Tag Archives: Mini

Oh Woe is Woking

6 Apr

I’ve long been aware of The Lightbox and, when I read Florence Water’s article in January’s Apollo, I decided that it was time for a Mini adventure to Woking.

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The Lightbox, Woking, Own photograph.

In 1993, a group of 70 arts and heritage enthusiasts decided it was time to create an arts centre in Woking. Through their endeavours they achieved this goal raising more than £7 million and in September 2007 The Lightbox opened its doors (be careful on your way in as the automatic doors open outwards). Although the gallery does have a permanent body of staff, it still relies largely on the support of its 150 volunteers showing the strength of community in these parts. Education is obviously where this gallery comes into its own – as well as having great learning facilities, they run a young curators’ group, after-school arts clubs and more structured schools’ programmes that work within the national curriculum.

The Lightbox is located alongside numerous shopping centres, endless multi-storey car parks, lane after lane of traffic and more traffic lights than I’d care to count; its striking design sticks out like a sore thumb. This is obviously the most impressive building in town although I’m not sure there is much competition; designed by Marks Barfield Architects it is found, clad in wood with gold and silver aluminium panels, alongside the Basingstoke Canal. The canal-side garden is protected by a gabion wall, gesturing to Renaissance fortifications. Inside is the most wonderful expanse of wall, lit from an atrium that stretches the entire length of the south side. Currently there’s a mobile of hands hanging in the space but there is a painfully ‘blank canvas’ of white wall. Considering the surroundings this architecture is challenging but it is successful and effective.

white wall

The white wall. Own photograph.

Most of the time, The Lightbox is filled with Chris Ingram’s spectacular collection of Modern British Art, helping to fulfil his desire to make this period more accessible to a wider public. The drawback of visiting during the Frink exhibition meant I saw very little of the collection I had hoped to view; it is usually on permanent rotating display in the Lobby galleries (aka the corridors). I made do with buying the books to give me a greater insight into the Ingram Collection which really is incredible, showing the works that Ingram likes and chooses to share with the nation. The generosity of his loan programme across the country and, indeed, his permanent loan here is fabulous.

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Chris Ingram at The Lightbox. Image via www.surreylife.co.uk.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Woking is the home of Kenwood food mixers and also where HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds. Part of the aim of the gallery is to house Woking’s Story which tells the social history of the town looking at the railway, the history of mental health through Brookwood Hospital, Brookwood Cemetery (once the largest cemetery in Europe) and Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. This display is aimed at a young audience and, although simplistic in format, it does well at highlighting the cultural importance of the area.

Woking's Story

Woking’s Story. Own photograph.

Currently, The Lightbox is mounting a retrospective of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s career. In the 1960s, while other artists turned increasingly to abstraction, Frink continued to pursue an interest in figurative and naturalistic imagery.

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The sculpture gallery on the ground floor. Own photograph.

In the double-height gallery on the first floor we are introduced to Frink’s main artistic concerns: Frink had no interest in sculpting the female body saying it didn’t act as a suitable vehicle for her ideas. Her fascination with man (whether standing, walking, running or seated) extended across her career, expressing ideas of masculine courage, strength and heroism. Her men are complicated vessels of emotion, sensuality and vulnerability.

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The main gallery. Own photograph.

Her interest in animals – horses, dogs and birds – also comes to the forefront here. She admired the strong bonds between man and beast – the loyalty, intimacy and interdependence.

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Frink’s horses. Own photograph.

Throughout the exhibition, which is spread across the building, we also see her heads, religious iconography and her vast array of print work which strongly complemented her sculptural processes.

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Frink’s Rolling Over Horse, 1979, and Lying Down Horse, 1977 from The Ingram Collection. Own photograph.

But, the gallery just hasn’t done very much with this amazing body of work – the pieces lose something by being plonked in the corridors and placed higgledy-piggledy across the space. We encounter the first Frink sculpture within seconds of walking through the front door before we’ve even seen a welcome panel.

