Category Archives: Heritage

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One – Tate Britain

Christopher Nevinson - Paths of Glory [1918]

Otto Dix once wrote that “artists should not proselytise or reform… all they have to do is bear witness”, a quotation that accompanies a fascinating selection of prints entitled The War that have much to say about the impact of the First World War both on the physical body and on the creation of art in Britain, Germany and France in the ensuing years. In Tate Britain’s carefully curated new show Aftermath, the physical, political and emotional cost of conflict is writ large in an extraordinary combination of work, predominantly from men who served, arguing that the depiction of loss, devastation and destruction had far reaching effects for artists across Europe.

As the four-year commemoration programme draws to a close, it is timely to reflect on the welcome diversity and creativity that has resulted in an insightful and more inclusive approach to public memorialisation. No longer a hymn to soldier poets alone, we have seen reflections on the role of all three services, with dedicated Great War exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum and RAF Museum, while the Science Museum’s focus on technological innovation delivered the impressive Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care about the medical response to war. A variety of activities and publications also examined the experience of war from the new perspectives and properly brought them into the public realm for the first time, giving voice to colonial recruits, allies, official “enemies”, female service personnel, refugees and those on the Home Front which has permanently enriched our understanding of this crucial period in European history.

Culturally, there have also been substantial and memorable contributions, not least from Paul Cummins and Tom Piper whose glorious display of poppies cascading down the walls of the Tower of London, filling the moat, was an unforgettable start to the programme back in 2014 – the sale and subsequent tracking of those poppies is a piece of social history that is of enormous value to our understanding of the longevity of emotional responses to this conflict. Equally powerful was Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s physical living artwork We Were Here where young actors dressed as soldiers appeared across the country at railway stations and on the tube as a poignant reminder of those who never came back.

This, then is the context in which Aftermath appears and, happily, one which its curation reflects – presenting a picture of a diverse and complex technological war that unnaturally ravaged the individual body with ramifications for the state’s duty of care. As you wander through the eight rooms of this exhibition, many of which are dedicated to images of suffering, neglect and decay, the question in your mind is “was it worth it”? The answer for many artists is surprisingly complicated, and far more nuanced than our embedded image of disillusion and slaughter.

Taking a multinational, multi-service perspective allows us to see that irrespective of victory, Britain, France and Germany were united by the devastating impact of war on their societies, that they shared the tricky post-war problem of how to appropriately design memorials to the fallen, and how to support the huge numbers of disabled veterans released back into society, many of whom were left poor and destitute. Aftermath grapples with the idea of renewal and rebirth at a time when the cost of war was so visible and how art, like poetry, memoir-writing and ex-servicemen associations, became a vital outlet for men to continually relive and revisit the most horrific, but also the most meaningful, experience of their lives.

What strikes you first is the pity of it, the human cost replicated in scene after scene showing the dead, dying or merely absent on the battlefield. The tin hat, Aftermath argues became a potent symbol of death in many art works, shorthand for the loss of life its emptiness implies, with three hats displayed in a central case. But artists were also honest about what they saw, and Room 1 on Battlefields and Ruins shows the carnage of broken bodies in a series of powerful paintings. Luc-Albert Moreau’s 1918 piece Chemin des Dames Assault may be abstract but clearly shows the brutal death of a soldier impaled on a tree. This is far from the quiet heroism that memorials usually suggest, here death is cruel and real and ugly. Nowhere more so than in Paul Nash’s Wire from 1918-19 showing a tree trunk smashed to pieces, a metaphor for the human body, or Christopher Nevinson’s Paths of Glory [1917] whose coppery swirls glisten in the light of the gallery giving a strange ethereal quality to the dead soldiers face down in the mud. Nevinson’s picture is one of the most powerful in the show, not just a fine war image but one of the finest paintings ever created.

As soon as you step inside, the scale and breadth of the war becomes startlingly clear, and the diversity of artistic responses is striking. In this first room alone, paintings sit alongside sculpture, photographs and videos, positioned against other commemorative outlets including battlefield guides and souvenirs made from shell casing or bullets. Walking into Room 2, focusing on official memorialisation, you start to notice your emotional response to the pieces, where works by Charles Sergeant Jagger and Stanley Spencer are testament to the ongoing confusion and sense of fracture that remained in the years following the Armistice. Jagger’s use of realistic military clothing and weapons reflecting the technological advances in equipment drew praise from contemporaries, and in a model for his Great Western Railway memorial he dressed a soldier in a greatcoat with eyes downcast to the letters he’s reading from home, speaking volumes about the pain the outcomes of war were unable to reconcile. Spencer reiterates this in his painting Unveiling Cookham War Memorial [1922] as people hang from net-curtained windows, and a sombre-faced crowd surge forward to see this architectural response to war, still grieving, still remembering at the annual recitation of the names of the fallen.

