Art and football

MY MOTHER OFTEN TOLD ME that if one did not buy Premium Bonds, there was no chance of winning any prizes. Likewise, if one did not play the Football Pools, promisingly large financial prizes could not be won. The Football Pools is a form of gambling based on trying to predict the results of football (soccer) matches. My mother knew nothing at all about football. So, she paid a monthly fee to let someone else fill in the Pools forms on her behalf. Once, she won about £13 (or was it £30?), thus proving to me and the rest of the family that by participating it was possible to win occasionally. What she did not mention was that she was spending far more on submitting Football Pool forms than she ever recouped in winnings. Her argument was that if she gave up on the Pools, she would miss winning one of the enormous prizes that other folks sometimes collected. One of the biggest Football Pool companies was Littlewoods, which also owned a retail chain. This was once owned by the family of Sir Peter Moores (1932-2016). Some tiny proportion of the money that my mother spent on Littlewoods Pools would have helped Sir Peter to create a fine collection of art. Although my mother did not live long enough to have known that, she would have been pleased because she was a painter and a sculptor during her short adult life.

Sir Peter bought Compton Verney House and its extensive grounds in Warwickshire in 1993. I will relate his role in the history of this estate later. Compton (meaning ‘manor’ or ‘large farm’) Verney was granted to Robert Murdak in 1150. Until 1582, when the manor was taken over by Richard Verney, who died in 1490, it was known as ‘Compton Murdak’. Richard’s grandson, Richard Verney (1465-1527) renamed the estate (and the long-since vanished village near it) ‘Compton Verney’.

The Verneys built a large manor house at Compton Verney in Tudor style in about 1442. In about 1711, George, Baron Willoughby de Broke (1659-1728), a Verney, rebuilt the manor house at Compton Verney. Its designers were the master stone-masons John Townesend (1648-1728), briefly a Mayor of Oxford, and his son William (1676-1739), who worked on several major buildings for the University of Oxford. The baroque edifice they created is what we see today.

My namesake, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), made major alterations to the recently built ‘new’ Compton Verney House. Visitors to the house enter via the magnificent ground floor hall he designed, Splendid as it is, it is easily rivalled by the work he did at Kenwood House in North London. This might be because during the 1950s, the house in Warwickshire was allowed to deteriorate.

The well-maintained grounds of Compton Verney are spectacularly beautiful. They were artfully designed by Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (1716-1783). Not only did he plant fine trees but he also invented a machine for transporting mature trees in order to transplant them in positions chosen for artistic effect. To achieve the effect that Brown and his patron desired, the new gardens eliminated all traces of an earlier formal garden and a mediaeval chapel that had existed until he began work on the garden in 1768. An obelisk and a few partially submerged gravestones stand on the site of the old chapel.

After WW1, in 1921, The Verney family sold their estate to the soap manufacturer Joseph Watson (1873-1922). After his death, Watson’s son sold Compton Verney to Samuel (a cotton magnate) and Gita (a German opera singer and a Nazi sympathiser) Lamb in 1929. During WW2, the estate was used by the military as a centre for experimenting with smoke-screen camouflage.

After the end of WW2, the estate fell into disrepair. In 1958, Harry Ellard, an industrialist from Wolverhampton, bought Compton Verney but never lived there. The place continued to decay seriously. In 1983, the property developer Christopher Buxton bought the estate, planning to redevelop it as a centre for performing opera. His plans did not materialize. The future of Compton Verney was beginning to look exceedingly bleak. This changed in 1993. For it was in that year that some infinitesimally minute fraction of what my mother spent on Littlewood’s Football Pools helped to save Compton Verney.

In 1964, Sir Peter Moores set up the Peter Moores Foundation, whose aim it was to assist opera, the visual arts, and education. In 1993, the Foundation acquired Compton Verney. A year later, conservation experts began restoring the old house to enable it to become a modern gallery. They also designed a modern annex to serve as an exhibition space as well as to house a collection of British Folk Art and the Marx-Lambert Collections. The gallery was opened to the public in 2004 and the grounds were finally restored in 2016.

