Tag Archives: restoration

Flash Bang Wallop, What A Let Down…

21 May

I was not the only one expecting big things from the re-launch of The Photographers’ Gallery which has been closed for two years for a mega £9.2 million restoration programme.  The obvious ‘big’ is that the building now features a two-storey extension that doubles the size of the old gallery.  Designed by Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, the original Victorian red-brick warehouse is linked to the modern steel extension by an external sleeve of black render, terrazzo and Angelim Pedra wood.  There is no doubt that the exterior is striking.  The design is all about the importance of linking exterior and interior with picture-perfect windows punctuating the building that provide amazing views onto surrounding Soho.

The ‘new’ Photographers’ Gallery. Own photograph.

The gallery space itself is stunning but this is yet another slick building with no heart.  The opening exhibition mounts a selection of works by renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky, showcasing over thirty images from his series OIL that looks at the mechanics of the manufacture, distribution and use of this highly controversial resource.

Edward Burtynsky, Highway #5, 2009. Own photograph.

Reading Adrian Searle’s review on Guardian online I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the obnoxious comments that had been posted in response to his description of the exhibition as ‘so-so’.  In this instance, I think Searle is spot-on.  Any photography fan will have seen these works before.  Any photography fan will appreciate the visual dynamism of these works.  Any photography fan will think this is an unadventurous choice of artist.  I thought the gallery would have taken more risks.  With low-level lighting (another gallery falling going down this gloomy path), the works aren’t shown to their full potential and I’m far more excited to see the display of his works at Flowers that opens later this week.

Edward Burtynsky photographs at The Photographers’ Gallery. Own photograph.

The gallery does have some interesting features.  The Eranda studio includes its own camera obscura (offering a 360 degree view of the surrounding area which visitors can see by using a rotating turret in the window) plus there’s an environmentally-controlled floor which will allow the more extensive exhibition of works from archives and museum collections.  There is also The Wall on the ground floor which is part of the new digital programme – this particular display will present guest-curated projects, artist commissions and collaborative photographic work.   Currently The Wall is showing The Animated GIF, featuring over forty GIF images by practitioners from a range of creative disciplines.  The GIF was first created in 1987 and this display seeks to celebrate its history and the aesthetic qualities of this medium, looking at the wide variety of approaches using this restricted palette of 265 colours.

The Wall on the ground floor. Own photograph.

There was still a lot of snagging to do when I went round although I’m sure this would have been righted before doors opened to the public.  The stairs are rather hidden and use of the lift is being encouraged but it is so slow; make sure you’ve got ample time, not to walk around the exhibition, but to actually get up to it!

When we found the stairs…. Own photograph.

This is one of those spaces that will, no doubt, change drastically for each exhibition and I will be back for the Deutsche Börse prize in July to see if different works can spice up this attractive warehouse.  I think it’s easy to get these spaces right but, seemingly, it’s even easier to get them wrong.

Burtynsky: Oil is at The Photographers’ Gallery until 1st July 2012, www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk.

Mad Mission to Manchester

29 Apr

Normally when I go out of London on an art trip I plan my day with military precision.  My companions are normally slightly scared by the colour-coded maps.  But the week had been exceptionally busy and, when I sat down on the train, I only had four galleries on my list and it was on track to be a relaxing visit.  As you may have realised though, relaxing doesn’t come easily to me and, with a two-hour train journey and  good internet connection on my side, I started having a look at what else I could be visiting.  And wow did I get a shock.  Manchester appeared to be a veritable treasure trove of museums, galleries, historic buildings and, of course, it has a cathedral.  The tourist board website lists 67 galleries – I had my work cut out.

So I picked a host of things for my to-do and see list – slightly ambitious even for me considering I didn’t know my way around Manchester.

I bounded off the train like an over-excited puppy and headed straight to the Whitworth Gallery as this was always number one on my list.

The Whitworth Art Gallery. Own photograph.

