Sunday, 27 January 2013

Paula Rego

New pictures by Paula Rego are on view at Marlborough Fine Art in London, pastels as vigorously drawn and strongly coloured as ever  that qualify for the term paintings,  chosen by the gallery.  They include large vertical works alongside ones in more conventional  format.   Many have multiple figures,  human and animal, all at different scales, crowded together in spatial confusion and spilling over each other with pictorial yet unemotional engagement.  There is a nightmarish atmosphere, of familiar forms shape-shifting into odd, then grotesque, then scary presences; of uncertain, changeable, unsettling perspectives; of faces looming and receding, limbs sprawling, heads lolling like limp puppets.
 Maybe the jumbled groups are less disturbing than some earlier works with more realism or sinister themes, and the simpler compositions seem less angry, albeit far from easeful.  They are full of graphic energy and visual challenge and still very compelling, not least because they trick the viewer into seeking narrative sense within the cartoon-like ensemble.

At the Tate Pre-Raphaelites exhibition recently,  Paula Rego enthused to me about PRB storytelling, and one can see the connection.  Her new works are inspired by folklore sources – those of the commedia dell’arte, that of the Dama Pe de Cabra (Goat-Foot Woman), a medieval  portuguese tale retold in the early 19th century, and more unexpectedly , the burlesque poem Tarantella by Hilaire Belloc that begins ‘Do you remember an inn, Miranda? ‘ and recalls ‘the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees / And the wine that tasted of tar?’   The Goat-Foot woman left is one of the visually more restrained pictures.

The exhibition includes a unique glimpse into the making of these images, with the life-size props used for the picture Playground, arranged in real rather than two-dimensional space;  stuffed, modelled in papier mache, painted and clothed,  the group is described as a sculptural maquette  and suggest that Rego could move from  pictures to installations (maybe she has).  If one thought she had reached the top of her game, in that over-used phrase, it’s clear there is still more invention, strength, humour, subversion, all elbowing for expression.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

HMD 2013

Some of the many events taking place for this year’s
 Holocaust Memorial Day

21-27 January Commemorating DORA LOVE
 Lakeside Theatre,  University of Essex
28 January Memorial to ROMAN HALTER who died a year ago. 
New North London Synagogue, Finchley
30 January  ZIGGY SHIPPER speaking at University of Sussex
organised by Centre for German Jewish Studies
with photographs by Matt Writtle for Portraits for Posterity.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Sarah Losh

One Christmas present was The Pinecone, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Sarah Losh, wealthy  co-owner of prosperous chemical works on Tyneside and builder of a singular Romanesque-style church at Wreay , south of Carlisle, where she lived.  Singular because nothing else like it is known in the period (1840s) and because Sarah was her own architect and designer as well as sculpting motifs for many decorative elements.  It’s long been known as a Victorian oddity, albeit far more serious than that term implies.  Solid yet not heavy, primitive but not naive, it looks a bit Arts-and-Crafts several decades avant la lettre. Pevsner, who needed to fit all architecture into a chronology of influence and  innovation, called it a crazy building despite being most impressive and amazingly forward-looking.

Rossetti, who visited Sarah’s cousin and heir in 1869, praised it as full of imaginative detail, beauty and originality – far better than work by current architects.  While the semi-circular apse is an old but traditional form, seen for example at Hoarwithy a generation later, the emblems and symbolic details must be unique in Anglican churches, with lotus flowers, insects, fossils and pinecones in place of crosses and thorn crowns, seemingly in response to Payne Knight’s Symbolical Language of Ancient Art & Mythology, or perhaps wholly devised by Sarah Losh.
Frustratingly, she and her heirs destroyed all personal papers, and there even appear to be no surviving letters from Sarah to the extensive Losh cousinage.   Jenny Uglow fantasises that, somewhere, a tin trunk of correspsondence awaits discovery, but has been obliged to compose a biography with virtually nothing in the subject’s own voice.  And sadly for someone with such unusual interests and talents, Wreay church is effectively Sarah’s only substantial achievement.  The nearest comparison I can think of is the cemetery chapel at Compton in Surrey, designed with comparable symbolism by Mary Seton Watts, and created by villagers under her direction around 1900.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

