Light and Dark – An Afternoon in the City

2014-03-04 12.41.01I have, with a friend, an, as yet unrealised, plan, to spend a full day doing cultural things in London without spending any money.  Being a plan concocted by two lawyers, it is of course not quite as simple as that – it would be too easy, and therefore a bit of a cheat, just to sit in the National Gallery or British Museum all day.  To be fully ‘plan compliant’ the day has to involve us in doing something we’ve not done before, to fulfil the other ongoing objective to explore our city.

A lunchtime concert in a City church has long been on the agenda (perhaps not strictly speaking ‘free’, as it would require a very mean spirit indeed not to leave a donation, but we agreed to allow it within the rules of ‘the plan’).  We picked a day, Tuesday of this week, and of the recitals we could find on the internet, we picked the one at St Stephen Walbrook, on the basis of location; neither criteria being particularly culturally sensitive.  So what a lucky happen-stance.

St Stephen Walbrook is a Wren designed church, which now cowers beneath City behemoths on three sides, and stands opposite a massive hole, filled with cranes ringed by hoardings.  Inside, it is calm and filled with light.  The centre is dominated by a Henry Moore created altar, and the pews are ranged in concentric circles around it.  The recital was by The Guastalla Quartet, and their programme was Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Major Op 18 N02, and Shostokovich String Quartet No3 in F Major Op73.

I wasn’t familiar with either piece; during the Beethoven I admired the church, and wondered about its reconstruction after it was bombed in the War, and looked at the play of light from the high windows and thought what a lovely way it was to spend a lunchtime, with some nice music.  When it came to the Shostokovich however, there was nowhere to look but at the musicians; the drama and energy of the piece demanded my full attention.  In half an hour, it charts every emotion of war, from the self delusional belief that things aren’t that bad before it begins, through the horror or battle to the grief of bereavement and on to the resolutions to avoid it in the future.   It was an astonishing and unexpected experience.

Outside, afterwards,  the cranes and City blocks were still there, making the cocoon of the church building feel even more surreal than before.

We were heading for the Museum of London. but the walk at street level along London Wall is unremittingly awful, so we took a 2014-03-04 15.42.33detour through the Barbican, even if it is always, at least for me, pure chance if I find where I want to go at my first attempt, so confusing is the layout.  There, The Curve, an odd sliver of space behind the concert hall, usually houses interesting installations.  (Last year I visited the Rain Room installation)

At the moment, it is hosting Momentum by United Visual Artists.  The space is completely dark apart from a series of moving lights, each a sort of pendulum, moving both together and independently of each other.  Ambient sound adds to the generally unsettling environment.  It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust to the deep blackness at the start of the walk through, and I was anxious about tripping up or bumping into someone; the sounds in the distance suggested the baying of dogs at night time, and I did, briefly think about turning back.  As the intensity of the lights changed and their position moved, I was forced to focus on nothing but the spots of illumination, and as we walked around the curve, sometimes we tried to be in the spot light, while at other moments tried to move out of the way as it swept over us.

It was fun….. and the world was very bright when we came out the other end.

Our final destination was The Cheapside Hoard exhibition at the Museum of  (not exactly free, but reduced price entry with out Art Fund Pass, another flexing of the rules associated with ‘the plan’, allowing us to capitalise on the sunk cost of the annual membership).  A cache of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewels found in a cellar in Cheapside just over a hundred years ago, the Hoard retains an aura of mystery and is yet to be fully researched and analysed.  Believed to have been hidden sometime between 1640 and 1666 (when London was destroyed by fire), it is explained as being the stock in trade of a goldsmith, which was most likely hidden during the time of the Civil War and then couldn’t be found again after the destruction of the Great Fire.

It is a huge collection of gemstones, necklaces, rings, pendants, cameos and other curios, some of them so tiny and detailed that you need one of the freely supplied magnifying glasses to be able to see them.  Among many surprises was how far many of the jewels must have come – that there were trade routes stretching all the way around the world – and that it was thought worthwhile to transport the gems to London.  I also couldn’t help but wonder how the craftsmen ever had enough light to work on such tiny yet detailed pieces.

