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A Mad Mini Adventure – East Sussex and Kent

16 Sep

One of my closest friends texted me during my latest trip saying ‘the idea was that on this holiday you rested… Maybe next time you should go to the middle of a desolate field with no cultural sites or activities within a 20 mile radius. I would suggest a spa weekend but somehow I still don’t think you would stop working or finding things to do…’.

It’s not that I can’t relax (I enjoy beach holidays and sunbathing very very much) but I do get the urge to see everything nearby and can’t sit still properly until I feel I’ve ‘done’ an area, particularly in the UK.  And, so it was, that half way down to Sussex for a relaxing break by the sea, that I opened my National Trust handbook, looked at the English Heritage website and made one of those lists that didn’t really allow much time for R&R.

Camber Sands. Own photograph.

So, on a sunny Sunday morning with my Mini hurtling southwards, my mini break began.

The very first stop on this trip was Sissinghurst Castle – somewhat of a misnomer as the house is still a lived-in property and it is the wonderful gardens that people come to visit.  Sissinghurst has a varied history – beginning life as a Saxon pig farm, before becoming a family house.  In the late 16th century, it was transformed into a magnificent courtyard house, a far more upmarket property with a newly constructed tower.  It then became a prison (destroying most of what we know call Sissinghurst Castle), a poor house and, in the 1800s, it returned to being a family home and became what we see today.  Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, moved to Sissinghurst in 1932 and brought the gardens to life, creating ‘rooms’ with planting schemes offering different colours and scents, in particular her famous ‘White Garden’.  The library and tower are all that remain open of the house and, if you’re feeling intrepid, then the 78 steep, spiral stairs are worth the climb, especially as Vita’s study can be viewed half-way up.

Sissinghurst Castle. Own photograph.

As with any garden-based property part of the enjoyment depends upon the time of year you visit.  This wasn’t the best time to appreciate the colours and floral dynamism of Vita’s garden but its craft and design was still evident.

Sissinghurst Castle and the White Garden. Own photograph.

I had studied the map carefully in the car and we headed towards Smallhythe Place.  I love the story of how Ellen Terry (‘Queen of the Theatre’) found Smallhythe Place; apparently, in the late 1890s, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were driving around Sussex and Kent when they reached a small bridge.  On their right was an old farmhouse with dark timbers and a sloping roof.  The house was full of character and charm and Terry announced that it was here she would like to live and die.  They went inside and found an old shepherd who said he didn’t live there and wasn’t able to offer them much information.  But, not one to be deterred, Terry asked him if he would let her know if it was ever for sale.  Her charisma obviously left its mark and, in 1899, Terry received an unsigned postcard saying ‘House for Sale’ postmarked Tenterden.  That year, she bought Smallhythe Place.  The story still makes me smile – it is very easy to see why she fell in love with the 16th century house.  Smallhythe is a continuous-jetty house, meaning that the upper-storey overhangs the lower.  The original features remain with uneven floors and sloping ceilings.  When Ellen Terry died, her daughter Edy decided to make the house a shrine to her mother’s memory and created a museum where her theatrical treasures and relics could be on permanent display.

Smallhythe Place. Own photograph.

Edy did not have an easy ride in garnering interest for her project but, thanks to her perseverance, the house remains.  In 1938, a representative from the National Trust wrote ‘In Ellen Terry’s little house one feels she might walk past one at any minute, and in her bedroom that she might appear sitting before her dressing-table brushing her hair.’  I could not express it better.  The house captures Ellen Terry, her passion for it and her incredible life on the stage.  Despite its relatively small size, this was one of my favourite properties.  The costume room holds her famous beetle-wing dress, sewn all over with real green beetle wings, that she wore as Lady Macbeth in 1889 and in which she was painted by John Singer Sargent.  Also, the garden now contains the Barn Theatre, which Edy transformed after Terry’s death, that is still in use today.

