Posts Tagged ‘National Art Pass’

I had a free day the other week – nothing planned, the weather was good and I felt like an outing, so I trawled through my Art Pass Guide to find somewhere to go that wasn’t too far away. It didn’t take long for the name Stanley Spencer to jump out. I didn’t know much about him other than he was an artist (slightly eccentric) who’d  had something to do with First World War paintings and who, according to family folklore, had taken tea with Dad’s artist cousin Walter Steggles on numerous occasions. It was time to check him out.

There is now a gallery dedicated to the man in his home town of Cookham in Berkshire so I consulted the map, checked the easiest route – there seemed to be several – and committed it to memory. I don’t have, nor do I want, a Sat Nav. While I know they can be an invaluable piece of kit, they are only as good as the programmer. They can default to the wrong place as we have discovered to our fury while touring in France and then Talking Woman gets increasingly agitated if you manoeuvre an unscheduled U-turn. So armed with a bottle of water, the map and my Art Pass, I set off.

Fortunately my sense of direction is reasonably accurate because when I arrived at Maidenhead, the nearest large town to Cookham, the lack of road signage is unbelievable. In my mind’s eye I had pictured Maidenhead as a leafy, broad-avenued sort of a place, stuffed full of expensive designer shops and delicatessens with willows bending towards the Thames. Possibly people in punts. In reality it is more like how I had imagined Basingstoke to be.

After an endless succession of round-a-bouts with choices to either go west for Reading or east for Slough (quelle horreur!) I ended up in a one-way system enjoying the sights of the multiplex cinema and a concrete shopping centre before thankfully peeling off through a residential area (still no signage) and ending up on the Cookham Road.

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Cookham, by contrast, is a delight. Not quite a town but too large for a village, Cookham sits sleepily beside the river Thames.

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There’s a church, a quaint little garage and the house in the high street where Spencer was born in 1891.

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Just along from this is the tiny converted Methodist Chapel which now holds a permanent exhibition of Spencer’s paintings. It is packed full of them but manages to maintain an effective layout with plenty of information. Upstairs on the mezzanine you can watch a video of his life and works which I thought I’d dip into but I ended up watching it all, it was so interesting.

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Spencer was quite a character around Cookham. He’d often paint en plein air, lugging his artist’s materials around in his daughter’s old pram. Many of his paintings depict ordinary life around the town and he included actual residents – not always with permission!

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Domestic Scenes: At the Chest of Drawers, 1936

The exhibition I saw concentrated on his paintings of the natural world – I liked these – they are striking yet have a naïve quality. His colours are vibrant.

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View from Cookham Bridge, 1936

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Rock Roses, Old Lodge, Taplow, 1957

He was obsessed with gardens and what went on behind walls and hedges as well as using religious motifs and themes throughout his work. He married an artist, Hilda Carline, and they had two daughters. I was interested to see that one of his girls, Unity, has written an autobiography, providing an insight to living with this man but also who had had a very turbulent and artistic life of her own. Before I knew it, I’d spent two thoroughly enjoyable hours in this tiny space, studying the paintings and dipping into the freely available archive material. It was fascinating. I also discovered that the gallery opened in 1962 and was refurbished in 2007 through donations and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant which makes me feel that my purchasing of a weekly lottery ticket isn’t entirely wasted. The gallery is now a charitable trust, staffed by very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers – I’d definitely recommend a visit and will more than likely return as long as I remember to avoid Maidenhead.

While at the gallery I learned that Spencer had been commissioned to create a series of murals at the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burgclere, Hampshire and I was keen to visit.  Spencer had enlisted in the Medical Corps during the First World War and these murals depict personal experiences of everyday life both in hospital and on the front line. The work, inspired by Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, took him almost six years to complete.

Now, you may remember that my last post covering the Silk Mill outing took the SSF and me into deepest Hampshire, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to call in to Sandham on the way home. Which is what we did: the SSF is very accommodating. So after the Mill, we hunted down this tiny chapel, which wasn’t easy due once again to poor signage. Anyway, we eventually found the place opposite a reasonable looking pub where we stopped for a sandwich before we wandered into the chapel grounds.

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Sandham is run by the National Trust. Their properties have a formulaic uniformity to them. The volunteers are of a type. The gift shops have a certain layout and although there are often local items available (pots of jam or honey, usually), once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They all sell tartan picnic blankets and small useless wicker hampers emblazoned with the Trust logo. They sell erasers in the shape of green welly boots. You get the picture. Unless you are a Trust Member (I am not), entry fees are expensive. Some are extortionate. Sandham falls into the latter. Occasionally my wonderful Art Pass will cover a Trust property. I always proffer my card to the volunteer cashier (sometimes I’m lucky) but usually it is regarded with snooty disdain and I’m offered the obvious alternative with a smugness that is definitely a Trust requirement – signing up there and then to become a Member. No thanks, I always say, wanting to add that I have no desire to add to their coffers which in turn allows them to turn our beautiful old heritage homes into themed opportunities with borrowed furniture of the time, contract carpeting and a re-enactor in every room. No thanks, if it’s all the same. I’m stared at as if I’ve just insulted their religion, which in a way, I suppose I have. Grudgingly I shelled out my £10 entry fee while being thankful that SSF got in for nothing because she is a member (and I don’t hold this against her. Each to their own).

