Noguchi on show in London

AT FIRST GLANCE, the lower floor exhibition space at the Barbican art gallery in London resembles the lighting department of a furniture store such as Habitat. It is full of lighting units with Japanese-style paper and bamboo shades. After a moment, you will notice that these lighting units are not run-of-the-mill illuminations; they are interestingly shaped works of art lit up from within. These lamps are part of an exhibition of the artistic creations of Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). Born in Los Angeles, he was the son of a Japanese father and an Irish American mother. The first 13 years of his life were spent in Japan, where he began learning carpentry whilst helping his mother building their family house. From these early skills, it was not long before he embarked on what was to become a highly productive creative career, making works from a wide variety of materials from wood and stone to metals and plastics and … you name it.

Noguchi studied sculpture at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York City. In 1927, he was given a grant to travel to Paris. It was there that he was apprenticed to the Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957), who introduced him to abstraction. After learning much from the great sculptor in Paris, Noguchi abandoned pure abstraction and moved towards depicting the living world. However, his experiences working with Brâncuși influenced his artistic output for the rest of his life. After Paris, Noguchi travelled extensively, learning about techniques and philosophies, especially Chinese and Japanese. In 1929, he first met the architect and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), whose ideas about science and technology chimed with his. In the exhibition, there is a shiny chrome-plated bronze bust he made of Buckminster Fuller in 1929. There are also a couple of models he created in collaboration with Buckminster Fuller.  Noguchi’s interest in science was not only expressed in sculptures but also in stage settings for ballet performances choreographed by Ruth Page and for performances by Martha Graham.

During WW2, although it was not required for him to enter one of the camps where the Americans ‘cooped up’ potential Japanese enemy aliens – Japanese who lived in the USA – Noguchi volunteered to be confined in a camp in Arizona. By doing so, his aim was to create an arts programme that would ease the lives of those confined in the camp. The barren landscape surrounding his camp proved to be yet another influence on his creative output.

Amongst the many exhibits in the Barbican’s show, there are, in addition to the lighting units, several pieces of furniture designed by Noguchi. One of these is a triangular plate glass tabletop supported by two interlocking timber supports. I have seen this elegant item for sale in upmarket furniture shops, but until I saw the exhibition, I had no idea it had been designed by Noguchi as long ago as 1944. It is still being made today.  The wonderful variety of lighting sculptures, which at first reminded me of lampshades that were trendy in students’ rooms in the 1970s, are examples of ‘Akari’. Noguchi began creating them in the early 1950s, and despite their fragile nature, they are still in good condition now. One of the gallery invigilators told us that the translucent paper used to construct these lamps is made from mulberry tree bark. Known as ‘Washi’, this handmade paper can also be made from the bark of some other tree species.

As with other exhibitions at the Barbican gallery, the artworks are well-displayed and beautifully lit. If you go to this exhibition, you should not miss the video film in which Noguchi talks about his life and art very eloquently. And while you are watching it, you can sit on stools and a bench Noguchi designed. Prior to visiting this show, I had heard of Noguchi and seen a few of his works. The exhibition, which continues to the 23rd of January 2022, has truly opened my eyes to what a magnificent artist he was.

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.”

From Madras to Kensington

CAMPDEN STREET IN Kensington is a short thoroughfare running between Kensington Church Street and Campden Hill Road. On it, there is a distinctive building called Byam Shaw House. Until 1990, this edifice with its large centrally placed, north facing window was the Byam Shaw School of Art, which opened in 1910. Named at first as ‘Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole School of Art’, after its founders, Rex Vicat Cole (1870-1940) and John Liston Byam Shaw (1872-1919), it soon became known as the Byam Shaw school.

John Liston Byam Shaw is also known as ‘Byam Shaw’. He was born in British India, in Madras (now ‘Chennai’), where his father was registrar of the High Court at Madras. In 1878, the Shaws moved back to England, where they lived in Kensington. At an early age, he showed artistic promise and at the advice of the artist John Everett Millais (1829-1896), he entered an art school in London’s St Johns Wood. As he grew older, Byam’s works attracted less interest and he turned to teaching to earn a living. In 1910, he and Cole founded the art school in Campden Street. Sadly, Byam Shaw died during the great influenza epidemic that followed WW1.