A selection of portraits from the period illustrate how many of the items on display were worn; understatement clearly not being fashionable at the time.

It wasn’t a free day, but it wasn’t expensive, and worth every penny.


A Day at The V&A

IMG_3616Another day, another drawing class, another museum.

This time, we were at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and spent the morning in the Cast Court, and the afternoon with the Mediaeval architectural detail.  And once again, we were in a nook of the museum, which I’d never spent any time visiting before.

The Cast Court is a strange, eerie place.  It’s a large space, filled to the glass covered roof in plaster casts of monuments and architectural bits and pieces from around the world, from Trajan’s  Column, displayed in two sections, to architraves, to the tombs of Mediaeval knights .  Evidently, the collection of such copies was a Victorian obsession, for both the act of collecting itself, as well as providing props through which to educate the contemporary designers about great historical art and architecture.  Consequently, much of the collection reflects the Victorian interest in the classical and gothic.

With over two hours to dedicate to one drawing, with no letting up of concentration or challenge from the teacher, I was forced to focus entirely on one object, while at the same time feeling the weight of all the other enormous casts bearing down on me.  I chose one of the Celtic crosses because I thought the areas of erosion would suit me – it doesn’t matter that the sketch looks like nothing, the thing itself was just covered in nobbly bits……  But the more I looked at it, the more I could discern what must have been the original design of the carvings.

The specific challenge of the class was to draw tonally and without line – I only cheated a little bit.  I simply couldn’t work out how to capture the circular element without an outline.

IMG_3617The afternoon presented another test for my concentration: hoards of French teenagers.  Attracted by the same comfy padded benches in part of the the Medieval Gallery as me, they spent a couple of hours playing with the various features on their telephones, and despite the best efforts of the museum’s custodians, sitting on some of the displays to eat the leftovers from each of their pack lunches, and jeering at their classmates.

I didn’t budge.

Finney’s Post, an elderly architectural detail, comes with an entertaining myth. Finney had a wife who was alleged to be a scold.  One day, she fell into a stupor and was believed to be dead.  On the way to the churchyard, her coffin was bumped into this post and she woke up.  She went on to live for several more years, not necessarily to the joy of her husband.  The post bore his name ever after.

I’m on Mrs Finney’s side.

With the Assyrians at The British Museum

IMG_3613One of the aspects of drawing in museums that I have discovered I enjoy the most, is the enforced opportunity to spend an extended period of time looking at one thing, or at most a small collection of things.

For each class, our teacher selects a limited range of pictures or artefacts for us to choose between, and then we have an hour or so to sit, on a little folding stool, in front of whichever one we pick.  They are frequently in parts of the galleries and museums that I may never have previously visited, or if I have, I’ve been like all the other visitors, walking past quickly, already gorged or desensitised by the visual overload offered by the institutions.

Last night, we were in the Assyrian galleries at the British Museum.  In contrast with other Galleries open late on a Friday evening, the British Museum is less busy than during the daytime, when it can be near impossible to walk around the more popular rooms unimpeded by large groups of tourists.  I had one room all to myself for the first hour; apart from the occasional visitor strolling past, and the blasts of comically prosaic communication about tea breaks from the attendant’s walkie talkie, I was able to sit and examine the patterns on the relief wall panels, and wonder at the hands that made them, as I failed to capture their essence in my sketchbook.  For all my many visit to the British Museum, I’ve never sat in such quiet contemplation there.

For the second part of the evening, all the members of the class sat together, gazing up at the monumental sculptures of , trying to capture the strangeness of the beasts; the crinkled hair, the bobbly beards and sharp human features.  There’s such drama in studying the details of the sculptures.

