Posts Tagged ‘London’

The short half-term break shot past in a flash even though I managed to pretty much fill it up with taking various jaunts to places I’d been meaning to visit. So with the SSF otherwise engaged entertaining antipodean amigos, I took myself off to Hampstead. (As you do).

I had a reason to choose Hampstead for my solitary outing. Two, actually. I’d been scouring my Art Pass guide book for ideas and discovered that there were two properties in Hampstead within a quarter of a mile of each other that sounded well worth a look.

I’d never been to Hampstead – at least I have no memory of ever having visited the place – which is mad really as it’s only a few tube stops northwards from central London. I emerged from the station on one of those crisp autumn days where the skies are forever blue, there’s a healthy nip in the air and the trees are beginning to emulate Joseph’s coat of many colours.

Passing and noting for later a promising looking coffee shop (SSF would be proud) I made my way to my first stop – the house of poet John Keats. Originally known as Wentworth Place, the house was built around 1815. From the outside it looked like one beautifully proportioned villa but the interior was originally divided into two separate homes and it was in one of these that, in 1818, Keats went to lodge with his friend, Charles Brown.

img_2060

Most of the rooms in the house are accessible to the visitor and on arrival I was presented with an informative leaflet detailing the route I should take. Each room has plenty of information about the poet printed clearly onto boards.

img_2054

The furnishings are sparse but give a flavour of the time. In one of the basement rooms a ten minute video plays on a loop, giving us a brief history of the poet’s life.

To say that Keats had a tragic life would be an understatement. His father died in a riding accident when Keats was eight, his widowed mother quickly married a man who proved completely unsuitable. Keats was sent to a boarding school in Enfield, north London where he stayed until he was fourteen and where he fostered a love of poetry and literature. His mother died of consumption so Keats and his brothers were looked after by their grandparents. Keats left school, took up an apprenticeship as an apothecary surgeon and began to write poetry which provided solace in his unhappy world. Around this time, both his brothers died and Keats went to live with Charles Brown where he met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, who lived next door. With no family wealth behind him (that he knew about) Keats gave up his medical aspirations to concentrate on poetry and it was while living at Wentworth Place that he produced the abundant volume of work we are familiar with today. With his own health in decline (he too contracted consumption) he died aged twenty-five in Rome where he had gone to recuperate.

The gardens around Wentworth House are modest and well tended and are free for the public to wander in, sit a while and ponder. There is a small gift shop selling poetry books, tasteful cards and soap of a natural quality. Had there not been a noxious smell of evil boiled vegetables emanating from the bowels of the house while I was wandering around, I’d have given Keats’ House full marks.

My visit lasted around an hour and a half after which caffeine was definitely required so I wended back to the coffee shop I’d espied earlier and took my Americano across the road to the Heath and sat by the pond in gorgeous autumnal sunshine, watching the ducks.

img_2063

A little way from here, just up the hill and facing the Heath was my next port of call. Number 2, Willow Road is part of a terrace of three Modernist houses designed and built by architect and designer Ernö Goldfinger. He and his family lived at Number 2, the middle house, from 1939 until his death in 1987.

img_2065

Goldfinger is remembered for designing residential tower blocks, some of which are now listed buildings but at the time of their construction were controversial. Willow Road is built of concrete with brick facings and just scraped past the fastidious Hampstead planning department, causing outrage amongst the preciously exclusive locals.

Entry into the house is by timed tickets and for only ten people at a time. Thankfully I had had the foresight to book my place before buying coffee so when I returned at my allotted hour, nine other folk were hovering around outside waiting for the off. The National Trust is the custodian of 2 Willow Road and I have to say that this was one of the times that this fusty old institution got it right. It was bequeathed to the Trust by Goldfinger’s children and the furniture, fittings and artwork are all authentic. The house is stuffed full of modern art – Goldfinger was a collector.

Our guide was well informed and interesting. We were ushered into what had been the garage to watch a short video about the life and times of Ernö Goldfinger before entering the downstairs lobby where an extraordinary spiral staircase gave us access to the rest of the house.

Goldfinger also designed furniture – in particular chairs – and there are examples of his work here. The house would have been ultra modern for its time, with interior partition walls that could create different spaces by being pulled back or closed. The kitchen, however, is tiny and one wonders how his poor wife coped to entertain all the friends and celebrities who frequented the place. Everywhere you look there is art by someone notable: Henry Moore…Bridget Riley…Barbara Hepworth. The bookshelves are full of arty books and there are myriad miscellaneous collections on windowsills and tables. I loved it and didn’t know where to start and stop looking. Sadly, photographs of the interior are forbidden so I can’t share this cornucopia with you but if you ever find yourself in Hampstead, make a bee-line for this place – it’s wonderful!

 

Read Full Post »

I expect you’re wondering whether the SSF and I have been on any outings lately, it being school holiday time and all. The short answer is yes, we have, and quite honestly two more contrasting excursions would be difficult to arrange intentionally.