That cost of war is stark too in Frank Owen Salisbury’s 1920 depiction of The Passing of the Unknown Warrior whose large-scale funeral cortege along Whitehall has representatives of all three services escorting the flag-draped coffin of this lasting symbol of war’s futility. Notably, the living are primarily high-ranked, middle-aged men, the leaders of war giving thought to the once young life they are about to inter in Westminster Abbey. Here, in the heart of the British Establishment, the “Traces of War” are vividly captured by Salisbury, making the perfect link to the next part of the exhibition that considers artistic representations of men who survived but were physically damaged by the conflict.

Although produced for scientific study, Henry Tonks’s images of facial injuries drawn in pale colours are remarkably graphic but full of empathy for his patients that make them difficult, but important, viewing. Likewise, Rosine Cahen’s work in Villennis Hospital are a thoughtful record of the injuries sustained by French soldiers. But there is a political purpose at work here too, with curators Emma Chambers and Rachel Smith selecting accompanying work that reflects the widespread failure to support disabled veterans. Not the first-time men had returned with bodily damage inflicted by warfare, the scale of returnees unable to work or resume their former lives was certainly new, and neither French, German or British societies were ready to respond to their needs, despite greater visibility of disabled veterans in France.

Conrad Felixmuller’s 1919 Soldier in the Madhouse I and II reflect the confusion of the psychological effect of war, their powerful lines and geometric shapes suggesting the distortion of the mind and anxiety of the sufferer – something health systems were largely ill prepared to support. More shocking is the way in which disabled veterans are depicted, often ignored or reduced to penury, their physical appearance surprising, and sometimes even frightening. This work by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz was designed to reflect society’s mistreatment of their veterans, and these simple pen sketches remain a powerful indictment of their failure.

Despite Dix’s claim to “bare witness”, his work is full of political fervour. His 1924 prints, on display in Room 5, are horrifying reflections of men at war; Wounded Man shows a face ravaged with pain and trapped in a kind of hell, while Mealtime in the Trenches at first glance looks like an arctic scene as a huddled and freezing figure eats tentatively in the howling blizzard, his fear emanating from the picture. Dix was even more candid in Skull and Dance of Death drawing on images of mortality as creatures begin to inhabit a now decayed head, while in the latter bodies are strewn across the barbed wire landscape of No Man’s Land. In the same room, Kath Kollowitz’s 1922 woodcuts were an outlet for her own grief at the death of her son, with a series of images of the Home Front as bereaved mothers, parents and pregnant lovers comment on the consequences of death for those left behind – not just emotionally but in the economic effect on entire families left without a breadwinner.

Resentment also continued towards war profiteers and the thoughtless public who enjoyed themselves while men died abroad, and this was reflected in numerous artworks. Max Beckmann captures a lovely geometric energy in his print of dancers called Malepartus [1917], while in Room 7 on Post-war People, William Roberts’s incredible 1923 painting The Jazz Club (The Dance Party) cannot be viewed enough. Fantastically vibrant Roberts’s stylised image reflects the excitement of the new age, of music blaring from an overlarge gramophone which guides the dancing couples in a leaning pack. Meanwhile, Edward Burra and George Grosz focus on the venality of the public, so Burra’s The Snack Bar from 1930 shows a blowsy woman, over-made-up sitting at a counter while a man in the foreground slices a ham. There’s a whiff of death and decay about the scene, something garish and unsettling. Likewise, Grosz’s powerful image of a businessman ignoring the plight of the haggard soldier and working man behind him in Grey Day [1921] is a striking indictment of those who turned their backs on veterans once the war was won.

It doesn’t all work and rooms focusing on surrealism, agricultural scenes and post-war cities feel out of place. They were legitimate reactions to war and are rightly encompassed by Aftermath’s wider examination of artistic change, but in light of the emotional reaction created by the other rooms, they feel bland and distracting – not that it isn’t a treat to see works like The Garden Enclosed by war veteran David Jones [1924], last seen in the Sussex Modernism show at Two Temples Place, but pastoral landscapes by those who didn’t participate in the conflict seem somehow less important with the political power of Otto Dix and Christopher Nevinson fresh in your mind.

