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.