Tuesday, 16 December 2008

More random dosmetic scenery

A detail of a drawing in pen and ink of garlic, lime, ginger and curry leaves in the kitchen waiting to be used - 16 December '08

As you can tell from the date of my last post it's weeks since I've written anything but, to tell the truth, I just haven't been inspired to write. But that has changed since last week when I went to visit my friend Hilary for a couple of days. Hilary lives in Swindon in the west country. If you mention Swindon to most people they will probably have heard of the place and they might say it's got something to do with railways. So here is a potted history of said town.

Swindon began life as a Saxon village and is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). For centuries it was a quiet market town and in time a quarry was established, a canal was dug and in 1840 the Great Western Railway arrived. This transformed the town from a sleepy backwater into the largest town in Wiltshire because it was chosen as a place to build railway engines and as a maintenance works.
The town continued to be an industrial centre until the railway works closed in 1986 and now it's a sprawling town without a reputation.

You might think then that Swindon has nothing to offer culturally but you'd be wrong. We had a stimulating visit to the town's art gallery which owns a large collection of the best examples of British 20th century art outside London. We also dropped into a temporary exhibition run by a local art group who were showing their work in a disused post office and the quality of their work was higher and more interesting than most local art groups that I have seen and this all cheered me up no end.

The following day Hilary had decided that we would take a trip to Cirencester, a town about 17 miles away from Swindon and, according to the local tourist board, it had been a Roman town of some note and is now the capital of the Cotswolds. 'Yeah and so what' were my thoughts as I had only been there once before and thought it was a bit of a dump. I was about to have my prejudices challenged once again.

Hilary was keen to see an exhibition called
Modern British Art and it was on at the Wetpaint gallery. There were works by Anita Klein, John Piper and Sir Peter Blake. There was even a piece of work by Damien Hurst which had so many numbers on the price label that my mind went into a spin trying to read it. There were some lovely ceramics and if I had had £45 to spare I would have bought a small ceramic dish for my husband; I was that impressed. This gallery is on the edge of the town near the only car park to have any free spaces in it. It is in a tiny building with interesting niches in the walls and it turns out that it had been a chapel in the past. The town had an abbey before the dissolution in 1538 and a faint air of an enclosed order still hangs around the place.

Finally we visited the New Brewery Arts Centre in the middle of the town. This refurbished site has artists studios where you can go and gawp while the artists practice their craft. There is also a gallery and a shop, which appeared to be more interesting at a distance than it was up close, plus a very popular café where we recovered from the labour of looking at art. The whole trip was very stimulating and encouraged me to get on with my own project of drawing 'random domestic scenes' around the house. The latest example is shown above.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Big day in the US, ordinary day in London

Part of a series of drawings of random domestic scenes

As I write this the good people of the United States are queuing to vote for their new president and I'm following events on BBC24 which is analysing every blessed thing just to fill up the time. I've watched, again, Barak Obama vote (for himself) and seen Sarah Palin's denim clad legs in the voting booth while she voted for herself: it seems that John McCain managed to dodge the cameras as he arrived to vote (I'm assuming for himself). I'm hoping that Barak Obama will win because I have found George Bush's presidency extremely disturbing over the last eight years and I hope for all our sakes that Obama will be a more enlightened president than the outgoing one. And of course it will also be historic to have the first black president of the US.

So what have I done today since I didn't have any good reason for getting up at 6am? Well, I stayed in bed for a start and got up at a civilised hour. I've been working at home for the last couple of weeks and that's included doing a series of pen and ink drawings of random domestic scenes around the house plus building a website. I'm not very experienced at website design yet so I get stuck trying to understand html and css and stuff fairly frequently. That happened yesterday so in the afternoon I took myself off to Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, that great refuge from the rain and yes, it was raining again. My reason for going was that I fancied a walk so wasn't all that bothered by what I might see when I got there. On arrival I was rather tickled to spy in the foyer a modest exhibition of black and white photographs of Edwardian Outdoor Games by Andrew Pitcairn-Knowles.

Evidently the V&A own Pitcairn-Knowles glass negatives and I presume they were just stored away gathering dust in the archives so someone must have decided to haul some negatives out and make prints from them. They've been done on an ink jet printer: we have one of those at home. What I liked most about this small display, besides the charming images, was that Pitcairn-Knowles employed the latest in photographic technology in 1900 and here we are 100 years later reproducing those same images using technology which is common to us today. I also liked the way that a large national museum like the V&A thinks it is worth producing a small exhibition which will be of interest to a small number of people-it makes such a change to the big blockbuster exhibitions crammed with visitors. So that got a big commendation from me.

This afternoon I again got stuck with the website while trying to style up a form and gave up in disgust. So needing to get out of the house I mooched off to Hackney Public Library and popped into the very small museum they have there. (I would have put a link to the museum's website but it is really boring.) Apparently the Saxons were responsible for establishing Hackney way back in the dim and distant past but I was more interested in a temporary exhibition on the right hand side as you go in called Living under one roof-Windrush and beyond. It is part of Black History Month which oddly enough lasts for nearly two months! The exhibition takes its name from the ship called the Windrush that arrived at Tilbury docks on 22 June 1948 bringing with her many young men and some young women from the Caribbean who arrived in search of jobs and a better life. This was an important landmark in the history of modern Britain.

