Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Gestures and actions

It's dusk and the sky is a lovely purple colour. I drop my gaze to just above the roof tops and the purple has drained away and I can see the remaining vestige of daylight. It is a yellowy turquoise and is rapidly turning to dark blue. The sky is clear so we might see some stars tonight. It is 4.46pm and in 10 days it will be the shortest day of the year, otherwise known as the Midwinter Solstice.

A number of traditions associated with the solstice have been incorporated into that other great festival which follows hard on its heels. The yule log and yule wreaths made from holly and ivy makes for a traditional Christmas and the pagan festival is now nothing more than a background note to the main event. Just the other day I was confusing the pagan with the Christian when I was browsing around Mysteries, a new-age shop in Covent Garden, looking for a Christmas present for a friend who's an atheist. Are you confused because I think I am.

That same evening I was part of a group celebrating the end of the autumn academic term. There was a festive air in the Palm Tree pub while we enjoyed eating, drinking and chatting about our holiday plans. Then we were busy pulling on our coats, hats and scarves and grabbing our bags to walk the short distance to the Chisenhale Dance Space. There was a sense of anticipation after we'd hiked up three flights of stairs and queued quietly and respectfully before piling into the performance space. There may have been an audience of about 100 sitting on the raised benches and I was tapping my feet impatiently wondering when the 'evening of new work and exploration' would begin as there wasn't much to look at.

Evidently the Chisenhale Dance Space has been a 'seedbed for research and development in movement arts and independent dance' for over 25 years. We were to watch the work of four artists and then answer questions put to us by them about the performances. Helga Stromberger's Body and Light was fascinating. She was exploring the potential of projecting video images onto dancers and she tried various combinations of movement and images including sound. This performance was most interesting and some of it was quite hypnotic. Like Helga's Body and Light, Rachel Oxley's Dilate employed a number of women dancers who remained isolated from each other but in this case the focus was on gesture, speech and movement and sometimes it was very amusing, but sometimes frustrating when, for example, we had to watch the dancers sitting on chairs which were lying on the floor and they couldn't get up. The performance by SOFt was a complete contrast. SOFt are a collective of five dancers who work regularly together exploring improvisation and their work was wonderfully physical and some of the arm gestures reminded me of Martha Graham's work from the 1920s.

It was the second performer of the evening who bored me silly at the time but paradoxically has given me more pause for thought in the few days since than any of the other dancers. His performance wasn't a dance in the accepted sense at all. It was a series of actions of locking and unlocking his imaginary bike lock and we, the audience, were supposed to be able to follow everything he was doing. He said he less interested in demonstrating gestures than in actions. I didn't realise there was much difference between the two but consulting the dictionary I read that gestures are 'postures or movements expressive of sentiment or passion' whereas actions are movements without the emotional component.

While the imaginary bike lock was being opened and shut I mentally returned to my visit to Mysteries earlier in the day. I'd entered the shop hoping to enjoy a few minutes of mindless browsing at the gifts and books I would never buy before I went in search of food. I often do this and occasionally buy a card or candle on my way out.
The shop girls were busy chatting to each other very animatedly and weren't much interested in the customers. I began my journey around the shop by peering at the crystal jewellery on display in the glass case which never has any prices on show. Then I turned round and saw some china mugs. I was amused by the decoration and the message painted inside them. I wondered about buying one of them then decided against it. Then my attention was diverted by a massage glove hanging on a hook above my head and I reached up to take it down and inspect it more closely. There were more of the mugs hanging next to the glove and before I could get to the glove I managed to smash one of the mugs on the floor. This shocked me but didn't bother the shop girls who simply cleared the broken bits away and continued their conversation. On reflection I don't know whether I was using actions or gestures during this episode but the accident was certainly mindless.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

The First Emperor

It's Sunday evening and I'm sitting on the sofa writing this blog and watching 'Cranford' on television at the same time so I reckon that means I'm multi-tasking. I'm also surrounded by a sea of paper that's drifted into the house via the letterbox: some of it needs shredding, some needs filing and yet more of it simply needs recycling, but there is one piece of paper I won't be throwing out immediately. It is the brochure describing the exhibition that's pulling in the crowds at the British Museum and that's 'The First Emperor, China's Terracotta Army'.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be part of a focus group at the British Museum. This group spent most of the day, guided by facilitators, visiting exhibitions at the museum and discussing them afterwards. The results of these discussions will provide the museum staff with our opinions on what we thought worked well and what didn't. One of the threads that found its way into our conversations during the day was 'Isn't it great that we're getting to see the Terracotta Army as well!' The tickets for this exhibition are selling like hot cakes and rumour has it that visitors are queuing outside the museum every day from around 5.30 in the morning to snap up the 500 tickets that are released every day for sale. All our group had to do was turn up at the main gate at 9.15 am and be shown where to go and this made us feel very priviledged.

We congregated in the Great Court which is covered by a vast glass, domed roof which was installed in 2000 and is wonderfully light and shows off the sculptures to great effect but is very drafty to stand around in for too long. (Note for the future: wear more layers.) Once we had all arrived we were herded by our facilitators, gripping our notebooks and pencils in our hands, towards the entrance to the 'Terracotta Army' exhibition and encouraged to push aside the patiently waiting queue (remember they'd been waiting for hours) to arrive at the beginning of our journey 20 minutes before the paying public could go in.

Here we enjoyed, or endured, a nice piece of theatre. We had to navigate our way through a dark, narrow corridor with the only clue as to where we were going being the view of rows of books above us in the reading room to guide our way. Then we emerged into a lit area and had to ascend a flight of steps to reach the start of the exhibition which reminded me of climbing a pyramid. This served to create the atmosphere that we were entering a sacred space which was enhanced by the silence that surrounded us. There was the expected explanatory detail about the First Emperor who was born Ying Zheng in 259 BC and lived until he was 49 until 210 BC. He became the King of Qin when he was very young at the age of 13. The state of Qin was one of seven main states competing for power. Under his leadership Qin conquered the other states using highly developed weapons technology and military strategy. After his first campaign the King of Qin declared himself Qin Shihuangdi: First August Divine Emperor of the Qin. What a modest man he was!

