Pictures at an exhibition

Overlooked by The Shard,the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey Street, near to London Bridge Station, provides wonderful expanses of well-lit exhibition space. One can explore works of contemporary art in an uncluttered, airy environment. This is so much better than many traditional exhibition spaces such as in 19th century galleries, or even in the relatively recently constructed Tate Modern. Visiting the White Cube in Bermondsey is a worthwhile experience not only because of its wonderful spaciousness but also because it often displays exciting works of art. And when you have had your fill of art, there are plenty of places in Bermondsey Street where you can find a wide variety of food and drink.

Here is some information about the building from https://www.dezeen.com/2011/10/14/white-cube-bermondsey-by-casper-mueller-kneer/:

144–152 Bermondsey Street is an existing warehouse and office building, set back from Bermondsey Street via an entrance yard. The building dates from the 1970s and has a modernist industrial appearance, with long horizontal window bands and a simple cubic shape. The outer walls of the building are constructed from dark brown engineering brick, with a concrete and steel framed internal structure…

The new gallery spaces were inserted as self-supporting freestanding volumes, barely touching the envelope of the existing building.The powerfloated concrete floors can take loadings up to 100 KN/m2. Walls and ceilings are constructed as steel cages allowing art to be installed at almost any point within the space. Structural exclusion zones allow the punching through of walls at selected locations to allow entry points into the exhibition spaces to be coordinated with the ever-changing displays.”

The first of its kind in England

THE ARCHITECT JOHN Soane (1753-1837) was skilled in designing buildings with features to permit natural light to reach parts of them that were far away from their exteriors. Good examples of this were the two homes he designed for himself, one in Lincolns Inn Fields, now the Soane Museum, and the other in Ealing, the recently restored Pitzhanger Manor. Another superb example, which we visited recently (December 2021) is the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. Completed and opened in 1817, it became the first picture gallery in England that was open to the public.

Light enters Soane’s galleries at Dulwich from above via overhead sky lights. These were placed in such a way that they illuminate the hanging spaces without allowing direct sunlight to hit the paintings on the walls. This system has since been adopted in many other art galleries. Newer rooms, lit entirely by artificial lighting, are used for temporary exhibitions including that of the woodcuts of the American artist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), which we saw on our latest visit. Compared with Soane’s galleries, these newer ones are far less impressive, and despite the modern lighting they feel claustrophobic and rather gloomy.

The permanent collection of old masters, which is hung in Soane’s original galleries, is fabulous. Some of the paintings were parts of collections made before the 19th century. Others were supplied by the artist Sir Francis Bourgeois (1753–1811) and his business partner, the art dealer and collector, Noël Desenfans (1744–1807). Together they ran an art dealership in London and were commissioned in 1790 to purchase a collection of paintings for the then King of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, Stanisław August Poniatowski (1732-1798). It took them five years to do this but by 1795, the Commonwealth had been dissolved. The collection remained in England. After Desenfans died, Bourgeois inherited the collection and then commissioned Soane to design a gallery to house it. The superb gallery at Dulwich came into existence. Soane included within it a small circular mausoleum in which the remains of both Desenfans and Bourgeois have been placed. Rather irreverently, I felt, it was being used to screen a video about the artist Helen Frankenthaler.

In 1944, during WW2, the western façade of Soane’s gallery was badly damaged by bombing (a German V1 flying bomb) but it has been well-restored. Later, in 1999, a new café and other facilities in a modern style were built to the designs of the architect Rick Mather (1937-2013).

As for the exhibition of works by Frankenthaler, this was a delightful surprise. It is a collection of colourful abstract woodcuts that are the result of years of the artist’s complex and imaginative experimentation. Many of the works reminded me of, but were not identical to, the subtleties of Japanese ceramic glazes. Despite being displayed in galleries far less satisfactory than those designed by Soane, this as an art show well worth visiting before it ends on the 18th of April 2022.

