Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

During the 1950s, the small harbour town of St Ives in Cornwall played host to an astonishing group of painters that included some of the leading modern artists of the time. Among them were Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron – and Peter Lanyon. Of them all, only Lanyon was actually Cornish.

He died too young – a fact underlined by Soaring Flight, the superb exhibition currently showing at the Courtauld Gallery which gathers together a considerable number of his paintings inspired by gliding, the pastime which ended up taking his life.

Continue reading “Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight”


Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Play like you think it’s going to be the last time. That’s the only way to play.
Keith Jarrett

Precisely one week after the atrocities began in Paris we were in the Royal Festival Hall watching Keith Jarrett give one of his most intense and impassioned solo performances. Hunched over the Steinway, his face at times just inches from the keys, the man in the single spotlight and all of us gathered together to hear him play represented everything that the killers seek to destroy – a shared pleasure in music and the freedom to mingle at peace on a Friday night with other human beings from anywhere in the world, of all faiths or none.

Continue reading “Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal”

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

On Monday evening, waiting for Allen Toussaint to begin his solo set at  Ronnie Scott’s, I recalled the times in the early sixties when I would lie in bed listening to songs like ‘Working in a Coalmine’, ‘Mother in Law’ and ‘Fortune Teller’ on Radio Luxembourg.  Although I was not aware of the fact at the time, all these hit singles had been written and produced by Toussaint.

It was only in the 1970s, when reading the liner notes of albums by Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and Lowell George, that I discovered that songs such as ‘What is Success’, ‘On Your Way Down’ and ‘What Do You Want the Girl To Do’ were authored by Toussaint – and that this was the same man who had been responsible for those hits by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K Doe and Benny Spellman I had enjoyed a decade earlier. Continue reading “Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s”

The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden

The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden

These days when we visit London we invariably stay at the Travelodge in Drury Lane. There, in Covent Garden, you’re at the heart of things, a walk gets you to innumerable places of interest, without having to descend into that ‘world of perpetual solitude, World not world’ that is the underground. So it was with a great deal of interest that I read Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians, a sequel to his rumbustious history, City of Laughter, that explored the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of 18th century London. In The First Bohemians, Gatrell zooms in on the square quarter-mile or so around Covent Garden’s Piazza, 18th century London’s most creative territory.  ‘It’s an extraordinary fact’, Gatrell writes, ‘that by far the majority of 18th century painters and engravers, as well as most noted writers, poets, actors and dramatists’,lived in that narrowly-defined territory. Continue reading “The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden”

This Boy: two weddings and a tribute to two heroines

This Boy: two weddings and a tribute to two heroines

We went to a register office wedding recently, and a joyous occasion it was: made so by dancing up the aisle, the children of the marrying couple joining in the fun, and the relaxed attitude of the registrar.  The sense of an entirely different sort of Britain – more relaxed, more tolerant – to the one I grew up in was palpable.  I mention this because I have recently read Labour politician Alan Johnson’s memoir This Boy which  begins and ends with two different register office weddings.

wedding photo 1945
Steve and Lily, Kensington Register Office, January 1945

Johnson begins his account of an impoverished upbringing in London’s Notting Hill with a him studying photograph – a black and white image taken in January 1945 with a box camera – of his father and mother outside Kensington Register Office. Theirs was not to be a happy marriage: indeed, Johnson writes of his father that ‘it could be said he helped to kill the woman beside him’.

Were they happy on their wedding day?  Surely they must have been but the hand through his arm is curled and tense, not flat and caressing; almost a clenched fist.

‘On that day’, writes Johnson, Steve and Lily ‘must have been full of excitement and enthusiasm about the life that lay ahead of them’. But, ‘as things turned out, they spent it together yet apart – and then just apart’.

Johnson concludes his account with another register office wedding, and another photo: it’s the summer of 1968, and Alan Johnson, dapper in stylish Mod clothes and haircut, is getting wed to Judy.  With them is Linda, his sister. Linda and his mother Lily are the heroines of the story that Alan Johnson narrates in this moving and beautifully-written book that avoids any trace of sentimentality or self-pity.

Alan Johnson at his first wedding, his sister Linda right

Alan Johnson’s mother Lily was the second of ten children born to  a Scotsman and an Irishwoman in Anfield, Liverpool. During the Second World War she moved to London to work in the NAAFI.   It was there that she met Steve, at a NAAFI dance in 1944.  After they were married they moved into a room at 107 Southam Street, Notting Hill – a street whose buildings had been condemned as unfit for human habitation in the 1930s.  From that moment on, Lily’s life was a constant struggle against grinding poverty, loneliness (eventually abandoned by Steve), and poor health.  They had no electricity, shared a cooker on the landing, and peed in a bucket in the bedroom rather than trek down at night to outside privy in the yard. But Johnson’s book is not simply a tale of hard times; it’s a tribute to Lily’s love and determination, telling how she managed, against great odds, to bring up her children decently.

When Lily died, aged only 42, Alan was 13 and his sister Linda just 16.  The second half of the book becomes a tribute to Linda who stoutly resisted moves to separate the siblings and place them in care, and who then worked tirelessly to to keep them fed and sheltered, and ensure that Alan continued his education. In the words of his dedication, she ‘kept me safe’.

Linda held things together (even negotiating a council flat for the two of them) until Alan was old enough to make his own way in the world.  Meanwhile, Alan worked in a number of routine jobs that took second place to his abiding ambition – to be a pop star.  Remarkably, he almost made it.

Once he was bringing in a wage packet of his own, Johnson could indulge the passion for pop music which had taken hold before he was a teenager. Now he could buy, catalogue and carefully preserve precious pop singles – especially those of his beloved Beatles.  He had joined his first  band – The Vampires – when he was 13 years old.  They played the Beatles’ Thank You Girl (very badly).   He had learnt to play a cheap Spanish guitar his mother got him one Christmas, teaching himself  via the classic route (in those days) of Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day manual.

Later, doing a milk round for a young man from a tough Notting Hill family, he was offered an electric guitar of dubious provenance. When he left school at 15 his musical ambitions remained strong and he played with several bands, performing  Tamla and Stax soul alongside by the Stones, Small Faces and the Troggs.  The high point in his musical career came performing in front of 1,000 young people at Aylesbury College – and  making a record at Regent Sound in Denmark Street, a studio was where many great hits had been recorded. Though the resulting single was offered to several record labels, nothing came of it.

