Monday, 25 May 2015

Holywell and St Ives

Three Christmases ago, I think, the bf gave me a copy of 'Britain's Holiest Places' by Nick Mayhew Smyth.  Since then we've been to a few of the places mentioned such as East Dereham and Soham, but it's only in the last year have we made a concious decision to tick off the palces in the book together.  There have been plenty of places that I have been too prior to getting the book: Castor, Walsingham, St Andrews, Haddington, Egmanton, Bury St Edmunds and the cathedrals of York, Lincoln, Oxford, Lichfield, Chichester, Chester, Hereford, Worcester, Ripon, St Albans and St Paul's.  Quite a list.  One place I have been to a few times is Little Gidding.  The last time is was at the bf's I thought it would be a good idea to go to Little Gidding, (and Holywell as it was on the way), as he had never been there.  It was a wretched sort of day weatherwise and in the end we never got further than St Ives, though that did mean we found the truly delightful 'Norris Museum' which is a sort of county museum.  It felt as though it hadn't been re-ordered since the 1970s at the latest and that only added to the pleasure.  Do go.  It has a most delightful courtyard garden that opens out onto the river. St Ives is an ancient, attractive market town on the banks of the Ouse.  It was one of the places where Scottish drovers sold cattle on their way south to London's Smithfield.  The Medieval bridge has a chapel halfway across, quite a rare thing these days.  But first Holywell which is a remote feeling village downstream from St Ives.  The wellhouse I think dates from the 1840s, but marks the site of something more ancient: a baptismal pool.  The parish church which stands atop the hillside above the well, is quite small, and quite heavily restored.  It is dedicated, suitably, to St John the Baptist.

King's Lynn: The Other Buildings

I thought I'd share some more of the photos I took on my visit.  I suppose you could say that King's Lynn is a liminal place - an over used word of late.  And there lies some its uniqueness.  I've decided to put the photos roughly  in historical order, starting with St George's Guildhall on King St., late Medieval and now a theatre and the home of the Arts Centre.  Plays were staged here quite early in its history; it's said that Shakespeare played here.

Close by a narrow lane takes you down to the swirling, eddying River Ouse and the ferry over the river to West Lynn.

The other Guildhall in the town belonged to the Guild of the Holy Trinity, so powerful it became the basis for the town council.  The Hall (with gable) dates from 1421, the porch to the left is Elizabethan, on the right is Gaol, 1748, by William Tuck, and on the extreme left is part of the Town Hall by Tree and Price (never heard of them), 1895.

This is the Customs House by Henry Bell, 1683, originally a Merchant's Exchange.  A lovely building, small but suitably monumental.

At the far end of King's Street from The Custom's House, is the vast Tuesday Market (the building on the left is the former Corn Exchange, 1854, by Cruso and Maberly), and beyond that is the North End, which housed the fishing community, and the Chapel of St Nicholas, currently closed for restoration work.

Behind the Corn Exchange, on Common Staithe Quay is the Pilot's Office

Back down King St, and over the Purfleet and opposite the Custom's House, is the very picturesque King's Staithe Square.

An finally the Town Hall.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and John Singer Sargent

A Trip to 'The Smoke' yesterday and a couple of exhibitions I wanted to catch:  Charles Rennie Mackintosh at RIBA and John Singer Sargent at the NPG.  Lunch was taken between the two at 'Barnyard' in Charlotte St - a street of restaurant's in London's Fitzrovia (a sort of continuation of Soho North of Oxford St.).  It was great.  Very enjoyable.  The staff were friendly and relaxed.  I ate Bubble & Squeak and black pudding with Apple chutney, followed by Eton mess.  The homemade lemonade was fragrant with both lemon-balm and lemon grass.