Oscar Wilde, a bishop, and an art dealer

DOVER STREET RUNS north from Piccadilly, not far from The Royal Academy. It is a thoroughfare we often visit because it contains several commercial art galleries that frequently put on interesting exhibitions. One of these is the London gallery of Thaddeus Ropac. Not only does this international art dealer have good exhibitions, but the house in which the works of art are displayed, 37 Dover Street, is an artwork itsef, an architectural treasure.

The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1908-1983), whose writing I enjoy greatly, is a little dismissive of the buildings in Dover Street with one exception. In his “London Volume 1”, which was co-authored by Bridget Cherry, he wrote of this street:

“The only house which needs special attention is Ely House (No. 37)”

This is the building that is now home to Thaddeus Ropac. Ely House was built in the 1770s by the then Bishop of Ely, Edmund Keene (1714-1781), who was appointed to that post in January 1771. According to The Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900 edition), Keene:

“… obtained in 1772 an act of parliament for alienating from the see, in consideration of the payment of 6,500l. [i.e., £6,500] and an annuity of 200l., the ancient palace in Holborn, and for purchasing, at a cost of 5,800l., the freehold of a house in Dover Street, Piccadilly, London. The present house on that site was built by him about 1776.”

Clearly, the bishop was not short of cash; he was married to Mary (née Andrews), daughter and sole heiress of Andrews of Edmonton, once a successful linen draper in Cheapside.

The architect of Ely House was Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788). The building remained the London residence of the Bishops of Ely until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1909, the interior of Ely House was greatly modified by the Arts & Crafts architectural firm Smith and Brewer (https://ropac.net/news/245-galerie-thaddaeus-ropac-ely-house-london/), and it became the home of The Albermarle Club. This private members’ club, founded in 1874, was open to both men and women, and was first housed at 13 Albermarle Street. Known for its liberal views on women’s rights, it was in 1895 the site of an incident that led to the first trial of one of its members, the writer Oscar Wilde (www.back2stonewall.com/2021/02/gay-lgbt-history-feb-18-oscar-wilde-accused-sodomite.html). Because of the club’s connection with proceedings that led to Wilde’s downfall, it moved to 37 Dover Street to distance itself from Albermarle Street where these unfortunate events had occurred.

During WW2, Ely House became used by The American Red Cross Interstate Club. Later, it housed a private bank. When Pevsner and Cherry published their book in 1973, the house was being used by Oxford University Press. In Spring 2017, Thaddeus Ropac announced that they would open their London gallery in Ely House.

The exterior of Ely House might not have changed much since it was constructed. A medallion on the façade depicts a bishop’s mitre. The magnificent wrought iron railings topped with several models of lions was a 19th century addition based on the lions designed for The British Museum by the sculptor Alfred Stevens (1817-1875). The interior of Ely House would now be unrecognisable to Bishop Edmund Keene apart from a few decorative features that have been preserved. Furthermore, the artworks that are so beautifully displayed in the lovely, whitewashed rooms of the former Ely House would have seemed totally alien to the long-since departed bishop. Rarely, if ever, do the artworks displayed superbly in the gallery lack in visual interest and originality. What drew us to the gallery on the 9th of November 2021 was a small, intriguing collection of creations by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in one room, and several rooms containing disturbingly lifelike, but not always life-sized, sculptures by Ron Mueck, an artist born in Australia in 1958, son of German-born toymakers.

Dover Street is part of a network of Mayfair thoroughfares containing commercial art galleries. Amongst them Thaddeus Ropac has the most beautiful premises and is worth seeing not only for its artworks but also as a fine example of London’s architectural heritage.

Images of Africa in south London

THE WHITE CUBE Gallery in London’s Bermondsey Street is overshadowed by the recently constructed (2013) glass-clad skyscraper, popularly known as ‘The Shard’. The gallery, a single-storeyed structure, contains a long wide corridor flanked by three vast exhibition spaces and a smaller bookshop.  The exhibition spaces are deliberately sparsely decorated so as not to distract viewers from the usually wonderful contemporary artwork on display. At the end of the corridor, there is an auditorium in which videos relating to the existing temporary exhibition are screened. The current exhibition, which fascinated me and closes on the 7th of November 2021, is dedicated to displaying works by Ibrahim Mahama.