The first involved a gentle drive through the countryside into deepest Hampshire. (Well, actually, just west of Basingstoke but I don’t want to spoil the illusion). SSF elected to drive on the basis that, as my passenger, she’d likely experience motion sickness and also that she knew roughly where we were heading whereas Basingstoke and its environs are undiscovered territory for me. All I’ve known about the place to this point is that we have frequently by-passed it on the M3 on route to the West Country and the fact that it commandeers several exits along the motorway suggests that the town has evolved into a large, urban sprawl. So I was pleasantly surprised as we passed through Old Basing to discover a small, quintessentially English village with very old cottages surrounded by much greenery. There is even an historically important ruin in the form of Basing House, once the largest private house in Tudor England. Sadly closed the day we ambled by, but worth a return visit, I’m sure.

Driving on through glorious farm land and speeding by the Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery (crikey – it all happens in Hampshire, doesn’t it), we were headed for Whitchurch, a sleepy little village (and not quite as picturesque as Old Basing, it has to be said), to have a look at their Silk Mill.

image

Whitchurch Silk Mill is the oldest silk mill in Britain still in its original building. It was built in 1815 and production there, which included weaving for Burberry and Ede and Ravenscroft London’s oldest tailor and robes-maker, continued right up until 1985 when the mill was weaving fabric for legal and academic gowns.

image

After this time, work at the mill slowed and there were plans for buildings on the front lawn which caused a bit of local unrest. The charity, Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust stepped in, injected some cash and set about restoring it.

image

The Winding Room

Now, with added Heritage Lottery Funding, the Mill continues to weave fabulous silks still using the original 19th century machinery and is open for all to view. The admission is only £4.50 and for this you watch a short video on the history of silk before being allowed to wander at your will around this magnificent building.

image

image

And herein lays the weakest link. We wandered through the workshops and the winding room before looking through glass to see the silk being woven but weren’t really sure how the process actually worked because there were no volunteers or otherwise to tell us. The place was virtually deserted which was astonishing as in the winding room there were items that could have been easily slipped into a handbag and flogged as authentic at a Surrey antiques fair.

image

Beautiful old reels

There is a quirky little cafe on the first floor with wonderful views over the gardens and the River Test but the counter service was laboured to put it mildly and a bit of confusion ensued over a black coffee and a cappuccino. We patiently waited for this to be sorted, ignored the delicious looking home-made cakes and opted for fruit scones instead. We couldn’t help thinking that a concession (I do not mean Starbucks) might help bring in the punters.

So although we felt that more could be made of the Silk Mill Experience – the Gift Shop was selling silk items but on closer inspection, these were all made in China – we had a good day out wending our way around the by-ways of Hampshire while we planned our next outing.

If we needed to prove that our tastes are nothing if not eclectic then our second trip provides testament. We went to the Saatchi Gallery in West London to view the Rolling Stones Exhibition, aptly entitled Exhibitionism.

image

For anyone who has grown up with The Stones – and that’s probably everyone on the planet – this show is a fun way to spend an hour or so, waltzing through the band’s fifty year career from the early days of obscurity to the stadium tours. There are nine themed galleries at the Saatchi combining over 500 original Stones’ artefacts peppered with cinematic archive and contributions from an array of contemporary artists (Warhol, for instance), musicians, designers and writers.

I particularly enjoyed the reconstruction of their first flat. They lived together in Edith Grove, Chelsea, when they were barely out of their teens and this reconstruction apparently has been created with careful reference to each of the remaining Stones. It was worthy of a Tracey Emin installation and depicts the abject squalor Mick and the boys lived in and where they began writing the songs that have since passed into popular culture.

There is also a room full of mannequins sporting the stage clothes worn on their various tours and what is most striking is how tiny these garments are. SSF observed darkly that the drugs were probably responsible. Close inspection of the clothes reveal the exquisite tailoring, the like of which I remember seeing several years ago at the Valentino retrospective.

Other rooms are filled with instruments from various decades as well as the art work for all the album covers, video footage of concerts and an interview with Martin Scorsese.

The exhibition culminates in another reconstruction – this time a generic example of the band’s dressing room and backstage space after which we are ushered through the ‘stage door’ to watch a video of their last London Hyde Park Gig. We all had to don 3D specs to watch the finale of ‘Satisfaction.’ It was possibly the next best thing to being there.

After all that excitement we stepped, blinking, into the sunshine, crossed the King’s Road and hurried into Peter Jones for a cup of tea.

Back in the real world.

Exhibitionism runs until 4th September at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s Square, Chelsea.