I admit it – I’m often one of those who just walks by, catching a glimpse of things out of the corner of my eye, and moving on to the next thing, so that I may never remember what I’ve actually seen.  But there are days where there is nothing better, calmer and more focussed than just looking at one or two things closely, and then going home.

Keeping On

2014-02-10 16.42.52I’ve been neglecting you lately.  It’s not that I’ve not been thinking about you, it’s more that I’ve found more excuses, and a couple of genuine reasons for not writing.  There’s the residual reluctance, a general lassitude, and then two days lost in panic over what turned out to be a false positive on a malware detection programme.  (It can take an extremely long time to download additional diagnostic software and then to run it when your internet connection is unstable and capricious.)

But I have been out and about, seeing plays and exhibitions, and thinking about what I might tell you about them, even if I haven’t yet put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to write a complete piece (there are lots of short excerpts, and embryonic rants lined up in my drafts folder).

In case you’ve not seen the news lately, it’s been raining in the UK, even more than usual.  But last week in Trafalgar Square we had that rarest of moments, between the showers, when the clouds cleared to reveal the sky, and the late afternoon sun, low in the sky illuminated the view in front of me.  The streets may really be lined with gold after all.

A Mighty Fine Cabbage

IMG_3610Voluptuous and pulchritudinous are words for which I rarely find the need, but I think they are entirely on point to describe Nathaniel Bacon’s Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit.  It’s a large painting, hung in a prominent position as you enter one of the galleries at Tate Britain.  It catches the eye e very time.  It’s not particularly admirable artwork, but I do wonder, each time I see it, at the fantastic cabbages.

It was the obvious choice on Friday night, when I was at Late at Tate Britain with my drawing class.  The object of the evening’s lesson was to consider all the apparently extraneous things that an artist has added to a portrait or a scene, and to think about what they add to the overall composition.  As it’s my default response to look at the detail rather than the subject, I had no difficulty leaving a space where the buxom maid might otherwise appear, but it was a rather over ambitious painting to choose to sketch.  In the process I learnt how difficult it is to draw a cabbage; something I had never before spent even the briefest moment considering.  But the more time I spent looking at the picture, the more voluptuous and suggestive all the blooming fruit and vegetables appeared; all those sliced melons, cucumbers and carrots, as well as the brassicas.

The rare Friday nights that Tate Britain is open late attract huge crowds.  When I was there in December last there were queues around the block, and the gallery was declared full, so that people were being allowed in only when someone left.  It wasn’t quite that humming this last week, but none the less, the place was buzzing with people and with the soundscape pumped out by the invited DJs.  It makes for an entirely different kind of way to experience the gallery.  Refreshed at the pop up bar in the atrium, many punters were not shy in expressing their opinion of both the painting in front of which I was sitting, but also my meagre attempts to capture some of the detail.  Fortunately, I no longer care what anyone thinks of my efforts……

After a break, we looked at what an animal might add to a picture.  There are some truly hideous pictures which include animals in IMG_3611the 1650 to 1810 rooms in the gallery.  I ended up in front of Thomas Woodward’s The Ratcatcher and his Dogs, attracted largely by the cat creeping from behind the door.  In the gallery, hung fairly high on the walls, the picture looks much darker than the reproduction on the website, but it’s still a sentimental scene.  I’ve never tried to draw a dog before, and I think it’s fair to say, it will be a while before I make a second (or third, if you count each of the mutts in this) attempt.

Another one off the Production Line

2014-02-05 11.10.13I’ve finished one of the small cardigans I’ve decided to make to use up the never ending ball of wall that was left after I completed my aran jumper, and the rather disappointing beret.  It’s a little more chunky than I had anticipated, and the sleeves look rather disproportionately long, even thought I knitted them shorter than the pattern recommended, but I’m keeping the refrain ‘they’ll grow into it’ in my mind.

The buttons are courtesy of my sister’s button jar, and it was my mother who took the time to sew them on, otherwise I fear the garment might have stayed in that very nearly finished state for quite some time.