Both exhibitions were excellently staged and very popular; but first to the RIBA Headquarters in Portland Place.  This is a relatively small exhibition, and this has lead the exhibitors, I presume, to concentrate upon Mackintosh's domestic work.  His other architectural work is there, almost, primarily to put the houses into context. His interior design is hardly mentioned at all; it is firstly a credit to the curators, and secondly a reflection of the sheer quality of the graphic work on display, that this loss is not felt.
In the flesh Mackintosh's presentation drawings are a revelation.  I was forever taking my glasses off to get a better, close-up, view.  We see them evolve along with the architecture.  For me it reaches it summation in the drawings he produced for houses such as 'Hill House' in Helenburgh.  They are so much more vivid and emotionally charged than any reproduction could ever convey.  The influence of Beardsley is there, and perhaps other contemporary graphic artists such a Rickets and Shannon, and my favourite F L Griggs. One of the aims of the exhibition is to change the perception of Mackintosh as a lone genius, and I think they partially succeed in that.  I think it is possible to see Mackintosh's domestic work to be in a long British Picturesque tradition that can be traced as far back as Vanbrugh, and include crucially the work of Pugin and Morris.  With Morris we see the stirrings of a 'Cult of the House' that perhaps finds its first concrete form in the Queen Anne revival of another, earlier Scottish architect Richard Norman Shaw.  And it was another Scottish architect, the neglected Robert Rowand Anderson who gave it a specifically Scottish flavour, such as in his own home Allermuir, Colinton, Edinburgh.
Mackintosh's drawings have a wonderfully handmade quality to them.  He made mistakes: on the monumental drawing of the Glasgow Herald building there are two great spots of ink in the rain leadened sky.  It's a relief to see them.  There is however something dark and brooding about these ink drawings; something definitely particular and Northern about both the drawing and the buildings themselves.  (Modernists were wrong to see these designs as a-historical.  They are Scottish.) The biting darkness could be interpreted as, in Ruskin's brilliant phrase, 'the storm cloud of the nineteenth century, and the house, gleaming pure and white in its harling, as an actual fortress against the chaos of industrialization.  That may be so, but there seems to be, to me, something else here. There is something uncanny about them...slightly disquieting as though something supernatural is about to take place.  They border upon the occult.  The landscape around the house is charged with meaning: the trees and the rose bushes before the house are alive with Heraclitean fire.  The house is a liminal place between us the viewer an a supernatural world beyond, ambiguously offering protection and medial space where we can encounter the spiritual realm.  In Mackintosh the house has become sacramental.  That these buildings are not mere fortress against the late nineteenth century is born out by the way in some of the drawings sky and slate roof merge, and in the drawings for Auchinibert, a house that is not harled and whose inclusion is itself significant, house, garden and sky almost merge together in a densely worked pattern, that is reminiscent of the early drawings of Beresford Pite.  These are palaces for magicians and sorceresses.  Enchanted realms.

There are enchanted realms of another sort on display at the NPG.  A world of gilded American expats, the sort of people and and sort of lives that were chronicled by Henry James.  And a portrait of James is on display with any number of plutocratic Americans.  Sargent was an observer of that world too and a member of that caste.  Just like James.  Both men inhabited a world of constant drift.  Both settled eventually for life in these Isles  And both were homosexual.  As was fitting for the National portrait Gallery it was his portraiture that was on display.  Portraits of those with whom he had some greater connection than mere artist and sitter.  So I wandered around the busy rooms - busy to the point of occasional overcrowding.  And I came across some old familiar faces - I've always been an admirer of Sergent's economy.  And it was all beautiful, quite ravishing, but I didn't feel moved like I had been by the Moroni exhibition way back in December. It was all, well, not quite all, glittering surface.  Some of them  were just downright bad: 'Madam Ramon Subercaseaux' with those touches of sfumato, and 'Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife'. And what precisely is the point of either 'Edwin Booth' of 1890, or 'Ada Rehan' of 1894/5?  I can understand why certain twentieth century critics, such as Roger Fry, were disdainful of Sargent's work.  It is often superficial - and still technically brilliant.  And that mastery was complete.  I suspect that it was all too easy for him.  The excellent booklet of notes that comes with the exhibition has a quote from W B Yeats: "Sargent is good company, not so much like as an artist as like some wise, wealthy man of business who has lived with artists."  Leaving aside the cultural background of a statement like that - what, exactly, is an artist meant to be like? - it does offer an interesting insight.
And then there are the others: works, sometimes of such piercing intensity, to make you change your mind. I'm thinking here of the startling double portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron.  I am at a loss of how to describe it.  But it is quite, quite arresting. Sargent painted all the family: the father Edouard Paileron is excellent, the portrait of his wife is not.  There is too 'Madame Allouard-Jouan', and the great swagger portrait 'W Graham Robertson'.  I would also point you in the direction of his self-portraits (very intense) and 'Claude Monet' and 'An Out-of-doors Study (Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife)'.  The last I think betrays the influence of James Tissot.  And with Sergent the influences are manifiold - the Impressionist particularly Monet; Goya and Velasquez; Reynolds and Gainsborough.  The later PreRaphealites and the Aesthetic Movement such as G F Watts. Sargent drifts from one to the other with ease.  An urbane artist one feels.
There is nothing of the spiritual in Sargent's work.  His work is more often than not purely materialistic. and often or not, one feels, they are not really about the sitter either.  Sargent's paintings have a lot in common with the work of another expat American painter James McNeil Whistler.  Here is Art for Art sake. All too often they are really only about the paint and I find that hard to take, brilliant and wonderful as it is.
As I walked around the Sargent exhibition, and after, I wondered what, if anything these two men had in common, apart from being contemporaries. I found it hard to find something.  This evening over the washing up I remembered Aestheticism.  It influenced both men.  And leading on from that I think it is this and it has to do with a shared a common background of Victorian and Edwardian taste for richness and intensity both in thought and aesthetics, of lives given over completely to beauty.  And that is something we don't share with them.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

