Friday, 24 September 2010

Ferry across the Mersey

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Albert Dock, Liverpool in the rain


Last Sunday afternoon I took refuge in Tate Liverpool having got soaked to the skin in a sudden downpour that took me completely by surprise while I was exploring the Albert Dock. I was in Liverpool for a few days working at the Liberal Democrat conference being held at the Arena and Convention Centre near by and grabbed the opportunity to get away from politics and enjoy a bit of culture and time on my own in the afternoon.

I left my soaking wet coat in the cloakroom and tried to dry my hair using the hand dryer in the ladies' toilets. But I still felt rather damp so decided to make my visit to the gallery a leisurely one so I could dry out properly. When I'd reached the first floor of what presumably had originally been a warehouse I took a moment to glance out of the window to look at the Mersey river made famous by the song Ferry across the Mersey. I still found the view exciting in spite of the bleakness and grey sky so took a moment to sketch it and make some notes.

I was thrilled when I went into this gallery to see my all-time favourite artist, Mondrian, represented by one of his vertical/horizontal paintings. I have found his work inspiring ever since I was introduced to it at school when I was 16 years old and am always happy to meet him again, so to speak. Marta will be interested to note that there was a 'nude study in blue' circa 1899-1900 by Henri Matisse that had a still quiet quality to it that was very appealing.

There were a couple of Picasso's (he's probably my second favourite artist after Mondrian) and I particularly liked the 'seated woman in a chemise' 1923 that was also rather serene. More recent artists were also on show like Carl Andre whose work has always been very controversial. Here they had on display his '144 magnesium square' 1969 which consists of 144 squares of magnesium laid out on the floor. I noticed that no-one was stepping on it but just carefully walking around it until a couple of children walked on it. When I saw them do it I joined in. There was another exhibit on the floor by Richard Long who makes 'art made by walking in landscape' that was also very intriguing. I think the last artist's work I looked at was a piece by contemporary artist Rachel Whiteread before I headed to the café for a restorative cup of tea and piece of cake.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Art in hospitals

Years ago I was an outpatient at St Thomas' Hospital in London. Fortunately I wasn't particularly ill or anything so this meant that while I was traipsing along corridors and up and down stairs to make various visits to different departments I could revel in the display of artwork on the walls. They seemed to have quite a collection and this was news to me - I didn't know that hospitals might be repositories for the creative arts.

Some years later I was visiting an elderly friend who was a patient at the Middlesex hospital. She wasn't in great health but she was very keen for me to see the hospital chapel and offered to take me on a visit. So I followed her as she hobbled out of the ward in her dressing gown and headed towards the lift. Eventually we reached the door of the chapel and went in and it was like entering Aladdin's cave. My strongest memory of it was lots of glittering mosaics everywhere - it looked very Art Deco and it certainly lifted my spirits.

The old Middlesex hospital has now been demolished and a new glass and concrete hospital has been built nearby. While doing a bit of internet research for this blog I came across a site with photos of the interior of the Art Deco chapel and the author said that it was going to be demolished along with the rest of the hospital which made me a little sad.

What I hadn't noticed on that visit were four very large oil paintings that took pride of place in the reception area. Fortunately paintings, even very large ones, are portable and they are currently on display at the National Gallery. Yesterday I went to see them.

They were painted by Frederick Cayley Robinson. He was a mature artist by the time he received this commission which pleased me no end. The whole project took from 1915 until 1920 to complete and the group as a whole is called 'Acts of Mercy'. You can read the reasons for the commission by following the link to the National Gallery above which is interesting in itself.

The two paintings which I found most moving are: Orphans I and Orphans II. They show a group of girls, identically dressed queuing up for food in a refectory (I bought a postcard of each of these paintings which don't really do them justice but are good reminders of what was in them). The girls look sombre and tired and every face is different and individual. I imagine that the artist would have had access to an orphanage and could spend time making detailed sketches of the different girls. I found this attention to detail refreshing because very often you see the same face repeated over and again when an artist wants to create a crowd scene.