It’s incredibly tricky to get a photo which shows the true colour of the wool, so I’ll just have to tell you it is the very ‘on trend’ teal.

There is another cardigan in progress, but I’ve stalled a little, and it might take me some time……

Weighing the Wool

I am still working on using up the surplus wool left over after the completion of my major knitting project.  As many of you suggested, IMG_3604I have had a go at making a bunnet.  I had a sort of slouchy Tam in mind, and I found a pattern showing a photograph of a model wearing a beret at a jaunty angle, and I though that was the one for me.  Having completed the hat, there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s much smaller than I had anticipated  and not what I had in mind; the model on the pattern must have an extraordinarily small head.

I will persevere with it, however, and consult with trusted advisers before deciding about whether I will wear it outside of the house or not.

I have also finished a child sized cable cardigan which is still in the sewing up phase, and yet the never ending ball of wall continues.  There is so much of it remaining that I decided there must be enough to make something else, and therein lay the dilemma of the day:  is there sufficient for another small jumper?

The pattern indicated that 300g would be required.  How can you tell if you have three quarters of a 400g ball remaining?

Yep.  I weighed it.  On my mother’s Victorian balance scales.  9 and a half ounces.  That’s less than 300g.  Really.  I worked it out on my calculator.  But there’s always surplus inherent in a pattern’s recommendations, isn’t there?  And if the wool came in 100g balls all it means is that you’d need 3 balls, right?

It’s a bit of a risk to get to the end of a jumper and find that there’s not enough to finish the neck.  (Let’s not talk about the five pieces of cardigan that have sat in the cupboard for the last 15 years waiting to be sewn together…)  But it seems too much wool, not to be able to do something with it….

So then I weighed the completed, but not yet fully sewn up child’s cardigan, and that was 7 and a half ounces.  Result.  I have enough to complete another one the same.


Don’t I?

I’ll let you know.

Juxtaposition – A Photo

IMG_3579I’ve not participated in the Weekly Photo Challenge for a while, but in the spirit of trying to re-establish some regularity with the blog, there’s no time like the present.

Here is a photo I took over the wall of Hill House in Helensburgh last November.  I like the way the shapes of the seed heads echo the shape of the gable end of the house, and the almost complementary colours, of those elements as well as the colour of the sandstone wall.

And yes, that is a Scottish sky.  Such brilliant blue is rare in these parts, but all the more appreciated when they do appear.  I never go out for a walk now without my camera.  I suppose it is a sort of measure of maturity that I can now see the beauty of this environment, while, when I was a teenager growing up here, I felt stifled by the town, in its small town-ness, and the great distance there seemed to be between me and anywhere interesting…….. that was before the world rediscovered Rennie Mackintosh, the National Trust for Scotland acquired the house and built a car park, and a steady stream of multilingual tourists made the pilgrimage to the top of the hill.  Then it was a slightly crumbling enigma, held together with string and sticky tape and in the hands of the Royal Institute of Architects of Scotland

‘King Lear’ at the National Theatre

Matching each other, name for nameThere is a large photograph on the front page of today’s newspaper.  It is of Simon Russell Beale and Anna Maxwell Martin as Lear and Regan in the new production of King Lear in the Olivier Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes.  This latest collaboration between Mendes and Russell Beale is clearly considered newsworthy; and Charles Spencer, on the Reviews page gives the show four stars.

I’m neutral on the subject of Sam Mendes, but where Simon Russell Beale is concerned, I’m a fan.  I’ve seen him on stage many times, I’ve booked things that would largely not appeal to me solely on the strength of his participation, and have never been disappointed…..until now.

It’s probably a shameful confession, but here it is anyway.  So little was I enjoying the experience, I left at the interval.  I had sat through two hours, and the thought of another hour and a half brought tears to my eyes.  I had already been near weeping for the half hour or so before the break, when I was on hyper alert for the rhyming couplet that normally indicates the end of an Act; and each time I had convinced myself that it must, it just must be now, another actor would appear on stage out of the darkness, and shout some more.  Finally, during the eye gouging scene in which they poured water onto the stage, and the bloodied actor wiped his face on it, my silent cry that surely this must be the interval, if only to allow time for the wiping up, the lights went out and the stage was empty.