The collection of British Folk Art consists of artefacts collected by the art dealer, founder of the Crane-Kalman Gallery, Andras Kalman (1918-2007) and was bought by the Moores Foundation in 1993. The Marx-Lambert Collections, derive their name from Margaret Lambert (1906-1995) and Enid Marx (1902-1998). Unwittingly, most Londoners will be familiar with some of the work created by the designer Enid Marx. She was commissioned to design some of the fabrics that used to cover the seats on the London Underground trains. Lambert was a historian. Lambert and Marx were good friends, who shared an interest in British folk art, which they both collected. It is their collection that can be viewed at Compton Verney.

It was Peter Moore’s love of travelling and collecting artworks that resulted in the fine collection of paintings, sculptures and other artefacts within Compton Verney House and its attached modern gallery annex. His acquisitions fall into four main groups: Northern European (mainly German) paintings and sculpture from the renaissance and earlier periods; British portraits; art from mainly 18th century Naples; and Chinese art. Each group includes works of the highest artistic quality, making a visit to see them at Compton Verney very worthwhile.

Compton Verney also hosts temporary exhibitions. At present (September 2020) until very early January 2021, there is a fine selection of works by Luther’s friend and contemporary, Lucas Cranach the Elder. I have written a little about this elsewhere. In addition to viewing the indoor artworks, the gardens of Compton Verney are a joy to explore. My late mother would have liked seeing Compton Verney, maybe thinking to herself that her involvement with Football Pools had helped to create what the visitor can enjoy today.

The artist and the reformer: Cranach and Luther

IT IS ALWAYS FUN TO MAKE new discoveries. Yesterday, we braved incessant rain and the mist on the motorway to drive to Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, the county where William Shakespeare was born. Our main reason for visiting this lovely 18th century house was to see a special exhibition devoted to the works of the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472-1553). He was born in Kronach in the then predominantly Roman Catholic Holy Roman Empire. He was an extraordinarily successful painter. Also, he was a prosperous businessman: he had his own printing business and was also an apothecary. Cranach painted religious as well as mythological subjects in addition to court (and other) portraits.

Cranach became the court painter for the electors of Saxony in the town of Wittenberg. The electors in Wittenberg were supporters of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a professor of theology (at the University of Wittenberg) who rejected Roman Catholicism and became a ‘father’ of Protestantism. When Luther arrived in Wittenberg in October 1512, Lucas Cranach was already running a prosperous workshop (studio) in the town. Cranach made a portrait (engraving?) of Luther in 1520, which shows the reformer in priest’s garb with his head shaved to create a tonsure. This picture of Luther, when he was still an Augustinian monk, was not on display at Compton Verney. However, one room of the exhibition is dedicated to prints (designed by Lucas) and pamphlets (written by Martin) produced on Cranach’s presses. These works were all produced to promote Luther’s then revolutionary ideas.

Cranach’s courtly patrons in Wittenberg were supporters of Luther and Protestantism. The British historian, an expert on the Reformation, Andrew Pettegree wrote (in “Apollo”, 15th October 2016):

“From the beginning Cranach was a firm and important supporter of the Reformation. This was a relationship of mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual benefit. Cranach provided the Reformation with some of its most memorable images…”

Cranach became one of Luther’s important allies:

“… not merely because of his artistic talents. By this point he was one of Wittenberg’s leading citizens, firmly established among the city’s ruling elite. He would play a crucial role in this regard when Luther was absent from Wittenberg in 1521, and over-enthusiastic supporters, led by Andreas Karlstadt, pressed for radical changes to the order of worship that Luther would not have approved. Cranach, civic leader and artistic entrepreneur, was one of the rocks on which the Wittenberg Reformation was built. He also had the managerial skills and resources to conceive a solution to the problem that might otherwise have stopped the Reformation in its tracks: how to build a mass movement from a small place with extremely limited infrastructure.”