As we proceeded around the exhibits we learned that the Emperor introduced reforms and enforced strict laws in order to govern his empire. Many of us were genuinely impressed that he established a standard weights and measures, a single currency and a universal script across the empire: all of this happened thousands of years ago. We were also surprised to discover that one of their measures for liquid is almost identical to our litre and that 'Qin' is pronounced 'Chin' which may be the origin for the name China. So we moved on past weapons, arrowheads and decorative glass vases but I was becoming impatient to see the warriors themselves. I skipped some of the exhibits so I could rush through the doorway that marked the division from life to the afterlife and finally gazed on the terracotta warriors.

There were about 14 in total - not the 7000 that the Emperor was buried with - but that didn't detract from the spectacle. The sculptures are life sized and originally would have been painted in bright colours. Every figure has individual features and their own personal clothing. One of them is a fat strongman which amused a number of us because he looked like a sumo wrestler. Another one had slouching shoulders and a concave chest. There was also an acrobat whose limbs were partially missing and there were life size horses pulling a wooden wagon. Archaeologists have also excavated civil officials and musicians, bronze chariots and birds in an area 56 km square. The tomb was more than 30 years in the making and once the Emperor had been buried the whole complex was concealed and seen by no-one until a farmer digging nearby found a terracotta head back in 1974. This exhibition deserves a second visit so next time I'll just have to go and join the queue and wait patiently like everyone else.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Please watch your step

Thames Water Authority have been spending the last few months digging up our roads and pavements and replacing the decrepit Victorian water mains that provide our drinking water with nice, new, blue plastic pipes. We know they are blue because we can see them stacked up ready for use everywhere we go. As the engineers finish one section of road they move onto another, or they might start again on the same section of road they just completed. This work is likely to continue for months to come so every time we leave the house we have to watch where we step since the surface we're walking on might have changed overnight!

Last weekend we had a guest to stay who was keen to visit Tate Modern and we were happy to oblige. This entailed skirting the red metal fencing surrounding the various excavations in the roads and walking on heavy plastic covers laid over holes in the pavements to get to the bus stop for the 388 bus. I always find this bus route an interesting ride because it takes you through Hackney to Bethnal Green and then through the City of London and on to St Paul's Cathedral which is where we got off.

Tate Modern is on the opposite side of the Thames to St Paul's and the quickest and most scenic route to cross is to go via the Millennium footbridge. This is an elegant, steel suspension bridge described as a 'blade of light' and is the first bridge to be built across the Thames since Tower Bridge in 1894. However it's got the nickname of the 'Wobbly Bridge' because of an unexpected swaying as a result of the numbers of people walking across it in the first two days it was opened. Consequently the bridge had to be closed to the public in June 2000 and modified to eliminate the wobble and reopened in February 2002. So now it is safe to cross and you can enjoy the view while you walk. It only takes a couple of minutes to make the crossing and you'll notice to the left hand side of the Tate the Globe Theatre which is a reconstruction of the theatre where Shakespeare's plays were performed during his lifetime. Since the theatre is open to the elements, having no roof, it has a short season which ends in the autumn.

As we approached the Tate we could clearly see Louise Bourgeois' sculpture of an enormous spider. I have seen this piece on display inside the gallery where it seemed dwarfed by the size of the Turbine Hall but outside it seemed to have more impact because it is clearly larger than anything else near it and made the humans walking around it look a lot like ants milling around.

So finally we had reached our goal which was the installation in the Turbine Hall that has been causing so many comments in the last few weeks. It has become known as the 'crack in the floor' and several visitors managed to fall into it in the first few days it was open to the public, so presumably they weren't looking where they were going! It is the work of a Colombian artist called Doris Salcedo and is called 'Shibboleth'. A shibboleth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 'a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation, a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly.' It is, therefore, a way of separating one people from another. I've been quoting from the text written by Martin Herbert published in the accompanying leaflet and he continues: 'For Salcedo, the crack reveals a 'colonial and imperial history [that] has been disregarded, marginalised or simply obliterated...'

I was obviously too shallow to understand any of this while I traced the length of the crack from one end of the hall to the other. I didn't get at all the 'untold dark side of the history of racism' while I examined the crack. I happily crossed from one side of the crack to the other in my short journey. I admired the skill it must have taken to create it and wondered how she managed to embed the chain-link fence into the crack that is clearly visible, but I didn't feel I was being encouraged to 'confront discomforting truths about our world and about ourselves'. However I did think it was time for lunch once our visit was over.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Off to Avebury

So yesterday, Sunday, saw us travelling to Avebury. We were spending the weekend with friends of ours in Swindon and this trip was our Sunday outing. Avebury is in Wiltshire, nearer to Marlborough than Swindon but still only a short drive away through rolling countryside. I enjoyed being a passenger in the back of the car having the leisure to look at the leaves on the trees, which are turning to red and gold, in the clear, autumn light while our friend drove and navigated diversions on the road.

Avebury is a World Heritage Site and is one of Europe's largest stone circles and some of the stones are impressively colossal. Unlike Stonehenge which is two miles west of Amesbury (also in Wiltshire) and is on a small, contained site, Avebury extends in a large straggling sort of way across a number of fields. It accommodates a pretty little village and some roads run round some of the larger stones. Apparently the stone circles were constructed 4000 years ago and originally comprised more than 180 stones. Where the stones are missing pointed stone markers have been put in their place so you can see the shape the circles would have made.

