Thursday, 28 November 2013

In praise of patterns

A sample of fabric we have in our house which I really like
In the summer of 1979 I, along with 30 other students in the same year, was ready to graduate from art college having spent three years grappling with the problems posed by graphic design or Visual Communication as it was known at Bath Academy of Art. In order to pass our degrees we had to be interviewed by an external examiner. All I can remember about him was his first name was Ken (I think), he dressed in black and was a bit intimidating.

Last Saturday's Sudoku which I
solved for once

I'll be the first to admit that my efforts at design were hardly setting the place on fire and it's always possible that by the time Ken reached me he'd run out of things to say or was sick of talking to anxious students. Anyway, the only thing I can remember him saying to me in a rather disparaging tone was 'you work in patterns'. He was unimpressed to say the least and for years afterwards this phrase echoed around my mind as in 'you work in patterns therefore you can't be any good at design.'

So the years rolled by and I discovered, while working in magazine and newspaper design, that I loved solving visual problems. I thrived on looking for the visual patterns in a layout which aren't always obvious but when they work well enable the reader to understand more easily what the author is trying to convey.

I don't remember being given the chance to counter Ken's argument all those years ago but I will now I have 35 years experience to draw on.

Finding patterns and designing patterns has an honourable tradition. Textile design has employed patterns of varying complexity for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I'm sure the code breakers working at Bletchley Park during WWII were seeking patterns in the codes in order to try and beat the Germans. In my small way I enjoy grappling with Sudoku puzzles and finding the patterns to solve them — quite often they defeat me. Since I can't help but look for patterns everywhere I'll continue to celebrate them by producing sketches like the one below which is full of them.
A wet Monday in Marseillan April 2013

Monday, 25 November 2013

Public art 4: Charity by Van Spangen and Powell, Mile End

Charity by Van Spangen and Powell
This is a sketch I've drawn of a sculpture that is currently on display outside Hackney Museum which is inside Hackney Library. Well, I assumed it was on display but it turns out that it has been placed here for want of a permanent setting.

The notice on the wall describes it like this: 'Charity' by Van Spangen and Powell, Mile End. This sculpture dates from around 1800 and once stood on St Leonard's Parochial Schools in Kingsland Road, Shoreditch before being moved to St Leonard's Children's Home (orphanage) in Hornchurch, Essex.

I've just checked the distance from Shoreditch to Hornchurch on Google maps and it's about 17 miles. I assume the state of the roads would have been fairly bad back in the 19th century and it would probably have been carried by horse and cart so I am surprised it has remained intact although I understand it comes apart for transportation. After the children's home closed in the 1980s the sculpture ended up in the gardens of the V&A's Museum of Childhood down the road in Bethnal Green and then was moved again when the museum underwent refurbishment.

It's not unusual to see small sculptures adorning the outside of schools in London. For example Greycoat Hospital School in Westminster has figures of a boy and a girl dressed in clothing contempary to the date the school was founded set in niches in the front wall of the school. Raines Foundation School in Bethnal Green used to have similar figures on display outside their building.

This sculpture is different in that it is telling a story of Charity who is portrayed as a mythical goddess offering support to a boy and a girl. I find it fascinating that the children's clothing is so detailed including showing the girl's bonnet and the way the fabric of her dress falls and the buttons and buttonholes in the boy's waistcoat and their shoes look like something we might wear today.

This sculpture was produced by a Dutchman called Van Spangen who set up an artificial stone factory in Bow in 1800. He used 'cast stone' to produce his work which seems to be a version of fine concrete and is a material that has been in use since the 12th century. This sculpture was very likely made in clay and then cast to look like stone. Van Spangen's firm was broken up in 1828 and the moulds were then sold to a sculptor called Felix Austin. This sculpture was probably just one of many knocked out in that 30 year period and not regarded as anything particularly unusual or special but I've yet to see another one quite like it.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Beaujolais nouveau

Restaurant in Shoreditch High Street
I was sitting on the number 26 bus today lost in a daydream when, as we stopped at the traffic lights just before the turn off to Hackney Road, I saw a sign for Beaujolais nouveau, November 21. You can just about see this announcement on the window of the restaurant above.