I rarely, if ever, read the memoirs of politicians, but this is the biography of a politician like no other.  It’s gained numerous accolades and has won the Orwell prize as well as the Ondaatje award  for the book that best evokes the ‘spirit of a place’.  It’s the story of a hard upbringing, but remarkably it makes few political points, and, avoiding self-pity, is along way from being a misery memoir. Johnson is clearly a more rounded individual than the robotic clones who seem to populate the political class these days – his love of music and football flows through the book, which is beautifully observed, funny, and uplifting.

Roger Mayne, Street Cricket, Clarendon Cresent, 1957

Roger Mayne, Street Cricket, Clarendon Cresent, 1957

This is one of the photos which illustrates Alan Johnson’s account.  It was taken around the corner from where Alan lived in Notting Hill by Roger Mayne, the renowned photographer who died in June aged 85.  Johnson writes that he is convinced that the blurred image of a child in the background of this photo is Linda,his sister.  Between 1956 and 1961, Roger Mayne photographed Johnson’s Southam Street many times, recording, in Johnson’s words,  ‘both the squalor and the vibrancy of life there, the spirit of survivors inhabiting the uninhabitable’.  In the Guardian’s obituary, Amanda Hopkinson wrote that Mayne ‘had a highly original eye for elusive detail’:

Self-taught, he was passionate about photographing what he knew – most famously, inner London. His skill in absorbing the radicalism of post-second world war “humanitarian photography” and interpreting it with artistic vision established him as one of the 20th century’s leading photographers. It also made him influential in the development of photojournalism.

His photographs of west London street scenes in the 1950s captured members of the first generation to be identified as “teenagers”. The W10 series, shot mainly around Paddington, contrasted young people’s exuberance with the urban dereliction they inhabited. For five years from 1956, Mayne focused obsessively on Southam Street, later to be demolished as part of a slum clearance programme. The street takes on a life of its own through its young residents: there is a kind of innocence in the scruffy juveniles fighting with wooden swords or tipping each other out of broken prams. It is hard to relate these youngsters, boys in shorts and unlaced leather shoes, girls with school-uniform gingham frocks and kirby grips pinning back their hair, to subsequent generations of teenagers.

Fashion burst suddenly upon Mayne’s subjects, with teddy boys in their satin lapels and teenage girls who still spent all day with hair in rollers under knotted turbans.

The Independent’s obituary stated that:

Roger Mayne was one of the outstanding British photographers of the postwar period. He is best known as the photographic poet of London’s dynamic street life in the then dilapidated area of Notting Dale in North Kensington. He photographed one street – Southam Street – from 1956 until it was demolished in 1961 to make way for Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower.  This loving and extended study embraces street football and other games, bright-faced kids with bikes and barely a car to be seen, Teddy Boys (and Girls), impromptu jiving, plus the arrival of West Indian immigrants and that new phenomenon, the teenager. Mayne’s Southam Street photographs now seem like a statement of solidarity with the working class and a hymn to Britain’s new welfare state.

Here’s a gallery of some of the tremendous images which Roger Mayne captured in Southam Street as Alan Johnson grew up there.

 See also

City of Laughter: bawdy and scurrilous 18th century London

City of Laughter: bawdy and scurrilous 18th century London

Caricature Shop, Roberts, 1801

An engraving of a Caricature Shop, 1801

Recently I finished reading City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell’s exploration of the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of Georgian London, vividly illustrated for us now through the popular prints of the time.  Gatrell begins as he means to go on, with an examination of Lady Worsley’s bottom.  The story provides a well-chosen introduction to the contrasts and contradictions of the period.

One view of 18th century Britain will emphasise the emergence of Enlightenment values as reflected in neo-classicism, rationality, moderation, and balance. Lady Worsley’s portrait, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1776 shortly after her marriage to Sir Richard Worsley, reflects the image which polite, aristocratic society wished to project.

Lady Worsley, Joshua Reynolds, 1776

Lady Worsley, Joshua Reynolds, 1776

But there was something else going on.  Between the 1780s and the 1820s, Londoners grew inordinately fond of ridicule and bawdiness, and of prints that revelled in satirising politics and international affairs or portraying scandal, debauchery and sexual goings-on in high places.  The more scurrilous they were, and the more obsessed with farts and bums, so much the better.  It was a no-holds barred culture that rejected the unwritten rule of early 18th century satire never to name names (such as in Hogarth’s engravings which ridiculed a type of person). By the 1780s, as Gatrell observes, this reticence was obsolescent. The boundary between public and private dissolved, as high-born sexually promiscuous adulterers or adultresses were explicitly lampooned – even including the heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales.

So, a mere six years after the Reynolds portrait, Lady Worsley was rudely caricatured by James Gillray. In one print he shows her taking a bath while her husband hoists one of her many lovers to peep at her naked behind. Remarkably, this incident was not a figment of Gillray’s imagination.  All was revealed in open court when Sir Richard Worsley brought a suit against one Captain Bissett for ‘criminal conversation’ (ie, adultery) with his wife.  Worsley had indeed hoisted Bissett onto his shoulders so that the captain could gaze through a bathhouse window on his wife’s nakedness. 

Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife's bottom; - o fye!' by James Gillray

James Gillray, ‘Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife’s bottom; – o fye!’, 1782

Gillray didn’t leave it there. Further revelations from the courtroom had told that ‘thirty-four young men of the first quality’ had enjoyed her favours.  Gillray’s response was wicked, depicting nine impatient gentlemen queueing on a staircase, waiting for their turn with Lady Worsley in bed.

Gillray, A peep into Lady W!!!!!!y’s Seraglio (1782)

James Gillray, ‘A peep into Lady W!!!!!!y’s Seraglio’, 1782

The case made the married couple the laughing-stock of London, and Worsley refused to pay Reynolds for his wife’s elegant portrait (which now hangs in Harewood House in Yorkshire). For Gatrell, though, the case provides a perfect illustration of the bawdy, scurrilous, subversive humour that is the subject of his book.

Vic Gatrell is a serious historian (University of Cambridge) and though his subject may be lewd and comedic he sets out to probe some pretty serious questions. City of Laughter is a highly enjoyable, gloriously illustrated, but seriously academic study of the art of the print at the end of the 18th and into the first two decades of the 19th century. Gatrell seeks to understand why Londoners in the period from the 1770s to the 1820s were so fond of ridicule and scurrility. The salacious images of Lady Worsley circulated widely among London’s upper-crust (the prints were not cheap).  Aristocrats – even the endlessly-lampooned Prince of Wales – sent out their manservants to queue at the printshops and buy the latest scandalous engraving.