On arrival the new migrants encountered racism, conflict and discrimination in a cold, damp country that was still impoverished after WWII: not surprisingly they often felt homesick. They were frequently excluded from the social and economic life around them so in time they adjusted the institutions they brought with them, for example sitting rooms were often used for church services, and at the same time they began to participate in institutions to which they did have access like trade unions and bit by bit over the decades modern Britain emerged. The lives of some of the people who finally pitched up in Hackney, who are by now very elderly, are described in room sets. There is the kitchen, the sitting room and the bedroom and many of the items of furniture and family photos have been provided by the men and women whose lives are being described. I was born in west London in 1956 where many black people settled and I loved looking at these rooms today because they took me back to my childhood. The bent kettle looked familiar as did the gas cooker and the copy of Woman's Realm on the coffe table. The family photos and kid's school satchel lying on the floor in the bedroom, the bedspread and the rug on the floor. I know all these things, I've used all of them in my time. So today I feel I have learnt a bit more about the Windrush generation and I'm grateful to them for establishing the multicultural London I so enjoy living in 60 years later.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Preview of the new Saatchi gallery

The new Saatchi gallery opens tomorrow, 9 October, in the old Duke of York's HQ at Chelsea Barracks in central London. Yesterday was press day for journalists and I was invited to go to today's preview. This is not because I am either famous or influential because I am neither but because I am one of the thousands of artists signed up on their website and occasionally I exhibit a piece of work in the 'showdown' competition; I assume that all their artists got an invite.

I have Jacqui Boyd Alden to thank for introducing me to the showdown. Jacqui and I went to the same small art college in Wiltshire back in the late 70s. We overlapped by two years, studied on different courses and would you 'adam and eve it'* we never met! We finally met this year on Facebook. Since Jacqui now lives on a different continent I went to the Saatchi opening for both of us.

I can't say that I have ever been a fan of Charles Saatchi. I've never completely forgiven him for foisting the likes of Damien Hurst on us but if it hadn't been him maybe another art collector would have done. Mr Saatchi is enormously wealthy and it is only the likes of him who could open a new and very large art gallery in the heart of London in the very week that the global money markets are reaching new lows. I set off on my visit at lunch time already feeling slightly jaded and to my great surprise I was completely smitten with the building. No expense appears to have been spared in the conversion from military barracks to modern art gallery. The galleries are well lit and well proportioned and there is an expansive quality as they don't rope off any of the exhibits. It is easy to find your way around from one gallery to another and no one gallery was very busy. My feeling was that the gallery is the work of art and might very well endure for decades to come unlike the previous incarnation at County Hall, which had been the home of the Greater London Council (GLC), on the south bank of the Thames which felt constrained, pokey, dark and unwelcoming.

Now for the art bit. Well I found a lot of the exhibition to be rather 'ho hum' which I sort of expected. Charles Saatchi has kicked off with an exhibition from Chinese artists. It is called The Revolution Continues: New Art from China. The BBC covered the gallery earlier in the week and so I knew I would be seeing a three-dimensional city scape of Western buildings made out of dog chews which looks better in real life than in a photograph. It is called Love It! Bite It! by Liu Wei, 2005-07 and is described as 'a comment on grotesque consumption and greed'. I didn't pick up on that but I liked the objects and was impressed with the skill needed to make them.

These Chinese artists are keen on making very lifelike sculptures of people out of resin. The first one you come across is of a man lying on his front spread eagled on the floor sticking his tongue out and appearing to lick the floor. This was made by Cang Xin in 2006 and is called Communication. This left me unmoved. The next figure lying on the floor in another gallery is called Angel by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, 2008. This is an image of a very old man dressed as an angel and his wings look as though they are made of skin and bone and he appears to have crash landed on the floor; he might be dead. It is so lifelike it is grotesque so that got a reaction out of me! There are a group of nude bodies hanging upside down from chains from the ceiling. This exhibit is called Chinese Offspring by Zhang Dali, 2003-05 and this apparently represents China's immigrant underclass-they hang upside down to reflect their powerlessness. Didn't work for me. Moving on. The final exhibit of lifelike dummies did made me laugh. This is called Old Persons' Home by Sun Yuan and Penjg Yu, 2007. Here are lifesized sculptures of wizened pensioners that sit in electric wheelchairs. They resemble aged world leaders and move slowly around the gallery bumping into each other. Sometimes they have to be pulled apart by a gallery attendant. There was a clip of it on the BBC website which seems to have been taken down which is a shame because you have to see it to believe it.

Apart from these exhibits I found the endless paintings of Mao fairly uninteresting but there were two paintings that caught my imagination. The first one I found mesmerising and is called Seeds by Zhang Huan, 2007. It is a large, subtle, monocrome painting being 250 x 400cms and depicts shadowy people planting seeds in a field. The artist used incense ash, charcoal and resin on canvas to create this atmospheric work. The second painting is a very vigourous monocrome landscape in oil on canvas by Zeng Fanzhi called This land is so rich in beauty 2. After all this stimulation I was ready for some food so made my way towards the door.

Admission is free. The Revolution Continues: New art from China opens 9 October and runs until 18 January 2009.

*Cockney rhyming slang for 'believe'.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The perfect end to a punishing day

I have often thought that it would be great to be a waterborne commuter. To travel to and from work by boat on the Thames and tonight I did just that and so I have achieved a long held ambition. Since I don't work in the same location day after day this is going to be no more than an occasional jaunt but it really cheered me up and helped get the day into perspective.

I must admit that the experience wasn't up there with the opening sequence to A Man for all Seasons which begins with Sir Thomas More (who I'm afraid came to a sticky end) being rowed up the river Thames from Hampton Court to, I think, his house in Chelsea. It's very early in the morning, there are no sounds to be heard except the oars slopping in and out of the water and you just don't know if you can bear the tension for another 120 minutes.

However, I had been toiling away for a few days in Westminster which is also very close to the river and it is but a short walk from Cowley Street to the Embankment pier. Here I found to my delight that a Thames Clipper was due in a few minutes. This river service is part of the London Transport network and you wait on a jetty that looks similar to an underground platform. I was queuing with some other work worn commuters and when our catamaran, the Hurricane, arrived we stepped onto a very modern vessel with airline style seating with little drop down tables in front and plenty of leg room. Up front there was a large television playing some adverts and at the back there was a bar.

