Rusted Forests

Last weekend, I went on a tour of derelict sites in Silvertown. It’s an unprepossessing area that has only (so far) sporadically been exposed to the march of development in the capital and which still has a large number of industrial sites; and in fact the tour starts near the Tate and Lyle factory. The first item is a product of philanthropy; the Tate institute, now derelict and boarded up. In one case, the building in question is almost entirely hidden behind a jungle of Buddleia; in another case an abandoned funpark is just a set of locked gates whose metal leaves have turned to rust. The area behind it is now just an empty field looking out over the Millennium Mills hulk. It’s a stiflingly hot but overcast day and the walk along mostly deserted concrete flyovers, occasional luxury flat block and crumbling Victoriana is a rather punishing one. The most beautiful part is easily the Thames Barrier Park with its sculptural swathes of colour, although even here a memorial in the park is barriered off. The tour ends at the Royal Victoria Dock, which seems a world away from much of the previous surroundings, with its cafes and windsurfing. The following day I visit Greenwich and have a look at the Gagarin statue placed outside the Royal Observatory, before visiting the Planetarium and its collection of timepieces.

The weekend after and I visit Ham House, waking out to it from Richmond along the Thames. It’s a little late for the gardens but the Wisteria and Sunflowers are in full bloom. The gardens combine trees with shaded paths with more formal planting that relies on variations on shades of green. The house itself has a spectacular staircase furnished with Titian copies and busts of Roman figues, a long gallery lined with paintings of figures like Charles the First and Second and marquetry cabinets, a library with globes and maps (missing off areas like the North West of America or New Zealand) and ceiling frescos by Verrio. That evening, it’s a performance of Mike Leigh’s version of the Pirates of Penzance; it’s a quite traditional version as far as the costumes are concerned but the staging is minimalist to the point of resembling a Mondrian painting. It’s an odd combination. My general reaction to the opera was sympathy for Gilbert’s frustration with Sullivan’s obsession with the world of topsy-turvy.

The following weekend I visit Great St Barts, mostly for the sculpture of Saint Bartholomew by Damien Hirst. The gold of the statue glitters in the dim light of the church. Next, I visit the Petrie Museum with its collection of Egyptian sculpture, Cartonnage masks, Mummy cases and Fayum portraits before visiting the Foundling Museum. A combination of Hogarth paintings and sculptures by Rysbrack stand out in the interior here; there’s also an exhibition of rococo plasterwork by Geoffrey Preston, from his work on restoring National Trust properties through to contemporary designs at . I go to the Globe a few times; an excellent performance of Richard the Second and a more average performance of Measure for Measure (a difficult play to get right and I wasn’t sure the balance of comedy was spot on; not helped by a position in the stalls that made it difficult to discern all of what was said).

A few weeks later, and I go the Helpworth Exhibition at the Tate. It starts by showing stone and wood sculptures of the human and animal form before showing some of the work from her studio with Ben Nicholson (I especially like some of her experiments with photograms) as well as some of her more commercial work with fabrics. A lot of this early work isn’t distinct from an Epstein or a Moore, and it’s the later sections that stand out with its depiction of organic forms counterpointed by geometrically precise lines, some of the larger work, with its wooden shells and stone interiors in particular. The exhibition also includes an old film about her work in Cornwall, showing it against a landscape and comparing it the megaliths in the area. There are some oddities too; paintings showing surgical techniques from during the war.

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