The paintings are very atmospheric and full of tension - they're not the kind of thing you'd want hanging in your living room. You'll read on the National Gallery website that they are reminiscent of Leonardo's The Last Supper and they also recall Dutch 17th century paintings which seems to be an accurate observation. In the exhibition they have hung some Italian masters (sorry, I didn't jot the names down) alongside these paintings to show the Italian influence on Frederick Cayley Robinson.

It's just dawned on me that I found these paintings have a similar intense quality to them as do Wilhelm Hammershøi's who I wrote about back in 2008. You can read that post if you click on the label: intriguing interiors below.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

My ongoing drawing project

My ongoing drawing project that involves me traveling to every station on the old North London line and drawing at least one picture when I get there now has its own blog and you can find it here. I began it in 2005 and hope I finish it this decade!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Our Parisian finale

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We were serenaded below the window of the apartment on our last night

So by Saturday, our last full day on this short trip, our batteries were really running down. After breakfast we pottered off to Musée de Cluny and revisited the famous medieval tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn but even their sumptuous detail and workmanship couldn't hold our attention for long - more coffee was calling.

We wound up at a nearby cafe, sitting outside in the gloom, near a young American couple. They were with a female friend who was hogging their conversation: yak, yak, yak. The guy in the couple seemed to be withdrawing into his coat, his girlfriend was nodding politely - we paid and left.

We realised that there was no hope of finding a post office nearby to send our two cards to our respective mothers so pressed on towards the Metro. Our plan was to trek over to the Hôtel national des Invalides to see the tomb of Napoleon. Something else I've never done. This was where I got really quite excited because, after traipsing around endless tunnels and up and down stairs, we arrived at the B-line platform and got on a suburban train for two stops. These trains have two decks (like double decker buses) and it felt like we were going off on a long trip into the unknown.

Our suburban train ride was soon over. When we were back up on street level we walked down a very long, wide avenue where at the end there is a building that dwarfs everything around it. This, as Graham told me, is the Hôtel national des Invalides. Thinking this was too much to tackle on an empty stomach we headed off towards a district where we hoped to find a restaurant. We found several and enjoyed an excellent meal for a cold day.

Now we were fortified and ready for Napoleon and his tomb. It struck me that to get to any destination in Paris you have to walk miles. Before we could get to old Boney we walked through a gate, along a path, through another gate into a huge courtyard with cloister-like walkways. In the courtyard there were groups of military type young people pacing around as if in rehearsal for some future event - we gawped at them for a bit. Once through the courtyard we carried on walking and walking until we got to the imposing front door of the chapel for Napoleon's tomb.

What a weird place this is. Unlike most Christian churches which run from West to East, this runs from North to South. Napoleon was a short man but you wouldn't know it looking at his tomb which, I understand, has maybe five coffins stacked inside each other, and then placed inside this weird marble edifice. The tomb is in the crypt but can be seen from above. Surrounding the tomb are protective pagan goddesses and plaster reliefs depicting Napoleon in heroic poses. It was well odd but worth one visit.

And that really was enough. Time to return to our friends' apartment for the last time and enjoy the serenade from the band that was roaming around the neighbourhood.

Friday, 4 June 2010

We love the Tuileries

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A peaceful pause in the Tuileries

On our second full day of our trip Graham suggested that we visit the Musée de L'institute du Monde Arab. According to the description on our museum pass the institution was planned to raise and spread awareness of Arab culture and it has 500 works which shed light on the history of the Arab world. This sounded like a good start to the day - the sun was out and the institute was a short walk away so off we went with our hosts, Robert and Joan.

We arrived at the building. We were allowed in after a bag check. We walked up to the ticket desk waving our museum passes only to be told that the building was closed for refurbishment. We could see this was happening because there were any number of men feeding cables through ducts. The staff were sorry.

