The Winter of Our Discontent

Travelling up to the Midlands for Christmas I visit the church at Binton in Warwickshire to look at the stained glass; a series of four panels depicting Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. The panels show a range of scenes including the departure of Captain Oates from the expedition tent. I later visit some other churches and National Trust houses in that area; a church at Lapworth with a Norman font, the house at Baddesley Clinton (including a Saenredam style stained glass panel showing an exhumation inside a church that I don’t recall having noticed before) and the nearby church with  medieval stained glass.

A few days later I visit Leicester and the tomb of King Richard. The tomb, an austere affair in marble with the shape of a cross cut out of it, contrasts rather oddly with the ornate Victorian cathedral it is housed in. The nearby Tom Denny window depicting scenes from Richard’s life seems rather more at home amidst the green man corbels, polychromatic wooden angels and Tudor tomb monuments. Next, I visit the nearby Guildhall with its long gallery and wooden clock showing Father Time and the church of St Mary De Castro. Lastly, I visit the Museum and Gallery. I dimly recall visiting it as a child after the discovery of the Rutland Dinosaur and some of those memories come back to me now. Alongside the Plesiosaur and Cetiosaurus bones, the Charnia fossil and a piece of the Barwell meteorite, some of the fossils from the Oxford Clay formation are also impressive. The museum’s collections are rather wondeful beyond that; a series of Egyptian sarcophagi and funerary stelae, Persian ceramics, an arts and crafts section showing work by De Morgan and Ernest Gimson, blue john vases and a set of Picasso ceramics bequeathed by Richard Attenborough. There’s an especially striking German expressionism exhibition, featuring work by Franz Marc, Lyonel Feininger, Max Pechstein, Kathe Kollwitz, Kokoschka, Max Beckmann and Kandinsky. The work I’m most impressed by is Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas by Otto Dix.

The Radical Eye

On a rare sunny day in early December, I head into London to see the Tate’s exhibition of modernist photography. The first room is dominated by Man Ray’s portraits, contrasting his erotic depictions of Kiki de Montparnasse with Brassai’s depiction of gay nightlife. Later sections dwell on the male body more closely in photos by Lynes, Maar, Kertesz and Drtikol. This section is perhaps also noteworthy for the theme of masks in photos by Sougez, Quigley and Steichen. The next section is dedicated to photographic experimentalism; montages by Bayer and Breitenbach, solarised Man Ray photographs. Then, it moves onto documentary; photos by depression America in the twenties by Adams, Evans and Lange. The penultimate section dwells on perspectives; Rodchenko’s photo of the Shukhov tower and Bourke White’s photos of electricity pylons,the Chrysler Building and the Washington Bridge. The last section features abstracts by Funke and Man Ray again.

I also visit the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the same gallery. The main image that sticks in my mind  is a collage showing Bobby Kennedy, Janis Joplin and the body of Martin Luther King; I start to wonder whether Rauschenberg  formed part of the same counter-culture as Joplin or was parasitic upon it. A lot of the propositional aspects of his work stem from the photographs and objects he re-uses in them, while much of his approach to art, especially given his various scientific collaborations, was essentially technocratic, focused on formalistic experimentation. Each section in the exhibition seems an exercise in self-reinvention; the first room dwells on his cyanotypes and Malevich style painting of solid blocks of white and black. The next dwells on his use of collage and real objects in the red paintings and the combines and the increased use of animated objects like alarm clocks, lights and radios. The next covers his use of transfer drawings and silkscreens before showing  footage of his dance collaborations . The next section of technological collaborations is probably the most bizarre, with ‘Mud Muse’ (complete with a sign warning that the mud geysers may splash clothing) probably counting as the strangest thing I’ve seen in a museum.

Some of the pieces I like; boxes filled with surreal objects in imitation of reliquaries (I’m more reminded of Joesph Cornell), a square filled with thickly and coarsely layered gold leaf, his transfer rendition of Dante’s inferno with riot police replacing demons and astronauts replacing angels, the hoarfrost transfer drawing,  the ‘glut’ sculptures of twisted metal made from gas station signs and car parts to showcase the ruin of greed during the oil crisis and lastly a silkscree transfer of his photographs onto aluminium. The most famous piece is obviously ‘Monogram’ – it’s reasonable to conclude that I am unlikely to ever see a piece labelled ‘Oil painted onto a taxidermied Angora Goat’ again.