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,1889.  Image via www.tate.org.uk

We wanted to make the most of the sun and head to the coast but couldn’t resist stopping in at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day – an annual event that pulls in the crowds!

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day

After struggling with the dodgy Camber Sands’ internet connection over breakfast the next day, it was time for me to try something new.   Apparently the best way to see the coastline is by plane.  Now I don’t like to do things by halves so it seemed to make sense to fly a little plane up for a look!  With Ivan from the Lydd Aero Club at my side, I set off in a Cessna 172.  I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t rather terrifying at first but, as I got used to it, I loved being in the air and in control of the plane – it was exhilarating and wonderful.

Flying. Own photograph.

Lydd is very close to Dungeness and the garden of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage which, although not open to the public, is lovely to drive past and have a look at.  Dungeness itself is a tad bleak but there are some great fish and chips to be had by the sea.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Own photograph.

Onwards, and Monday’s main aim was the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, a stunning example of Modernist architecture on the south coast.  It was commissioned as an ambitious cultural centre by the 9th Earl De La Warr and broke new ground in terms of architectural practice.  Welded steel frames had not previously been used in Britain and the interior played with colour in unusual ways and made use of innovative soft furnishings.  The building’s influence was immediately felt across the UK with Peter Jones in Chelsea opening in 1936, only one year later, designed with many of the same architectural techniques.  The architects of the De La Warr Pavilion sought to integrate their design with the site, practically and aesthetically; the horizontal shape and lines responding to the sea horizon.

The view from the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

The De La Warr Pavilion has, no doubt, suffered over the years particularly from severe bomb damage in World War II.  The 1980s saw a new beginning for the pavilion and, in the years since then, there has been major restoration and redevelopment that has transformed the building into what we see today.  Eighty years after its opening the pavilion is once more being recognised for its architectural beauty and ingenuity.  Much of the building isn’t really open to the public so it is hard to see the scope of available space and what has been done here.  The exhibitions I saw at the De La Warr are not showing it at its best; Everything Flows sees four artists consider the idea of being ‘in the zone’, looking at the state athletes must reach to achieve the heightened sense of performance that prepares them for battle.  These artists have each produced a new moving image artwork that, when seen together, presents a cacophony of noise celebrating sporting achievement.  For me, these were sports films, not far enough removed from watching Sky Sports at the weekend.  Upstairs is Sean Dower’s The Voyeur which has a far more invigorating concept but is still not curated in the most visually exciting presentation.  Each work in the exhibition emits, transmits or reflects sound, visualising the activity of communicating between remote places.

De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

On the roof is Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea which recalls the final scene of The Italian Job where the coach, containing  gold bullion and a gang of robbers, hovers precariously on a cliff.  Here, Wilson’s bus hovers on the edge of the pavilion with clever mechanics that means it moves to enhance the feeling of its teetering.  Wilson feels the work is a metaphor about the absolute limits of everything; the building is part of the work, playing with the idea of ‘what if’.  The spectacle is at its best when viewed from the roof.  On the floor, it loses something but it is still a splendid piece that plays with the architecture of the pavilion in a fun and vibrant way.

Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea at the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.

I adored the architectural genius of De La Warr Pavilion but felt there is some lost potential here and more that could happen.  I wanted the excitement of the design to be felt in the exhibitions mounted inside.  I wanted the opportunity to explore more of the building.  I wanted its genius to have the space to shine a little more than it is currently doing.

Moving back inland, it was time for another National Trust property.  Bateman’s was Rudyard Kipling’s home from 1902-1936 and provided him with the calm and tranquillity that let his imagination run wild and enabled him to write – ‘a real House in which to settle down for keeps’.  The volunteers in every room of his house, enthusiastically quoted Kipling at me, encouraging visitors to head to the shop to stock up on his literature!  Built c. 1634 (the date can be found over the porch), the house is preserved as it would have been during Kipling’s day.  There is no doubt it is a beautiful property but I was more struck when viewing the exterior.  The inside didn’t entrance me in quite the way Smallhythe had the previous day.