Part of that solution was Cranach’s high-quality printing works that were able to produce large editions of publications either written by Luther or by authors promoting his cause. The exhibition at Compton Verney has several examples of Cranach’s printed pro-Luther propaganda tracts and prints on display.  In one of them, facing pages depict the contrast between Protestantism and Catholicism. For example, an image of the pure Christ rising towards Heaven faces an image of the corrupt Pope burning in Hell. For those not able to read, this was a graphic illustration of Luther’s objections to Catholicism.

In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Four years later, Luther, the erstwhile priest who had taken the vows of celibacy, decided to marry. His bride was Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), a nun who had fled to Wittenberg from a convent near the town of Grimma along with eight other nuns. Luther had undertaken to find them husbands or to find families for them to join so that they could enjoy ‘normal’ lives. At first, Katherine joined the household of Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach (the Elder). Luther tried hard to find her a husband. His friends tried hard to get Luther to marry. In the end, he married Katherine. Lucas Cranach was one of a few close friends who were present when Martin and Katherine took their wedding vows. Luther’s Roman Catholic enemies were quick to claim (according to Richard Marius in his “Martin Luther”) that:

“… all Luther ever wanted was sex, and since he had married a former nun, it seemed he had now lived out yet another of the bawdy stories told of nuns and monks lusting for one another…”

Popular legend of the time predicted that the Antichrist would be born to a monk and a nun, but Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote in connection with this:

“How many thousands of Antichrists had the world already known!”

Katherine and Martin produced six children.  Cranach married Barbara Brengbier. They had several children including Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), the painter, one of whose works is displayed in the exhibition at Compton Verney. In 1517, Luther stood as a godfather to the last of Cranach’s children. Later, when Luther married, Cranach became godfather to some of his children.

Before visiting Compton Verney, I was already familiar with the fine paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but I had no inkling of Cranach’s close connection with Martin Luther and the promotion of Protestantism. Also, I did not know that Cranach had had other business interests apart from producing works of art. I came away from the splendid exhibition at Compton Verney pleased to have had my eyes opened to an important episode of history about which I was only dimly aware.

Travelling to Compton Verney on a rainy day fulfilled what Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad”:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In other words, travel broadens the mind. Our journey to Compton Verney did, despite inclement weather conditions, did precisely that.

A familiar face

THE SCULPTOR ELIZABETH FRINK (1930-1993) was a close friend of my late mother, who was also a sculptor. I do not know how they met at first, but they remained close friends. ‘Liz’ Frink, as I knew her when I was a child, was a regular visitor to our family home in northwest London. After my mother died in 1980, I never saw Liz again. She was born in Suffolk (where one of her pieces stands in the garden of the cathedral of Bury St Edmunds), studied at both Guildford and Chelsea schools of art, and died in Dorset (at Blandford Forum, which is a few miles southwest of Salisbury).

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Walking Madonna

Early in August (2020), we drove from London to Devon via Salisbury. There were two reasons that we chose the less direct route through the city of Salisbury. One was to avoid the motorway system as much as possible and to travel along roads that pass through lovely countryside. The other was to visit Salisbury, especially its cathedral and enclosed environs (the ‘Cathedral Close’). The cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture built mainly between 1220 and 1320, is worthy of a visit, or as the Michelin “Guides Vert” say in French, ‘vaut le détour’. The splendid architecture was one reason for our latest visit but not the main one. We had come to see an exhibition called “Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour”.

The exhibition consists of 20 works of art, mainly sculptural, displayed within the cathedral and outside it in the Cathedral Close. These works are in addition to the cathedral’s permanent collection of 9 sculptures. My favourites amongst the temporary works were pieces created by: Conrad Shawcross, Danny Lane, Subodh Gupta, Antony Gormley, Tony Cragg, Lynn Chadwick, Daniel Chadwick, and Grayson Perry.

