Monthly Archives: March 2015

Cotton to Gold – Two Temple Place

Science and technology has long gone hand-in-hand with arts and culture. Although now they’re seen as rivals for funding and prestige, in fact historically these two things have been inextricably linked. Fiction, for example, has presaged the future shape of technological development, whilst those making their fortune from scientific endeavours invested their new wealth in cultural pursuits. So our modern obsession with technological progress, which so marginalises the arts, is somewhat misguided and I’ve written before about the value of cultural expression when all that scientific endeavour rages at the freedom of the individual.

This new exhibition at Two Temple Place weighs in on this debate with a look at the collections of leading eighteenth and nineteenth century industrialists based in northern England. Gathering pieces from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington and Towneley Hall in Burnley, this interesting exhibition demonstrates how closely related technological development and investment in the arts were at this time, and it’s also fascinating to see the impetus Britain’s role in the Empire and exploration gave to the types and variety of artefacts that were collected. What could seem like a showcase of the riches of wealth industrialists actually tells an interesting story about philanthropy and the donation of great swathes of cultural goods to local museums and town halls to benefit the community.

This eclectic exhibition is loosely held together by the incredible book collection of Robert Edward Hart which appears in most of the rooms, taking us from intricately decorated Books of Hours from across medieval Europe, to incredible first editions of Shakespeare, Byron, Spenser, Swift, and Milton. Clearly the progress of the written word was something that drove the international-nature of his collection which also included Assyrian tablets from the early days of the history of writing and a number of beautifully illustrated books from Persia. All of this is juxtaposed with a large loom and coil of incredibly thick rope to emphasis the work that paid for his hobby.

Prints were also among the most popular items to collect and again these are threaded through the exhibition to showcase the diversity of interests among industrialists. Some of cotton-magnate Thomas Boys Lewis’s extensive archive of Japanese prints of everyday life from around 1700-1900 are displayed in the first room including the famous Hokusai wave (recently depicted in Lego by Nathan Sawayer). Upstairs are some early Turner watercolours collected by brewer Edward Stocks Massey who bequeathed a large sum to Burnley as long as his pubs kept their licenses. Turner’s subjects include some regional sea and landscapes as well as pictures from the Holy Land.

My favourite prints are the John Everett Millais images from the1840s owned by Wilfred Dean, a wash boiler manufacturer. The pictures are delicate black and white sketches of a man from the same series and they really are stunning, particular male nude with head supported to the right where the muscles of the back are brilliantly drawn. There are also some quirky animal art-works by Edward Landseer and a wall of book illustrations owned by James Hardcastle, all of which again emphasise the broad range of influences on the nineteenth-century collector.

But it’s not just art on display and no exhibition on this era would be complete without a fair amount of taxidermy and some natural history displays. The Victorians were fascinated by the natural world and Darwin aside there are lots of examples of their interest in understanding and documenting other species, both in the UK and further afield – In Wives and Daughters (for example), the hero Roger is a science scholar who grows close to the heroine Molly through their mutual interest in the natural world and Roger’s African expedition. Back at Two Temple Place, George Booth’s collection of birds is shown as well as Arthur C. Bowdler’s glass cases full of beetles from around the world but it will be William T. Taylor’s preserved Peruvian mummy from the twelfth-century that will stick in your mind along with his llama-skin bound diary.

Another of my favourite collections is the Tiffany vases and mosaics owned by Joseph Briggs, at one point assistant and good friend of Louis Tiffany himself. Near the lower staircase are several mosaics of flowers and birds which have a lovely pearlescent quality while in a cabinet on the first floor are some beautiful pieces, including the large Peacock Vase from 1900-1910 showing how Tiffany experimented with pattern and design of his coloured glass. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek aspect to this section as the Aquamarine Paperweight Vase has an extended base section that looks like a fishbowl.

At times wandering through all these amazing things it’s hard not to spare a thought for the working conditions of the people in various mills and factories whose labour paid for all these incredible gifts to the nation that they almost certainly never enjoyed, while their entrepreneurial bosses scoured the globe for exciting nick-nacks.  And perhaps you don’t get a sense of any conflict that the newly rich faced with the established aristocracy who would almost certainly resent any encroachment on their ancient rights and privileges.