King's Lynn: St Margaret with St Mary Magdalene and all the Virgin Saints

Before you think I have a complete downer on King's Lynn, I thought I'd share a few of the photos I took on my visit.  As you can see St Margaret's is a big church (235ft long) and bigger still before the loss of the outer north aisle.  Not only one of the three Medieval parish churches in Lynn, the others being St James (demolished) and All Saints, it was also a Priory church founded about 1100; in addition the North End of the town was served by the colossal chapel of St Nicholas.  I am not entirely certain but I think St Margaret's may have been where Margery Kempe the English mystic worshiped. The nave however is not Medieval but the work (1745-6) of Matthew Brettingham, the Neo-palladian architect, a rebuilding of what was destroyed when the lead spire on the south west tower came crashing down during a storm. Not only is the church missing the outer north aisle, charnel chapel and spire, it is also missing the central tower which was octagonal in plan and constructed of wood and sheathed in lead; the church must have been a curious, but splendid sight when entire.  The skyline of Lynn is still pretty impressive when seen from the far bank of the Ouse.  The interior is impressive rather than lovely though the choir is rich in furnishings, and is the most interesting architecturally:  Bodley's great reredos of 1889 is what interested me most.  St Margaret's also contains two of the largest Medieval memorial brasses in England.  The open space on the north side of the church is the Saturday Market and was the centre of Medieval civic life in the King's Lynn.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

King's Lynn and the Emblematic City

Yesterday I re-read the poet Kathleen Raine's paper 'William Blake's Fourfold London' which she gave at The Temenos Academy way back in 1993.  In it Raine (1908 - 2003) discusses the last of Blake's Prophetic Books 'Jerusalem' and its relationship to the London of Blake's day and our own.  To help her she uses two significant ideas of the French philosopher and theologian Henri Corbin (1903 - 1978): 'emblematic city' and 'imaginal'.  The first terms describes how certain cities are 'a great mediating symbol, at once an embodiment of imaginative vision, and empowered to to awaken that vision, that perception of invisible values and meanings, in the minds of its inhabitants'.  (I think we ignore this attribute of the city at our peril.)  The latter - 'imaginal' - describes the realities of the imagination.  For me King's Lynn, in its small mundane way, is freighted with the possibilities of being an 'emblematic city'.  It is the town where Vaughan Williams came looking for folk songs, an ancient port with a half-Celtic name and a member of the Hanseatic League, where pilgrims from Northern Europe arrived on their way to Walsingham.  The birthplace of Vancouver and Fanny Berney, as well as the late Medieval mystic Margery Kempe.  And I suppose that's why I'm always disappointed with it.  I have, probably, too high expectations. Don't get me wrong there is some really good architecture there: Medieval churches, guildhalls and warehouses and any amount of Georgian houses, but too much has been lost, destroyed to be replaced with the utilitarian and the common place for the town to be truly satisfying or to bear the weight of my imaginings.
In addition, in gathering my thoughts together to write this post I was reminded of C. P. Snow's 'Two Cultures'.  He was talking about science and art, but there is the same sort of binary conflict happening in King's Lynn; on the one hand is the commercial heart of the town which is a busy and hard and ugly and generic.  There is nothing local and peculiar to modern King's Lynn. It's back is turned to the river - the Ouse, which here so close to the sea is wide and muddy-coloured and tidal.  It feels disconnected too from the great agricultural area around it.  And on the other the old heart of the town which is beautiful but too enclosed, like it was under siege, indeed too self-regarding to allow the visitor to enter into any profound dialogue with it. I found that particularly true of the Arts Centre, which seemed to be an altogether aloof organisation.  (I feel the same about Snape Maltings which, I've decided, is not meant for the casual visitor.  Both are like entering into a temple of a faith to which you don't belong.  Both are really only meant for those initiated into the mysteries.)  It could be argued that the streets of the old town have ceased to be the centre of civic life and become a rather posh dormitory suburb.  It has lost the power to evoke in us 'that perception of invisible values and meanings'.  What perhaps exists is merely the shell. Sometimes - at, say, the steps down to the ferry over the Ouse to West Lynn, or at the Pilot's Office on Common Staithe Quay, with a Georgian pub, 'The Crown and Mitre' across Ferry Lane for company - does one gets some sort of sense of the past, echoing Yeats 'I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and poems only, but in tiles around the chimney-piece, and in the hangings that kept out the draught.'  Museums are not enough.  And in any case they are ways in which objects can be denuded of their emblematic and imaginal powers.  Perhaps it is too late, for the warp and the thrum have been severed.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Own Work Life drawing VII

Back to the studio yesterday and another two drawings:

Monday, 11 May 2015

Own work - Life drawing VI

Back to the Life room last week after too long an absence.  Here are my so-so efforts.  As usual in the order of production.