I was intrigued by an electronic sculpture, ‘The Reader’. made in 2015 by an artist named Stanza (born 1962). It depicts a standing man reading a book. The book glows regularly and as it does, LED bulbs in different parts of his body glow for a few moments. The artwork attempts to show, quite successfully, how reading can affect the body and feelings of the reader.

Several of the artworks in the cathedral’s permanent collection particularly impressed me. One of these is a small stone carving by Emily Young, which stands in the cloisters. Also, in the cloisters, there is a large coloured sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which recalled the works of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, a good friend of hers. It is called ‘Construction (Crucifixion’). Generally, I am not enthusiastic about her works, but this one, which is so different from most of her other creations, pleased me greatly.

There is another wonderful part of the permanent collection within the nave of the cathedral. This is a large baptismal font by William Pye. Installed in 2008, this huge vessel is filled to the brim with water which flows from it via four spouts. The surface of the water is perfectly smooth and acts as a mirror in which the architecture of the cathedral is reflected beautifully. It is truly a reflective piece in more than one sense of the adjective.

Outside the cathedral, there is a fine stone carving in white marble, ‘Angels Harmony’, by Helaine Blumenfeld. To me, it seemed to depict drapes being blown around in the wind. I liked this, but what really caught my eye was a rather dreary looking cast bronze sculpture, ‘Walking Madonna’. This life-size piece was made in 1981 by ‘our’ former family friend Liz Frink. At first, I glanced at it quickly, and then, for no special reason, I took a closer look. I experienced a strange feeling of ‘déja vu’ when I looked at the Madonna’s face. For a moment, I felt as if I was looking at Liz Frink’s face. As mentioned already, it is over 40 years since I last saw her. Yet, I had the feeling that I recognised her face. I have since learned that Frink often included her long jawline in the faces she sculpted, but it was not that which gave me the fleeting feeling of recognition. Instead, it was the nose and mouth on the depiction of the Madonna that sparked that momentary sensation that I was looking into Frink’s face. I have since compared photographs of the sculptor with those I took of the work on the lawns outside the cathedral. Comparing them, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that Liz Frink was influenced by her own face when creating the ‘Walking Madonna’.

Whether or not Frink intended her sculpture to include her own face is up to the viewer, but in any case, I can strongly recommend a visit to Salisbury Cathedral before the enjoyable sculpture exhibition is dismantled.

At home with Henry Moore

PERRY GREEN IS A TINY hamlet near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire and was home to a sculptor whose works are often anything but tiny. Henry Moore (1898-1986) was born when Auguste Rodin, the ‘father of modern sculpture’, was 58 years old and about five years before another great British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, was born. Moore’s works have influenced the output of some of my favourite 20th century British sculptors such as Anthony Caro, Philip King, and Eduardo Paolozzi. Both Caro and King worked as assistants to Henry Moore.

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In 1929, Moore married an art student from Kiev, a refugee from the Russian Revolution, Anatolia Radetzki (1907–1989), and the couple lived in Hampstead at 11a Parkhill Road, which Moore had rented in advance the year before. Their home was close to other leaders in the world of art including Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Roland Penrose, and Herbert Read. In those days, Hampstead was part of the nucleus of London’s artistic sphere.

In September 1940, the Moore’s home in Hampstead was damaged by bomb shrapnel. Henry and Irina moved out of London to Perry Green, where they began living at a farmhouse called Hoglands, which is a late medieval house, rebuilt and then remodelled in the 17th century. This and the land and other properties around it, which the Moores bought gradually, became the centre of his artistic production: his home and workshops.  In 1946, Irina gave birth to Mary, the Moore’s only child.

Rapidly and for the rest of his life, Henry’s artistic output, fame, and prosperity continued to increase. As his wealth grew, Moore, concerned about his legacy, established the Henry Moore Trust in 1977 with the help of his daughter. According to the Foundation’s website:

“The Henry Moore Foundation was founded by the artist and his family in 1977 to encourage public appreciation of the visual arts.”