 

Read Full Post »

Here as promised are details of the artworks featured in my last post. Because I drifted around snapping only the pieces that immediately appealed to me without taking much notice at the time  of pricing, this year’s selection has turned out to be rather over the top from a financial point of view.  Apart from a couple. But there is art available at the Royal Academy that wouldn’t break the bank…so if you get the chance to see for yourself, then I’d recommend getting a ticket.

image

“ALL THE FISH IN THE SEA” by David Mach, RA £56,000

 

image

“MIGRATION” by Cathy de Monchaux £35,000

 

image

“GOLDENGROVE” by Christopher le Brun £168,000

 

image

“SATCHEL” and “LIBERTY BODICE” by Valerie Bradbury £500 each

 

image

“VENICE TRIPTYCH” by Ken Howard RA £20,000

 

image

“SPRING GARDEN, UNDER FROST” by Frederick Cuming RA £25,000

 

image

“SNOW IN HYDE PARK” By Ken Howard RA £38,000

 

image

“AVOCADO COCONUT EGG (ACE) by El Anatsui Hon RA Price on application!

 

image

“KOZANJI: WINTER FIRE” by Ian MacKenzie Smith £4,000

Now, since I went to the exhibition and made my selection and with the Olympics about to burst forth, I settled down the other night and watched an interesting documentary about Tom Daley, Britain’s high-diving medal hope. When I next looked at that last painting, above, all I can see now are a pair of blue Speedo’s and some yellow legs behind a wafting scarlet scarf. Funny how perceptions can be changed, isn’t it?

Oh, and if I were to make a choice and money was no object, then from the above selection I’d probably go for Frederick Cuming’s ‘Spring Garden, Under Frost.’ (I like the colours which remind me slightly of a Patrick Procktor painting a friend once owned).  I discounted the bottle top wall-hanging on account of its size and also because I imagine it would need dusting. Ever practical when it comes to housework avoidance, you see!

The Summer Exhibition  runs until 21 August. Galleries open at 10.00am until 6.00pm, late evenings till 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

And with ever increasing speed, so the years whizz around. It certainly doesn’t feel like twelve months ago that I visited the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly for its annual Summer Exhibition. I returned this week to check out this year’s selection.

As I explained in my post last year, the Summer Exhibition is the largest open submission exhibition in the world and provides a platform for both well-known and emerging artists to display and sell their work. The work of the hopeful is put through an arduous submission process, the final say being had by a select panel of established Royal Academicians.

I arrived at my allotted time – 1.30pm – and discovered that this was an excellent time to have chosen. The gallery wasn’t crowded! I was able to move easily around the rooms, take pictures without folk getting in the way (or me getting in the way of them), and generally have a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I do, of course, start backwards. I traversed the thirteen rooms in an anti-clockwise manner and I think a few others were doing the same. Perhaps we were all left-handers, I don’t know, but there was no sense of a shuffling queue which so often happens at big events when you are shepherded along in a continuous and aggravated line.

image

Look! Whoopee! A relatively empty gallery!

So once again, I’ve taken snaps of artworks that caught my eye for one reason or another. Most of the exhibits are for sale. I’ll leave the prices and artist’s names out of the description and leave you guessing. See if you can pick out the most and least expensive. As last year, I’ll reveal the answers in my next post.

image

I thought this display of vase-shaped sculptures was rather fun – set against a mirrored background they have been created using foam and coloured pins.

image

This next work has been made using copper wire, bandages, silk and pigment. Set in a black frame it’s about ten feet wide and perhaps eighteen inches high. It is very striking and looks somehow ancient.

image

I’m not really sure what drew me to this oil on canvas other than the size – it’s enormous, commanding a central position in gallery six. I like the depth and choice of colours.

image

These two works are independent of each other but obviously by the same artist. Worked in corroded pewter, I wondered why these specific items had been chosen.

image

This oil triptych caught my eye as it depicts a view I know well.  I like the way the panels are disjointed; how they don’t quite match up.

image

Another oil painting. The colours of a suburban frosty morning appealed for some reason. Odd really, because in reality I don’t like being cold and much prefer the countryside.

image

How very odd – another cold scene – again in oil and depicting Hyde Park. Definitely a Christmas card in the making…

image

This was the most astonishing exhibit I saw. Hung in the small, dimly lit number two gallery this had several people gasping.  Close-ups below (look closely!) will reveal that this has been created using all sorts of different bottle tops and wire closures from everyday products. Amazing.  It puts me in mind of a ceremonial tribal cloak.

image

image

 

You can see in these details how painstaking the making of this piece must have been.

image

This is a watercolour. There’s something about this that I find restful although the colours used would probably suggest otherwise.

image

And lastly, here is the eye-catching piece that greets the visitor on arrival through the gates of Burlington House on Piccadilly. Entitled ‘Spyre’ it is a 16 metre tall Cor-Ten steel kinetic sculpture by Ron Arad who is a Royal Academician architect, designer and sculptor. It moves slowly round, its segments also twisting and turning at varying speeds. On the head there is an ‘eye’ – which is a camera, recording whatever it sees in the courtyard below. This is then beamed onto the huge screen hung behind it on the front of the building. Visitors are filmed entering and walking across the courtyard thereby becoming part of the artwork. If people should object to this, they are guided around the perimeter, out of range of the Spyre’s eye. It’s actually quite fascinating to watch and reminded me of a charmed snake.