Bateman’s. Own photograph.

We were exhausted but I knew that Battle Abbey was just around the corner and that was unmissable.  Regardless of your historical knowledge or interest, everyone knows that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.  To mark his success, King William I established a Benedictine Abbey on the northern part of the battlefield.  Although it has, of course, changed over the years, a number of the abbey buildings remain while the gorgeous main house is used by Battle School (lucky them).  One of the most remarkable features is the condition of the vaulted ground rooms that give an impression of how magnificent this site would have been in its heyday.  Battle Abbey is a stunning and emotive property.  I love walking round ruins, studying the architecture and imagining what has taken place here before.  The site could not lend itself more perfectly to this.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

The great gatehouse is still in use by both the school and the Abbey and fulfils its original purpose of increasing security – all traffic had to pass through it and be checked by the porter.  The scale of the building and the decorative stonework reflect the power and importance of the Abbey while the crenellations and arrow slits remind of us the gatehouse’s defensive purpose.

Battle Abbey. Own photograph.

It was time to return to the deserted beaches of Camber Sands and enjoy some cocktails as a reward.

Tuesday’sfirst stop was the National Trust’s Bodiam Castle, built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dallingridge.  All of the NT sites in this area are beautifully maintained and Bodiam is no exception.  Again, we were stoic and climbed one of the towers which afforded a stunning bird’s eye view of the castle and of the surrounding weald.  Bodiam is as you expect a medieval castle to be, perched on a point, broadly symmetrical, imposing but comfortable, easily expressing rank and status.  It is not known whether Bodiam was actually built as a fortress or a status symbol but it immediately gives the impression of great strength and power, enhanced by its approach across a moat.  Whereas the exterior is fabulously preserved, the interior is in ruins – the remnants do give us a suggestion of the original layout but little remains.  As with all these properties, I could easily get carried away harping on about their history but…I won’t.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

I managed to buy a guide book at every property so a small stack was building up on the back seat of the car.  Both the NT and EH produce great small books about all their properties.

One thing that I am still confused by is the National Trust entrance scheme.  Most of their properties have two prices available – standard admission and Gift Aid admission.  Gift Aid is a higher price and automatically includes a Gift Aid donation but this seems to be contradicted by the Trust saying that ‘Gift Aid donations must be supported by a valid Gift Aid declaration’.  We were never asked for the extra details that would, in theory, turn this into a declaration.  In the past I have always been offered the opportunity to fill out a form that Gift Aids my standard ticket price thereby allowing the charity to reclaim the taxable amount rather than being told to pay more (which they automatically charge unless you request a standard ticket).  They seem to be losing out with this new arrangement.  I have the utmost respect for the NT’s work and their properties, finding their schemes and work innovative and exciting but I will say this entry arrangement leaves me a tad perplexed.

Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.

Nearby is Great Dixter, the family home of the late Christopher Lloyd (not the one from Back to the Future but the gardener) which is still the most incredible garden.  The 15th century house, which is also open to the public in the afternoons, was restored and enlarged by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was responsible for revealing the splendour and enormity of the Great Hall – the largest surviving timber-framed hall in the country.  The gardens at Great Dixter surround the house and most of their design was also by Lutyens which could explain the fluidity and the seamless progression from house to garden, from garden to house.  I think that no matter what time of year you visit these gardens, they will always be a sight to behold.  The colours at Great Dixter are spell-binding.  Lloyd saw it as a challenge to combine every sort of colour and not allow himself to be constrained by conventional colour schemes.  He planted what he thought would look good and it certainly does!

Great Dixter. Own photograph.

Wednesday heralded the final day of my Mini Adventure and I still had places to tick off my list.  Importantly, one mustn’t visit the English countryside without popping into a vineyard and we were within spitting distance of Chapel Down, one of my favourite English wines.  It would have been rude not to pop in to buy a few bottles.