As part of its activities, it has opened to the public Moore’s creative environment at Perry Green. Following the recent easing of the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’ restrictions, we took the opportunity to visit Moore’s lovely place in rural Hertfordshire.

We were able to visit some of Moore’s workshops including one that contains a huge collection of maquettes, small models or three-dimensional sketches for the artist’s visualisations of his ideas for larger works. Interspersed amongst these items, there are objects both man-made and natural (eg lumps of flint and skeletal bones) that Moore found and collected. Some of them inspired his creations. Seeing these maquettes alongside specimens of nature collected by the artist helped me see the connection between Moore’s work and natural forms.  

The gardens in which numerous finished sculptures are displayed are superbly laid out and well-maintained. Beyond the gardens, we walked through fields in which sheep graze overlooked by some of the larger of Moore’s creations on view at Perry Green. The sheep played a significant role in Moore’s creations; he often sketched them.

After stretching our legs and enjoying the lovely gardens and fields, we enjoyed hot drinks outside a well-designed modern building that serves as a café and visitor’s centre (including a shop where several books about Moore are on sale). One place that was closed to visitors because of the pandemic is the striking building housing the Henry Moore Archives. Originally, the archives were housed in a brick cottage of no architectural interest called Elmwood. Between 2012 and 2018, the architect Hugh Broughton and his project director, Gianluca Rendina added a large modern-looking extension to Elmwood. It is an attractive structure, which is larger than the old cottage and is clad in COR-TEN steel that has weathered (oxidised) to become a warm reddish-brown colour. Far more geometric and less organic than Moore’s artworks, the building, like Moore’s sculptures, makes a pleasing contrast to the bucolic surroundings in Perry Green. Incidentally, the modern visitor’s centre/café complex was also designed by the Hugh Broughton Architects practice.

Although I loved visiting the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green and can strongly recommend it as a wonderful day-out for anyone who loves the countryside and/or modern art, I have one reservation, which is purely personal. I have never regarded the body of Henry Moore’s sculptural works as highly as those of some other twentieth century sculptors. To be fair, some of Moore’s creations really impress and move me, but the majority do not. Often when I visit an artist’s or a historical figure’s former home, my appreciation of its former inhabitant increases, but, sadly for me, visiting Moore’s place did nothing to improve my admiration of his works. But, please do not let my aesthetic opinions deter you from driving down Hertfordshire’s narrow winding country lanes to Perry Green, where the garden alone makes the effort well worthwhile. I am looking forward to making another visit soon, not so much for the sculptures but for the sheer joy that the place gave me. Who knows, but another visit to Much Hadham might make me more sympathetic to Moore’s works?

Park of memory

REGIMES RISE AND FALL, as was the case of the Roman, Ottoman, and British empires. Each has left a physical legacy in the form of buildings, works of art, and a plethora of monuments. In India, a part of the both the former Mughal and British Empires, visitors flock to see their tangible remains.

In the late 1980’s, it was turn of the Soviet Empire to decline and fall. In many of its former ‘colonies’, its citizens hastily tried to erase its physical traces. Statues were toppled and monuments destroyed. Some of these artefacts were removed from public view by governmental authorities (maybe because they feared a possible return of Russian domination?)

For good or evil, the Soviet Empire has had a profound influence on what followed in its wake. Whatever one thinks about the Soviet Empire, it has become a significant part of 20th century history and it is a shame to try to erase memory of it. This was also the opinion of the Hungarian architect Ákos Eliőd, who designed the Szoborpark (Memento Park) in the countryside near Budapest.

The Szoborpark opened to the public in 1993. About 6 years later, we drove to Hungary from London. We stayed with a good friend of ours, Ákos, a pioneer of Hungarian rock music, and his family in his home in the outskirts of the hilly Buda section of Budapest. It was Ákos who alerted us to the existence of the Szoborpark.