The school in Campden Street has produced several significant artists including Winifred Nicholson (first wife of Ben Nicholson), Bernard Dunstan, Yinka Shonibare, Mona Hatoum, as well as stage designers, stained-glass makers, and actors. The inventor James Dyson also studied there. In 1990, the school moved to larger premises in Archway, and in 2003, the school was absorbed into the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. Byam Shaw would have been pleased to know that his school produced such fine alumni.  Guy Burch, who studied at the school between 1981 and 1984, wrote:

“The innovative independent Art School founded in the early 1900s, Byam Shaw had an open studio policy that suited my inability to fit into categories marked ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’. Most art schools at the time made you choose one or other with cross-media working tending to be discouraged. Their studios allowed you to move between them. I was in the ‘Image Studio’, and worked on collage, painting and mixed media installations.” (http://www.guyburch.co.uk/?p=4358)

I feel it is a shame that the building in Campden Street, which has now become a block of flats, is without any notice commemorating its former use.

Art on the roof

TEMPLE STATION IS on the Circle and District lines of London’s Underground. It was opened in 1870 and named after the nearby ancient Temple Church, which stars in Dan Brown’s 2003 novel “The Da Vinci Code”. The station’s ticket office is housed in a single storey building with a flat roof surrounded by a balustrade. The flat roof, with a few benches, occupies about half an acre and until recently served simply as a place to sit in the fresh air. Now, this has changed.

The flat roof has become employed as an open-air exhibition space for young artists. Today (December 2021), we climbed the stairs to reach the roof and were amazed to see that it has been covered with multi-coloured painting and plastic floor tiles, a dramatic sight. There is also a colourful hut, “The Artist’s Hut”, a modern take on the traditional cabman’s shelter. With the title “Back in the Air: A Meditation on Higher Ground”, the art installation was created by London-based artist Lakwena Maciver (born 1986). Also on this coloured space, there are a couple of ceramic works by another artist, Camilla Bliss. It is a wonderful surprise to see this field of bright colours, especially beneath a cloudy, grey sky. It would be fun to see the space from the air. But I do not know whether the pigeons would agree with me.

In the future, it is hoped that other artworks will b e displayed above Temple Station.

An invisible abbey and Vietnamese food

THERE IS A SUPERB Vietnamese eatery on London’s Bermondsey Street, called Caphe House. After eating a tasty banh mi, a baguette filled with meat and fresh vegetable, a dish no doubt inspired by the French occupation of Vietnam, and a pho, a clear broth with meat, vegetables, and noodles, we crossed the road to examine a sculpture. This eye-catching artwork had not been present when last visited Caphe House, sometime before the pandemic and well before October 2019. It consists of a row of seven piles of stone carvings of differing heights, resembling short totem poles. Made of Portland stone, Bath stone, marble and other materials found in the River Thames, this was created in 2020 by Austin Emery and members of the local community.  Over 100 members of the community made carvings in a workshop, and these have been assembled by Emery to create what we saw, an artwork named “Cornerstone”. Cornerstone also incorporates fragments from Southwark Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge Station, and bones from the Thames.

Cornerstone, a sculpture in London’s Bermondsey

After admiring this unusual and intriguing sculpture, I spotted a notice nearby. It relates to the history of Tanner Park, where the sculpture stands, and includes the following:

“… Originally part of the grounds of Bermondsey Abbey the site of the Park was later in use as a Tannery …”

Reading this notice, I realised that this was the first time I had seen mention of an abbey at Bermondsey.

There had been an abbey in Bermondsey since the early 9th century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermondsey_Abbey). This was centred on the site of the present-day Bermondsey Square, about 390 yards south of the Cornerstone sculpture. The abbey to which the notice at Tanner Park refers was a Benedictine abbey, which was dedicated to St Saviour and was founded in the early 11th century. A wealthy religious establishment, it was, like so many other similar institutions,  dissolved by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, in 1537. But where was it?

By 1822, only tiny fragments of the abbey were still standing. Today, nothing remains, although occasional archaeological digs have exposed parts of it, albeit temporarily.  Fathome’s map of Southwark compiled in 1643-48 shows that then the abbey was still standing intact in its grounds (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol6/pp117-133). According to one writer (https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/bermondsey-abbey/), who does not give the source(s) of his information, the site of the abbey was:

“The abbey lands extended from the present church of St Mary Magdalene, across today’s Tower Bridge Road.”