Being closed for refurbishment became a theme of the day. Later on we decided to have lunch at the large airy cafeteria in the Louvre where you can create your own salad but sadly it was closed. For refurbishment. So we made do with a sandwich we bought at a stall on a landing.

Then we thought that since we'd missed seeing Arab art in the morning we would check it out in the Louvre since we were there and we could see a sign more-or-less saying 'Arab art this way'. So we began walking in that direction and got hopelessly lost. We wound up in a gallery describing itself as Graeco Roman and nearly every exhibit was missing (obviously being refurbished).

By now we were fairly sick of the Louvre so headed for the Jardin des Tuileries on our way to Musée National de l'Orangerie. Now our mood changed completely and we had smiles on our faces again. I was fairly staggered by the size of the gardens. I know I have visited them before but they can't have made any impact on me because this felt like my first visit. The French do love their formal gardens. There are wide avenues to stroll along and wonderful arrangements of flowers in the borders. The grass is all roped off so you can't walk on it, unlike at home where we are likely to leave food left-over from barbecues lying all over the place. There are endless numbers of outdoor cafés serving delicious pastries and coffee. After sampling the food and drink we needed to visit the loo. Sorry, it's closed for refurbishment - (go find another one).

Refurbs aside we made it to l'Orangerie at the earnest recommendation of Robert and Joan. They had been knocked out by an exhibition of Paul Klee's art and some very large paintings of waterlillies by Monet. We had a sense of being underwater while we were there and I felt I wasn't so much looking at the paintings as being consumed by them. I could understand it when Robert had said that he had felt claustrophobic when he was in these galleries.

Paul Klee's work was a revelation to me. I have been familiar with his name for decades and really knew nothing about him. He was Swiss, he taught at the Bauhaus until the Nazis made life impossible for him, he was a talented musician and poet as well as a painter. Quite a lot of his work is on a small scale as is mine and I felt I was in the presence of a kindred spirit. He is definitely someone I'd like to know more about and this made me very happy.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Bonjour Paris

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A rainy Thursday in May, so much for springtime in Paris

In Charles Stross' The Merchant Princes series of books the characters are divided into clans and because these books combine science fiction, alternative reality and general all-round nuttiness the device these characters employ to move from one world to another, known as world-walking, seems entirely plausible. They stare at a design called a clan knot and before you know it they disappear through a portal and end up in who knows where.

I was reminded of this knotwork device last week as we were about to board Eurostar. We'd printed out our tickets at home and had to hold our own knotwork (otherwise known as a bar code) against a reader before we could pass through our own portal called security and passport control. Our train was on time, comfortable and included genial neighbours and was over before we knew it. Honestly, it takes longer for us to get to Newcastle than it does to Paris and in that sense Paris does not feel as though it is in another country.

Earlier this year I'd enjoyed reading Marta Szabo's account of her recent trip to Paris which you'll find here and it is a fascinating read as it was her first trip to the city. This was definitely not my first visit - and I'm beginning to feel as though it could become a second home - in that it has that comfortable old pair of slippers feel. We were staying with friends from Canada who every year for the last four years have rented the same small apartment in the Latin Quarter and they generously lend us the sofa bed. Whenever we see them, either in the UK or France, we always pick up where we left off. I hadn't seen them for two years but it might as well have been two weeks ago - there's always plenty to talk about.

We always buy a two-day museum pass and belt around the city on foot wearing ourselves out and now I am back home in London I'm recuperating by writing this while camped out on the sofa. One place I have never been is the Conciergerie. It began life as a palace and ended up as a prison that had the reputation for being one of the toughest. It held many people the State regarded as dispensable during the French Revolution including the Queen, Marie-Antionette and Charlotte Corday who murdered Marat in his bath. Most prisoners were there for only a short time before being sentenced and dispatched but Charlotte Corday was there long enough, and was presumably wealthy enough, to have her portrait painted before she waved farewell. Perhaps it took her mind off thoughts of the guillotine.

