Eden to Empire

Thomas Cole was not a name I’d heard of prior to the National Gallery’s exhibition dedicated to him. It starts by placing him alongside painters like Claude, Turner, Martin and Constable as a context for his own work showing mythological scenes of Empires rising and falling as well as his more straightforward landscapes, ranging from scenes of Florence and Rome on the grand tour to New England.The mythological scenes do remind me of Claude and Martin a great deal, showing a fictional empire at its height through to its destruction and collapse into ruins. The final rooms place his work alongside American painters like Frederick Church; in spite of his own vision being pastoral and opposed to the industrialisation under Andrew Jackson, later painters depicting the same scenes as he did tended to show commerce and industry simply as a part of the landscape rather than something opposed to it. The exhibition is in the gallery basement and I briefly have a wonder round the galleries there; if I’ve visited them before I don’t recall. It mostly seems to consist of lesser works not considered worthy of more prominent display; I find myself very impressed by a series of Vernet historical paintings showing scenes from the Napoleonic wars though.

There’s also a small companion exhibition from Ed Ruscha, showing 5 paintings he had created in the nineties of a series of buildings and 5 companion pieces showing the same scenes now; A company called Tech Chem now bears the sign Fat Boy. The sky around it is blood red. The bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were called Fat Man and Little Boy. I’m not sure the comparison with Cole is tremendously effective though; Ruscha’s illustrative style is sparse and often the differences are often slight.

The Tate is running a free exhibition on Weimar art for the next year; the parallels with current affairs were presumably sufficiently glaring as to warrant this. It divides between magical realist works (dwelling on more gothic subjects like cabaret and circuses) and Verism (more satirical work of the kind we are familiar with, such as Dix and Grosz). In practice the distinction is often blurred, with both sets dwelling on subjects like suicide and murder. The style equally veers between  grotesque caricature combined with lurid colouring to photorealistic portraits.

The following week, I visited the new Triforium gallery at Westminster Abbey. It’s a great many years since I last visited the Abbey and I’d entirely forgotten how wondrous it is. This is also entirely true of the Triforium. I ascend to it via the rather steampunk staircase in the new Weston Tower. The designer, Ptolemy Dean, has combined glass and metal with the Abbey’s own gothic leitmotifs and the effect is extraordinary as I walks upwards and peers through the stained glass of the lady chapel. The rose windows at the top that look out do so through a maze of buttresses lined with marching ranks of heraldic greyhounds, lions and dragons. As you face inwards, you can see what Betjeman called the ‘best view in Europe,’ that is from above the altar straight down the nave. It’s breathtaking stuff but the galleries themselves are full of interest, from a wooden model of Wren’s design for a spire, copies of the crown jewels and coronation chairs through to wooden funeral effigies of medieval kings and later wax models of Elizabeth, Anne, William, Mary and (oddly enough) Nelson. A stuffed grey parrot belong to the Duchess of Richmond is one of the more unusual exhibits, but my favourite is  an elaborate concertina paper model of the interior of the abbey, made for the coronation of Queen Victoria in the 1830s, a kind of “peep show.” Back downstairs, I note a new plaque for Stephen Hawking. I don’t think I visited the Cloisters on my last visit so I do so now, along with the rather collegiate gardens that surround the Abbey on this side, with the Abbey facing one side and the Palace of Westminster another.

That evening, I go to the Proms for a performance of the German Requiem by Brahms, following a visit a few weeks back to an organ recital of Fauré, Franck & Widor’s Toccata. The next week, I listen to the German requiem by Brahms and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Liszt and Brahms, interpolating them with more traditional Gypsy instruments and orchestrations. Finally, the last week of the Proms is rather exhausting. It starts with a Tango prom, including familiar pieces from Piazzolla and rather less expected diversions into Finland’s experiments from prog-rock Tango, including Veli Kujala playing his own quarter-tone accordion and a version of Bowie’s Life on Mars, before reverting back to Pablo Ziegler’s more jazzy interpretations of Piazzolla. Next is Britten’s War Requiem and finally, there is Handel’s Theodora, a chirpy piece on Early Christian martyrdom, performed by the astonishing countertenor Iestyn Davies.

