Sunday, 23 November 2014

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia

I expect that most artists be they musicians, actors, dancers, performance poets or visual artists like myself experience periods of self doubt and feelings of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being unproductive and just plain down in the dumps. I've certainly being feeling just like this recently and briefly cheered up enormously on discovering that Emily Carr felt just the same for lengthy periods!

Emily Carr is one of Canada's best loved artists but she was unknown outside north America, until now, because there is currently a major exhibition of her work on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery. She was born in 1871 in Victoria, Vancouver Island to well-to-do English parents. Whereas most artists I know benefit from around four years training or six if you do a Master's degree, Emily was able to spend three years studying art in San Francisco followed by five years in the UK, firstly at the Westminster School of Art and then in St Ives. She then succumbed to a mysterious illness which was diagnosed as 'hysteria'. According to Wikipedia hysteria described 'unmanageable emotional excesses' but we can only guess how Emily's illness manifested itself. This in turn led her to being admitted to a sanatorium in East Anglia for 18 months so by the time she was 30 she'd led a pretty adventurous life.

In 1907 she took a trip with her sister Alice up the west coast of British Columbia to Alaska. This was a pivotal moment in her art career because this was when she first encountered the totems and villages of indigenous peoples (today known as First Nations) and she decided she would make it her business to record their lives and artefacts in situ as she believed that their culture was doomed to disappear. To this end she endured rigorous journeys and battled with the elements so she could visit and record deserted villages she found along the way.

Then in around 1910 she felt she needed to develop her artistic skills even further so she set off for Paris where she encountered and learned from les Fauves (French for 'the wild beasts') and post-impressionist painters. With all this knowledge under her belt she exhibited, in 1913, dozens of views of First Nations' villages in her new post-impressionist style which went down like a lead balloon and she failed to attract buyers.

At this point, feeling discouraged, she pretty much quit painting and became a landlady. This is when my heart went out to her - what a state of affairs after all that work. Fourteen years later she got to know Lawren Harris a prominent member of the Group of Seven artists who encouraged Emily and she began exploring her native landscape with its rainforests and magnificent trees. You can see many of these vibrant, lively paintings of trees in this exhibition and I defy you not to feel enlivened by the time you reach the end. I would love to have illustrated this post with an example of her work but I don't want to contravene copyright so I offer you one of my own since Emily and I have a love of trees in common.

The exhibition is on until 8 March 2015

Vermezo Park, Buda ©Heather James 2014

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Forty Hall & Estate, Enfield

Clare Twomey 'Everyman's Dream' in the Great Hall
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in a small room on the first floor of Forty Hall listening to Sir Nicholas Rainton, Lord Mayor of London, explain why he had chosen Enfield in particular to build his house. He explained that as a Puritan he would be surrounded by like-minded people and that it was as far out of London as you could ride without having to change horse.

I obviously wasn't eavesdropping on a real conversation, since Sir Nicholas Rainton died in 1646, but instead I was enjoying listening to a recording made by actors designed to bring the house and grounds to life. Forty Hall is Grade 1 listed and 'is a fine architectural example of the change in style from medieval to modern.' The house and estate are now owned by Enfield Council which must be quite a responsibility since in the past it has been owned and occupied by a number of influential families.

The people who care for this impressive pile appear to have successfully navigated the tricky task of preserving its many layers of history while allowing it to live in the present. The tour around the house is easy to follow but there are surprises which greet you en route. If my mobile phone had been smart enough I could have listened in to servants as they went about their duties which would have been fun. You are encouraged to pick things up and open closed doors. One of these eventually leads you to Sir Nicholas' bedchamber which is surprisingly austere and there you can learn about the bequests he made in his Will.

Clare Twomey 'Everyman's Dream'
Within this setting there is currently an exhibition called Legacy: Two works about Hope and Memory. It is to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I and while it isn't specifically about war it is about 'personal loss, legacy, testimony and commemoration'. Clare Twomey's Everman's Dream is on display on the ground floor in the Great Hall and in the Parlour. Clare Twomey works in ceramics and her installation consists of many identical bowls and on inside each one is a simple line of text in gold leaf of how an individual would like to be remembered. An air of peace and quiet permeates the house and this is especially noticeable where Clare Twomey's work is on display and it is this silence that allows you to hear the hopes of all these people who are present in these bowls.

Upstairs on the first floor is Julian Stair's Reliquary for a Common Man. Julian Stair made a recording of a relative of his who, I think, was his great-uncle who reminisced about his youth and how he was drawn to either Communism or Socialism. You could listen to this gentleman talking while watching old colour cine footage of him as a younger man relaxing on holiday and then turn around and see still photos of him through his life. Julian Stair is also a potter and had made a container that included some of his relatives ashes in the fabric of the pot as well as containing the ashes which I found a bit disturbing (assuming I understood the work correctly).

From this floor you can look out on the lawn and you can see inscribed into the turf the words in large letters LEST WE FORGET which I imagine is another reference to World War I and the view takes you to an avenue of trees that leads the eye to the site of Henry VIII's Elsyng Palace, but that is another story.