So there we have it: this year’s Summer Exhibition which runs until 21 August. Worth a look, definitely. Galleries open at 10.00am until 6.00pm, late evenings till 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

Read Full Post »

The SSF (Sea-Sick Friend) and I were well overdue an excursion which we rectified this week by taking a trip into London by train, for old time’s sake. Long suffering readers will recall that SSF and I met years ago during our commuting days whilst stuck one evening on a stationary train going nowhere out of Waterloo Station. We struck up a conversation bemoaning the appalling service and haven’t stopped chatting since.

image

The Walkie Talkie Building, centre.

This week’s outing would not be involving water other than looking down on the Thames from a great height, which SSF assured me, was fine, although I think vertigo was mentioned. We were making for the Sky Garden – an innovative use of the top floor of one of the city’s less than attractive new buildings, known locally as the “Walkie Talkie.” This unwieldy looking skyscraper hit the London headlines in the summer of 2013 when the sun’s reflection beamed intensely off its mainly glass structure into the street below and melted part of a car as well as setting a shop doormat alight.

Undeterred, as our weather was positively chilly – even for early April, we decanted ourselves from the tube at Monument Station and hoofed the short distance to 20 Fenchurch Street. The lobby security was akin to any airport rigmarole – everything and everybody screened – this was dealt with deftly and provided a natural filter for the two available lifts. Whizzing ear-poppingly to the 36th floor in cramped conditions isn’t my most favourite thing in the world but it was over with so speedily there was hardly time to wonder about a staircase option.

The lift opens to reveal another lobby – tiled in black slate and containing state-of-the-art unisex toilet facilities. Now, if there’s one fear greater than getting stuck between floors in a lift, it’s becoming imprisoned in a public lavatory. Which, for what seemed like hours but was actually less than a minute, happened to me when the lock mechanism failed to release. After moments of sweaty trauma I was able to join SSF and step into the glass domed conservatory that is the Sky Garden.

image

image

The audible gasps are justified: this space definitely has the wow factor. The views over our capital city are amazing. The first area reached is the Cafe-Bar  which is completely free to access although booking a time slot is necessary.

 

image

The mezzanine contains the Darwin Brasserie (For which SSF had booked a table) and above that, at the very top of the dome, is the Fenchurch Restaurant. Tumbling down the two sloped sides next to the staircases are cascades of tropical greenery. The air temperature is surprisingly cool but this is catered for with colourful throws and blankets provided in the seating areas.

image

 

image

Here is a great view looking east towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge with the towers of the Canary Wharf business district in the far distance. (Best place for it…).

image

And here, looking west. The Post Office Tower, once one of the capital’s tallest structures can just be seen, top right while the London Eye to the left (or south of the river) and near to Waterloo Station is one of the city’s newest landmarks.

image

Looking directly south, The Shard towers over everything else. HMS Belfast can just be seen in the foreground. (Or should that be fore-river?) The outside viewing platform was sadly closed during our visit due to inclement weather. Surely a reason for another trip?

image

And finally, looking northwards – the “Cheese Grater” on the left and the “Gherkin” on the right. London certainly has its fair share of odd looking buildings – and judging by the amount of cranes dotted about everywhere, we are destined for many more.

So…the verdict: well worth a visit. We had a very enjoyable lunch in the Brasserie with a prime table by the window overlooking the Thames. After lunch we had a sneak peek up at the restaurant and decided that the Brasserie looked much the best option. The tables in the restaurant are too far back to take advantage of the views so we wondered what the point of eating there would be. Although there seemed to be a steady stream of people coming and going, there was no feeling anywhere that the place was overcrowded and I suspect that for health and safety reasons only a certain number are allowed in at any one time.

image

Leadenhall Market

We left the building to stretch our legs around the city, taking in Leadenhall Market, Bishopsgate and Spitalfields before returning to the Underground at Bank via the Royal Exchange. This is SSF’s old stamping ground but for me, fairly unchartered territory – so a good day was had by all. With any luck there will not be such a long gap between this and our next outing –  just deciding where to go is tricky – so much to see, so little time!

 

 

Read Full Post »

Half term last week and a chance to catch up with a few things such as visiting an exhibition I’ve been meaning to see for a while. Performing Sculpture at Tate Modern is a look at the work of the American Alexander Calder (1898-1976), widely recognised as the creator of the ‘mobile’ as we know it today. I had an added reason to be curious – Calder is the great grand Uncle of fellow blogger, Robin Cochran.