The Whitworth Art Gallery is set within Whitworth Park and is part of the University of Manchester.  Currently three exhibitions are on show – COTTON: Global Threads tells the story of the production, consumption and global trade of cotton, with exhibits showing worldwide diversity that afford particularly attention to the fashion and textiles from India.  This isn’t really my area of interest so, although I had a quick look, I didn’t spend too long studying the displays in depth but it is a very well-planned exhibition with brilliant movement-activated display cases that are triggered on approach.  The exhibition includes Yinka Shonibare’s Boy with a Globe 4 using the Dutch wax-printed cotton that has become a trademark of his work.

Yinka Shonibare, Boy with a Globe 4. Own photograph.

Upstairs is an interesting piece by Ahmed Mater, Magnetism IV, which evokes the feeling of the first day of pilgrimage to Mecca, when pilgrims walk around the Ka’ba seven times counter-clockwise, by using tens of thousands of iron filings placed between the fields of two magnets.  A couple of galleries were closed for re-hang but there is also a small Victor Pasmore exhibition upstairs showing a series of his later screenprints exploring geometrical forms, lines and colour that suggest elegant organic movement.

Ahmed Mater, Magnetism IV. Own photograph.

The main reason for my visit to the Whitworth was to see Idris Khan’s The Devil’s Wall, an installation that draws on the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).  As always, Khan blurs the boundaries between the secular and the spiritual.  The main elements of the exhibition are three, black, cylindrical sculptures that slope down into infinite funnels.  Khan has printed text from the Quran (in English and Arabic) on the works, radiating outwards, sometimes disappearing into the black holes.  The sculptures reference the stoning of the Jamarat where pilgrims chant and throw seven stones at three walls in three different locations to crush the devil.

Idris Khan, The Devil’s Wall. Image via www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk

The works are very contemplative; displayed in a darkened room they evoke the voyage of self-discovery that Khan took in making these works.  His parallel concepts of repetition are also seen in a series of drawings, 21 Stones, that were printed using a rubber stamp.  Again making use of a circular motion they repetitively show statements from the Quran in a chant-like format.  Also on show is Voices where Khan experiments with the repetitive nature of Philip Glass’s music in a series of spell-binding, tranquil works where the notes appear to move around the stave.

Idris Khan, Voices. Image via www.wallpaper.com

Although highly complex, Khan’s works do no alienate or intimidate.  Instead, they invite people to reflect on the messages and traditions on which they focus.  I don’t normally comment on the exhibition guides but this one deserves mention; it is really brilliant, clearly explaining the works without over-simplifying or over-complicating.

Idris Khan, The Devil’s Wall.  Image via http://margaret-cooter.blogspot.com

Onwards, I hailed a cab to go to see the Victoria Baths, a building that has been the focus of much heritage attention over the last few years.  Opened in 1906, the Baths were then described as “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country” and became famous, not only for its design but for the Olympic swimmers who trained there.  In 1993 the council could no longer justify the expense of keeping the baths open and a committee was formed to try to save the building.  Over the years it’s been consistently in the public eye, winning the first series of the BBC’s Restoration in 2003 as well as having been awarded a considerable amount from the Heritage Lottery Fund which then became embroiled in complications.

The multi-coloured brick façade is stunning and many of the original features remain.  Sadly, I wasn’t around on a day when the interior was open for tours although I have seen many pictures and the potential for great arts installations in the past but it is a stunning building and I was glad to take a peek at this architectural gem.

Victoria Baths. Own photograph.

I carried on in my cab to see the UMIST building – an imposing red-brick building on Sackville Street.  I was already gaining the impression that Manchester is architecturally a very rich city.

UMIST building. Own photograph.

My next stop was Cornerhouse, Manchester’s centre for contemporary visual art and film.  Their current exhibition, Subversion, brings together 11 artists to rethink ‘modern’ and ‘Arab’ identity.  The exhibition looks at the stereotypical preoccupations that we have come to know as, or associate with, the Arab world.  I particularly liked Larissa Sansour’s striking photographs.  There are lots of video-based works and the top floor gallery is an immersive space for visitors to tamper with, that includes video games, a retro cinema and jigsaw puzzles.  The venue has a project-space, experimental vibe to it.  Cornerhouse feels like a cultural hub and I decided to stop for a late lunch and soak up the buzzy atmosphere.

Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate – Jerusalem Floor. Own photograph.

From there I was able to walk up the road to Central Library but unfortunately, in my rushed research, I had amazingly omitted to notice that it’s shut for a huge restoration project.  From the tiny sections that weren’t covered in scaffolding I could see how beautiful the neoclassical circular space must be but, alas, there wasn’t much I could do so I hopped over the tram lines down Mosley Street to the Manchester Art Gallery.

Manchester’s Central Library. Own photograph.

Downstairs is A Sleek Dry Yell, 2008 by Haroon Mirza which uses everyday sound and objects to reassemble redundant analogue technology.  Sound becomes sculpture although it echoes annoyingly around the entire building.  Again, some of the permanent galleries were shut for re-hang but they have a great 18th century collection with all the usual suspects – Highmore, a very dirty Hogarth, Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds…   It’s a pleasant enough gallery but not too thrilling. It is, however, a comprehensive collection and a much larger space that I expected partly due to a surprising modern extension at the back where Gormley’s Filter hangs from the ceiling; a figure (of course) made of welded steel rings showing the body as a container.  The work hangs in space, open to light and the elements.  The steel rings mean that the figure’s skin becomes porous so there is a fluid transition from internal to external expressing freedom of movement and experience.

Antony Gormley, Filter. Own photograph.

What the Manchester Art Gallery does well is present a small and manageable introduction to the various periods of art history with works by a number of key artists.  I was constantly surprised by the calibre of some of the works but, equally, I was often disappointed by how they had paired them.  The top floor presents a gallery of craft and design which was a bit too cluttered for my liking as well as an interesting exhibition of Roger Ballen’s photographs.  I’m not sure why these things keep happening to me but I managed to approach this from the wrong side and was consequently surprised to find that this is his first UK exhibition and is, in fact, a huge retrospective.  Ballen lived and worked in South Africa for over 30 years, exploring small rural towns with a different world and culture.  His works have a stark black and white format which blurs the line between fantasy and reality in what he used to term ‘documentary fiction’.

Roger Ballen, Puppy between feet. Own photograph.

Rushing to avoid the impending rain, I headed to the John Rylands Library, a memorial building erected by Rylands’ third wife to house his 70,000 books and manuscripts.  The building is thought to be one of the best examples of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe.  Built as a chapel with stained glass windows rising from either end, the magnificent vaulted ceiling of the historic reading room demands awe and respect.  Although the outside of the building is filthy, the interior is beautifully preserved and this was easily the artistic highlight of my day.

The historic reading room at the John Rylands library. Own photograph.

I wandered past the mega shopping area by The Royal Exchange and went to Manchester Cathedral. Building commenced in 1421 but it has undergone some fairly hefty restoration in its time. Although it’s a great building it couldn’t really compare with the library I’d just come from.  I was lucky that there was organ practice while I was there so, once I’d looked around, I was able to sit and soak up the architecture while appreciating the acoustic splendour.

Manchester Cathedral. Own photograph.

Needless to say, by cocktail time I was becoming quite exhausted and my legs were suffering so The Alchemist was a perfect refuge.  Thanks to google maps and my wonderful sense of geography I had managed to see everything without getting lost.   I had only one thing on my list for the following day; I have no doubt that there is more to do and there are some gorgeous buildings on the outskirts of the city but I’ll have to save these for my next visit.  For my Manchester night out I headed over to the Lowry for Opera della Luna’s modern reworking of Don Giovanni, a comic portrayal of opera’s infamous lothario.  The perfect end to my day!

The Lowry. Own photograph.