Yet that doesn’t detract from neatly arranged exhibition that draws strong links between Britain’s changing place in the nineteenth-century world and the diversity of interests that provoked. For what else is a wealthy industrialist to do with his money but buy objects displaying his wealth and taste (always an important element for aspiring gentlemen in this era)? Above all it reiterates that indissoluble connection between arts and science, showing clearly how they continue to inspire and reflect one another, if only we continued to recognise and promote the unquestionable value of cultural expression in the modern world.

Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North-West is at Two Temple Place until 19 April and entry is free.

The Broken Heart – The Globe

There are some forms of death that have quite naturally fallen out of fashion; once upon a time people were able to catch their death of cold as Sarah Miles did in Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, but no one does that any more, it’s a lost art. Perhaps in our more cynical modern world the least likely fictional death is to die of a broken heart, although in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama it was all the rage. Arguably Marianne in Sense and Sensibility gives it a go but we all know she was just being overly dramatic and spent too much time on rainy hillsides without her galoshes and mac.

So in John Ford’s 1630’s play The Broken Heart you may be unsurprised to hear that several people come a cropper either directly or indirectly as a result of their own or someone else’s heartbreak. And although the audience may find all this quite unlikely, I have to completely disagree with some of the critics and say this new production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the Globe is so charming and beautifully staged that you will be completely captivated by it. The reviewers seem to personally dislike the play and have been rather unfair in judging this instead of the production (with a revival this is what they should focus on actually) and yes it is long and there are a lot of layered plot strands, so you’ll need to pay attention to keep track of who is who and who wants what, but it is thoroughly engaging and cleverly staged.

Set in Sparta – indicated by togas over Jacobean dress – the production opens violently with the snatching of Penthea from her lover Orgilus where she is taken to the alter to marry Bassanes instead, in a tactical marriage arranged without her consideration by her brother Ithocles. Orgilus flees to Athens but returns in disguise to watch over Penthea and his own sister Euphranea who has promised to remain single until his return. If you’re keeping up with this, meanwhile Ithocles goes to war and returns a conquering hero, regretting the part he played in his sister’s abduction and eager to make amends. His warrior status brings him close to the Royal family and he hopelessly falls in love with Princess Calantha who is meant to marry a local Prince named Nearchus. Ithocles’s fellow warrior Prophilus has fallen in love with Euphranea so Orgilus must openly return to assent to the marriage and intent on revenge sets in motion a series of tragic events which results in a fairly high death count and a trail of broken hearts.

I know that all sounds pretty complicated and you can’t day-dream but none of it seems superfluous in any way and the play hurtles along at an impressive pace. One of the most interesting elements here is the staging which cleverly uses the confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to impressive effect. The use of the pit entrance and staircase up to the stage mean scenes take place below the stage directly in front of the pit audience which is fantastic for an engagement perspective – these aren’t lofty characters acting out a story somewhere above you but real people standing half a meter away – and it’s always impressive when actors can be that close and not have it break their concentration, particularly with people like me staring at them judgementally – I’m practising my tough critic face but it probably just looks a bit gormless.

Director Caroline Steinbeis has also used the two circle levels to deliver scenes and characters are seen climbing onto the stage from the lower circle, as well as using the traditional entrances from the back of the stage. I think this use of the space really helped the audience connect more with the production. A mention also for the amazing costumes by Wardrobe Manager Megan Cassidy and her team, the women’s dresses in particularly carefully denoted their status, and any changes to it, as well as having a slightly barbed feel reiterating how the female characters are used as pawns for male advantage. The golden armour for the King and Princess Calantha is really quite stunning and very regal. Despite the togas over jerkins which looked great the men have to put up with some knee-length pantaloons teemed with knee-high sandals – really not that sexy but they do somehow still look like manly warriors.

