The stuff of dreams: an exhibition of Surrealist art

MOST NIGHTS I HAVE several dreams, all very vivid and in technicolour, often with a soundtrack. However, when I awake, I might only remember the outlines of one of them, if any at all. Much Surrealist art, often paintings, drawings, photographic images, or cinematographic sequences, depicts dreams. Whether these are the dreams that an artist has actually experienced, or they are creations that attempt to recreate the often weird ‘atmospheres’ that are produced in dreamers’ brains during slumber, it matters not because many of the Surrealist artists produce works that have the distorted realism typical of many dreams, which most viewers will recognise.

By Salvador Dali

Until the 29th of August 2022, there is an excellent exhibition of works created by Surrealist artists. Called “Beyond Borders”, it does not confine itself to well-known western artists such as Salvador Dali, De Chirico, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and so on, it introduces the viewer to Surrealists from as far afield as Japan, Latin America, and Africa, as well some pieces by artists who are new to me (and I suspect to many other visitors to the Tate). Most of the exhibits were paintings, graphic and cinematographic art; there were relatively few sculptures.   Well-known artists’ works are displayed alongside those of artists who are not widely recognised in this country, but deserve to be. Some might question the way that the curator (s) chose to group the artworks, but not being an art historian, this did not disturb me in the slightest. One new thing I learned from glancing at the informative notices amongst the exhibits is that Surrealist images were occasionally used by artists to convey politically subversive messaging. This reminds me of some strange (not necessarily Surreal) films that were made in parts of Europe when they were behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’: their oddity was supposed to disguise criticisms of the regime in power by baffling the strict but unimaginative censors.   

Overall, the exhibition provides a richly varied series of visual experiences. Wandering through the exhibition was a delight for my wife and me, and we shall try to visit the show again before it closes.

Third time lucky at the theatre

DURING JULY AND early August (2022), we visited theatres three times. First was a performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre by the Thames near Southwark Bridge. The seats were far from comfortable, and the production was not among the best I have seen. Next, we watched a play (in comfortable seats) at the Young Vic in Waterloo. Neither the play, “Chasing Hares”, nor the acting was up to the usual high standard that we have enjoyed in the past at that theatre. After these two disappointments, it was with some trepidation that we made our way to the Bridge Theatre, which is next to Tower Bridge and faces the Tower of London across the Thames.

At the Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre, housed in a 21st century building, was opened in October 2017. It was developed by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, who is both a theatre and film director. His productions at the National Theatre, where he was artistic director for several years, were wonderful. With comfortable seats and good sightlines from every seat (even those designated as ‘restricted view’), the Bridge is an excellently designed theatre. Not only are its stage and auditorium optimal, but also is the spacious foyer, from which there are good views across the Thames towards the Tower and the new skyscrapers in the City of London.

The play we saw at the Bridge on the 4th of August was “The Southbury Child” by Alex Jennings. Filled with humour, this work raises several serious questions. One of them is whether the Church of England should be authoritarian or whether it should be a democratic organisation responsive to the needs and wishes of its congregation. To avoid giving away its excellent plot, all I will say is that the play is highly enjoyable.

We have now seen 5 plays at the Bridge and not one of them was disappointing. In fact, they were all above average in quality. So maybe it was not a case of ‘third time lucky’ when after two poor performances elsewhere recently, we went to the Bridge.

The underground artist

THE BRITISH SCULPTOR Henry Moore (1898-1968) moved to London’s Hampstead district in 1929. Between that year and 1940 he lived in Parkhill Road, close to the Mall Studios, where the great sculptor Barbara Hepworth had her home and workshop. Many of Moore’s other close neighbours were in the forefront of the modern art world of the years between the two world wars. Not far away, the designer Jack Pritchard (1899-1992) and his family lived in Belsize Park Gardens, having moved there from Hampstead’s Platts Lane.

By Henry Moore, 1941

Quoting from my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”:

“In 1929, he [Pritchard] and the Canadian architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) formed the company, Isokon, whose aim was to build Modernist style residential accommodation. Pritchard and his wife, a psychiatrist, Molly (1900-1985), commissioned Coates to build a block of flats in Lawn Road on a site that they owned. Its design was to be based on the then revolutionary new communal housing projects that they had visited in Germany, including at the influential Bauhaus in Dessau.”

The modernist building, now known as the Isokon, still stands on Lawn Road, which is close to Parkhill Road. It is still used as a block of flats. Completed in 1934, the building included communal areas including a restaurant and a bar called The Isobar where (to quote from my book again):

“… exhibitions were held in the Isobar and, according to an on-line article in ‘The Modern House Journal’ these were attended by artists including Adrian Stokes, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. The article also noted that this refreshment area was frequented by modernist architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff and, Wells Coates, as well as by left-wing politicians.”

