I wouldn’t want to give the impression that my life is just one continuous whirl of wafting around museums and galleries or discovering talented distant relations. There’s a certain amount of tedious monotony one has to get through before enjoyment is permitted.

Domestic drudgery is one of life’s necessities and I tackle mine on a what’s-needed- most-basis, rather than having a fixed routine as I know some folk do. I tend to take the ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’ approach, a phrase coined by Shirley Conran in the seventies.

During a working week the bare minimum gets done but now with time off I am already sliding guiltily into thinking that a thorough, intense overdue spring-clean is in order.

How dull.

I start off with good intentions – planning my attack from the comfort of my morning bed while waiting to leap purposefully into the shower but by the time I’ve eaten breakfast and cleared away, the enthusiasm for all things household has worn off and I’m seeking excuses and distractions. As indeed I do when there is writing to be done. Suddenly a pile of ironing has never looked so appealing. Life can be so perverse.

I suffered an enforced incarceration last week which was the ideal time to set to which I did with gusto. I’m well aware that this sudden burst of domestic goddess-ery was brought on by a conversation I had with my hairdresser who revealed that she wipes her kitchen cabinet doors down every night. I have to say she made me feel inadequate and ashamed.

Stumbling across a Channel Four programme called ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners’ didn’t help either. I was riveted: how two people with diagnosed OCD would cope deep cleansing the old country house of an eccentric hoarder made fascinating TV. As soon as the two dirt-o-phobes cleared anything out, the hoarder snuck around to the rubbish and claimed it back again. I don’t know who had the greater problem but all of them were cheerful enough about their predicament. They made me think I’d hit normal on the dirt to clean scale.

Now, this particular enforced incarceration I mentioned earlier began with what we thought at first was a piece of junk mail but which, on closer inspection, suggested that we may be eligible for free loft insulation.

Us? Free? These aren’t words that usually coincide where we are concerned but it was worth a phone call. This call elicited a visit from the gas board who carried out a short survey and, lo and behold – yes! – we were entitled!

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I arranged a time for the work to be carried out and was then forced to wait in for them to arrive. Which they did: on time and with very little fuss, completing the job in a little over an hour. Which was all very well except that I was then free to be distracted: but not, I hasten to add, before the area below the bed was designated a dust free zone and all the paintwork wiped down with a squirt of Flash.

So while I can feel smug in the knowledge that things here are beautifully spring-cleaned for the time being this comes as a reminder to occasionally check your junk mail. You never know what little goodies might be lurking therein.

This post forms the third part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse.  As Sherri herself has already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I shall be taking a more relaxed attitude towards the rules myself. I’m supposed to nominate someone to take up the challenge after each of my next five posts but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, if you feel the urge to challenge yourself to five pictures/five stories (fact or fiction) then please feel free.

 

 

 

If, as a child, I wasn’t roaming around outside I’d be endlessly inventing stories and scribbling them down in my red Silvine notebooks bought from Woolworths or I’d be drawing or painting. Dad would wander past, look over my shoulder and tell me that I must take after his cousin, Wally.

Cousin Wally was a couple of decades older than my father: they were never close and we children never met him but Dad would often remark on Wally’s talent.

Well, it turns out that Cousin Wally (Walter Steggles 1908-1997) had considerable talent. Prolific talent which culminated in him having work exhibited at the 1936 Venice Biennale alongside such luminaries as Duncan Grant and Barbara Hepworth. He and his younger brother Harold belonged to the East London Art Club, whose artists collectively became known as the East London Group.

Talk about hiding one’s familial light under the proverbial bushel.

In the last couple of years the little known or even recognised East London Group have had something of a renaissance – interest within the indiscernible world of art dealing has increased, helped along by David Buckman’s publication of a very comprehensive history of the group, ‘From Bow to Biennale.’ This fairly weighty tome is based on correspondence and interviews with the last, now deceased, (Wally was the last surviving member) Group members as well as primary and secondary archival research.

Both Wally and Harold have extensive biographies along with colour reproductions of their work.

Harold Steggles (1911-1971) achieved some commercial success by designing posters for the Shell Petroleum Company but it seems that his older brother was the more artistically driven of the two. However, both brothers had work displayed at the Lefevre Gallery in London.

Wally painted all his life – he never married and lived mostly with his parents who moved around quite a bit. When he lived in Cookham he became acquainted with the artist Stanley Spencer and the two would visit each other’s studios. His paintings reflect areas of the country he knew – landscapes of East Anglia and Wiltshire as well as industrial scenes of East London.

