The elephant in the …

THE ELEPHANT IN the room is something about which we prefer not to speak. This is not the case for the herd of over one hundred elephants that can be found in London’s Green Park today. This is not a change in the creatures’ habitat caused by global warning, because the elephants are not real. They are life-size models of the creatures, constructed with strips of Lantana camara, an invasive weed that thrives in the tropics. Despite being made of strips of this woody material, each one is a fine representation of an elephant. From afar, the sculptures look quite lifelike. Some of the elephants have models of birds found in the UK perched on their backs.

The elephants, so we were informed by a helpful volunteer from Goa who is working for an organisation called Coexistence, are manufactured by local craftsmen living the district of Gudalur in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu state in the south of India. By using the Lantana, the craftsmen not only create the models but also clear deleterious plants from their land.

Apart from looking great, the model pachyderms have arrived with a message. Known as the ‘Coexistence Herd’, the beasts have arrived:

“… at a unique moment in time when a global reduction in human activity has had a positive effect on wildlife. Elephants may be giants but they tread softly. This 100-strong herd reminds us that when we lighten our footprint, wildlife bounces back.” (https://elephant-family.org/coexistence/)⁠⁠

So, it seems that the herd has not arrived merely to enhance our enjoyment of Green Park but also to heighten our awareness of the desirability of humans living in harmony with the rest of the animal kingdom.

Green Park is not the only site in London where these elephants from India can be spotted. There are others currently on display at places such as Berkeley Square and St James Park. The elephants are all for sale. The proceeds of the sales:

“…will be directed to grass-roots organisations across India that allow people and wildlife to live together more peacefully.” (https://coexistence.org/elephant-shop/).

Whether or not you are concerned about the message that is supposed to be conveyed by these superb models of elephants, it unlikely that you will be disappointed by seeing them.

An artist in Germany, Norway, Scotland, Isle of Man, then Somerset

AN UNUSUAL CRUCIFIX hands within the church of St Mary in Bruton, Somerset. It is a sculpture typical of early 20th century German Expressionism, yet it was created in 1969, long after the heyday of this artistic trend. The creator of this religious sculpture was Ernst Blensdorf (1896-1976). He was born Ernst Müller in North Germany, but after his marriage to his first wife, Ilse Blensdorf, in 1923, he changed his surname to ‘Müller-Blensdorf’, then later to ‘Blensdorf’.

At first, Blensdorf became a seaman. After having been interned as an enemy alien by the British during WW1, Ernst travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa with a fellow internee. It was here that he made a table-top wood carving of an African village. On his return to Germany, this fine carving persuaded Ernst’s father that his son had a future as an artist and was willing to support him towards this aim. While in Africa, Ernst had seen African art first-hand and exposure to this certainly helped influenced his future creations.

After a brief spell at an art school in Barmen, he left to become apprenticed to a master joiner. By 1922, he had become a journeyman for a furniture company, which specialised in manufacturing luxury items. During this period, he was influenced by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. The skill that Ernest acquired and developed whilst manufacturing wooden objects for the furniture company became useful as he moved from applied craftsmanship to artistic endeavours. In addition to other activities, he taught at the art school in Barmen during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had become an established sculptor and had exhibited his works at various exhibitions in Germany, where he received both private and public commissions.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, Blensdorf became one of the first artists whose works were categorised as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and his regime. This led to him losing his teaching post at Barmen and his studio being wrecked by the Nazi’s loutish followers. Ernst, his wife, and children, moved to Norway, where he was planning a giant peace monument to honour the Norwegian statesman and Nobel Peace prize winner Fridjtof Nansen. In Norway, he worked on this project and made a living creating and selling artistic ceramic works, alongside the Norwegian ceramicist Eilif Whist. 

When the Germans invaded Norway in spring 1940, Blensdorf and his children fled to Scotland. His wife, Ilse, remained behind, saying that she was a follower of Adolf Hitler. Following his arrival in the UK, Blensdorf was once again interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Along with many others, including a good number of men with artistic talent and German nationality, he was interned on the Isle of Man (from 1940 to 1941). His children were placed in a couple of orphanages. While interned, he, along with fellow artists, were allowed to satisfy their creative urges and even to sell their creations. Using whatever materials he could find during this period of scarcity, Blensdorf’s creative output was impressively large. For the first time in his life, he had plenty of time to undertake artistic work in the absence of anxieties such as he had experienced before arriving on the Isle of Man.

