dinosaurs, Greta Thunberg as superwoman, along with a cast of endangered animals, slag heaps, pit winding gear, solar panels and windmills. It is always a challenge to show polemic lightly and with subtlety, and this work succeeds in this regard as it demands close viewing to absorb the entire conceit.

One tip I would suggest it to catalogue the show in advance. It was a pity that there wasn’t time for this, as whilst the artists’ CV’s were provided in a helpful brochure, there was no clue as to the title of any of the pieces, or indeed their prices if they had been for sale. People are pretty shy about asking the cost or work, and so it might save embarrassment all round, if a price list can be produced.

As to titles, I think artists in general are missing a trick. Untitled might be a deliberate obfuscation, but I suggest it should only be a rare one. Over-used it loses its power. More likely it might be, and probably is in most cases, just a bit lazy. Titles are hard to write – tell me about it - , but done well they can add to and not detract from the art work, provide subtle or not so subtle clues to intention and meaning, and they do not necessarily close down multiple readings. I would like to have known what all of these works were called.

Sam Shepheard-Walwyn
And now for my star of the show. The outstanding painting for me is that of Samsom Shepheard-Walwyn. Only very partly influenced by Kiefer, and only in one landscape, his two other paintings were my absolute favourite pieces for different reasons. His mythical bird was a brilliant use of paint. The boldness with which he allowed white paint to run in order to suggest the birds’ feathers was genius. And the vicious dog chasing another white bird was excellently animated, teeth and all. I’d happily have taken either of these home. Bravo.

Congratulations though to everyone  - high quality work, very well displayed. It’s just a real pity that not one of the tutors turned out to support their students’ work and efforts in mounting a professional show. They could have easily awarded the degrees on the basis of this exhibition alone. From me at least: Distinctions all round.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Afternoon Tea

It's a tradition, yes, and a bizarre one. Anyone who is not British will find it hard to understand why at 4pm everyday we stop doing whatever it is we are doing, including work, and make a cup of tea. And if we miss the hour, why we tut at ourselves and catch up pronto. More than a simple cuppa is, of course, possible. Some kind of cake or bun or sweet thing is typical too. Even a biscuit will suffice for this purpose.

But there's more. A cream tea involving scones and clotted cream and jam, in that order - don't trust anyone who puts cream on the jam -  is a lovely indulgence beyond a toasted tea cake dripping in butter, or a muffin. And that thing in the Importance of Being Earnest about cucumber sandwiches is for real. We do actually eat these, and other fillings besides, before turning our attention to the sweet stuff. But if you want the full monty in afternoon teas you need to not eat any lunch, and not plan on eating any supper either.

The best place to indulge in this lavish experience is one of the smarter hotels in London. Think The Ritz, Savoy, Dorchester or Claridges, for example, There are lesser places, but, hey, this is a once a year, special occasion treat. And be prepared to spend a pretty penny.

For my birthday this year, a very dear friend took me to The Dorchester where we indulged in two kinds of tea - I chose Ceylon and then Darjeeling - plus a third - to serve as a palette cleanser, a mixture of peach, rose and green tea unfurled into a flower in a glass flagon as we ate our sandwiches. These were of cucumber, what else? as there were some to be had in the market that morning, egg, smoked salmon, chicken, and beef. All crustless, delicious and eaten with a knife and fork. It's more than a little crass to eat this kind of tea with one's fingers.

Then the cake: first the cream tea with two kinds of scones, frutied and plain. And then the fancy cakes served on the traditional stand. At this point, and well over two hours in, we failed. We had simply eaten too much. Luckily it is not considered bad form to ask for a box in which to take one's cakes home. So, various fruity, sugary and chocolate confections found their way to accompanying my morning coffee for the next couple of days.

This odd ritual was a throughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon/early evening, but not one that I'd want to repeat too often, as it is hardly very good for one's health or figure.

After note: Champagne is an indulgence too far for me with tea. It's not traditional and I'm a stickler, but go ahead it you have something ultra-special to toast.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Hidden London - The Wallace Collection

OK, so it's not exactly a secret, being slap bang in the middle of Manchester Square behind Selfridges, but what are hidden are some gems of eighteenth and nineteenth century French (Fragonard, Corbet), British (Reynolds, Van Dyck), Spanish (Velasquez) and Italian paintings, some earlier Dutch masters (Rembrandt and co), a lot of Renaissance works, and some of the auctioned off contents of Le Petit Trianon.

The best way to tackle this confection of gilt bling furniture, objets and art is to wander and let your eye fall of the beautiful things that attract you without letting the sometimes overwhelming wall paper blind you. To my shame I have never been to this fabulous free museum before and I am glad that I have now put that right at my companion's invitation.

The thing that I most wanted to bring home was a Dutch painting called The Lace Maker - no, not that one by Vermeer, but the one by Netscher. I loved her embroidered cap, red jacket and the casual way she has kicked off her shoes. I also rather fancied any one of the collection of portrait miniatures and the gold trinket boxes. Or failing those then I would settle for one of three bronze snakes coiled in their Gordian knots.

I focussed on the art, even when it was badly hung - who puts a portrait above a door frame if it is to be seen? There are some famous things here too, like the Laughing Cavalier, who is not so much guffawing as smirking rather sarcastically, and whose vertical moustache would put the nearest hipster to shame. Plus royal and court portraits by Lawrence, society ladies by Reynolds and Fragonard's The Swing were familiar and surprisingly at home.

This was a rainy Sunday treat, which is more than can be said for our afternoon tea in the courtyard cafe as we had to queue for a table for quite a while, and for the tea for even longer, uncoordinated as it was with the cake appearing and consumed long before my pot of Darjeeling. Best avoid that.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Dora Maar - Tate Modern

Oh dear - nice commerical fashion photography and one or two surreal photographs that can claim the status of iconic, but really, a whole retrospective? I think not. And probably only because of her relationship with Picasso, and that whole revising the cannon project - fine, if the art merits it, but not here. Take a look at her paintings, watercolours etc. Not good. Not at all. There was one I loved, but only because it reminded me of the diminutive Spaniard. Hey ho. On your head be it if you go.

Poets for the Planet

I am delighted to have been part of this all day (February 8th) charity poem-a-thon organised by Poets for the Planet.

The whole thing was live streamed and recorded. My few minutes of glory can be viewed here.