Mahama was born in Tamale, Ghana in 1987. He lives and works in the country of his birth but has exhibited widely in Africa and Europe. Not only are the works, which we saw at White Cube, exciting and intriguing visually but they also provide an interesting insight into the artist’s perception of modern Ghana and its past, when it was known as The Gold Coast.

Many of the works on display are gigantic collages, which from afar look like interesting abstracts or even modern tapestries. Closer examination of these reveals that the artist has glued fragments of photographs onto a background of usually either old maps of his country and/or a latticework consisting of numerous production order dockets issued by The Ghana Industrial Holding Company. Photographs of fruit bats in various poses often run around the fringes of the collages or appear within their main body. Photographs of aspects of life in Ghana are glued onto the backgrounds. Often, they have been trimmed so that the backgrounds intrude, and the photographs appear to merge or mingle with them. I felt that this was particularly effective when the map backgrounds mingled with the trimmed photographs, making me think that the maps were being brought to life. Also, they give the impression of modern Ghana emerging from the out-of-date maps. I was also impressed by one collage showing images of flying bats glued onto a sea of old order dockets: wildlife contrasting with man’s industrial enterprise.

One half of the largest display space is dedicated to a fantastic art installation. About 100 old-fashioned wooden school desks are arranged in rows facing a line of black boards to create the illusion of an enormous classroom. On each desk, there is an old-fashioned electric sewing machine.  Every few minutes some of the sewing machines begin operating, creating a wonderful, loud noise, which varies as different groups of machines are activated and then silenced. Sewing machines, so the leaflet issued by the gallery inform us, were often used in Ghana by labourers wanting to learn a new trade. This exhibit aims, amongst other things, to resurrect the ghosts that Mahama feels reside within these discarded machines.

In the auditorium, a short video projected onto two neighbouring screens continues the artist’s interest in sewing machines. On one of the screens, the video shows in close-up the innards of sewing machines being cleaned and oiled. Simultaneously, the video on the neighbouring screen shows workmen doing messy maintenance work through a manhole cover and beneath the ground. The circular manhole cover is mirrored in the other video by the small circular orifice through which the innards of the sewing machine are maintained. Odd subjects, but well filmed and fascinating visually.

I am neither an art critic nor a sociologist, nor whatever it takes to ponder the deeper meaning and messages that the artist is trying to convey, but I enjoyed the exhibition greatly without having to worry about its deeper intellectual content. Visually, everything on display was exciting and often quite novel: a feast for the eyes and ears. If you can get to see this show, I am sure that you will not leave it unaffected by its impact. And, after feasting your ears and eyes at the gallery, I recommend a short walk down Bermondsey Street to treat your taste buds and olfactory sense to Vietnamese food, magnificently prepared, at Caphe House.

Shifted to Somerset from London

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000, excepting 2020, The Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has erected a temporary summer pavilion. Each pavilion is designed by a different architect or group of architects. What they have in common is that their pavilion is the first of their designs to be constructed in London, or maybe the UK. They stand in front of the Serpentine Gallery during the summer months and into early autumn. They are always fascinating visually and always contain a café with seating. Over the years some of them have been used as event spaces.

At the end of the season, the pavilions are dismantled and are never seen again in Kensington Gardens. Some of them might be sold and others re-erected elsewhere, but until recently I have never seen one again.

A few years ago, a contemporary art gallery, Hauser and Wirth, which has a branch in London’s West End, bought a farm on the edge of Bruton in Somerset. They have used some of the farm buildings and constructed some new ones to accommodate another branch of their gallery. In addition to the exhibition spaces, there is a superb restaurant, an up-market farm shop, and a wonderful garden created by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf (born 1944).

The garden slopes upwards from the gallery. At the top of the slope, there is something that at first sight looks like a giant hamburger patty or the profile of an oversized bagel. I recognised it immediately as being one of the former summer pavilions that once stood next to The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. It is the 2014 Serpentine pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic (born 1965 in Santiago, Chile).