Now, although the route along the Thames path from Waterloo to Tate Modern is one of my favourite walks, I have to admit to Tate Modern being my least preferred London art gallery. Not because of the work it displays but because it’s always far too busy (alright, I know that’s a good thing) and the coffee shops are a disgrace. The escalators are confusing because they traverse two floors at a time so ending up where you actually want to go is a bit of a lottery. However, the bookshop is fantastic and there is always something interesting going on once you work out the geography. And to be fair, the whole place is having a makeover at the moment which will, by June of this year, include more space and more art: so that’s a good thing too.

Performing Sculpture is on the third floor and once inside the individual gallery, the crowds have dispersed so viewing is a little more comfortable and conducive. We are immediately introduced to Calder’s wire sculptures and the first impression is one of fun. Apparently in 1926 he began constructing his own miniature circus performers using wire, cork and buttons.

image

Simple little dog created from wire, wood and a clothes peg. Fun and effective

He would stage live shows for a small audience of esteemed friends which included Jean Cocteau, Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian. I managed to snap a couple of examples before politely being told to refrain from photography which surprised me as usually at Tate Mod they don’t mind.

image

Wire sculpture of tennis player, Helen Wills.

 

image

Tumblers or acrobats. I liked how this wire sculpture cast shadows on the white wall.

image

Fish tank. This was my favourite. Looks so simple but a great idea for the art room, maybe?

 

It was Mondrian who inspired Calder to experiment with moving shapes after Calder saw some coloured cardboard rectangles attached to the wall in Mondrian’s studio. The artist was using them as compositional aids but Calder thought it would be interesting to make them move (Mondrian didn’t share his enthusiasm!) so he began experimenting with shapes and wire, balance and suspension. His metal sculptures are wired together with the precision of an engineer, creating equilibrium and movement. Some parts of one sculpture will move independently from its main body which provides fascination for the viewer. The mobiles float ethereally in the white painted gallery under their own steam, the power of air flow caused by human movement around the exhibits. Each piece is so delicate now that any enforced movement – by blowing on them for instance, is forbidden.

To get an idea of the type of mobiles on display, and because I’m nothing if not law-abiding (I put my camera away before getting to the mobiles gallery), here is a video I discovered on good old You Tube from a Christie’s catalogue a few years ago. Enjoy!

And finally, as I had to refrain from taking pictures, this last one is taken from the mini guide that the Tate provides with your ticket. (Half price, by the way, with the National Art Pass. Marvellous).

image

Black Widow

Called Black Widow it is the last exhibit in the show and hangs forlornly, its pieces moving at odds with each other. I thought this was a rather gloomy end to an otherwise weirdly interesting exhibition that could fire up the creativity for anyone let loose with some wire, flat metal plates and some spray paint. I can see much mileage in these ideas in a school art room because the construction of them would involve a bit of physics – and that would provide a perfect opportunity for cross-curricular activities as well as proving to our short-sighted Department of Education that the recent down-grading of Design and Technology subjects for GCSE is just downright wrong. Rant over. (For now).

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

How’s your Christmas shopping going?

I know people (I work with them) who have bought, wrapped and labelled everything already but quite frankly that’s just not fun. What can more invoke the spirit of Christmas than panic buying, overspending, lugging heavy parcels home on a rush hour train without losing or breaking anything; feeling exhausted, flaking out at home with a cup of tea, sore feet and a crashing headache? These efficient types have no idea what they’re missing.

So I started mine this week. Having Mondays off is very useful at this time of year when weekend high streets and shopping malls resemble the frantic activity of a termite mound. We decided to make for the quieter – dare I say more select – side of town and headed off to the Kings Road in Chelsea.

However, on alighting at Sloane Square underground station I was transported back three decades to when I worked in the West End, during the conflict in Northern Ireland and a time of sustained danger from bombing or security threats which perpetually hung over our capital. As we queued to take the escalator, a piercing blast from a public address system assaulted our ears followed by an innocuous sounding message – ‘This is a staff announcement. Would Inspector Sands please go to the ticket office immediately.’ This was followed by another ear-shattering siren and the message again, repeated several times. I was up that escalator like a rat up a drainpipe.

Call me paranoid – it’s not as if Sloane Square is a big or complicated station – only two platforms with one train line passing through – where the hell could Inspector Sands have got to, to warrant such an insistent command for his presence?   This may well have been a genuine call for him to attend his ticket office – but as I shot past it on my way through the exit, said ticket office was well and truly shut. Perhaps Inspector Sands has the only key, who knows, but for me, this sounded like a coded warning to station staff that all was not well in Sloane Square and they should start checking their given areas for anything suspicious.

Back in the day, with hoax bomb calls designed to cause maximum disruption up and down Oxford and Regent Street and elsewhere, coded warnings to retail personnel were commonplace. Not wanting to cause mass panic or an exodus of shoppers unless absolutely necessary, it was the sensible way of communicating to responsible staff to check their areas, report back to a central number within a store and then for a follow up message to be broadcast alerting the workforce of the all clear. Without wanting to divulge any particular message, it doesn’t take long to work out that while one store seemed to be forever looking for a lost child answering to the same description another would be having frequent meetings with a General Manager on a nonexistent eighth floor. My lunch hours trailing round various competitors were often swiftly truncated if a tannoyed announcement interrupted my browsing.