After exploring the canals of Salford on Saturday morning I popped back to the Lowry to see their exhibition space – after all you can’t come to Manchester and not have a true Lowry indulgence.  I have always loved Lowry so obviously I have a strong bias here but his works have such character, charm and life that it’s impossible not to love them.  This is a really good collection and doesn’t just show the typical paintings for which he is popular.  Also on display are a range of his beautiful seascapes inspired by the North Sea showing infinite open spaces, loaded with meaning and emotion.  As Lowry grew older he became more and more fascinated with bizarre characters although some of his collectors found this surreal twist to his work too radical a departure.

L.S. Lowry, Going to the Match. Image via www.thelowry.com

There is also an Annie Lennox exhibition offering insights into her life and career as a singer, songwriter, campaigner and activist. I’m not quite sure it fits here as there is no distinction between the spaces except for wall colour but Lowry Favourites and this are independently two very good shows.

It was sadly time to leave Manchester and head back to the torrential rain in the South.  Most of the buildings and galleries deserve far more attention than I’ve afforded them here but, due to the amount I somehow managed to cram in, I’ve tried to keep each section brief.  I had a really relaxing and exciting trip and was fascinated to see some of Manchester that people don’t normally talk about or bother to notice.

COTTON: Global Threads, Idris Khan: The Devil’s Wall and Victor Pasmore; Transformations are all at the Whitworth Art Gallery until 13th May 2012, www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk.   Subversion is at Cornerhouse until 5th June 2012, www.cornerhouse.orgRoger Ballen: Shadowland, Photographs 1983-2011 is at Manchester Art Gallery until 13th May, www.manchestergalleries.orgLowry Favourites is at The Lowry until 6th July 2012 and The House of Annie Lennox is at The Lowry until 17th June 2012, www.thelowry.com.  For more details about any of the other places visited see: www.victoriabaths.org.uk, www.manchester.gov.uk/directory_record/3962/central_library, www.library.manchester.ac.uk/deansgate, www.royalexchange.co.uk/page.aspx, www.manchestercathedral.org, www.operadellaluna.org and www.visitsalford.info.

Kenwood’s Closing…

13 Mar

I don’t often make it over to the Estorick Collection – a gallery which I still think is one of the most unknown and undervalued in London.  This afternoon I decided to take a break from the computer and drive to Canonbury.  I know the Estorick is shut on a Monday (having nearly been caught out in the past) but, be warned everyone, it is also shut on a Tuesday.  I arrived to find the gates locked.  I was not a happy bunny to say the least.

So the challenge arose to find somewhere to visit on the way home in order not to have a wasted journey.  My choices were Highgate Cemetery (but I didn’t really fancy walking around in the cold), Keat’s House, Freud’s House (also closed on a Tuesday (!)) or Kenwood House (one of my all time favourites).   Kenwood won!

If you haven’t been then this really is a must-visit property.  Known for its amazing summer concerts, which have not been without controversy over the past few years, and for having appeared in many films including Notting Hill, Kenwood, owned by English Heritage, is set in the parkland of Hampstead Heath.

Kenwood House. Image via www.english-heritage.org.uk

The house dates from the 1600s but, on acquisition by Lord Mansfield in 1754, was remodelled into what we see today by Robert Adam, who worked on the stucco frontages, the North Front portico, the library wing and the third storey.  It is acknowledged to be one of England’s greatest stately homes and an obvious identifier of Adam’s style; this was a terribly important commission for Adam due its position and would have propelled him into the awareness of the London aristocracy.  There have always been problems with his famous stucco exterior and Lord Mansfield apparently commented that it would have been cheaper to cover the whole front with marble.  Some of the details that are there today are replicated in fibre glass from Adam’s engraving.

Kenwood House. Own photograph.

Of course, the building has undergone many more changes since Adam’s involvement, including, in 1793, the addition of two wings by George Saunders that flank the entrance portico, but it still preserves the grandeur and elegance that Adam intended.

Kenwood House. Own photograph.