The following weekend, I visit Dulwich Picture Gallery. When I’d thought of the name van ve Velde  I’d mostly think of maritime paintings by Willem van de Velde, of which the gallery includes a couple. The gallery’s exhibition of paintings by his son Adriaen, dwells instead on landscapes and is more reminiscent of someone like Ruisdael or Constable than the work of his father or brother. Some beach scenes occupy the first room but the focus is on the figures not the landscape. The exhibition feels rather padded, with rather too many sketches and drawings showing his working method and too few paintings.  The highlights are a portrait of a family (erroneously once thought to show Velde himself) staring intently out of the frame while walking in the countryside and a set of ice skating scenes.

Ascending and Descending

I’ve wanted to visit University College for sometime now, mostly because of the Shelley Memorial. Set in a railed off part of the college the memorial is a beautiful piece with the white marble of the naked figure set against spare purple walls. The college chapel is also rather wonderful with a series of stained glass panels showing Genesis and Jonah & the whale. Next, I visit the Blavatnik building. The circular exterior has an amphitheatre as its lecture hall as the base, with concentric ramps up to the upper floors. There’s a series of spiral staircases that lead upwards to a terrace looking out over the city. Later, I go to Pembroke where the chapel has a Bach organ concert.

The following weekend is the open doors days for London. I visit the baroque church of St John Smith Square (an orchestra here is giving a  rendition of the Van der Valk theme tune) before visiting Cutler’s Hall in the city. As one might expect the hall features elephant designs everywhere; in the stained glass, the banisters, cushions and rafters. There’s some rather beautiful stained glass showing a series of industrial scenes; rather unusual for the Victorian period. I then visit some of the Victorian dock warehouses at Wapping before visiting the Royal Society. Exhibits like Newton’s death mask and some of Priestley’s electrical equipment are on display. Lastly, I visit the William Morris gallery in Hammersmith, where a printing press demonstration is being held. The next day, I visit the Sandys Row synagogue. Tucked away in a warren of lanes, the interior is rather expansive, although the combination of an old Bimah with a set of what look like thirties pews is rather odd.

A few weeks later, and I head to Reading for the open day at Reading Gaol.  A tour leads us throughout the original debtor’s prison, through rooms that look like they were only abandoned a few weeks ago.  The highlight of the main prison wings is obviously Oscar Wilde’s cell and the prison chapel, along with photo and video installations by Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans. Alongside the modern installations are various photographs of the prisoners and of the prison as it originally stood.

A few weeks later and I visit the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition. The most impressive room is dedicated to Clyfford Still’s work; where Pollock’s work aims to emulate the entropic element of nature, Still’s work does often rather resemble natural patterns; the bark peeling off a silver birch, rust on old machinery or paint peeling off a wooden door. The sense of depth is a lot greater than on Pollock’s accreted layers of dripped paints. The other highlight is the room dedicated to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s work composites layers of similar paint combinations on top of one another; the black paintings in particular require quite a lot of time for the eye to adjust to see the colour variations. It’s like the visual equivalent of  a Philip Glass painting. The Newman works remind me rather more of Mondrian, with their flat planes of bold primary colour intersected by vertical ‘zips.’ Other things that strike me; Barbara Morgan’s black and white light paintings, Lee Krasner’s The Eye if the First Circle, Kline’s Vawdavitch, De Kooning’s Villa Borghese and a small collection of Rothkos. There’s also a small John Gibson exhibition, showing a range of scuptures and funerary monuments.  A few weeks later and I go to the National Gallery’s Caravaggio exhibition.  Works by Caravaggio are interspersed alongside pieces by his followers.  Some of the earliest works, like those by Francesco Buoneri mirror his master closely. Later works by Gentilleschi, Reni and Ribera, Regnier and Tournier diverge more in their greater use of colour. Later sections record the irony that while Caravaggio never painted a candlelit scene this was arguably  his greatest influence, shown here in works by Honthorst and de la Tour.

Lastly, I find myself spending an afternoon in Cambridge. I visit the chapel at Robinson college, with its wonderful stained glass landscape window by John Piper, before spending a few hours in the Fitzwilliam. Things that catch my attention; a bust of Antinous, Greek dramatic masks, a Roman mosaic, a Gibson Venus, the collection of Egyptian sarcophagi, the spectre of Braze Alonzo, a Burges cupboard and a trillion Dollar Zimbabwean note.

