Constable and the clouds

THE ARTIST JOHN Constable (1776-1837) loved Hampstead and eventually lived there. It was in that part of London, then a large village, that he became fascinated by the depiction of clouds. Here is an extract relating to this from a book about Hampstead, which I am in the process of writing:

In the last of a series lectures he gave to the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street in 1836, Constable emphasised his systematic approach to depicting nature, by saying:

“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?”

Clouds over Hampstead Heath by John Constable

One of Hampstead’s attractions for Constable was its wide expanse of sky, which, as the historian Thomas Barratt wrote, the artist:

“… regarded as the keynote of landscape art, and so assiduously did he study cloud, sky, and atmosphere in the Hampstead days that Leslie, his biographer, was able to become possessed of twenty of these special studies, each dated and described. Constable was a man of Wordsworthian simplicity of character, fond of all things rural, and devotedly attached to birds and animals.”

The website of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum reinforces what Barratt wrote:

“While living at Hampstead, Constable made a series of oil sketches of the sky alone, each one marked with the date, time and a short description of the conditions. His interest in clouds was influenced partly by the work of the scientist Luke Howard, who had in 1803 written a pioneering study, classifying different types of cloud …”

In “The Invention of Clouds” by Richard Hamblyn, a biography of the chemist and amateur meteorologist, who devised the modern classification of clouds (cumulus, nimbus, etc.), Luke Howard (1772-1864), it is noted that Constable, who was familiar with Howard’s work, focussed his concentration:

“… on the extension of his observational range and clouds were the means that he had chosen for the task. After years of searching for an isolated image, seeking a motif upon which to weigh his technical advancement as a painter, he had found it at last in the unending sequences of clouds that emerged and dissolved before his eyes like images on a photographic plate.”

During the summers of 1821 and 1822, Constable made over one hundred cloud studies on the higher ground of Hampstead and its heath.  Writing in 1964 in his “The Philosophy of Modern Art”, the art critic/historian Herbert Read (1893-1968), who lived in Hampstead, commented that Constable was:

“… rather a modest craftsman, interested in the efficiency of his tools, the chemistry of his materials, the technique of his craft. His preparatory ‘sketches’ are no more romantic than a weather report. But they are accurate, they are vividly expressed, they are truthful.”

Read next contrasted Constable with Turner, pointing out that the former was far more attentive to depicting nature accurately than the latter, who became increasingly extravagant in his portrayal of it, always moving towards what is now called ‘expressionist’. Barratt wrote that although Constable admired Turner, he had no desire to imitate him and:

“He knew his limits, and recognised that within those limits were to be found subjects worthy of the highest aspirations. “I was born to paint a happier land,” he wrote, “ my own dear England ; and when I cease to love her may I, as Wordsworth says, — ‘never more hear her green leaves rustle or her torrents roar..’”

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.

Fish on the roof

WEATHERVANES ATTRACT BOTH wind and my attention. The variety of forms that these wind direction indicators assume is why I enjoy looking at them. A few days ago, whilst crossing London Bridge I spotted a building with two weathervanes on its roof. They are shaped like fish. But they are not alone because the roof is decorated with more metal fish. Their presence is appropriate because between 1875 and 1982, this arcaded edifice next to the river was home to the Billingsgate fish market. Today, the place is used as a venue for gatherings of various sorts.

Writing in 1598, John Stow (c1524-1605) noted that the ward of Billingsgate was named after ‘Belinsgate’. It was then, he wrote:

“… a large water-gate, port, or harborough, for ships and boats, commonly arriving there with fish, both fresh and salt, shell-fishes, salt, oranges, onions, and other fruits and roots, wheat, rye, and grain of divers sorts, for service of the city and parts of this realm adjoining.”

He also mentions that in the reign of Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), Belinsgate was then a much-used place for mooring ships and that these all attracted harbour fees, which depended on their size.

John Timbs (1801-1875), writing in his “Curiosities of London”, published in 1867 provided more of the history of Billingsgate. He wrote that it had been a landing place, if not also a marketplace, since the reign of King Ethelred II (reigned 978-1013). In 1699, an Act of King William III declared that Billingsgate was a market for all kinds of fish, and that it should be close to London Bridge. Timbs recorded:

“The Market, for many years, consisted of a collection of wooden pent-houses, rude sheds, and benches: it commenced at three o’clock AM in summer and five in the winter: in the latter season it was a strange scene, its large flaring oil lamps showing a crowd struggling amidst a Babel din of vulgar tongues, such as rendered “Billingsgate” a byword for low abuse … In Baileys “Dictionary” we have; a Billingsgate, a scolding, impudent slut’”

In 1849, the market was enlarged, making it more spacious and less of a scrum that it had been previously.   In 1850, the first Billingsgate market building was ready for use but by 1873, when it was demolished, it was already too small for its purpose. The former market building, which we see today with its rooftop fish ornaments, was designed by the City Architect Horace Jones (1819-1887) and opened for use in 1876. Jones’s most famous building, Tower Bridge, was completed after his death.

After it ceased being used as a fish market, instead of being demolished, the old Billingsgate market was:

“Given an industrial twist by architect Lord Richard Rogers, the building has undergone an amazing transformation, from the 19th century’s largest fish market to London’s premier event space.”

(www.oldbillingsgate.co.uk/)

Thanks to that repurposing, we can still enjoy sight of fish on a roof in the heart of the City of London.

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.”