A few weeks later, I go to the Indian subcontinent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. It’s divided into two halves; the first gifts from a tour made by the Prince of Wales (covering various perfume holders, swords, card boxes and inkstands) and the second including various paintings and manuscripts, mostly reflecting the art of the Mughal court. After that, and it’s Open House weekend in Reading and Oxford. In Reading, I see a demonstration of the Victorian Town Hall organ playing Mendelssohn and visit some of the town churches. In Oxford, I visit the gardens near the Thames at Magdalen school, Merton College Chapel, the church of St Edmund and St Frideswide, the church of St Alban the Martyr and Comper’s church of St Peter the Evangelist in Hinksey.

Reading Trollope’s Autobiography, I have to say that I find him harm to warm to. He talks of writing as a craft comparable to shoemaking, whose purpose is mainly to make a living; a statement which might be honest but is still hard to imagine many other Victorian writers saying. He includes a table outlining how much he has earned from all his novels. He sees literature as a form of moral instruction. He defends fox-hunting. He decries the use of competitive examination as he sees the idea that the son of a cleric and of a farmer as having equal potential as a fallacy.

Thackerary’s Barry Lyndon reminds me rather more of early picaresque novels like Moll Flanders and Roxana than most other Victorian novels. The protagonist proceeds through a series of adventures, starting off much in the vein of Tom Jones, which become progressively more immoral until he dies in a debtor’s prison after his wife escapes him. The novel is accordingly something of a morality tale but the reader’s reactions frequently bifurcate between  disgust at his actions and identification with a poor Irish interloper as he defrauds wealthy British and European aristocrats; nor is it coincidental that he attributes his downfall precisely to the point where he ceases to be an outsider and gains wealth, status and respectability. The bifurcation in the text is often a literal one, with the narration being divided between an omniscient narrator and that of the character himself, whose accounts of events diverge and debate with one another.

Disraeli’s Coningsby is in many respects a vehicle for his own rather romantic interpretation of Toryism, denouncing what he refers to as the existing Venetian constitution.  For a novel so emphatic in denouncing the Conservative party of that time for failing to want to conserve anything, it’s surprisingly sympathetic to modern England, with Coningsby wondering at the might of Manchester’s industry at the time and listening to Millbank’s own complaints against the aristocracy.

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The Pattern of Friendship

Travelling up to the Midlands, I stop at Compton Verney, for its exhibition on Eric Ravilious and various figures from his circle like the Nashes, Bawden, Freedman, Marx, Garwood and Binyon. I’ve seen a lot of the Nash and Ravilious paintings before but a lot of the rest are new to me. There’s a considerable range of work on display, from painting and Garwood’s woodcuts through to Bawden’s Morley murals and Marx’s textile designs for the London Underground. It seems striking that the woodcuts are some of the most successful works here, largely due to the absence of colour, which often seems confined to a range of subdued colours.The obvious example is Marx’s London Underground seat covers, which set of a range of rather fussy tessellations in yellows and browns; the results are rather hard to like. The most striking work by her in the exhibition is an attempt at a male nude in a Cubist style, which is easily the most obviously modernist piece in the exhibition.  By contrast, Ravilious is successful in moving from painting to decorating ceramics. The exhibition dwells on a lot of his landscape painting, from images of the Downs to his maritime works, concluding in his work as a war artist. Of the other artists, Garwood’s woodcuts mark her as her husband’s equal in that field. Binyon’s illustrations for Penguin Classics similarly suggest that the role of women artists of this period has been undervalued.  By contrast, Bawden’s rather fantastical Morley college murals are one of the highlights in the exhibition but perhaps mark him as a talented illustrator more than an artist; certainly his paintings are less successful. The gallery also has an exhibition of war art, ranging from Victorian paintings to a nurse’s cape stitched with badges from all the regiments she treated (including the Wehrmacht).