Only the lower part of the medieval halls exists now and it is a large space with vaulted ceilings built in a warm coloured brick. It is uncluttered by monuments and you can simply sit in it and soak up the atmosphere which is calm and peaceful, nothing like a prison but oddly more like large church.

Anyway, bye for now and more of our trip another day.

Friday, 21 May 2010

It's taken me five years to get to West Ham!

I'm wearing my denim skirt, flat suede shoes with bare legs and I've just done what I've been trying to avoid and that's get stung by a stinging nettle. It reminds me of when I was a little kid and my parents banned me from exploring some rough ground near where we lived. I just had to go and see this place for myself and my legs got stung from top to bottom.

Anyway, today I am exploring East London Cemetery and trying to find a way of getting to the Memorial Park which is next to it without having to go the long way round via the main entrance to the cemetery and the road. I am out of luck and have to retrace my steps. Along the way I gawp at the elaborate memorials that a lot of local people see as a fitting way to remember their loved ones and I ponder that some of these marble and stone fantasies must cost as much as a house. It strikes me that selling memorial stones might be a good business to get into.

My reason for swanning around this part of London is that it is very close to West Ham station and it is the next stop on my continuing drawing project following stations on the Silverlink/North London line. I began this project nearly five years ago. I have 23 more stations to cover and if I want to finish this project in my life time I had better get a move on.

The drawing above is from Memorial Park facing the line of trees beyond which is the cemetery. My mother-in-law made me a present of some watersoluble sketching pencils which I haven't used before. I found working out how much water to use both tricky and intriguing and I've ended up with a drawing which is more lively than the park actually is. I'm off to Paris next week so I'll have another go with them then.
Au revoir.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

You're so slow, speed up, work faster!

I've always been a bit of a slow coach. I can remember my Mum commenting on it when she would walk me the mile to school and back when I about five years old. It wasn't that I didn't want to go, it's just that I travelled at my own speed, and fifty-odd years later I still do.

This proved to be a bit of a problem when I was doing exams as a 16 year old. I was never very confident at maths and I knew, during one exam, when I kept rechecking my answers, that if I'd only had another 15 minutes I could have got a higher grade. Still never mind, has always been my mantra.

These days I notice I walk slower than other people - no change there but I notice it more and more. They overtake me on the inside and power down the road. Me, I saunter along and enjoy watching the world go by and get there in the end - occasionally I'll speed up when I'm late for the bus but usually I'm content to wait for the next one. I also eat slower and drink slower than other people. A cup of tea can last all morning at work but that's often because I've forgotten it's there.

And not surprisingly I make art quite slowly - in fact dead slowly. Having worked for 30 years in publishing to strict deadlines I actually learned to speed up. It was a case of speed up or speed out but it took me years to learn the art of simultaneously thinking and doing. The endless 'have you done this?', 'have you done that?', 'it's needed now' used to make me anxious but not more productive. Finally I got the hang of it and when I was working in newspapers I became a bit hooked on flinging pages together, running on adrenalin all day and irritated by people who took their time.

But now I can see a real advantage to working slowly because creative endeavours can often take a very long time to come to fruition. For example this very day I have solved how to approach a portrait I have been struggling with for more time than I care to mention. I've already thrown one version of it on the scrap heap and I'm confident that the new approach I've settled on will result in a more satisfying solution. And let's face it: no-one else has a vested interest in whether I produce artwork or not so I might as well take my time and produce work I can be proud of even if it does take years.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

River Sounding

I began to shiver as the cold chill crept round my shoulders. I wondered about digging my jacket out of my bag and putting it back on. It had been lovely and warm lolling around on the terrace overlooking the Thames - warm enough to make you nod off and have a nap. Now we had walked downstairs to what looked like the route to some unknown dungeons.

