Thursday, 5 February 2015

Macmillan's History Pictures

Yesterday's serendipitous discovery: Macmillan's History Pictures.  Designed for schools, I guess they must be post war.  Various artists were used, some well known such as Rowland Hilder who painted 'The Departure of the Mayflower 1620'.  Ahh, the 'right but repulsive' Puritans.  I think the 'Gentleman and attendants hawking, time of James I' may be by Alan Sorrell.  I bought seven - six for me and one for the bf - try to guess which one!  Each one is A2 size.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn

At long last the bf's review of 'Before the Dawn'. (I had asked him to write this in the deep dark  midst of my depression and reading it didn't really help, so I filed it away for later use! So I suppose do this finally is a sign that I'm getting better.)

When the news broke that Kate Bush was going to perform a series of shows it was inevitable that it would create a fuss. It’s been over 35 years since she last toured and those shows have achieved almost legendary status. Kate’s fans had long since accepted that she would never perform a substantial show again and any statement she made about not ruling it out was just a polite way of avoiding questions about why she stopped. So, her Hammersmith residency was a big deal.

My own concert-going experience is limited to Randy Crawford (once), Nanci Griffith (twice) and some Australian band people from work dragged me to, and the last of them was over twenty years ago. Only Kate could get me to do it again.

I got there about half an hour before the doors opened. There were about a hundred people in the queue ahead of me. I thought I’d best be early because of the anti-tout security checks: you needed picture ID to match the name of the booker on the ticket. As it was, ID was checked as people joined the queue so there was no delay. When the doors opened tickets were scanned electronically so my beautiful ticket remained intact. The whole process was so well organised that I was able to buy souvenirs, and a drink, and still get a seat in the foyer where I could sit and watch the audience gather. It reminded me of a warm evening in Soho: some hipsters, some groups out for a good time, and an awful lot of single gentlemen of a certain age. Me included.

The performance began promptly at 7.45 – one would expect perfect manners from Kate – to the opening narration of Lily, and Kate came onstage to the inevitable massive roar of approval. She looked happy to be there, and we were certainly happy to see her. Not for the last time that evening I shed a tear – I shall never mock those teenage girls in archive footage of Beatlemania again. Thanks to this excess of emotion, I can’t swear that the following account is accurate in every respect. Or that it wasn’t all just a fevered dream.

This section of the evening was a fairly standard pop concert: band, backing singers and a bit of a light show. After ‘Lily’ she performed ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Joanni’, ‘Top of the City’, ‘Running Up that Hill’ and ‘King of the Mountain’. Her voice sounded amazing. Overall the acoustics of the band sounded a little harsh to my ears but I only have the albums to compare it with and I imagine the science of filling a hall that size is very different to that of putting down an album track. Kate’s movements are best described as stately. At one point she gently turned 360 degrees and the audience applauded with pleasure in acknowledgement that though her years of bouncing around in a leotard are over, we couldn’t care less.

As the last strains of ‘King of the Mountain’ faded, one of the musicians whirled some device round and round. Two cannons appeared and fired confetti into the audience, a screen came down and a short film played concerning an astronomer contacting the Coast Guard about a garbled distress call he’d heard on the radio. We didn’t need the lines from Tennyson printed on the confetti to realise that this was the start of ‘The Ninth Wave’: the second half of the ‘Hounds of Love’ album.

The screen lifted to reveal a change of set with the background made up of the rotting timbers of a ship’s hull looking like a whale skeleton. ‘The Ninth Wave’ is an hallucinatory recounting of a woman’s drowning or near-drowning. This dramatisation made concrete some of the more abstract songs. The core of this section consisted of filmed inserts of Kate floating in a tank of water singing live (as opposed to miming to playback). ‘And Dream of Sheep’ and ‘Hello Earth’ were predominantly done this way. ‘Watching You Without Me’ was preceded by a short interlude of the woman’s husband and son getting on with their lives before the news of the mother’s disappearance. The son was played by Kate’s actual son, Bertie, which made the song even more emotional.

Throughout the piece fish people, drowned sailors and rescuers wandered around. For ‘Hello Earth’ she clung to a buoy, until she slipped away and was carried off through the audience in a funeral procession by the fish people. Then rescue! And Kate and all the musicians strolled onto the stage for an acoustic version of ‘The Morning Fog’. This part reminded me of the singsongs they do at the end of performances at The Globe: all jolly and folky and fun. It was a beautiful-judged ending to the drama of the first half.

Part two was a version of the ‘A Endless Sky of Honey’ suite of songs from the second half of the ‘Ariel’ album. A huge double door on stage opened to reveal a child-sized artist’s mannequin puppet toddling out controlled by a black-clad puppeteer. This puppet strolled its way through most of ‘A Sky of Honey ‘and at one point murdered a seagull. Not sure why.