The library, then called the Great Room, is the epitome of Adam’s work, his tour de force and the house’s crowning glory.  It would have appeared even more splendid in the 18th century as the climax of Adam’s suite of rooms.  Remarkably, it remained nearly unaltered until 1922 when some of the furniture was sold at auction.  It’s yet another place where I did some work experience during which I helped to conserve and clean not only some of the paintings but the library.  Cleaning has never been top of my list of favourite things but there was a bit more to it than dusting and vacuuming.

The Great Room at Kenwood.  Image via http://londonbytes.wordpress.com

Kenwood also contains the Iveagh Bequest, the art collection of Edward Cecil Guinness, great grandson of the founder of the Dublin brewery.  He retired early to devote himself to the collection of art and acquired works by Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds, Turner, Hogarth as well as a self-portrait by Rembrandt and Vermeer’s Guitar Player, exemplifying his late style.  Although the house couldn’t be more English in character it provides a setting for global art, an exemplar collection of the very best of European paintings.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, 1665. Image via www.rembrandtpainting.net

Specialising in the 18th century, it’s hard for me to pick favourites but one of my personal highlights is Hogarth’s Taste in High Life which shows the folly and superficiality of aristocratic taste.  A forerunner to Marriage à la Mode, the humour is typically Hogarthian showing two heavily caricatured connoisseurs in raptures over a mundane cup and saucer.  Another aristocrat examines a black pageboy, a satire on his masters and the embodiment of the Orient and sexual excess.  There is also a gorgeous small Constable of Hampstead Heath with Pond and Bathers from 1821, a view that Constable often painted to aid him with his focus on the sky.

Print of William Hogarth, Taste in High Life, 1746. Image via www.vam.ac.uk

Outside, the landscaped gardens lead down to the beautiful lake and acres upon acres of muddy marshland.  I always end up coming to Kenwood without my dogs despite this being a dog walkers’ paradise, probably because I appreciate the house too much and can spend time with my two slobbery Clumbers any day.

The fake bridge at Kenwood. Own photograph.

You’ll have to hurry to Kenwood as it is scheduled to close at the start of April for a £5.3 million restoration project that will include vital roof repairs, the replacement of the skylights, repointing and sweeping of more than 100 chimneys and the stripping down and repair of the façade.

Fear not!  When I first heard this news I thought what a travesty it was to shut away such a wonderful collection even if repairs are essential but English Heritage has had great foresight and their incredible art collection will tour to three American galleries while the Vermeer will be loaned to the National Gallery.

The grounds, however, will still be open so there’s the opportunity to picnic and sunbathe, admire the contemporary sculpture and watch the restoration taking place but if you don’t manage to visit the house this month you’ll have to wait until late summer of next year.

Kenwood’s Orangerie.  Image via www.omgimgettingmarried.com

Kenwood is a beautiful place to visit and, amazingly English Heritage still open it to the public without charge.  I wonder if this will change post-restoration.  In the meantime, it is truly splendid and somewhere I don’t pop to often enough despite its close proximity to my home.  I’m glad I was able to see it again before it closes and was able to turn my earlier misfortune to my advantage.  Plus, rather surprisingly, I was even in appropriate footwear for a romp through the grounds.

Kenwood House is run by English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenwood-house/.  It will be open until 31st March 2012.

My Love Affair with Sir John Soane

29 Jul

After my dramas with the sat-nav earlier this week, I thought I’d better stick to my home patch.  Seeing Soane’s glorious architecture in Dulwich, it felt fitting to visit another of his buildings.

When I was 16, on first walking into 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I fell in love.  And, notwithstanding many visits since, I still feel the same way.  Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of London’s gems.

Sir John Soane’s Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/bearpitring.

Sir John Soane, son of a bricklayer, began his architectural career aged only 15 and quickly began to make a name for himself.  Enrolling at the Royal Academy in 1771, and winning a gold medal for his drawing in 1776, it was evident that this boy was destined for extraordinary things.  After a foray around Europe, Soane returned to London and set up his own architecture practice in 1781.  He undertook many prestigious appointments during his career, as well as being named Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, and was appointed architect to the Bank of England in which post he remained until his retirement at the age of 80.