Nearby is also Fairfield Church.  We didn’t get the keys, which are apparently available from a neighbour, and instead just passed by on one of the surrounding country roads to admire its beauty in the middle of a desolate field.  See – there are things to be found even in the middle of a field.

Fairfield Church. Own photograph.

Scotney was quite an ambitious property to visit on the last morning, especially after a generous wine tasting (not enough to put me over the limit mind you) and with the clock ticking.  This is because Scotney is actually two properties and a rather large garden all rolled into the one estate.  The new house, for which you need a timed entrance ticket, was built in 1837 in Elizabethan style while, at the bottom of the steep valley, are the ruins of the original medieval castle and moat.  With new at the top and old at the bottom, the landscape at Scotney could not be much more picturesque.  It is an amazing combination but best viewed from the outside.  For me, the inside of the house was a hotchpotch of styles that confuse the eye – I notice that the strange pink bathroom doesn’t get a picture in the guidebook.  The library is the most fabulous interior room and book presses H to J conceal a hidden door, decorated with false spines.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The new house was built for Edward Hussey III – there is probably no connection but my MA thesis was about Giles Hussey (1710-88), a little-known, eighteenth-century, English artist whose hundreds of intricately annotated drawings remain at the British Museum, demonstrating his theories of harmonic proportion.  The Hussey family tree will have to wait for another day though.

Scotney Castle. Own photograph.

The final stop was Bayham Old Abbey, a 13th century Abbey that was mostly destroyed at the Reformation.  Bayham has a fairly standard monastic arrangement; the cloister and its accompanying areas are at the south of the church, the refectory ran parallel to the nave, the dormitory was on the east.  The layout has been somewhat obscured by a completely new east end that mutilated the old transepts.  The guide book has a lovely glossary at the back allowing me to test myself and see how much church architecture I remember.  Bliss – what a perfect site to finish on.

Bayham Old Abbey. Own photograph.

Somehow, we made it back to London in time for me to change and dash onto the tube to go to the opening of Scream’s new gallery on Eastcastle Street, one of the new and exciting hubs of the London art scene.  Having been checked off the guest list, I walked through a small section of rather unattractive corridor which seemed out of kilter with the highly polished perfection of this gallery.  Inside, it’s a lovely space with great frontage onto the street (my estate agent’s description here is unintended, I just can’t help it).  The inaugural exhibition is work by Beijing-based artist Ye Hongxing – using collaged mass-produced kitsch and kaleidoscopic material, his works aim to address the anthropological, technological and economical developments that are happening in China.  It was hard to have a proper look at the works but the exhibition does raise some interesting comments about society and modern life: the title recalls H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel, The Modern Utopia.

Scream on Eastcastle Street. Own photograph.

And, because I hadn’t quite squeezed enough into the day, I headed off to play Urban Golf (amazing!) but that is another story!

Ye Hongxing: The Modern Utopia is at Scream until 20 October 2012, www.screamlondon.com.

What a Year! A Summary of 2011…

24 Dec

Trying to pick my favourite exhibitions from this year has been quite a difficult task.  I’ve seen some rubbish but I’ve also seen an awful lot of amazing shows – 2011 has been a strong year for the art calendar.  In fact, reading back through Artista, I wonder how I have I managed to totter to so many galleries in the last few months.  But, there’s always so much to see…

My favourite exhibitions really left their mark, those I can still immediately recall that still delight me.  I’ve chosen the shows that weren’t just aesthetically pleasing but were also well-curated and academically interesting.  These are the ones that tick all the boxes.

Towering at Tate – The Gerhard Richter exhibition that is still on show at Tate Modern is breath-taking, looking at Richter’s diverse oeuvre as an unbroken panorama.  At Tate Britain, Vorticists win the prize – charting a short-lived movement, Tate aimed to place Vorticism in an international context, studying the impact of World War I on these artists.