First Plantings 4

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The stanzone joined on to the house at the upper end of the court-yard, and ran at a right angle from it down into the garden.  A low brick wall divided the latter from the court-yard and ran right round it, from the stanzone end to the azalea bed before mentioned.   It was about two feet in width, and so afforded another excellent position for a display of pot plants.  Just opposite the hall-door a break in this low wall was flanked by two brick uprights, supporting old terra-cotta vases.  A  wire arch stretched between these, over which white and yellow jasmine and roses were trained.  By this opening the garden proper was entered, for the paved court-yard, with its various arrangements of pots, forms a kind of parterre, separate from the real earth.  This last we thought ourselves most fortunate in possessing, as it is quite usual in Tuscany to find the garden consisting mainly of an expanse of gravel on which pots are placed, with perhaps here and there a little patch dug out, and filled with earth.

Standing under this trellis arch and looking down upon the garden, one sees that it resembles in shape, as I have said, a Latin cross, the bar of the cross being represented  by about one third of our ground, lying across the whole length of the house and somewhat further on the west side, by reason of the ground then taking a curve as it passes the lower end of the stanzone, and winding around towards the north.  The remaining two-thirds go, as it were, to the long division of the cross.  The reason of this last portion being so much narrower is, that the wide shrubbery forming one bank of the avenue marches with our ground, and not only deprives us of our share of the morning sun in winter, but occupies soil which I felt I could have turned to much better account.  The upper part, the cross-bar of the garden, was already laid out in a fashion.  A gravel walk on the left of the entrance arch led to a most picturesque old arbour formed of wooden supports, surmounted by a huge iron dome wreathed in Virginian creeper, which had spread along the wall to the old stone archway.  No doubt this was the place from which, in former years, when the avenue was the high road, the farmer’s family used to sit of an evening and look out upon the world.

Below this a bank sloped down to the avenue, and just beyond, heading the shrubbery, a splendid old acacia tree spread its sheltering branches.  This tree was most valuable to us, on account of the shady corner it afforded, both for our garden chairs and for the plants when the summer heat rendered necessary their removal from the sunny court-yard.  Opposite the arbour was a triangular bed, the only occupants of which were a very old Lagerstroemia indica and a huge chimonanthus bush, called here “Pampadora”.    Lagerstroemias o very well in North Italy, where the brilliant colour of their flowers  adds much to the beauty of the Lake gardens, particularly in the neighbourhood of Lago d’Orta.  But this  dry Tuscan air does not suit them, and this particular specimen has been so neglected that it is a rather hopeless tree, and seldom flowers. The chimonanthus has been equally ill-treated, but it was open to pruning,  and rewards us now by an inexhaustible supply of its fragrant flowers  for the house, a real treasure in the months of December and January, when it flowers.

We dug out a good bed at the foot of the acacia  tree for hardy ferns, planting them among old tree roots and stumps.  This was carpeted with scillas, snowdrops, and yellow primroses. And after these had died down in summer, our few palm trees, and the more delicate ferns and foliage plants stood there, forming a very effective group.  There was also room in this part of the garden to stand the azaleas, in big terra-cotta conche, with which, in later years, the court-yard was furnished.  Had these been left in their winter station during April and May, the hot sun would have shrivelled up their delicate blossoms in a very few days, whereas in this partial shade their flowering was prolonged for weeks, and they had a most beautiful half “surprise” effect as one turned off the main walk to this corner, the one bit of ground that lent itself to a certain delusive idea of space beyond. Alas! The “beyond” was quite real, but it was the old shrubbery.     