I was going to stay on board until Canary Wharf and the voyage was due to take roughly 35 minutes. We passed landmarks that have been familiar to me ever since I moved to London and it was comforting to see them again from the vantage point of the river but all the time I could see 1 Canada Square (London's tallest building) up ahead which is where I would disembark.

As we navigated the stop at London Bridge there was a tall sailing ship called Gladys on our port side gliding gracefully by in the opposite direction. On our starboard side was the equally graceful Lady Daphne moored at a dock. Shortly afterwards we reached HMS Belfast, a small warship permanently berthed opposite the Tower of London. I recalled the last visit I'd made to the ship a few years ago with my husband and late father.

After we left the Tower behind us we picked up speed and raced past old warehouses that appeared to have been recently refurbished as expensive apartments and before I knew it we had arrived at Canary Wharf Pier where I took my leave of the river and walked towards the bus stop and headed home.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Postcard from Oxford

Sketch of The Virgin and Child by Lorenzo di Credi (Florence c1457-1536) at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford 25.08.08.

We enjoyed a flying visit to Oxford over the weekend. I've only been there once before and that was about 20 years ago so it was all new to me and I was amazed at how much bigger it is than Cambridge (where I have been a lot). On Monday morning we had coffee and read the papers at a pleasant café and then when we'd had enough caffeine we paid a visit to the *Ashmolean Museum.

Fortunately they are refurbishing the museum so that immediately cut down the number of exhibits to look at, because let's face it, there's always too much information to take in at a good museum. Now, I am not particularly religious but I was very taken with the image of The Virgin and child I sketched above. I quite like the finished result but in my version the baby Jesus does look like a fat old man. In my defence in the original he has got a remarkable amount of hair, with a little quiff, for a newborn and a very fat face with a knowing expression.

In another gallery there were a number of busts of various Popes with grumpy faces all crafted by the same artist. I didn't take a note of his name but he was fond of drapery and managed to give a very convincing impression of silk robes fastened with delicate buttons all finished off with silken tassels and they were all fashioned out of marble. Amazing!

Before I go I must tell you about two very famous works of art. One is by Paolo Uccello (c1396-1475) and is called The Hunt in the Forest. He artfully employed perspective in this and composed it very carefully (which is something I could usefully learn from) and the other one is by Piero di Cosimo (1461-1522) and is called The Forest Fire. You can see small versions of the paintings here.

* You might like to know that they have lockers in the basement which they only open at the end of the day so you could for a modest price (not that I would ever dream of recommending it to you) stash your stuff there and pick it up later in the day when you finished sightseeing.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Intriguing interiors

All around London at the moment are advertisements on the tube and on the buses promoting an exhibition of Wilhelm Hammershøi's paintings. It's the other exhibition on just now at the Royal Academy along with the summer show and they have called this exhibition The poetry of silence.

I admit that I have not heard of this artist before but I found the image that has been used for the advertising intriguing and seductive. Something about the image reminded me of the work by Gwen John (1876-1939). She was the sister of the artist Augustus John who led a colourful life and painted exuberant images of the women in his life amongst other subjects. By contrast Gwen John's paintings are quiet, atmospheric and introspective.

Hammershøi (1864-1916) was a Danish artist who was born into a comfortable middle class home and led an uneventful life until his relatively early death from cancer. He travelled extensively around Europe but it is the paintings he made of his domestic life at home in Copenhagen which made the biggest impact on me. Sometimes he would paint an empty room with open doors leading the eye out of the room and towards a different, unknown part of his apartment. Often he would include a female figure, perhaps sewing or darning or holding a tray or maybe playing the piano. And he obviously had a bit of a thing for people's back views because there are quite a few on display - maybe it saved him from having to chat to his subjects.

In one painting there is a figure is at the far end of a room leaning with one knee on a chair and gazing out of the window. I was dying to know what she was looking at and listening to but as a silent observer I will never know. His images are always very carefully composed and I had the odd feeling that far from merely looking at these paintings I was actually inside the rooms with him and enveloped by the heavy, silent atmosphere he'd created which was emphasised by the restricted pallette he employed.
By the time I left the exhibition I felt I almost knew what it's like to wear a long grey dress and wear my hair tied back in a bun and move around slowly. This wasn't an exhibition to rush round in a hurry - the images wouldn't let you. The experience was more like being a contemplative in an enclosed order and taking a stroll around the cloisters last thing at night. Very powerful.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The tyranny of the red dot

I began this blog last year after I had been to the Royal Academy of Art summer exhibition. This year I haven't felt particularly drawn to go but decided on the spur of the moment that I probably ought to while I still had the chance as it closes on 17 August. So I went just yesterday afternoon but was close to changing my mind and returning home after I'd spent half an hour waiting for the bus. Eventually the no: 8 bus made an appearance and I was on my way. I usually enjoy being a passenger on this route because you pass so many interesting places but yesterday there were road works every which way and I wondered if there would be time to see any of the exhibits if I eventually got to my destination.

Get there I did and was very grateful for the icy air conditioning that was blowing through the galleries. The first gallery has been devoted to the late R B Kitaj, RA as a memorial to him. He died last year, at the age of 74, in his native America but he is fondly regarded in Britain because he lived here for about 40 years which always works for us Brits. We're also sort of fond of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow for the same reason, but I digress. His work was also very influential on his generation of artists back in the 60s. I particularly liked two of his works, which to my mind are large pieces, and one is called Pacific Coast Highway (across the Pacific) which he completed in 1973 and Catalan Christ (pretending to be dead) completed in 1976.