After sitting through some awful nights in the theatre trying to appreciate Shakespeare (yes I’m talking about you, Ralph Fiennes) I had all but given up on it. It was the National’s production of Othello last year which encouraged me to believe that Shakespeare didn’t necessarily mean meretricious tedium. That was a production of a play I didn’t know well, but which, because of it’s cleverness and the brilliance of the performances, let me understand it, and engage with it on both an intellectual as well as an emotional level.

King Lear is another of the canon that I don’t know well, apart from the broad brush strokes: the three daughters, the carving up of the kingdom, the old king going mad….. and with SRB in the lead, surely here was a production that would enlighten and entertain me.

I think my dislike of the production all stems from a single problem, which was that I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  For all the shouting and shrieking, the words were remarkably indistinct.  This, added to the frequent changing of scene, of one group of actors leaving as another arrived, I couldn’t really work out what was going on, or more importantly why.

S, my theatre companion and I, were in agreement that the only actor whose words were being enunciated clearly enough for us to hear was the one playing Edmund.  It was therefore very amusing to read subsequently (I’m far too tight fisted to buy a programme) that this was Paapa Essiedu, the understudy for Sam Troughton who had lost his voice midway through the performance of the previous day.  Maybe as understudy, he’d not yet achieved the ‘production style’.  It was very disappointing, but must have been a production decision, because I have never not been able to understand what Simon Russell Beale was saying before; and Anna Maxwell Martin’s usually mellifluous voice was lost in her awkward, shrieking harpie.

S would have probably stayed for the second half if I hadn’t asked her if the only reason for staying was that we thought we ‘should’.  Leaving was the only option once we’d acknowledged that it was the naughty thing that we shouldn’t do.

Have you seen it?  Did it get better after the interval?

Not Entirely Idle

2014-01-15 16.24.12Just to show that I have not been entirely idle during my inarticulate, non communicative fug recently, as well as my knitting projects, which are continuing with what feels like a never ending ball of wool, I have been back to drawing class.

I’ve not been able to commit to a regular course over the last few months, but now my favourite teacher, Fabia, has begun running classes on a periodic basis, and has permitted me to mix and match days.  I’m no more skilled now than I ever was, but there is something very relaxing about spending a day focussed on the attempt to make a drawing.

I think the knowledge that I have no particular talent for it, but that I can still make incremental improvements to my level of accomplishment without it ever becoming something I’m good at, is an incredibly liberating feeling.  I can concentrate on it, it occupies my mind for a significant period of time, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter that the result looks like.  I take a photograph of it, and then put it in the bin.  (Really I don’t need yet another piece of rolled up paper in the cupboard – I refer you to my efforts at decluttering…….)

Not only could I spend a day studying a still life composition involving the by now compulsory, peacock feathers, pineapple, dried flowers, dog bowls, pomegranates, mirror  and candlesticks, I had to find my way to Stoke Newington by public transport.  It’s one of those areas of London, which are not at all far away from me,and would be quick to drive to, but where there is nowhere to park during the day for the non resident.  But just to prove that I shouldn’t let those sort of considerations hold me back, it proved very straightforward to get there by train and bus.  It’s a slightly strange place, of shops that don’t open until 11am and middle aged women in shiny new jogging gear queuing for coffee at the ‘quirky’ independent cafés, but with a Gothic looking Victorian cemetery in the heart of the High Street…… I’m already looking forward to the people watching opportunities when we go out for some al freso sketching…..

Meanwhile, on the knitting front,  the child’s jacket that’s in progress is complete apart from all the sewing up and finishing off.  Always the point at which losing interest is a significant risk…..

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