Monday, 7 January 2013

First Plantings 3

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
I see that the poet-laureate has been taken to  task by one of his critics for his defective “orientation”, and possibly mine will be considered equally faulty when I say that the garden (which is in the shape of a Latin cross, minus the upper part) lies southeast and southwest, the shrubbery being the southeastern boundary.  It is entered from the court-yard in front of the house, which no doubt was originally the threshing-floor.  Entering this court-yard, through the arch to which I have already alluded, the ground slopes upwards  to the door of the house by a very gentle ascent; about a third of the space is enclosed by a low brick wall, four feet in height at its starting-point, but almost flush with the pavement at the top.  This enclosure had been intended as an azalea-bed, as the soil is composed entirely of decayed castagna, which in Tuscany is the equivalent for, and the nearest approach to, our peat.  There was very little in this bed when we first came; a fine old camellia-tree with semi-double scarlet flowers and big yellow anthers, a very old bush of Magnolia fiscata (a plant I had only once seen in England, and that was at Kew; I was familiar with it in China, where the Chinese women make necklaces of its flowers, as English babies thread daisies), a common rhododendron, one or two semi-moribund azaleas, and, at the upper end, a big cherry tree.
I had hoped to lift some of the paving-stones on the right hand side of the court-yard, so as to form a small border against the house, where we could plant creepers.  But unfortunately we found the over-flow pipe of one of the garden-cisterns ran down there, and it was only at the upper part that a paving-stone here and here could be moved, good soil inserted, and plants put in.  In the angle formed by the wall at the side of the arch, we placed one of the large terra-cotta lemon-tubs, conche; and planting in these is really equivalent to the open ground, and the same maybe said of the long magnolia pots several of which we put against the house wall, under the dining-room windows.  The house itself was entered by two wide, long steps, and was, therefore, well above the ground, beneath which was extensive cellarage.  Many years ago an architect friend had impressed upon me never to take a house built on the ground.  I have often blessed him for this good advice, for, even in this climate, and in the hottest day of summer, I can tell as soon as I enter a house if there is no cellarage beneath the ground-floor rooms; and in England, the want of it would soon spell rheumatism to a fearful extent.   On the left of these steps, as you entered the house, there ran all along, beneath the drawing-room windows, what looked like two stone benches, one raised above the other.  Some years after, when I had found it impossible to succeed in growing roses and other creepers in pots, I got a bricklayer to unpick, so to say, these benches, wishing to see if it were possible to plant in the earth beneath, so as to cover the walls on this side; and we then found that they were only composed brick and mortar cemented over, and were hollow inside.  So by a liberal supply of good soil beneath  and having made two openings above, we were able to plant our roses etc., satisfactorily, and all that side of the house is now covered with greenery in English fashion.  The benches themselves were so admirably adapted   for displaying pots of flowers to the best advantage, that we were much envied their possession by many people with larger and more pretentious gardens than mine could ever lay claim to be.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Romantic Landscapes


First up, Hackfall, an almost lost Sublime wilderness in a deep ravine with woodland and water pitching down to the Ure, studded with Gothick ruins on skyline and riverbank, glimpsed between trees but hard to find on the steep twisting paths. Hackfall's centrepiece, when you can find it, is a gravity-fed fountain deep in a natural basin below wooded cliffs. At the end of the wettest year, the fountain shoots spectacularly into the air about every quarter hour,  seeming as high as the cliff rim above, on which a 'banqueting house' facade perches.
We first found Hackfall a few years ago, when its Trust supplied a barely decipherable map and we had no idea where we were or what we would find - stepping stones, torrents, crumbling castle, rustic temple, Fishers' Hall, cascades, standing stones, a beach.   Now it's a little more cared for, with some useful waymarks, but the paths are so precipitous and trees so dense that the geography is still hard to grasp, between flashes of sky overhead and curving river below. Hackfall remains beautifully mysterious - and this season exceptionally muddy even for granddaughters in wellies.  It was created in the 18th century by William Aslabie as an untamed companion or contrast to elegantly contrived and serene Sudeley Royal, the gardenesque landscape with mirror-like lakes, statuary and classical follies below Fountains Abbey, in its polite although still dramatic setting of the river Skell's gentler gorge.

Just a few miles further north is another largely forgotten antiquarian landscape intervention,  the so-called Druids' temple created by William Danby of Swinton Park - an unexpected, reduced replica of Stonehenge, built with similarly massive stones, including a 'sarsen' ring, a trilithon horseshoe, an 'altar stone', plus a 'heel stone' guarding the entrance. A tall pillar of piled blocks overlooks the site, which is also ringed by several hefty cromlechs.  Pelting rain amid dim afternoon light  magnified  the archaic effect.

So, in reverse historical order as it were, these re-create a late-Renaissance picturesque landscape, a Gothick-medieval landscape and a prehistoric landscape, all constructed within about 75 years and less than 20 miles apart.  Vaut le d├ętour - but at the same time  better left unknown - the eternal heritage conundrum that such sites become less alluring in exact proportion to the number of other visitors...