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.

 

 

Strange Matters

The week after the vote I find myself in Oxford for a Philomusica performance at the Sheldonian. I walk around parts of Oxford, looking at the new Blavatnik Building and Bio-chemistry buildings. From the performance I especially liked Bartok’s Romanian Dances, Soloviev-Sedoi’s Moscow Nights and Paganini’s Caprice No. 24.

The following weekend and I’m in London for a performance of Macbeth at The Globe. First, I visit the Tate’s new Switch House. The building is an oddity; a brick extrusion from the original power station that lurches out at odd angles. It looks like some sort of strange growth, towering over the glass and steel thickets of luxury housing around it. The interior is perhaps a bit more nondescript, with many of its floors closed to the public. The viewing platform at the top offers unusual views over the city; looking out over half-completed skyscrapers I find myself wondering how many of them will actually be finished now. Signs not to disturb the neighbours are placed around the platform; presumably in response to complaints from resident oligarchs in the buildings below. The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate is rather wonderful. O’Keeffe frequently expressed irritation with sexual interpretations of her flower paintings or attempts to read death symbolism into her animal skull paintings. The implication in both cases is that she was simply interested in their geometry and colour rather than their interpretation. And yet, aside from early synaesthetic paintings dedicate to visualising music, very little of her work is purely abstract. Instead it is rooted in a series of highly specific regions; New England’s forests and oceans,  Manhattan skyscrapers, New Mexican ravines and pueblo churches.

The performance at The Globe is well acted but not brilliantly directed.  The sisters are shown veiled, their parts sung as a chorus rather than spoken. This works well but the soundtrack often drown out the performance and the use of puppetry to suggest the supernatural borders on the bathetic. Parts are often excessively ad-libbed with contemporary jokes. Macbeth is given an unscripted child who appears sat at the end on Malcolm’s throne; I rather preferred the Fassbinder film and its switching to Fleance at the end. This year’s Proms visit begin with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Rossini’s Barber of Seville. The Rossini is interesting for breaking a ‘fifth wall’ between performers and orchestra; as when the conductor pauses to correct Bartolo’s singing. Seated for the latter, I noticed how bad the hall’s acoustics were; whenever a performer turned away I stopped being able to hear them. The next performance is Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet Symphony; something of a fragmented piece with parts narrated by a semi-chorus, instrumental sections and a more dramatic finale.

A following weekend and back in London for an exhibition of Georgiana Houghton’s spiritualist drawings at the Courtauld Gallery.  Something of an oddity, it strikes me as a mid-point between William Blake (mostly the detailed annotations on the back of each work) and Kandinsky (given that Houghton is essentially creating abstraction in the interests of showing the other side of the veil). The paintings range from flowers (serving as a spirit avatar) to abstract works that occasionally incorporate realistic elements (the eye of God or, more bizarrely,  a portrait of the then Princess Victoria). After that, I head off to the Newport Street Gallery. I’m mostly interested in the building’s architecture, with its sweeping spiral staircases. The Jeff Koons exhibition is a less enthralling prospect, although some of the silver statues and sculptures are quite intriguing.

With a few days off, I visit Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden. For the former, I visit the interior of Kew Palace for the first time, the Henry Moore sculpture, Kew church, Princess Charlotte’s Cottage and the views from nearby across the Thames to Syon Park. For the latter, there’s a display of Wardian cases near to a tea plant along with details of the medical properties of the garden’s Cannabis display. The Pomegranate tree near the entrance was fruiting; sadly no Mandrakes in season at this time though.

Lastly, I visit Hockney’s exhibition of 82 portraits and a still life at the Royal Academy. The still life shows a group of fruits arranged after a sitter was unable to attend; probably a rather more innocuous version of the blacking of Marino Faliero’s painting in the Doge’s palace. The portraits are all cast against a set of themed backgrounds in blue and green, with the subjects sat on a yellow chair.  Colourful clothing like red dresses and purple shirts completes the colour spectrum. Most of the paintings clearly form part of a common set, but some stand out; the way Edith Devaney leans forward towards the viewer, Barry Humphrey’s arch pose or the way Celia Birtwell is painted sideways while sat on the edge of her chair. The drafting style is loose and it often seems best to stand away from the paintings and look at them as a group rather than inspecting individual details.