So I hope that Sloane Square really does have an Inspector Sands. I hope my suspicions were unfounded but old habits clearly die hard. With heightened security quite rightly sweeping our cities after the appalling events in Paris it’s best to be vigilant and stay safe: but carry on.

Here’s wishing you all a peaceful run up to your festive seasons.

Read Full Post »

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

Colony – January

image

The old house dreams it is still there

image

Mississippi River Blues

image

Flower Window

image

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.

image

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.

Read Full Post »

The Saturday job at the chemist provided extra work throughout the holidays which in turn provided me with the cash required to clothe myself as a wannabe hippy in flared jeans and a selection of groovy cheesecloth tops and t-shirts. In a parallel life I was studying for ‘A’ levels, spending copious amounts of time in the art room, wading around in rivers on geography field work or having a wonderful time being properly introduced to Shakespeare by one Mr Herman Peschmann, a diminutive yet cantankerous German who resembled a shell-less tortoise. He had a slight problem pronouncing the word ‘three’ so we spent every lesson forgetting where we were in the text just to hear him repeat ‘Act Three; Scene Three’ which just happened to be on page thirty-three.  To our immature sixth-form minds this was hilarious but he got us through those exams and left us with a lifelong appreciation of the bard.

As if the pressures of the looming exams weren’t enough, we were subjected to our career interviews.  Remember those? You’d be ushered into a makeshift office the size of a broom cupboard (come to think of it, it was the broom cupboard) where an earnestly whiskered elderly woman with bad breath wearing a beige home knitted cable cardigan and flat sandals shuffled a few pamphlets and talked about secretarial college. Or the army.

In days of yore it wasn’t the natural progression to opt for three years at some ivy clad institution slogging your way through every optic in the student union bar and then take a gap year funded by your cash flashing parents – it was still perfectly acceptable to go out to work – and what’s more, there were actual jobs available for those with an inherent  work ethic but fewer theoretical credentials.

With the naivety of youth and a head swimming with implausibly grand ideas of becoming the next Mary Quant, buyer for Harrods or Sunday supplement editor-in-chief I settled in front of Miss Careers-Advice who suggested sweetly that as I had no intention of further education I should definitely think about becoming a secretary. After my dreary filing experience at the bookshop any notion of admin filled me with horror.  I didn’t like to tell her that I didn’t want to BE a secretary, I intended to HAVE one. I left that broom cupboard with a handful of her leaflets and deposited them swiftly into the nearest bin.

I began to panic a bit when several friends suddenly decided that they wanted to be teachers and signed up for various universities. Perhaps I ought to look for something beyond the sixth form, if only to keep the adults in my life from asking what I’d be doing post exams. I trawled through volumes of college prospectuses and finally found what appeared to be a course tailor-made to my lofty, fast-track ambitions. A one year diploma in periodical journalism (an academic year of course means September to June – things were looking better by the minute) at the London College of Fashion in Central London. Marvellous! All my boxes ticked and a year swanning around Oxford Circus: what more could a girl ask for.

I applied, was interviewed and turned up on my first day where I quickly realised that this was going to be the longest year of my life. My fellow course mates, most of whom owned a Chanel handbag, seemed to be treating this as a state-funded finishing school opportunity – a respectable interlude between exclusive boarding school and getting married to a City banker then heading off to the Shires to produce multiple offspring. However, I happily discovered a couple of kindred spirits – one of whom transferred to St Martin’s art college after the first term – leaving me and Val to endure and make the most of whatever came our way.

I have to admit that we probably didn’t embrace our time there quite as we should. We spent considerable time in the nearby Phoenix pub bemoaning our fate over half a Shandy before being dragged unwillingly around all the London fashion shows by Miss Jackson who in her time had been a Fleet Street fashionista but was by now retired and well past her sell-by date. While most of our peers were swooning at the sight of the editor of Vogue in the front row and possibly waiting to prostrate themselves in front of her, Val and I were frantically writing our reports and working out the quickest way back to Oxford Circus to be the first in line for cheese on toast in the canteen before the dreaded evening sessions began. These sessions involved learning a version of shorthand (T-line) which I never got to grips with (smacked of admin) and which I failed dismally.  Then there were the cosmetic science lessons where all I can remember is producing my own hand cream using something called Isopropyle. A word that for some reason has stuck in my memory all these years but which I’ve never had cause to use. The only useful journalistic training we gained was a block of six weeks taken at the London College of Printing. Based at the Elephant and Castle – a less than salubrious area of south London which came as a shock to the haute couture brigade who I don’t think had ever ventured across the Thames, this was where we learned from working journalists about editing, deadlines, printing and the reality of working on a daily paper.  We created our own dummy newspapers, selected stories, set up interviews, had our work rejected. It was fast, fun and furious and Val and I loved it which made returning to the fluffy world of fashion even harder but at least we knew where we didn’t want to work come the summer.