The acting from the entire cast is very good and you quickly become engaged in their stories. They felt like one complete company and worked together really nicely, mixing the warlike feel of returning soldiers with the romantic plots, bitter jealousies and ultimate demise of several characters. Luke Thompson once again shows he’s well on the way to very big things by bringing out the warlike dignity of his Ithocles as well as a more tender side in regretting his sister’s marriage and love for Calantha. It’s easy for a good actor to stand out in bad crowd but considerably more impressive to stand-out in a good one such as this, so it’s interesting to feel the production lift even higher whenever Thompson is on stage, and he has a natural feel for the verse. For The Public Reviews I previously wrote about his terrific Mark Anthony last year at the Globe, followed by an engaging role in Tiger Country at the Hampstead, and it’s only a matter of time before he lands a major TV role and hysterical fans will then queue round the block and crash ticketing websites to see him on stage (as with Cumberbatch and Tennant who both did years of theatre before hitting the big time). Should any of that come to pass, and if he continues to make shrewd choices it really should, you heard it here first!

Owen Teale has the semi-villainous role of Bassanes the jealous husband who steals Penthea, but here has a more buffoonish quality which adds a necessary touch of lightness to the serious love dramas that concern everyone else. Amy Morgan also lends dignity to the tragic Penthea who, despite her broken heart, bravely accepts the choice her brother and husband have made. Brian Ferguson’s Orgilus moves nicely between initial despair and bloodthirsty revenge while also accepting there will be consequences of his shocking actions. There really is no weakness in this cast and although Sarah MacRae’s Calantha could be a little more regal, this production can only strengthen as the run continues.

So, people may no longer die of broken hearts but in the Globe’s latest production you’ll see it’s not quite as romantic an idea as you may think. Here, in the beautiful setting of the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, you’ll see that the pursuit of love is as brutal and bloody as any war fought for power and land. So ignore the critics, John Ford’s play will leave you with plenty to think about but also lots to enjoy – even if you get lost in the twisted plot the staging and acting are so impressive that you will feel transported nonetheless. Just be sure not to catch your death of cold on the Southbank on the way home!

The Broken Heart is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre until 18th April. Tickets start at £25-£45 and £10 standing tickets are available.

Inside No 9 – TV Preview, BFI

The BFI Southbank is one of my favourite places in London which has been churning out showings of classic films for decades. Always wanted to see that great Humphrey Bogart film noir or Bette Davis melodrama on the big screen, well the BFI has long been the main place to do that in one of their amazing seasons, and see an impressive array of international and art house films while you’re there. In the last few years, it feels as though its range has diversified as well, opening up their lovely building to mainstream film seasons like Bond (possibly the best summer ever!), Gothic Horror and Hitchcock whilst running an increasingly reputable film festival every October to showcase new work.

Added to this long list are their previews of BFI-funded films which recently including pre-release peaks at The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Increasingly deals with the BBC and ITV have given advanced access to TV shows, so audiences have enjoyed earl bird viewings of anything from Poirot to Wolf Hall all with a Q&A session for that sense of occasion. The BFI’s latest event screened two episodes from the second series of the anthology comedy Inside No 9, written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. For those not familiar with series 1, the central premise is that each of the six 30 minute episodes takes you behind a different No 9 door each week and tells the story of the people within.

Shearsmith and Pemberton will be known to most as half of the League of Gentleman whose wonderfully weird and incredibly dark comedy set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey started the best part of 15 years ago and ended after 3 brilliant series and an ok film. Since then the League members have become established writers and actors both together and apart on shows as diverse as Sherlock, Dr Who, Psychoville and Mapp & Lucia. Series one of Inside No 9 first aired last February starting with a ton of people hiding in a wardrobe during a party and ending with a Carry on Screaming style creepy house and bed-ridden patient needing a teenage carer. The best and most stylish episode however had no talking whatsoever involving a burglary in a fancy modern home while the owners were in – absolute genius!

Series 2 opens with ‘La Couchette’, set aboard the compartment 9 sleeper berth on a French night train. It opens with Dr Maxwell carefully preparing for bed, and as he settles his eye-mask in place, his much needed rest is disturbed at intervals by the arrival of 5 other passengers all with bunks in the same room – a very drunk and flatulent German man, a middle-aged couple en route to their daughter’s wedding and a young Australian traveller with the man she met on the train. During the night this assorted group of passengers must decide whether their conscience or the completion of their journey is most important.