Blensdorf was released from internment in 1941. He went to live with an Austrian couple, the Schreiners, whom he had met in the internment camp. They lived in Charlton Musgrove in Somerset. With him, the Schreiners planned to set up an art school, but this failed for financial reasons. Ernst remained in Somerset. His first job was teaching pottery at a school in Bratton Seymour. It was here that he met his second wife, Jane Lawson. They married in 1942 and moved into a house near Wincanton, where they were joined by his children. Blensdorf taught in various schools in Somerset including the King’s School in Bruton.

In 1943, Blensdorf and his family bought a run-down 17th century house close to Bruton. Gradually, the house was restored and improved. It remained his home for the rest of his life. Although he exhibited often and in prestigious venues, Blensdorf never realised the great reputations that other artists, such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Anthony Caro, and Barbara Hepworth, gained in the UK and beyond. For this reason, seeing his work for the first time during my first visit to the lovely Bruton Museum in July 2021, was a wonderful surprise and an exciting eye-opener.  In one corner of this small museum, there is a large glass cabinet that contains examples of Blensdorf’s sketches, ceramics, and sculptures. When I told the lady, who was looking after the museum, how much I liked what I had seen of his works, she told me about the crucifix in the local church, which fortunately I was able to see. She also sold me a copy of a well-illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of his works that was held some time ago in the Bruton Museum. It is from this publication that I have extracted much of the information above. Bruton is a gem of a town. Visiting its museum is a ‘must’ because not only does it allow you to ‘discover’ the works of Blensdorf but also to see a display of artefacts relating to the author John Steinbeck, who lived close to Bruton between March and September 1959 … but that is another story.

Shifted to Somerset from London

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cows on the café

GUILAN IS A NEW cafe on the corner of Moscow Road and St Petersburgh Place in London’s Bayswater. I have walked past the building numerous times over the past more than 25 years, but until today I missed seeing something on the building.

Above the ground floor windows there are a number of sculpted heads of cattle. I had never noticed these before.

On looking at a map produced in the 1950s, I discovered that the building was then a dairy. An older map revealed that it was ‘The Aylesbury Dairy’. A search on the Internet informed me that this building was the head office of the company, which had another branch not far away. So,  the cattle heads are a souvenir of the building’s time as a dairy.

The new café in the former dairy is across the road from Aghia Sofia, a Greek Orthodox church. The cafe is elegant and serves good coffee and tasty pastries including a croissant flavoured with za’atar. I have no idea from which dairy the milk is supplied to Guilan, but you can be sure it is not the Aylesbury Dairy.

Packed with art in St Ives, Cornwall

THE TATE GALLERY has two branches in the picturesque fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall. The artworks displayed at Tate St Ives are contained in a building overlooking Porthmeor Beach, constructed between 1983 and 1993. It replaced a disused gasworks, but I feel that the gallery’s almost fascistic architecture neither does anything to enhance the town or to match the beauty of many of the items displayed within it. The other part of The Tate in St Ives is house and gardens of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A visit to her former home and its garden, filled with her sculptures, is a delightful experience.

 

Barbara Hepworth and her sculpture in the Penwith Gallery

Not far from the Tate St Ives, there is another ‘must-see’ attraction for lovers of modern and contemporary art. This is the Penwith Gallery on Back Road East. Less visited than the two Tate institutions in St Ives, the Penwith is the home of the Penwith Society of Arts, one of whose founders was Barbara Hepworth. The gallery contains one of the loveliest Hepworth sculptures that I have seen to date. Maybe I like it because it recalls the works of the Romanian born sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a sculptor whose works are much to my taste. To be frank, I am not a great lover of Hepworth’s sculpture and this piece in the Penwith is less typical of what I do not like about her work.

Returning to the gallery itself, its website reveals (https://penwithgallery.com/):

“The society was founded in 1949 by Barbara Hepworth,Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Sven Berlin and Wilhelmina Barns– Graham, amongst others. Later members have included Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Henry Moore (honorary member). This association with so many progressive and influential artists has given the Penwith Society a unique place in British art history.