‘A Sky of Honey’ was mostly played over a back projection of birds in slow motion. It was less theatrical than ‘The Ninth Wave’, though there was plenty going on. Bertie played the painter – Rolf Harris being unavailable – in a Van Gogh hat and smock, and he got the evening’s only new song which was about the moon and slotted in just before ‘Nocturn’. He has a good voice and certainly earned his place in the production.

Throughout ‘A Sky of Honey’, Kate sang and trilled and gradually transformed into a bird, leaping into the air at the end of the piece as a tall silver birch trunk crashed onto the piano.

For the encore, she sat at the piano and played ‘Amongst Angels’ unaccompanied. Despite singing for the best part of three hours, her voice sounded as fresh as if she’d just started. It was a clear, simple performance of a moving song. Finally the band joined her for ‘Cloudbusting’ with the whole audience joining in on the ‘Yay-ee-oh’ parts. Then, with a wish that we all have a safe journey home, she was gone.

Overall, there were bits that didn’t work, sections that were overlong, and things that weren’t clear on first viewing but was it my best night in a theatre ever? Yes! For all the theatrics and dramas of the night, my abiding memory is of spending quality time with a generous, gorgeous, smiley lady. And singing along to ‘Cloudbusting’ with tears streaming down my face.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ian Hamilton Finlay at Kettle's Yard

It's been a funny month; there have been the odd occasions when I thought I'd never get to the end, other times when I've felt very well.  I've had a mad-ish day in London, taking in five exhibitions, shopped for a sofa and used my RA friend card for the first time, as well as afternoon tea in 'Maison Bertaux' in Greek Street.  London energizes me somehow.  For the record the exhibitions were:  Moroni (again) and Charles Stewart at the RA, Maggi Hambling and Peder Balke at The National, and Tudor Royal Portraits at the NPG.  I think, if I were to choose one of them to return to, it would be the last, the Tudor portraits.  Something deeply satisfying about them.
And then last week I spent a few days with the bf.  On Thursday I dragged him to Kettle's Yard to an exhibition of work by Ian Hamilton Finlay from the collection of Professor Stephen Bann, a leading expert on Finlay's work.  It turns out that Finlay and Jim Ede, the creative force behind Kettle's Yard - curator/collector as creative artist - had corresponded for a number of years.  Ede had even bought a piece or two from Finlay, and Finlay had carved a pebble with a sort of backhanded compliment about Kettle's Yard being the Louvre of the pebble.  An ambiguous relationship then.
I first came across the work of Finlay in the 1987 exhibition 'Real Architecture' which was held at The Building Centre Gallery in Store St., London.  He was there because of his transformation of his Scottish garden on the western edge of the Pentland Hills into 'Little Sparta' - a landscape garden inspired by Classical myth and the eighteenth century landscape tradition.  This re-ordering of nature, which continued from 1978 until his death and created one of the most challenging and intellectual gardens in Britain, was represented at Kettle's Yard by the showing of a documentary.  Could it, I wonder be categorized as radically conservative work?  Either way it can be seen as highly innovative.
And perhaps that ambiguity is at the core of Finlay's work.  He was part poet, part typographer, sculptor, conceptual artist and part gardener.  Modernist and Classicist.  A Janus figure.  He started as a writer and became interested in Concrete Poetry, where the placing of the poem on the paper, or whatever media, is as important as the words themselves.  And it was, obviously, with the these early works where the exhibition began.  As we progressed other interests showed themselves: there were some beautifully drawn boats in the form of prints.  Other, sinister, machines appeared too: tanks and battleships.  A lot of this work had been printed by the two presses Finlay ran in his life - the Wild Flounder Press and The Wild Hawthorn Press - the latter still going.  As I have already mentioned Finlay was a Classicist.  He had a perennial interest in the myths and philosophy of Antiquity, and in his later work this becomes more apparent, though with it's referencing of the French Revolution and the Nazi period this later work can be unsettling.  Both regimes were haunted by Antiquity, as perhaps has all Western Culture.  Europe, it could be argued, has been in a post-colonial state for the last fifteen hundred years. (And I think it can be argued that this also applies to the Middle East, though to a lesser degree.)  Perhaps that is one of Finlay's themes: how we are haunted by the Classical past.  The giants on whose shoulders we perch.  And I suppose it is the Classicism and the quality of the typography that interested me most, and although the bf hated it, I would certainly buy a print or two should I be fortunate enough to have the spare cash.

And afterwards a few minutes in the Cistercian austerity of Kettle's Yard house.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Wicken Fen

I hate to go back yet again to the time the bf and I spent together in November, but on the final day we went to Wicken Fen (National Trust), and I wanted to share with you some of the photos I took.  I'm particularly pleased with the woodpecker.

This cottage, which I think is also owned by the National Trust caught my eye.  It has this accidental picturesque look which I love and that would, I think, be very hard to design in - at least in a manner that looked natural.