In the next gallery there was, amongst other things, yet another memorial tribute to a recently deceased RA and that was Colin St John Wilson who designed the British Library. He started out as a painter before turning to architecture and there were some rather lively paintings on display along with some sketches for the library and a scale model of the exterior of the library in situ near St Pancras station which I enjoyed scrutinising as I have spent many a happy hour in there enjoying the exhibitions and eating lunch in the restaurant.

At this point I turned left into a gallery that usually has prints displayed in it and this is where the red dots, indicating successful sales, run amok. As far as I can tell this is where the general public might, if they are lucky, get their works hung. This room and the small one next to it have work jammed in them so tightly you can end up with a crick in your neck trying to take it all in. It was in this small room that my head began to swim so I went back into the print room and started to look at the exhibits slowly. I noticed one large etching of a landscape had several red dots stuck on the frame. This print was signed by the artist and instead of being numbered in an edition it was described as artists proof so I assume that this artist now has to go ahead and print at least four copies of this etching to supply her customers and since printing an etching can be time consuming that will amount to a lot of work.

Two years ago I undertook some market research of the designs for my greetings cards which are now for sale to find out which were the most popular images. Most people I accosted were happy to fill in the forms but one woman felt it was important to tell me that if I was serious about selling my cards then I should include people and animals into my designs, particularly cats. This made me laugh at the time but she might have a point about the sentimental appeal of cats since the print with the most red dots on it was a small etching of a face of the most ugly cat I have ever seen (you can probably tell I'm not a cat lover). I can't imagine having it in my house but clearly many people disagree with me. The other print that was also doing well in the red dot stakes was a small sideways image of an angel.

This is when I began to feel tyranised by the red dots. I was getting tired by this stage and needed to edit the number of images I was looking at so ended up unwillingly concentrating on the pieces with the most red dots whereas if there hadn't been any red dots I would have made different choices. The only sensible thing I could do at this point was stagger off in search a restorative cup of tea and a piece of cake before heading home.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Cutting the virtual ribbon

There's a shop on the corner near the roundabout. It's opposite the pub that sells pizzas cooked in a woodburning stove (which incidentally is very popular) and it's next to the estate agent's that used to be a beauty parlour.

I think the shop was empty when we moved here. At some point it became a tatty antique shop that was seldom open and hardly anything ever seemed to be sold. I think there was a hand written note taped to the window asking potential customers to phone for an appointment. At some point the shop closed down and the contents removed. Time passed and then some decorators moved in and there were clearly signs of activity. We asked ourselves 'who's moving in and what will they sell?' Blow me if it wasn't the same woman who had recently moved out and this time the shop became an upmarket antique shop. The owner appeared to have gone into partnership with someone because now there were two names painted on the window instead of one and the interior seemed to have been inspired by Martha Stewart.

More time passed but there didn't seem to be any more sales of shabby chic furniture than there were before - the only difference was that the shop looked nicer. Then more than a year ago the contents of the shop were removed yet again and this time builders moved in and began extensive renovations on the fabric of the building. I imagined that the lady who had occupied this shop had moved on elsewhere until I was told by someone working in the newsagents that this former seller of antiques had plans to turn the shop into a cafe and in time start baking her own bread because in the past this had been the site of the local bakers. This was all very interesting and my goodness didn't it take a long time to accomplish. We've watched as tons of rubble and junk were removed from the building. We've stood to one side as teams of builders have man handled reinforced steel joists in through the door way. We seen the planning application notice pinned to a lamp post and, finally, observed the shop fitters and the decorators once again transform this shop into something new.

So just recently the shop finally opened for business as a cafe and it appears to have been a success from day one. Now there are more people in and out of the shop in a morning than there were over several months when they were selling furniture - the difference is now you sit on the chairs while you drink your coffee and eat your almond croissant rather than just glance at them through a window. I was engaged in just this activity last week and, while the two 'yummy mummies' next to me discussed their pregnancies, I pondered on the efforts that must have been involved in completing this transformation. This is because I've been doing something similar but in a virtual context. I've been updating and spring cleaning my website. This is so I could launch my small range of greetings cards which you can see here and buy if the mood takes you and this announcement means that my very own shop is officially open.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

The Olympics lifts my spirits!

Today I have been down in the dumps and the weather here in sunny London has matched my mood as it has been raining 'stair rods' the entire day. The snails seem happy though and they are treating our garden wall like a motorway - every time I look there are more of them.

The reason for my glumness is two fold. The economic downturn is affecting publishers and they are employing fewer freelance designers for the time being so there is less work around and that's making me a bit anxious because that is the work I do to pay my way. The other reason is that I am in the throes of developing my website to allow on-line shopping (because I am about to launch my small collection of greetings cards onto the paying public) and the technical details I am having to learn is driving me to distraction.

Ordinarily I will clean the house when I come across a problem I can't solve as it helps to work off all my pent up energy and so far this week the top floor of the house is sparkling and the middle floor is looking much better too. By Friday I will be able to open the house to the public since I'll be so proud of its appearance. But by this afternoon this strategy wasn't working so I put on my wet weather gear, left the house looking like a hiker and walked across Victoria Park towards the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. I enjoyed stomping along in the rain and looking in people's front rooms while I walked so this helped to cheer me up.

This museum is the east end outpost of the Victoria and Albert Museum (known simply as the V&A) which is in South Kensington in West London. The collections and exhibitions at the V&A cover the decorative arts whereas the museum in Bethnal Green allegedly focuses on childhood but it always feel rather adult to me. I think it might be quite boring for kids although there are compensating large open spaces plus the building has a good echo so it would be great for yelling and crying and running around.