Today the society continues to play a central role in the thriving and vibrant St. Ives art community, exhibiting contemporary art from Cornwall and beyond.”

The gallery is housed in a former pilchard packing factory. Its ceiling is supported with roughly hewn granite pillars, painted white. Part of the ceiling is glass-covered, allowing natural light into the largest of the three main display areas. The rest of the ceiling does not transmit light.

The gallery displays an ever-changing collection of artworks, which are on sale. Created by members of the Society or artists, who have worked in the Society’s studios, they include sculptures, prints, paintings, and ceramics. Some of the works are figurative and many of them are abstract. Some are halfway between the two extremes. I have enjoyed abstract art since my childhood. This is probably because my mother, who was a sculptor who enjoyed creating abstract pieces. The lovely Hepworth piece that stands next to a fine photograph of its sculptor, and several other works, form part of the Penwith’s permanent collection. A small range of books and cards are available for visitors to purchase.

Every time I visit the Penwith, I enjoy the gallery’s spaces and the works displayed within them.  Instead of being packed with pilchards, as it was in the past, and other tourists, as are the two Tate establishments, the Penwith is comfortably packed with pleasing works of art, which you can take home if you can afford them, and some of them are not excessively costly.

King Alfred gazes over Winchester

KING ALFRED RULED the West Saxons from 871 to c886 and king of the Anglo-Saxons from c886 to 899. He was known as ‘Alfred the Great’. Amongst his many achievements was encouraging education and proposing that primary education was taught in (Old) English, rather than Latin. Winchester was Alfred’s capital and the place where he was buried there for a while. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, his remains were removed to Hyde Abbey near Winchester. This was destroyed in 1538 during the Reformation. Despite this, his grave remained intact until 1788, when the land where he was interred was redeveloped to build a jail. Since then, the whereabouts of his remains is unknown.

Despite, the disappearance of his bones, King Alfred dominates the centre of Winchester in the form of a huge statue near to the city’s cathedral, rich in gothic features, and its Guildhall, which is richly adorned by Victorian gothic features. The statue was erected in 1899. A plaque at its base reads:

“To the founder of the kingdom and nation D. October DCCCI. Winchester and the English name MDCCCI”

DCCCCI, being Roman for 901 and MDCCCCI, being Roman for 1901.

The tall bronze statue was designed by Sir William Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925), a sculpto who might have been unknown to me had I not become aware of him whilst walking near London’s Holland Park back in 2017. He was an important figure in the New Sculpture movement, whose members’ oeuvres bridged the gap between the neo-classical tradition, popular during the 19th century, and early modernist trends at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the next.

I was roaming around Kensington taking photographs of buildings of interest prior to writing a piece about them when I spotted a plaque on a house in Melbury Road. Number 2a was Thornycroft’s studio, which was designed by his friend, the architect John Belcher (1841-1913).

Although I did not realise that they were created by Thornycroft before I wrote this today, I am familiar with two of his other creations: the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside The Houses of Parliament and “The Sower” at Kew Gardens. His Alfred statue is far larger than the other two.

I wonder what the great king would have thought if he knew that at his feet today, there is a short-term car park and that his capital’s cathedral now charges a fee for visitors to enter within it.

Reform and destruction in an English cathedral

SPLIT IN FORMER Yugoslavia, now in Croatia, is a city that developed in the ruins of a great establishment, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace. Likewise with the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire: it developed within the remains of another great establishment, the large Abbey of Ely, which was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. By 1541, after having its charter renewed by the king, its then bishop, Thomas Goodrich (1494-1554), instigated an orgy of iconoclasm, to which I will return soon.

In 1975, I visited the city of Prizren in the former Yugoslavia, now in Kosovo (Kosova). I was impressed by what I saw in one of the place’s fine mediaeval churches. The caretaker showed me that the frescos on the walls inside the building were badly damaged, but only up to a certain height above the ground, Above this, they were as intact as one could hope for paintings of that age. He explained to me that many centuries ago, the Ottoman soldiers were ordered to destroy the figurative images depicted on the walls. They used the tips of their spears to do the job, but they only destroyed what they could reach from the ground (i.e., without using ladders). Sadly, the iconoclasts working under the orders of Henry VIII and Bishop Goodrich were more diligent in their destructive activities.