The labels are sheets of sticky paper that are peeling off the walls. The lids of the Perspex cases aren’t actually screwed down (possibly not the best protection then) and are so smeared in places that it’s difficult to see the works beneath them. Ingram, the inventor of the modern media agency, has a fascinating background and obviously understands the importance of quality finish and appearance. Perhaps it would be worth him sharing a little of his expertise, as well as his art, with the gallery. Water wrote that ‘he loathes preciousness’ which I get and I have the utmost admiration for the aims of this space but The Lightbox comes off as distinctly amateur – it is not doing justice to the great works of art that it has the privilege to display.

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Victoria Way runs next to the gallery. Own photograph.

Hepworth Wakefield, Pallant House and Turner Contemporary can all get it right so being out of London is not an excuse. If The Lightbox wants people to come to see their gallery a little more work needs to go into the presentation and the curation needs more thought. The exterior is wonderful and I hope that, in time, the interior will match it. There was a huge party of men in fluorescents walking around so maybe they are planning some work to The Lightbox.

All the enthusiasm and dedication that formed this gallery in the first place needs now to be used to take The Lightbox to the next level.

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Elizabeth Frink: A Retrospective is at The Lightbox until 21st April 2013, www.thelightbox.org.uk.

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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.

Two days left to catch the Burra Bug

17 Feb

By now, you’ve probably all seen the documentary and read about the Edward Burra exhibition which opened at Pallant House in October.  Various things have conspired against me and yesterday I realised how close I had come to missing this show.  So, off I went on a very Mini Adventure.  If I can’t take the car via the Strand and Waterloo Bridge then I tend to navigate via The Stoop (Harlequins’ home ground) and this was the way I zoomed yesterday.

This is the first major show for over 25 years of Burra’s works and he is finally getting a smidgeon of the recognition he deserves.  As well as his work being included in Tate Britain’s watercolour show, Zoot Suits fetched a record £1.8 million at Sotheby’s sale of the Evill/Frost Collection.  But, the art world elite have always been aware of his work.  It’s to everyone else that he has remained a mystery.

Edward Burra, Zoot Suits, 1948.  Image via www.voltcafe.com

The Edward Burra exhibition provides an opportunity to study Burra’s extraordinary creativity.  Burra was remarkable; suffering from severe arthritis and rheumatism, he was barely able to move his claw-like hands at the end of his life and grasped a paintbrush with his swollen fist.  Serious anaemia also left him debilitated and subject to collapse with no energy but, notwithstanding his constant ill health, he never wanted to be defined by this as it was something that he abhorred.  Burra was fortunate to be born to a wealthy family and to have humour and an indomitable spirit, qualities that allowed him to rise above his many illnesses.  For Burra, art was his drug and his escape; the only time that he didn’t feel any pain was when he was painting.

Edward Burra, The Snack Bar, 1930. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Burra lived in Rye, Sussex but he travelled far and wide drawing inspiration from diverse sources, creating complex artworks often redolent of the time in which he lived.  His sharp eye combined with a love and knowledge of art history that is often evident in his works.  He was fascinated by modern urban life – the cheap glamour of tarts and prostitutes who congregated in the Mediterranean seaports and the boulevards of Montparnasse and by the black culture he saw in Harlem where he was intoxicated by the violent colour, noise and heat.

Edward Burra, Harlem, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Apart from his collages, almost all of Burra’s incredible works are executed in watercolour and he was one of the most skilled exponents of the medium.  Initially, it’s hard to believe that they are not painted in tempera as the handling of the medium is so tight and the works lack the fluidity and tonal quality one would normally associate with watercolour.  It’s probable that he worked so heavily with this medium as it allowed him to paint at a table rather than being forced to stand at an easel.

Edward Burra, The Straw Man, 1963. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.  