One sunny day, we drove to the park. It was a wonderful place containing a collection of the Soviet era statues and monuments gathered from all over Hungary. It was/is a treasure trove for those who like or are fascinated by socialist realism art forms, an aesthetic that I like. We spent a couple of enthralling hours in the hot sun, wandering about this open air exhibition.

I took many photographs of the Szoborpark, which I have ‘unearthed’ recently. One of them is of wall plaque celebrating Béla Kun (1886-1938) son of Samu Kohn, a non obervant Jewish lawyer. He was the dictator of a short-lived communist regime that terrorised Hungary for a few months in 1919. With its downfall, Kun fled to the USSR, where he organised the Red Terror campaign in the Crimea in 1921. He was executed in 1938, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Trotskyist purges.

Many years after seeing the Szoborpark, my wife and I visited Albania in 2016, more than 3 decades after the downfall of its highly repressive Marxist-Leninist regime piloted for 40 years by its dictator Enver Hoxha.
Interestingly, all over the country there were still numerous monuments erected during the dictatorial era. Many of them were in need of tidying up or cleaning, but they were still there despite being daily reminders of what was a difficult and fearful time for most Albanian citizens.

We believed that the endurance of these monuments erected during difficult times was due to at least two factors. One of these is that many of them were put up to celebrate heroic feats of Albanians carried out against their German invaders during WW2. The other is that despite Hoxha’s repressive regime, many things were done to move Albania from being a Balkan backwater in the former Ottoman Empire to getting nearer to being a 20th century European state.

This is not to say that statues of Enver Hoxha, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin (the mentor and hero of Enver Hoxha) were not pulled down in Albania. They were, but fortunately a few have been preserved by an art gallery in the country’s capital Tirana.

In countries like Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, the arrival of the Soviet Army and the Russian domination of their countries was not felt by most citizens to have been even remotely beneficial. Obliteration of memories of this era were not surprising in places like these.

To conclude, I am glad that I have neither lost nor obliterated the photographs I took at the Szoborpark so many years ago.

Ambling in Ahmedabad

A LAZY MORNING IN AHMEDABAD was just what we needed after a long bus ride from Bhuj the day before. The seat I sat in was uncomfortable.

Our newspaper seller and her assistant were sitting in their usual place on the pavement next to the entrance of the somewhat precious luxury hotel, The House of MG. They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date. When we are in Ahmedabad, which we have visited 6 or 7 times during the last two years, they reserve a copy of the Indian Express for us. When we go to collect it, they have to rummage around to find it amongst the seemingly disorganized pile of newspapers, new and old.

We set off towards the Khwaja Bazaar and the Teen Darwaza, heading towards the Jumma Masjid. Just before we reached the bazaar, we entered a rather run down café/restaurant, named ‘Irani Restaurant’. This was established in 1950 and does not seem to have been redecorated since. The wall of the long rectangular dining hall has several mirrors, all cracked. However, the marble topped tables and the enormous kitchen are sootlessly clean. In addition to hot food items, this place sells freshly baked bun maska. These soft white bread buns have a very slightly sweet taste; they resemble the French ‘brioche’. I had one of these and ordered chhaas (buttermilk). To my surprise and delight, this was served in a used Pepsi bottle.

We proceeded to the Teen Darwaza, a three arched 15th century gate that was built soon after Shah Ahmed founded Ahmedabad in about 1420. Standing amidst a sea of market stalls and noisy traffic, this venerable stone gateway has decorative features that can be found on Indian structures built long before the Moslems arrived in India. This is also true of many if the 15th century mosques built in the early days of the city’s existence.

The Jumma Masjid is enormous and of great beauty. Like other mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat, this Masjid displays many decorative and architectural features that the Moslems have adopted from Hindu and Jain temples that were in existence prior to Islamic invasions of western India.

