Two gardens: one old and one new

DURING OUR TEENAGE YEARS, my friends. Francis, Hugh, and Michael, and I used to take short trips to places of interest outside London. Amongst the many places we visited were Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury, and Winchester, to name but a few. In those days, the mid to late 1960s, none of us could drive. So, we had to rely on getting to places by public transport. On one occasion, we arrived in Cirencester, hoping to find some way of getting to the remains of the Roman villa at Chedworth, which is about ten miles distant from it. The situation looked desperate. We were worrying that we would have to walk when I spotted an old-fashioned looking bus arrive. The driver told us that he operated a once a week service that passed Chedworth. We boarded and reached our goal.

Pavilion by Smiljan Radic in the Oudolf Field garden

One place that we always wanted to visit was the garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Famed for its spectacular landscaping including many architectural ‘follies’, this place was, despite our extensive research, impossible to reach using public transport. It remained one of our greatest wishes to see Stourhead, as great as the Jewish people’s desire to see the so-called Holy Land. Stourhead was almost our ‘Goldene Medina’. We never managed to  reach it together.

Many years later, in the 1990s, my wife and I made our first visit to Stourhead, travelling by car. We saw the place at its best on a bright sunny afternoon. In late September 2020, we returned to Stourhead on a grey, rainy afternoon during the covid19 pandemic. Despite the inclement weather and the restrictions as to where we could walk, we had a wonderful time. Every footstep we took led to one after another exciting view of the landscaped parkland. Wherever we looked, we saw fine trees and a wide variety of shrubs and other plants. Much of the walk is around an irregularly shaped man-made lake, the shores of which are dotted with architectural ‘follies’, constructed to enhance the romantic landscape. Many of these are built to resemble Greek or Roman classical temples. There is also a cottage built in Gothic Revival style and a wonderful and rather weird artificial grotto containing statues and fountains. Words cannot begin to do justice to the beauty of the gardens at Stourhead. The place has to be seen to be believed, and the weather, both good or bad, simply enhances the delightful experience that has been produced by nature skilfully assisted by mankind.

The gardens in the 2650-acre estate of Stourhead were designed by Henry Hoare II (1705-1785), a banker and garden designer. They were laid out between 1741 and 1780 in a classical 18th century design, based on the landscape paintings by artists such as Claude Lorraine and Poussin. The Hoare family owned paintings by some of these great masters. Many of the monuments or follies that adorn the garden were designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769), who died in Hampstead, the area in which I grew up. The slightly over one-mile long walk around the lake was designed to try to evoke a journey similar to that of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld. The design of this path was conceived to produce alterations in the mood of the visitor as he or she walks along it, moods reflecting those of Aeneas on his journey. If that was the intention, Aeneas must have had a wonderful trip.

In brief, the grounds at Stourhead should not be missed by anyone with even the very slightest interest in gardens. In the words of the Dutchman Baron Van Spaen van Biljoen (1746-1827), who visited the garden in the late 18th century:

“Nothing in England could compare with Stourhead … we were in such ecstasy we had the utmost difficulty in tearing ourselves away from this charming spot…”

This noble Dutchman visited many gardens in England with his stepfather-in-law, Baron W. C. H. van Lynden van Blitterswijk (1736–1816) during the summer of 1791. His opinion is still valid today. The Dutch visitors would have seen Stourhead when the oldest part of the garden would have been only fifty years old. The plants would have been far less developed than they are today. As my wife said wisely, Hoare and his family were not only creating the garden for themselves but for the many generations that would surely follow in their footsteps.

On the day we visited Stourhead, we visited another garden not far away, near the charming town of Bruton in Somerset. Like Stourhead, created in the 18th century to depict nature naturally but under the guiding hand of man, the Piet Oudolf Field next to the Somerset branch of the Hauser & Wirth art gallery is a carefully curated ‘wilderness’, an attractive sea of wild flowers and shrubs. Piet Oudolf (born 1944), a Dutch garden designer, began creating the one-and-a-half-acre garden next to the gallery less than ten years ago.