Burra is an eccentric artist who resists categorisation.  The characters in his paintings jump out at you from their frames.  His compositions are often playful, provocative and powerful – nowhere else will you find such dynamism and life.   The Danse Macabre works look at Burra’s experimentation with collage; his strange composite beings are almost Surrealist and further heighten the confusion as to what movement Burra should be ‘shoved’ into.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The Pallant House exhibition is ordered by theme – High Art/Low Culture, Danse Macabre, A Sense of Unease, The Sussex Landscape, Late Landscapes and Painting The Stage – which works quite well because it is hung in relatively small rooms off the main gallery space.   It’s a difficult exhibition space to work and although a thematic display is successful sometimes the rooms feel too isolated and self-contained.

Most of the works here are on loan from private collections and are rarely seen.  The exhibition includes some very unusual Burra works, particularly the Sussex landscapes with which I wasn’t really familiar; these are rare as the majority of Burra’s work did not deal with Britain.  The room of Late Landscapes includes Burra’s painting materials and colour tests from the ’70s. Amidst these is an envelope that had become a testing page and a shopping list; in his distinctive writing Burra has scrawled ‘anchovies, paste, sardines, coffee, BRD, 4 batterys, savlon’.   This is a really lovely human detail.  In fact, as I write there is an envelope next to me that I have commandeered as a to-do list.

Edward Burra, Landscape near Rye, 1934-5. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

Burra was able to create an incredible atmosphere of suspense with heightened drama.  Although his subject altered radically over the years, there is always a sense that something isn’t quite right as he imbues even happy scenes with a sinister quality.  His works are humorous but disquieting, both comic but tragic; we are always left with questions and never quite know what Burra wanted us to think.  But that is the point.  After all, he famously said that he never ‘never tell[s] anybody anything’ so he wanted us to work it out for ourselves – or maybe not.

I was pleased to see how busy the exhibition was.  It is Burra’s seedy depictions of social scenes that grab us, opening windows into the underbelly of a world we have not visited.  John Rothenstein suggested that they may ‘constitute the most grand and the most vivid interpretation of the least reputable seams of society by any painter of our time’.  Although I’d have liked to see a few more of his idiosyncratic bustling urban scenes, the exhibition is great to allow an overview of the Burra that few people know.

Edward Burra, Three Sailors at a Bar, 1930. Image via www.hh-h.com

I’m not sure you’d leave Chichester loving Burra if you don’t already but if you have the Burra bug, like me, then it’s definitely worth rushing down to this.  I hope that before too long there will be another opportunity to talk more about Burra but, right now with only two days left, I urge you to jump on the train or head over via The Stoop and see his work for yourself.

Edward Burra is at Pallant House Gallery until 19th February 2012.  Also, in room four is a small David Dawson exhibition which includes his wonderfully intimate photos of Freud – some of which are at the NPG – and his own lesser known paintings.  David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud is on until 20th May 2012, www.pallant.org.uk.

Out of London and out of Heels – A Dreary Day Out in Colchester

17 Nov

I’d been getting restless so it was time for a day trip to visit another of the new contemporary galleries popping up all over the country.  This time it was Colchester, only a hop skip and a jump away by Mini.  My sat-nav, Sean with his gorgeous Irish accent, has a real thing for the M25 and by deciding to ignore him and following my own geographical instincts the journey took a tad longer than it normally would have done.  Sorry Sean.  My route, however, enabled us to enjoy the scenery and the pretty country lanes of Essex and we arrived excited to see what Colchester has to offer.

Colchester. Own photograph.

Colchester is a hill town with typically English characteristics – a castle, a river, a market place and a strict Roman grid plan surrounded by a town wall.  It’s very walkable – in fact, we easily managed to see everything within the day and still get out in time to miss rush hour!

Colchester Castle. Own photograph.

Our first stop was the town’s Norman castle, built during the reign of William the Conqueror.  The interior doesn’t do justice to the excellent condition of the building and its impressive build.  It is designed solely with children in mind; OK, fair enough, they are the museum’s bread and butter but, here it speaks down to them with patronising and dark displays and is done in a way that practically excludes adults.  Wasted opportunity #1.

Inside the Castle. Own photograph.

A neatly manicured park sweeps down from the Castle to the River Colne and rather non-descript Roman wall.  The boating lake had dried up and was rather smelly and we hurried on.  Although the park itself is pretty, this certainly counts as wasted opportunity #2.