Gatrell is interested in how the refined Londoners who bought and enjoyed these engravings squared their taste with politeness. Around 20,000 satirical prints were published between 1770 and 1830, reflecting a culture that laughed openly and heartily about sex, scandal, fashion and drink, suggesting to Gatrell that Gillray’s glimpse of Lady Worsley might reveal more about the times than paintings like Reynold’s portrait hanging on gallery walls. He quotes JH Plumb, historian of the period, who wrote:

An exceedingly frank acknowledgement, one might almost say a relish, of man’s animal functions was as much part of the age as the elegant furniture or delicate china.

Gatrell makes the claim that in this period London, despite the disease, hunger and thievery that haunted its streets, was indeed a ‘city of laughter’.  He makes the somewhat sweeping and difficult to substantiate claim that Londoners laughed a lot in those days, as they walked the streets assailed by the oddities of life.  I particularly relished this vignette from a contemporary observer which he quotes in support of his case:

Walking some time since in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I followed a party of chimney-sweepers, who at the turning under a gateway, suddenly met three Chinese, apparently just arrived in London.  It was clear that they had never before seen chimney-sweepers, and it seemed that the chimney-sweepers had never, till that moment seen such figures as the Chinese.  Each party and every spectator was in a convulsion of laughter.

The laughter of Londoners was free in more senses than one:  ‘No other city was so dynamic, free and uncensored, and nowhere else were the comedies of snobbery and emulation played out and ridiculed so determinedly, writes Gatrell. The excesses of the rich, the corruption of the political elite and the absurdities of fashion (did you know that in the 1790s fashionable women of the aristocracy went bare-breasted?  I didn’t) provided rich material for the print culture that flourished in this ‘golden age of graphic satire’. The libel laws were virtually non-existent, allowing artists such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank to get away with outrageous depictions of a kind rarely seen since. Nothing was sacred, and no one was safe from satire and scorn, least of all the royal family.

James Gillray, 'Fashionable Contrasts', 1792

James Gillray, ‘Fashionable Contrasts’, 1792

Take, for example, James Gillray’s print Fashionable Contrasts, or The Duchess’s little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot published in January 1792, a few months after the marriage of Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia to George III’s second son Frederick, Duke of York.  The British press had been charmed by the daintiness of her tiny feet, usually clad in exquisite footwear. Copies of her tiny shoes became all the rage and fashionable ladies wore their own little shoes in an attempt to emulate her. Gillray’s print, in which the tiny feet of the Duchess of York in jewelled slippers are caught in a compromising position with the large and ungainly feet of her husband, the Duke, skewered the way in which the press and high society had slavered over celebrity.  Sales of tiny shoes collapsed as a result.

Thomas Rowlandson Miseries of London, 1808

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Miseries of London’, 1808

London under George III and George IV was an economically and politically vibrant city with a rapidly-growing population in which a chasm separated the upper classes, who enjoyed enormous luxury, from the lower classes who lived precarious lives in poverty and squalor.  Nevertheless, in the first part of his book, Gatrell argues that the gulf that divided rich from poor was not unbridgeable.  In a detailed analysis of the streets and avenues of the West End and Covent Garden – ‘worlds apart in terms of wealth, privilege and manners’ – he reveals how the boundaries between Londoners of differing sorts were regularly crossed:

If the journeyman settled disputes with punches, the gentleman settled his with duels.  In the sexual or sporting demi-monde high and low met promiscuously.  And both found the comedies of booze, sex and body funny.

This was reflected in a hunger for graphic, explicit imagery as the new print culture expanded rapidly, the result of  rapidly growing demand from sophisticates as well as lower professionals and craftsmen. An older,tradition, rooted in classicism and epitomized by the work of William Hogarth gave way to ‘commercial products [rooted] in the realities their purchasers recognized’. Make way for the politically no-holds barred, scatological and sexually scandalous prints produced by artists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank.

Gatrell shows how the print culture grew to be increasingly bawdy and unrestrained.  Thomas Rowlandson’s series of London Miseries – each of which describes the vexations that a gentlemen might encounter on the streets of London – are gentle in their commentary on London’s disorder, compared to what would come towards the end of his chosen period. Soon there were debauchery prints which depicted young aristocratic clubmen and prominent political figures in compromising circumstances at table or tearing up the town. These prints feature copious vomiting, urination, erotic play and bad behaviour of every conceivable description. As Gatrell points out, such scenes were offered as comic spectacles rather than moral lessons, as they had been in Hogarth’s prints. Women were assumed to be just as hungry for sex as their male pursuers. Prostitution tended to be depicted in a comic or even sympathetic manner, rather than judgementally.

Gillray, The Wore's Last Shift,

James Gillray, ‘The Whore’s Last Shift’, 1779

A good example is Gillray’s The Whore’s Last Shift in which a woman stands in a sordid and poverty-stricken room, naked but for shoes and ragged stockings, washing her ‘last shift’ (pun intended) in a broken chamber-pot. A broadside ballad is pinned in the window recess: The comforts of Single Life. An Old Song. On the wall is a torn print, Ariadne Forsaken. Gatrell questions whether the print is contemptuous of the woman, or whether it seeks to disclose the poignancy of her plight? The answer, he suggests – as never in Hogarth – is left to the viewer.

Reading Gatrell’s account, you sense that he is describing a phenomenon that, although suppressed for long periods, has remained a rich undercurrent in English culture: a stream of satirical humour full of improprieties and bawdry. Gatrell argues that many if not all of Georgian England’s educated men – and not a few of its fine ladies – relished the bums-and-farts, no-holds-barred satirical frankness of these prints, whether the subject was life’s great sexual comedy, fashions, scandals, French revolutionaries, or the political class.

Gillray, The French Invasion, 1793

James Gillray, ‘The French Invasion’, 1793

George Cruikshank, Loyal Addresses and Radical Petitions, 1819

George Cruikshank, ‘Loyal Addresses and Radical Petitions’, 1819

Certainly, caricaturists like James Gillray and George Cruikshank took great pleasure in showing George III defiantly defecating on the French in 1793, or the Prince of Wales farting at petitioners for reform in 1819.  One print of 1785 with the inspired title His Highness in Fitz broadcast the latest royal scandal by depicting the Prince of Wales literally inside his beloved Mrs Fitzherbert. Although both are clothed and the penetration is concealed, the punning title makes it clear that they are enjoying orgasmic fits. Gillray’s Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot (1792) was another example.