It’s a great premise for an episode – a group of strangers in an intimately confined space – and despite being only 30 minutes has the feel of an intricately plotted film. We get to know just enough about the individuals to believe in their circumstances but not so much that we are too drawn to any of them, they are still strangers after all. As usual with Shearsmith and Pemberton their work is packed with elegantly integrated references to everything from film noir to Hammer Horror to Hitchcock and spotting these is as much fun as watching these murky vignettes play out. Did I even see a reference to Carry on Camping in this one (Charles Hawtrey, Terry Scott and Betty Marsden trying to change into their pyjamas in a tiny tent) or just coincidence? I also love the seamless integration of sophisticated humour with some real gross-out moments while still maintaining the overall feel of that particular scenario.

Next up was a preview of episode 3 ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ set in Barn No 9, where two seventeenth-century witch-finders come to the town of Little Happens (snigger) to investigate the eponymous Mrs Gadge, accused by her daughter and son-in-law of witchcraft. Fans of the writers will recognise their fascination with this period of history and its superstitious practices, which previously popped up in the League of Gentleman film – in fact even David Warner reappears here as a local authority figure, having played an evil conspirator in the movie. This one is more or less a classic courtroom drama with various witness testimony and no little tension between the famous witch-finders the sinister Mr Warren and more kindly Mr Clarke- yes a tidy reference to the actor Warren Clarke who died last year. It’s the period detail that’s so impressive here and the odd modern reference aside a lot of research has clearly gone into creating the setting, language and knowledge of local concerns all used effectively to comically ridicule these events. Plenty of laugh out loud references here too from selfies to the The Crucible – all the married women have the title Goodie followed by their surname and with the local cobbler called Mr Twoshoes, you can see where this is going!

The great thing about an event such as this at the BFI is you also get a Q&A so you can learn a bit more about the process of writing and filming a series. On the panel were Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, as well as Producer Adam Tandy and there were plenty of fascinating insights on offer. The 6 episodes took around 2 months to write before filming began in December and surprisingly each one took only 3-6 days to film which is an incredibly tight schedule for some of the technical challenges – particular filming the cramped environment of ‘La Couchette’ – and Shearsmith and Pemberton have also directed a couple of episodes this time around. We also learned that the series will contain episodes focused around a séance, a grandmother’s party and the number 9 booth in a call centre filmed from one CCTV camera, so there’s plenty of interesting stories and techniques to look forward to.

These BFI events are offered to members first so there may be little ticket availability when it comes to public sale, and you may think I’ll just wait and watch it on TV for free, but for a reasonable £9-£12 you get to enjoy the cinematic scale of some TV shows in a way smaller screens just can’t offer and learn more about what you’re seeing from the writers, actors and producers. It is this kind of event cinema for which the BFI has become a leader and why it remains one of my favourite places in London.

Inside No 9 begins its 6 week run on BBC2 on Thursday 26 March. For more information on BFI previews and TV screenings, please visit their website. Ticket prices vary but a reasonable and a variety  of concessions are available.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector – Barbican

What are artists made of? Where does creative inspiration come from and how does it influence the work that’s produced. This latest exhibition at the Barbican is part of a wider London trend looking at ways in which collections can tell us more about individuals, and comes alongside History is Now at the Hayward and Cotton to Gold at Two Temple place (a forthcoming review) all of which take a broad brush approach.

This exhibition at the Barbican is probably the most successful of the three, drawing a relatively straight line between the stuff artists own and their output, and unlike the Hayward exhibition, clearly displays at least one piece of the artist’s work to ‘prove’ the argument. Whilst I liked the eclectic nature of History is Now, I was less convinced by the overall curation and whether any clear argument was being made by the entire exhibition, whereas here within each section the Barbican’s argument is consistently realised as well as trying to tell an overall story about the diversity of creative inspiration.

It begins with Hiroshi Sugimoto and his collection of medical history ephemera including intriguing images of the muscles and bones of the face and a collection of glass eyes, as well as some natural history pieces including fossilised creatures which you can see influence his own images of landscapes and waxen people. Perhaps the most obvious collection belongs to Damien Hirst – some skulls, a LOT of taxidermy and some anatomical models – no surprises that his work turned out the way it did. It’s an interesting collection though, the centre piece of which is a large glass case containing a stuffed lion which is actually quite impressive as well as a bit disgusting. A large Hirst piece from his Entomology period contains real creatures arranged in patterned rows on a mirrored surface, and nothing in this exhibition is scarier than the giant spiders!