The Jumma Masjid has more than 15 large domes and many smaller ones. Like the domes in earlier Hindu and Jain temples, the larger domes rest on eight lintels arranged octagonally. The lintels rest on eight supporting pillars. The interior of the mosque contains a forest of over 250 stone pillars, the bases of which have been decorated with carved stone motifs typically found in Hindu and Jain temples. I do not know why the newly arrived Moslems borrowed so many features from the temples which they found (and sometimes demolished) when they arrived in western India. Maybe, they employed local Hindus or Jains to construct the mosques, but surely the conquerors would have had some say in how the mosques were designed.

We spotted several terracotta pots placed by the bases of some of the pillars. These, we were told, are for worshippers to expectorate into should they need to during the prayer sessions (namaaz). This saves people from spitting on the floor, which is so common outside of holy places in India.
The Jumma Masjid has five carved stone mihrab niches, all facing towards Mecca. Each of these is decorated differently, but each of them is topped with a carving of a lamp, a symbol of the holiness of Allah. The central of these five niches is made of white marble inlaid with coloured stones. It is disfigured by the presence of a modern electric fan, which we were told is used to cool the Imam during namaaz.

There are numerous window around the mosque. Each of these is decorated by decorative jali work (decorative perforated stone screens). No two windows are decorated with the same design.

The mosque lost its two minarets during the earthquak of 1819, which resulted in an inlet of the Arabian sea being transformed into an arid salt desert (the Rann of Kutch).

The outer walls of the Masjid that face a huge space enclosed by arched passageways have several stone carvings depicting trees. I imagine these are depictions of the Tree of Life, such as can be seen in the intricate jali work at the Sidi Sayeed mosque.

After a pleasant hour examining the Jumma Masjid, we wended our way through the increasingly busier bazaar back to the Irani Restaurant. I ordered more chhaas, which arrived in used Seven Up bottles. This watery dairy drink, flavoured with cumin and other spiced, made a good accompaniment to my plate of delicious dal fry (dal to which slow fried onions and spices are added at a late stage in its preparation).

By 130 pm, the temperature had risen above 27 degrees Celsius, and it was time to retreat to our air conditioned hotel room. But before that, I made a trip to a local ATM. As with other ATM places in India, all the customers waiting for machines give each other helpful advice, such as “press this” or “remove card” or “enter pin” or “do that”, on how to use the machines. Unlike in the UK, where using an ATM is a very personal affair, in India it appears to be a group activity.

My artistic mother

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My late mother died at the age of 60 in 1980. Her mother, who was born late in the 19th century in South Africa, held an old-fashioned opinion that girls should not attend university however bright they were. My mother would certainly have been able to cope with a university course of study, but, instead, she enrolled in the prestigious Michaelis  School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Founded in 1925, it is now ironically a department of the University of Cape Town.

Mom studied commercial art. Her first employment was hand painting posters, advertising cinema films. When I began visiting India in the 1990s, many film posters were still being painted by hand. Often, we saw workers perched on rickety bamboo scaffolding, painting the details of huge posters. Two years ago while visiting Bhuj in Kutch (part of Gujarat), we found a workshop where two men produced hand painted posters. They told us that the demand for these was dying out rapidly. It is interesting to note that, like my mother, the great Indian artist MF Hussain began his creative life as a painter of cinema posters.

Returning to my mother, she designed and painted advertising material for the Red Cross in Cape Town during WW2. In 1947, she followed her fiancé, my father, to the UK. She married in 1948, and I arrived a few years later. According to my father, Mom took painting classes with the the famous Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  Sometime after that, she began creating sculptures.

When I was born, I had a torticollis (twisting of muscles of the neck beyond their normal position) that caused my head to be bent to one side. At that time in the early 1950s, the doctors told my mother that there was nothing to be done about this, and we would just have to live with it. My feisty mother refused to believe this. Every day, she manipulated my head and neck and gradually corrected the situation. Whether it was this manipulation that caused my mother to become a sculptor, I cannot say. However, one of her first sculpures was a terracotta mother and child, which she reproduced much later as an alabaster carving (see photo above).