Under Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to Anglo-Saxon saints were mutilated. Then, the vandals attacked all the stained glass and many of the statues in the cathedral, before getting to work on the large Lady Chapel on the north side of the body of the church.

The spacious, airy, light-filled, Lady Chapel is at first glance a magnificent example of 14th century gothic architecture, which was created in 1321. The excellent article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_Cathedral) describes an important and interesting aspect of the chapel:

“Below the window line, and running round three sides of the chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted.”

When we entered the Lady Chapel, we were in so much awe of its beauty that we did not at first notice something, which a church official soon pointed out to us. In each of the booths or alcoves lining the walls, the statues are either missing their heads or their faces have ben erased crudely. The deliberate damage to these statues was ordered by Bishop Thomas Goodrich. He also removed some of the larger statues that once adorned this fine chapel. It was seeing this destruction that reminded me of my trip to Prizren so long ago.

After looking at the Lady Chapel, we explored other parts of the cathedral, where I found other examples of statues that had lost either their faces or their heads. The iconoclasm that occurred in the so-called Reformation, which began in the 1530s, can be seen in many English churches, especially with regard to the acres of stained glass that were wantonly destroyed during that period of religious reform. Maybe, this destructive era should also be known as the ‘de-formation’. Some valuable examples of the pre-Reformation stained-glass can be seen in Ely Cathedral’s fascinating Stained-Glass Museum, which is well worth visiting. Incidentally, apart from European stained glass from across the centuries, the museum has recently acquired a fine example of stained glass from the USA, depicting a black African American.

Although I have concentrated on aspects of destruction, there is plenty of Ely Cathedral left for the visitor to enjoy, including fine gothic and pre-gothic (Norman) architecture. Many mediaeval and Tudor buildings that were once part of the abbey still exist and are now part of the daily life of modern Ely, just as some parts of Diocletian’s Palace in Split are still in use today. Some of these buildings in Ely are used by Kings School Ely, which was one of about 12 schools founded by Henry VIII. These few schools were the only part realised of a more ambitious plan to build many more schools and other new establishments.

We spent a whole day in Ely but could easily have stayed longer without being able to see all of its attractions. Prior to our departure for the city, a friend had told us that it was an unlikeable place not worth visiting. We discovered how wrong he was.

Art and memory in East Anglia

MY LATE MOTHER worked in the Sculpture Department of London’s St Martins School of Art in the days when it was located on Charing Cross Road, near Foyles bookshop. Amongst her colleagues at St Martins were Sir Antony Caro (1924-2013) and one of his pupils, Phillip King (b 1934). Both of these artists helped my mother to learn sculptural metal welding techniques in the early 1960s.

THIS SCULPTURE, which is on display in a glade within the gardens of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, reminds me of the kind of work Caro produced, but this was by his ‘disciple’ Phillip King. I like it, but cannot explain why, but it might not be seen as beautiful by everyone. My mother was mainly involved in abstract composition. This might have helped me me to become appreciative of this kind of art. .

Perched on a sculpture

KENSINGTON GARDENS CONTAINS numerous works of art, one of which is a large piece by Henry Moore (1898-1986), a sculptor who is highly regarded by many people. It is a large irregularly shaped arch made of travertine, which stands overlooking the Long Water, the part of the Serpentine lake within the confines of Kensington Gardens. Presented by the artist to the park in 1980, its shape is based on that of an animal bone. I am not wild about Moore’s works, but this piece looks wonderful in its setting on the eastern bank of the Long Water.

Today, 19th of May 2021, whilst walking in Kensington Gardens I saw a heron standing on the western bank of the Long Water almost framed by the Moore arch. After circumnavigating the lake, we reached the point on the eastern shore where the sculpture stands. Through the archway you can see the eastern façade of Kensington Palace. Along the line that connects the palace and the sculpture, you can see another sculpture, “Physical Energy” by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904). The three items on this axis form a kind of timeline: the 18th century palace, the 19th century sculpture by Watts, and the 20th century sculpture by Moore.