I have to confess that I'm not that interested in speculating what the original purpose of the Avebury stones might have been since the circles were created so long ago, but I do find the maps of earth energies you can buy in the village shop that some people have taken the trouble to dowse, and map, entertaining. What I do enjoy about the place is the atmosphere of tranquility and peace inspite of the numbers of people, and grazing sheep, you meet along the way traversing the various paths. At one point I was passed by a large party, who may have been one family, complete with young and older people and at least one dog. They were so close to me that as they walked I could clearly hear their conversation. Within a few minutes I saw them in the distance walking in a line from right to left, up and down a small hill and they suddenly looked more like pilgrims en route to a destination known only to them and their conversation was completely private. We finished our stroll to the site with a visit to a stand of old, knarled beech trees that have roots that extend so far from the base of the trunks that they have formed an interlacing pattern. It was like standing under a tent and every so often some people would leave the protection of the trees and others would join them.

It seemed natural at this point to visit the Red Lion pub and I quote "it is the only Inn the world positioned within an ancient stone circle and is said to be one of the top ten most haunted locations in the world". They apparently have a resident ghost called Florrie who "is said to have had her throat slit by her husband after he caught her with another man and threw her down the well with a boulder thrown on top of her". The said well is in the bar and is safely covered with a glass lid. Frankly it looked to be a tight fit for any but the slimmest adulteress to end her days in but no-one seemed to care one way or the other since eating lunch was the chief activity going on.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Open House

Last weekend was Open House across London. This meant that us commoners could gain access to buildings which are generally closed to the general public. This is a once-a-year treat that is, I understand, available across Europe at this time of year and snooping around otherwise closed buildings can be a lot of fun.

In past years we have queued for an hour and a half to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which gave us a chance to chat at length to friends we hadn't seen in a while. We've also trekked around pumping stations in East London and a hospital in Bromley-by-Bow. They were all very interesting. Last Sunday we chose to visit Charterhouse Chapel. It was a pleasant afternoon and we walked there from Union Chapel in Compton Terrace, Islington. We basically traveled south via Upper Street gawping at all the restaurants as we walked. We reached the Angel and joined St John Street where it meets Pentonville Road and then continued south.

We carried on, passing yet more restaurants until they petered out to be replaced with 1960s office blocks. They were all empty because it was the weekend so this part of the street was pretty much deserted and it felt as though we were trespassing on a film set. We passed City University and eventually reached Clerkenwell Road. I thought we were nearly there by then but no, St John Street carried on further yet. We finally turned left when we reached Charterhouse Street which led us to Charterhouse Square.

I can't really recall much about the square except that the road surface is cobbled which makes it picturesque to look at and awkward to walk on and there is a garden in the middle of it. I admit I wasn't really paying attention because I was distracted by seeing real live people forming a queue outside a gate. We joined them and it turned out that the chapel wasn't going to be open for another 10 minutes so we had to be patient and wait until we could go in. While we waited we were given information sheets to read and we learned that the chapel was built by Sir Walter de Manny in 1349 to commemorate the thousands of Black Death victims who were buried in the square which had been purchased by him as an emergency burial ground. 'Oh, so that's what the nice garden is for', and, 'are there people buried under my feet as I stand here?' are a couple of the thoughts that passed through my mind.

In 1371 Sir Walter founded a Carthusian priory on the site and the chapel became the priory church. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1545 the chapel was demolished to make way for a new, private house for Sir Edward North. So when you pass through the gate into a garden you can see marked out on the grass the layout of the original church and the tomb of the founder, who is still buried there, and a memorial to the brothers and lay brothers who were executed by Henry VIII for refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy.

Then you are directed towards a door which takes you to the Chapel Cloister. My experience of cloisters, which I admit is limited, is that they form four sides of a square around a small garden and are open to the elements. This may well have been the case when this monastery was founded but this cloister is more like a wide corridor leading to the present chapel and was glazed in 1847. It is full of commemorative plaques to various former pupils of Charterhouse School which is now located in Surrey. The building above the cloister was destroyed by a fire bomb during the Blitz in 1941 and later restored. Within the doorway that leads to the chapel is what remains of the wooden door which resisted the fire in 1941 and saved the chapel from ruin.

As I entered the chapel my first impression was, 'isn't it small and dark?' There are box pews and it looks as though the officers of the church, the choir (if there is one), the organist and congregation must all sit on top of each other. When my eyes had had a chance to get used to the view I decided it was rather cosy and could seat a good many people in comfort. My attention was drawn to a memorial on the wall to one of Thomas Sutton's executors. It has a portrait of the said gentlemen that is in relief. He looks rather splendid in his robes and ruff and has the same name as, and looks similar to, a good friend of ours which is remarkable because this man died in 1614!

The main function of the Charterhouse, is now as a home to 40 male pensioners, known as Brothers, some of whom were there to answer our questions, and so it seems the site has gone full circle with Brothers still in residence six centuries after the original priory was founded.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Wandering in Wiltshire

Thursday lunchtime found us sitting on a bench eating pasties and gazing at the Wiltshire countryside. The view included, about a mile away, the A30, beyond which is a clearly marked DANGER area, where Her Majesty's armed forces practice blowing stuff up and is close to, if not part of, Salisbury Plain. The weather was glorious and I discovered later on that I looked as red as a beetroot having caught the sun and not used any suntan lotion.

Our goal was to get to Roche Court to see a sculpture exhibition of Anthony Caro's work that was due to end in a few days time. We'd got this far on our journey by first taking the bus from Salisbury. Then, not knowing the area, we stayed too long on the bus and found ourselves stranded in what might as well have been No Man's Land. We had in our possession an Ordnance Survey map, no 131 if you're interested, bought the day before specifically to avoid getting lost but initially it was no use since we couldn't find where we were on the map so couldn't get our bearings. The result was a rather longer walk than we had hoped. We were finally put on the right path by two nice ladies who were doing some gardening and after that we were able to enjoy the day. It turns out that had we had our own helicopter we could have landed it on the front garden at Roche Court if we'd given them advance warning of our arrival!