The Lawn Road Flats (the Isokon) was an early British example of a ferro-concrete building with a steel frame. This made it far more resistant to being damaged by bombs than its many brick-built neighbours. In fact, the only damage it suffered during WW2 was a few broken windowpanes. Various people, including the author Agatha Christie, moved into the Isokon to seek protection from the Blitz. Another person doing the same was Henry Moore, who moved there in 1941.

Many people, who were not lucky enough to be able to live in a relatively bomb-proof edifice, sought shelter from the bombs by spending nights on the platforms of Underground stations such as Belsize Park and Hampstead, all of which are far beneath the ground. Henry Moore created a series of dramatic drawing of the people taking shelter on Underground station platforms. It is quite possible that while living in Hampstead, he visited the stations mentioned above to find subjects for his drawings, which provide a vivid record of the terrible times when London was under attack from the air.

Recently, whilst visiting the Tate Britain art gallery, which houses a great deal of British art, I saw two of Moore’s Underground drawings, both dated 1941, and several of his sculptures. The drawings are not accurate depictions of what the artist saw, but they illustrate his reactions to what he witnessed, and as such they emphasise the atmosphere of those fearful times.  Although there is no doubt that Moore was a great artist, on the whole I prefer the works of his contemporary and sometime neighbour in Hampstead: Barbara Hepworth.

Beyond London’s West End: the story of west London

BEFORE THE YEAR 1800, the West End was truly the western end of London. West of Mayfair and Marylebone, there was countryside: woods, fields, private parks, farms, stately homes, villages, and highwaymen. After the beginning of the 19th century, the countryside began to disappear as villages grew and coalesced and the city of London expanded relentlessly westward. What had been rural Middlesex gradually became the west London we know today.  My new book, illustrated with photographs and maps, explores the past, present, and future of many places, which became absorbed into what is now west London: that is London west of Park Lane and the section of Edgware Road south of Kilburn. Some of the places described will be familiar to many people (e.g., Paddington, Kensington, Fulham, and Chelsea). Other locations will be less known by most people (e.g., Acton, Walham Green, Crane Park, Harmondsworth, and Hayes). Many people have seen the places included in my book when they have looked out of the windows of aircraft descending towards the runways at Heathrow, and many of them will have passed some of these places as they travel from Heathrow to their homes or hotels. My book invites people to begin exploring west London – a part of the metropolis less often on tourists’ itineraries than other areas. “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London” is aimed at both the keen walker (or cyclist) and the armchair traveller.  

Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London is available as a paperback from Amazon here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/BEYOND-MARYLEBONE-MAYFAIR-EXPLORING-LONDON/dp/B0B7CR679W/:

Painting in the Mall

BETWEEN HAMPSTEAD AND Belsize Park, there is a narrow footpath running north from Tasker Road. One side of it is lined with a terrace of low buildings known as Mall Studios. Built in 1872 by Thomas Battersby, they were designed as artists’ studios. Each of them contained small waiting rooms; costume rooms; and a lobby. Each studio had three skylights and large north facing windows to capture the kind of light favoured by many artists. Following the advice of the artist Walter Sickert, who had lived there, the artist John Cecil Stephenson (1889-1965) settled into number 6, Mall Studios in March 1919.  It was to remain his home until he died. In 1927, Barbara Hepworth became his neighbour in number 7, and at around that time, the influential art critic and writer Herbert Read moved into number 3. Nearby, Parkhill Road became home (for various lengths of time) to other artists including Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, Hans Erni, and other artists who have since become famous.

By John Cecil Stephenson

Whether it was the proximity of his artistic neighbours, who were pioneers of 20th century modernist art, or something else in his artistic evolution, Stephenson departed from his previous ‘straightforward’ portraiture and landscape painting and created works characteristic of what is now known as the ‘Modernist’ style. Although some of his works created after the late 1920s are to some extent figurative, most of his output was mainly abstract and constructivist. During WW1, Stephenson left London’s Slade School of Art temporarily to work in munition factories in Bishop Auckland (County Durham), the town where he was born. His experiences of working with industrial machinery and observing the efficiency and speed of the mechanised production processes is reflected in some of the paintings he produced later.