As we reach the final months of a four-year commemoration programme, there have been many significant artistic responses that have widened our general understand of the implications of the First World War and the men from all over the world who fought in all services on all sides. Aftermath feels like the summation of all that work, building-up to this thoughtful and important show. Our public memory of disillusioned soldiers unwillingly sacrificed is beginning to shift; from the first day of the war, reactions to it were complex, overwhelming and fluctuating. What Aftermath does is remind us that death was not the only outcome of the war, men came home and had to go on living in a fractured and uncertain society with no idea how to care for them and what it all meant. Their artistic responses captured in this wonderful exhibition shows they spent a lifetime trying to find out.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One is at Tate Britain until 23 September. Tickets start ay £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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Film Preview: Churchill – BFI Southbank

Churchill Film

It might be hard to believe that we don’t already know everything about Churchill, so often have we heard various interpretations of his story. But his apparent reluctance to commit troops to the D-Day landings in the days before they sailed is the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s new film that examines the price of leadership. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’, Shakespeare told us, and that filters through a film that examines the war from the perspective of the people who ran it.

The First World War gave us the stereotype of the bloodthirsty General sending millions of men to die while living in comfort far behind the lines. In this image, war is something that happens to other people, the cannon fodder or collateral damage that vindicates (or not) the strategies of great men. And while that image persists in the public mind, it has been challenged somewhat among history scholars. This film in some ways adds to this debate as it examines the role of leaders in times of crisis and the difficult choices they are forced to make under the exigencies of war.

And surprisingly for a film set in 1944, this is really all about the long-lasting effects of the First World War on military strategy, politics and society. The plot is relatively straightforward, at the start of the film the US and British military forces led by General Eisenhower and General Montgomery agree that the moment is right to launch a retaliatory strike to drive the German army out of Northern France; Churchill alone decries the plan, worried about the loss of life and haunted by the disastrous campaign he led in the Dardanelles nearly 30 years earlier – frequently referenced in shots of the sea. As the moment draws near, Churchill does all he can to prevent the landings and when he can’t, sinks into a depression that leaves him questioning his role and purpose.

As historian and writer Alex von Tunzelmann explained at the Q&A that followed the film, this is quite a different picture of Churchill than the one we imagine in World War Two, an image largely taken from his defiant speeches during the Blitz three years earlier. By 1944 however, he is shown to be more fearful and considerably more fragile, both physically and emotionally, as the strain of war and the need to balance social and military control take their toll. For some this will be a frustrating film to watch because of that, and the conflation of events presses months and even years of decision-making into a few days leading up to the landings.

This is a very quiet film in many respects focusing tightly on the emotional build-up to the last big push amongst a small group of senior figures, a theatrical staging with debate at its heart. And we never see any of the consequences – no shots of boats sailing into action, no soldiers on the beaches – this is not an action film but a tightly focused study of leadership. Is it accurate history, well there are plenty of reviews that will tell you it’s not, but it does have something to tell us about the psychology of leadership in times of crisis, a subject too rarely covered by history scholarship.

Many actors have played Churchill – Richard Burton, John Lithgow, Robert Hardy and Albert Finney among them – and there will be more to come including Gary Oldman’s interpretation in Atonement director Joe Wright’s forthcoming The Darkest Hour. At the BFI event accompanying this preview, Brian Cox likened his Churchill to King Lear, who at this point in his premiership is far from the strong leader he once was. Now, Churchill is a man who’s lost his way, actively standing in the way of war strategy in his attempts to delay the D-Day operation. And so the film sets up two distinct versions of leadership, that represented by Churchill – emotional, sulky and blinkered – and a more recognisable style exemplified by Eisenhower and Montgomery, men who knew what had to be done, arranged their facts and decided it was a risk worth taking for the greater good.

In scene after scene we see Churchill behave irascibly, taking his frustration out on the secretaries and isolating himself from the support around him including his wife, played with headmistressy charm by Miranda Richardson. And as events escalate we see him develop crazy ideas about leading the men into battle as a way to soothe his conscience. But while many scenes are told from this perspective, it’s far from a one note performance as Cox invests his interpretation of Churchill with a deep conscience and torment about the consequences of strategic decisions on the men who have to carry them out on the ground. It may not be the historical truth, but it gives Cox a chance to explore the madness of leadership that links to Lear and how the pressure of it can become infantilising when the once-influential leader is side-lined by more powerful voices.