Leaving the Atocha Station

It’s a searingly hot afternoon when I arrive in Madrid, so I decide to spend my first afternoon in the Retiro Park. The Retiro is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve seen, filled with sculptures and monuments; stone Sphinxes look on as metal Iguanas spout water into pools where terrapins swim. I walk down a boulevard to the Alfonso Monument, with its colonnades surrounding a central sculpture; giant fish spout water into a boating lake. I walk on to the monument to Lucifer and the Crystal Palace. The Palace has a small art exhibition; at the centre a pendulum gradually creates sand patterns on the floor as it swings to and fro. I walk onward to a rose garden and a set of Japanese gardens; a raft of ducks become competitive as bread is offered.

The next day I take the Metro to the  Teatro Real and walk to the Plaze de Oriente. In contrast to the fantastical Retiro, the Plaze is a geometrically precise formal garden, lined on either side with statues of Spanish Kings and Queens and with an equestrian statue of Philip the Second at its centre. Facing it is the Palacio Real; I walk past it and visit the Catedral de la Almudena. It’s an odd building; the exterior is defined by austere neo-classicism while the interior is a form of cold gothic, but the ceilings are decorated with garish primary colours as are the stained glass in the windows. The crypt is perhaps more striking, with its illuminated arcades silhouetted against the darkness. After that, I walk down past the old Moorish city walls to the Campo Del Moro. With the Palacio Real towering above its fountains and trees, the Campo is a rather more conventional park than the Retiro, with the exception of the odd inclusion of  a Swiss cottage. In one of the rose gardens, I encounter a peacock family with two chicks.

In one of the other parks nearby, I visit the Temple of Debod. This Egyptian temple rests at summit of a hill in the middle of an ornamental pond. After this, I walk back into central Madrid and the Plaza de España; the monument to Cervantes here is only rivalled by the Scott Monument in Edinburgh for a country creating a grand memorial to its writers. The presence of the nearby wedding cake style skyscraper, the Edificio España, makes for an odd counterpoint.  I then travel onto the Plaza Mayor, a grand square surrounded by uniform buildings in a  bright scarlet on all sides with an equestrian statue of Philip the Third by Giambologna in the centre, the Plaza del Sol with its Bear and Strawberry Tree statue and down the Gran Via. The Gran Via is probably best described as a more ornate version of Oxford Street; I’m especially impressed by the Edificio Telefonica, a skyscraper that would not have looked out of place in Manhattan. Lastly, I find myself at the Plaza de Cibeles, where Madrid’s City Hall is located.

The following day, I visit the Palacio Real. I initially walk through the armoury with its collection of Moorish and Medieval weaponry. In the palace itself, a lot of the rooms have ceilings with frescoes drawn by Tiepolo and Bourbon era paintings by Goya; I especially like the porcelain and chinoiserie rooms. The golden lions in the throne room rather remind me of the Rosenborg slot in Copenhagen. As this is the centenary of the death of Cervantes, a number of tapestries showing scenes from Don Quixote are on display. At the end there’s an exhibition which includes a Bernini sculpture of the crucifixion, paintings by Caravaggio, Guido Reni and Ribera. That afternoon, I visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Some of the things I’m most struck by; Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Sebastian, The Virgin of the Dry Tree by Christus, Weyden’s Virgin and Child, Carpaccio’s Knight in a Landscape, Angelico’s Virgin, Titian’s Doge, Brueghel’s Garden of Eden,  Saenredam’s Mariakerk, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait,  Ter Borch’s Portrait of a Man, Holbein’s Portrait of Henry the Eighth, Ruebens’ Portrait of a Young Woman with a Rosary, Friedrich’s Easter Morning, Cole’s Expulsion, Manet’s Horsewoman, Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, Renoir’s Wheatfield, Van Gogh’s Les Vessenots, Grosz’s Metropolis, Ernst’s Solitary and Conjugal Trees, Macke’s Circus, Dali’s Dream Caused by The Flight of a Bee and O’Keeffe’s New York Street. There’s also a small exhibition of photographs taken in Wyeth’s native city of Chadd’s Ford. For the rest of the afternoon, I take a stroll to Plaza Santa Ana and the  Mercado de San Miguel.