Detail in the Museum.  Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

Over a period of years, Soane purchased Numbers 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  He demolished and rebuilt the three houses in succession as his home and a setting for his antiquities and art works.  An Act of Parliament, negotiated by Soane himself, appointed a board of Trustees to uphold Soane’s aims and objectives, maintaining the house as a museum as closely as possible to the way Soane had left it.  Recently, the Museum has been working to open more and more areas for public access. Opening up the Soane is a very ambitious restoration project, restoring eight lost Soane interiors including the reinstatement of Soane’s model room (that had previously been used as the museum director’s office).

Building work at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Own photograph. 

The house is filled with Soane’s collections which are so remarkable and diverse that there is something here for everyone – Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, bronzes, gems, medals, jewellery, furniture, clocks, silvers, ceramics, tiles, curiosities, mummified cats, models, paintings, watercolours, drawings (in particular, the most amazing collection of Robert Adam drawings)…  The list is endless.  It is impossible on paper to do the collection justice.  The Soane is a veritable treasure trove of art history and you are guaranteed to notice
something new on each visit.  Even now, when I know every nook and cranny (and my stilettos know every crooked floorboard and creaking stair), the house still amazes and delights me. The building epitomises Soane’s ‘poetry of architecture’ with coloured light, cast by concealed skylights, filling the property.

Skylights in the Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

The specially designed picture gallery houses Hogarth’s An Election and A Rake’s Progress giving me an opportunity to indulge my love of Hogarth on every visit.  Ingeniously designed moving walls conceal hidden paintings. Nearby, in one of the most densely hung sections of the house, Seti I’s sarcophagus sits in the centre of the Crypt under the Dome.

William Hogarth, The Orgy from A Rake’s Progress, 1733. Image via www.soane.org

Soane’s use of mirrors is one of the special features of the house providing wonderful reflections and enlarging and energising the space. As well as a wonderful collection, the Soane boasts some of the friendliest, most knowledgeable warders in London. They know everything about Soane and inspire you to know more.

Mirrors in the Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

The old exhibition room at the Soane is unrecognisable now due to building work although, when finished, Soane will boast a new and enlarged gallery space.  The gallery is currently in temporary lodgings on the ground floor (the room where I used to go to process PDQ payments during my time at the Soane).  On show at the moment, Wonders of the Ancient World is a unique collection of twenty plaster reproductions of great buildings and monuments of the past including Rome’s Pantheon and Athen’s Parthenon. The intricacy and accuracy of the models is sensational. They were made by Francois Fouquet who, from 1790-1830, meticulously produced these for architects and collectors in Paris.

The majority of the models remain in pristine condition and this is the first time they have been shown in this way.  (You may spot a couple of damaged works in the exhibition such as the Arch of Hadrian, Athens.  It’s thought these models were damaged in 1940 when a landmine was dropped on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, shattering cases and models.)  Fouquet learned model-making from his father but his works are distinguished by their smaller dimensions and finer details – detail which is incredible.  Father and son left no clues as to how these models were made and their technique is still a mystery.  They must have worked the plaster when wet and then hand-finished their models when dry.  It is probable they also used some stock elements conceived through moulds.

Francois Fouquet model of the Temple of Fortuna Virilis, Rome. Image via www.soane.org.

Soane purchased these 20 models in 1833 and paid the large sum of £100 for the works. In today’s currency that is £10,136.78!  I’d say Soane got good value for his money.

The Soane Fouquet models are a very rare survival and when restoration finishes in 2014, these will be back on permanent display.

The amazing domed area. Image via www.archimage.co.uk.

Although this is a lovely exhibition, I’d implore you to visit the Soane anytime, regardless of what they have on show.  There is no entrance charge so even if you only have ten minutes to spare, pop in to explore a new part of the house and get lost in Soane’s world.

Image via www.flickr.com

Wonders of the Ancient World: Francois Fouquet’s Model Masterpieces is at Sir John Soane’s Museum until 24th September 2011, www.soane.org.

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