The structure of the film also gives us a chance to see leadership in other ways, as Montgomery gets to give his version of an inspirational “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech to his men before they set sail, to which they respond enthusiastically. Julian Wadham’s approach here is less jingoistic and more sensitive, recognising their fear but using the experience of a war leader to call on the courage of his troops and their reliance on each other for support in the fight. Camaraderie is one of the motivators for men in combat, and in this brief scene the audience is shown the human side of a leader inspiring and calming his army all the while knowing what lies ahead for them. Montgomery is a realist about war, he sees what it will be, but has the ability to look them in the eye and ask them to be brave.

Equally interesting is the figure of Eisenhower, played by John Slattery whose wry style seems an unlikely choice. The parallels with Churchill are writ large throughout and Eisenhower is shot in several lonely poses as he bears the burden of responsibility; while Churchill walks the beaches, Eisenhower stares out to sea on the hill. For much of the film he seems a cold and distant figure, calculating the right time to strike and, despite Churchill’s pleas, refusing to countenance the impact on fighting men. But this version of Eisenhower is just another type of leader, a step beyond Montgomery who shuts down all emotion in order to make the most difficult decisions of the war. It’s not that he is unaffected by them, he just refuses to display those doubts in public, and in a well depicted moment as the decision to proceed with D-Day is given, Slattery allows dread to cross his face for an instant and has a tear in his eye for what’s to come, before he continues his lonely vigil on the hill as battle commences. By the end of the film, Eisenhower is no longer the heartless monster we saw 98 minutes earlier, but man alone making an impossible choice for the greater good.

In what is by far the best scene of the film, Churchill also has an interview with the King who has a word or two on a different kind of duty to impart to his Prime Minister. Here James Purefoy plays against his usual type as the gentle monarch with subtle touches of the speech impediment that continued to affect him. It’s a powerful scene driven by the idea of public duty in which the King convinces Churchill that he can best serve his people, not by being on the boats in battle, but as a figurehead, a focus for hope and inspiration, a role the King acknowledges is the only useful purpose that either of them can have during the conflict. It’s a surprisingly touching speech about the sacrifice of personal ambition and desire for a life of public service which Purefoy delivers superbly and, despite no more than 5 minutes of screen time, he anchors the film’s multi-perspective examination of the different kinds of responsibilities that come with leadership.

Churchill may not be an accurate representation of the hours before D-Day, it is a little repetitive at times, and without any battle scenes it does make all these discussions look quite divorced from the experience of war that divests them of their narrative drama, but in considering the difficult strategic choices being made at the heart of government, it does begin to unpick the stereotype of unfeeling Generals having a high time behind the lines. With more movies to come, the nature of Churchill himself and the characteristics that fashioned his leadership of the Second World War will continue to fascinate us as we strive to understand the man often cited as the greatest Briton.

Churchill is in cinemas nationwide from 16 June and visit the BFI website for more preview events. Follow this blog on Twitter @cuturalcap1


Mary Stuart – Almeida

mary-stuart

Monarchy and death are integral to one another. The nature of hereditary governance means that a new King or Queen usually only succeeds to the role they’ve prepared their whole lives for on the death of a parent. A monarch’s reign begins with grief and ends in death, but rarely have living monarchs had the destiny of a foreign displaced ruler in their hands. Schiller’s Mary Stuart details one such occasion, and probably history’s most famous example – when deposed Scottish Queen Mary sought refuge in England but was kept prisoner for 19 years by her royal cousin Elizabeth I.

Schiller’s play, now over 200 years old, has only limited claims to authenticity and his preference for telling Mary’s side of the story is clear, yet there is plenty of nuance to keep dramatists happy. Previous lauded productions have emphasised the difference between the two Queens, while in the Almeida’s new version, it is their similarities and entwined destinies that are played up. The historical record partially supports both interpretations, although more recent scholarship has tended to celebrate Elizabeth’s ability to put duty before her personal needs.

The conceit of Robert Icke’s new version is that the lead roles are played by both Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, decided in ceremony at the start of each performance by the toss of a coin. Destiny decides who is who each day, and we are asked to accept that Elizabeth and Mary could so easily have known each other’s fate. And within that context of the play and in history that is true… to a point.

At the start, both Queens process to the stage from the rear stalls while John Light as the Earl of Leicester – the man, in Schiller’s partially fabricated account, who is caught between them – spins a coin, and as soon as it falls everything swing into action. In the version I saw, Williams played Mary and it is with her that we spend much of the early part of the play. Ever a magnet for plots and schemes, the narrative hinges on the extent to which Mary knew or even instigated any of them, and whether Elizabeth as a fellow monarch had any right to take her life for it, even when such machinations threatened her own.

