ANOTHER EUROPE

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Simon Roberts, Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet from the series Merrie Albion (2007-2017). (Flowers Gallery London)

At Kings Cross Station, London, there’s a street exhibition on large posters of photos taken throughout Europe (above), an EU-funded project called Another Europe. They’re pictures of interesting corners and everyday life in countries some of which I know nothing about, like Slovenia. When we leave the EU there will be no more events like this.

A feature of the EU that has been not much discussed in Brexit is the EU’s promotion of international understanding, equality, social solidarity, and mutual respect. I used to work on EU projects in which international exchange and collaboration were essential. We will lose that.

Perhaps it’s an indication of our semi-detached attitude to the EU that it was always easier to find people from other EU countries to visit the UK than to find people in the UK to visit other EU countries. On one project, I tried to set up a programme with a German schoolteacher that was based on exchange visits between German and British secondary schools and couldn’t find a single pupil in my town who wanted to visit Germany. On another, I couldn’t find any colleague in my council who would join me in conferences in France and Holland. One came reluctantly to Milton Keynes.

ST ALBANS CATHEDRAL

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I was pleased to be asked by the flower arrangers of St Albans Cathedral to make a bowl for the Lady Chapel in memory of one of their members, and today I went to see how they had used it. Cascades of white flowers under the statue of the Madonna almost obscure it (above), but you can just see it there.

I went through the Cathedral, took pictures of some familiar things, and saw some things I hadn’t noticed before.

The flowers are always wonderful.

The guide told me that the Shrine of St Alban (below) contained the saint’s shoulder blade, donated by Cologne Cathedral in 2002. The bones had been taken to Rome in 429, then went to Cologne at the time of the Great Schism.
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The site of the original tomb, the holy grail of archaeologists, is unknown and sceptical historians think St Alban may have been invented to control English heretics, but my guide didn’t agree.

The carved figures and capitals are in good condition and I wondered how they escaped the Puritan iconoclasm. “They didn’t,” said my guide, “They are 19th century restorations.”

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I knew the medieval wall paintings in the Norman arches, but there was a smaller painting in one of the chapels that I hadn’t seen before.

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Votive candles and personal prayers.

CHECK TROUSERS AND TOP HATS

The Health of the Bride 1889 by Stanhope Alexander Forbes 1857-1947

I have been reading Christopher Wood’s Victorian Panorama, a definitive survey of modern-life painting in 19th century Britain, some of which was moralising (like Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience) but much of which was coolly observational (such as Stanford Forbes’ The Health of the Bride, my particular favourite, above).

Wood says that, although many of these paintings were popular with the public, and some sold for good prices, many met with critical disapproval because there was a notion that modern life was too ugly to be a proper subject for art, and – surprising to us – modern clothes were too undignified, especially trousers and top hats. Millais said he could not imagine Van Dyck’s Charles I in a pair of check trousers.

HAND OF THE MAKER

On Tuesday I was stewarding at “Hand of the Maker“, the Society of Designer Craftsmen’s exhibition at Chelsea School of Arts. The SDC is the leading body of designer makers in the UK and their major shows always have interesting and outstanding work. I have chosen some that I like.

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Colin and Louise Hawkins

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Table by Neal Crampton. This large piece of elm was a rare find, extraordinarily beautiful and somehow enhanced by the split and the oak ties.

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Painted silk by Tori McLean.

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Batool Showghi’s touching, personal paper constructions recall her family’s life in Iran and refer to forced migration in the Middle East. Her close relatives were Sufis and musicians and suffered persecution in their home country. She told me that there were many Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Iran.

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Helen Banzhaf’s apparently abstract tapestries turn out to be pictures of vessels.

HORNSEY, 1968

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Hornsey Art School occupation, 1968. (Daily Telegraph, 30 May 1968)

After stewarding at “Hand of the Maker”, I went to Tate Britain for half an hour and discovered the display about the posters and college occupations of 1968 – mainly Hornsey Art School, the LSE and the Camden Poster Workshop. Following the events of ’68, art went in a different direction from the poster workshop, whose philosophy was community inclusion in artistic production, and towards an exclusive, intellectually challenging conceptual art, though both were anti-bourgeois in inspiration.

I remember the rhetoric of ’68, inspired by Paris and the ultra revolutionary intellectuals of the time, Marcuse, Sartre, Gerassi, Fanon, Debord – and, if you fancied, Mao Zedong – and how overblown it was in relation to our grievances: lack of consultation, poor accommodation, inadequate grants, petty university rules, and, in the case of Hornsey, the mismanagement of the transition from the NDD system to the DipAD.

