Category Archives: Heritage

Mary Stuart – Almeida

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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

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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

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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


From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies – Imperial War Museum

Real to Reel - A Century of War Movies - IWM

The Imperial War Museum has a real treat for film fans, a new exhibition looking at the creation and influence of war films that brings together a huge number of props, costumes, videos and documents from the last hundred years of movie-making.  An often controversial subject, movies claiming to depict real-life events can polarise opinion frustrating historians and veterans, while patronising audiences. Yet some of the greatest films ever made were war movies, many with devoted cult followings, so from Casablanca to Black Hawk Down, Das Boot to Eye in the Sky film has often reflected the nature of modern warfare.

The parameters for this rather brilliant exhibition become clear as you go along and it’s quite strict about selecting films based only on wars that have actually occurred in the last hundred years, as well as the films – both real and fictional – made in this time. So if you’re hoping to see medieval depictions like Braveheart or the recent Macbeth, or gain insight into the big battles of the British Empire such as The Charge of the Light Brigade or Zulu then this is not the show for you. Real to Reel instead fits entirely with the museums remit to represent the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Pushing the history aside, there’s plenty for film fans; if you want to see Mark Rylance’s 2016 BAFTA mask for Bridge of Spies, David Niven’s RAF flying jacket from A Matter of Life and Death, Marlene Dietrich’s ‘entertaining the troops’ dress, James McAvoy’s Atonement army uniform, an original chair from Rick’s bar in Casablanca or Clarke Gable’s trench-coat then this show has it all and more. Taking a largely chronological approach we walk through the World Wars first, grouping together examples of films made about them at any time since. Initially the layout is like a store room piled high with boxes, reels and packages – reminiscent actually of the layout of the Barbican’s James Bond exhibition a few years’ back – a stage set in a way to showcase the individual items which include the costumes mentioned above, digital screens showing excerpts from the films, screenplays, stills, director’s letters and corresponding testimony from the IWM archives for the periods examined.

Given the recent splurge of commemoration activity, naturally we start with The Battle of the Somme a landmark piece of early film-making that gave people at home a chance to see what the Western Front looked like for the first time. Although parts of it were staged, it does show wounded and dying men, the dangerous environment full of shells, craters and fear, and, from a distance, men genuinely engaged in combat. It sets the scene for the rest of the programme as we learn about the purpose of war films both as patriotic drivers made during actual conflicts to rally morale, as well as reflections on the way in which particular conflicts have shaped British and American consciousness. The fully fictional accounts soon follow, from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory with original set drawings from Bond designer Ken Adams, to Lawrence of Arabia, as well as costumes and a flag from the recent Warhorse movie, the First World War has been a popular focus for films throughout the last 100 years.

Understandably, however, it is the Second World War that takes up the most room here and seems to have been the greatest inspiration for film-makers. There are several reasons for this, key among them is the idea that by 1939, film had become an important medium for propaganda and morale, so while the art was in its infancy during the Great War, many movies were made in both the UK and America to promote the cause. In addition, of course, this war had a greater effect on the USA than its predecessor, so naturally Hollywood both then and since has spent considerable resource attempting to comprehend and honour it.

We learn how several major stars joined-up to fight while continuing to make films and hold concerts, showcasing the costumes mentioned above for Niven, Gable and Dietrich along with their stories including how Dietrich gave up her citizenship rather than perform for the Nazi cause. Nearby on a giant cinema screen are some interpretations of the 1944 D-Day landings with the combat sections of several films contrasted to show us how differently the war has been interpreted in different decades. Saving Private Ryan is one of those included and in a case nearby you can see Tom Hanks’s costume from the film along with memorabilia from comparable D-Day movies.