The entirety of the following day is occupied with a rather more extensive visit to the Prado. There’s an exhibition on for the Bosch centenary; in addition to the gallery’s own collection it’s also brought together Bosh works from across Europe, many of which I’ve seen before, but the highlights are The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Haywain Triptych and the Temptations of Saint Anthony.  Items like The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins are also entirely new to me. The Prado collections proper begin with Romanesque painting, often from preserved church interiors, rather reminding me of similar frescoes I’d seen in Barcelona.  The linkages between Hispanic and Flemish art of the medieval period are new to me, if unsurprising, in paintings of still lives and Boscheque scenes of the fall. Extensive collections of renaissance art follow; El Greco, Ribera, Zurbaran, Velasquez and Murillo representing Spain. The Goya collections are especially extensive, divided between the black paintings, court portraiture and interior frescoes. I’m also new to a Spanish school of neo-classical painting similar to David and Ingres and to the 19th Spanish history paintings; Queen Isabella dictating her will and Joanna the Mad at her husband’s funeral. I’m struck by a painting of Nary Tudor I had never realised was by a Spanish artist. The international collections commence with Angelico’s Annunciation and Boticelli’s Story of Nastagio. Other things that catch my eye; a copy of the Mona Lisa, Parmigianino portraits, a series of Hapsburg portraits by Titian, a Bassano painting of God Reprimanding Adam, Weyden’s Virgin and Child, Durer’s self-portrait, a Massys portrait of Christ, Brueghel’s Triumph of Death, Durer’s Adam and Eve, a Rembrandt painting of Judith, Poussin, Robert and Lorrain paintings and a David Roberts paintings of Rome and Seville. There’s also a small set of classical sculptures, of Antinous, Orestes and Pylades and the Apotheosis of Claudius. Lastly there’s a small exhibition of Talbotype illustrations, made of them made around Reading.

The following day and I take the train out to Segovia. It arrives at a very modern station in the middle of nowhere and I have to take a bus out to the centre of the town. Much of that area consists of wasteland and empty office developments; it looks like an aborted project begun before the financial crisis. As the bus arrives, the first thing I see is the aqueduct; almost entirely intact, easily the equal of anything in Rome. I walk up through the town to the cathedral. It has a beautiful gothic interior with a pleasant set of cloisters. I then walk onto the Alcazar. Heavily restored and recreated after a fire in the 19th century, it rather reminds me of Neuschwanstein with its elegant spires balanced at the edge of a cliff face. I enter through the armoury, which then gives way to a series of gothic and mudejar rooms and climb to the top of the tower, from where I can see Storks nesting on top of the nearby pine trees.  A series of formal gardens cling onto the cliff face nearby.  I walk back through the town, loooking at a series of churches with Romanesque capitals and arches.

The next day and I instead travel out to Toledo. The 19th century train station I arrive at is an exotic 19th century confection, designed in a faux-Moorish style. I walk into the town pass over a bridge and walk through a horseshoe arch into the town. The first thing I visit is the Hospital of Santa Cruz. The museum here has a display of Roman mosaics and medieval Spanish ceramics. The gardens and cloisters are beautiful. Walking further into town I visit the cathedral; not unlike Segovia, but the interior is even darker and more cavernous; a treasury contains a large gold monstrance, the cloister walls are painted with frescoes, the transparente which illuminates parts of the nave at different points of the day through two windows, chapels with sets of medieval tombs, a giant fresco of St Christopher covering an entire wall and a Sacristy lined with El Greco and Caravaggio paintings. I then go onto visit the El Greco museum, a pleasant house filled with Moorish ceramics and a beautiful garden. The museum itself contains El Greco paintings of the apostles. I also visit some of the town’s former synagogues and look at a set of Roman baths jutting out the hillside on the edge of the city. Journeying back to Madrid, I arrive at Atocha station and walk around the old nineteenth century station whose interior is now filled with Palms and Ferns growing above ponds where Terrapins lazily swim.

The following day I visit the Museum of the Americas. Exiting a Metro station opposite Franco’s Air Ministry (designed effectively as a replica for a medieval Spanish castle) the museum is housed inside Madrid university, near a rather bizarre viewing platform (not unlike the Space Needle in Seattle).  The museum is extraordinary; enconchando panels showing the Conquest of Mexico, an Incan mummy, Mayan urns, Tlingit helmets, feather hats and Quimbaya gold figurines. The afternoon is spent in the Archaeological Museum. Starting with Stone Age Idols before proceeding to the Iberian period, with extraordinary sculptures like the Lady of Elche. The collection of Roman mosaics is especially extensive along with Roman tombs and sculptures; I’m also struck by a working Roman pump. Later exhibits include the Reccesvinth’s crown from the Guarrazar tomb, Visigothic jewellery, wooden carvings and ceilings from Al-Andalus, medieval capitals and tomb monuments. There’s also an extensive Greek and Egyptian section, filled with statues of Apollo, Canopic Jars, sarcophagi and a statue of Nectanebo.  Finally on that day, I take advantage of late opening to see Guernicaat the Reina Sofia Gallery, along with various works by Dali, Miro, Man Ray, Brassai, Cocteau, mobiles by Calder and a portrait of Tristan Tzara by Delaunay.