On the opposite side of the lane were a couple of Victorian cottages.  This one is a National Trust holiday let by the look of it, either way I love the paintwork and the window design.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

On the way home

On the way back from our holiday we made two stops.  Our first port-of-call was the 'Sainsbury's Centre for the Visual Arts' at The University of East Anglia just on the western edge of Norwich.  This was our first visit.
The centre was established in 1973 as a permanent home for the collections of Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury - a mixture of twentieth century Western art and art and antiquities from around the globe, as well as the ceramics collected by Lisa Sainsbury alone.  In addition it also houses the Anderson Art Nouveau Collection and the UEA collection of 'Abstract and Constructivist Art, Design and Architecture', (as well as couple of university faculties).  All together making one of the most impressive university art collections in the country.  In 1974 it was decided to commission a gallery to house this abundance of riches.  And the result was Norman Foster's first public work.

We were busy bees that morning, not only loosing ourselves in the permanent collections, but we had a look at all four temporary exhibitions.  The two that interested me most were a selection of items from the Art Nouveau collection, and 'Reality: Modern and Contemporary British paintings', an overview of the continuing presence in British art of realism.  There were representative works by Bacon, Freud, Hockney, Lowry and George Shaw amongst others.  It was all perhaps a little diffuse, not possibly helped by the layout of the exhibition which was in a series of spaces often at a distance from each other.  The problem was however, that the realist presence in British Art itself a massive and incoherent conglomeration of artists and approaches that perhaps to try and corral it all into one exhibition was a tall order.  One glaring thing for me was the juxtaposition of such varying talents, some of it utterly sublime others bathetic.   The highlights were a monumental Freud, and a couple of George Shaw.  I found that after all, I like Lowry.  Complaints aside I think it serves (it's still on until March) to highlight a artist approach that is often neglected in the media.  I should add that I was surprised not to see any work by Michael Andrews and John Wonnacot, who both worked in the city in the 1970s teaching at the Art College.  But as they both share a retrospective at the Castle Museum and Art Gallery in the city centre their absence is understandable.  Dare I call them the 3rd Norwich School?

We stopped for lunch in East Dereham, a small market town a few miles west of Norwich;  the church was unfortunately locked, but I took these images of the outside which boasts a Holy Well, and a detached bell tower, which is a bit of a rare thing these days but was rather more common in the Middle Ages, for example Westminster Abbey, St Paul's, Norwich and Salisbury Cathedrals all had detached towers for bells.  Dereham was the site of an early Anglo-Saxon monastery and is associated with St Withburga, daughter of King Anna of the East Angles.  So it's sanctity is ancient.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Holiday IV St Benet's Abbey and Ranworth Rood Screen

On the final full day of our holiday we went west into the Broads.  We parked up at the rather suburban looking South Walsham Broad and walked along the Fleet Dike to see the ruins of St Benet's Abbey.  The remains of abbey were a favourite with Romantic artists such as Cotman, and were included in John Betjeman's 1974 documentary, 'A Passion For Churches', which was as much about Norfolk as it was the diocese of Norwich. (Produced and directed by Edward Mirzoeff, who was also responsible for Betjeman's 'Metro-land' of 1973.) Quite good reasons then for a long, cold muddy trek into the marshes!

We then stopped off at the 'Fairhaven Woodland and Water Gardens', the creation of Major Henry Boughton.  Major Boughton was the younger son of the 1st Lord Fairhaven, who lived at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire mentioned elsewhere in this blog and where the bf works.  Our final visit of the day was to Ranworth and one of the great pieces of English late Medieval art, the Ranworth Rood Screen.  I'm tempted to call it a prime example, along with the Despencer Retable, of the 1st Norwich School; certainly it was painted locally.  The importance lies not only in its design but that so many of the painted panels survived the Reformation in such good nick.  A marvel.

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Nelson Column, Great Yarmouth

Great Yarmouth sits on a spit of land, with the North Sea on the east and the river Yare on the west and south.  Towards the southern tip of the peninsular, amongst industrial units and workshops and parked cars stands the Nelson Column.  It is in the strictest Neo-classicism; erected in 1817 by the County of Norfolk to commemorated the county's most famous son, at 144 feet it is a foot shorter than the much more famous column erected to Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square.  It possesses an austere, masculine beauty, that is perhaps contrasted by the upper stage of graceful caryatids.  Looking again at the photos as I write this post I am struck by the funereal feel of the architecture; as though the steps in the lower picture lead not a spiral staircase but a burial chamber with a gleaming granite sarcophagus.  Having said that, everything about this structure is, as one would expect from  Neo-classicism, impeccable - from the lettering of the inscriptions down to the blue painted railings.  Superb.  It should be better known.  When built the column sat in the midst of open land - land owned by the Admiralty, so it was thought a fitting place.  In the summer it is open to the public.