The following day, I visit Attingham Park. It’s been a while since I visited and photography is now allowed in the house. The most impressive thing is still the Nash staircase spiralling down to the art gallery and originally from thence to the main hall. The gallery shows a good taste for art, albeit without the means to acquire the most expensive works there are few well known artists (a lot of the works belong to a school or are imitations); Kauffman and Tournier are probably the best known. Some Italian scenes by Hackert are especially striking; a scene showing the excavations at Pompeii springs to mind. I also like a painting showing King William by candlelight. The rest of the house is also beautifully decorated with Scagliola marble and wall frescoes; Fagan’s trompe l’oeil friezes in the entrance hall are especially impressive. By contrast, Calke Abbey remains a mournful relic to aristocratic indolence. Much of the house was left in the state the National Trust found it, which generally means filled with antique junk, bare walls with peeled wallpaper and an alarming amount of taxidermied birds that the family had shot. It feels like an exercise in Urbex more than visiting a stately home. Although some of the rooms remain fairly ornate, the taste for art seems to have been largely absent, with wall after wall filled with paintings of obese cattle in improbably rectangular shapes, painted in the style of Stubbs or Cuyp. The most interesting items are an extensive collection, ranging from Shark’s teeth, Geodes, Fossils and a Crocodile skull. Afterwards, I visit the church at Ticknall, with its William Morris stained glass and medieval tombs.

Lastly, I go for a walk at Bradgate Park. This was the only sunny day all week. I walk up to the Old John folly and head down for a tour of the remains of Bradgate House. The house grounds included a fishing lake, a tiltyard, a bowls court, a formal garden, a kitchen garden (with black Mulberry Tree) and an orchard. A herd of Deer roam about inside, with several of them locking antlers. A Green Woodpecker makes a laughing cry as it watches. Walking round the ruins, I’m able to visit the interior of the only surviving building; the chapel. An impressive monument to Henry and Anne Grey is surmounted by a lion and unicorn design where the face of the lion appears human and is surmounted by horns to suggest the Devil.

Reading Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes, I’m struck by how much of the narrative could be in an Anglo-American novel. The story of a financier who lgoes bankrupt could come from Dickens or Trollope, but here Roble is lifted to a tragic figure more comparable to Oedipus or Lear, after he is forced to return to an impoverished life he had spent his life escaping. This tension seems fundamental to the narrative; it is partly concerned with how the middle-class had betrayed the Revolution and built their success on the poverty and death of others. It depicts a Mexico desperate to embrace American prosperity at all costs, but it is also concerned with how the Mexican lake of blood is always filled, suggesting that violence and death is simply a cyclical part of Mexican life, epitomised by Ixca’s role as the avenging demon throughout. It’s a novel filled with deaths, many of them simply incidental victims rather than fitting into the moral pattern that brings about Norma’s demise and Roble’s downfall.

Reading Aciman’s Enigma Variations reminds me a bit of DH Lawrence. For all of Lawrence’s tendency to treat heterosexual love as a sacrament his depictions of women lack physicality whereas his depictions of men are emphatically physical. In Aciman’s case, the novel depicts a series of polyamorous affairs with both sexes, but it’s only the male characters who are depicted as intensely physical (the sense of pressing a leg next to another man to see if they move it away springs to mind). Equally, most of the male characters are either depicted as gay or bisexual but none of the women are depicted as anything other than heterosexual.

Sublimation

As it was a nice day I decided to visit the Freud Museum in Finchley today. Bearing blue plaques to both Freud and his daughter Anna, he only lived here for a year after his flight from the flat he had occupied for 40 years in Vienna. The contents include drawings of Freud by Dali, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji by a Japanese psychoanalyst, drawings by the Wolfman, traditional Austrian furniture bought from their country cottage and, of course, the couch (in this case, covered with a Persian rug, with a description supplied by the Iranian embassy). The study is the most interesting area; Freud worked surrounded by archaeological exhibits (i.e. things unearthed from the ground, as he has excavated the unconscious), ranging from Egypt, Rome, Greece and Peru. The shelves are filled with books; Poe, Shaw, Wilder but not much obviously in the way of medical treatises. Afterwards, I visit St Augustine’s church in Kilburn, a cathedral like affair built by JL Pearson.

I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Victorian photography a few weeks later. Covering work by Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Rejlander, a lot of them cover mythological scenes, either showing scenes from drama  (as with Rejlander’s portrait of Iphigenia or Cameron’s countless Shakespearean scenes) or recasting famous painting (as with Rejlander’s portrait of the Virgin in Prayer  or Reni paintings). Rejlander’s Two Paths of Life, a vast canvas with multiple exposures to deposit a series of figures into it reminds me of the large scale of Victorian history painting, but it equally attracted criticism as its depiction of nude bodies could never match the idealisation they received in art.