The next day and I travel away from Madrid once more out to the Escorial. It’s a rather convoluted route to get there by train, bus and walking but I do finally arrive. The first thing I visit there is the Basilica, which seems most notable for its dark and austere nature; the gold tomb monuments of the Hampsburgs in prayer are probably the most striking. The I walk through a set of frescoed cloisters into the palace, including Philip’s study, the Hall of Battles and the Kaisergruft style crypts. There’s a small art exhibition, including tapestry versions of Bosch paintings, the custmary El Grecos and  a striking Weyden painting of the Crucifixion. The Bourbon apartments are considerably more lively, filled with bright and colourful tapestries showing scenes of Spanish life, many of them designed by Goya. Finally, I walk around the gardens and look out across the Castilian plain to the four Madrid skyscrapers near the train station that can still be seen in the distance, before getting into yet another bus to visit the Valley of the Fallen. The bus heads off deep into the mountains and leaves me at the Valley for two hours. The grandiloquent scale of the architecture contrasts markedly with the quiet and peace of the location; a Hummingbird Moth is fluttering around some flowers while bees drone near a set of bushes. The concrete plateau in front of the Basilica is filled with weeds and inevitably reminds me of Speer’s theory of ruin value. The interior of the Basilica is in many ways nothing more than a drearily conventional Catholic church filled with ceiling mosaics and a somewhat outre choice of tapestries depicting scenes from the Book of Revelations, but the scale and darkness equally give it the atmosphere of a warehouse or tube station.

The last day in Madrid begins with a visit to the Botanical Gardens. There’s a lovely set of displays, from sunflowers and palms to Bonsai trees and Dahlias. At one point I’m distracted by a noise and initially assume it to be the customarily noisy Parrots before I realise that it’s a set of frog mating calls coming from a pond. A series of (presumably employed) cats prowl around, stalking pigeons. Lastly, I visit the Sorolla museum. Not a name I’d previously heard of, the museum reminds me of the Leighton House in Kensington or Moreau’s studio in Montmartre, with rooms filled with his own paintings, Majolica ceramics and medieval sculptures. The paintings themselves I’m less impressed by; an exhibition shows impressionist views of Spanish cities, including a beautiful Burgos snow scene.

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.

 

Painting with Light

The first room in the Tate’s Painting with Light exhibition is dedicated to photographs and corresponding paintings by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill; unsurprisingly a lot of their subjects are familiar to me; views of Edinburgh from Calton Hill or from the castle. Hill’s picture of the founding of the Free Church of Scotland was based on photographs of individual subjects combined in the depiction of a single assembly. In the painting the light falls equally on each figure, each of whom looks rather like they have been cut out and overlaid above their neighbours.  Much of the exhibition dwells on the debate as to whether the accuracy of photography ended realist painting and opened the path of abstraction instead, but in reality much of the exhibition shows the two mirroring one another. Ruskin and other Pre-Raphaelites used photographs to record architectural details that would later be painted. Photographic replicas of paintings like The Death of Chatterton spawn court cases. Julia Margaret Cameron and William Peach Robinson’s Arthurian photographs precisely mirror their Victorian counterparts. Comparisons of portraits of the same female subject by Julia Margaret Cameron and Watts favour watts for his elimination of background in favour of the subject whereas Cameron is theatrical in her setting, but her portrait of him succeeds against his own self portrait for the same reasons. When it comes to Whistler’s indistinct nocturnes of Atkinson Grimshaw’s gaslight paintings, photography keeps space with equally numinous photographs of urban scenes by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The following weekend, I go to the Wallace Collection. From my previous visit years ago, I recall the Vernet and Delaroche paintings, the medieval Europe and Oriental armouries and above all The Laughing Cavalier. The Hals masterpiece still sounds out amidst the surrounding ranks of Rembrandts, for its vibrancy and sense of joie de vivre.  I’d forgotten how much of an oddity it is; it feels a lot more like the Frick Collection or the Musée Jacquemart-André than most London museums. Most of the rooms feel like a time capsule from rococo Paris, with Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry displayed throughout. Other things that leap out; Limoges enamel work, allegorical Poussin paintings, maiolica ceramics, a mythological scene from Titian and a room filled with Canalettos. The next weekend, I go to Waddesdon Manor. I’d forgotten the tower room filled with Bakst’s paintings of the Sleeping beauty and items like the Indian elephant clock automata.