Detail of one of Gerhard Richter’s Cage Paintings, 2006. Own photograph.

Rocking at the Royal Academy  – The Royal Academy’s upstairs gallery has to have one of the strongest exhibition programmes in London.  It’s a tie for the best show there this year between the recent Soviet Art and Architecture and Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography.

Martin Munkácsi, Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c. 1930.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

Knockout at the National Gallery – For me, Drenched in Devotion stole the show this year.  Looking at altarpieces in their context, the NG examined their structure and relationship to the surrounding architecture, following the formal, stylistic and typological developments across the period of focus.  One room was even turned into a chapel.

Room two in Devotion by Design. Image via www.independent.co.uk.

Leaving LondonRevealed: Turner Contemporary Opens was an extremely strong exhibition to launch another new public art gallery designed, of course, by David Chipperfield.  Highlights were from Daniel Buren and Conrad Shawcross.

Daniel Buren, Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape, 2011. Own photograph.

Also with podium finishes were:

Going for Gold – Haunch’s Mystery of Appearance with some of Britain’s most important painters – Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Patrick Caulfield, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff and Euan Uglow.  Need I say more…

Upstairs at Haunch with David Hockney, The Room Tarzana, 1967. Own photograph.

Striking SilverThe Cult of Beauty at the V&A looked at art, from 1860-1900, created purely for its own sake to provide pleasure and beauty.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata, 1859.  Image via www.vam.ac.uk.

Bright Bronze – Future Tense’s Spectra I focused on colour – a simple concept but one that was wonderfully addressed with some of the best lighting I’ve seen this year.

Lee Baker, Refractive Monolith, 2011. Own photograph. 

and last but by no means least – Runner Up  – the brilliant Anthony McCall taking over Ambika P3 with his entrancing light works that combined cinema, drawing and sculpture.

Anthony McCall, Vertical Works, 2011. Image via http://www.dontpaniconline.com. 

Aaah… but there was also the shoes exhibition, Rembrandt and Bacon at Ordovas, Nicola Hicks and Mona Kuhn at Flowers, the many brilliant shows at Josh Lilley and the poignant timing of Lisson’s Ai Weiwei show.  What a year!  To look back at these exhibitions, use the categories or tags on the right hand side of the screen to make scrolling that bit easier.

Carla Busuttil at the Josh Lilley Galley.  Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Let’s hope that 2012 can move on from the success of these shows and be bigger, better and braver than ever before.  I’ll be there, in my stilettos, doing the rounds.

In the meantime, thank you for reading Artista.  A Merry Christmas and a Happy Shoe Year to you all.

(Check back next week for a look at The Courtauld’s current drawing exhibition.)

Same Old, Same Old: Tracey Emin at The Hayward

27 May

I think I picked the worst day weather-wise to visit this exhibition. Yesterday, disregarding the weather forecast, and with eternal optimism, I hadn’t dressed for what was to come – after all it hadn’t rained for ages.  The wind blew my dress like Marilyn’s in The Seven Year Itch and I tried hard not to flash the whole of London. As I ran through London’s streets, squelching around in my stilettos, avoiding flooded drains, the driving rain made me look like a drowned rat.

What better refuge than the Hayward, or so I thought.  I have always been an Emin fan.  I remember writing at school about the re-emergence of feminine crafts in the visual arts with an in-depth discussion of Emin’s quilts so now that she is a ‘grande dame’ I was eagerly anticipating this mid-career retrospective, the biggest show of her work to date.

The show starts strongly, opening with 12 of Emin’s quilts, hung two deep on the lofty Hayward walls.  If you aren’t altogether familiar with Emin’s work, you’ll quickly get the idea – they are real, dirty, rude and explicit.  In my opinion, these are the best works on display, the beautiful blanket stitch framing the sordid content surrounded by delicate appliquéd pattern work. 