It is clear enough in Schiller’s writing, and consequently in Icke’s staging, that Elizabeth is a monster and Mary largely a poor victim of her merciless royal cousin. While production values and performance are high, it is difficult not to be a little disappointed that there wasn’t more ambiguity in the relationship between these two women, which is one of the main reasons they continue to fascinate us. Should Elizabeth be condemned for ending Mary’s life when there was considerable circumstantial proof that Mary had repeatedly tried to deprive Elizabeth of hers?

There are throw-away comments about the nature of the two Queens, with Mary giving herself over repeatedly to her femininity and multiple lovers which leads to acts of betrayal, while Elizabeth flirted and cajoled but ultimately jettisoned an ordinary personal life to maintain stability and loyalty in a kingdom riven by religious wars and factions for more than 20 years prior to her accession.  And there is much that could be made of these nuances in a production that seems to favour Mary’s cause.

Part of that is down to Lia Williams’s dominating performance as the calculating and martyred Mary. The audience never quite knows if she is playing them – is she genuinely an innocent in these plots, is she the centre of a very tangled web, or perhaps she has just convinced herself that she’s not responsible? Clearly Schiller and  Icke tilt the action in her favour but Williams grasps the opportunity the playwright offers to display a range of interesting emotions from regret for her lasciviousness and involvement in the murder and downfall of her former husbands, to outrage at the prolonged confinement as a political refugee and barely concealed glee at the thought of taking her cousin’s place, as well as utilisation of her fervent Catholic faith in “proving” herself innocent of the plots against Elizabeth.

Yet, the rest of the production, thought simply staged, doesn’t quite match up to these ambiguities. It takes a while for Elizabeth and her court to appear and there seems considerably less emphasis on understanding her motivation in the context of her reign. Stripped of all circumstance, Elizabeth becomes someone who grants asylum to her unnamed heir, imprisons her for nearly two decades and is led by ‘evil counsellors’ to grant her rival’s execution largely out of jealousy.

But if you put the circumstances back in, then Elizabeth’s position becomes more sympathetic and even understandable – something this production doesn’t fully acknowledge. By the time of this play, 1587, Elizabeth had been Queen for 30 years, making her and Mary in their 50s (and thus much older than Schiller suggests). During that time she had balanced the extreme religious divisions that saw England become first virtually puritan and then fanatically Catholic in the 10 years of her siblings’ reigns, as well as constant questions about her legitimacy, marriageability and skill in managing a dissenting aristocracy, divisions Elizabeth had carefully navigated for three decades. The arrival of Mary Queen of Scots on English soil, a deposed Catholic from a rival power linked to the murder of her own husband and years of poor decision-making, was a huge and complicated problem for the English monarch that could only inflame various divisions in her own realm. Protect her or remove her, the consequences were significant; Elizabeth was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.

These are aspect Schiller overlooks and Icke’s production barely references. Juliet Stevenson gives us some of Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, her famous prevarication, anger and recrimination but not much of her heart. In part one, she paces and frowns, in part two she becomes hysterical, it’s undoubtedly what Schiller wants but it’s not all there is to the character. For a story that’s almost entirely about power-play this is curiously wordy and slow at times. In over three hours reams of dialogue and an occasional confusion of characters slacken what should be a dangerous pace, and where Elizabeth could be seen to be rushed into a decision by urgency, here that is a more leisurely feel.

The surrounding cast are fine with Vincent Franklin as Burleigh giving sage advice but with a nod to the longstanding rivalry with John Light’s Leicester – a character who is actually much maligned by Schiller in this play. For a very long time the Earl of Leicester’s reputation was diabolical, a man thought to have murdered his own wife to try and marry his Queen and was blamed for many of the ills of Elizabethan England. This was very much the man Schiller presented in 1800, whereas in recent times historians have restored Leicester’s reputation and done much to prove the allegations against him were largely groundless.

Nonetheless he is a driving force in this play as the man between the two Queens and John Light gives a compelling and highly engaging performance that adds drama to any scene in which he appears. In truth Leicester was absent from the country for most of the years around Mary’s execution, serving in the Netherlands and unlikely to have had as decisive a hand in events as Schiller depicts. Rather than playing both women, Leicester had tired of Elizabeth’s decades of dithering and married Lettice Knollys in 1578 so the fervent sexual connection suggested here between Elizabeth and Leicester would have long gone off the boil. Likewise the character of Mortimer who seeds and enacts the final plot to remove Elizabeth and replace her with Mary is entirely the author’s creation.