I finally got to see the Ben Wheatley film of High-Rise the other night. The novel’s themes of tower block class war degenerating into butchery and violence seem prescient at a time when oligarchic skyscrapers rise in Western cities as their banlieue breed fanatics and terrorists.   This is as it should be; for a novel written in the seventies, Ballard’s work always operates implicitly as science fiction. Which makes the setting of the novel at the time it was written something of an oddity as the film effectively turns into a period drama of a future that never happened in quite that form.  Unlike Cronenberg’s film version of Crash, it also imparts to the film a certain kitsch or even comic aspect absent from the novel, a sort of version of Abigail’s Party with added killings, which sits oddly alongside a novel concerned with the death of affect. Ballardian surrealism is rendered as English eccentricity.

The Heart of Midlothian

Edinburgh is a disorienting place for the English traveller.  The neat Georgian buildings of the New Town recall Bath, but the symmetrical grid plan they are laid out on recalls Barcelona. The castle on the rock relates to Edinburgh’s history in the same way the Tower relates to London’s, but the vertiginous geography recalls Prague or Budapest rather than a customarily flat English city.  The Prince’s Street Gardens recall Hyde Park, whereas the crowded kirkyards seem like a relic of London before the Magnificent Seven.  Where London is a conflicting agglomeration of style, the use of similar stones (and decades of blackening air pollution) weld Edinburgh into a cohesive whole irrespective of whether the design is medieval, Georgian or Victorian.

I start my visit by exiting the tram at Princes Street. The first thing I notice is the Walter Scott monument.  Where London lacks monuments to most of its major writers (even Shakespeare only gets a small sculpture in the city) this dominates the entire view of the New Town from the castle. It’s a lovely day with the castle rock still covered in Daffodils. I walk straight down to Calton Hill, where I am somewhat surprised by the rather bright and warm being unreasonably interrupted by snow and hail. Gratefully fishing my umbrella out of my rucksack, I walk around the hill and am taken aback by how far one can see from the Forth Railway Bridge in the far distance  across the Firth of Forth to Arthur’s Seat. I walk back to the old town and visit the cathedral. The interior contrasts between the dark stone and the brightness of the painted blue gothic ceiling. The sun is back out while I’m here and rainbows stream into the church through the stained glass windows. Windows by Burne Jones remind me of England, others showing scenes from Scottish history remind me rather more of Amsterdam and Brussels. I step inside the Chapel of the Thistle before heading out and walking to the castle, looking out at the snow-capped hills and then ending the day at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.  The late afternoon sunlight casts long shadows around the blackened and weathered gravestones.

The following day I walk a little down from where I’m staying to the Canongate Kirk and its statue of Robert Fergusson, before walking back into the city and visiting the castle.  It’s a rather more dark and forbidding day but the view from the castle is still extraordinary. The first thing I visit is St Margaret’s Chapel, with its Romanesque arch before visiting the National War Memorial. I’m rather taken aback at the scale and beauty of it, quite unlike the unassuming cenotaph in London.  I then look round the castle chambers and the Great Hall (including the Honours, namely Scotland’s Crown Jewels) before visiting the various military museums, particularly exhibits like Napoleon’s eagle.  Lastly, I visit an exhibition of planned designs for the castle; I especially like one modelled on a French chateau. Next, I visit Gladstone’s land, a tenement building and one of Edinburgh’s last 16th century skyscrapers from the time prior to the fall of the city walls. The renaissance painted chamber is easily the most striking thing here, with its ceiling painted with flowers and fruits. Lastly, I visit St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard and the nearby church of St John the Evangelist, with its plaster fan vaulting.