And, as the saying goes, nothing is ever wasted. As the end of the summer term approached, job vacancies trickled in to our tutor at the college. We were encouraged to go for as many interviews as we could. While the Edina and Patsy’s of this world held out for a position on one of the glossies some of us decided to have a bash at anything. So it came to pass that a position presented itself in the press office of the John Lewis Partnership, based at their flagship store a block away from Oxford Circus. I went along for an interview, they liked me; I liked them. It was settled. I said goodbye to the chemist’s forever. I was going to be a partner.

Oh, and by the way, for anyone who has ever thought that the characters of Edina and Patsy in the sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ are way too over the top, please let me reassure you that they aren’t. I have known people exactly like them – I only wish it had been me and not Jennifer Saunders who had created them. Here’s a hilarious reminder:

 

Read Full Post »

As we trundle inevitably towards our new school year next week amid threats of redundancy, more cut backs and an ever shrinking national curriculum, here’s a reminder of why we do what we do.

Queuing up in our corner shop the other day, I recognised the young man in front of me as one of our ex students. He bought a couple of cans of coke and a pack of cigarettes.

“Still smoking then Danny, I see,” I said smiling, but trying to force a look of disapproval.

He turned and grinned at me. “Orright, Miss? Hey, do you remember when….?”

We reminisced a little before he left the shop. I watched him drive away in smart little car.

Do I remember? How could I forget? Eight years ago Danny (not his real name) was a student in a class of sixteen listless, under-achieving kids with bad attitude. I supported their English GCSE lessons alongside a young teacher who has since become a firm friend. I shall refer to her throughout as TF (Teacher Friend). She was patient, innovative and determined to get the best from this rabble who were not overjoyed to be in school at all, let alone have to struggle with Shakespeare or, heaven forbid, visit the library and select a book. I admired her enthusiasm but worried that she was being overly idealistic.

Nevertheless, we took them on for two years from the age of fourteen and from the outset they were a challenge. Their target levels were understandably rock bottom. They never produced homework. A detention was not a deterrent – they never turned up for one anyway. Their reading wasn’t fluent; none of them could spell or at least, didn’t bother. They would arrive in the classroom without their exercise books or even a pen. Because they were such a small class and they had most of all their other lessons together as well, they formed a tight bond: they worked and moved as a pack. TF wasn’t having any of this – she set about finding the pack leader and working on him. She wisely reckoned that with him on side, the others might eventually follow.

(I ought to point out now that it was not Danny who was leader; if anything, he presented as slightly anxious. He was content to follow the crowd, take the path of least resistance).

And follow the others did. Amid much groaning and sprawling on desks, we started studying “Much Ado About Nothing.”  Instead of making them write reams and unpick unintelligible quotes, TF got the students acting the play out. Pack Leader was Benedict; our feistiest female played Beatrice. The others took turns in having a go at the other parts; they began to understand the play and, dare I say, enjoy it.

When we finished with that, we moved to a modern text by Willy Russell called “Our Day Out” – chosen because it is a short play about a load of dysfunctional kids going on a school outing. The irony did not pass over their heads: they thought it was hilarious. We began to love these kids: as hard as they found this subject, they had a sense of fun: they began to work for TF and produce essays of sorts. It was more than we had hoped for.

During one lesson, one of the pupils mentioned that she had never been on a school outing. Most of the others agreed. I was appalled. TF and I exchanged glances and before I knew what I was doing I had suggested that we take them to the theatre to see Willy Russell’s musical play, “Blood Brothers” – at that time showing in London.

Well, what can I say – we had opened the floodgates – the kids were thrilled with the prospect. A few of them had never even visited our capital city. They were nervous. To them, London represented a terrorist target.

Of course, we hit massive resistance as well as disbelief in the staff room.

“Take that lot out – you must be mad!”

“You’ll never get the risk assessment passed,”

“Of course you can’t take them by train – far too dangerous!”

“Imagine them in a theatre -they’ll disrupt the performance! You’ll get the school a bad name …”

 And so on…

TF dug her heels in. Management suggested she team up with the Drama department who were running the trip later in the year but she politely refused. She didn’t want our little band of oddballs mixed in with a lot of high achieving students who regarded a theatre trip an everyday occurrence. She wanted this to be an occasion for them.

I dug my heels in. I don’t like being told I can’t do something either, surprisingly. I filled in a lengthy risk assessment form, got it begrudgingly signed and then I set about ordering subsidised tickets, checking out the school minibus schedule and acquiring a driver. My heart sank when I saw the state of the minibus. Used virtually exclusively by the PE department, it was filthy and smelled of unwashed bodies and football boots. Not suitable for a theatre trip to London. I called in a favour from an old ex-colleague who had started running her own hire company. She provided us with a vehicle and driver at minimal cost. Our trip was on – hurrah!