When I was a young child, my mother used to attend the sculture studios at the St Martin School of Art in London’s Tottenham Court Road. She was not a student; she used the facilities and received advice from other sculptors including Philip King and Antony Caro. At that time, she became a close friend of the sculptor Dame Elizabeth Frink, who visited our home regularly. At St Martins, Mom learnt how to weld and work with metal. She created several quite attractive abstract metal artworks. Being a perfectionist, she destroyed much of what she made, but not before having it photographed by a competent photographer. Sadly, these photos have gone missing.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother had ceased working at St Martins, possibly not of her own volition. She rented a large garage in Golders Green and used it as a studio, where she created huge abstract sculptures in timber. She found working on her own to be lonely. However, without the benefit of proper lifting equipment, she produced quite a few sculptures.

Around about 1970, Mom began complaining of back pains, which she thought were the result of the heavy work she was doing in her garage. She abandoned the garage and more or less stopped creating any artworks except for a very few abstract pen and ink drawings, which she considered good enough to be framed.

The back pains continued. My mother became disillusioned with the contemporary art scene. She was familiar with the great renaissance  works of art which she visited every year in Florence (Italy), and comparing these with what she and her contemporaries were producing added to her disinclination to produce any more art of her own. For the last ten years of her life, Mom continued to search (unsuccessfully) for an interest to replace the creation of art. Tragically, she died young because of a cancer, which might well have been contributing to her long-lasting back pain.

Whatever the reason, if an artist loses the urge to create, it must produce a huge hole in his or her life, something like losing a loved one.

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?

Blockbusters

Bauhaus

National museums in the UK do not charge entrance fees to view their permanent exhibits. However, they do charge, often quite high, fees to view special temporary exhibitions.  This is nothing new. In 1968, I saw superb exhibition at the Royal Academy about the Bauhaus school, founded in pre-WW2 Germany. It was so excellent that I visited it on three separate occasions. Likewise, with a wonderful exhibition about Tutankhamen, also held at the Royal Academy.

Now, several decades later, the museums and galleries have caught on to the idea of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. These try to attract vast numbers of visitors, who would not nomally visit the institution where they are being held. They often succeed in drawing the crowds, but by slightly devious means. For example, recently the Royal Academy held an exhibition called: “RUBENS AND HIS LEGACY. Van Dyck to Cezanne”. I thought, as I am sure many other visitors believed, that this was primarily an exhibition of works by Rubens. Well, it was not. There were a few paintings by this great master diluted by a far larger number of works by other artists. It would have been more honest, but less ‘sexy’ and attractive to the public, to have called this exhibition something like “THE LEGACY OF RUBENS”.

My wife visited the current exhibition at the Tate Britain, a real crowd-puller called “VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN”. Who cannot resist seeing pictures by Van Gogh? Few, judging by the crowds of people jammed into the rooms where the exhibition is being held. And, how many paintings and other works by the man who cut off his own ear were on show. There were only a few. The rest of the show was of paintings by other artists, who were definitely not of interest to the bulk of the visitors, who had paid £18 a head to see a Van Gogh show. Clearly the name of the exhibition draws in the ‘punters’. 

As with the Van Gogh exhibition, the recent Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery was also disappointing. A few works by the great Italian master were vastly outnumbered by works produced by inferior artists, in whom most visitors were uninterested. And, most of the ‘fillers’ in the exhibition had only tenuous connections with Leonardo.

Of course, not all blockbuster exhibitions fail to live up to their promise. Apparently, the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a brilliant show that concentrated on the subject promised by the exhibition’s name. Another really good temporary exhibition, which attracted an entry fee, was one dedicated to Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern.

Given the absence of entrance fees and the constant insufficiency of public funds, our national museums and galleries need to raise as much money as possible. The blockbuster exhibitions must be a good way of doing this. It would be better if their naming was a little more related to what the visitor is likely to see.