The next day I go for a walk in Princes Street Gardens – I notice a statue of Wotjek, the Polish soldier bear that I particularly like – before arriving at the National Gallery. I start with the renaissance section, with its paintings by Titian, El Greco, Botticelli, Bordone, Veronese, Bassano, Tiepolo and Canaletto. An entire room is filled with depictions of the sacraments by Poussin with paintings by Claude, Fabre and Gauffier outside. The next room concentrates on Spain; Velasquez, Murillo, Goya and Zurbaran. After that is the Netherlands; Massys, Ruisdael, Rembrandt, Saenredam, Dou and Vermeer. The upper floors dwell on modern art; Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet, Singer Sergeant, Sisley, Courbet, Pissarro.The Scottish sections contains names that are often to me; Gavin Hamilton, Nasmyth, Paton, Traquair and Ramsay; there are a few English works thrown in by Reynolds, Gainsborough. Martin and Turner. The basement has an exhibit of Schinkel’s drawings for a planned palace in the Crimea (somewhere between neo-classical and Babylonian) and for a redesign of the Acropolis.  There’s also a small exhibition on romantic landscapes by Peder Balke, Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Joseph Wright. The gallery architecture is often quite dramatic, with staircases filled with plaster busts in a manner similar to the Ashmolean. Afterwards, I visit the National Portrait Gallery; the building here is equally dramatic with a gothic revival entrance hall filled with sculptures of Burns and Stevenson. Much of the earlier sections are effectively a history of the Stuart dynasty and ultimate Italian exile before dwelling on Scotland’s role in the Empire. Lastly, I manage to cram in a visit to a National Trust Georgian House on Charlotte Square; I’m rather left struck by the combination of Chloroform and Rhubarb powder in one medicine cabinet.

The next day the sun is out again, so I go for a walk in the New Town, visiting the church of St Andrew and St George and St Andrew’s Square before walking back up Calton Hill and visiting the cemetery. I then visit Holyrood Palace. I walk around the grounds to begin with, looking at the ornate Renaissance fountain and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. The palace facade is distinctly Scottish with its turrets but the interior courtyards remind me of a rather austere version of Hampton Court. Some of the striking aspects are the stairwell, with its swirling plaster ceiling, the long gallery with its reconstructed paintings of historical and mythical Scottish kings (Macbeth being the most prominent), orientalist tapestries with images of camels and the sepulchre-like Mary Queen of Scots chambers, with their collection of Stuart memorabilia through to the Winter King and Bonnie Price Charlie. My ticket also offers entrance to the Queen’s Gallery, so I get a chance to see the Dutch paintings I’d missed in London. The exhibition includes works by Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch, and Johannes Vermeer’s ‘A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman.’ Lastly, there’s still several hours left in the day so I set myself the task of climbing Arthur’s Seat. The gorse is in bright flower as I walk up past St Anthony’s chapel to the summit before returning past one a lake filled with swans.

My penultimate day is given up to the National Museum of Scotland.  The Grand Gallery is extraordinarily impressive, featuring exhibits from a Nubian sculpture, a Giant Deer fossil, a lighthouse lens, a Gandharan Buddha, an ironcast fountain, a whale skull and an atom smasher. The Museum ranges from geology (a large amethyst geode and haematite rocks), natural history (a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Ammonites, a Stegosaur, a whale jaw with a scrimshaw of the whaing ship engraved on it, stuffed Pandas, Blaschka models, Elephants and Polar Bears) to the history of science (a Newcomen engine, a working model locomotive). I especially like the ethnography galleries, with their Benin bronzes, Columbian Thunderbird costumes, Ainu inaw sticks, Tibetan prayer wheels, Chinese headdresses made from Kingfisher feathers, Coconut fibre armour, Persian ceramics, a Ghanaian coffin in the shape of a car and Cham dance masks. The rest of the museum of dedicated to Scottish history, starting with the Picts, Romans and Celts. The main things that strike me; the Lewis chessmen, a copy of the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, Renaissance wood carvings and painted ceilings, leather Covenanter masks, through to Mackintosh and Traquair art nouveau.

There’s not much time left on my last day, so I spend the morning at the Surgeon’s Hall museum. This ranges between a historical account of the achievements of medicine in Edinburgh (Lister, Simpson, Bell) through to a collection of shrunken heads, Hare’s death mask  and a book made from his skin. Difficult not also to be struck by a pickle fish that had lodged in the throat of a fisherman and suffocated him. There’s also an exhibition on the fate of the voyage to find the Northwest passage.

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.