Stephenson, son of a grocer, was less well known than his neighbours. He produced art that bears favourable comparison to the works produced by them. Until the 18th of September 2022, there is a wonderful small exhibition of his works in a gallery within Hampstead’s charming Burgh House. The catalogue, edited by Sacha Llewellyn, Paul Liss, and George Richards, not only contains a fine collection of photographs of the exhibits but also provides a superb introduction – better than others I have seen – to the story of the pioneering role of Hampstead in the evolution of modern art in England. Burgh House, which contains several rooms comprising a museum of the history of Hampstead, also hosts excellent exhibitions such as the current survey of Stephenson’s works. Its well illuminated Peggy Jay Gallery provides a space for contemporary artists, many of them local, to display their works. Beneath the two storeys of cultural experiences, the basement of Burgh House is home to a pleasant café where anything from a cup of coffee to a wholesome meal can be obtained. And amongst the interesting range of books in the small bookshop, you can find copies of my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” on sale (if they have run out, tell them to ask me for more, and then get your copy from Amazon).

A well hidden treasure and a film from Iran

FROM THE STREET, the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill Gate does not look like much from the aesthetic viewpoint. However, although the box-like building containing the cinema is typical of unexciting 1960s architecture, the auditorium is a real treasure. Its beautifully decorated interior was converted in 1911 from a former Italian restaurant, which had been designed in 1861 by William Hancock. The ceiling is adorned with plaster mouldings depicting fruits and foliage. The dull exterior housing this lovely auditorium contains in addition to the cinema, the foyer, and offices. It was built in 1962 by the architects Douton and Hurst. Unlike the walls and ceiling, the seating in the cinema is modern and comfortable. One small problem is that there is not much of a rake so that if you are unlucky enough to have someone tall in front of your seat, your view of the screen might be obstructed if you do not lean to the left or right.

To celebrate the 1st of August (2022), we watched a prize-winning film made in Iran in 2021. Its title (in English) is “Hit the Road”, and it is a ‘road movie’. Its four main actors, who are the characters making a long journey across Iran, are superbly credible. Although it portrays the stunning landscapes of Iran beautifully, there is much more to it. Subtly and intelligently, it reveals how delicately the filmmakers view the sophisticated nature of Iranian life and culture. It is easy to make the mistake of viewing Iran solely as a menace and threat to western civilisation. This film and others that I have seen, which were made in Iran after the downfall of the Shah’s regime, might occasionally have aspects critical of the current status quo, but they also demonstrate that the great cultural heritage for which Persia has been known for many centuries persists today. “Hit the Road” does allude delicately at several problems that plague Iran today, but so gently are these allusions made that they were either missed or ignored by the censors in the country where the film was made.

“Hit the Road” should not be missed. If you are in London, why not see it at the Gate, and before the lights dim enjoy the well-conserved early 20th century décor of the auditorium.

The naked ceiling at Osterley Park

WHEN THE BANKER Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) acquired Osterley Park in the 18th century, its Elizabethan manor house was in a poor state of repair. His grandsons, Francis and Robert, employed the famous architect, Robert Adam (1728-1792) to give the house a major ‘makeover’ including adding a grandiose neo-classical front portico. And that is what he did on a grand scale. Adam was no ordinary architect. Not only did he plan buildings (and modifications to them), but he also designed their interiors: everything from ceilings and wall decorations to furniture and doorhandles. Osterley Park offers a magnificent display of his wide-ranging skills.

Long gallery at Osterley Park

The visitor to Osterley Park, now managed by the National Trust, usually gets to see a series of wonderful rooms on the ground floor of the house. All the rooms except one have beautifully decorated ceilings, all designed by Adam. Some of them have paintings created by Adam’s favourite painter, the Venetian Antonio Zucchi (1726-1795). Amongst my favourite ceilings are those in the Etruscan Dressing Room and the Drawing Room. The latter has a fantastic ceiling that was inspired by drawings in “The Ruins of Palmyra otherwise Tedmor in the Desert” by James Dawkin and Robert Wood (published in 1753).The ruins were those that were recently badly vandalised by the IS group. In each of the rooms, except the long gallery, the visitor’s attention is dominated by the eye-catching ceilings.

The ceiling of the long gallery is devoid of decoration. It was in this room that the Child family’s collection of fine paintings used to be displayed. The gallery’s ceiling was left plain, without decoration, deliberately, so that the viewer’s attention would be concentrated on the paintings.  Sadly, the paintings are no more. After WW2, the house’s owner, George Francis Child-Villiers, 9th Earl of Jersey (1910 -1998) gave the house and its grounds to the National Trust. He moved to Jersey, taking with him most of the paintings that had hung at Osterley. Unfortunately, many of these works were destroyed in a warehouse fire soon after he donated the house. The artworks in the gallery have since been replaced with other paintings and because the ceiling is naked, you can give them your full attention.