Straw soaked in disinfectant by the main gate reminded us that Foot and Mouth is back in the country and that Roche Court is a working farm as well as venue for art exhibitions. The main house appeared to be a Georgian building but visitors are not allowed in the house. Visitors are allowed to roam around the large expanse of garden where a lot of sculptures are displayed, in the walled kitchen garden where there are more sculptures and in the small contemporary gallery, which joins the house, and was showing some abstract works by Sheila Girling. I had expected to only see the Caro's on display in the garden but a number of other artists had work on show which made for a more interesting visit. Barbara Hepworth was included as was Richard Long. There were a few odd pieces that looked like fairy tale characters from the Brothers Grimm but they were offset by pieces that I found more interesting and were abstract pieces inspired by the human figure.

I realised I was getting a bit tired when, in the walled kitchen garden, I paid more attention to the structures that the runner beans were growing up than the artwork next to them. However the things that really impressed me here were a couple of very large amphorae lying on the ground. I don't know if these were really, really old but I know this kind of thing was used in ancient Rome to contain oil or wine and I liked to imagine that they might be ancient.

We completed our visit by sitting on one of the exhibits and having a chat. It was a piece called 'Harbour' by Oliver Barratt - I hope he didn't mind but we just needed to have a sit down before embarking on our return journey to Salisbury.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

On the Arundel Gallery Trail

Bank holiday Monday found us on a smart new train out of Victoria Station and heading south towards Arundel in Sussex. We were going to sample the Arundel Gallery Trail which is held during the Arundel Festival towards the end of August every year. The idea was to go and see our friend, David who I'd shared a stall with at our local Midsummer Festival. He was showing his woodcut prints and drawings along with three other artists in a vacant shop in Tarrant Street which was at the heart of the gallery trail and so was a good place to exhibit.

Arundel lies close to the South Downs and the countryside, as you approach by train, is distinctly different from anything we usually see in the Lea Valley and is well worth a visit. The town has its very own castle which is rare and was established at the time of the Norman Conquest. The castle has been extensively restored over time and frankly looks too good to be true. Being sited on a hill it dominates the view of the town from the train station and provides a good landmark to follow as you walk into town. The castle has been home to the Dukes of Norfolk, the premiere Catholic family in the country, since way back in the 1500s. The town also boasts its own cathedral which is, I understand, what normally defines a city but since it's a Roman Catholic cathedral that may not apply in this case.

We approached the town from Queen Street which meant we had to cross the River Arun and as we did so we were offered the chance to buy an entry into the duck race and the plastic yellow ducks were all lined up and ready to go! I quite fancied the idea of joining in but by the time we went back some time later it was all over - shame. Never mind, since what we really wanted to do was go visit art. The trail is an art 'open house' event and you can pick up a brochure with a map in it and trot up and down streets entering participating houses and shops on a whim and without an invitation. It's great fun and provides a fantastic opportunity to snoop round posh Georgian houses. A couple of the houses had jazz music playing in the background which competed with the live Rock and Roll playing in the town square - I must say I preferred the jazz. There was the usual mix of interesting work and tat and some work had the desirable little red dots placed underneath indicating they had been sold.

We particularly liked some sculptures in what estate agents would call a well appointed garden in Maltravers Street. There were some sculptures of individual fish on metal spikes pushed into the lawn which, when displayed in an untidy row, resembled a shoal of fish which we rather liked and I can't remember the name of the artist and there was also a display of large copper pots made by Mike Savage. It would have been nice to buy one of these pots but we don't have room in our very small garden. Another artist's work which made a favourable impression on us was by Andy Waite. While we didn't like everything on show in his house we very much liked some of his large landscapes, especially those which had been inspired by the local landscape and you can have a look at some of them at his website. Arundel is a small town and it seems that everyone knows everyone else so I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Andy and tell him that many years ago I spent some time lolling around in his kitchen when David had lived there. Oh, how time flies!

Saturday, 25 August 2007

And finally Henry Wellcome himself...

So now I moved onto an adjacent gallery housing some of the many art objects collected by Henry Wellcome during his lifetime. It was quite chilly in the gallery and that matched the creepy feeling I got when I looked at some of the exhibits. The first to catch my eye was a Chinese torture chair. It resembled a large, upright dining chair with arm rests but the arm rests were pointy blades, and the seat of the chair had blades on it as well. Next to that was a birthing chair which looked almost as bad as the torture chair but without the blades and next to that was a dentist's chair which, although very old, was recognisable as a dentist's chair I may have sat in myself.

Henry Wellcome was born in 1853 in Wisconsin and died in 1936 in London. He established the pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company with his colleague, Silas Mainville Burroughs. Henry Wellcome was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, patron of science and a pioneer of aerial photography. He bought very widely anything to do with medicine and you can see some of it in this gallery. One of the glass cases which intrigued me was full of prosthetic limbs. There were arms and legs in all shapes and sizes with straps for keeping them in place and they were highly decorated in an attempt to match the real thing. I've no idea how comfortable they were to wear and it's hard to imagine they were anything like the ones made today.

The collection includes many small diagnostic dolls used by Chinese doctors and Japanese sex aids. I gawped at Napoleon's toothbrush and wondered if that was his only toothbrush or if he replaced them as often as we are urged to. I seem to remember that there was a pair of Florence Nightingale's slippers and a sample of George IIIs hair was somewhere but sadly I can't recall it. I do remember the oil paintings which included one of a woman giving birth and one large painting of a surgeon gazing towards a window while holding a woman's heart in his hand after he's completed a post mortem on her. At this point I felt a bit queasy and was ready to leave the building.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Moving on

At this point we leave the beating heart thumping gently and ascend a metal spiral staircase to the next exhibition called Medicine Now. (I forgot to mention that all this is free to Joe public.) This exhibition contains human remains but it's nothing to worry about because when you see this exhibit it doesn't look like something you'd have a conversation with, or for that matter, share a cup of tea with - it just looks like a scientific illustration that just happens to be human shaped.