The garden grows on a plot that slopes gently down to the buildings housing the gallery. At the highest point in the garden, there is what looks like an oversized donut or, perhaps, a huge whiteish mushroom (when viewed from outside it). It is in fact a structure that was the temporary summer pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2014.   It rests on giant rocks and was designed by Smiljan Radic, a Chilean architect born in 1965. Made of a semi-transparent fibre-reinforced plastic shell, it is hollow and allows the visitor to walk around in what looks like part of a large snail shell. Although it looks quite different from the plants growing around it, its fungal resemblance makes it blend with them in a remarkably pleasing way.

Incidentally, the Oudolf Field is worth visiting in combination with the spacious art gallery and its associated restaurant that provides exceptionally good food. I recommend their Sunday roasts!

Both Stourhead and the nearby but much younger Oudolf Field, are fine and beautiful examples of man’s interaction with nature. Visiting these gardens lifted our spirits despite the rain that fell almost incessantly.  I had to wait for over thirty years before my wish to visit Stourhead was fulfilled, but it was well worth waiting for.

MARBLE PALACE

THINK OF ANY MAJOR CITY and its most famous land mark will spring to mind: Big Ben in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome, the Golden Gate in San Francisco, and so on. Calcutta evokes thoughts of the Victoria Memorial and, maybe, the Howrah Bridge.

Yet, Calcutta contains something far more remarkable: The Marble Palace. It was built in 1835 in a European neoclassical style to the plans of an architect from Italy for a prosperous Bengali merchant Raja Ragendra Mullick Bahadur. Set in extensive gardens filled with marble statues mostly imported from Europe, the palace alone is remarkable to look at.

However, step inside and a treasure house awaits you. Mullick and his descendants are avid collectors of artworks. Mullick, who had the house constructed, never visited Europe but employed agents to buy precious works of art for him. The collection of paintings in the Marble Palace make it the first ever art gallery in India. Treasures amongst the large numbers of canvases include paintings by Rubens, Murillo, Reynolds, and Ravi Varma.

Rooms on the palace are filled with antique furniture, marble and other statuary, valuable ancient Chinese porcelain, and much else.

The elaborate wooden ceilings differ in design from room to room. Looking downwards, the floors are made of marble of varying colour arranged in patterns typically found in Italian renaissance buildings. They were created by Indian workers using Italian marble and designed by Italian artists.

There is a large open coutyard in the middle of the palace. One end is occupied by a covered stage-like podium, where Hindu ceremonies are performed for the Mullick family, many of whom still live in the palace. The courtyard is filled with interesting bird calls because at one end of it, facing the podium, there are several large cages each containg a large parrot.

There is a small zoo or menagerie on one side of the gardens. Apparently, it is one of the oldest zoos in India. When we visited it, we saw various types of deer and some waterfowl.

If you do no other sight seeing in Calcutta, the Marble Palace, but not the Victoria Memorial, is a ‘must’.

Note: photography is forbidden in the palace but a small book in Bengali is available for 100 Rupees and it contains a few photos.

What is art?

art centre

 

A few days ago, I visited the Camden Arts Centre on the corner of Arkwright and Finchley Roads in north west London. This converted Victorian building has been enlarged with later additions and has a lovely café as well as a fine garden. Several galleries on the first floor are used to display artworks in temporary exhibitions.

We entered one gallery in which a video by the Hong Kong artist Wong Ping was being projected onto a large screen. At its base, there was a big pile of toy dentures with gold painted teeth.

Just after we sat down to watch the video, a group of young teenage school children were led into the gallery by an aducation officer employed by the art centre. After she had explained that the screen was the same kind as those used to display advertisements at Piccadilly Circus, she told the students:

This is art.”

Then, she added:

Anything in a gallery is art

My wife and I were sitting in the gallery. Does that mean that we were to be considered as art?

Venice observed

 

Venice is a special place in many ways. This meeting place of oriental and occidental art is bathed in light of a special quality. Maybe this is due to the fact that there is so much water reflecting the daylight and thereby increasing its intensity. Maybe, it is something else, but whatever it is, part of the beauty of Venice is its lovely light.

Artists have long been attracted to portraying Venice. Canaletto portrayed the city almost photographically in his paintings.  Guardi captures the city brilliantly by using an almost impressionistic technique. Ruskin captured the beauty of the Venetian architecture scholarly yet attractively. Other artists such as Manet, Monet, Moran, and Turner have also portrayed some of the ‘essence’ of Venice’s attractiveness.