The canal, Mile End by Walter Steggles

The canal, Mile End by Walter Steggles

It is the latter which most appeal to me and I was fascinated to learn that as Wally became interested in photography he would take his photos, “square” them up into grid formation and then use them to create a painting.

Without wanting to recount Wally’s life story here it’s important to mention that his passion and undoubted ability for art grew from attending evening classes in Bow, East London as a very young man. These classes were taken by one John Cooper who inspired Wally and who invited prominent figures from the art world to come and talk to his pupils. One of these visiting artists, Walter Sickert, left a lasting impression on Wally:

“Sickert’s advice has been constantly with me. I did not, however, wish to be an obvious follower as a number of artists have.”

So when I saw that the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester was holding an exhibition of Walter Sickert’s work I suggested that we take a look. Once we’d secured a parking space – which isn’t easy in Chichester but worth persevering  – we found the gallery pleasantly uncrowded. The current Sickert exhibition concentrates on the artist’s time in Dieppe, where he lived for a number of years. Often lauded as the English Impressionist, Sickert (1860-1942) was inspired by Monet and Pissarro and his work definitely reflects their influence although his method of sketching his subjects first and then work on his paintings back in his studio is much removed from the French Impressionists who worked ‘en plein air.’ I was intrigued to see that Sickert used the grid method to translate his drawings to the canvas and wondered if this was where Wally got the idea from for his photographs.

 

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Shop in Dieppe by Walter Sickert

All in all, I’m sorry to report that we were underwhelmed by this particular collection. Sickert’s paintings have a flat, unfinished quality to them. I found it difficult to pick out any one painting that had the wow factor although this one appealed because, I think, of its storytelling potential.

It’s not just the tenuous family link that creates my bias towards Wally’s pictures – his colours are vibrant and I prefer his style. His paintings are now fetching respectable sums at auction. According to family folklore, when Wally’s Uncle Henry died and his wife moved home, she threw out one of Wally’s paintings: it wasn’t to her taste, apparently. That woman was my grandmother.

Families, eh? So near yet so far…

This post forms the second part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse.  As Sherri herself has already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I shall be taking a more relaxed attitude towards the rules myself. I’m supposed to nominate someone to take up the challenge after each of my next five posts but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, if you feel the urge to challenge yourself to five pictures/five stories (fact or fiction) then please feel free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the creaking educational locomotive grinds ever more slowly towards the buffers of the long summer break and we can leap onto the platform of unexpurgated freedom I can thank my lucky stars that last week is finally over. As is now tradition and to conceal the fact that our national curriculum is so thin on content that in truth the teaching of it finishes several weeks before the official end of term, we are obliged to suffer the agonies of Activities Week.   A misnomer if ever there was one, judging by the ‘activities’ to which I was assigned. My Activity Week was mostly sedentary and largely involved elephants.

I understand the ethos – to allow students to experience things they otherwise wouldn’t due either to financial restraints, unimaginative parenting or sheer youthful malaise – a condition which sadly is becoming increasingly contagious. I understand all of that – but to have to sit in school uniform in one classroom all day playing board (bored) games is reminiscent of an interminable wet weekend at your grandparents’.

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This was the fate of our unfortunate year seven’s who, lucky for them (but not me), then had a day off site to visit the Globe Theatre before returning to spend the next day welded to a stool in the art room following step by step instructions to make a clay elephant. All day: with a short break for lunch. By the afternoon, with the searing heat outside and the stuffiness of the classroom I felt my eyes drooping and had to make a conscious effort to stay awake. I sympathised with one of our older students who incurred a detention recently for falling sound asleep in a history lesson. I now know how he felt.

The following day we were treated to Africa Day – the possibilities of this sounded promising. But again, the students sat for what seemed like hours in a large circle in our acoustically challenged canteen while a lovely man from Ghana, dressed in traditional costume spent the day with the students telling stories of his African village and showing them how to make toys from recycled rubbish. image

Another forty elephants were made from old plastic milk cartons after which there was a spot of potato printing. A quick break for food and drink and it was back to sitting while they practised the art of African drumming. In the aforementioned echo-y dining room. There were enough drums for each child so you are lucky you only have to imagine the cacophony. I had to sit through it.

