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 CafĂ© 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!