Treason, Richard Newton, 1798

Richard Newton, ‘Treason!!!’, 1798

An interesting question arises when looking at daring prints such as Richard Newton’s Treason!!! or his The General Sentiment, both published at the height of ruling class fears of sedition and the spread of radical ideas from the French Revolution.  Treason!!! depicts a plebian John Bull farting defiance at a poster of George III, while Prime Minister William Pitt warns him, ‘That is treason, Johnny’. The General Sentiment, from a few months earlier, shows Pitt being hanged by the neck watched by his Whig opponents, Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan who are wearing revolutionary red bonnets and gleefully wishing ‘May our heaven born minister be supported from above‘.

How did print makers get away with this sort of thing when radical groups were being suppressed, meetings raided and the participants jailed, and private conversations in taverns being spied upon, reported and prosecuted?  (Within a week of Treason!!! being published, habeas corpus was suspended).  Gatrell’s answer is that as repression intensified the print satirists became skilful at presenting ambivalent messages:

Had Treason!!! been prosecuted, the court would have been obliged to debate whether Newton himself had the seditiously ‘wicked purpose of ridiculing the king and royal family’, or whether he was merely warning against that wickedness. […] He would also have been protected by the need to read out in court an indictment in pompous legalese that would have to describe a farting figure.  This would have so punctured the law’s solemnity that prosecution would have been counterproductive.

Perhaps the most interesting question explored by Gatrell is why such irreverent and bawdy humour fall out of fashion so abruptly in the early 1820s, heralding the era of Victorian gentility and propriety.  The savagery of the satirists had grown during the Regency, reaching a climax during the divorce proceedings against Queen Caroline. Then the fizz suddenly went out of satire. Gatrell demonstrates how this was largely the result of massive royal bribery of the print publishers, but also the result of the rise of respectability. Changing cultural standards stemmed from factors such as the rise of Christian Evangelicalism, the association of libertinism with Jacobinism, the beginnings of political reform, the increasing control of the poor (who ‘have no business to laugh’), and the spread of sensibility, especially among women with a ‘rampant passion for chastity’.

As a consequence, the satirical prints of the 1820s contained not a single fart or buttock. And they gave way to the insipid cartoons of Punch, whose comic muse, Thackeray noted, had been ‘washed, combed, clothed and taught… good manners’.  In an article in the Telegraph, Gatrell observed:

Other nations think of us as an uptight people. Yet by and large our rude satirical tradition has beaten their equivalents hollow. Since the 18th century the British haven’t been as censored as most other peoples. You could and can say things here that you’d never get away with elsewhere. You could and can even mock royalty, up to a point. An American today would be hard put to it to lampoon a President as we lampoon Prince Charles, for instance.

Nowadays cartoonists self-consciously draw on Hogarth or Gillray as models. Steve Bell and Martin Rowson deploy scatology shamelessly. To be sure, the modern quest for celebrity has weakened the great tradition. Yet at its best, British satire can still blow raspberries at the powerful, censorious, and pontificating people who want to control us. By certain newspaper readers, John Major will never be thought of without his underpants outside his trousers, or David Cameron without a condom over his polished head.

Rudeness and mockery are subjects worth taking seriously. They have taught us cynicism, it’s true. But they have also taught us how to recognise and resist bullshit and cant.

Steve Bell 18.07.14

Steve Bell on Michael Gove’s first day as chief whip, 17 July 2014 (Guardian)

 See also

Hockney, Printmaker: a joyous celebration of mastery

Hockney, Printmaker: a joyous celebration of mastery

Hockney, Self-portrait, 1954

Self-portrait, 1954

Barely a month since seeing the Walker’s early Hockney exhibition, we enjoy a much bigger, comprehensive survey of David Hockney’s long and distinguished career as a printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  It’s a joyous celebration of his mastery of the techniques of etching and lithography, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the artist’s first prints, made while he was a student at Bradford College of Art in 1954.

I was interested in everything at first … It was thrilling after being at the Grammar School, to be at a school where I knew I would enjoy everything they asked me to do. I loved it all and I used to spend twelve hours a day in the art school. For four years I spent twelve hours a day there every day.

Hockney got into lithography early, as demonstrated by the three prints from 1954 that are exhibited here.  Here is his first self-portrait, in which he stares out at the viewer with folded arms, pudding-basin haircut and the round glasses that were to become his trademark, a portrait of his mother working at her sewing machine, and a drawing of the chip shop down the road.

Woman with a Sewing Machine 1954

Woman with a Sewing Machine, 1954

Hockney Fish and Chip Shop, 1954

Fish and Chip Shop, 1954

The exhibition opens, however, with examples of Hockney’s rapidly-developing skill in etching – beginning with the mischievous Myself and my Heroes, made while he was a student the Royal College of Art in 1961 in which Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi (with haloes) stand beside a young, flat-capped Hockney. This was a period in which Hockney characteristically scrawled lines of text on his images, and here – along with quotes by his two heroes – Hockney has summed up his own achievement in the immortal words, ‘I am 23 years old and I wear glasses’. (‘I hadn’t made any quotes’, Hockney later explained).

Myself and my Heroes 1961

Myself and my Heroes, 1961 

Hockney in 2012, aged 74

Hockney in 2012, aged 74: grumpy old man with fag

These days Hockney may sound like a grumpy old man (especially when he’s on about smoking), but back then he was an angry young man. The Diploma from 1962 came about after he and four other students were told they might not be allowed to graduate from the Royal College of Art.  Thumbing his nose at the college bigwigs, Hockney has etched his own diploma, lampooning senior figures and portraying he and the other four failed students bent double below.

Hockney The Diploma, 1962

The Diploma, 1962

From these beginnings we move on to three well-known series of illustrations: A Rake’s Progress (1961-63), Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy (1966), and Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969)Alongside portraits of some of his famous sitters and friends, these reveal Hockney’s growing stature as an exceptionally fine draughtsman and his rapidly-developing skills in etching and printmaking.