When I saw it in London in 2014, I was not overly impressed by it. However, seeing it at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset, it looks great. My description of it as an oversized bagel is not too far from the truth. It is, basically, an annular structure like a ring or a bagel, but it is far more interesting than that. Supported on rocks, the ring is not in one plane, but it undulates gradually. Irregularly shaped holes in its translucent skin provide intriguing views of Oudolf’s garden, which looks good in all seasons, and the surrounding hilly Somerset countryside.

A visit to Hauser and Wirth in Somerset makes a fine day out even if you have only a scant interest in contemporary art. The food served in the restaurant is of a high quality and not unreasonably priced. The buildings on the estate are lovely and the garden is hard to beat for its beauty.

The Duke and Dunhill in London’s Mayfair

OUR YEARNING FOR visiting the art galleries in London’s West End is growing daily because the current covid19 lockdown has meant that they are all closed. So, when we read that the Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street, just north of Berkeley Square, had put on an exhibition that could be viewed from the street through its huge plate glass windows, we had to ‘take a gander’. The gallery is displaying some ceramic bowls created by Edmund de Waal until the 30th of January 2021 (https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2020/edmund-de-waal-some-winter-pots/). Frankly, although they embody great craftsmanship, we were disappointed.  However, across the road, facing the Gagosian, there is a detached house that attracted more of my attention than the bowls. It was not only its antiquity that appealed to me but also some huge, inflated spheres with reflecting surfaces in its courtyard that produced fascinating reflections of the building and those nearby.

Bourdon House, a Georgian mansion completed in 1724, possibly designed by Isaac Ware (1704-1766), is now Dunhill’s exclusive shop for discerning “modern gentlemen”. The current building consists of two sections (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol40/pt2/pp69-76#h3-0002):

“On the west, with a return front to Davies Street, is a much-extended and enlarged early Georgian house built in the 1720’s, and to the east and south-east is a substantial Edwardian wing built in a matching style, with fronts to both Bourdon Street and Grosvenor Hill.”

Bourdon after whom the house was named in 1860, lived in the 18th century and was the first occupant of the house. He was a justice of the Peace for Middlesex and held other important positions.

Over the years, numerous people resided in Bourdon House, which underwent modifications as time moved on. In September 1916, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879-1953) took ownership of the house and lived there from 1917 until he died. When he moved in, his former home Grosvenor House, was being used by the Government in connection with WW1. The Duke liked Bourdon House so much that he decided not to return to Grosvenor House when the Government returned it to him in 1920 (it was demolished in the 1920s). During his occupancy of Bourdon House, the Duke divorced thrice.

On his death, the Duke’s fourth wife, Anne (née Sullivan; 1915-2003), whom he married in 1947, remained in Bourdon House until 1957. After she left, the house began to be used as commercial premises, first becoming an antique shop. In 2008, the house became a luxury emporium for the company of Alfred Dunhill. The company’s founder was Alfred Dunhill (1872-1959), who was a tobacconist, inventor, and entrepreneur. By the early 20th century, he was a pioneer in the creation of the modern luxury goods market. He was a collector of smokers’ pipes and, also, an author, publishing his “The Pipe Book” in 1924, and later “The Gentle Art of Smoking”.

Many years ago, in the late 1960s, one of my cousins visited London from his home overseas. He was on a trip to see the major cities of Europe. While he was in London, I spent a day showing him some of the sights, an activity I enjoyed in my teens. My relative, also in his teens, was very keen to visit one of Dunhill’s London shops, probably the one that was in Duke Street. His desire was to purchase a Dunhill pipe to add to the collection he was making whilst travelling around Europe. It is a shame that when he visited and wanted to buy a pipe, the shop in Bourdon House had not yet been established. I would have enjoyed seeing inside this historic building, but now I will have to wait until the lockdown is over before I can enter it on the pretence that I am considering buying some Dunhill t-shirts, most of which cost well over £200. At least, they are cheaper than the De Waal ceramics that can be purchased from the gallery opposite Bourdon House.

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?