MONSERRATE, SINTRA

On our last day in Lisbon we took the advice of Miguel, the helpful receptionist at our hotel, and visited Sintra, where Lisboetas used to build their summer residences. From there we took the bus to Monserrate, the house in expansive, hilly grounds that records the eccentric tastes of its former occupants.

Now owned by the state, it is undergoing extensive restoration and has a thorough exhibition about its history, “Monserrate Revisited: The Cook Collection in Portugal”, open until 31 May.

Monserrate has been Anglo-Portuguese for over two hundred years. The first English intervention was William Beckford’s (whose only remains are the Romantic waterfall and cromlech) immortalised by Byron as “Cintra’s glorious Eden” in Childe Harold.

In 1856 Francis Cook, a hugely rich textile magnate, took over the estate for his summer residence, reconstructed the house as a Moorish-Gothic fantasy and filled it with an eclectic collection of Italian art, English furniture, Oriental ceramics and a Bechstein grand, including Pugin chairs and a reproduction of the Alhambra Gazelle Vase. The gardens, also eclectic, benefiting from the warm but not harsh climate, and designed by a Kew head gardener, have an Indian arch acquired (perhaps one might say looted) after the Sepoy Mutiny, exotic succulents, an English rose garden, ponds and ferny woods. Cook’s collection demonstrates mid-nineteenth century taste and Orientalism extraordinarily well, as only the collection of a very rich man can.

Monserrate stayed in the Cook family for ninety years. At the end they could no longer afford it and rarely visited. In the 1930s they hired Walter Kingsbury as estate manager, despite his lack of experience or knowledge of Portuguese. Kingsbury lived there with his family until after the war, when the estate was sold and the precious collection broken up.

I found the period of Kingsbury’s stewardship to be the most fascinating part of the Monserrate story. It is narrated in a memoir by Walter’s son Richard, who lived there as a boy.

During the war, Portugal was a crossroads for spies, including Ian Fleming and Malcolm Muggeridge. “It is reported that on one occasion,” says Richard Kingsbury, “a dinner party was given, attended by an agent who travelled specially from England for the purpose of being seated next to a Portuguese lady (a certain Mrs Espirito Santo) who was known to have pro-German sympathies, in order to feed her false information which, it was believed, would be conveyed to the Germans in Lisbon.”

In a filmed interview, Richard Kingsbury appears as a tall, handsome old man, fluent in Portuguese but with a self-deprecating English manner. Montserrate was a peculiar and fortunate place for a boy to grow up in. He remembers his childhood there as perpetually sunny, taking his impractical, Gothic-Oriental home for granted and riding his bicycle round the rooms. It’s actually an uncomfortable house, cold inside when we visited and presumably impossible in winter, but it was Kingsbury’s idyll, magical and eerie, and he often returned to Sintra in adult life.

He worked as an interpreter until his death at the age of 83. His colleague Felix Ordeig recalls meeting him, at first doubtful of the abilities of someone so old, but quickly coming to appreciate his professionalism and competence. Kingsbury translated into English and Portugese, had a good knowledge of Spanish and a passing acquaintance with several other languages. He had a passion for travel, and as a young man went overland from London to Cairo via Istanbul and the Middle East, “on foot, hitch-hiking and by whatever other means of transport became available” says Ordeig, “a trip that would be very difficult if not impossible today. ” He taught English in Argentina and travelled in Latin America, visiting indigenous peoples before the continent was opened to tourism.

Ordeig says, “I got the impression that he lived his life to the full right to the end, with an adventurous spirit, but also a very practical approach to life, as well as with an enquiring mind. In the short time I was with him I took a liking to the man; he was good company and I enjoyed his sense of humour, his unfeigned modesty, and total lack of snobbishness, his intellectual curiosity about both his surroundings and the people he came across, his friendliness and good manners. But I also suspect that he was a very decent human being.”

ROGÉRIO RIBEIRO

One of the pleasures of strolling through Lisbon is the discovery of Portuguese artists through their public artworks in tiles.