From here on the chronological framework for the exhibition fluctuates somewhat because next up is an interpretation of the Dunkirk retreat from 1940 using Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement which includes probably one of the best tracking shots ever seen in a combat movie as we follow the hero Robbie (played by James McAvoy) and his friends along the beach. The shoreline is packed with men awaiting rescue, some enjoying the faded glory of the fairground rides, some slumped exhaustedly on the ground, and the shot, shown here in full, is compelling, eye-opening and strangely beautiful. Nearby, is McAvoy’s army uniform worn in these scenes along with a brilliant short video interview with Wright and his designer Sarah Greenwood discussing how they found the location, dressed it and prepared for the sequence. In a microcosm, this small section is why this exhibition is so successful, because it shows you the piece of film, tells you how it was made with passionate care and attention to detail so notable of modern filmmakers, and offers you a bone fide bit of Hollywood glamour with a costume worn by a movie star.

There are some final display cases on character which feel a little under prepared in comparison but cover some of the Vietnam films and Where Eagles Dare, as well as an excellent ultra-modern video with trailers and interviews for recent hits including Zero Dark Thirty and Eye in the Sky. It ends where it began with a warning that war movies are often highly controversial and glamorised versions of history that can be unreliable. But the minute the marketing machine goes into production the cultural impact of these films is inescapable. Walking around the final anteroom that contains posters, memorabilia and replicas it’s hard to disagree. The soundtrack to this section is the music from classic movies like The Great Escape and Casablanca which are instantly recognisable and firmly embedded in a wider idea of the periods they represent.

War movies, then, are a dangerous thing and for many will be the only history they will ever see. And while such fictions have no claim to absolute truth (the catch-all term ‘based-on’ helps with this), artistic licence can lead to considerable controversy – particularly when American films completely expunge other Allied forces from their own history. From Real to Reel is probably the Imperial War Museum’s most successful exhibition, in terms of logic, argument and content, since their Ian Fleming show in 2008. It is brilliantly executed with a persuasive argument that makes you think more deeply about the issues it raises, while enjoying a rare sweep of exciting artefacts. While plenty of films are left out what this show contains will delight military historians and film fans alike.

From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January. Entrance is £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 


Vogue 100: A Century of Style – National Portrait Gallery

The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty by Cecil Beaton

The National Portrait Gallery has had a very nice line in fashion photography over the years including an impressively insightful David Bailey retrospective in 2014. To celebrate the centenary of Vogue Britain, established in the midst of the First World War, the NPG presents a glamorous walk through the decades of a magazine that has reflected a changing taste in clothing as well as the political, economic and cultural influences of the day. Last year’s Alexander McQueen show at the V&A – arguably the greatest fashion exhibition ever to hit London – has changed how the history of fashion is presented and, although there are no clothes on display here, its influence can be felt in the in both the curation and more dynamic design of this exhibition.

London’s art scene is doing a roaring trade in photography exhibitions at the moment; some such as the Imperial War Museum’s Lee Miller: A Women’s War, can be seen viewed as a companion piece to the Vogue show, covering some of the same images including those of Miller in her early days as a model as well as her military work during the Second World War. Other shows such as the brilliant Strange and Familiar at the Barbican cover much of the same period but offer two very different interpretations of the world. Haute couture fashion is often seen as ‘aspirational’ and much of the material on display at the NPG reflects how women wanted to look in particular decades and the pages of Vogue can be interpreted as a history of how Britain wanted to be seen – whereas Strange and Familiar shows us who we really were – and seeing both in quick succession is an eye-opening insight into the last 70 years.

Vogue 100 actually starts in the here and now with modern covers and unexpectedly a film showing models in close up, playing in a mirrored alcove so everywhere you look are reflections upon reflections (one of the elements surely inspired by the McQueen show). Then you can trace a path back through the decades of celebrities and approaches, ending up where it all began in 1916. Trendy as it may be, it wasn’t clear what this backward-looking approach was supposed to give us, so instead you can defy the crowds as I did and march yourself all the way back to the 1920s (there’s no exit here you will still have to walk back anyway) and start from there, seeing the developments in fashion, photography and in the magazine’s approach to the cultural world it represents unfolding before your eyes.