Emin’s appliquéd quilts.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The room is dominated by Knowing my Enemy (2002), a derelict wooden pier with an unstable hut at the end; the structure seems precarious, reminiscent of the Kent coast line, teetering in a by-gone era.  The room is illuminated by a pink glow from one of her neons, Meet me in Heaven and I will wait for you.  Alas, the strength of this spectacular installation was not to continue. 

Own photograph.

Next, her amassed neon works create a corridor of smut.  Neon is commonly associated with advertising – indeed, Emin first used this media to advertise her own shop. Now she uses it to advertise those things that are unadvertisable, gesturing to clubs and amusement arcades –  a barrage of abuse attacking the Margate she left behind and now claims to love. This method no longer shocks; it has become staid and kitsch.

Neon works.  Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

Music from the film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, accompanying one of Emin’s video works, resonates around the entire gallery.  Sadly, I do indeed mean entire.  At first this is effective but, after a while, when the theme is drumming in your head around the whole exhibition, it becomes annoying, and apparent that it is far too loud. 

Tracey Emin has never been one to hold back, in fact we know everything about her life – her art is about revealing herself.  Through this exhibition, however, we swiftly realise that Emin has never been able to cast off the negative shackles of her youth.  Her film Why I Never Became A Dancer (1995) recalls her bid to leave Margate by winning the British dancing championship.  While she danced, a gang of local boys she had slept with began chanting ‘Slag Slag Slag’ so loudly that she ran from the dance floor – her dancing career finished, she became an artist.  This video ends with Emin dancing triumphant saying ‘Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard…this one’s for you’.  But there’s nothing triumphant about the work or this dedication.  In fact, it’s rather sad.

Why I Never Became A Dancer, 1995.  Image via www.loveiswhatyouwant.com.

In whichever of the many media that Emin has worked, she has always been self-absorbed, self-obsessed and self-pitying.  In the works of her masturbating she is even self-satisfying.  Emin’s spindly drawings, watercolours and embroideries are dotted throughout the exhibition, the majority featuring her favourite subject of a woman (most probably herself), legs spread-eagled, masturbating.  For me, one work takes her self-aggrandisement a step too far.  Presented in glass cases are a series of hospital nametags, pregnancy tests, plasters pills and…old tampons.  Emin herself has said that she’s a little bit embarrassed by this work and now thinks she should have cast them.  Maybe this would have helped but, as it remains, these disgusting memorials to Emin’s troubled journey bear more comparison to an over-flowing sanitary bin in the ladies’ loos than art works to gaze upon and contemplate. 

The History of Painting, Part I, 1999Image via www.dailymail.co.uk

The second half of the show, upstairs and outside at the Hayward, presents works from the last decade and these are particularly weak with no real impact. 

Sculptures on the outside terraces.  Own photograph.

There can be no doubt that Emin is a pioneering female artist but she’s made her point.  This mish-mash of work may have once been shocking but repetition has weakened the effect.  We’ve seen photos of Emin touching herself, we’ve seen the intentionally badly-spelt and hurriedly-scrawled expletives, we’ve seen all of Emin before.

Emin wants the show to focus on love but the only love we see is her narcissism.  The exhibition acts as a confessional, looking at the young slutty girl from Margate who became a celebrity, the queen of the British art world, suffering abortion, rape, alcoholism and various other trials along the way.  We have been there throughout.

Tracey Emin. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Individually, some of her works are exciting and controversial but putting them together like this makes you sigh at their repetitive nature.  Has Emin only had one idea in the past 20 years?  There is nothing more to many of these works than shock and shock is a quick reaction, one without long-lasting resonant impact. 

No doubt most people will love this exhibition; Emin is a celebrity artist and people will flock to it.  I wanted to like the show but I left disappointed by this boring exhibition.  Tracey Emin’s work is about Tracey Emin.  It is about revealing herself.  But sadly, she revealed herself long ago and doesn’t seem to have done much with her time since.