Portugal’s smallness and long period of authoritarian rule isolated it artistically for fifty years, which was part of the story told by the Gulbenkian collection of modern Portuguese art, which we visited yesterday.

Leaving the Gulbenkian and walking down Avenue António Augusto de Aguiar, we saw this striking, anonymous azulejo panel (no. 148-50), and fortunately we were able to discover from the Gulbenkian Foundation’s digital database of azulejos that the artist was Rogério Ribeiro.

Ribeiro, like many modern azulejo artists, worked in many media, and, like Querubim Lapa, he also had a distinguished academic career. He designed the tiles in the Avenida station on the Lisbon Metro and for the Santiago metro in Chile.

He was leading member of the Communist party, a commitment that has particular meaning for a Portuguese artist, and perhaps is connected with his extensive and sometimes unsigned public works.

CLAUDIA CLARE ON CENSORSHIP

Claudia Clare with Nightwalker 2014 view2

My Harrow colleague Claudia Clare (above) wrote in response to a Sussex University student request to borrow work for a show about Clause 28 an eloquent account of the issues surrounding censorship, no-platforming and illiberal intolerance. She has allowed me to reproduce this edited version.

“Thank you very much for your enquiry and I’m sorry you were unable to borrow the C28 Tea set. Taking into account the title of your proposed show, ‘What Clause 28 Did to Me,’ I may have other pots that could work in this context.

If you’ve had a look at my website and at my artist page on my gallery’s website, you’ll see that I do relatively little work that is directly related to being a lesbian. More of it is feminist, and politics of various sorts come into it.

The focus of the C28 Tea Set was to record lesbian protest specifically – although I have also included the big marches. I have noticed that much for the history sticks to the ‘united front’ narrative. It wasn’t like that though. I also notice that some of the protests recorded by my tea set have been written out the the accepted ‘united front’ version. C28 really went for lesbian mothers so there were a number of specifically lesbian and feminist protests to confront those issues.

On a slightly more ‘delicate’ matter, I have taken some time to look through the student union guidelines on ‘external speakers’ and various ‘safe space’ policies.

I appreciate that you may wonder why I raise these. The problem, in my experience, is that these policies do affect artists as well and are extended to the work we show. I am being cautious – I am wary, in fact – because I have had work withdrawn from exhibition that had previously been agreed, because someone decided they were offended or because someone was scared that someone might be offended. I do not want the same thing to happen with Sussex University.

My past experience involves the following Institutions: The People’s History Museum, Manchester, and the Bradford Museums and Galleries.

I myself refused to participate in The Woman’s Hour Craft Prize because the T&Cs expressly prohibited blasphemy – which is not prohibited in British law – and because they stated they may withdraw anything they considered offensive. I have made nothing in the past few years that can be guaranteed to offend no one. I wrote to the three institutions concerned – the V&A, the Crafts Council, and the BBC. They wrote back saying nothing much. I withdrew my application. That’s it.

I cannot begin to tell you how utterly dispiriting all this is and how tremendously damaging it is to artists. There is a received wisdom the ‘controversy’ is good. This is true if the public are ‘allowed’ to see the work and decide whether or not they are suitably scandalised or offended. If the the audience/public is prevented from seeing the work, however, they cannot decide. It is simply suppressed.

Clause 28 was nothing if not an exercise in gross and extreme censorship and ‘no-platforming’ by government, singling out lesbians and gay men and especially lesbian mothers. It is therefore worrying to find universities imitating this kind of conduct although perhaps one should not be surprised. If government does it, why not students? Similarly, if students copy governments and affirm their worst policies and instincts, then why would governments not continue down that road?

Returning now to your title, ‘What Clause 28 did for me,’ I would have to say it taught me a thing or two about censorship and the right to free expression. I was a slow learner, however. It was not until my own work, ‘Princess Hymen,’ part of ‘Shattered,’ (see website) was initially removed from exhibition and then partially obscured, that I really started to understand the disaster that censorship is.