This took me back nearly 30 years to the days when the arrival of this young, and to my tastes frankly unpleasant red wine was anticipated with much excitement. It was during the heady days of Margaret Thatcher's premiership when the Young Conservatives had balls and the Hooray Henry's got very drunk and threw bread rolls at each other and their female counterparts were all called Caroline and they wore dresses that looked like meringues and the rest of us thought this was normal behaviour for Tories.

So Henry and Caroline would race each other to France and back to see who could get back first with a case of the stuff while the rest of us got on with earning a living. They would get two minutes attention on the evening news and then it would all be forgotten. I had assumed, with the passage of time, that Beajolais nouveau had been a passing fad and like a property boom the bubble had burst a long time ago. But it seems I am wrong and today is the day to celebrate this year's arrival.

À la vôtre.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Strange seating in Victoria Park

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

I can remember singing this in the school playground. I didn't know then that it is just the first verse of a very long nursery rhyme about the numerous bridges that have been known over the years as London Bridge.

In 1968, when I was 11 years old, London Bridge was sold to an American oil tycoon, Robert P McCulloch, for $2,460,000. I can just about remember the astonishment this sale caused and the assumption was that the buyer probably thought he was buying Tower Bridge which looks completely different. It was later dismantled and shipped to Lake Havasu in Arizona, where it was reassembled and still stands today. I've just had a look at some photographs of the bridge in its present location and it looks lovely and as though it was designed for the place.

That bridge was built of granite and was designed by John Rennie in the 19th century and replaced a previous bridge which was built in 1760 by Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance the Younger, and demolished 1823. The stone alcove you can see above is one of a pair from that earlier bridge that found their way to Victoria Park in 1860.

You can just see the second alcove in the distance

There is an inscription inside both alcoves which reads: 
This alcove which stood on
Old London Bridge
was presented to
Her Majesty (Queen Victoria)
by Benjamin Dixon Esq J P
for the use of the public and was
placed here by order of
the Right Honourable W. Cowper
First Commissioner of
Her Majesty's Works
and Public Buildings. 

I have wondered where these alcoves were stored in the intervening years between the old bridge being demolished in 1823 and 1860 when they arrived in the newly opened Victoria Park. Apparently other alcoves from the same bridge were given a new lease of life somewhere else. Maybe people sit in those alcoves too gazing across green grass and admiring the skyline in the distance pretending to be listening to the sound of the Thames flowing in and out according to the tides just the same way I do.
The sketch I made while sitting in one of the alcoves

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Centre Point, Oxford Street

On Monday I was rushing through rain soaked London at lunchtime and passed one of my favourite buildings. I'm rather fond of Brutalist architecture (reinforced concrete) which is why I am a bit sad that the Royal Festival Hall has had its exterior covered up. I am referring to the Centre Point tower which was one of London's first skyscrapers and completed in 1966. According to Wikipedia the site was once occupied by a gallows which is news to me and adds a gruesome touch to the area.

It became controversial because it was built by the property tycoon Harry Hyams who was happy to keep it empty for years until he could find a single tenant for the entire 34 floors. This led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, for example a designer I met who worked in Soho confidently told me it was built as a tax dodge and I've just read on the internet a few other explanations for this odd behaviour.

I think there are few things more depressing than walking past an unoccupied and deserted building and it was squatted briefly in 1974 so presumably some other people agreed with that view. Now it is occupied by a number of tenants and it is a listed building in spite of Nikolaus Pevsner describing it as 'coarse in the extreme'.

It used to have a rather elegant pool complete with fountains on its west side but all that has been demolished because of the ongoing Crossrail Project and this is the view you get at the moment until 2018 when Crossrail should be finished.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Public art 3: Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven memorial, Bethnal Green, designed by local architect Harry Paticas with initial help from Jens Borstelmann
This memorial didn't attract much attention from passers-by who were busy going about their day when I visited it last month. It is sited near a library in a park next to Bethnal Green tube station on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road.

This part of the park had been a cordoned off as a building site for quite some time and I was keen to take a look at it now it is accessible to the public. I had no idea when I arrived how emotionally affected I would feel by the time I left. I also had no idea until I read more about the design of it that it is still incomplete. The trust that runs it need to raise the money for the actual staircase. In spite of this the memorial, as it stands, is an affecting tribute to the people involved in the worst civilian disaster in the UK during WWII.

During WWII it was common for tube stations to be used as communal air raid shelters. They could accommodate thousands of people unlike the cramped, airless shelters buried in back gardens. Londoners had endured relentless bombing during the Blitz in 1940-41 with the city being hit 57 nights in a row. The population got used to air raid sirens going off even though they might be false alarms and would spend the night in the shelters as a precaution.

Bethnal Green station is on the Central Line and was still under construction when this disaster took place on 3 March 1943 as a result of several things happening at once. The siren sounded, a cinema closed and three buses let off their passengers so they could make their way to the shelter. 

A woman carrying a baby tripped and fell as she walked down the steps to the platform. A man tripped over her and a domino effect began. At the top of the stairs came a shouted warning of bombs falling and when a different deafening sound was heard they thought it was a new kind of bomb (it turned out to be a new, secret, anti-aircraft rocket battery being tested in Victoria Park near by).

As a consequence of this it is estimated that around 178 people died that night, many of whom were crushed to death, and a further 60 people were wounded and needed hospital treatment. Many of the survivors never recovered from this experience and the Government of the day decided to hush it up. To me this is reason enough to have a very public memorial where local people can remember their families.*

*I found most of this information at the memorial's website. You can also read individual stories from this disaster at the same site.

This seat is part of the memorial and is where I sat while I drew this sketch

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Public art 2: Reclining figure in bronze

Reclining figure in bronze by Thomas Bayliss Huxley-Jones made in 1964 outside Hornsey library
Monday evening was handing in day for the Islington Art Society's autumn exhibition at the Original Gallery at Hornsey library. While I was approaching the library I noticed this sculpture in a pool with a fountain. I liked the sculpture so much I thought I would show it at two angles.

I love the exuberance on display here and now that I have just begun to be aware of civic sculpture I am impressed that local authorities used to commission art in a way that never happens now.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Glass fusing course

My panel based on one of my existing landscapes
I'd been looking forward to last Saturday for several months. Back in August my friend Wendy booked a beginner's glass fusing course for us and her two daughters and then we had to wait patiently until the end of October before we could try it out.

Wendy's niece practises this mysterious art and apparently the results are so captivating Wendy resolved to start learning how to do it herself and infected me with her enthusiasm.

We spent the day at Abinger Stained Glass and were taught by the owner, Amanda Winfield, the basic skills needed for glass fusing. I'm generally used to learning new skills so I don't expect to be fantastically proficient by the end of one day. After all cutting glass accurately can only be developed with a lot of experience. I was surprised when Amanda told us that we'd probably finish one large piece of work and still have time to make a coaster or a pendant before the end of the day. As it turned out it took me all my time to complete the panel above and even then I had to get a move on.

As I understand it glass fusing requires two or more layers of glass which can be cut, arranged and decorated how you like with powder, bits of glass, metal and even dried leaves and then it is fired in a kiln over a number of hours. If you are making a plate or bowl (which I'd love to do another time) the work is fired once in the kiln and then again where it is 'slumped' over a ceramic mould which defines its final shape.

First we were taught how to cut a straight line using a glass cutter and a device that snaps the glass. You have to wear goggles during this which take some getting used to and you need to try and avoid cutting yourself. I managed to draw blood several times and got through quite a few plasters during the day.

It can be quite frustrating trying to cut the glass because until you have there's nothing to work with. I realised during the day that a distinctive sound accompanies the glass cutter as it travels along the glass. When you hear that it is likely you will manage to break the glass cleanly. Amanda assured us that our only limitations with glass fusing is our imaginations but after you've been working away for a few hours it is easy to think your imagination has fled.

After a half hour lunch in Amanda's dining room we were able to return to our benches refreshed. The workshop is in a large shed at the top of her garden. There are views of the rolling Surrey hills which is managed by the National Trust and early on in the day we spotted a couple of pheasants looking at us which increased the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

Before we knew it our day was over. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished object and having another go at this interesting and potentially painful artform.