The River Colne. Own photograph.

The town’s Natural History Museum, that we happened on by chance, is housed within a pretty church. Unlike the castle, entry is free so it’s worth a quick peek if you’re in the area.  The churchyard is overgrown and has been left to deteriorate, a common theme in Colchester – wasted opportunity #3.  It feels a bit like a town that time has left behind and is in desperate need of some TLC.   There are some English Heritage properties in town too but everything is so badly signed that you need a degree in orientation and a great deal of common sense to get around.  Oh yes, #4.

The churchyard of the Natural History Museum. Own photograph.

After lunch, it was time to visit firstsite, our main reason for this trip.  Dubbed the Golden Banana, firstsite (annoyingly, with no capitals or spaces) opened in September this year.  Designed by Rafael Viñoly it was originally scheduled to open in 2008 with a projected budget of £18 million.  It finally came in £10 million over budget and a few years late – not a good start.  Designed as an art gallery for purposes of display, it is the strangest shape building.  The curved walls do not lend themselves to conventional picture hanging and, rather than confront this ‘problem’ with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations, the curators decided to leave vast expanses of the walls bare (and boring).  This space could be interesting to play with but the gallery just doesn’t make sense.

On approach, the building does look impressive with its distinctive gold colour.  But, although great at first sight (excuse the pun), the building peters off into a bungalow-like extension that is tedious compared with the statement-making front elevation.

Firstsite.  Own photograph.

Their current exhibition is inspired by Colchester’s history as Britain’s first city.  While all the other new galleries across the UK have gone for something big to mark their openings, this exhibition gets lost in the space.  It supposedly considers how history is represented and re-enacted and how art and archaeology invite us to think about everyday, functional objects as sources of information or symbols of our cultures, past and present.  In this vein, the gallery will permanently exhibit the Berryfield Mosaic, in almost exactly the same spot where it was discovered.  This is a nice touch as it was originally part of the dining room floor in a Roman townhouse that once stood here.  But, the amount of existing museums in Colchester concentrating on local history and civic pride meant that firstsite needed to take a braver leap.  Despite its striking design, the gallery has managed to be bland – peculiarly, one work is already missing for conservation reasons.

An empty wall at firstsite. Own photograph.

They have all the big names in there but there’s no wow factor and no feeling of excitement.  There’s a nice Bill Woodrow narrative sculpture and a good Ai Weiwei column-like sculpture that combines the traditional Chinese materials of porcelain and bamboo.  The Barbara Hepworth on loan from Tate is pressed against a wall in a specially air-conditioned room.  Visitors can’t walk around it and it seems cramped.  Yet, the leaflet proudly proclaims that at 3,200 square metres firstsite will rank among the largest contemporary art venues in the UK.  What a waste of space!

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982. Own photograph.

Mostly, the gallery seems to be filled with loos – I reckon we passed about eight different toilet blocks as we went round.  Maybe they’d have been better getting a few more works in and fewer toilets.  Firstsite is a wasted opportunity (#5) and not a gallery that I’ll be rushing back to.

Inside firstsite. Own photograph.

Onwards…  We headed to the Minories, the gallery that used to house what is now firstsite.  Built in the last phase of the Palladian style, it is another stunning building although most of it is now shut off.  Again, it’s so disappointing (wasted opportunity #6).  Colchester has so much potential but most of it has been allowed to fade away.

The Minories. Own photograph.

The nearby Holytrees Museum was the most engaging stop of the day.  Built in 1719 on the site of an Elizabethan house, Holytrees is a beautiful 18th century building whose collections focus on themes of domestic life and childhood in Colchester over the last 300 years.

The Holytrees Museum. Own photograph.

We had an amble around the town with the aim of seeing Jumbo, the town’s Romanesque water tower, built by Charles Clegg in 1882-3, and standing where the Roman Forum would have been.   Construction required well over a million bricks and Jumbo can hold up to 230,000 gallons of water.  Although it was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is a beautiful structure that dominates the town and was worth the stroll to go and see it close up.  It is partly consumed by the modern developments that surround it and I think this area could have been more sensitively regenerated (that’d be #7).