Hockney The Seven Stone Weakling, A Rake's Progress, 1961

The Seven Stone Weakling, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961

Hockney Bedlam, A Rake's Progress, 1961

Bedlam, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961

A Rake’s Progress was conceived in New York in July 1961; Hockney formed the idea of taking Hogarth’s set of eight engravings to ‘somehow play with them and set it in New York in modern times. What I liked was telling a story visually.  Hogarth’s story has no words: it’s a graphic tale.’ My eye was caught particularly by the witty and slightly self-deprecating plate ‘The Seven-Stone Weakling’, and ‘Bedlam’ which resulted from Hockney, in 1961 New York, seeing people with what he thought were hearing aids and later discovering they were actually the first transistor radios, as yet unknown in Britain.

Browsing the plates of A Rake’s Progress evoked echoes of Grayson Perry being similarly inspired more recently – and of another curious connection.  One place where you can see the Hogarth series displayed is the in the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  Soane was a leading architect in the early 19th century, responsible for many commissions around London – including the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The Marriage, 1962

The Marriage, 1962

The Marriage, an etching made in 1962, came about when Hockney was looking around a museum with a friend:

I caught sight of him looking at something on a wall, so I saw him in profile.  To one side of him was a sculpture in wood of a seated woman … Egyptian, I believe.  For a moment they seemed to be together – like a couple posing.

One Night, 1966

One Night, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966

The Shop Window of a Tobacco Store 1966

The Shop Window of a Tobacco Store, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966

In 1966 Hockney started work on  Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, a book of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems. The series reveals Hockney’s supreme mastery of line drawing, and the curators have grouped with the Cavafy images other prints which reinforce this impression.  While working on the Cavafy etchings, Hockney visited Beirut for inspiration, then an exotic and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, which had been the setting for Cavafy’s turn of the century poems.

Back in London, Hockney worked from photographs, his own drawings and directly from life onto copper printing plates.Hockney did not have a particular poems in mind when working – they were matched up afterwards, chosen from about twenty etchings made in around three months. Some images visualise incidents in the poems. Others are less specific, reflecting a mood or shared experience. Hockney’s bold images were defiant in their representation of homosexual love.

Hockney 'The Student - Homage to Picasso

The Student – Homage to Picasso, 1973

Hockney Artist and Model, 1973

Artist and Model, 1973

Next are two wonderful prints – made in 1973, the year after the death of Picasso – that tell of Hockney’s fascination with Picasso that began when he was a student at the Royal College of Art.  Hockney has continued to acknowledge the influence on his work of Picasso’s art and of Picasso as a model of creative freedom. In Homage to Picasso, Hockney portrays himself as a student, approaching Picasso carrying his portfolio for inspection, while Artist and Model is a marvellous etching of himself with Picasso, the two of them seated at a table, the aged Spanish artist dressed in a stripy sailor’s shirt and examining, perhaps working on, a sheet of paper in front of him. Hockney is seated opposite, wearing only a pair of spectacles, his nakedness expressing his vulnerability.

Martin Gayford once wrote of this etching:

It is a poignant image of a close artistic relationship that could not exist in reality. Picasso died in 1972. The little etching, dated 1973-4, was created in his memory. Later, Hockney confessed, “I would have loved to have met him, even once. It would have been something to remember, a great thrill.” He called the print ‘Artist and Model’, and depicted himself in the latter role, as naked sitter.

Hockney Panama Hat, 1972

Panama Hat, 1972

So much wit and humour runs through Hockney’s work: Panama Hat is his portrait of Henry Geldzahler, the influential curator, art historian and critic who was also a personal friend who had a profound influence on Hockney (for example, recommending that he read Wallace Stevens’ poem The Man With The Blue Guitar).  In 1971, Henry had asked Hockney to contribute a work of art to a charity fund-raiser.  Geldzahler declined Hockney’s offer to make his portrait, believing it might look vain.  So Hockney made an etching of Henry’s trademark jacket and hat – a portrait of Henry without Henry.

Hockney Henry At the Table, 1976

Henry At the Table, 1976

Henry recommended that David read Wallace Stevens’s long poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, which was itself inspired by a painting: Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. In the poem, Stevens meditates on the relationship between art and reality:

They said ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

The sentiment attracted Hockney: the idea that reality is transformed by the medium in which it is represented is a cornerstone of his aesthetic, and it is why he has worked in so many media, always searching for new ways to reveal ‘things as they are’.  For Stevens, as for Hockney, reality is not an object, but an activity, a product of the imagination shaping the world.

Stevens’s poem inspired Hockney to create an extended meditation on the process of artistic transformation, of print-making as being analogous to poetry.  The key for Hockney came in Stevens’s line, ‘poetry is the subject of the poem’, a line that Hockney borrows and reworks as ‘Etching is the Subject’, the title of one of the Blue Guitar etchings.

Hockney The Poet, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

The Poet, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

Hockney Blue Guitar Etching is the Subject, 1976-77

 Etching is the Subject, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

The series is also a profound homage to Picasso: as the frontispiece to the portfolio clearly spells out: ‘Etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso’. Hockney has explained that the etchings ‘were not conceived as literal illustrations of the poem but as an interpretation of its themes in visual terms. Like the poem, they are about transformations within art as well as the relation between reality and the imagination, so these are pictures and different styles of representation juxtaposed and reflected and dissolved within the same frame’.

Hockney Margueritas, 1973

Margueritas, 1973

At this time, Hockney was following in Picasso’s footsteps in another sense: through his choice of a new etching technique. While living in Paris between 1973 and 1975, he worked extensively at the Atelier Crommelynck where Picasso had made prints during the final two decades of his life. Aldo Crommelynck introduced Hockney to both the use of the sugar-lift technique, which enabled him to recreate brush marks on the etched plate, and the use of a single plate for multi-coloured etchings rather than having to register separate plates for each colour. Both of these techniques were revelations for Hockney and were essential to the genesis of his ‘Blue Guitar’ prints. Margueritas (above) was one of the first prints Hockney made using this technique developed by Picasso.

Hockney Red Wire Plant, 1998

Red Wire Plant, 1998

This comprehensive exhibition reveals the extent to which Hockney has constantly evolved as an artist, exploring new artistic trends and portraying a wide variety of subject matter – including his dogs.

Hockney Horizontal Dogs, 1998

Horizontal Dogs, 1998

Hockney. Two Vases in the Louvre, 1974

Two Vases in the Louvre, 1974

Hockney. Contrejour in the French Style, 1974

Contrejour in the French Style, 1974

There are many portraits here; rather than accept commissions, Hockney has always preferred to depict his friends, and one constant sitter over the years has been the fashion designer, Celia Birtwell. She appears here twice – in a superb 1973 drawing (below), and in a 1989 etching Soft Celia which I didn’t particularly like.