The kids were uncharacteristically enthusiastic. They all paid their fees within a couple of days. We finished “Our Day Out” and started on the poetry, expecting some opposition. There was none. The class continued to work well.

A couple of days before our outing, Danny dropped a bombshell. We were rounding up a lesson when he stood up, said he hated English and wouldn’t be coming on the trip. He stormed out. We were mystified. Nothing appeared to have provoked this outburst.

Pack Leader took me aside and explained conspiratorially that Danny couldn’t come because he wouldn’t be able to smoke. I almost laughed, but not quite. Pack Leader went on to explain knowingly that Danny was addicted to nicotine and “got the shakes” if he didn’t have a cigarette. When I realised that PL wasn’t winding me up, I was horrified. Apparently Danny had been smoking regularly since about the age of ten – with his parents. I thanked PL for his honesty and told him to leave it with me.

I managed to get Danny on his own for a quiet word. I asked him to explain his reason for the outburst. With a little coercing, his reason bore out what PL had told me. I asked Danny if he ever managed to go to the cinema and sit through a film. He had, many times. I told him that a theatre performance was just about the same length as anything at the cinema. It wasn’t the theatre he was worried about, however. We had suggested to the kids that because we would have to leave school in the late afternoon and they’d probably be hungry, we’d go for a burger before the show. Danny told me that after food especially, he needed a ‘fag,’ otherwise he got the shakes and started sweating. I told him that no way was he missing this trip and I’d sort something.

I mulled it over and discussed it with TF. I hatched a plan of which she wanted no part as it might compromise her professional position but she agreed to turn a blind eye.

Can you guess what my plan was? And what would you have done given the circumstance?

Here’s what happened.

At last our much anticipated evening arrived. The students met us back at school having gone home to change into their ‘smart-casual’ clothes. The girls teetered on impossible heels, looked a few shades of deeper orange and carried huge handbags filled with goodness knows what. The boys wore nicely pressed shirts and jeans. Because it was coming up to Easter, TF put little bags of chocolate eggs on each minibus seat which were scoffed down as we drove the forty odd miles to London’s West End. Any affectation of being ‘cool’ dissipated within the confines of that bus. As we crossed the river their excitement grew as they spotted Big Ben and then Nelson’s Column.

Our driver dropped us at Leicester Square and arranged a rendez-vous point for later on. We trooped off to Burger King where the kids were at home ordering their meals. TF and I withdrew a little with a bag of fries and a coffee. I kept a surreptitious eye on Danny, who was having a whale of a time with the others but who was, I noticed, unusually fidgety. When they’d finished, he was definitely looking sickly; I wasn’t imagining it. I nudged TF who, in her teacherly fashion, grouped the kids together and suggested we move across the street to Frankie and Benny’s for ice cream. This was our pre-arranged cue. I stayed behind to make sure the rubbish had been cleared by our party, and Danny stayed to ‘help.’ Then he and I sauntered off in the opposite direction, into the Square, and he (self-consciously, I have to say) lit up. I stood by the gate while he wandered up and down dragging on his horrible cigarette.

Eventually I was joined by PL who had cottoned onto what was happening and didn’t want to miss out, so he had a quick couple of drags too. Understandably, we received a few disapproving stares. I turned a blind eye to that one and, as we walked back to meet the others, while I impressed on them that I thought smoking was a disgusting habit and that it would affect their health this occasion was not to be discussed or mentioned back at school. They promised me that the incident would go no further – and it never has.

Having met up with the others again we walked crocodile fashion along Charing Cross Road to the theatre, our students keeping to a tight, nervous formation. It was interesting to see a bunch of supposed streetwise kids so far out of their comfort zone.

Their amazement and appreciation of the old theatre was gratifying. They gazed about them in wonderment at the old Victorian building. They were awestruck. We had fantastic seats along the front row of the dress circle. TF had grilled into them the need for excellent behaviour as the other theatre-goers had paid top dollar for their seats. We told them there’d be time for sweets in the interval. They were as good as gold, and as the music began, they leaned forward in their seats and became absorbed.

As the play came to its final heart-wrenching scenes, the sound of muffled sobbing came from along our row. Feisty Girl left the theatre with black mascara tracks coursing through her powdered orange face. Our party was buzzing. Danny gave me the thumbs up as we waited for the bus – he looked calm and chatted to the others about the performance. When our driver saw how much the kids had enjoyed themselves he suggested taking them on a short tour of the sites before we left the capital. So they took in Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament to round off their evening. We arrived back at school after midnight and we dared any of them to bunk off the next day. None of them did. It was business as usual and back to poetry in the classroom.

On my desk I found a scribbled note which said simply ‘thanks for last night.’ It wasn’t signed, but I recognised the writing.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »