The Surrealist Wunderkammer

The heat of the summer is impossible to escape at present. After several years of overcast and indifferent summers, crickets are chirping amidst burnt out grass. The church of St Mary in Buscot is notable for a few things. Firstly, it’s nowhere near the village and is surrounded by fields and woodland. Secondly, the churchyard is replete with baroque monuments, from lichen encrusted putti to distended skulls. Finally, there’s the Norman arches and Burne Jones window inside, a St Christopher surrounded by similar designs that prove to date from after the great war. Nearby All Saints Faringdon is less noticeable; the church is a rather squat structure, enlivened mostly by some extraordinary baroque sculptures. Beyond lies Circencester with its exorbitant parish church and its fan vaults, Saxon crucifixes and ornate Garstang marriage chest. Finally, I arrive in Chedworth and its Roman villa. The Corinium mosaics still retain much of their colour, like the hooded figure of winter while the Victorian museum has a display of Samian ware and altars showing carved figures. Outside, a spring still bubbles where water gods would have been worshipped. Nearby, orchids bloom in the grass.

The first thing that strikes me about Blenheim Palace are the eyes painted on the ceiling above the main doors.Inside, one passes through to the Great Hall and Thornhill’s ceiling. Inevitably, it rather reminds me of Chatsworth (unsurprisingly, given Laguerre’s ceiling painting in the saloon), although there is rather less interest in matters artistic or antiquarian here, in spite of Epstein busts and sculptures of Alexander and Hadrian. Most of the paintings are by Sargent, Romney and Reynolds; all well and good but not enormously exciting. A selection of Churchill’s paintings were also on display. While certainly proficient, I can’t say they were especially striking, as nice as it might be to have an artistic Prime Minister now. The porcelain collection is rather better, ranging from Kakiemon to Meissen. Tapestries woven to commemorate Marlborough’s victory at Blindheim line many of the walls, still retaining much of their colour.Most impressive is Hawksmoor’s long library with its Rysbrack statue of Queen Anne and large organ dominating one end of the gallery. The grounds include a number of formal gardens, reconstructed from Capability Brown’s vandalism and featuring a range of neo-classical statues, such as a coade stone replica of The Dying Gaul, as well as some bizarre Greek Sphinxes with their faces modelled on one of the Duchesses. A black and white cat happily rolls around in the dust as it enjoys the sunlight. For all my dislike of Brown, the landscape is nonetheless remarkable with the lakes and islands interrupted by Vanbrugh’s bridge. Finally, I walk out to the victory column, past the young lambs.

The following weekend is given up to visiting Hughenden and West Wycombe. I;m amazed at West Wycombe at how clear the water in the streams and lakes is; fish lazily glide by (a little too lazily given the heron I also notice), while families of swans and ducks swim above, cygnets and ducklings in tow. Hughenden has a new exhibition in the cellars on the house’s role during the second world war in mapmaking.

Surrealism is always a difficult concept to define. Is it simply an art movement that flourished in the wake of Freud’s theories or a universal principle in the the human pysche that includes Lewis Carroll and Lear as much as Breton and Ernst. The Barbican’s surrealist house gives few answers on this score, preferring to construct itself as a wunderkammer. It begins with Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. set alongside Duschamp’s The Fresh Widow and Please Touch. Some objects, such as Freud’s consulting room chair, are here by virtue of association only. On the one hand, paintings by Tanguy, Magritte’s Lovers and Homage to Mack Sennett, Man Ray’s photos of Gaudi’s buildings and Table Surrealiste by Giascommetti are set alongside Hopper’s House by the Railroad, Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice, Svankmajer’s Jabberwock and Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison. Dali’s Sleep, with its sleeping head supported on struts is paralleled to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, shown here through a set photos showing its ruined state as well as a more obviously painting of a zebra on its roof. Corbusier’s Beistegui apartments prove more genuinely surrealist, with the fireplace on their roof garden. Of the modern works, Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy seems closest to the spirit of the original surrealist movement, a piano hung from the ceiling where the keys and lid periodically explode open.

Reading Iain Sinclar’s London Orbital proves to be a less than scintillating experience. Ballard is repeatedly invoked as a figure, but whereas Ballard’s modernism was ambivalently positioned between rapture and resistance, Sinclar’s posture is rather more predictable. In essence, Sinclair is an advocate of outsider or vernacular architecture. Victorian asylums are worthy of being lauded while the likes of Painswick Park on the one hand or Bluewater on the other are to be condemned.

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