The human body, rather than medical implements, is at the heart (pardon the pun) of this exhibition. Near the entrance is a large transparent perspex model of a body with all the internal organs on display neatly decked out in different colours. There are labelled buttons on a board in front of this object and when you press, say 'Spleen' a little object lights up so you can see where it is in relation to 'Liver' or 'Lung' or 'Small intestine' which looked enormous to me and I could have spent quite a long time playing with this but my attention was diverted by a television screen. Here I was able to watch excerpts from programmes, dating from the 1960s up to the present day, about attitudes to medical problems. It began with a patronising discussion about children with Downs Syndrome which I found shocking and then covered all sorts of other things including, I think, cloning and Dollie the sheep.

When I felt in need of a sit down I plonked myself on a Sound Chair. When you do this a recording starts and I listened to one on malaria and another on obesity. Fortunately they also provide a written transcript of the text in case you can't hear everything. Following this I voluntarily stood in front of a camera which photographed my face and compared it with the previous 50 faces it had shot. Then the image of my face was distorted to make it fit the 'average' face and I looked even weirder than I normally do.

At one end of this exhibition there is a browsing area including something they call the Forum. This isn't a market place where people set the world to rights but a wall displaying visitors artwork. You are invited to choose a word or two printed on the back of a large card then turn the card over and write and draw about those words. I chose the word 'fever' and produced something that was fantastically dull but, unlike mine, a lot of the cards on display were really interesting and witty.

There were also plenty of pieces of artwork that artists had made in response to all things medical including a large, subtle piece that could have been mistaken for an embroidery but on closer inspection it became clear that it had been made from over-the-counter drugs and carved into the shapes of the parts of the body that particular pill was intended to help. Next to this was one of my favourite parts of the exhibition. You have to listen to it on headphones and it was a couple of minutes from a comedy sketch by a comedian who has MS and he was describing his neighbours reaction to his walking stick - it was very funny and I would like to have heard the whole thing.

More later ...

Wednesday, 15 August 2007


On Tuesday we took a short walk through Hackney to catch the number 30 bus. This time we were heading west towards Euston Square which is beyond Kings Cross! I enjoy this bus journey because you travel through different areas of London which have their own distinctive qualities.

After you've left Hackney, which is known for its diverse ethnic culture including Turkish and Vietnamese restaurants, you get to Dalston which is currently suffering from some urban blight but in its favour is home to the Vortex jazz club, where we tapped our feet to Clara and the Real Lowdown last Friday, and a Polish deli. Before long you're approaching expensive Islington. This used to be a working class district but now it helps to be a millionaire. Having turned left at Highbury Corner you find yourself in Upper Street which is almost exclusively filled with restaurants. This is a great place, of an evening, to sashay up and down the road showing off to everyone else who is showing off.

On reaching the Angel, Islington (which has a revolting piece of public art at the N1 centre) you turn right into Pentonville Road. There is a prison of the same name but there's no sign of it in this part of the road. From here its downhill to Kings Cross, one of our mainline stations and then the bus carries on past the British Library arriving at Euston Station, another mainline station. This is where you get off and walk a short distance to an imposing building which houses the Wellcome Collection.

This was my first visit and, being rather ignorant, I was just vaguely aware of Wellcome being associated with medicine and drugs. Little did I know that it also owns a staggering collection of art, much of which relates to medicine and there, in the foyer, was a hanging sculpture of a body by none other than Antony Gormley.

So we start with The Heart exhibition which is on for another month. You begin in Egypt where you learn that the heart was seen 'as the centre of intellect, character and emotion'. Moving on you are introduced to Galen (129 - 200 CE) who was an ancient Greek physician and philosopher whose ideas about the workings of the heart endured for more than a thousand years. Then, and this really amazed me, there were a few anatomical drawings of the heart by Leonardo da Vinci, no less, and these have been lent by Her Majesty the Queen. So those pretty much knocked me out and I ought to go back and have another look at them. Then you learn about William Harvey (1578 - 1657) who graduated from the University of Padua in Italy. He was a great fan of dissection and the results of his many experiments to do with the heart and circulation of blood, when published, challenged Galen's well established model.

At this point I went and sat in a small cinema which was showing a film about heart operations conducted at Papworth hospital in Cambridgeshire with a sound track of Billy Graham, the preacher, sermonising about the siginificance of blood and the heart in the bible. Since I am rather squeamish and didn't have a cushion to hide behind I got up and left when the surgeons were firing up the electric saw so I never did find out what happened to the patient.

And this, dear reader, is where we leave the 'heart' for two more exhibitions which I'll cover in my next post.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Another day, another walk

On Friday evening three of us decided it would be nice to take a walk together on the following day, Saturday. The temperature was cool when we made the decision but come the next morning it was a different story and the weather was forecast to be about the hottest it's been this summer. True, we haven't had a glorious English summer this year but I still think that 30° C is hot for walking - others no doubt will disagree.

One of our party was keen to meet early in the morning so we could be out for the whole day but there was shopping to be bought and chores to be done so we compromised and met at around noon at Hackney Wick station. Our plan was to amble roughly north along the Lea Valley Park as far as Springfield Park, which is a distance of about three miles, with no particular plans in mind after that. We hadn't done this walk for over a year and were curious to know how the area may have changed in the mean time. This is because part of the Lea Valley Park is being incorporated into the 2012 Olympic site and this will change the area's appearance. However the only change we could see were blue hoardings that have been erected on the east side of part of the tow path restricting, but not impeding, the movement of cyclists and walkers for a short distance.