Autumn

Visiting the Vyne this weekend, I found the house is currently swathed in scaffolding as the roof is replaced; after a lengthy queue, you can take a lift up to the roof and look down at the works. Inside, the upper floor of the house has been shut and much of the furnishings are on display downstairs in rooms darkened by the scaffolding outside. Afterwards, I went for a walk in the woodland, through trees with yellowing leaves weighed down with red berries and with bracket fungi clinging to their trunks. After a summer of rain and cloud, the arrival of autumn seems somewhat anti-climatic this year.

Tombland

Arriving in Norwich, I walk over the Wensum river and through a park with a Hepworth sculpture in it, through to the church of St George Colegate. The exterior of the church looks a lot like other buildings in the city, the exterior is of beautiful flint but the interior is Georgian, with plain white walls and wooden furnishings. Walking into the centre, I visit the main square, which is a slightly bewildering concoction of architectural styles. The Guildhall’s wall are filled with white and black diamond patterns while opposite is the City Hall, a sort of brutalist art deco building with an entrance flanked by two rather elegant lions. I then visit the church of St Peter Mancroft, with its ornate wooden flèche.  The interior includes a medieval wooden font canopy, Flemish tapestries, medieval stained glass and a Comper designed reredo. The architectural gallimaufry is further compounded by the nearby presence of a beautiful art nouveau shopping arcade. I then wonder around some of the other nearby churches in Norwich, many of them shut like St Giles, or others that have been turned into shops like St Michael-at-Plea or indoor markets like St Gregory Pottergate.

The next day begins with a rare burst of sunlight and I visit rather dark and gloomy Catholic Cathedral before visiting its Anglican counterpart. It seems somewhat odd to have to walk in through a modern visitor centre, although I do like (admittedly rather incongruous) Zen gravel garden. This leads out into the cloisters and I spend some time looking at the ceiling bosses; Green men, Hellmouths, Demons and the Many Headed Beast from Revelations. Inside the cathedral I look at medieval frescos, Burne Jones stained glass, medieval stained glass, a former toffee vat re-purposed as a font and the famous Gooding monument. I also visit some of the now open churches nearby; St George Tombland with its papier mache civic dragon, Flemish reliefs of St George and the dragon and Kempe stained glass. I also visit St Peter Hungate, which is mostly empty and home to a photo exhibition of Norfolk churches. There are some old wooden pews with carvings of muzzled bears, medieval stained glass and brass monuments left though.

That afternoon the weather worsens and I visit the Museum and Art gallery in the castle. Sections like the Norwich school of painters with their bucolic scenes of the local countryside do little for me, although I do like one night scene set in Amsterdam.  There aren’t many works I recognise; a version of the Anunciation by Burne Jones and a portrait by Zoffany. There’s also the painting of the Paston treasure, accompanied by some of the objects in it. Things I like; the original Snap the Civic Dragon from St George Tombland, medieval stained glass showing the seasons, Roman metal bowls showing mythological scenes, the original Romanesque entry door, the Spong man ceramic lid, the Worthing helmet, the Snettisham torcs and medieval alabaster carvings. I’m also rather struck of the country’s largest collection of teapots; stoneware through to Wedgewood, teapots cast as tanks and as camels, as well as the world’s largest teapot, a chinoiserie affair from the Great Exhibition. The design section has a large collection of medieval stained glass, de Morgan tiles, while the Natural History section has a large collection of taxidermy animals; lions, a boxing Kangaroo and a Cassowary. I also like Scrimshaw Whale teeth and Nautilus shells. As in Exeter Museum, there’s a small room showcasing the displays of a Victorian collector, ranging from mounted butterflies through to custard pots. I’m especially taken by the Egyptian room, including a Mummy sarcophagus and Rider Haggard’s faked sherd from She. Lastly, there’s a rather macabre basement dwelling on the castle’s time as a prison and featuring casts of the heads of various murderers and criminals.