I have walked past the Moore sculpture too many times to count, but it was only today that I saw a heron perched on top of it. I have seen geese and pigeons perched on it in the past, but this was the first time I saw a heron using it as a doubtless superb vantage point to survey its surroundings. Apart from the fact that I find herons beautiful, its close association with the sculpture struck a certain curious chord in my mind. Maybe, it was something to do with the fact that the words ‘heron’ and ‘henry’ share so many letters in common (3 out of 5). Whatever the reason, it was pleasing to see nature and art intimately in touch with each other.

Dame Jane lies stone cold in the church

HER HEAD RESTS ON her stone-cold right hand with her elbow on a carved alabaster cushion. Her left hand is held lightly and limply against her left breast. She is a carved alabaster effigy of Dame Jane Cotton (1630-1692), widow of Sir John Cotton of Landwade (1615-1689). This sculpture of Jane Cotton lies against the north wall of the chancel of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in the village of Madingley, close to Cambridge. The church is open until 4pm most days and we got there by 3.45 pm a few days ago in April 2021. So, we were able to have a good look at the interior of this building whose construction commenced in the late 13th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1127740).

Jane Cotton, who reclines close to the high altar, was the daughter and sole heir of Edward Hinde (c1598-1631) of the Parish of Madingley. Edward lived at Madingley Hall (www.thepeerage.com/p34969.htm#i349687), which is a few yards uphill from the church. Sir John Cotton did well by marrying Jane because by doing so, he acquired the manor of Madingley.

Sir John Hinde (or ‘Hynde’; c1480-1550; see: http://www.geni.com/people/Sir-John-Hynde-MP/6000000090158312935), Serjeant-at-Law and Member of Parliament, had been buying land at Madingley since the 1520s (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp166-171). In 1544, the manor of Madingley, which had been held by several trustees for about 100 years, was bestowed on him by law. He commissioned the building of the lovely Madingley Hall, which was constructed between 1543 and 1547. Edward Hinde, Jane Cotton’s father, was a grandson of Sir John Hinde.

Sir John left Madingley to his son Francis, who left it to his son William, who married a widow, Elizabeth. When William died childless in 1606, his widow Elizabeth took over all of the Hinde estates. She remarried and leased Madingley Hall to Edward, who was son of William Hinde’s brother Edward (died 1633).

Jane’s father Edward (died 1633) settled his lands on his eldest son Anthony, who died before him, fighting in Denmark, in 1612, when Denmark was fighting Sweden for control of part of Norway. Anne, Anthony’s widow, ‘sold’ her interests in the lands to her father-in-law Edward (died 1633). Anne and Anthony had a son Edward, to whom Anthony’s father (Edward, died 1633) had left all his lands, but the grandson, Edward, died in an accident in 1631. Jane Hinde then became the heir to her father’s lands. Had Anthony and his son not pre-deceased Jane’s father, she would not have come into possession of the Hinde’s estates, and neither would have they come into the hands of Sir John Cotton. The lands at Madingley remained in the Cotton family until the beginning of the 20th century.

Sir John, husband of Jane, was buried with his ancestors at Landwade in eastern Cambridgeshire. His daughter Jane is interred in the church at Madingley. Her monument stands near the northwest corner of the nave. She is depicted kneeling with a small book in her left hand. Jane was a spinster. She died in 1707. Not far from her monument stands a lovely carved stone font. Covered with geometric decoration, this was made in the 12th century and probably stood in an earlier version of the church. Nearby, the internal walls of the bell tower are decorated with damaged sculptures made of wood. They are:

“… probably the survivors of the cherubim, perhaps on the nave roof, whose removal William Dowsing ordered in 1644.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp173-176)

Although there is much to enjoy in the church at Madingley, it was Lady Jane Cotton’s reclining effigy that most sparked my curiosity. Looking into what is known of Jane’s heritage has revealed a little bit about the complexities faced by the ‘landed gentry’ when they considered who was to inherit their land.

The families mentioned are what some might describe, often expressing a sense of deference, as ‘old families’. What this means is that the family has sufficient documentary information to trace it back, maybe over many centuries, for many generations.  Well, if you think about it ‘old families’ are no different from other families because all of them must go back an awfully long way in history, even if the documentary evidence no longer exists.