The exhibition includes an article from the Daily Telegraph (below) which dissected the Hornsey students’ complaints and included the authorities’ admission that they had made serious mistakes. Part of the college’s inadequacy came from the fact that it was run by a local authority.

In the aftermath of the Hornsey occupation it was commonly supposed that the art school was absorbed into Middlesex Polytechnic as a sort of punishment for the students and the lecturers who supported them – that’s certainly the idea I picked up. In reality, the amalgamation had been planned by the Labour government long before the occupation and was opposed by the Conservative administration in Haringey.

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LEIGHTON HOUSE MUSEUM

 

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Leighton House Museum, the house Frederic Leighton built for himself in Holland Park, which I visited yesterday, will start a big improvement programme soon, due for completion in 2021.

Leighton House is famous for its Orientalist decoration, furnished from Leighton’s travels in the near East, and notable for walls covered in Iznik and Persian tiles set in glazed turquoise panels by William de Morgan. (No photos allowed, but good illustrations in the guidebook  ISBN 0902242237.) Its lavish and exotic public spaces contrast with Leighton’s monastic bedroom. He fiercely guarded his privacy and left almost no personal documents, but the design of the house suggests that he never intended to marry and it is now generally supposed that he was gay, which influences the way we look at paintings like Daphnephoria, (above), where the youths are painted with more conviction than the girls.

The peculiar design of the house, with a large studio, one bedroom and public rooms unsuitable for family living, made it unsaleable on his death in 1896. The sale of the contents, however, raised enough to keep it as a museum.  But it was really only eighty years after Leighton’s death that it began to be run as a proper monument to him. Disagreements between his sisters and Mrs Emilie Barrington, his adoring neighbour and biographer, blocked development for years. On their death the property was sold to the local council, then managed in a half-hearted way, a victim of indifference to Victorian art, and by the 1950s it had fluorescent lighting and cream-painted walls and was being used for exhibitions of modern art. John Betjeman spearheaded its revival, which began in the early 1980s, since when it has been carefully restored and appropriately furnished, original contents recovered wherever possible.

The final phase of the restoration will remove some late additions, restore the Perrin Wing, make a new entrance, improve disabled access and create stronger links with the local community.

 

BENJAMIN HAYDON

Punch or May Day 1829 by Benjamin Robert Haydon 1786-1846

After delivering my work to Chelsea College of Art yesterday, for the Society of Designer Craftsmen’s summer exhibition Hand of the Maker, I went across the road to Tate Britain to take a quick look at the 19th century galleries. Victorian painting, with the exception of the Pre-Raphaelites, is unfashionable, but there were several serious visitors there.

I was attracted to Benjamin Haydon’s Punch or May Day (above), which is well labelled. It was a derogation from his preferred historical subjects, in which he didn’t achieve the success he thought he deserved, but to the modern eye it’s lively and interesting, and Tate point out the clever contrasts it contains, notably the hearse almost colliding with the wedding coach, the church on the horizon and the pagan May Day celebration at the bottom, and the black servant on the coach and the blacked-up sweep in the foreground.

Haydon (1786-1846) is the most famous failure in art history. His admirable confidence in his own ability was not shared by everyone. Dickens, who as an art critic could be as acerbic as Brian Sewell, said of him, “No amount of sympathy with him and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for so many years — until, by dint of his perseverance and courage it almost began to seem a right one — ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed.” He had constant money troubles, spent time in a debtor’s prison and was reduced to painting pictures of Napoleon at five guineas apiece. He was argumentative, tactless and rude to his clients. He conducted a long war against the Royal Academy, who refused his application for ARA, and is portrayed in Mike Leigh’s wonderful film Mr Turner ranting at a Royal Academy hanging. The main cause of his bitterness, unless it was something in his personality, was his failure as a history painter. He finally shot himself in the head, failed to kill himself and then cut his throat.

Haydon was a man of strong ideas, not entirely foolish. He was smitten by the Elgin Marbles and became a staunch advocate of Greek art as he conceived it and of drawing from life. He advocated public funding for art education for all classes, to be based on life drawing, which did not become standard until it was instituted at the Slade at the end of the century. He was a tireless petitioner of powerful individuals, including prime minister Melbourne, who was interested and whom he told that French superiority in manufactures derived from state support of art education. He advocated free public museums of art and public patronage for paintings in public buildings. As Stuart MacDonald says, “It would be foolish to pretend that all these means were realized because of Haydon, but they were realized, and Haydon was their chief protagonist and suffered ridicule for his opinions.”