Tracey Emin: Love is What You Want is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre until 29th August 2011, www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

Margate Mini Adventure – Turner Contemporary

22 Apr

Never being one to do things by halves, when I decided to drive my Mini to Turner Contemporary, I took the opportunity to cram a jam-packed schedule into two days and explore Kent.

My time in Canterbury started with a scrummy picnic lunch punting on the Stour.  I’m a Cathedral addict and Canterbury has long been one of my favourites in England.  If you haven’t been, shame on you.  With wide-ranging, mostly French, influences, the building presents a harmonious and inspiring interior.

All photographs are my own unless otherwise stated

Buildings of the Gothic era, particularly Cathedrals, were ornamented appropriately to the function they served.  Such ideas of decorum ensured that a Saint’s shrine and its surrounds required the most lavish design and sculptural decoration and reflected the valid aesthetic ideas of the period.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket became a ‘medieval celebrity’ after his brutal murder in the Cathedral on 29th December 1170 and he is buried in a majestically designed chapel, approached by increasing architectural richness on the climatic processional pilgrimage routes.

The monks of Canterbury regarded him as a second Christ.  Like Christ, he returned on Palm Sunday, presided over his ‘last supper’,  was struck down by enemies of the state and had five wounds inflicted on him.  Poetic hagiography is incorporated into the Trinity Chapel where red and white stone symbolise Becket’s blood and brain; the red also depicts Becket as a martyr and the white shows his inner martyrdom.  This analogy has strong Christological references as blood and water spilled from Christ’s side wound.

This trip included many favourites for me: cathedrals, ruins, the seaside and the work of Antony Gormley.  Nowadays, his sculptures are ubiquitous in cathedrals and one is suspended in the crypt.  Made of recycled iron nails from the repaired roof, Transport hangs above the site of Becket’s first tomb.  The 6ft floating man reminds us that we are temporary inhabitants of our bodies; they house our souls and are the instruments through which we are able to communicate our emotions.  The piece expresses transience and reflects the way in which sacred spaces communicate a sense of time and eternity.

After popping into St Augustine’s Abbey (founded in AD 567 by St Augustine during his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity), I headed to Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre.  Although Richborough is now over two miles from the sea, it was once a bustling port that saw the first Roman landing – hard to believe now when looking at the surrounding countryside. 

After struggling with English Heritage’s poor signage, I finally found St Augustine’s Cross – a 19th century cross of Saxon design marking what is thought to have been the site of St Augustine’s landing on the shores of England in AD 567.

After a wonderful day, I arrived at a gorgeous B&B in Broadstairs before heading off to a wonderful dinner in Ramsgate.  The coastal villages seem to be stuck in a time warp – old chippies, amusement arcades and enormous beaches – with shabby, run down seafronts. 

That’s not to say that they aren’t charming in parts as Kent really is a beautiful county but some of these places feel like they have been left behind. 

Early the next day, I drove along the pretty but somewhat dilapidated coast to Margate.

Margate must have been wonderful in its heyday but is now very sad, mostly boarded up and shut down.

Turner Contemporary, the brand new public art gallery, is an imposing landmark and rises from the site of the lodging house where Turner stayed in Margate.  The view outside probably hasn’t changed much since his visits.  Sitting on the seafront, the building needed to be tough and robust.  After the initial shock factor of the arresting structure, designed by David Chipperfield architects, its charm becomes apparent.  Formed of six interlocking rectangular blocks, the two-storey building can evoke boat sheds or connecting artists’ studios. 

Flooded with natural light, the interior consists mostly of polished concrete and glass – a simple and clean design that is both austere and beautiful.  Chipperfield wanted art to be experienced rather than viewed and has made the open spaces like studios.  He succeeds, at the same time creating an intimacy conducive to wonderful exhibitions.   It is a triumph, perfectly in tune with its purpose and location.   