I have a small vase, a ‘pilgrim vase’ just out of the kiln, which could be perfect for the show BUT you/your co-curators would have to see it, agree it and then agree not to remove it from exhibition no matter how much merry hell a small group of loud mouths may wish to raise.

It was photographed on Tuesday and I expect to receive the images by the weekend or early next week.

Alternatively I could just make you a jug with the words ‘This Jug has been removed from display’ which might just be easier all round. I’ve been meaning to make one for a while so this might be the perfect opportunity.

From my point of view, I would wish to use this as an opportunity to train student curators in the matter of censorship and free expression. I do hope that may be possible.

People whose work I respect and love have been ‘no-platformed’ by Sussex University and I am reluctant to show my work if they cannot show/share theirs.

I should also add that I strongly disapprove of the BDS and would wish to raise that as a censorship issue too.

I do appreciate these policies may have nothing whatever to do with you. Very often they are established by a small group of activists who have little or no connection to the wider student body. 

Do let me have your thoughts on this, whenever you have time.”

WEDGWOOD’S HOUSE

I’m visiting Stoke-on-Trent for a university reunion and had to choose a hotel incorporating Josiah Wedgwood’s house, Etruria Hall. The Hall is now the hotel conference centre and there’s little left of Wedgwood.

The company moved their factory out of Stoke to modern, spacious premises in Barlaston almost a century ago, to the bewilderment of more conservative potters. When I was student at Keele in the 1960s, the Etruria site still had remnants of the old Wedgwood factory.

Etruria was part of Michael Heseltine’s Garden Festival in 1986 and it has been redeveloped for business and leisure, but I’m glad there’s still scrap of Britain’s greatest potter there.

HIGH SHOULDERED VASE

HIGH SHOULDERED VASE

I’ve been throwing these high-shouldered vases (above) over the last couple of days. It’s a classic shape, often used by Far Eastern potters and beloved of studio potters. William Newland, a great potter who taught for many years at the Central School of Art in London and at the Institute of Education, got his students to aim at it. This is what he said about it in his notes:

“Clay should be like a crocus striking through the ground in Spring. Tip-toed elevated tensions as opposed to saggy hanging over the ankle straps. Based on an aesthetic related to the body and the human desire/preference for the live full and uplifting as opposed to the withered and droopy.”

The shape is a challenge. You have to lift the clay and get the centre of gravity fairly high and to keep a fairly small foot – as Newland said, “full and uplifting”.

Except that not all pottery is like that. The preference for this shape comes from the studio potter’s love affair with China, Japan and Korea. Pottery of the Near East and of medieval Spain has a low centre of gravity, and there is nothing “saggy hanging over the ankle straps” about it. Here for example (below) is a beautiful medieval Persian jug from the Appleton Museum of Art.

persian pottery

 

 

THINGS OF BEAUTY GROWING

Image © Elizabeth Fritsch © The estates of Lucie Rie and Norah Braden
Pottery by Lucie Rie, Nora Braden and Elizabeth Fritsch

The Fitzwilliam Museum has an excellent survey of British studio pottery, Things of Beauty Growing, which I saw the other day. It’s the best survey I’ve seen, and I’ve followed studio pottery since the 1960s. The great change is that the crafts have become a topic of academic study and we now have curators who can combine a dispassionate view of  pottery with an understanding of the techniques and preoccupations of the artists.

In the 1960s, studio pottery was a battleground between potters who made different kinds of pottery in different ways and there were futile arguments about the right and wrong sort of ceramics. Pottery is now far more varied and nobody thinks in these terms any more. The full range is represented at the Fitzwilliam, from the late 19th century to the present, and it’s put in context. I was pleased to see work by Christopher Dresser and Keith Murray, who weren’t studio potters but whose work is clearly in dialogue with studio pottery. They would certainly not have been included in the earlier displays.

There is a catalogue with a collection of essays by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth, Simon Olding, Alison Britton, Kimberley Chandler, Edward Cooke, Penelope Curtis, Tanya Harrod, Imogen Hart, Sequoia Miller and Julian Stair.