Me Here Now

UNTIL RECENTLY, LONDON Bridge railway station, overshadowed by the glass-clad Shard skyscraper, was not visually appealing. It was a place that you lingered no longer than necessary either whilst waiting for a train or having just disembarked.

Today, the station has been transformed into a place where you might want to linger and explore. It has been cleaned up and tastefully remodelled. The station and the tracks leading from it have always been above ground, supported by innumerable brickwork arches. A few years ago before the improvement works were carried out, many of these archways led to passages beneath the station, most of them dark and unwelcoming.

One of these was the Stainer Street Walkway that links St Thomas Street and Tooley Street and passes through the station’s foyer from which stairways lead up to platforms. This wide passageway lined with ochre coloured brickwork is now well-lit and apart from being a bit chilly, quite pleasant. But look up, and you will see three enormous, reflective, decorative umbrellas suspended from the ceiling. Each umbrella is decorated with geometric symbols and lettering. The lettering forms sets of words that are supposed to be meaningful for those who bother to read them.

Together, these umbrellas comprise an artwork, “.Me. Here. Now” by Mark Titchner , which were put in place in mid-2019. With the decrease in passenger numbers since the start of the covid19 pandemic, this lovely set of artefacts have been seen by far fewer people than were anticipated by the commissioners of this creation, Network Rail.

Sir Anthony Blunt sat here often

HOME HOUSE IN London’s Portman Square was completed in 1777 for the wealthy Elizabeth Home, Countess of Home (c1703-1784). Born in Jamaica into a slave-owning family, her wealth was produced by the unpaid labour of slaves imported from Africa. The house is remarkable, especially for its intricately detailed interior décor designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).

In 1933, Home House became home to the Courtauld Institute of Art, now part of the University of London. A close friend of mine, now sadly deceased, studied at the Courtauld for both his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate. Whilst writing his doctoral thesis, my friend was supervised by Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983). Blunt was the director of the Courtauld from 1947 to 1974. He was also in charge of the Royal Collections of art from 1945 onwards. In addition, he carried out much important scholarly work in the field of history of art. Blunt, as director of the Courtauld, was given a flat in Home House.

Until 1979, few people knew, or even suspected, that Blunt had been involved with spying for the Soviet Union.  When this came out into the public domain, Blunt’s downfall commenced. He was stripped of his knighthood and his Honorary Fellowship at Cambridge’s Trinity College was rescinded. Also, Blunt resigned as a Fellow of the British Academy. Soon after his exposure as an espionage agent, who worked against his own country for the Soviet Union, Blunt ceased residing at Home House. In 1989, the Courtauld Institute shifted from Home House to larger premises in Somerset House in the Strand. Home House remained vacant until 1998, by which time it had been beautifully restored and adapted to become a private social club. During a recent visit to Home House when we were entertained by a friend, our host, a member, took us to see an interesting exhibit, which is housed in the wash basin area of one of the Club’s unisex toilets. We were shown a glass-fronted display case containing a wooden furniture item. It bears a label with the words: “From the bathroom of Sir Anthony Blunt”. The labelled object is the toilet seat on which Blunt must have sat numerous times, and its wooden lid. Another case in the room contains Blunt’s telephone. Although the loo seat and the ‘phone are unremarkable except for their provenance, the rest of Home House is a visual delight.

A brave man

FIREFIGHTING IS NEVER without hazard. This is something that James Braidwood (1800-1861) knew only too well when he attended a fire in Tooley Street near London Bridge station on the 22nd of June 1861.

Braidwood was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and in 1824, he was appointed Master of Fire Engines just before The Great Fire of Edinburgh, which began on the 15th of November 1824 and lasted for 5 days. Having been trained as a surveyor, he understood building techniques and materials. This along with his recruitment of various types of tradesmen helped him deal with the conflagration. His methodical approach to firefighting gained him a good reputation.

In 1833. He left Edinburgh and shifted to London, where he took over the running of the city’s London Fire Engine Establishment, the forerunner of The London Fire Brigade. In October 1834, he was involved in tackling the fire that destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster. His reputation was already great when he attended the fire in Tooley Street on the 22nd of June 1861. Three hours after the fire broke out, he was crushed to death by a falling wall. It took two days to recover his body and he was given a hero’s funeral. The fire, which began in Cottons Wharf, continued to burn for a fortnight. The reasons for its long duration included:

“The first was that firefighters were unable to get a supply of water for nearly an hour due to the River Thames being at low tide. The second was that the iron fire doors, which separated many of the storage rooms in the warehouse, had been left open. It is believed that had they been closed, as recommended by James Braidwood, the Superintendent of the LFEE, the fire could have been contained, avoiding disaster.” (www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Tooley-Street-Fire/)

Overlooked by London’s recently constructed, glass-clad Shard, is short Cottons Lane that leads north from Tooley Street. Where these two roads meet, there is a sculptural plaque high up on a wall. It depicts a wreath entwined with a firefighting hose pipe. Behind the wreath, the artist carved the façade of a building with smoke billowing out of its windows. There also depictions of other tools used to fight fires in the 1860s when this memorial was constructed. Within the wreath. there are words:

“To the memory of James Braidwood, superintendent of the London Fire Brigade, who was killed near this spot in the execution of his duty at the great fire on 22nd June 1861” This is not the only memorial to Braidwood. Others, which I have not yet seen, can be found in Edinburgh and in Stoke Newington’s Abney Park, where Braidwood was buried.