Yesterday, I visited an exhibition of new paintings inspired by Venice by the British contemporary artist Joe Tilson (born 1928). Each of his deceptively simple canvases capture several aspects of what makes Venice attractive for me. Architectural details, coloured patterning like tiles or brickwork, and moonlit skies  conspire to evoke the special light an appearance of Venice. His painting is both simple and subtle, and above all visually satisfying.

 

The exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 18th May 2019

No photography

In India, I have become used to seeing rules disobeyed. One only has to watch road traffic to see plenty of transgressions.

However, usually regulations forbidding photography in museums and art galleries are rigidly enforced. While trying to sneak an illicit photograph in the Mysore Palace, my camera was temporarily confiscated. I was able to recover it by giving the official a small financial ‘gift’. A member of my family was asked to delete a couple of photos taken against the rules in the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bangalore.

I was disappointed to find that the NGMA in Bombay also forbids photography unless it is for professional purposes, for which a fee of 1000 rupees (currently about £11) per image is levied.

The NGMA in Bombay is housed within a lovely old building, the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall. Its contemporary interior, where artworks are displayed, is a lovely example of contemporary design. I was itching to photograph it. We asked one of the security men if I could take a picture of the general layout of the gallery without focussing on works of art. To my great surprise, he said that I could do it.

After viewing the whole gallery, where works of the socially conscious political artist Navjot Altaf were on display, I heard a visitor asking another official whether he could take ‘selfies’ in the gallery. He was told that he could not take selfies, but he could take photos of anything else in the NGMA. Again, I was surprised, not about the selfies, but about photography being permitted in a place full of notices forbidding it.

Well, I was pleased to discover that Indian flexibility about interpreting rules extends to the NGMA in Bombay. Hats off to the people who work there!

Art on the road

We have recently returned from Cochin (in Kerala, South India), where every two years there is a huge art exhibition, the Kochi Muziris Biennale, that is open for just over three months. The artworks on display are supposed to conform in a loose way to a theme chosen by the chief curator. The artworks are not for sale at the Biennale.

Once a year early in each January, a one day art festival called Chitra Santhe is help along Kumara Krupa Road in Bangalore. This tree lined thoroughfare runs past both the Bangalore Golf Club and also the Chitrakala Parishadh, a leading art school.

Many artists display their works along the street. Their aim is to sell to the thousands of passers by, who amble leisurely past them. The quality of the artworks varies from highly skilled to colourful kitsch. All tastes are catered for. Many visitors wander about with their wrapped purchases under their arms.

The atmosphere at Chitra Santhe is festive. The January temperatures make for pleasant outdoor art viewing. Unlike the Biennale in Cochin, there is no theme unifying the artworks on display apart from the artists’ desire to sell. The artists are happy to discuss their works and are not pushy salesmen. Prices range from very low to not unreasonably high.

If you happen to be in Bangalore on the first Sunday in January, then an hour or so at the Chitra Santhe should prove to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Art gallery

Bangalore in south India is not blessed with many tourist attractions. I will describe one of them, which gives me great pleasure.

Almost 10 years ago, a branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) opened in Bangalore. Even if you have little interest in modern art this place is worth seeing. Part of the collection, which changes regularly, is housed in the former Manikyavelu Palace, a 19th century edifice which has been superbly restored.

The palace is linked to an elegantly simple contemporary building in which some of the permanent collection is displayed. The collection includes works mainly by Indian artists but there are also a few by European artists. Most of the artworks were created in the 20th and 21st centuries. There is a good selection of paintings by Bengali artists.

The new building also houses well curated temporary exhibitions. Currently, there is a wonderful exhibition of paintings and drawings by the artist Khanderao, who was born in Gulbarga. His early works were beautifully executed topographical scenes. He is also a superp portraitist. Like other great modern artists, for example Picasso, Khanderao has moved into abstraction, which he deals with beautifully.

A water feature separates the palace and its modern extension from another contemporary complex. This includes an auditorium, a library, a café, and a gallery shop.

The verdant gardens of the NGMA contain several modern sculptures.

The NGMA is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest attractions that Bangalore offers visitors and residents alike.