With a fair amount of critical approval for this role-swapping production and expectations consequently high, it was difficult not to be a little underwhelmed in the end by the too clear-cut approach to heroes and villains that the production takes. Although history and drama needn’t accord, and central performances aside, the production felt like a missed opportunity to present a more complex picture of Mary’s execution.

It may seem strange to have included so much comparison with history in a theatre review, but when the central premise of this production is that Mary and Elizabeth could so easily have had the other’s fate – a conclusion drawn not entirely from the text alone – I was not convinced that was true. Besides their royal status and lineage, the production doesn’t fully makes the case for their interchangeability; Mary was full of human weakness, now remembered more for the manner of her death than even the scandals that took her there, while Elizabeth’s dealings with Mary were one aspect of a 45 year reign that marked her as one of England’s most successful monarchs. The Almeida’s version of Schiller’s play is decent enough, but the truth is so much more interesting.

Mary Stuart is at the Almeida until 21 January. Tickets are mostly sold out but extra tickets are released often from £10.


Autumn Ambles 2016 – Walk London

st-johns-churchyard-wapping

One of the great things about Walk London is the connections their tours make between entirely random things that demonstrate the evolution of London in the last few centuries. Now running for many years, a tour I have long wanted to try out is the riverside stroll from City Hall to Canary Wharf, a two and a half hour industrial voyage beyond the edges of Zone 1 that links Captain Kidd and Ian McKellen with painters Turner and Whistler. Only the eclectic and fascinating Walk London tours could tell one coherent story that takes in hundreds of years of history and covers topics as diverse as the rise of fall of neighbourhoods in East London, secret underground waterways, historic pubs and West End theatre safety curtains.

Usually when you think of East London it’s probably all Hackney hipsters and Kray family violence, but the area from Tower Hill, through Shadwell and Wapping to Limehouse is a beautiful part of the city and one I was completely unfamiliar with. On the clipper to Greenwich, you see wharfs, now converted into luxury flats and hotels, which were once the site of one of the busiest docks in the world, but Walk London takes you through the beautiful backstreets where former warehouses sit next to charming Georgian Squares that could almost have come from Bloomsbury. We learn that these were formerly home to naval officers and their families in what was once a fashionable and prosperous area, close to the bustling industry of the river – which for a weekend and heavily residential area was strangely deserted and entirely lacking in tourists.

The river of course runs right through this story and is the heart of the tour as you make you way along the Thames Path towards the shiny fronted skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, as tour guide Peter expertly points out the various docks and buildings that kept the British Empire afloat. St Katherine Dock was apparently a failure because it was too small, while in many places the walking route disappears to allow boats to get as close to their depositories as possible. So much seems to have changed in the 1960s and 1970s which throughout the walk we hear was the time much of the dockland area fell into disrepair before it was reinvigorated as a residential and financial district much later – and even now it’s hard to picture the bustling and vital place it must once have been.

The Thames has also been a source of considerable artistic inspiration with Jacobs Island being the place that Dickens set the world of Bill Sykes and his dramatic chase through the slums of South London. Similarly two buildings nearby housed artists Turner and Whistler who, while facing the north bank, produced some of their paintings while close to London’s main artery. A more obviously industrial influence is pointed out by Peter at the hydraulic works which he informs us was necessary for opening locks and bridges, as well as operating the safety curtains in the theatres of the West End.

Of course the river had a huge influence on the businesses that grew up around it, so you pass an area full of former workshops where crews could buy rope, sails and other shipping material, including Ropemaker’s Field, a park whose metal pillars have a rope pattern carved into them. Pubs too are major landmarks with many dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century, claiming to be the place of execution for pirates like Captain Kidd. One notable pub near the end of the tour is The Grapes owned by Sir Ian McKellen which is over 500 years old and close to the place the transport ships for Australia set sail.

City Hall to Canary Wharf is one of the medium length walks which will give you a sense of achievement as your reach the end, but has filled your head with fascinating insights into a less well-known area of the city. Walk London is designed to introduce you to new places, and this tour does exactly that – an interesting and engaging amble through a deserted, historic and beautiful part of town, that was once the lifeblood of the capital.