I don’t mean to carp on, but I would’ve preferred spending the day at a nearby fishing lake with a collection of year nine yobbos who turn into the politest, nicest shoal of lads you could ever wish to meet – once they are attached to a rod with a box of maggots at their side. I did this trip several years ago now and was as heartened at the students transformation as I was astonished at how adept I became at picking up a maggot or helping disgorge the unfortunate little fishes for those more squeamish. I have obvious skills in this area – why have they been overlooked? The main reason this activity is so popular and why staff members trample each other to take part is fact that the bacon rolls at the shop there are to die for and the opportunity to hear the trip leader tell one of his new ‘fishermen’ to go to the counter and ask for a tin of tartan maggots is legendary. I obviously need to improve my pitch for next year.

So, with only two days left of term time to fill with word searches and videos while the teachers complete their admin, the terminus approaches – the exit gate is in sight.

This post forms the first part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse. I normally avoid things like this like the proverbial plague but as she is such a regular visitor to my imaginary kitchen and we have shared so many odd and weird coincidences I felt it only fair to have a go. As Sherri herself has already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I shall be taking a more relaxed attitude towards the rules myself. I’m supposed to nominate someone to take up the challenge after each of my next five posts but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, if you feel the urge to challenge yourself to five pictures/five stories (fact or fiction) then please feel free. I thought it would be a good discipline to make me write more regularly. Goodness knows, I’ve been pretty lax of late.

 

A headline in a recent newspaper caught my eye which in turn had me thinking nostalgically about the plaything that as a child I returned to again and again. I don’t mean teddy bears – they don’t count as toys – they are loyal confidants; one of life’s necessities (Bear ones) and I wouldn’t be without mine.  I’m not talking about skipping ropes, board games or dolls. I was never much interested in the latter although I of course had them. I was a little girl, after all, and dolls are what girls were meant to play with. I had a dolls pram too – maroon if I remember correctly – a miniature version of the sturdy Smart-Car-sized Silver Cross that my mother perambulated for years. The doll’s house was used initially but quickly abandoned – a shame really as it was made for me by my grandfather – a facsimile of his own home.

But it’s the humble Lego brick to which I pay homage. Apart from books which have always been a constant companion, the androgynous red and white bricks of my Lego-filled youth provided me with hours of creative activity and sparked imaginings beyond even the wildest playroom. I think the first set I ever owned consisted of a few bricks of each size and a flat grey base unit. I built houses. I built cottages by the sea; I built state of the art tower blocks; I built castles as my collection grew – whole towns once the Lego street map arrived. I made farms and zoos. Each Christmas stocking produced a tiny box containing much needed single tenners or double sixer bricks or window shapes, some with tiny closing shutters. Envisage my utmost delight when Lego brought out the translucent brick and I designed my architecturally inspired sixties houses with integrated translucent walls and imagined internal spiral staircases. This was only surpassed a little later by the production of a tiny circuit board with bulb, switch and battery which could be concealed within my house and – lo and behold – there was light! (And I had my first ever physics lesson. Sadly things have gone downhill in that department ever since).

Picture of assorted Lego bricks from Wikipedia

Picture of assorted Lego bricks from Wikipedia

My Lego collection is still around somewhere in the family, having been added to by various keepers over the years. To my mind though, these later additions are pretenders to Lego’s original ideals. Gone is the need to imagine a jumbled creation of duo-coloured blocks as something tangible and mysterious – now we have vivid themed sets with instructions. Where is the creativity, where is the encouragement to imagine?

The aforementioned headline stated that Cambridge University are to appoint a “Professor of Lego” with funding from the eponymous company. My first reaction on seeing this was one of ridicule but as I read the article and thought about it, I think they may be on to something. The Lego Foundation has provided the funding to research how children play. The article suggests that children have lost the ability to create their own amusement and this is impacting on their educational development. I am amazed that it has taken an injection of £1.5million to come to this conclusion. You’ve only got to look for children playing outside in the fresh air during their school holidays and you’ll pretty soon realise that our wide open spaces are largely empty. No jumpers for goalposts these days. No tree climbing either (too dangerous) no camp-making in the woods (again, far too dangerous) and definitely no unsupervised pond-dipping (even more dangerous).

Lego has been lauded as a therapy tool for children with autism and has also been recommended as a creative thinking device for business people – everyone should have a box of random bricks on their desk. I don’t think that’s too whacky an idea – it’s even thought to reduce city stress levels.