A map included by this writer marks the abbey church as lying along Abbey Street with the nave to the west of Tower Bridge Road and the chancel east of it. A wall plaque (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/bermondsey-abbey) which I have not yet seen informs that the abbey:

“… occupied ground between Bermondsey Street, Abbey Street, and Grange Walk…”

The church of St Mary Magdalen stands on Bermondsey Street just before its crossing with Abbey Street. This stands on the site of a church that existed in 1290 and which served lay workers of the abbey. This was demolished in 1680, but the late mediaeval tower was kept. It was rebuilt ten years later. During the 19th century, the exterior was covered with rendering and various other architectural modifications were made both internally and externally (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary_Magdalen_Bermondsey). Apparently, the church’s mediaeval arches are visible inside the tower behind the organ and the church also contains some mediaeval stone capitals that might well have been parts of Bermondsey Abbey. St Mary Magdalen is the oldest surviving building in the area. It is open occasionally. I have entered it once, but that was long before I knew about the mediaeval remnants it contains.

Despite the fact that Bermondsey Abbey is now merely a historical memory, Bermondsey Street is an interesting place to visit. Amongst its attractions are Peter Layton’s glass studio, where you can watch glassblowers creating fantastic artworks in glass; Rachel Eames Gallery, which often has good exhibitions of contemporary artists’ works; The Fashion and Textile Museum; The White Cube (Bermondsey), which hosts spectacular shows of contemporary art; and the Cornerstone sculpture, described already. I suggest starting your visit with an early lunch at Caphe House, rounding it off with Vietnamese filter coffee, and ending it with another good coffee at the cheekily named, quirkily decorated Fuckoffee café.

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.

A notable local art centre in north London

BETWEEN 1960 AND 1965, I was a pupil at The Hall School in London’s Swiss Cottage. I used to travel between it and home by buses that ran along Finchley Road between Golders Green and Swiss Cottage Underground station. For most of the time I was at the school, Finchley Road between Childs Hill and my destination was plagued by road works connected with widening the road. The bus used to move slowly, and I began to learn by heart what lined both sides of the road. Oddly, one building on the corner of Arkwright Road and the main road escaped my attention. Unbeknownst to me, this Victorian gothic building, erected in 1897, was the Hampstead Central Library, which functioned until 1964 when a newly constructed library, which I remember well from its earliest days, was opened close to Swiss Cottage station. It was at this time that the old Edwardian Swimming Pool that used to stand on the west side of Finchley Road between Swiss Cottage Station and John Barnes (now a large branch of Waitrose food stores) was closed and replaced by a brand new one next to the new library.

Exhibition of works by Phoebe Collings at the Camden Arts Centre

In 1965, the abandoned library on the west end of Arkwright Road became a nucleus for local artists and artistic activity, The Hampstead Arts Centre, which was given its present name, The Camden Arts Centre in 1967 (https://camdenartcentre.org/about/history/). Soon after its creation, the centre became an important hub for artistic education and activities as well as exhibitions. In 2004, the centre underwent a major refurbishment, which was supervised by Tony Fretton Architects.

Today, the Camden Arts Centre is a very pleasant place to visit. Its exhibition spaces are large and airy. It has a fine bookshop and a lovely café with food and beverages that offers seating both indoors and outside next to a well landscaped hillside garden.

During our latest visit, on the 10th of October 2021, we saw three very different exhibitions at the Camden Arts Centre. One was a multi-media installation (photographs, video, sculpture, and music) related to the memories and concerns of its creator, Adam Farah. It is called “What I’ve learnt from You and Myself (Peak Momentations/Inside my velvet Rope Mix)” and was somewhat puzzling at first, but, Jay, one of the invigilators, helped make some sense of it. More easily accessible to my mind was “Softest place (on earth)” a collection of handmade images by Zaineb Saleh. The exhibition I liked most of the three on offer was “James – A Scratch! A Scratch”, a collection of mainly ceramic sculptures by Phoebe Collings. These three shows continue until the 23rd of December 2021 and are worth seeing if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. If these do not appeal to you, then head straight for the centre’s wonderful café!

After enjoying artworks at the Camden Arts Centre, a short, pleasant stroll up Arkwright Road will bring you into the heart of old Hampstead, a district that has been home to artists of all kinds for several centuries, although these days only a very few artists are likely to afford the area’s high property prices.

A new sculpture at Wells Cathedral

New metal sculpture by Antony Gormley at Wells Cathedral

Among the carvings

At venerable Wells Cathedral

Stands a novice

The sculptor Antony Gornley (born 1950) has added a new artwork (made of metal) to an empty niche on the west facade of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England

Soho and a straight horizon

WALKING ALONG CHARING CROSS ROAD in central London recently, a memory of my childhood sprung into mind. When I was about eight years old, I was told off by my art teacher at school because the horizon on my painting was not straight enough for her. She told me that I should have used a ruler. When I related this incident to my mother, she was quite annoyed because, in her opinion, it did not matter whether a horizon was drawn ruler straight or not. I hoped that she would not complain to the school about her feelings about the ineptitude of the art teacher. I do not recall that she bothered to do so.