While I was dripping water all over the floor in the foyer I noticed that there was an exhibition of Olympic posters going back to the start of the modern Olympic movement so I headed for the first floor and was distracted en route by a fantastic railway set. It was in a glass case which would be far too big for a domestic setting (unless you happen to live in a stately home). It included a model of a fictional village with a railway station. There were domestic houses and shops, including a fish and chip shop. One of the houses was dilapidated, the garden was overgrown and it had a skip outside full of rubbish so the house was obviously being renovated, so that was obviously fictional! There were trains ready to pull out of the station and if I had been prepared to put two 20 pence pieces in the slot I could have watched them run round the track. And I wasn't - how mean is that.

This exhibition of Olympic posters that I finally reached has been designed to coincide with the Beijing 2008 games. I was surprised by the number of posters but there have been a lot of summer games, winter games and Paralympic games over the years. The designs of the posters have an important role in defining the character of that particular games they are promoting and I was reminded of the Mexico, Sydney and Athens games as I walked around the exhibition. I was also surprised at how often some cities have hosted the games since 1900 but I wasn't surprised that some of them had to be cancelled because of two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War.

The posters for the Munich games in 1972 were many and varied and they were also poignant because I could remember the massacre that took place at those games. The designs for the Montreal games in 1976 were particularly interesting to me because that was the summer I graduated from art college. I was barely employable when I left college but like most of my peers I found work eventually so I was very interested to see what designers, who were rather senior to me, were working on for those summer games. I wondered how many ideas were binned in the process and if those designers were subject to the whims of their clients and had to make endless changes to their work in the same way that has been a feature of my own working life. Shortly afterwards I finished my tour and I felt quite cheered up and walked back into the rain with a lighter heart.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

On my way to Silvertown

It was great to have a day in the middle of the week to devote to drawing. I wouldn't spend the whole day grafting away but doing the drawing was going to be the focus of the day. I made a flask of tea, packed my rucksack and headed towards Hackney Central. I didn't have long to wait for a train and I knew it would stop at Stratford where I expected to pick up another train to Silvertown because that's what I had done three years ago.

In no time at all we'd arrived in Stratford and to my surprise there was no connecting train to Silvertown. I thought I must be wrong so checked the timetable. No, Stratford is the end of the line. It didn't use to be but it is now. I do vaguely remember the mayor, Ken Livingston, announcing on the tv news that this line had been absorbed into the 'overground system' but it hadn't occurred to me that they would chop the last five stations off one end of it. However, had I paid attention I would have noticed that the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) had been extended to cover much the same route as the one that had been axed.

I decided to travel to London City Airport on the DLR which is fairly close to where the old station of Silvertown was. So instead of just stepping onto another train at the platform I had arrived at I had to go upstairs and run along a passage and flap about until I reached the DLR platforms. Once I'd worked out which train to get on I then had to change trains once again before I was sure I was heading in the right direction. I began to enjoy the journey as we left the docklands behind and traveled through a developed landscape that I didn't know even existed. When we stopped at Pontoon Dock I spotted the Thames Barrier in the distant. As I've always been intrigued by this river defence I decided I would get off at London City Airport and then walk back from there to get as close to the barrier as I could.

Feeling like a bit of a fraud I joined other passengers at London City Airport and took the escalator towards check-in. I had a quick look round this tiny airport which was built on the old King George V dock and concluded that it's just like Gatwick or Stansted airports but fortunately it's too small to also serve as a full scale shopping centre. Having traveled as far as I was planning to I chose a spot outside to draw which you can see on the left. I was attracted by the concrete and the different planes of the walls, the train bridge above and the curve of the glass passage through which I had just walked. I didn't realise until too late that I'd chosen to sit in the smoking section until I was covered in cigarette smoke and that is what eventually drove me away. By this time I'd felt I'd done as much as I wanted to and so headed back towards Pontoon Dock. I had to guess the route since I couldn't see the next station or the Thames Barrier. I trudged along a main road, navigated my way round a very large roundabout reassuring myself that if I got lost I could always retrace my steps. After not very long I could see Pontoon Dock and the most striking thing was that there were so few people and cars around. Finally I saw sign posts for the Thames Barrier Park and even better, signs for a cafe. There were hardly any people in the cafe either and I enjoyed a cup of tea while looking at the Thames Barrier through large picture windows. The park does look a little like an architect's drawing with the type of trees you see every where surrounding office blocks but it is tranquil and peaceful and does provide a green frame for the massive engineered blocks that make up the barrier that protects London from flooding. I gathered, from an old geezer who buttonholed me while I was leaning on the parapet by the river edge and subjected me to an extensive monologue, that there is a small exhibition about the building of the barrier in a building on the south bank of the Thames. We were on the north bank and after my long winded journey earlier in the day I didn't feel like trying to reach the south bank that afternoon.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Drawing project continues!

As I mentioned in a previous post back in February I planned to pick up the threads of an old drawing project, and a few days ago I did just that. I'm just beginning to realise what an enormous undertaking this is going to be if I'm to finish it.

Back in 2005 I decided to award myself a travel bursary and travel along the length of the North London railway line which runs from Richmond in the west and North Woolwich in the east. These locations are completely unlike each other and the only thing they have in common, and which links them, is the River Thames running through them.

The stations in between provide a variety of views ranging from transport hubs to Victorian housing and industrial landscapes. My plan is to do a drawing at or near each station. The view may well be mind numbingly mundane or might be full of interest - it does not matter. I also aim to go off at any tangent that might take my fancy and so the completed project will be a highly subjective view of one route around a large part of a very large city. Since I'm not a train spotter I won't be including train times or makes of carriages but, like many a train timetable, my timings will be sporadic and occasionally I might end up in an artistic version of railway sidings (in other words completely stuck).

Some people like to go on pub crawls and stop for a pint at every stop on the Circle Line on the tube (that's the yellow line on this map) and this project of mine is my version of a one-man pub crawl.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Watts Cemetery Chapel

After we'd visited Watts gallery the plan was to visit Watts Cemetery Chapel just along the road and naturally we drove there instead of walking! Mind you, we might have been run over by passing traffic if we had attempted to walk because there aren't any pavements along the roads.