By contrast, Mayfair and Soho are considerably busier areas and were the focus of the tube walk from Victoria to Oxford Circus. These tours have become a bit of a feature of the Walk London programme, which began with an anniversary walk for the Piccadilly Line last year and one for the Bakerloo Line in the spring (also guided by Mark). The Victoria Line, however, is one of the newest, opened we’re informed by the Queen in 1969 when she took the new line one stop from Victoria Station to Green Park, cutting right though the centre of London  and now diagonally connecting Walthamstow with Brixton.

But Victoria was not the only name proffered for this line, as guide and tube walk expert Mark informs us, Viking was on alternative option as was Walvic. Like the Bakerloo line which takes its name from a contraction of Baker Street and Waterloo, the Viking line would have spliced Victoria and King’s Cross together, while Walvic, unites Walthamstow and Victoria. And while we’re now more used to seeing this this type of word play used to create tag names for celebrity couples, clearly it’s far from new.

From the train station, this walk takes you past Buckingham Palace where several food based anecdotes are on offer including Prince Philip complaining about cold food because the kitchens are so far away, and a visiting dignitary offering a prayer in his native language which was actually an instruction for his former-servant wife on how to tackle the extensive cutlery. Next to Green Park and some tales about double agents staying at the Ritz while Mark displayed his extensive knowledge of city trivia with tales about recent Bond novels being delivered around the world, the drinking habits of Michael Caine’s restaurant partner and how Michael Portillo escaped the paparazzi by running through Browns hotel.

There is a little overlap with the Piccadilly Line walk, so you can hear again about Paul McCartney whistling in Burlington Arcade, but in the backstreets of Mayfair you learn about the Beatles impromptu rooftop gig one lunchtime, in what was once Apple Music in Savile Row, shut down by the police after 42 minutes due to noise complaints, or the likely apocryphal tale of Alexander McQueen sewing a rude message into the Prince of Wales’s suit. The final leg of the tour takes you past St George’s Church near Hanover Square where American President Theodore Roosevelt was married and finally on to Liberty’s close to where Michael Caine spent a night in the cells and we learn the Queen has curtain weights sewn into her hems to prevent any embarrassment from unexpected gusts of wind.

One of the joys of Walk London is you never know what you’re going to find out, and by picking two completely contrasting guided tours, you end up with a huge sweep of history and insights into topics as wide ranging as engineering, spying and pop culture. Thankfully this year’s Autumn Ambles were a couple of weeks earlier so they don’t clash with the Film Festival, and the guides, as ever, are not just knowledgeable and able to field a huge range of questions, but friendly and engaging, making the experience more than just a sightseeing mission. The next Walk London weekend will be in January and I’m already beginning to wonder what I’ll find out about this infinitely amazing city.

Walk London, sponsored by TFL, provides of 40 guided tours of London, three times a year. Walks vary from 1.5 hour city strolls to 4-6 hour hikes along the Thames Path and all are completely free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 – V&A

beatles-costumes-at-so-you-want-a-revolution-va

For many the 1960s was the epitome of freedom, style and youth culture, an explosion of colour, music and fashion that inarguably shaped the subsequent decades, an influence that is still felt today. Or so goes the argument of the V&A’s latest major exhibition that looks at the ‘significance and impact’ of the late 60s. For those of us who weren’t there, the V&A makes a strong case and throws in a few surprises by considering not just the obvious pop culture aspects, but also the emergence of political protest in multiple countries, key technological innovations and a growing concern with an eco-friendly lifestyle.

But it all begins with the more obvious, but still highly entertaining, story of swinging London, political scandals and the integration of music and fashion. We may have heard it all before but the V&A takes a more academic approach to presentation with detailed descriptions of every object as well as an admirable collection of exhibits that add considerably to the argument the exhibition is making. It’s clear the museum has learnt so much in recent years from its blockbuster shows and the importance of visual design is now as valuable as the objects on display. Technology too is integrated into this show with video screens and presentations throughout, but most importantly a headset (for once included in the price) that wirelessly connects to films and recordings as you walk by allowing you to listen without having to control the audio guide yourself, and plays a variety of 60s tunes to you – from John Peel’s record collection – the rest of the time, immersing you entirely in the years under discussion.

Utilising the citrus colours of psychedelia, the first section looks at youth culture, art, fashion and music with examples from clothing store Biba, a video of stylist Vidal Sassoon cutting a V-shape into the back of a woman’s hair and posters referencing art nouveau from the First World War. Everything changed is the message here; from hemlines to morals, the late 1960s was a blast of fresh air on a fetid backward-looking society. A lot of that is debatable and arguably it is the older generation who did much to alter the laws that decriminalised homosexuality and abortion, but seeing this collection all at once certainly replicates the vibrant feel of the times.