Whichever way you chose to go this is clearly an exhibition about the artists that have made Vogue what it is today rather than the story of its production, editorship or backroom dramas. Instead we see how popular culture was presented and influenced by the pages of this magazine through the choices of models, designers, photographers, celebrities and actual artists who drew works for the early spreads or, like Picasso, were featured in the magazine itself. In the unique world of Vogue this walk through the twentieth century sees hemlines rise and fall as quickly as empires, and economic shifts in the aftermath of war and depression that affect fabrics choices and shoot locations.

The 1920s and 30s show a selection of early prints in decorated glass cases which is a nice touch reflecting the particular style of each era and the major players of the day. From a dancing Fred Astaire to stylish swimsuits for men and women (an image recently used as the cover for a novel about Hemingway), from society “it girls” to Horst’s famous corset images – which you may have seen in Horst’s own retrospective at the V&A last year – this decades represent a stagey look to the images with models in formal, often classical poses against pillars or architecture that infer the silhouette of the outfit. Often ‘moody’, the use of lighting creates contrasts of light and shadow that add considerable atmosphere to the black and white prints, as well as an elegance that colour photos just never seem to emulate.

On to the 40s and the décor becomes a bold striking red as the NPG contrasts its war coverage of pilots and military workers with the New Look that Dior introduced after the conflict. It’s an interesting approach that offers both sides of the magazine’s work, although the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition on Lee Miller has all the best images actually. On the fashion side the increased use of sites of destruction to contrast the outfits is apparent particularly in Norman Hartnell’s work where elegantly dressed ladies stand in front of bomb sites as though to suggesting ‘fashion is indestructible’. Here also there is a greater saturation of bold colour advocated by those like Cecil Beaton who was a major influence on Vogue’s unfolding style. His 1946 image of a model dressed entirely in shades of red with red accessories against a red background entitled ‘The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty’ is a memorable example of this dynamic approach.

The full-skirted elegance of the 50s gives way to a much more relaxed approach to modelling in the 1960s as formal poses are replaced with ‘action’ shots of fashion in everyday lives. Twiggy of course will be familiar, careering along on a scooter or Jean Shrimpton relaxing in a series of coats for one shoot. New photographers were also part of this freer style with David Bailey in particular starting to document the more liberal times on location and with more experimental images.  By the time we reach the 70s and 80s it’s those experiments with colour and composition that seem to take precedence, and some of the more memorable images here are Claudia Schiffer on the back of a motorbike which in colour is a study in monochrome, and a model in a 20s-esque red bathing suite leaning on a swing which we learn was fashioned ad hoc on location, and harks back to that early image of the bathers on the platform.

Onto the 90s and the rise of the supermodel with that famous cover, and in more recent images you should get used to seeing that darling of British Vogue, Kate Moss who is everywhere. From the ‘heroin chic’ pictures that launched her more simple ‘every-girl’ look to the African Queen image of her in a desert, there’s no doubting her influence. As more and more magazines sought to challenge Vogue’s dominance, the photoessays become increasingly outlandish and surreal including a 40s bomber shown coming through a chintzy living room wall to advertise a khaki inspired trend and a stunning pink powder-puff shot of Lily Cole. Colour also continues to dominate as digital images allow even greater opportunities to retouch the pictures in pre-production, enhancing their fantasy-like suggestion and getting to the heart of that aspirational life Vogue has always wanted to present.

Vogue 100 doesn’t claim the magazine has profoundly changed the world, but for 100 years it has reflected society’s changing values while offering entertainment and escapism to its readers. While this show doesn’t tackle the story of Vogue itself or any of the controversies its pages unleash such as the size zero model and the doctoring of images by airbrushing to extremes it’s an interesting version of a history the magazine wishes to present. It has attracted important photographers including Horst, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier who have forwarded an artistic aesthetic that lifts what could have been a catalogue for expensive clothing to something more meaningful and inventive. And yes, it is all glossy photos of a world that doesn’t exist, but view it as an expression of a changing fantasy life and see it in partnership with the coincidentally contrasting show Strange and Familiar at the Barbican and both shows take on an added resonance that only adds to our understanding of the Britain we live in.

Vogue 100 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 May. Tickets are £17 without donation and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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