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!