On my last day in Norfolk, I take a train out to Wymondham. It’s a rather dark and gloomy day and the old ruins look suitably gothic against a blackened sky. The interior is actually rather colourful, with another vivid set of Comper reredos in the midst of a series of Romanesque arches.

 

 

The Rupture

“This is a letter of hate. It is for you, my countrymen. I mean those men of my country who have defiled it. The men with manic fingers leading the sightless, feeble, betrayed body of my country to its death… Damn you, England. You’re rotting now.” – John Osborne, A Letter to my Fellow Countrymen.

On the evening of June 23rd, I went to bed with a sense of unease, but nonetheless assuming that the following morning would see things continue much as they had before. When the morning of the 24th arrived, it became clear that this was not to be and that I had awoken into a strange place I no longer recognised.  I got up and took the train into Central London. The city was eerily quiet with a third of the seats on the Tube at rush hour empty. In the time taken to get from Paddington to Liverpool Street the Prime Minister had resigned and the currency markets have collapsed. Much of the rest of the day felt like sleepwalking. A sense of nausea overwhelmed me and I noticed that my hands were shaking. All meetings were cancelled and most of the day was spent looking disbelievingly at TV screens showing events that seemed far away but were anything but.

There’s a common joke in Central Europe that someone can live in scores of different countries in their lifetime without once having to move house. I find myself thinking of what it would have been like in East Berlin as a system that had been hollow and decrepit for years finally crumbled. By contrast,  England is used to watching countries fall apart from afar, even as its own fabric has progressively frayed over the years.  A long process that had seen duopolistic rule by two parties eroded, the smashing of liberalism and the rise of nationalism, had finally come to a denouement in a political campaign marked by lies, threats, conspiracy theories and murder. The sensation of ceasing to be a spectator of chaos and becoming an unwilling participant,  as the United Kingdom severs itself from Europe and begins the inevitable process of its own disintegration, still feels unreal.

Nonetheless, events begin spiralling out of control quickly; both government and opposition dissolve at the same point that abuse and attacks against minorities and foreign nationals spike. The far right clearly believe themselves to be emboldened and validated; something malevolent has been unleashed that will not be easy to diminish. Petitions are signed, recriminations begin. Theories as to how things fell this way are evinced according to personal prejudice; none of them are especially convincing. As it becomes clear that the winning campaign had no plan for what would follow their victory, the revolution quickly devours its own would-be Marats and Robespierres.   The vestiges of the Liberal party commit to reversing the referendum decision; several friends who have previously always voted for other parties switch to join them. I find myself wondering instead whether there is anything left to fight for as my feelings veer between a sense of numbness and grief for the loss of my country. It’s difficult not to also feel a sense of shame and guilt at some sort of implicit culpability for its actions. Any inclination to waste further time on elections to Westminster’s tin-pot Parliament is the last thing I feel. As the Conservative Party begins the process of electing a new leader, who unlike the previous one seems unlikely to have any truck with liberal Britain, a sense of helplessness descends.  Events are looked on from afar as a spectator, in much the same way as Kremlinologists once did.

I begin thinking about what my country had actually meant. I grew up in the West Midlands, a part of the country where 58% of the electorate voted to leave the European Union. By contrast, I was educated in Oxford (Remain: 70%) and have since lived in Berkshire (Remain: 55%) and worked in London (Remain: 75%). During the course of the campaign I saw numerous people and posters campaigning for Remain and almost nothing from their opponents. Over time I’ve studied and worked with large numbers of people from different countries, both from within and without of Europe. It becomes easy to see your place in the world as essentially transnational, divorced of connection to the rest of the country. During the course of the 24th it became obvious that many people had begun questioning that; a UK national with a Spanish wife begins applying for a Spanish passport, a Korean stops the process of applying for UK citizenship while a UK national applies to renew her lapsed Polish passport.

My own mental map of my place in the world, as someone ultimately descended from German immigrants, begins to unravel. Concepts like freedom and democracy that had underpinned any sense of national identity seem deformed and corrupted by their appropriation in the campaign.  My identity as a European has been taken from me and it seems likely that the ability to call myself British will also be removed. What remains is a rump sense of Englishness that now stands for little more than isolation, xenophobia and nostalgia. This is something I can only repudiate. Although my love of England has diminished over the years, there’s still much I care for about it. But that only makes it harder for me to even countenance forgiving it.