Jumbo. Own photograph.

Architecturally, the old town is quite pretty but it lacked excitement.  Although there’s a lot to see, there are very many more places where I’d prefer to spend the day.  Luckily, we passed the time gossiping and we had a giggle but that was nothing to do with the ‘delights’ of Colchester – a town that hasn’t quite worked itself, or the tourist market, out yet.

Camulodunum is at firstsite, Colchester, until 22nd January 2011, www.firstsite.uk.net.

Motorways, Mexicans and Cathedrals – Pallant House Gallery

13 Jul

Pallant House’s new exhibition of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera called for a trip down to Chichester, so early yesterday morning I set off on another Mini adventure.  Sean the satnav (I just love his Irish accent) seemed to think I was on a tour of English motorways and I went on more than I care to count to get to Sussex and back.

For many, Kahlo and Diego are inseparable but this is the first UK exhibition that brings their works together.

Kahlo is such a feminist icon and her self-portraits became familiar to many during the Tate retrospective in 2005 (so enduring that it seems like only yesterday).  Presenting a challenging view of the female role, her works address issues of pain, betrayal, loneliness, love and heartbreak, throughout the emotional turmoil of her life.  Rivera’s most famous works are his large-scale political murals – less familiar as, by their very nature, they remain in situ in Mexico.  During their lives, Rivera was recognised as the greater artist, his commissions adorning public buildings, but, in death, Kahlo has far outshone her husband and it is she who has become a cult figure whilst many have never heard of him.

Diego Rivera, Landscape with Cactus, 1931. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

This is a rare opportunity to see Rivera’s works: striking beautiful pieces with strong use of line.

Their relationship has attracted much attention – Kahlo was half Rivera’s age when they met, a delicate cripple attracted to this philandering beast.  The two could not have been more different and Kahlo’s parents even described their union as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove”.  This exhibition lacks biographical information (in fact, the wall labels consistently present inaccurate information), assuming we already know the horrific tale of how Kahlo was involved in a trolley-car collision which caused her spinal column and right leg to smash, her ribs, collarbone and pelvis to break and her foot to dislocate and then be crushed.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Bed, 1937. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

There are two arguments as to whether or not this exhibition works at all.  Judy Chicago, renowned artist and author of a terrific new Kahlo book, argues that it is appalling to exhibit both Kahlo and Rivera together, saying this parallel showing continues to place Kahlo in the shadow of her husband.  Chicago wants us to see Kahlo as central rather than peripheral.  While viewing her in relation to Rivera we are somehow diminishing her excellence.

On the flip side is the curator’s argument that it is nearly impossible to view one without the other because they were so united.  Rivera was important to Kahlo, featuring in many of her paintings.  She once said “Diego was everything … my child, my lover, my universe.”  Well, considering this, then, of course, the two should be shown together.

Frida Kahlo, Diego in My Thoughts, 1943. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Both Diego and Kahlo were inspired by each other.  For Kahlo painting was a form of catharsis, a motivation to rise above her pain.  Rivera encouraged her to continue working in spite of the misery it sometimes caused her; he was essential in the success of her endeavours.  In turn, Rivera was motivated by Kahlo’s courage.  They both thought the other to be the greater artist.  They were both spurred on by each other’s love and devotion.

Now, I don’t like sitting on the fence but I genuinely think each of these arguments raises good points and both are correct.  There are huge contrasts in their artistic styles yet there are many overlaps between their works.  It is an inescapable relationship and, one that, in many ways, does necessitate them being shown side by side.

For me, this is where the exhibition fails.  The works are not shown side by side.  The exhibition opens with a small, single room of Rivera’s works (on blue/grey walls for a boy) and is followed by two Kahlo rooms (pink/red for a girl).  For me, the point of the exhibition is for comparison.  These works were painted side by side so let them be seen together.  In particular, the exhibition includes both artists’ portraits of Natasha Gelman – an obvious and simple pairing that doesn’t happen.

Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

The exhibition is supplemented by an interesting selection of photography including Nicholas Murray’s emblematic images of Kahlo with her monobrow and moustache – iconic and beautiful in her own unique way.  Also exhibited are the rarely-seen photographs by Kahlo’s father showing the area around Mexico City and Tepotzlan.

Nicholas Murray. Image via http://yercle.wordpress.com.  

The exhibition offers a glimpse at Kahlo and Rivera’s fascinating relationship but doesn’t quite delve deep enough.  One more room may have sufficed but the size of the current show is slightly disappointing – only 40 works in all.  For a small show, it’s strong with well-chosen works.  Would I recommend a two hour drive from London and an entrance fee?  If you’re a Frida fan then yes.  If not, you may not see enough to whet your appetite.

The Pallant House Collection includes such greats as Francis Bacon, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, Jann Haworth, Antony Gormley, Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Walter Sickert and Barbara Hepworth.  There’s even a nice (if slightly random) room of 18th century portraits upstairs.  Contemporary has successfully been mixed with this traditional 1712 Queen Anne townhouse.  Pallant seems to have a strong history of commissioning artists with Spencer Finch’s light installation, The Evening Star, currently hanging in the main stairwell.

Spencer Finch, The Evening Star. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

Elsewhere in Pallant House there are some wonderful temporary shows including Mervyn Peake’s exhibition of drawings and illustrations and Anna Fox’s newly-commissioned series photographing the Bognor Regis Butlins to celebrate their 75th anniversary.  These oversaturated large-scale photos provide an insight into today’s Butlins.  The holiday camps first opened in 1936 becoming a much-loved part of British culture and a popular holiday destination for working-class families – only three now survive.

Anna Fox, Ocean Hotel Restaurant, Butlin’s, Summer 2010. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

This trip afforded me an opportunity to once again indulge my love of Cathedrals.  Work commenced on Chichester Cathedral in 1076 – it isn’t one of Britain’s finest but does boast a beautiful Chagall stained glass window.  Reaping the benefits of natural light, Chagall worked with intense colours that inspire and stimulate.  The Cathedral is significant – the detached bell-tower is the only one of its kind remaining in England and the spire has been much admired.  Unfortunately, as with so many of our great churches, the Reformation brought much destruction and some of the Cathedral’s former glory was diminished.

Marc Chagall stained glass window at Chichester Cathedral. Own photograph.

Moving out of Chichester we headed to Pagham Harbour for the night and stayed at the wonderful Crab & Lobster.  I can’t sing the praises of this pub-hotel enough.  I had planned a walk across the marshes but luckily the barman pre-warned me that the nature reserve of marsh and swampy mudflats is mostly smelly quicksand.  I stuck to the footpath!

Marshes and mud. Own photograph.

Before heading home this morning, there was time to fit in another Cathedral.  With Winchester being so close, I couldn’t resist.

Winchester Cathedral. Own photograph.

A stunning Perpendicular Gothic building, Winchester Cathedral is an overwhelming space, thanks, in part, to William Walker, a heroic diver, who worked for years underwater to strengthen the submerged foundations.  The building has a fascinating history: the West Window was destroyed by parliamentary troops during the English Civil War and rebuilt using the shattered glass found around the Cathedral.  As well as being architecturally wonderful, Winchester has two big draws – Jane Austen’s grave and, surprise surprise, a Gormley sculpture in the crypt.  Sound II is a mysterious lead and fibreglass life-sized man who contemplates the water that he holds in his cupped hands.  But, the crypt only floods in winter so sadly the water element of this piece is missing for six months of the year.  It does, however, work beautifully in this space.  Gormley and Cathedrals – tried, tested and triumphant!

Antony Gormley, Sound II. Own photograph.

And all in 24 hours.  I made it back for a trip to the RA in the afternoon but more of that in my next post…

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Masterpieces from the Gelman Collection is at the Pallant House Gallery until 2nd October 2011, www.pallant.org.uk.

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