I think I might suggest that we introduce Lego to our department if the budget can stretch that far – we could get the students to create the finest structure they can with limited resources – introduce a bit of competition, just like the real world. Oh, wait a minute; competitiveness is frowned upon these days too. We’ll need another research project – Professor of Rivalry, perhaps?

 

 

 

The grand reveal:

This is a short post following on from my last one where I left you on tenterhooks just waiting to know if you can spot an expensive piece of art work, so without further ado, here are the details.

Colony – January in acrylic and mixed media is byimage Royal Academician Barbara Rae and for sale at a mere £57,000.

 

 

 

 

The Old House Dreams it is Still There imagein egg tempura is by Peter Messer and is priced at £4,850.

 

 

 

 

 

Mississippi River Blues image

is a carborundum relief in titanium white ink on paper painted with a mars black wash created by Royal Academician Richard Long. As one of an edition of two, it will set you back £80,000. (I’ve suddenly gone off this one although I think it looks very striking against the pink wall).

 

 

Flower Window,image an oil, is a tiny painting in a modest wooden frame by David Barrow and very affordable at £200.

 

 

 

 

 

Afternoon Skaters is an oil painting by Bill Jacklin,

imageanother Royal Academician. This one retails at £40,000.

 

 

 

 

 

Stolen Thunder III by Cornelia Parkerimage is a digital print which will cost you £850.

 

 

 

 

 

So, what price art? What would you buy and why. Enjoyment or investment? Who decides on the value of modern art? I’ll leave that open to discussion. It’s far too big a subject for me to pontificate alone.

There are some things in this country that are quintessentially British and come around on the annual calendar with seemingly ever increasing speed – The Royal Garden Parties, for instance, Wimbledon lawn tennis and the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

The latter opened for this summer season last week, so on Sunday we toddled off to London to take a look. Arriving at Burlington House in Piccadilly, flags heralded the celebrated event. The first exhibit can be seen through the open gates to the courtyard. A massive steel structure consisting of different sized tetrahedrons welded together, this sculpture by Conrad Shawcross is entitled “The Dappled Light of the Sun,” which is all very well but as we wandered underneath this colossal skeleton on an overcast morning, the artist’s intention I feel was all but lost.

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Burlington House, Piccadilly

The Summer Exhibition is the largest open submission exhibition in the world and has been staged by the Royal Academy every year since 1769 without interruption. It provides an unrivalled platform for established and emerging artists to display and sell their work. The Academy takes a commission from every work sold and this, together with ticket sales for the event, go towards funding post-graduates at the RA Schools.

The RA Schools was founded in 1769, and remains independent. This enables the Schools to offer the only three-year postgraduate programme in Europe. The pluralisation comes about because when it was first founded, students were required to master a number of different artistic elements in a particular order. Each element was known as a separate ‘School’. Today The RA is more flexible in its expectation but the original name has stuck.

There are around one thousand pieces on display, each having been through an arduous selection procedure, the first of which is done digitally on-line. If the artist is fortunate enough to go through to the next round, their artwork is put before a selection panel consisting of Royal Academicians.

Art work is priced from £100 to nearly £100,000 – and many of the exhibits were already sporting a red dot, signifying its ‘sold’ status. I loved this tongue-in-cheek work by Cornelia Parker – and the fact that it had got through the selection process. Just shows that artists have a sense of humour. I wonder who bought it though.

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Stolen Thunder III

Upon entry you get given a little ‘List of Works’ handbook containing the artists’ names, titles and prices of their work. I thought it would be entertaining to waft around, pick out the pieces I liked and check the provenance afterwards. Interestingly, most of the paintings I picked were by known contemporary artists which probably says more about me than the state of British modern art but there you go.

So here are a few of my chosen miscellany, sporting titles only. See if you can pick out the most and least expensive of my selection.

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Colony – January

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The old house dreams it is still there

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Mississippi River Blues

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Flower Window

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Afternoon Skaters

The show this year was curated by Michael Craig-Martin, a Royal Academician. His vision to paint the walls of one of the largest rooms a bright pink may shock some but I think it brought the hung paintings alive and complemented the gilding on the ceiling, showing off the classical architecture of this building in an innovative way. The Central Hall was also painted in a vivid peacock turquoise which looked opulent and fantastic.

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Wonderful pink walls. Those neon bubbles are by Michael Landy and are one of the few items not for sale.

In previous years the exhibits have been crowded together, almost jostling for position creating a chaotic, busy sensation. This year the whole effect is of calm but stylish order and while ideally I’d like the gallery to myself, by going early we avoided the crowds.