 

The Gathering Storm

Amidst leaden skies and continual drizzle, a planned visit to Nymans had to be hurriedly substituted for a trip to Chartwell.  Tickets were timed, so I wandered around the grounds with an umbrella for a while, through a series of ornamental lakes lined with Gunera to a kitchen garden. The Ducks and ornamental Carp seem unperturbed by the rain.  The walls of Churchill’s old studio are still lined with his paintings, mostly of the South of France or Italy. A painting of his father still rests on an easel while a painting of the Yalta conference hangs nearby. Walking back to the house, there’s a museum of Churchill memorabilia; carved Russian glass vases, Delft plates in honour of the liberation of the Hague and caskets from Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Much of the rest of the interior is perhaps rather drab; a sort of oversized version of an suburban house.

A few days later and I find myself at the Royal Academy’s Giorgione exhibition. Like the previous Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery, this is less about one subject and more about the era, featuring works from Titian, Bellini and Durer.  The most striking works are probably the portraits. Bellini and Durer tend to show their subject against landscapes or plain backgrounds; Giorgione shows a knight in full armour with his groom or a master and his servant, placing the subject into a context.

Later that week and I’m at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve not been there before; I generally feel that the exterior of the building is nondescript, the interior is maze-like (and leaves you suspecting that you have arrived back in the early sixties) but the actual hall and its acoustics are rather pleasant. I’m here to see a performance of JenůfaAs with my experience of Osud a few years back, I’m struck by how each piece would work as a novel or play without the music; in this case, much of the story seems to recall a Hardy novel but the lack of inevitability in the ending and the avoidance of further tragedy comes as an interesting surprise.

Lincolnian

It’s a long way up to Lincoln and I find myself changing trains a few times between Derby and Nottingham, with the train getting older at each stage. Eventually, the train pulls in and I begin walking up the hill to the cathedral. I like the literalism of street signs with names like ‘Steep Hill,’ a winding lane lined with medieval stone and halef-timbered houses. Eventually, I realise that the amount of aviator goggles, blunderbusses and pith helmets in evidence means that I’ve arrived during a steampunk festival. I have a walk around the cathedral to the Tennyson statue and visit the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. I’m rather struck by the reconstructed gardens, especially the vineyard (although the rather small grapes suggest very little wine is likely to be forthcoming). From this terrace on the hill, you can see out over much of the surrounding flat countryside. Lastly, I walk out to the Ellis windmill, before retiring for the evening.

The following morning I start by visiting the castle. As a structure it’s actually rather simple, with only the presence of two towers varying the classic Motte and Bailey design, but it does cover a large area and it takes a fair while to do a circuit of the walls. The view of the cathedral from here is especially striking, with the three towers appearing to form a solid block, like a group of medieval skyscrapers. One of the the towers is also quite striking; its walls form an enclosure within which a copse of trees has grown and beneath which rest a number of headstones (the remains of those executed within the prison). Looking round the prison, I start with the chapel, whose pews are formed from an ampitheatre of solitary boxes so as to divide the prisoners from one another, while the prison blocks form long and surprisingly elegant arcades. The prison houses a medieval stone sarcophagus found on the site as well as an exhibition housing the cathedral copy of the Magna Carta (presumably one of those I’d previously seen in the British Library) along with the Charter of the Forests.

I then visit the cathedral, looking initially at the restored Romanesque reliefs and the weathered originals from the facade. I particularly like elements like the Harry Stammers wall memorial glass, the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine, medieval stained glass, the Lincoln imp, the chapter house, cloisters, Tournai marble font and the library but the highlight for me is Duncan Grant’s side chapel. Grant’s frescos, with their bright yellows and oranges sit oddly in their gothic surroundings. His cityscape looks more Italianate than Lincolnian while their unabashed homoeroticism completes the sense of a rather joyful paganism. 

I also briefly visit the Usher Gallery and Museum, with its ammonite, longcase clocks, suit of armour, Roman mosaics, neo-classical scuptures by Joseph Nollekens & John Gibson, a portrait of Joseph Banks and paintings by Turner, Joseph Wright of Derby and Lowry. I particularly like the Louth panorama, an all-round view of the town and district as seen from the top of the spire of St James’s parish church as on a summer’s day in the 1840s. Some exhibits I’m less keen on; a Grayson Perry pot and an entire room of George Stubbs paintings.