Hockney, Celia, 1973

Celia, 1973

There are also the superb portraits of Henry Geldzahler, and of his lovers, Peter Schlesinger and Gregory Evans, represented in the exquisite pencil drawing Small Head of Gregory.

Hockney Small Head of Gregory, 1976

Small Head of Gregory, 1976

A favourite of mine for a long time has been the series of prints that Hockney produced in 1973 that depict six weather states: fog, sun, rain, lightning, snow and wind.  In the gallery at Dulwich I sat for a while, entranced by a group of primary school children who had been positioned by their teachers in front of the prints, asked to decide which was their favourite – and then explain the reasons why.  Most of their responses showed how intently these children had looked at the images, noticing ways in which Hockney’s differing approaches to each weather condition reflected his grappling with how to depict the particular physical properties of rainwater, sunlight, or a blanket of snow.

Hockney  The Weather Series

The Weather series, 1973

Having listened to the kids’ thoughts on the artist’s methods, it was interesting read Hockney’s words alongside on how he tackled the work.  He had been inspired by a trip to Japan in 1970, and both ‘Snow’ and ‘Wind’ reference Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts.  On the genesis of ‘Rain’, Hockney commented that it was related to  a painting he had done in London very similar to it, called The Japanese Rain on Canvas, in which he had used a watering can to pour diluted paint onto the canvas on the floor.  In the lithographic version he replicated this effect by dripping a dilute form of lithographic ink down the stone.

Hockney Rain

Rain, from The Weather Series, 1973

Hockney Wind, from The Weather Series, 1973

Wind, from The Weather Series, 1973

Hockney explains that the series is not just about the weather, or a homage to Japanese prints, but is also about ‘the weather drawn’.  ‘Because in each one’, Hockney has said, ‘ the problem was, not just making a representation of the weather, but how to draw it. It means that the subject of the prints is not just the weather: the subject matter is drawing’.

The print here of the wind, for instance.  I couldn’t figure out how to do wind, make a visual representation of wind, because normally only the effects of wind show themselves.  So I kept thinking of palm trees bending and everything, and it all seemed just a little bit corny or ordinary or something, and I was just on the beach at Malibu one day and suddenly a piece of paper blew by, and it suddenly dawned on me, I’ll simply do all the other prints I’ve done blowing away across Melrose Avenue.

Hockney Afternoon Swimming, 1980

Afternoon Swimming, 1980

One focus of the recent exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery was Hockney’s obsession with capturing the properties of water, and it’s been such a recurrent theme in his work that the Dulwich exhibition also includes several examples of it.  There is Afternoon Swimming (above) and two examples from the 1978 series Lithographic Water.

Hockney Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon, 1978

Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon, 1978

Hockney. Lithographic Water Made of Lines, 1978

Lithographic Water Made of Lines, 1978

The movement of water, and the effect of light upon its surface offered Hockney the opportunity to introduce areas of abstraction within his figurative paintings, and an artistic challenge:

It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything – it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.

David Hockney: Lilies (1971)

 Lilies, 1971

Hockney Still Life with Book , 1973

Still Life with Book, 1973

Hockney Still Life, 1965

Still Life, 1965

Hockney Coloured Flowers made out of Paper and Ink, 1971

Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, 1971

Throughout his career, Hockney has constantly returned to etching and lithograph, regarding prints as a valid alternative to his paintings rather than mere complement to them whose purpose was the cheaper dissemination of an image. Anyone looking around this exhibition could not come away under the misapprehension that etching and lithography are techniques somehow secondary to painting.  And what makes this great display of prints so stimulating and entertaining is what they reveal, not just of Hockney’s skill in these techniques, but of a mind restlessly reflecting on problems of representation – often with wit and humour. So, in Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, for example, he deconstructs the artificiality of the image both in the title, and by arranging the coloured pencils he used to create the image in the foreground.

Hockney Matelot Kevin Druez, 2009

Matelot Kevin Druez, 2009

Hockney is an artist who constantly looks to the new – including the implications or opportunities that new technologies offer artists.  Matelot Kevin Druez, from 2009, is an image drawn on a computer and then inkjet printed. There are other examples of Hockney’s fascination with computer drawings, the best being Rain on the Studio Window, a prelude to his iPad works:

I was drawing a portrait when it began to rain.  Sitting under the window and watching the rain run down it, I could immediately change my subject, get as it were a clean sheet of paper (an empty screen) and draw as the rain came down.  No other medium would have allowed that change so quickly. With nature the moment rules.

David Hockney: Rain on the Studio Window (2009).

Rain on the Studio Window, 2009

This is a great exhibition that demonstrates Hockney’s achievement across a long career. Hockney seems as fresh and as relevant today as he was 60 years ago when he made those first prints at Bradford Art College.

In this YouTube video, Richard Lloyd curator of Hockney, Printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery takes us around the exhibition:

See also

War Horse: they had no choice

War Horse: they had no choice

War-Horse 1

While we were in London we went to see the National Theatre’s hugely successful production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse.  Beforehand I’d felt a little unsure about what to expect: would it be a little too saccharine and over-sentimental?  But any reservations I had were swept away within minutes: this straightforward story of the love and loyalty of a boy for his horse in the First World War grips from the start with its mesmerising staging and astonishing puppetry.  It’s no wonder it has been an international success, running in the West End since 2007.

Michael Billington pinpointed the factors that explain its success in a review for the Guardian in 2011:

First and foremost, it’s the spectacle. Audiences still gasp at the ingenuity of the Handspring Puppet Company who give the horses, through their bendy, bamboo frames, an articulated, individual life. It’s a truism but there comes a point when we forget the horses are manually operated and imagine them, in the words of the Chorus from Henry V, ‘printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth’. But equally remarkable is the moment when a simulated first-world-war tank, signalling the cavalry’s demise, rolls ominously towards the audience.

Technical skill alone, however, doesn’t explain War Horse‘s wow-factor. I suspect it’s also to do with the way it taps into folk memories of the First World War. The show doesn’t have the pungent mix of satire and sentiment that characterised Theatre Workshop’s dazzling Oh! What A Lovely War. Nor does it possess the vivid realism of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong, with its portrait of the subterranean lives of sappers. But we are still haunted by the collective horror and mass sacrifice of the ‘great war’.