Couple that with the general clanging of bells, the rushing sounds of water and clunks of gears changing every few seconds and I was ready to go back upstairs again to the safety of light and warmth. But we hadn't come to visit anyone in prison - we had come to experience Bill Fontana's River Sounding which is described as 'an immersive sound installation that creates an acoustic journey through little known subterranean spaces of Somerset House'.

Bill Fontana had spent several months amassing a collection of audio and video recordings from various parts of the Thames (which sounds to me like a great way to spend a lot of time outdoors and call it work) and then put an edited selection on display in the dark recesses underneath Somerset House. The result is an odd combination of meditative and eerie. In addition there are no gallery staff watching your every move which, in the confines of these small dark spaces, gave me a sense of freedom and liberation. It was certainly an interesting and different way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

If you click on the heading to this post it will take you to a short video at the Somerset House website.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Life got better after this

Back in the bad old days when Margaret Thatcher was still the chief banana in our government (circa 1990) I had a grumpy Hungarian employer. He was tall, 50ish and had a patrician air about him. He used to stroll around the offices like a lord inspecting his estates and spying on his serfs - he always made me cringe a bit. He left a depressing aura in his wake which spoke of money worries, downturn in business and staff problems.

And I was one of those staff problems. In all the time I worked for him (and I wonder why I stayed for so long) I never settled in, never found my place, always felt awkward and certainly didn't get anywhere near achieving my potential. Potential, what's that?

I'd made an enemy of one of the directors who in the hierarchy of the company was one layer higher than me and one step down from the boss. He spent six months trying to dislodge me from the company and even in my depressed state I could clearly observe his tactics but was powerless to out-manoeuvre him.

During this period the grumpy Hungarian would periodically call me into his office for yet another telling off. He spelled out to me the official warning process, verbal and written which was the preparation for dismissal and I would nod my head. Two weeks later I would be back in his office - him looking for an improvement in my work, me having none to offer. Each time my grumpy employer would intone: 'you are no good, you are always ill' and sigh.

Eventually he gave me the stark choice of being fired or resigning. I chose to resign because I thought that way I would retain some self respect but it was a sacking in all but name. At our final meeting in his office on my last morning he repeated yet again: 'you are no good, you are always ill' and then to my astonishment asked me to keep in touch with him. I remained silent not trusting myself to speak while I thought 'you must be fucking joking' so at least that showed I had a spark of life left in me.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

What's the point of sketch books?

Bust of Eve Fairfax by August Rodin (1902-3) Bronze: at the V&A. Killing time before meeting for a family lunch.

I notice that my last visit to the world of blog was on 4 October last year - that was two whole seasons ago! I won't go on about the weather but I do feel more lively now spring is here and the days are getting longer.

Just yesterday we went on a walk through the fenlands of Essex. For the exercise and for the views. My husband took his fancy camera and his fancy tripod. I took my sketch book and pencils - they didn't see the light of day until we got home and I took them out of my rucksack.

I often do this. Carry my book and pencils with me in the hope that I'll add to its contents and decrease the number of blank pages. I'm currently working my way through a tiny book that I received as a present and I've just noticed that the first date in it is 28 December 2002. It's very nearly too small for me to draw anything in it. Two years ago I took it on holiday with me to Lyon in France and our host's young son thought that looking through it was the highlight of our visit. I was astonished.

Not surprisingly it takes me for ever to fill one whole book. I usually have a few books on the go at once and I recently managed to complete a rather nice square book which took me three patient years from start to finish.

My friend Cathy got me thinking about why I work in sketch books. She asked me if I use my sketches as a basis for something bigger, more permanent. Oh no, I replied. I make them and leave them. Sometimes I'll look back at them, sometimes I don't but I am careful to avoid judging the quality of what I produce. I accept it as it is. It could be scruffy, turned out in a moment or laboured and delicate. It doesn't matter.

But as I've thought about it I realised that I like to sketch stuff as I am on the move because that is how I learn more about where I am and what is around me and that makes my life more interesting. I've included two drawings from the current book for your amusement.Waiting to see the dentist - you could describe this as displacement activity.