A small room sporting story boards gives the visitor some brief information about the commissioner and Spencer’s work before you can then watch a short video doing much the same. Then you can get into the chapel itself which, I have to say, does provide more than a gasp factor. The place is naturally lit, the light being constantly regulated by a volunteer opening and closing blinds all day. The art work is truly amazing – the detail and extent of the work is breath-taking. These are all war paintings but not of suffering particularly, but of hope. Spencer apparently felt that toil would move him closer to God, something he strived to do all his life.

Our visit to Sandham probably lasted for a maximum of forty minutes and while I’m delighted to have seen these murals, £10 is still far too expensive. To cap it all, I was warned by Light Regulating Woman not to take photographs, so if you’d like to get an idea of Spencer’s vision, click here for a link to an article in Apollo Magazine.

Ah well, the Cookham Gallery was completely free to me, an Art Fund Member. Guess you can’t win ‘em all!

Incidentally, the photos in this post of Spencer’s paintings have been scanned in from the very excellent guide book I purchased from the gallery in Cookham for the very reasonable sum of £5.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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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With the sharp freshness of autumn now in the air, the long summer break is all but a hazy memory but I can’t let it fade away completely without sharing the delights of my last holiday outing courtesy of my wonderful National Art Pass.

Driving a round trip of nearly a hundred miles to somewhere in south-east London, most of which is on the M25, surprisingly doesn’t hold much appeal, but I had heard such great things about this place that I set off early one morning and arrived as the gates opened.

Eltham Palace

Approaching Eltham Palace

Eltham Palace, now under the stewardship of English Heritage, is tucked away in a delightful backwater between the triangle that is Bromley, Sidcup and Lewisham. Anyone familiar with this particular part of London will know how incongruous the adjective ‘delightful’ is when used to describe the area but Eltham Palace is more than delightful – it’s a marvel.

This bridge across the moat is 14th century

This bridge across the moat is 14th century

With distant views across to the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, Eltham is one of the few medieval royal palaces to survive with considerable remains intact.  Originally it was a moated manor house acquired in 1305 for the future Edward ll. In the 1470’s a great hall was added which still stands today. The Palace went into decline after other royal Palaces rose to prominence – noteably Hampton Court and Greenwich – and for two hundred years after the civil wars it was used as a farm.

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Portrait of the Courtaulds by Campbell Taylor
© English Heritage Photo Library

Now let’s fast forward to the 1930’s when fabulously wealthy couple, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (part of the Courtauld Textiles family), were looking for somewhere within easy reach of central London where they could entertain their friends. The couple, although very different in personality – Virginia, a divorcee, was flamboyant, bordering on the eccentric (she had a pet ring-tailed lemur called Mah Jong) and Stephen, a quieter, more reserved man who had served in the First World War and suffered periods of depression as a consequence – were very much a part of the London social scene. They commissioned architects Seely and Paget to build a house for them on the site of the old palace; leading designers and craftsmen were employed to create lavish interiors in the art deco style incorporating the latest modern technology.

The stunning entrance hall showing marquetry panelling and faithful reproductions of the carpet and furniture  © English Heritage

The stunning entrance hall showing marquetry panelling and faithful reproductions of the carpet and furniture
© English Heritage

The dining room. The central part of the ceiling is covered in aluminium leaf. ©English Heritage

The dining room.
The central part of the ceiling is covered in aluminium leaf.
©English Heritage

There were synchronous clocks in most rooms as well as a loudspeaker system so that music could be broadcast everywhere. A centralised vacuum cleaning system in the basement was linked to sockets all over the house and Seimens installed a private internal telephone exchange. To say that Eltham Palace was, in the 1930’s, at the forefront of cutting edge technology would be an understatement.

The Courtaulds lived at Eltham Palace until 1944, briefly moving to Scotland before emigrating  to Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) in 1951 where they stayed until Stephen’s death in 1967.   The British Army education unit moved in to Eltham in 1945 and stayed until 1992. English Heritage took the Palace on in 1995 and completed a major programme of repairs and restoration by 1999 of both the house and gardens. The result is an amazing display of authentic art deco decoration and a glimpse into the world of an extraordinary couple.

West facing  herbaceous border

South moat wall
herbaceous border

This little tunnel leads out to the south garden - I felt like Alice in Wonderland

This little tunnel leads out to the south garden – I felt like Alice in Wonderland

I visited on a Wednesday, which is when there are guided tours of the house. I would thoroughly recommend this as a way to make the most of a visit – the young man who took us round was so knowledgeable and passionate about his subject that I’m pleased to say he made our tour over-run by almost an hour. There are two cafes on site – one providing home-made hot and cold dishes and the other for takeaway sandwiches where you can sit on the lawn and admire the gardens.

Moat and part of the Japanese garden

Moat and part of the Japanese garden

The moat teems with friendly carp

The moat teems with friendly carp

English Heritage have done a fabulous job in restoring the place to its former glory – for anyone with a penchant for art deco, Eltham Palace is well worth the trip.

All interior photographs – English Heritage; exterior photographs – mine.

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