The exhibition is on until Sunday 2 November.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Open House London 2014

This weekend properties in London that are normally closed to the public have been flinging their doors open so inquisitive people like me can enjoy some time poking around inside their private spaces. It's been a few years since I've been able to indulge this interest so I was quite excited at the prospect of joining an enormous queue of like-minded souls bent on oohing and aahing at high ceilings and impressive windows. I have in the past spent hours queuing to get into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or mooched around Three Mills Island.

This time I headed for the Canary Wharf Crossrail station which is currently under construction. This very large site is merely a small part of a colossal engineering project taking place as far afield as Reading to the west of London and Shenfield to the east. When Crossrail is complete it will reduce the time it takes to travel into and out of the Capital. For example it can take us up to two hours to travel to Heathrow airport from where we live in Hackney. Travelling by Crossrail should cut that by about half which will be great but it's not going to be finished until 2018.

For the last few years London has been full of vast holes while tunnels have been dug and platforms built but there has been nothing to see for all this labour apart from hoardings so this was a chance to peek behind them. Our next door neighbour visited the same site last year and warned me that she had queued for three hours to get in so, bearing that in mind, I set off fairly early and was surprised to find there was no queue to join. I simply wandered around with a gaggle of other people taking photos and admiring the views. The tunnelling is complete, the platforms exist, the tracks are laid but you can't actually see them behind the boarding. The ticket hall is very large and impressive and the positions for the escalators are in place. All they have to do is finish it!
An unfinished roof
Looking towards the City of London
The Roof Garden - a public space due to open in 2015
The Roof Garden as a construction site
The ticket hall - the point where you will need to have paid
The platform
On the way out

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Monet: The Thames below Westminster

Taken from the National Gallery's What's On brochure
Yesterday was my birthday and I spent it indulging myself. At lunchtime I visited the hairdressers and then I had intended to visit Lord Frederick Leighton's house in Holland Park. However by the time I had left the salon it was too late in the afternoon to trek over to west London to do the museum justice.

So I walked from the Cut in Waterloo over Hungerford Bridge to the National Gallery because there is always something worth seeing there and last week I had been listening to Front Row on BBC Radio 4 where an interviewee had been raving about an exhibition that was worth visiting. It was only when I was sitting in the Espresso Bar reading the above leaflet that I remembered that the exhibition in question is on at the National Portrait Gallery just around the corner.

I decided that exhibition could wait until another day because by then my eye had spied that in 30 minutes there was going to be a 10 minute talk in Room 44 on Monet: The Thames below Westminster at 4pm. I liked the sound of this so sauntered upstairs to Room 44 and spent about 20 minutes enjoying the Impressionist paintings by Monet, Pissarro and Seurat's Bathers at Asnières which is vast. One of the paintings on display was of a cluttered mantle piece. It was a very ordinary and mundane view but somehow the painting raised it above its very ordinariness.

My sketch of Monet's painting
The Monet painting in question is quite small compared with the others in this gallery. It was painted on a misty day in spring in around 1871. The colours are muted and the shapes indistinct but you can clearly see Westminster Bridge, the boats, the Houses of Parliament and people standing on a jetty in the foreground. I like the way he describes the reflections in the water and how they change in different parts of the river. I should try to do that sometime – I think it's probably more difficult than it looks.

Four o'clock came and went and there was no sign of any one who looked like a speaker. People were milling around though in expectation and then someone said that the bus with the speaker on it had been held up so the talk was cancelled which was a bit disappointing. But I had spend more time than usual inspecting a few paintings and for the first time understood that Monet, Pissarro and Daubigny had all temporarily located to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian war that was raging away in France. So if it hadn't been for the carnage taking place on the Continent we wouldn't have these contemporary impressions of Victorian London.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Gerardo Dottori: The Futurist View

Alessio Stefanelli from Perugia, Umbria–Dottori’s home town–was our speaker for the evening. Photo: ©Annmarie Meredith 2014
The great thing about a visit to the Estorick Collection are the artistic surprises that lie in wait for you. First you walk through the garden and think 'it would be nice to spend more time out here', then you step into a small hallway, pass the bookshop on the right, café to the left, continue along a white washed corridor and then into one of the galleries where you might be assaulted by paintings of intense colours or unexpected sculptures or beautifully crafted drawings. This can make you pause briefly while you collect yourself.

This is what happened to me last week at the Islington Art Society's annual visit to the Estorick to see Gerardo Dottori's exhibition 'The Futurist View'. I am woefully ignorant about many 20th century artists and visits like this do help fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century. The Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti launched the movement in his Futurist Manifesto in 1909. The Futurists glorified and emphasised speed, technology, youth, violence, cars, aeroplanes and industrial cities and rebelled against harmony and good taste. Gerardo Dottori (1884-1977) became a leading figure of the movement during the years between the two world wars and signed the Futurist Manifesto of Aeropainting in 1929.

There are a number of his Aeropaintings on display in this exhibition which depict landscapes and visions of Umbria from the viewpoint of a passenger in an aeroplane. They have an hypnotic quality to them so you could easily lose yourself for a long time once you have been drawn into these slightly unrealistic but harmonious landscapes.

Gerardo Dottori's reputation suffered after the end of WWII when being a Fascist was no longer socially or politically acceptable. Presumably the Estorick have now decided that enough time has passed since 1945 to safely introduce him to a new audience. Certainly we could not have asked for a more enthusiastic speaker than Alessio Stefanelli who, coming from the same town in Umbria as Dottori, told us that he has grown up seeing the very same landscapes that are depicted in these paintings and his enthusiasm made me want to go and visit the area for myself.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Margate Harbour with the Turner Contemporary - the pointy
building on the right hand side ©Heather James
Margate is notable for several reasons. It became the first seaside resort in England as long ago as the 1730s; it was the first seaside town to introduce donkey rides on the beach around 1780 followed by deckchairs in 1898. It has an ever-changing skyline which is a delight to observe and, unlike Brighton, it has a gloriously sandy beach.

JMW Turner was a frequent visitor to Margate in the 1820s and '30s and the Turner Contemporary Gallery which opened in 2011 (designed by David Chipperfield Architects) is located on the site where Turner used to stay.

The gallery shows a changing programme of exhibitions and the theme being explored now is 'Summer of Colour'. This includes an exhibition of Piet Mondrian's painting ranging from work completed in his twenties right through to his famous 'grid' paintings in red, yellow and blue and visiting this exhibition was our reason for visiting Margate.

As someone who has been a fan of Mondrian since being introduced to his work during an art history lesson aged 16 I was very excited at the prospect of seeing some of his work close up and I was not disappointed. There are about 50 works on show which means there are enough examples of his paintings to see how his work developed towards abstraction through colour but not so many that you feel overwhelmed. I particularly liked 'Dune Landscape, (July-September) '1911 and 'The Red Mill' 1911.

In addition to this there is an exhibition by Spencer Finch, an American artist, who attempts to make visible the fleeting nature of natural phenomena and it includes a suspended sculpture that subtly alters as the natural light in the gallery changes throughout the day. It is worth being patient by staying in the gallery long enough to observe the changing light in order to really appreciate his work.

We stayed in Margate overnight so we had the chance to visit these exhibitions on two consecutive days. In addition to enjoying the gallery we were also able to have a look at Margate train station on our arrival and departure and note that it was designed in 1926 along with Ramsgate Station and was the first major buildings to be designed by the British Modernist architect Maxwell Fry. Apparently the design was based on Roman thermal baths.

Another piece of architecture worth looking at is Arlington House which is close to the station and dominates the skyline. It is a 19 storey residential block designed by Russell Diplock and completed in 1964. It's an iconic example of brutalist architecture and sits slightly uncomfortably with the down-at-heel Victorian seaside architecture surrounding it.

We're looking forward to returning to Margate when the exhibitions change in the autumn, trying out some different restaurants and exploring on foot the Isle of Thanet which is the name for this part of north Kent.

Mondrian and Colour: Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate until 21 September 2014, free admission

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Henri Matisse: The cut-outs

Inspired by my visit to the Matisse exhibition
I have tried my own cut-out of a still life
The exhibition of Matisse's cut-outs currently on display at Tate Modern occupies a staggering 14 galleries. The friend I was with suggested that starting at the end of the exhibition and working our way towards the beginning might be a good strategy. In this way we were able to walk against the flow of traffic, avoid feeling like being part of a herd and give our full attention to those exhibits that caught our eye.

Matisse devoted the last 17 years of his life to cutting shapes from painted paper and, in spite of health problems impairing his mobility, he was able to produce an enormous amount of work with the help of an assistant. Prior to this visit to Tate Modern my knowledge of Matisse's art was somewhat sketchy. I had thought of him as the artist who produced the Blue Nudes but this exhibition has greatly expanded my awareness of his work.

Outside Tate Modern
Matisse first used paper cut-outs to work out the compositions for his paintings. He would pin the shapes onto a canvas and this meant he was free to rearrange them as he chose. Today we see his shapes glued into their final positions but when Matisse was working on them in his studio he would move pieces around and try out new combinations and 'the tendrils of his plant forms would gently wave as air passed through the studio' which is a charming image and something I would like to have witnessed.

I was also unprepared for the vast size of some of his work. They occupy entire walls and it takes some time to travel past and absorb the intricate shapes and colours: having done that you need to turn around and walk back to take in more details. They appear to be too large for a domestic setting but some of these designs were commissioned for exactly that purpose.

This exhibition is a riot, and celebration, of colour and shape. This is encapsulated in Room 7 – Vence, The Chapel. If I re-visit this exhibition this room will be the one I return to. I gather Matisse regarded himself as an atheist but that didn't stop him from advising on the design for one stained glass window for the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence when he was 77 years old. Soon enough he took on the decorative design for the entire chapel, from the windows to the chasuble robes worn by the priests. He ended up turning his studio and later his bedroom into a replica chapel so he was immersed in it all the time. Having revised the design for the window a few times Matisse declared he was hugely satisfied with the end result which is both wildly exuberant and spare at the same time. Vence is now on my wish list when we next make a visit to France so I can see the chapel for myself.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Tate Modern until 7 September 2014.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Picnic weather

We've been enjoying glorious weather in London the last couple of days and we only need the sun to show itself briefly and the barbecues are fired up including our wee one.

This is a drawing I made years ago of a previous cook-up and I've just noticed that we were cooking fennel and mushrooms on that one which is just the same as we did yesterday. I hope you all have a nice weekend too.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Painting as a form of storytelling

My home, Tierney Road, Streatham, late 1980s
I looked through a portfolio of old work just recently and found this painting of my bedsit in Streatham, south London where I lived happily for nearly eight years through most of the 1980s. It was in the attic of a Victorian house which appealed to the romantic in me, it was about 25 feet long from from front to back. It included this small kitchen and at the other end there was my bed and a small attic window. It was too cold in winter and too hot in summer.

At the time I was unhappy in whichever job I had – I felt I couldn't find my place in the world and this caused me endless anxiety. I would like to be able to tell that version of me to calm down, that I would find my place but that I would need to be patient for about another decade. I can remember feeling dissatisfied with this painting because I thought it was unfinished but all I can see now is an interesting image documenting my home. I remember working on it in the evenings after I'd got home and I used gouache paint on watercolour paper.

It tells me my interests haven't changed over the years – there are books, family photos and pictures on the wall. There is a throw over the sofa that I had forgotten about and the bag near the door has my gym clothes inside. I bought the rug under the table in Fez, Morocco when I was on holiday on a coach tour. We also travelled through Spain and Portugal which was a complete contrast to my ordinary life and also very stimulating. So far from feeling gloomy when I look at this I am reminded that I led a full and interesting life at the time and have done ever since.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, London
Yesterday I finally got around to visiting the Foundling Museum. This has been on my list of places to visit for a long time and I expected to be very moved by the story it had to tell.

The Foundling Hospital owed its existence to the persistence and energy of Thomas Coram. Captain Coram was born in Lyme Regis in Dorset and he spent a lot of his early years at sea and in the American Colonies. Back in London in the 1720s he was shocked to discover how many babies were abandoned and left to live and, more often than not, die on the streets.

Thomas Coram
He began to campaign tirelessly to set up an institution where children such as these could be cared for. Since he did not have any wealthy or aristocratic connections it took him about 17 years to gain enough support and signatures to petition the monarch and in October 1739 he obtained a royal charter from George II. Thomas Coram must have been a very driven man to keep going over all those years. I do wonder how many front doors he had to knock on, gates to open and close and steps to climb, how much of London he trudged around and how many people he had to convince that this was a good idea.

When a baby was accepted for admission a token was included by the parent so that in the event they were able to reclaim their offspring the connection with the child could be proved. These were often marked coins, trinkets, pieces of fabric or verses written on scraps of paper and some of these tokens are on display in the museum. Then the baby was renamed, baptised and shipped out to a foster home in the countryside where they would live until they were about five years old before being returned to live at the hospital. If they survived into their mid-teens they would be educated into a trade or sent into domestic service. Job done. The regime seemed fairly brutal by today's standards but it was actually quite enlightened for the time.

Coram must have eventually come to know wealthy and influential people because William Hogarth the artist was one of the first governors of the hospital and the composer George Frederic Handel also became an important benefactor. In addition to caring for over 25,000 children over several centuries the hospital also developed an important art collection and established the link between art, music and charity which continues to this day. I imagine that contemporary events like Children in Need on television are descendants of Handel's Foundling Hospital Anthem.

The Foundling Hospital's original buildings were demolished in the 1920s and part of the site is now a children's play area called Coram's Fields where adults are not allowed unless accompanied by a child. The original charity continues its work with children under the name of Coram and so the captain's legacy still lives on.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

I'm a slow developer

Dulwich Picture Gallery from the restaurant
I've never quite connected with David Hockney's work. I've found his paintings of Californian swimming pools puzzling and some of his watercolour portraits bordering on dreary. I've sometimes wondered why he is so influential. I think this rather harsh view of his work has a lot to do with my own slow development as an artist. For example I remember that I didn't like eating olives until I was well into my 30s. Now, it seems, I'm only beginning to appreciate David Hockney's work now I am in my 50s.

Last weekend my husband said how interesting he found Hockney's spring landscape drawings that were featured in the Saturday Guardian Review: 19.04.14. I was going to overlook it but I am glad I didn't. I became quite engrossed in studying the marks he made to describe the views as they changed over time. Hockney says in the piece that each drawing took two days to do, so, even though he has had a minor stroke he still has the physical stamina to embark on a series of drawings and follow it through to the end. I found this alone impressive: the only time I have set myself a similar task was when I embarked on my Drawing my way round London project and keeping going to the end was the hardest part.

Last Friday I was invited to go and see the Hockney, Printmaker exhibition currently on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Until now I'd only associated Hockney with painting and drawing so this show was a bit of an eye opener for me. This exhibition has been timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of his first print and includes over 100 pieces of artwork concentrating on etching and lithography. You can see A Rake's Progress, 1961-63 a set of etchings which draws its inspiration from William Hogarth's series of the same name but uses the young Hockney in New York as the main character. I appreciated the quality of his draughtsmanship in a way I had never before and I enjoyed his sense of humour when I didn't realise he had one!

I've had little experience of etching so I appreciated my companion pointing out the different techniques he had skilfully employed in different pieces. I also admired the quality of paper he'd used although we both thought that one or two of the frames on some of the drawings were rather odd and very distracting. Having got so much from visiting this exhibition I will certainly pay David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring a visit.

Hockney, Printmaker: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 5 February - 11 May 2014
David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring: Annely Juda Fine Art, 23 Dering Street, London W1, 8 May - 12 July 2014

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Feeling stressed

My second visit to the Timber Yard café
I have been wondering on and off since my one outing with the Urban Sketchers back in January why I had such a negative response to the outing when I had been looking forward to it so much. Yesterday I had some free time in the late afternoon so I returned to the Timber Yard café with my sketch book with the intention of settling down to doing some drawing while drinking my coffee, a sort of solo urban sketching trip if you like.

I realised that over the years I have bought into the idea that visiting a café is a relaxing experience and it dawned on me yesterday that I actually find it really stressful. The Timber Yard café has only recently opened, is in a popular location, is full of comfy seating, has pleasant staff, art on the walls and nice things to eat and drink. What's not to like?

Well here goes: being surrounded by people hunched over their laptops and/or smart phones. Sitting near people having a business meeting or conducting interviews or even worse speed dating. Having to endure a young couple practically having sex at the next table and then glancing up from my sketch book to see a young, very fashion conscious girl posing on the stairs as though she was in a fashion show and we were merely her audience. I managed to draw the sketch above and I think you can see that I was anything but relaxed when I made it.

So this made me think of times when I have made what I think of as much more interesting drawings when I have been relaxed and unaware of the world around me. For example I met another sketcher in London Fields a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time we had met but we spent a convivial couple of hours of chatting and drawing together and this is what I produced.

Union Chapel from Highbury Fields
And on another occasion I drew this sketch of Clapham Common after I had visited the dentist and before I had to be at work. I was relieved the dentist visit was over and was able to enjoy some time to myself and relax while enjoying the view. So now I know I need to avoid situations where I'm going to be full of inner turmoil if I'm going to draw anything worthwhile.
View of Clapham Common

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The joys of walking by the side of a canal

Regent's Canal, Victoria Park ©Heather James

'The Regent’s Canal is one of London’s best-kept secrets - a peaceful haven often hidden by the surrounding buildings, it offers a unique perspective on some of the capital’s urban landscapes.' Canal & River Trust

Sounds delightful doesn't it? We walked along a section of this very canal from Victoria Park to close to City Road just the other Sunday afternoon to go and visit friends of ours and give them a present for their new baby. Why use public transport we thought when walking would be so much healthier.

What started out as a pleasant afternoon stroll ended up feeling more like a slog up a mountain with two way traffic. In the past we have enjoyed an amble along the river Lea stopping for the occasional leisurely chat to someone who lives on a narrow boat about the joys of working in London while living in the countryside and then winding up in a pub.

On this occasion we spent far too much time getting out of the way of runners bent on improving their performance, cyclists who might well knock you into the canal rather slow down (and probably wouldn't notice if they had), fashionistas bellowing on their mobile phones while posing for photographs in the sunshine and parents pushing their small children along in prams built like tanks. This was not a pleasant experience so we decided to get the bus home and confine our walks along the canal to weekdays when everyone else is stressed out at work.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mother's Day

It's Mother's Day in the UK on Sunday 30 March and the shops have been full of greetings cards and gifts for the last few weeks. This year it is also the same day that the clocks go forward one hour and we enter British Summer Time.

Instead of buying a card I designed this one for both my mum and my mother-in-law. I decided to recycle an image I made last year as a response to my visit to the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern because I thought it expressed just the right amount of sentiment being both cheerful and unfussy.

Designing my own card reminds me of the time when as a child I used to look forward to the Mothering Day service at church. I didn't much like church services as a rule finding them boring, long winded and the seating uncomfortable – Sunday school was much more fun. But on this one occasion in the year I was prepared to make an exception.

We used to attend St Mary's church in Goats Lane in Basingstoke and someone at the church took the trouble to nurture flowers in the grave yard. On Mothering Sunday they would cut small bunches of primroses and put them in a basket and then us children would be invited up to the altar during the service to collect a bunch to give to our mums' who were sitting waiting in the pew. This would have been back in the 1960s but I still have very fond memories of this annual event.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Sensing spaces at the Royal Academy

I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the rarefied atmosphere of the Royal Academy of Arts last week at the Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition. Seven distinguished, international architectural practices were set the challenge of giving us, the viewer, a new perspective of architecture. The result was a number of large architectural installations designed to make us ask questions about space, light, structures, textures and materials – things we generally take for granted in our daily lives and don't ever think that architects need to answer when they are designing buildings.

You can see some very good photographs of this exhibition at Join the big picture blog which conveys an excellent impression of the installations. I found it great fun moving from one installation to the next and slowly immersing myself in each different experience be it moving from shadow to light, or climbing up a tower and then walking slowly downstairs via a ramp. Inhaling the smell of pine and pretending to be in a forest. Entering a darkened space lit only by spotlights shining light onto wavy twigs felt quite hypnotic and adding a plastic straw to an experimental sculpture made me feel part of the process not just an observer. On the way towards the exit I appreciated the film where the different architects explained the reasons behind their design decisions.

Entering Canary Wharf underground station
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience but then I began to wonder if I really needed to visit an art gallery to have my eyes opened to the built environment. I often travel around London from Canary Wharf underground station which is like a cathedral to concrete. It was designed by Sir Norman Foster and opened in 1999 and it was voted the 'most loved' tube station in a poll in 2013 which suggests I'm not alone in my admiration of this station. Once you have reached the ticket hall you then descend as far again to the platforms. As you walk through these vast spaces you can't help but be physically affected by the way the series of giant pillars relate with the soaring ceiling and contrast with the gleam of the floor and the matt qualities of the concrete walls. I find it all quite soothing so for me this station has all the qualities of an art installation while at the same time being something of great practical use.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The day Heather met Heather

Just some of the material promoting all this art in the Medway
Long, long ago (back in the 1970s) I was a student at Bath Academy of Art. This was a small college with around 300 students which was partially housed in old Nissen Huts in the grounds of a Georgian house called Beechfield House. These huts were a legacy from WWII when the RAF was stationed there.

The ceramic studios were in the old coach house, the sculpture school had it's own hanger-like building in the grounds and the cafeteria won an architectural award. The library was housed in a gracious stately home called Corsham Court and many of us lived in charming 18th century workers cottages where the walls were not vertical and nor were the floors quite horizontal. I recall quite a number of students were based at Newton Park (another big house with sprawling grounds) who we never got to meet.

The time I spent there were certainly three formative years – the design principles I learned then still inform my design decisions today – but I do try to avoid viewing my student days there through rose tinted spectacles. It's very easy to recall the gorgeous peacocks strutting around the grounds at Corsham Court and to forget how hard I found the course work.

Rochester Castle from an alley
But, I do remember meeting a very nice student in the etching studio or maybe it was the print shop. This was Heather Haythornthwaite and she was into etching. So on Monday last, 17 March 2014, we finally met again when I paid a visit to her neck of the woods. She's still into etching in a big way and runs the Hazlenut Press out of her house. We had a blast chatting about old times and looking at her black and white photos of fellow students. I chucked out all of my work from college back in the early 80s which I don't regret except that I also threw out a small sketchbook I had made in bookbinding class and never actually drew in it and I was reminded of it while Heather showed me round her house.

Heather gave me a proper tour of some of the artistic charms of Rochester and Chatham starting at Café Maroc and I was staggered at the range of opportunities there are to practice as an artist in the Medway area. It's ironic that I live in Hackney, the London borough that has the most concentration of artists living and working in London, and I'm finding it difficult to get involved in Open Studios and regular exhibitions. Anyway, whingeing aside, Heather and I are looking forward to possibly doing some work together.

Monday, 10 March 2014

I'm in York, the old one not the new one

Looking towards the Minster from King's Square
I'm spending this weekend at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York. I find listening to politics interesting but also draining so I like to find something cultural to do as well. York was a Roman city and the historic centre of the city is clustered around the rive Ouse with York Minster at it's heart.

The site of the above sketch
I've been here for just over 24 hours and I'm beginning to learn my way around the maze of winding streets that are full of sweet (candy) shops. Two famous Quaker families, Rowntree and Cadbury, established factories in the city in the 19th century making chocolate including some brands like Kit Kat which is still being made today. They employed many people and their staff enjoyed enlightened working conditions which was very unusual for the time.

Apparently York is also full of ghosts. There is the Real Haunted House said to be over 700 years old and full of restless spirits just waiting to put the wind up you. If that isn't enough you can go on any number of competing ghost walks and then visit the York Dungeon to journey through York's murky past. If this doesn't appeal I can recommend a walk around the city walls which provides a great panoramic view of the city.

I didn't do any of these preferring instead to spend a short time soaking up the atmosphere in York Minster which was the most peaceful and tranquil part of my day and where I did the following drawing.

I realised that I would never be able to draw
everything I could see so I just concentrated
on some features

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

My walk home from Springfield Park

View from Springfield Park before the weather
took a turn for the worse ©Heather James

I had plans for yesterday that had to be rearranged on the fly so, after a bit of dithering, I decided to head up to Springfield Park just a few miles away. To save time I travelled by bus. When I set out the weather wasn't too bad but by the time I arrived the rain had settled in which wasn't conducive to the sketching trip I had in mind.

By now it was around lunch time so I went into the café to warm up and delay making a decision to either carry on with my plan or jack it all in and go home. Having eaten I felt fortified enough to explore the park and I spotted a shelter I could stand under so even though it was raining I reckoned it was worth unpacking my rucksack and getting stuck into at least one drawing which you can see above.

I found the view really interesting. It included part of the river Lea, some railway lines, swathes of green and trees coming into blossom. Unfortunately I couldn't explore this view for very long because the rain was driving into my shelter and the far distant horizon had turned from an interesting fuzzy grey with indistinct buildings to a blanket of dark grey with no visible features. There was only one thing for it: it was time to head for home.

Walthamstow marshes
I didn't feel like repeating the crowded bus journey with all the traffic hold-ups and passengers yelling at each other so I chose to walk back along the river. When I set out I realised that it must be five years or more since we had taken this route which I found astonishing. The walk home was about three miles and most of it was either along the river or along the Lea Navigation canal.

I was delighted to experience some sunshine along the way that was so warm I had to remove my hat, gloves and scarf. The sunshine brought out the gorgeous scent of some blossom that looked like Hawthorn flowers but seems rather early in the year since I gather it doesn't usually flower until May. I was less pleased when I had to put all these items of clothing back on and endure more cold, windy rain which increased the closer I got to home.

I was thrilled to watch some of the wild life living on Walthamstow marshes which is one of the last remaining wetlands in London. This is definitely somewhere I'd like to explore later in the year. I enjoyed looking at the maps on my route which look so new I suspect they are a legacy from the 2012 Olympics. I was amazed at the number of blocks of high rise flats that are rapidly replacing old industrial buildings – I can't imagine who will be able to afford to live in them. Most of all I enjoyed the peace and quiet of strolling along the river path and scrutinising the narrow boats moored nearby. Some of them looked so fancy they might be featured in a glossy magazine and some of them looked so dilapidated I hope no-one has to call them home.
It was so tranquil I thought I was in the countryside

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Public art 7: Torsion II by Charles Hadcock

Torsion II outside Canary Wharf underground station
This sculpture caught my eye as I was dashing towards Canary Wharf underground station last week. I don't remember seeing it there before so it might have been installed quite recently or I might just have been walking around with my eyes shut for the last few months.

I took this photo on a dull day with my camera phone so it's not a very distinct image. I recommend visiting Charles Hadcock's website where you can see this sculpture much more clearly along with many others displayed in outdoor settings.

Charles Hadcock is a new artist to me although he has been labouring away for years. I find this sculpture interesting because of its upward movement and geometric qualities but I wasn't particularly taken with some of the other work on display on his website. I found some of it rather clunky and too big for its setting. The monumental sculpture I prefer is by artists like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Anthony Caro.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

What did the Georgians ever do for us?

Georgian town house built in 1785, Well Street, Hackney
Quite a lot as it turns out as a quick romp around the exhibition devoted to this subject shows. This exhibition marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 1714. The Georgian age continued under four successive kings of the House of Hanover until it ended with the death of George IV in 1830.

During this period Britain's prosperity grew as a result of success in continental wars, which led to overseas trade improving which in turn encouraged innovative manufacturing methods and before you know it the industrial revolution was under way and we were on our way to becoming a world power.

The context for the exhibition is set in the first gallery with portraits of the four monarchs looking well fed and rather self-satisfied displayed at regular intervals and interspersed with key dates and descriptions of battles won and laws passed, etc.

Not surprisingly this exhibition concentrates on the positive aspects of Georgian life and pretty much ignores the squalour associated with this period. It's quite obvious from reading Life at Grasmere that begging was commonplace and times were often hard for people. Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, which opened in 1741 because so many mothers had no choice but to abandon their children, is only mentioned on the back of the exhibition notes as part of an interesting walking tour of London. Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Bath, all famous Georgian cities do get a mention but most of the attention is on our capital city, London.

Enough of the grumbling. I didn't realise that the urban life I enjoy today has been largely influenced by this period. Public parks that I use regularly were being laid out and a great many of the streets had already been mapped out (the area I live in Hackney was still countryside at this stage). One of the most interesting galleries consists of a blown-up street map of London covering the floor which quite a few visitors, including myself, were engrossed in walking over and scrutinising the road names. It was odd to see Trafalgar Square missing and that's because that great battle hadn't happened then.

So, the Georgians were responsible for creating celebrity culture, the rise of the middle classes who quickly learned to enjoy shopping, furnishing their homes with luxury items and planning their gardens. The fashion industry was born during this period as was the design and advertising industry which I have worked in for several decades. The down side to all this consumerism was that the production of a lot of it depended on slavery which was not abolished until 1807 and in some areas of the world continues to this day.

One of the most enduring legacies of this period was in the design of houses and public buildings. Georgian houses even now command a hefty premium because of their elegance, proportions of their rooms, restrained use of embellishments and the assumptions these make about the owners sophisticated taste and lifestyle. In honour of today's post I went to Well Street earlier and did a sketch of my nearest Georgian town house which used to be a hotel and is now a hostel. For all that it has undergone much remodelling you can still see the typical Georgian features that characterise the architecture of this influential era.

Georgians revealed: Life, style and the making of modern Britain at the British Library until 14 March 2014

Monday, 24 February 2014

Retaining a sense of freedom

Our local garden centre, Growing Concerns, that looks, from
the outside a bit like a prison
I haven't been very well during the last few days so have felt too languid to do anything very much. I have though managed to pick up, and begin to read, a small volume called Life at Grasmere, by Dorothy and William Wordsworth. It's part of a series called English Journeys and is published by Penguin.

It is a combination of journal entries by Dorothy and her brother, William's poetry written while they lived at Dove Cottage in the Lake District. The book opens 14 May 1800. Dorothy would have been 29 years old and William 30. George III was on the throne and England was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars with the French which led to hard times for many people. Dorothy and William were very attached to each other but it would seem that Dorothy spent much of her time in her own company.

Dorothy occupied herself with household tasks, mending, working in the garden, reading and attending church. She would very often go for walks, helping herself to plants that took her fancy, take them home and plant them in her own garden! You can just imagine how that would go down in our culture – she would be charged with vandalism. For example on 28 May she tells us: "In the morning walked up to the rocks above Jenny Dockeray's, sate a long time upon the grass, the prospect divinely beautiful. ··· I went into her garden and got white and yellow lillies, periwinkle, etc., which I planted."