It all adds up to a terrific evening’s theatre: an uplifting tale, superb acting, stirring music, dramatic visuals – and, not least, the incredible  technical achievements of the puppet designers and the puppeteers.

The phenomenal success of the National Theatre production owes everything to its collaboration with the South African Handspring Puppet Company.  The horse puppets are life-size, made of cable, leather and steel, brought alive with the movements and expert choreography of their handlers.  Every twitch of an ear or shudder of mane makes you believe the animals are real, helping to emphasise Morpurgo’s vision of the historic bond between human and horse.

War Horse 4

War Horse

In the original book, Morpurgo elected, like Anna Sewell in Black Beauty, to tell the story of Joey the horse from  the horse’s point of view, making the horse a witness to the brutality of the first World War. Joey is conscripted, leaving behind life on a Devon farm for service with British forces in France.  During a cavalry against machine guns, his rider is shot and killed and Joey is captured by German troops. Meanwhile, Albert, his young owner and trainer, enlists in the army by lying about his age and pursues his beloved horse.

The stage version inevitably abandons the horse’s-eye-view of Morpurgo’s novel to build the narrative around Albert and his pursuit of his across the French battlefields of the 1914-18 war. It has to be said that Albert’s character is never really developed. And though, like Oh! What a Lovely War, the play makes good use of contemporary folk song and war ballads to counterpoint the devastation of war, this is not a show which challenges the war aims and military leadership in the overt manner of Joan Littlewood’s ground-breaking production.

War Horse is in actual fact a well-oiled machine in which all the constituent elements work to perfection: the acting, stage design and back-projected video, the lighting, the music; and above all the extraordinary horses and cheeky goose brought vividly to life by Handspring Puppet Company.

War Horse horse meets tank

War Horse: horse meets tank

I was interested in how Michael Morpurgo came to write War Horse.  I learnt from the National Theatre website  that his mother was Belgian:

My mother often wept when she talked about the war. On the mantelpiece was a photo of my Uncle Pieter, who was shot down in 1941, two years before I was born. He looked back at me when I looked at him, and I knew he wanted to say something but couldn’t. I used to talk to him sometimes, I remember. I wanted to get to know him.

A friend of the family used to come to tea sometimes. My mother always told me I must not stare at him, but I always did. I could not help myself. His face and hands were horribly scarred. I knew he had been shot down in the war and suffered dreadful burns. Here’s what war did. It burned flesh. It killed my uncle. It made my mother weep. So I grew up with the damage of war all around me. I learned that buildings you can put up again, but lives are wrecked forever.

As a schoolboy I read the great poets of the First World War – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy. I read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I saw the film. I went to see Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War. Britten’s great War Requiem, the pictures of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer left an indelible impression on me.

In other interviews he has spoken of one particular meeting – with a man in his local pub – that sparked the idea for the book:

It was in my village, The Duke of York, in Iddesleigh in Devon. He was in his eighties and I knew he’d been to the First World War as a young man. For no good reason I happened to ask him what regiment he’d been in. ‘Devon ­Yeomanry’, he said, ‘I was there with ‘orses.’ He told me things beside the fire in the pub that day that you don’t read in poems or books, that you didn’t see in films. It was as if he was taking me by the hand and showing me, ­passing it on; about living with fear and horror, about how the only person he could talk to was his horse, when he was feeding him at night, alone.  He talked on for hours about the horse he’d loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat.

Then some weeks later I came across a picture by one FW Reed, painted in 1917, of British cavalry horses in the First World War charging up a hill towards the German positions, towards the wire. Some were already entangled in it. Like the private in the old song, they were ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’. I telephoned the Imperial War Museum and asked if they knew how many horses had been killed in the First World War. A million or more, they told me, and that was just in the British army; probably eight million horses died on all sides. With the real possibility now growing in my head that I might write a story about the First World War, not from one side or the other, but from the perspective of a horse that is used by both armies, so that it could be a story of the universal suffering of that war, or any war, I began my research.

I determined then and there to tell the story of such a horse. But how to tell it? I had to find a way that didn’t take sides. So I conceived the notion I might write the story of the First World War as seen through a horse’s eye, a horse that would be reared on a Devon farm, by the forebears of the village people I knew, a horse that is sold off the farm to go to the front as a British cavalry horse, is captured by the Germans and used to to pull ambulances and guns, winters on a French farm. It would be the horse’s eye view of the universal suffering of that dreadful war in which 10 million men died, and unknown millions of horses.

Beyond the specific incidents which provided the inspiration for the book, Morpurgo has spoken (again on the National Theatre website) about the more general views about 1914-18 – and war in general – which impelled him to write:

The First World War, I think, is the great metaphor for all wars because in a way, it was the most useless of all wars. This was absolutely a struggle between the great European powers, slicing up the world between them and deciding who should have the biggest slice of the cake. I think many people, many historians, look at the First World War and think, Well that was a waste, a complete waste of life. After that war, there was this short intermission of 20-odd years and then there was this Second World War, which, to my way of thinking, was a complete result of the First World War. And we know what damage that has done and continues to do worldwide.

It was all begun by this great conflagration of western powers unable to negotiate their way without humiliating one another. What seems to happen time and time again is that we fight away, we humiliate one another and we expect there to be peace. But it doesn’t work that way and we all should know this by now. Suddenly this book about the First World War becomes much more urgent and relevant because of the suffering that we all know is going on around us.

Column on the march, August 1914

A column of cavalry on the march, August 1914

After the show, I wanted to know more about the extent to which horses were used in the Great War. That figure of more than eight million seems to be the widely accepted estimate for the number of horses that died on all sides during the First World War. Although Joey in War Horse is a cavalry mount, horses served in the conflict in many different ways. On all sides – British, Australian, French, German and American – memoirs, letters, photographs and sketches reveal just how important horses really were.  The military authorities regarded horses as indispensable – they hauled guns and equipment through deep mud and over rough terrain more effectively than motor vehicles; they were used for reconnaissance and for carrying messengers, as well as pulling artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons. Memoirs and soldiers’ letters also reveal that the  presence of horses often increased morale among the soldiers at the front.

Pack horses carrying ammunition in Flanders, from 'The Horse and the War' by Captain Lionel Edwards, published by Country Life in 1918.