So far, so good. No sign then of the Olympics spoiling our weekend pursuits at least for the time being. Our walk took on a pleasant pace and we paused every so often to look at something, or pick a berry, or take a swig of water and there were few other people around to d
isturb the peace. At some point I remarked on the sight, on the opposite bank, of a partly submerged canal boat still tied at one end to a post on the canal side. My companions didn't find the sight of a sunken boat remarkable, and, while I would have liked to have stared at it for longer wondering who had left it in that state, they kept on walking.

So with Hackney Marsh to our right, which is apparently to be turned into a coach park for the Olympics and no longer available for football matches, our destination for lunch was not far off. First of all we had to pass the Middlesex filter beds and nature reserve. We recommended visiting this on our return to our friend but in the event did not go back that way and so the opportunity on this occasion was lost.

Here we crossed Cow Bridge and got onto the west side of the canal and headed to the Princess of Wales pub for lunch. I always find this pub a slightly depressing place because it is full of photos of Dia
na but today we chose to sit outside and so didn't have to look at them. While we were waiting for our food we looked over the canal to a recently restored building which has an air of a Lutyens country house about it. Far from being the home of an affluent industrialist it is the office from where Thames Water authority are coordinating the upgrading of our leaking Victorian water mains which will take who knows how long to accomplish. There is another pub next door to the Princess of Wales which has a nautical theme and I think we should try it on our next visit. There is a chance that the food might be better than the lunch we had which looked nice enough but didn't taste of anything much.

So on to Sprin
gfield Park which we reached by continuing along the canal and it's entrance is just past the Anchor and Hope pub. The park used to have some rather elegant villas in it and one remains with a café in it. There are formal gardens in it where a wedding party were having their photographs taken and acres and acres of lawn where people were sunbathing and picnicing. The park is on a hill so you can get a good view of the Walthamstow Marshes and since most of London is so flat it's nice to get above sea level occasionally and this is where I chose to sit and do this drawing.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Yes, I'm lost

I think I'm standing all alone. All I can see in front of me is white stuff. I'm beginning to panic slightly and can feel tension rising in my chest then someone's elbow suddenly hoves into view. Almost hits me in the face. Then there's a laugh and the owner of the elbow just as suddenly disappears. I have no idea where I am. I try to remember where the doorway is and the friend I came in to this space with! So, do I go on into the unknown, or make my way back through the unknown to the doorway that represents safety?

No, I'm not leaving yet, I think. I'm going to be brave and keep on exploring this space but I feel more or less paralysed by fear. I reach my hand out to find the edge, the glass that's defining this space and suddenly the experience is too frightening and I need to leave. The white stuff is like a dense cloud, sort of like wet cotton wool and is all encompassing - it feels as though it is inside me as well as outside me. The experience is so disorienting and my expectations have been so thoroughly turned upside down that the white cloud actually feels heavy to move through and all I can see is white, white, white.

I'm not describing a nightmare, nor I am stuck in a blizzard. I have been experiencing Antony Gormley's White Light which is on at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank in London. This exhibit is a cloud-filled glass box where you can lose yourself and is definitely the hands on part of the exhibition since that's the only part of your body that will give you any idea of where you are and only then when you bump into something or someone.

I can't describe it better than Antony Gormley so I quote: 'Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter this interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside. Also you become the immersed figure in an endless ground, literally the subject of the work.'

So if you fancy trying out the modern day equivalent to a ride on a ghost train the exhibition continues until 19 August.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Recent work

I've added a new section to my website devoted to recent work which you can see here. I will add work to this area as I complete it.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Are you lost?

"Are you lost?" the man asked. "No", I replied "we're puzzled". And we were because we were trying to find the beginning of a walk. We were planning to walk along part of the route of the river Wandle beginning near Wandsworth Town train station and finishing 4.5 miles later at Merton Abbey Mills, near Colliers Wood Station.

We were following the route described in Gilly Cameron-Cooper's book Walking London's docks, rivers & canals and cursed ourselves for leaving the A to Z at home which at this point would have been more useful. We began to get our bearings after we'd crossed four lanes of traffic, which is part of the Wandsworth gyratory system, and found Smugglers Way which took us close to the river Thames. Feeling more confident we got on to the Causeway which we learned from the guide book 'was once the road to the village square over the marshy delta of the Wandle'. Evidently the Wandle was great for water power and was one of the best rivers in England for driving mills and this gave rise to all sorts of industry being established on its banks. In the early 19th century the many mills were powering industries like 'lavender and leather processing and the production of beer, gunpowder, chocolate, textiles and paper'. In fact the Ram Brewery, which had been a commercial brewery since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and later bought by Youngs in 1831, has only recently closed for business.

After our fleeting sight of the river Wandle we came upon a modern day industrial site where we were directed to turn left. This was impossible as the way was blocked by a building so we trudged on until we found a local map in a bus shelter which put us back on the right route. This involved recrossing the gyratory system and here our walk proper began. We circuited the Ram Brewery premises which was full of parked vehicles and appeared to be functioning but there was no sign of human life. We wondered what's going to happen to the place now: more than likely it will end up with expensive flats built on the site.

We decided to give the town museum a miss and pressed on to King George's Park and the Wandle Trail, leaving the road works and building sites behind us. The Wandle disappears under Wandsworth's famous Arndale shopping centre and we picked it up again in the park which is a very pleasant, manicured municipal green space with an impressive willow tree, tennis courts and playgrounds for the kids. The further we followed the Wandle Trail the less built up the route became and we could enjoy the rhythm of walking and breathing fresher air. This wasn't to last long because our way was blocked again with industrial buildings and we had to make our way through a large housing estate, which had amazing repeating curved arches under which we walked, to Garrett Lane and then into Earlsfield.