This small chapel has a reputation for its design and I had heard about it from my friend who I was with and lately colleagues too. To be honest I didn't know what to expect and you might like it and you might not. It is set on top of a small hill so your first view of it is from below. It is surrounded by the graveyard which is well tended and at first sight you might wonder where the occupants of said graves had once lived as there doesn't seem to be any housing nearby. You enter the cemetery through the Lych Gate, also designed by the Watts', and it ever so slightly has the feeling of a film set. Apparently this is a sort of overflow cemetery which was constructed in the 1890s when the parishioners ran out of burial space in the churchyard at St Nicholas Church in Compton which may explain why it feels so isolated. The Parish Council bought the plot of land on Budbury Hill from the Loseley Estate. Later on G F Watts and his wife, Mary offered to design and build, at their own expense, a chapel in keeping with the site. The exterior was completed in 1898 and the interior was finished in 1904.

The exterior is covered in highly decorated terracotta tiles. The tiles were designed by Mary Watts and she took her inspiration from Christian Celtic art and although the design is a bit fanciful it is also very cohesive and works well in three dimensions. The tiles were produced by more than 70 villagers, friends and craftsmen and women using clay from a seam that was discovered in the grounds of the Watts' house called Limnerslease. This story gives the impression of a community working together towards a common goal which is all very nice but for all I know the participants might not have been given much choice in the matter.

The exterior is a complete contrast to the interior and it left me momentarily speechless when we went inside. I didn't notice the floor which is made of oak parquet because I was too busy gawping at the decoration on the walls which is a blast of art nouveau intensity. The space inside is circular with just enough room for a coffin, a minister and a few mourners. There is a bell rope for tolling the single bell which rings the note 'C' which was tempting to pull but a notice asks visitors not to as it is solely for the use at funerals. As I spun round to look at everything I had the feeling that I was being drenched in a waterfall of symbolism. It included winged messengers (angels), cherubim and the Tree of Life spreading its branches and roots around the space. Bunches of grapes wrestled for space with various flowers and to top it all there are two scrolling wrought-iron arched doors.

Our exit from the chapel was hastened by a bad tempered cat that seemed to be living there and it was quite a relief to get back outside. We wandered around the graveyard and pondered the inscriptions on the stones and enjoyed the feeling of peace and tranquility which was present. Just before we left we walked up and down the cloister, also designed by Mary Watts, which had a Mediterranean feel to it and led me to feel I was back visiting Pompey! Oh it was good to get back on the train because I knew where I was and where I was going.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

G F Watts. Who?

Last Thursday a friend of mine invited me on a jaunt to the countryside so that we might spend a few hours catching up on several years news and visit what the Daily Telegraph has described as 'one of the most beautiful small galleries in Europe'. This gallery being Watts Gallery.

G F Watts (1817-1904) was a celebrated artist and was considered to be the greatest painter of the Victorian age. I gather he lived and worked in London but had a country retreat in Compton near Guildford in Surrey. Watts Gallery first opened to the public on 1 April 1904 and apparently it is unique because it is the only purpose-built gallery to show a single artist's work. I find this fact alone surprising. Sir John Soane's museum at 13 Lincoln's Inn Field's is devoted to his own collection but I've just remembered that it includes work by Hogarth and Turner as well as Sir John Soane's architectural drawings and models and is well worth a visit.

Evidently G F Watts works have inspired many people over the last 100 years including Nelson Mandela who had a print of Hope on his cell wall and contemporary artists like Antony Gormley and Gilbert & George have expressed their admiration for his work. So I have to admit that I had never heard of him and also that I had high expectations of his paintings which were pretty much dashed when we entered the first gallery.

In my last post I was commenting on portraits that lack life can look wooden, superficial and uninteresting. This was borne out in Watts Gallery. My friend and I agreed that the paintings with titles such as Sympathy, Ophelia and Found Drowned fell into this category. But those paintings whose titles were real names such as Miss Rachel Gurney were highly accomplished, satisfying to look at and appeared to provide a real insight into the character of the sitter. We found it difficult to believe that all these paintings, and there are a lot of them, had been made by the same hand since the quality varied so much but they are all attributed to the same artist so who are we to comment.

Well so far, so mixed. Then my friend led me to the area set aside for the sculpture. The space appeared to be like a garage or more likely a carriage house so it wasn't that big. In it there were two enormous plaster models on display. One is of the poet Tennyson with his dog which was cast in bronze and is set outside Lincoln Cathedral. And the other plaster model is called Physical Energy and depicts a rider on a horse and unlike some his tedious paintings with pretentious titles this sculpture is both energetic and powerful. There were three bronzes cast from this plaster model and one of them is in Kensington Gardens. We were told that it faces west and is north of the Albert Memorial so I will go and check it out sometime and see what it looks like cast in bronze and out in the open air.

Watts Gallery is 100 years old and is a listed Arts & Crafts building which was one of the first to be built of solid concrete and is now in a sad state of disrepair. It will be closing at the end of August '08 for two years when it will undergo restoration and the collection will be conserved. From November '08 a major touring exhibition will show 60 works by G F Watts in London at the Guildhall Art Gallery so you can decide for yourself if his reputation as 'England's Michelangelo' was entirely deserved.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

The trouble with portraits

Portraits have been much on my mind of late. That's because I've got one that I've made a start on and I'm not sure how to proceed. It's like getting to a fork in the road and wondering which route to take. The trouble is I've got to the fork in the road almost as soon as I have left the car park and I've been at this point for weeks now, if not a couple of months. I know that I'll eventually solve the problem just by sitting down and getting on with it.