Turner spent time in Margate throughout his life and many of his works feature the Kentish coast. Turner Contemporary celebrates his connection with Margate and one or more of his paintings will always be on display in the gallery.  The current exhibition Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens takes inspiration from Turner’s 1815 painting of a volcanic eruption on the island of St Vincent.  Turner was fascinated by the power of nature and this painting captures the drama.  His works give the viewer sensory experiences transcending their surroundings to become part of the scene.

Image via www.anothermag.com

The only permanent work, Michael Craig-Martin’s neon Turning Pages invites you to begin your metaphorical journey around the galleries.

I don’t have a bad word to say about the current exhibition.  Daniel Buren makes use of the large window and walls.  His work frames the outside panorama, using mirrors to reflect and amplify the glorious coastal scene and a vivid yellow to further lighten and brighten the galleries. 

Douglas Gordon’s text work Afterturner, on the treads of the staircase, plays with Turner’s supposed last words.  Though the stairs have generated criticism for being tucked away and simple, I had no trouble finding them and felt a grander structure would have been out of place and detract from the large open plan resonance.

Ellen Harvey’s newly-commissioned Arcadia is a scale reconstruction of the gallery Turner built to house his work, filled with engraved lightboxes with views of present-day Margate.  There are also great works by Teresita Fernández and Russell Crotty.

For me the star of the show was Conrad Shawcross; his ingenious installations Projections of a Perfect Third seek to understand the musical chord.  Shawcross is fascinated by science and philosophy and this dramatic installation brings together different threads from his practice.  His mysterious, enigmatic structures leave you in awe, staring at the near-sublime rotating form that hangs above you, whirring in perpetual motion no matter what.  Shawcross’s machines are designed with no specific working purpose, suggesting a quest for a perfect ideal.  They are intricate manifestations of his thoughts and ideas showing the skill of his craftsmanship through beautiful, mesmerising forms.  The giant rotating wings (like helicopter blades or windscreen wipers) captivate viewers, leaving them standing engaged but lost. 

Strangely, Emin, Margate’s most famous daughter, is not included in the exhibition but her pink neon sign, I never stopped loving you, is installed above the door of the nearby tourist information centre and harbour master’s office.   The work is almost invisible in daylight and I had to ask someone to point it out.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I wasn’t in Margate at night to see if the work is more effective, dramatically illuminated on the front but, when the sun is shining, it is lost to the surrounding architecture and Emin’s thoughts remain unheard.

Due to the amount of walking, this was a flip-flops only trip but, in my hurry to get down to the beach to take photographs looking up at Turner Contemporary, I didn’t spot a large slimy patch of seaweed and managed to launch myself down the lifeboat ramp.  Splat!  Ouch!  That’ll teach me not to wear flat shoes!

Once a popular seaside resort (the famous Dreamland is expected to re-open in 2013), Margate is now rather run-down.  The perfect weather when I visited only served to highlight the town’s shabbiness.  Turner Contemporary is meant to be a catalyst for regeneration but, as much as I adored it, I’m not sure that this alone is enough.  The effect Turner Contemporary will have on the town and whether it will initiate the long-awaited Margate renaissance remains to be seen.  The locals have already embraced it, nicknaming it ‘The Turner’, but will it trigger the much-needed regeneration and prompt change?

On the way home, I stopped at Reculver where the 12th century towers of a ruined church stand defiant among the ruins of a fort and monastery.  Finally, oysters and a wander in Whitstable before returning to London.  And all in less than 2 days. 

Of course, if you aren’t feeling quite that intrepid, the train will get you to Margate in only a couple of hours and you too can spend the day at the seaside.

All photographs are my own.  More can be seen at: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/fbx/?set=a.187173014662889.42704.121039074609617

http://www.turnercontemporary.org/

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/

http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/

http://belvidereplace.co.uk/

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