Earsfield was once a rural village and presumably Garrett Lane had been a country lane before the opening of the railways. Now you have to use your imagination because there is concrete and tarmac as far as the eye can see. We decided this was a good as time as any to stop at a pub, and it was pouring with rain, so we ducked into a cavernous bar which it turned out was called 'the puzzle'. Once we'd rejoined the trail we entered the part of the walk which felt very much like being in the country. Our pace slowed and we had time to stare and listen to the sounds of the river. This may not have lasted much more than a mile but the impact it had on me made it feel like the greater part of the walk. Before too long it was time to start navigating our way around Colliers Wood. We couldn't walk through much of the Wandle Meadow Nature Park due to flooding but we could see it and it looked like a lake.

According to our map the end of our walk was in sight but, like the start of our outing, we had much circumnavigating to do before we reached our goal. We found ourselves traipsing through an out-of-town retail park where many centuries before Merton Priory had existed until the Dissolution in 1538. Instead of walking through cloisters, or attending church, or getting fish from the fish ponds we found ourselves passing PC World, fast food joints and filling stations. Still surrounded by retail outlets built in the 1980s we were puzzled again as to how to get to Merton Abbey Mills but we carried on until we saw a small area of old buildings with many sign posts saying 'Merton Abbey Mills'. So there it was, at last and we gratefully sat at a table at Mama Rosa's Italian Trattoria to eat a delicious Italian meal while reading about Emma, Lady Hamilton, Admiral Lord Nelson and William Morris, the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement, all of whom had lived, loved and laboured on this same site in previous generations.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Website update

This is just to let you know that I have updated my website, which previously had three images on it and now has over 50 images, and you can visit it here.

Monday, 9 July 2007

A short stroll to the canal

As I enter the park through the gate I leave every day life behind me. I'm standing under a tall avenue of plane trees which are as high as a church and extend as far as my eye can see to my left and my right. The branches provide slowly moving shade and a similar tranquility that you might find in a cathedral.

I leave the protection of the trees and enter the open country of the park and am exposed to the sun which feels hot. There are few people around, most walking dogs, and I can hear dried leaves crackling underfoot. I pass the bandstand which stands empty in a stand of trees. Occasionally I see someone practicing martial arts in there but not today. As I move on I spy one or two cyclists in the distance; then feeling a breeze hear it whistling through the trees. Now I am approaching the canal - the object of my walk - and become aware of a number of crows standing on the grass which reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. This feels slightly menacing but is swiftly replaced with the intoxicating scent of Honeysuckle which I luxuriate in but oddly can't locate.

Here I leave the park and walk onto the tow path of the Hertford Union Canal. I am aiming for the Top Lock as opposed to any other lock. There's one narrow boat moored by the side of the canal and I can just discern the people on it talking. I can hear more birdsong now I am by the canal but they are ha
ving to compete with the sounds of crashing coming from the industrial units opposite. Two very large birds swim gracefully by and I wonder if they are swans or ducks as I turn left towards my goal. While I am enjoying the sounds of bees buzzing, birds whooshing and butterflies fluttering silently by my eyes are distracted by a number of industrial plastic sacks lying in the water by the side of the canal. They look as though they have been there for a very long time.

I forget the bags as soon as I spot the blackberry bushes and hoping for a free treat (although this is only July) feel mildly disappointed when I see that none of the fruit is ripe yet. Then my butterfly mind is occupied by another new sight which I've never seen before. It's on the opposite bank and set in a housing development. It's a sculpture and at first glance it looks like a horse pulling a carriage. On the other hand it could just as easily be a horse towing a rowing boat and what I had thought was the awning of the carriage could also be describing a wave of water. I can see there is a small notice by the sculpture, but I will have to wait until I've worked out how to get over to that side of the canal before I can read it, and that won't be toda

I continue my stroll towards the Top Lock accompanied by the drone of an aeroplane and in the distance I can see the constant stream of traffic on the A12, which although not a motorway might as well be one. The traffic noise is drowned by the torrent of water rushing through the gates of the lock and it smells seaweedy which strikes me as odd since we are inland. I have reached my goal but find I have to share it with a couple who are having a romantic moment. They are oblivious to my presence but I am aware of them so leave them to their privacy. I can come back another day.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

It's raining, it's pouring...

The sky is grey, outside is wet and I'm probably going to spend most of this weekend indoors. Being indoors is making me feel all introspective and I've been reflecting on one of my reasons for making art which is to capture experiences I have had. I find it easier to do this when the experience is actually happening - like painting a view while looking at it - rather than trying to remember later on what the experience was like.

The rain has reminded me of the time we went to a music festival in Bethnal Green and it was lovely and sunny when we got there. I'd gone prepared to do some sketching and I had my travelling watercolour set with me and my little
camping stool. I set up camp in front of the sound stage and, ever conscious of opportunistic thieves ready to steal my belongings, I began to sketch what I could see.

Before long I attracted an audience of my own who were keen to watch me over my shoulder while I worked. I found this unsettling but was resigned to it since this often happens if I work outside where there are people around - you briefly become public property. What I wasn't prepared for was one man with his small daughter who took up a position slightly behind me and to my left and behaved as though he was my personal security guard and even directed other members of my 'audience' where to stand with an imperious wave of the hand. Since I wanted to get on with my task in hand I didn't bother to remonstrate with him; instead I hoped he would get bored and leave me alone. This did not happen but in this instance I was saved by a downpour which you can see made the paint run (sketch shown above) and made those of us caught in the rain head for the nearest tent. Although it's not possible to see it in my painting when I look at it I can remember the feelings of claustrophobia and the lack of freedom I felt when I was hemmed in by my group of onlookers.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

The day of the midsummer fair

Saturday dawned overcast and a bit drizzly in Hackney. Still, that was a lot better than the rest of the country has been putting up with during 'blazing' June with many places ankle deep in water. Saturday marked the day for the Victoria Park Traders Association summer fair and I was going to share a stall with a friend. This would be my first experience as a market trader and my stock-in-trade was my greetings cards that I've produced from sketches I made during the '90s; you can see a selection on the left. I undertook some market research last year and found out which were the favourite designs so I was happy with my selection of cards. By the time my co-stall-holder, who was planning to sell his wood cut engravings, had driven up from Sussex the sun was shining and there were patches of blue sky and we quickly set up our stall.