Last weekend we were fortunate to spend the weekend in Paris. Since at least one member of our party had never been to the Louvre we decided to make that our first stop. The Louvre is so enormous you have to decide which galleries you want to visit and stick to it otherwise it's easy to get distracted en route and end up a quivering, exhausted wreck by the time you leave the building.

We decided to aim for the Flemish paintings which I think were somewhere on the second floor. I always like looking at domestic interior scenes from this era. They seem so peaceful and serene and there is never enough time to sit and gaze at them. I could easily live with one in my house. Once our party had gathered together after roaming free around these galleries we decided that if you haven't seen the Mona Lisa once, in the flesh so to speak, then you have to make that your next goal and be prepared to traipse along endless corridors to get there. So this is what we did and eventually we arrived in front of the portrait which is smaller than you expect. It is displayed in the centre of a large gallery and always attracts a lot of attention from crowds of people and the scene is reminiscent of pilgrims worshipping at a holy shrine.

Lunch beckoned and the consumption of food and drink and general conviviality revived sore feet and tired spirits. By this time we had spent about four hours in the museum and were ready to leave the building and get some fresh air. Here our party divided into three smaller parties and set off to do different things. I was in a party of two and we trekked along the Rue de Rivoli on our way to the Picasso Museum. I think that Picasso and Piet Mondrian have been the two 20th century artists who have influenced me the most. Not that I aim to create work like either of them but I find they always have something to teach me when I look at their work in a way that other artists don't.

I hadn't seen any of these Picasso pieces before I'd visited this museum. The work displayed here covers his entire working life, from his teens until close to his death, which is remarkable since he lived until his early 90's. What I was reminded of when I was looking at his work was how prolific he was and his exuberance and confidence is evident everywhere you look. Even though the some of the paint is faded and cracked the work is still full of life and that is the quality I would like to capture in my own work.

The following morning we visited Montmartre for a laugh before heading back home on Eurostar. It is described as Paris' last village and is the highest point in Paris. It is wonderfully tacky and touristy and you can get a fantastic view all over the city as well as a good cup of coffee. Everywhere you go there are artists touting for business for it is here that you can get your portrait done in pastels, or pen and ink, or charcoal in seven minutes flat for the cost of 30 euros. My niece was willing to have her portrait done while we were there and she stood patiently while a pastel portrait was produced in record time. I was impressed with the speed of the operation and the fact that it bore a passing resemblance to the subject, except she did end up looking like a Spanish Senorina, but I was mostly troubled by the absence of any life or energy in the finished product. That has given me something to ponder over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Seven things people don't know about me (until now)

I've been challenged by Jacqui Boyd Allen to write seven things people don't know about me. It's taken me about a week to think of that many. Actually I can only think of six and I hope I'll come up with another one by the end of the post.

1 I've worked in publishing as a designer since 1980. One of my ancestors from way back in the 19th century, Stephen Knight, was a publisher himself. I've no idea what kind of things he published and only the vaguest idea on how to find out. Paying a visit to the Public Records Office in Kew might be a good start.

2 My Dad was keen for me to follow him into teaching which has never appealed to me. But I have followed his interest in typography and calligraphy. When he was about nine years old his teacher taught him calligraphy the way monks use to do it and when he was about 16 years old he became very interested at school in printing and typesetting which has been my interest for the last 30 years.

3 The first thing I can remember designing and making was cardboard flip flops when I was about 10 years old. My friend Susan's Dad use to scoff at this but it amused the two of us during the summer holidays. We use to stand on some cardboard and draw round our feet. Then cut out the shapes and stick straps over the top to keep them on and then decorate them with glitter and stuff. When they fell apart we just made new ones. I remember it being great fun.

4 I enjoy political cartoons because they combine my interest in art and current affairs.

5 I prefer travelling around London by bus rather than tube because I like looking out of the window and watching the world go by. If I'm on the tube I'm more likely to study the people around me.

6 Since 1989 I have been studying meditation, intermittently, with the Arica School.

7 The older I get the more irritating I find music.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Goodbye winter, hello spring

This morning, when I should have been getting ready to go to the dentist, I chose instead to inspect our very small back garden for signs of spring. And signs there were: the mint in its pot is beginning to sprout, the daffodils are growing apace. Our two snowdrops are looking very delicate and pretty and I promise to plant more bulbs in the autumn so they'll have some company next year. And the most exciting thing of all was one tiny purple bloom hiding under a shrub which was later identified as a crocus. This was great because I love to see them blooming in public gardens and churchyards; have always wanted some and now we have one. Since we didn't plant it the most likely way the bulb got into our garden was that it was dropped by a passing bird.

This is a real contrast with two weekends ago when we spent the weekend in Chesunt in Hertfordshire. We stayed in the youth hostel that is a spit and a cough away from the station and itself is right next to the Lea Valley Park. It was cold (for southern England). On the Sunday morning we left the hostel at about 9.30am dressed in all manner of clothing and were greeted with the sight of frost everywhere and the sound of silence. The park has many advertised attractions for walkers, runners, cyclists, anglers and birdwatchers and in good weather it's probably as busy Bluewater shopping centre but for us the attraction was the very lack of activity and the peace and quiet.