My mother was an artist, whose works became increasingly abstract as she grew older. Before WW2, she trained to become a commercial artist at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town (South Africa). Her earliest works, which I have never seen, were hand-painted posters, advertisements for the latest films (movies). In 1948, she followed my father from Cape Town to London, where he had taken up an academic post at the London School of Economics. They married in 1948 and, according to my father, Mom took painting classes with the now famous Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Interestingly, I never heard my mother mentioning these classes.

Stone sculpture by Adam Yamey’s mother

I was born in 1952, and it was around then that my mother began creating sculpture. One of her earliest sculptures was in terracotta and its subject matter was a mother, seated, holding a child, maybe me. During the late 1950s and early part of the 1960s, my mother worked in the sculpture workshops at St Martin’s School of Art, which was then located on Charing Cross Road. The Sculpture Department was then under the directorship of Frank Martin (1914-2004), whom my mother referred to as ‘Mr Martin’ when talking to us at home.  It was there that she worked alongside sculptors, who have since become quite famous. These included Menashe Kadishman (1932-2015), Buky Schwarz (1932-2009), Philip King (1934-2021), and Antony Caro (1924-2013). The latter two helped her learn how to weld and create sculptures in metal, a medium she preferred. It was probably at St Martins that my mother met the sculptor Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who also taught in the Sculpture Department. She and Mom became close friends. ‘Liz Frink’, as she was known in our family, was a regular visitor to our home in northwest London.

My mother used to work at St Martins several days a week. She used to do a lot of the family’s food shopping nearby in Soho’s Old Compton Street. Vegetables were bought from a French greengrocer, and meat from a Belgian butcher called Benoit Bulcke. This butcher, according to Mom, knew how to cut meat correctly, unlike most English butchers. As a young child, I accepted that this was the case if Mom said so. The butcher and the greengrocer no longer exist. However, three other stores she frequented are still in business: The Algerian Coffee Store; Camisa; and Lina Stores. My mother was an early disciple of the cookery writer, Elizabeth David (1913-1922), and her encouragement of the preparation of French and Mediterranean dishes. The proximity of St Martins to Old Compton Street was convenient for my mother, as the shops along it provided many ingredients, which were hard to find elsewhere in London in the 1950s and early 1960s.

After Armageddon? An art installation

ORFORD NESS IS a desolate strip of land on the Suffolk coast. Separated from the rest of the county by the lower reaches of the River Alde, it was used for testing military technology during much of the 20th century. While it was in the hands of the military, it was strictly out of bounds for everyone except those who were authorised to be there. It was a highly secret military area, more about which I plan to write soon.


In the early 1990s, the Ness was handed over to the National Trust, who developed it and the decaying remains of the military establishment as a visitor attraction and nature reserve.
This Summer (2021), an organisation called Artangel, who “…collaborate with artists who defy boundaries to give form to extraordinary ideas,” (www.artangel.org.uk/about_us/), have placed several intriguing art installations on Orford Ness. One of these, which I particularly liked, is called “The Residents”. It was created by Tatiana Trouvé, who was born in Calabria and grew up in Dakar, Senegal.


Her installation is housed in a concrete structure half buried in shingle and called Lab 1. It was in this bunker, built in the 1960s, that detonators for Britain’s atomic bombs were tested for their resistance to vibration and other forces that might set off detonators at inappropriate times, for example, when being carried in aircraft.


Like most of the rest of the deserted military establishment on Orford Ness, Trouvé’s collection of objects in the disused, dilapidated bunker, creates an intense feeling of a post-Armageddon world. The artist populates the space with a variety of objects, such as suitcases, cloth bags, books, quilted mattresses and rugs, and a transistor radio. All of these objects look as if they have been discarded by people fleeing an horrific disaster. All of them are painted to look life-like, but none of them are real; they are all cast in either aluminium or bronze. This is also the case for the life-like seashells attached to the gate through which the observer looks at this created scene of despair.


Surrounded by acres of shingle covered with distorted, rusting fragments of metal and discarded lumps of concrete, the installation housed within Lab 1 gave me the feeling that I was being given a glimpse of what I hope never to experience: the world following a nuclear catastrophe.