The area for the site of this fair is known these days as Victoria Park Village. This is a misnomer - there never has been, in the traditional sense, a village in this area of London. As far as I know there was one in Bethnal Green and there was one in Hackney in the centre of the present town. The place we now know as London is a collection of towns and villages plus the City of London and City of Westmister which over the centuries have merged into one enormous city. Many of these locations have retained some of their former atmosphere, architecture and street names and have a sense of history which can add charm to your visit or conversely they consist of miles and miles of identical houses, parades of shops, roads and tube stations which you feel you'll never find your way out of. Help!!

Anyway this modern day village of Victoria Park, which really means in, estate agent's shorthand, an area of affluence with rising house prices, is in the borough of Hackney and takes its name from Victoria Park which is in the borough of Tower Hamlets next door. I've always felt a bit cynical about this 'village' tag but I was to have the cynicism wiped off my face during the course of the day because there really does exist a feeling of community, warmth and general good will in the area and I, along with my fellow stall-holder, were beneficiaries of this bonhomie.

The stall on our left was run by a lady who used to run a flower shop around the corner until she started a family. She was selling rather elegant pots and plants and flowers. We didn't find out her name but did keep an eye on her stall several times during the day including the time when she went to sing with the band who were providing some of the entertainment. The stall to our right was run by two friends who'd studied fashion design together. They were selling children's clothes and accessories and when it rained on and off during the day we'd all help cover the stalls in plastic. We didn't find out their names either, or reveal ours for that matter but that didn't seem important at the time.

We treated the day as a holiday, sat in garden chairs, read the paper, drank coffee, chatted and watched the world go by. Occasionally someone would stop and scrutinise our work and even engage us in conversation but sales were thin on the ground. To be fair hardly any the other stall holders were making much money as far as we could see except, of course, the food stalls which were constantly busy. Everyone was hungry, including us. The best part of the day for me was meeting all my neighbours as they drifted past our pitch and who had no idea that I paint or design and were all very interested in what was on display. This included the local shop keepers and even my French teacher from evening class so while I didn't make any money to speak of I finished the day having made more acquaintances and feeling more at home in the place I call home.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Midsummer Fair next weekend

This is a public service announcement. The Victoria Park Village is having its midsummer fair next weekend on Saturday, 23 June from 12 noon until 6pm and I will be sharing a stall with my friend David. We will be selling our artwork along with many other people selling food, drink and playing music and, so long as the weather holds up, it should be a good day. If you happen to live in London and fancy an afternoon out here is a map reference.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Visit to the Royal Academy Summer Show

I am bent on visiting the Friday evening preview of the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition and remind myself all day, at work, that that is how I'm going to spend the evening. The claim is that the Summer Exhibition is traditionally the start of the Summer Season which is news to me. In previous centuries the exhibition was very fashionable and it was considered an honour for an artist to be able to exhibit there. In recent decades the exhibition fell into a decline and became a byword for mediocrity but now it has sharpened up its act. The show is the world's largest open submission art exhibition, which means anyone can submit work providing they fill in the forms and pay the fee, and I can say from my own experience there is a very strong chance that your work will then be rejected and you'll simply be out of pocket but you will have a nicely framed piece of work to admire.

The Royal Academy of Arts was established in 1768 and its original home was in Somerset House which is on the Strand but eventually it moved to its present home at Burlington House in Piccadilly. Burlington House has a very large and grand courtyard and I like to think of visitors in the past arriving by carriage, but this is 2007 and I arrived on foot having travelled most of the way from Holborn on the number 8 bus which terminates at Victoria Station. Burlington House was originally a private Palladian mansion that was greatly enlarged in the 19th century and the feeling I get when I enter the building is that I'm visiting a very grand, aristocratic family home - what with the big staircase opposite the entrance, the paintings on the ceilings and the marble here, there and everywhere - and I sense that it's time to kick back, relax and take it easy. This was nigh on impossible on Friday evening when the foyer was more like a crowded tube train during rush hour!

I deliberately avoided buying the list of works and their prices since I didn't plan to buy anything apart from a drink and made do with reading the panels with explanatory text that are near the entrance to each gallery. Sadly I found a lot of the text tediously pretentious so attended to the work on display instead which is after all what I was there for. The piece of work that I really wanted to see was David Hockney's 'Stand of Trees'. In fact it is one landscape painting made up of 50 separate paintings and occupies the end wall of the largest gallery. I'm never sure whether I actually like Hockney's work but I did find this one fascinating; I spent some time trying to see how he built up the layers of the painting and I did this while enjoying a sit down and a glass of pimms. This painting was all the more interesting because I'm trying to resolve a problem I'm having with a landscape of my own and I'm hoping that studying the Hockney will help me solve it (a detail from it is shown here).

As usual I can never look at all the exhibits in one visit because there are simply too many to see so I belted round the other galleries in my haste to find the exit and en route I paused in the gallery devoted to architecture which I always enjoy although don't always understand. While there I spied, on a ledge by an architectural display, a temporary installation of empty champagne flutes and discarded pimms glasses complete with swizzle sticks, bits of cucumber and mint leaves and I thought there's an opportunity for some pretentious witticisms but I just couldn't think of anything.