In the next room we are given two overwhelming displays of things from Hanne Darboven’s house that looks much like a jumble sale display. There are paintings, ornaments, models, furniture, books and prints, it’s pretty crazy but you can see the link to her work on the adjacent wall – a large series of photographs of a party in a room crowded with people, furniture and heavily patterned carpets – a really claustrophobic environment which is clearly similar to her own lifestyle. Have to admit at this point I did start to see a drift from artists collecting what you could describe as other ‘artistic’ pieces to some more mass produced, for want of a better word, tat.

And this theme continues upstairs, mixing art and other objects to show the range of influences on creativity. One of the best sections is Howard Hodgkin’s collection of beautiful pictures of Indian scenes between 1570 and 1750 which he has been acquiring since school. Although he claims the collection has no influence on his own style it is clear from his the colours and style that it does in some way. A big draw will be Andy Warhol’s collection of cookie jars and comic books which clearly influenced his love of the domestic and comforting. Of his own work there are the brillo pad boxes and some fish wallpaper to enjoy.

Pae White’s pretty collection of scarves make for a well displayed sub-room as they are dangled from the ceilings on washing lines of various heights, hanging above and around you. With so much of this exhibition devoted to solid objects in display cases and shelves it’s nice to see something a little more fluid. And White’s own wire sculpture sits above the downstairs gallery and you can see the influence of both the colours and the sense of lightness in her work which has come from the fabric. The final section of note is Peter Blake’s vast array of pieces range from Victorian circus performers, puppets and toys to china elephants, wrestling mementoes and taxidermy, all meticulously organised. There are also a lot of other artists to see but I’ve picked out the most memorable.

If I have one negative thought about this otherwise well-constructed exhibition, it is that a lot of the stuff on display isn’t exactly art so the reverence with which it is displayed and treated is at odds with what it is. It’s fascinating to see that artists take inspiration from a variety of sources but in a lot of cases we are looking at their tat, stuff that’s been given as garish wedding presents you hide in the cupboard or awful ornaments that fill your grandma’s house. Whilst I respect the idea that these belong to someone else and should be treated with care, at the same time the pieces themselves, if I’m being blunt, are a load of someone else’s rubbish. And even if that nasty mermaid statue inspired a great work of art, isn’t the original thing still fairly worthless?

That aside, I do think the Barbican have pitched this well and by having a piece of the artist’s work alongside their collection make a neat argument for its influence. Although perhaps creative impulses are individually driven it was interesting to note the similarity across some of these collections, making it possible for you to draw your own conclusions about common factors in the artistic process. So what is an artist made of, well lots of cookie jars, cartoons and especially Disney characters crop up repeatedly, as do African tribal masks and taxidermy. So maybe we should expect to see a Donald Duck cookie jar holding a stuffed animal wearing a mask from someone soon?

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is at the Barbican until 25 May. Tickets are £12 with separate concession and member rates available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

History is Now – Hayward Gallery

This year a few London Galleries are mostly interested in the stories behind works of art and particularly what drives or influences the artists to create the pieces they do. The Barbican’s ‘Magnificent Obsessions’ exhibition exploring the personal collections of individual artists will be reviewed here soon, but first the Hayward has, with varying success, asked 7 artists to curate a section on Britain in the last 70 years, bringing together other pieces or collections that have inspired them.

Somehow the intention is to show us both more about work that influences the curator-artist and about our long-standing debate over the meaning of Britishness since the Second World War. And just looking at the array of works on display here in the six sections it is no wonder that it is such a difficult concept to pin down when themes include consumerism, science, poverty and conflict. Given the range of topics, each section seems like its own mini-exhibition and there as many ideas or definitions of Britain as you could imagine. Although it’s not clear what the overall message of the exhibition is, nor is the idea of impasse in our concept of nationality a particularly new or surprising conclusion, but that doesn’t mean that the individual voices aren’t worth hearing.