On 3 June: "Tuesday. I sent off my letter by the Butcher. A boisterous drying day. I worked in the garden before dinner. Read R[ichar]d Second – was not well after dinner and lay down. Mrs Simpson's grandson brought me some gooseberries. I got up and walked with him part of the way home, afterwards went down rambling by the lake side – got Lockety Goldings, strawberries etc., and planted."

Winding rapidly forward to 2014. I recently acquired two new plants. One of them is called Heartsease and the other is Horseradish. I bought them at a garden centre not unlike the one shown above. I am an inexpert gardener but I do enjoy a visit to a garden centre because they are treasure troves of things I do not need, but enjoy looking at, like outdoor furniture that needs more space to show it off than our small garden has. Since these businesses are chock full of valuable commodities they clearly need protecting so it can feel a bit like entering a bank vault. This made me think of other areas in our lives which are also quite constrained.

Of course our population is enormous compared with 200 years ago. It was estimated in 1801 that the population of England and Wales was about 8.9 million while the population of London in 2011 was about 8.1 million. With so many people competing for scarce resources it's no wonder we've ended up keeping to footpaths instead of roaming free, living our lives to strict timetables and conforming socially. It's just easier to do that but once in a while I like to remember that I do have a degree of freedom that I like to express in the art that I make.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

My tribute to Stan Tracey (1926-2013)

Piano lid, Bull's Head, Barnes 28 February 2004
This may seem very odd to many people but I find listening to music very hard work. I've become more intolerant of music the older I've got, it's quite possible I'm going to turn into one of those old ladies who ask for the background music in restaurants to be turned off.

When I was a teenager I would happily spend hours at the weekends listening to Annie Nightingale on BBC Radio 1. On occasion I would drive my parents mad by playing the same track on the record player over and over again. These days, given the choice, I am very happy to spend entire days in silence. The albums I bought in my twenties remain ignored and closeted in an old green, plastic record case although we do have a record deck I could easily go and switch on.

Now and then I am prepared to make an exception and go and listen to live music – last Friday we went to Union Chapel and saw the Penguin Café Orchestra and I enjoyed stomping on the floor along with everyone else.

I have fond memories of the time my husband took me to my first Stan Tracey concert at The Bull's Head in Barnes in 2004 which is where I made these sketches. We saw him more than once in Barnes, in a big band concert at the Barbican and the Vortex Jazz club in Dalston. Each time we thought it might be our last opportunity because he was getting on a bit even 10 years ago.

I'm not sure why I prefer live music over recorded music. I know I enjoy the sense of occasion and the anticipation when we are sitting waiting for the evening to start. I like looking round and seeing who else is in the audience and eavesdropping on their conversations and there's always the chance that the musicians will improvise a bit.

I recall when we were at the Vortex waiting for Stan to take his seat at the piano. The excitement in the audience slowly built in anticipation of being transported by one of the grand old men of jazz. Stan, who appeared to be a very modest bloke, was looking quite frail by this time and his son Clark, who plays drums, looked after him very carefully. Stan sat at the piano in his ordinary, workmen-like clothes and then launched into an astonishing performance which could have launched the Vortex into orbit. If I want to listen to Stan's piano playing again I will have to listen to a recording but at least I can have the pleasure of remembering seeing him perform live.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A series of three

Sketches developed from photos after a walk along the bank of the river Tyne
We spent last weekend in Corbridge, Northumberland on a family visit. This area of the country is used to extreme weather conditions particularly at this time of year. However, while the south-west of the country was drowning under vast quantities of water, this part of the north-east was enjoying an early, if rather chilly, spring.

We had the time to relish a muddy walk along the banks of the river Tyne and observe huge numbers of snowdrops which, because they tend to grow in woodland, we never get to see where we live in London. We also made friends with a Beagle puppy who was great fun and showed a lot of interest in our picnic lunch much to the embarrassment of his owner.

I had high hopes of sketching outside while we were on our outing but it really was too windy so I took some photos on my camera phone and worked them up in the comfort of a cosy living room. I was trying out a combination of Inktense pencils, watercolour pencils and crayons on watercolour paper and this is the result.

These days Corbridge is a quiet and affluent village just a few miles away from Hexham and close to Hadrian's Wall. It is sited very near the most northern point of the old Roman Empire and during the time of the Roman occupation it was a very important garrison town and its name was Corstopitum. English Heritage maintains the archaeology that has been revealed after numerous digs over many years. We spotted one family on their way to explore the site and since it is off the beaten track they very likely had the place to themselves.

Our walk took us to the bridge at Corbridge. My sketch really doesn't do it justice. The present bridge was built in the 17th century and is made from stone. It is currently undergoing much needed renovation and because of its narrow width it is single carriageway so car traffic has to take turns in crossing it from the north bank to the south bank and vice versa. In 1881 the bridge was widened by three feet so it must have been extremely narrow before that. This bridge was so well built that it was the only bridge over the Tyne that withstood the famous flood of 1771. This bridge replaced a previous one that had been constructed in 1235 and and was described in 1306 as the only bridge between Carlisle and Newcastle. It was also maintained as an important link between England and Scotland. If Scotland chooses independence this September the bridge might become important again!