Constable, Turner, and a soap maker

MY GREAT GRANDFATHER Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) was an industrialist and a politician in South Africa. One of his main industries was soapmaking. Many of his workers would have been black Africans, mostly living in poor conditions around his factory in King Williams Town (‘KWT’). While serving on the town council of KWT, he played an active role in establishing what he hoped would be a township with improved living conditions for some of the town’s black people (including his workers). Named after him, Ginsberg township, founded at the beginning of the 20th century, still exists.

A few years before my great grandfather established the township named after him, another soap maker, William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) who was based in England, created what he hoped would be better living conditions for his workers. Far more grandiose and much more attractive than Ginsberg Township, Lever began building Port Sunlight (south of Birkenhead) in about 1887 (a year or two after Ginsberg began making soap). Lever’s model town provided his employees with salubrious dwellings in a well landscaped environment. However, they were subject to strict rules; Lever, who believed that discouraging immorality (e.g., gambling) led to a good workforce, was a benevolent paternalist.

Turner on the left, and Constable on the right

Lever and his wife were avid collectors of artworks. These are housed in the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery in the centre of Port Sunlight. This gallery, contained within an impressive French neo-classical style edifice, was designed by the Warrington based architects William Owen (1846-1910) and his son Seager Owen, and opened in 1922. It contains a fine range of artworks dating from early times (pre-Christian) to the early 20th century. It contains one of the largest and most important collections of Pre-Raphaelite artists’ works. With its spacious, airy galleries and well displayed exhibits, it is amongst my top ten British galleries and museums.

In one small gallery, which contains a sculpture of a reclining nude, two paintings hang close to each other but are separated by a neo-classical fireplace (an exhibit). One of them is by JMW Turner (1775-1851) and the other by his contemporary rival J Constable (1776-1837). It is interesting to see them almost side-by-side because it allows the viewer to compare their styles and what they try to convey  in their paintings. The Turner painting depicts “The Falls of the Clyde”, and the Constable depicts “Cottage at Bergholt”. Neither of the paintings, both created in the age before photography, achieves the accuracy of, say, a photograph; both seem impressionistic, but the effects that the artists were attempting to have on the viewer are entirely different.

Turner’s paintings are often far more impressionistic than Constable’s. Although his subject matter is always at least almost discernible, I feel that Turner’s works are created to evoke both the artist’s and the viewer’s psychological and/or emotional reaction(s) to what was being depicted. In contrast, Constable’s painting techniques seem to have been designed to emphasise aspects of the scene he was painting to give the viewer the impression that he or she is looking at the very same view as that which attracted the artist. Constable regarded painting as being a branch of science. In a lecture he gave in 1836, he said:

“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?”

Turner, in his almost abstract paintings such as the one at the Lady Lever, appeared to be wanting to stimulate the viewer’s emotions. In contrast, Constable tried to convey what he saw or felt was important in his subject matter. Without resorting to the almost photographic accuracy of, for example, both Canaletto and Vermeer, the two artist whose paintings hang almost next to each other in the Lady Lever successfully achieve their aims. For me, the avoidance of detailed accuracy of representation in both Turner’s and Constable’s paintings, enhances the impression of reality in my mind, something that photography cannot do to the same extent.

Even if you do not wish to compare Turner and Constable, I can strongly recommend a visit to the soap maker’s gallery in Port Sunlight. Finally, it is a pity that my great grandfather did not invest in great works of art!

Painting by hand on a brick wall

IN THE LATE 1930s, my mother studied commercial art at the Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town (South Africa). One of her earliest jobs after leaving college was hand-painting posters advertising cinema films. Many years later, long after her death, I began visiting India and have been making regular visits there since January 1994. During the first few years of making trips to India, I used to notice the huge hand-painted cinema posters both in and out of towns. I recall seeing men perched on precarious looking bamboo scaffolding painting these enormous images. To someone, like myself, used to seeing printed cinema posters, seeing these men in action was an eye-opener.

A few years ago, I was walking near Shepherds Bush in west London when I saw a group of men colouring in details of a poster beneath a railway bridge. Like the painters in India, their scaffolding also looked slightly precarious, given the current preoccupation with health and safety in this country.

These memories of hand-painted posters came to mind a couple of days ago (late July 2002) while we were walking towards Lower Marsh (near Waterloo Station) from the Young Vic Theatre, where we had just watched a poorly acted, and badly written play called “Chasing Hares”. We spotted two ladies perched on a very adequate scaffolding device painting a colourful mural on a large expanse of brick wall above the Cubana Restaurant. It was good to see that in an age where machine produced images are common (and have largely replaced hand-painted adverts in India), traditional methods are still being used to create large images for attracting the public.