It begins with some of the more successfully curated areas – first Simon Fujiwara brings together a seemingly random collection of pieces that fit with his own work on modernity, technology and celebrity culture all arranged in methodical rows of white box-like plinths – although look closely and you’ll see that one of these is actually a pop-art style chest freezer. Two of the biggest draws will be a costume worn by Meryl Streep when she played Margaret Thatcher which interestingly is folded-up rather than displayed on a dummy, and Sam Taylor-Wood’s video of David Beckham asleep which is as unremarkable as it sounds – I understand it’s a comment on our celebrity-obsessed culture and increasing invasion of privacy but meh! The artist has also included a scale model of the ArcelorMittal Orbit technically a sculpture in the former Olympic Park (also worth a visit) and a home video of himself as a child performing in a school production of Mary Poppins which is slightly creepy as the child voices fill this part of gallery infecting your perspective on other works.

Next up Jane and Louise Wilson presents some very different pieces on architecture and conflict including photographs and diaries from Greenham Common Peace Camp showing protestors cutting down fences. There’s also interesting photographs of inscriptions on walls in Northern Ireland – although if we’re being really pedantic, this is technically part of the United Kingdom and not Britain, emphasising a wider problem with the use of “British” as a catch-all term often synonymised with ‘English’ to incorrectly refer to other parts of the UK. It’s no wonder we don’t know who we are if we can’t even use the right labels. The most interesting piece here is a large cage containing a number of filled gloves suspended from its bars, commenting on the number of unemployed people in the 1980s prevented from using those hands to work. I really liked this, seemingly random at first glance but actually making a bold social statement. I also liked the next section curated by Hannah Starkey mixing commercial advertising with Arts Council pictures with similar themes.

Upstairs Richard Wentworth has the most tightly curated section focusing on militarism and the consequences of warfare since 1945, including things as diverse as The Art of War and missile launch plans – including a large decommissioned surface-to-air missile on the outside terrace seemingly trained on the City.  Wentworth is also fascinated by the seaside and the lives of ordinary people in the aftermath of conflict and there are lots of beach scenes including two stunning Paul Nash paintings, the first a triumphant Battle of Britain with curls of smoke above the sea, and the second even better picture of scrapped German planes where the outlines of the grey/blue wings together look like waves against sand. There are also a number of interesting Henry Moore pieces, a very nice Lowry as well as a “mood-wall” of images, art works, book covers and diagrams printed on pieces of paper showing the various influences on the post-war world. It’s a fascinating comment on the evolution of a militaristic society and the politics of fear that governed decision-making in the cold-war era and arguably even now.

The least successful part of this collection focuses on BSE and brings together pictures of livestock with scientific reports and newspaper articles. This is the pet project of artist Roger Hiorns whose detailed research is rather too evident in this overwhelming space, crowded with signs, documents and information. He’s clearly trying to make a strong point but there’s so much going on, a mix-between a laboratory and ‘science museum’ feel that rather than read and engage with everything, you just want to walk through it to the real art. I felt the same about John Akomfrah’s video collection upstairs. I’ve never been one for video art I’m afraid (as you may tell from my meh shrug at David Beckham sleeping) and while I’m sure this is all very important from the descriptions I wasn’t sure what the collection was saying.  I’m sure others will feel differently, but these sections were just not for me.

The Hayward is a gallery I always like, which combines a lot of interesting work with innovative approaches to displaying it, and thankfully a relatively quiet place to see them. There’s a lot of interesting pieces here which are worth a visit, but I have to admit on the whole I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of their earlier displays. Part of it is perhaps a coherence problem and while it’s interesting to have multiple curators, I didn’t leave feeling I learnt anything overarching about artistic response to Britishness in the past 70 years (other than its diversity) or having discovered that much about the artist-curators or even why those 7 people were chosen. As reasonably priced exhibitions go, this is ok, lots of interesting things to see but given the considerable literature on British identity post-Empire, perhaps not as coordinated as I had hoped.

History is Now is at the Hayward Gallery until 26 April 2015. Tickets cost £10.90 without donation and concessions are available.

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