From Twiggy’s clothing line on a mannequin that is frighteningly designed to look like her, to Mick Jagger’s all-in-one white stage outfit, Sandi Shore’s dresses designed by husband Jeff Banks (and let’s not forget he went on to design clothing for Sainsburys), the chair Christine Keeler provocatively posed on during the Profumo scandal to the newly launched magazines of the era, this section is all about fresh faces and creative endeavours. Interesting too is the focus on fame and how the perceived lifestyles of particular celebrities helped to shape the commercial and cultural effect of the era leading to clothing catalogues replicating celebrity outfits and the craze for shopping that resulted. The new photographers like David Bailey and Ronald Traeger took pictures of people like Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and even the Krays that are on display here which define this confluence of art and style.

Unsurprisingly, at many points this feels as much an exhibition of The Beatles as it does an examination of their era, with almost every section containing costumes, clothes or handwritten lyrics jotted down on scraps of paper. In section two on the effect of LSD, which was legal until 1966, their stage outfits from Sergeant Pepper and a sitar. There’s a lot of material in this section that looks at the growth of “counter-culture” clubs and their impact on design, which is interesting but a little too text heavy, and you’ll find as with the rest of the exhibition, it is The Beatles sections everyone is crowded around.

Most unexpectedly the V&A has included a large section on the political disputes, activism and riots of this period, many in response to the Vietnam War, and developing attitudes to race, sexuality and gender politics. After the brash whirl of the early sections this is a tonic, clearly showing that beneath the façade of cool celebrities and consumption, dark and complex changes were occurring in societies across the world that laid the foundation for many of the freedoms we take for granted today. There was a shift to using posters for political purposes and many are on display, along with protective clothing worn by The Black Panthers and French Police, as well as brutal photojournalism showing dead students in America as a result of an out of control protest – a stark and fascinating contrast with the slick image of celebrities in the previous room. Clearly, the late 60s saw a flowering of popular culture but also of youth engagement with pertinent political and social injustices.

Being the V&A a section on design is almost mandatory and while this section on consumerism and technological development has some interesting objects, it almost warrants a whole exhibition on its own. It’s a very broad ranging room, taking in developments in advertising, paper dresses printed with a Warhol-influenced soup poster print, space suits from the moon-landing, Expos and a Kodak Carousel anachronistically accompanied by a relevant scene from Mad Men. It feels a bit too lightweight on its own and could have made more sense if tied into the later room on the growth of communication technologies and personal computing. It’s nice to include but is a little flimsy in linking such innovations to its overall argument about the ongoing influence of the 60s.

One of the showcase sections is the semi-recreation of Woodstock, shown on enormous surrounding screens including performances from Hendrix and The Who while the floor is covered in fake grass strewn with beanbags for visitors to lie-back and enjoy. Around the room are several of the costumes worn by musicians as well as Keith Moon’s drum kit and Jimi Hendrix’s guitars in various states of destruction. For music fans this exhibition is a must and the amount of original material the V&A has gathered is incredible, and if you can fight the reminiscing baby boomers for a beanbag this room is well worth a longer stay. But it links neatly into the section on the creation of ecological communities, who rejected technology and traditional city life for country communes. It’s certainly clear that festival-going has moved from its alternative roots into a mainstream preoccupation for many in the summer, with environmental concerns are hotly debated, while our modern preoccupation with being permanently “online” is developing its own backlash – a return to counterculture modes perhaps?

The exhibition ends with 1970 and the ushering in of a slightly different era typified by calls for peace, love and social cohesion. It ends with Lennon’s Imagine – a song many will have an ambiguous relationship with now – as well as a jacket he wore at the time. Its tone is a bit of a whimper after such a furious beginning and high-stakes political discussion, but perhaps that’s how all decades end, a quiet slide into the next one taking only some of their style and substance with them. Yet the V&A makes a compelling case for the influence of the period 1966-70 on the modern world, and while a lot of the changes it trumpets were grounded in the post-war upheavals of the 1920s-1950s, the 60s has a hold on our imagination that is hard to shake. This is a full-on and at times overwhelming show, full to the brim with interesting exhibits – to wallow in it, head to the V&A and enjoy this anthem to the decade of style.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the V&A until 26 February 2017. Tickets are £16 and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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