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy runs until the 16 August and is open every day from 10am till 6pm.

When I started my first school, at the age of five, Dad seemed very excited to hear that I had been placed in “Churchill” – one of  four houses our tiny school was divided into for Sport’s Day events or collecting merit points. The houses were each designated a colour and I was to wear blue webbing bands which, because blue was – and still is – my favourite colour,  pleased me more than its name which at that time held little significance.

The houses were named after famous local residents – and Winston Churchill had his country retreat less than five miles away. As children we drove past the place often; were taken there for outings; were told stories of a great man who had lived there.

During the war Dad was a despatch rider for the Royal Signals. He would regularly make trips to Chartwell to deliver documents or papers and of course always held Winston in very high esteem. He got to know that part of the countryside pretty well and it is probably part of the reason  he decided to buy the virtually derelict house he did in the 1950’s which was to become our family home for over thirty years.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. Time, then, to revisit.

Chartwell sits behind a high stone wall down a narrow winding lane with far reaching views across the Kentish Weald. Winston bought the place in 1922 and it provided a sanctuary for him, his wife Clementine and their children away from London and matters of state.

When World War Two ended in 1945 the Churchills were not confident they could afford to keep the place going but a consortium of friends got together and shored things up for them with the proviso that the property  be bequeathed to the National Trust on the deaths of Winston and Clementine. The Trust is now custodian of this quirky yet highly personal house and its magnificently sweeping gardens and I’m pleased to say that I was able to gain free entry for two using my marvellous National Art Pass.

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Our walk started with a gentle stroll down towards the lake where black swans can be spotted if you’re lucky. Following a rough path around the water’s edge brings you to a small clearing where a sculpture of Winston and Clementine Churchill is situated showing them sitting together looking towards their beloved house. The art work is by sculptor Oscar Nemon and was unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1990.

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Carry on past the sculpture and you reach wild woodland to the south-east edge of the estate. The path here winds uphill through beech and bluebell woods to where a unit of Royal Canadian Engineers camped out during World War Two. These troops set about camouflaging Chartwell, hiding the swimming pool, draining the reservoir and disguising the lakes with brushwood, keeping the place safe from possible aerial attack. Apparently Winston was mightily relieved that his precious goldfish were not in immediate danger.

image Returning downhill from the site of the Canadian camp, the house comes into view across the fields and sloping lawns.

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Inside, the house is a delight – the rooms have been maintained almost as they would have been when the Churchills were in residence: some personal things remain – Winston’s slippers, for instance. Sadly, photography is not allowed, but you can click here to view interiors from the National Trust’s website.

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According to the National Trust’s blurb the house is ‘of little architectural merit’ having been added to and changed over the years by various occupants – Churchill included. When he bought Chartwell he opened up some of the darker rooms by installing large casement windows, making the most of its position overlooking some of Britain’s finest green and pleasant land. It was this view that enticed him to Chartwell in the first place and one of which he never tired.

“A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted.” (Winston Churchill)

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This view point overlooks the miles of  rolling countryside stretching towards the English Channel that fired Churchill’s fierce resolve to keep Britain safe from  invasion. In the centre of the photograph is the wall around the kitchen garden which he helped to build – at a reported two hundred bricks a day.

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Through the arched gateway  is Winston’s art studio, left as if he has just popped out for an amble around his garden.

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He spent hours here painting, finding the relaxation it derived a perfect antidote for the famous depression he suffered and  which he referred to as his ‘ black dog.’ One of his paintings, of his goldfish pond, sold at Sotheby’s for £1.8m last December. Now, having seen his collection of paintings in the studio  (sadly, no photos allowed here either), while they are the dedicated work of a very enthusiastic and prolific amateur, I’m not sure the price the painting fetched at auction is justified, other than the fact it is by Churchill. Here’s a photographic representation of his painting, as near as I could get …

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So much has been written about Churchill: his policies, political leanings, the crossing twice of the House of Commons from Conservative to Liberal and back again, his failures and his triumphs, his family, his speeches and most of all his determination to never surrender to a Nazi invasion. Without his dogged and ruthless determination to plan and implement the Battle for Normandy, which the French will be commemorating this weekend, the course of the war would no doubt have been different. And while we cannot forget the tremendous sacrifice made by  Allied troops on D-Day – 6th June 1944-  and in the days following – perhaps a silent salute to Winston wouldn’t go amiss.

Enjoying your freedom? Thank a veteran.

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