During the day we explored all sorts of places with names like Seventy Acres Lake, Fishers Green Lane, Hooks Marsh and Nightingale Wood and often we were entirely on our own. Occasionally we would meet a dog walker or have a chat with an owner of a narrow boat but mostly we spent our time lost in thought or admiring the views. Now and then I would catch the scent of Hawthorn blossom which is intoxicating and surprising because I have just read that it doesn't flower until May. I also spotted some Catkins next to the Hawthorn which was also a delight. But my abiding memory of that day was standing still and watching a duck waddle very carefully across a frozen pond. It wasn't in any hurry and it followed a wobbly course until it reached the bank on the other side and that was a great analogy for our day - we also took our time and followed a wobbly course around the park. This sketch is one I made the day before when we took refuge from the cold and sat in the Bittern Hide and watched the world go by.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Revived drawing project

July 2005 was a demanding month for Londoners. I don't mean it was particularly hot that month although it might have been but I can't remember. I do remember watching the tv at work on 6 July when we all stopped what we were doing to find out which country was going to be awarded the 2012 Olympics. I can remember the astonishment and mild hysteria (in the office) when London was announced the winner and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair said that hosting the games would be 'momentous and tremendous for the capital'. There was major hysteria on the tv. I think the decision was broadcast towards lunchtime because soon after the announcement I left the building in search of food and, as I was wondering how long our elated mood might last, the Red Arrows swooped overhead in a celebratory flypass over the capital.

The elation ended around 9am the following morning on what is now known as 7/7. This was a time of great confusion. As is my wont I set off for work somewhat late. I suppose I got to Mile End tube station at about 9.30am. There were two trains waiting in the station but going nowhere and there were many people milling around the platforms. Before I had too much time to wonder how long it would be before the trains would start moving we were ordered up the stairs and out of the station. This was weird. I hadn't been involved in an evacuation since the IRA bombings and they'd ended some years before. Fortunately there are few steps at Mile End because the tunnel is so shallow at that point but even so progress up the stairs was slow as there were so many of us trying to leave. The mood quickly became silent and sombre and this was before any of us knew that three underground trains and one bus had been blown up by terrorists. So much has been written about that day there is little point adding to it so I won't.

Two weeks later on 21 July there were copy cat explosions on the tube executed by a different group of bombers and the only reason they are serving prison sentences and no-one was killed was because their bombs didn't so much go off but fizzled out. By now an all pervading feeling of anxiety was well established and there were police (some armed) patrolling every single railway station in London. This was just at the point when I was starting a new drawing project.

You might well wonder what terrorism has got to do with me drawing. Well nothing really but this project I had devised meant travelling to railway stations and drawing what I could see. I had decided to award myself a travel grant and my plan was to visit each station on what had been called The North London line but I think is now called Silver Link (this is an overground line not underground). I was to start at North Woolwich in the east and eventually finish at Richmond in the west and take in north London en route. Depending on how interesting or dull each destination proved to be I would either do one or two drawings. The plan was that all the drawings would be in mono (tones of black and grey). I would be able to work in pen and ink, or draw using graphite, or sketch in watercolour so long as there was no colour. The resulting work would fill one sketch book reserved for the purpose and when complete would be a record of a journey.

I was happy with this self-imposed structure and did begin the project on 1 August 2005. I travelled to North Woolwich and produced two sketches. The one shown here is of the Woolwich ferry which ferries people and lorries and cars back and forth across the river Thames and I was fascinated just watching the ferries come and go. What I wasn't too thrilled with was seeing so many of Her Majesty's police force prowling around every station I passed through. So I stopped this project almost as soon as I had begun it for this reason.

However for the moment things have calmed down and I'm ready to pick up my pen again and make my way to the next station on the line which is Silvertown. If anything interesting crops up during this visit I'll be sure to let you know.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Foot tapping to Stan at the Barbican

I've just noticed that it's been nearly two months since I posted a blog and that seems such a long time ago but in fact wasn't much before Christmas. I have to admit that I've been busy like everyone else I know and I also haven't been inspired to write about anything 'arty' .

That changed just last week when we went to a Stan Tracey concert at the Barbican. Stan is a famous jazz pianist. He was born in Denmark Hill in London in 1926 and raised in Tooting in south London. My Dad also lived in Tooting in the dying days of WWII and it was where I lived when I first moved to London in 1979 so I feel Stan is a kindred spirit for that reason alone. By the way, Tooting has nothing whatsoever to recommend it. It is part of the sprawling mass which is south London but does boast a good selection of south Indian restaurants so if you find yourself in the vicinity enjoy a meal at one of them.

My husband sold the idea to me of going to a Stan Tracey concert a few years ago saying 'He's ever so good and we don't know how much longer he'll be with us' meaning he might peg out at any moment. So we went to see him perform and I became a Stan Tracey fan. Just like that. When he's playing the piano he looks to me like an old fashioned journalist thumping a news story out on an old manual typewriter but the sounds you hear are magical - it's quite amazing. Fortunately Stan's health has remained vibrant enough for him to keep performing so we've been able to see him twice at The Bull's Head in Barnes which is a great old pub right near the Thames but a pain to get home from once the trains have stopped running in the evening, and once at the Vortex jazz club in Dalston which I prefer because we can get there on the bus and it's small so you're practically sitting in the musicians' laps. The sketch shown above clearly is not of Stan, because I find he plays too quickly for me to draw him in action, but one of his fellow musicians playing the sax at The Bull's Head and is dated 28 February 2004.

The setting at the Barbican was a complete contrast to the intimate venues we've been to before. The Barbican is a rather grand concert hall with large, comfortable leather seats where people speak in hushed voices and, from where we were in the circle, the stage looked to be a long way away. It crossed my mind that this might be detrimental to the experience of listening to the music but the acoustics were so good the distance didn't matter. The evening began briskly with Stan playing with an octet of musicians. What I like about jazz is that every musician gets a chance to do a solo and at the end of their set they all took their bows, bobbing up and down to the audience, while Stan read out their names.

This was followed by a two-piano duet with Keith Tippett which was completely improvised and this was the first time they had performed together for 15 years. They didn't do any preparation for it and the result was remarkable. Here we had to have a break because I for one was emotionally drained and we came back refreshed for the second half. This was Stan with his Big Band and it was the first time I've seen a big band live and it was a complete contrast to the first half of the evening. It was big, noisy and vibrant. Stan closed the evening by playing a solo on the piano after everyone else had left the stage; just him and us - it was great.