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.

Easter

As the waters slowly recede from flooded fields and the sun returns to the sky, I decide to visit Portsmouth. The train takes my straight to the harbour and I walk along the quayside to the Royal Dockyards and I look around inside Warrior and Victory. I’m especially impressed by Warrior’s engine room, with the furnaces lit up by red lights. I also have a look at some of the museums, looking at strange figureheads designed around Gods like Apollo, nymphs and Arabic princes and the various memorabilia created around the cult of Nelson; paintings, busts, china plates, Wedgewood vases and locks of hair. I then walk past status of Captain Scott and King William in the Porter’s Garden before visiting the Mary Rose. When I had last visited as a child the wrecked timbers were still being hosed down with water; now they are being dried out and are much more visible. Finally, I go for a walk on the beach and along the sea front, past the Nelson statue and the ruins of the Royal Garrison church before visiting the cathedral. Unsurprisingly, the nineteen thirties facade looks rather militaristic but the gothic interior with its naval memorials is rather elegant with the Buckingham monument and a Sergei Fyodorov icon. I then walk back to the austere Guildhall with its war memorials and monuments to Queen Victoria surrounded by the rather dilapidated buildings of modern Portsmouth befor boarding the return train.

The following weekend and I travel up to the Midlands. I stop on route at the Ripon Chapel at Cuddesdon. The interior is extraordinary with the linden beams serving as elegant flying buttresses on the inside of the building, with the modernist curtain wall on the exterior bearing all the load. Light streams through the uppermost windows, refracting into butterfly colours on the pillars beneath. Back up in the Midlands and I revisit Pugin’s church at Cheadle before returning to the gardens at Biddulph Grange. Since my last visit some of the Chinese follies have been re-opened and the Giant Redwoods have started to grow tall and strong. It’s too early for the Dahlias to be in flower but Tulips and Rhododendrons are in flower. Carp and ducks swim alongside one another in the lake. As we leave, we walk up to the ruined castle at Mow Cop, from where we can almost see as far as Liverpool across the Cheshire plain. Lastly, I visit Little Moreton Hall. The next day, and we drive down to Herefordshire. We revisit the church at Brockhampton, with its thatched arts and crafts exterior matched by an almost art deco exterior and the church at Kilpeck with its Romanesque door decorations. We also visit Abbey Dore for the first time, with a pain interior whose walls remain covered by frescoed homilies. I rather like the detailed medieval bosses, wooden carvings, medieval tiles and Victorian stained glass. I then carry on to the church at St Margaret, with its beautiful carved wooden rood screen, the church at Hampton Bishop with its arts and crafts stained glass and half timbered tower. Lastly, I also visit Castle Frome, whose tower is also half timbered. The most interesting things here are the Romanesque font and medieval tomb monument.

Travelling back down south, I visit Compton Verney. The gallery has an exhibition of Moore and Rodin sculptures, the latest in a sequence of Moore exhibitions paired with another rather more powerful artists (Bacon, Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska). In this case, there is a genuine influence and thee are several points of comparison. Rodin’s stress on the unfinished and fragmented, creating the aspect of sculptures as pitted and scarred as ancient Roman sculpture certainly emerges as an influence (although an unfinished figure atop a classical column reminds me of Mitoraj more than Moore) but Rodin’s work is figurative and predominantly occupies a world of history and mythology, while Moore’s work is at its best when entirely abstract; any referential content relates to a private mythology. A room showing their respective collections is occupied by Roman sculpture for Rodin but a much wider frame of reference for Moore, from Oceania to Medieval Europe. The grounds are filled with several of their paired sculptures, including the Burghers of Calais and Moore’s Arch. Of the works inside, many come from Rodin’s Gates of Hell designs. As before with Moore, I prefer many of his drawings to their counterpart sculptures; they retain a definition where his sculptures tend towards the amorphous; parallels are drawn between Moore’s drawings in the Tube during the Blitz and Rodin’s work after the Commune. Outside, the chapel is also open, and I can now see a range of medieval floor tombs and alabaster monuments.