Pack horses carrying ammunition in Flanders, from ‘The Horse and the War’ published in 1918

How typical was Joey?  Very. Over the course of the war, the British government impressed half a million privately owned horses into the army – 17% of the country’s equine population. In France in the month of August 1914 alone, 730,000 horses were requisitioned – which means that nearly a quarter of the French horse population disappeared from the home front in fewer than 30 days.

In France and Belgium, the war was dominated by the artillery, infantry and engineers and it was these forces that employed the most horses and mules for draught work. Motor transport was important but did not supplant true horse-power. Heavy horses pulled the largest guns and the heaviest wagons. Lighter horses and mules kept the field artillery mobile, hauling ammunition, rations and equipment into the front line and supporting the vast infrastructure of camps and depots of the rear areas.

The enormous contribution that horses made to the war effort on all sides is summarised in this passage from The Beauty and the Sorrow,Peter Englund’s brilliant history of the war compiled from the diaries and letters of twenty unknown individuals on both sides of the conflict:

Weaponry has undergone great change over the past fifty years, becoming ever more deadly, but the means of transport have hardly changed at all.  This is one of the main reasons that the war so often stalls and becomes static.  Once the trains have reached their termini the further progress of the armies relies on exactly what it relied on in Caesar’s or Napoleon’s day – the muscles in a man’s legs or in a horse’s back. But these ever more complex organisations demand more and more equipment, and the weapons, with their increasingly rapid rate of fire, demand more and more ammunition.

A German army corps needed only 457 wagons for its transport in 1871 whereas in 1914 it needed no fewer than 1,168 – an increase of over 250 per cent.  All these extra wagons had to be pulled by horses, and the extra horses needed fodder, which also needed to be transported.  Weight for weight, a horse eats ten times as much as a man, which in turn demands more wagons and more horses to pull them, and so on. A contemporary head-count suggests that there was one horse for every three men.  About eight million horses died in the war, which means the horse population suffered proportionately greater losses than the human one.

Men at the Western Front, c 1916

Men on the Western Front with horses, c 1916

Some men enlisted to follow their horses to war, as Albert does in War Horse,  while others simply expressed a desire for equine companionship during the trials of war.  Sir John Moore, Director of the British veterinary services in France during the war, believed that soldiers’ relationships to horses provided ‘evidence of a pleasanter side of the picture and one which acts as a corrective and is an antithesis to baser impulses of men and nations’, while AW Curie, in a 1932 book on the subject of horses in the war wrote:

Among the few bright things of the soldier’s life none touched him more deeply than the mutual attachment of man and horse. No one who has ever had to do with soldiers and with horses can fail to acknowledge how much the horse helped to keep up the morale of the man. The very work of tending a horse was a distraction which relieved the trooper or the gunner from the otherwise unrelenting tension of warfare. The few minutes of pleasant companionship made him the more ready for the battle of a new day.

On the Western Front, the traditional cavalry charge was stopped in its tracks by two technological advances – barbed wire and the machine gun. Then, two and a half months after the Somme, a new weapon emerged. It was mobile, it could deflect machine gun bullets and it could crush barbed wire. The horse had finally been replaced by the tank.

Treating a wounded horse

Treating a wounded horse

Erich Maria Remarque expressed the view that ‘it is the vilest baseness to use horses in war’ (a sentiment echoed by Robert Graves in his war memoir Good-Bye to All That where he wrote, ‘The number of dead horses and mules shocked me; human corpses were all very well, but it seemed wrong for animals to be dragged into the war like this’).  Watching War Horse, one scene in particular reminded me of this terrible passage in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front:

The screaming goes on and on. It can’t be men, they couldn’t scream that horribly.

‘Wounded horses,’ says Kat.

I have never heard a horse scream and I can hardly believe it. There is a whole world of pain in that sound, creation itself under torture, a wild and horrifying agony. We go pale. Detering sits up.’Bastards, bastards! For Christ’s sake
shoot them!’

He is a farmer and used to handling horses. It really gets to him. And as if on purpose the firing dies away almost completely. The screams of the animals become that much clearer. You can’t tell where it is coming from any more in that quiet, silver landscape, it is invisible, ghostly, it is everywhere, between the earth and the heavens, and it swells out immeasurably. Detering is going crazy and roars out,’ Shoot them, for Christ’s sake, shoot them!’

‘They’ve got to get the wounded men out first.’ says Kat. We stand up and try to see where they are. If we can actually see the animals, it will be easier to cope with. Meyer has some field glasses with him. We can make out a dark group of orderlies with stretchers, and then some bigger things, black mounds that are moving. Those are the wounded horses. But not all of them. Some gallop off a little way, collapse, and then run on again. The belly of one of the horses has been ripped open and its guts are trailing out. It gets its feet caught up in them and falls, but it gets to its feet again.

Detering raises his rifle and takes aim. Kat knocks the barrel upwards. ‘Are you crazy?’

Detering shudders and throws his gun on to the ground. We sit down and press our hands over our ears. But the terrible crying and groaning and howling still gets through, it penetrates everything. We can all stand a lot, but this brings us out in a cold sweat. You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.

Some more stretchers are moved away from the dark mass. Then a few shots ring out. The big shapes twitch a little and become less prominent. At last! But it isn’t over yet. No one can catch the wounded animals who have bolted in terror, their wide-open mouths filled with all that pain. One of the figures goes down on one knee, a shot – one horse collapses – and then there is another. The last horse supports itself on its forelegs, and moves in a circle like a carousel, turning around in a sitting position with its forelegs stiff – probably its back is broken. The soldier runs across and shoots it down. Slowly, humbly, it sinks to the ground.

We take our hands away from our ears. The screaming h as stopped. Just a long-drawn-out, dying sigh is still there in the air. Then, just like before, there are only the rockets, the singing of the shells, and the stars…

Animals in War memorial

The Animals in War memorial in Hyde Park

Delving into the background to Michael Morpurgo’s tale, I was surprised to discover that in Hyde Park, London there is an Animals in War memorialdesigned by the English sculptor David Backhouse to commemorate the countless animals that have served and died under British military command throughout history. It was unveiled in November 2004.  The main inscription on the memorial reads:

This monument is dedicated to all the animals
that served and died alongside British and allied forces
in wars and campaigns throughout time.

A second, smaller inscription simply reads: ‘They had no choice’.

Trailer for War Horse at the National Theatre

Handspring: the puppetry demonstrated in a TED talk

See also

Turner and the Sea: pure paint and pure sensation

Turner and the Sea: pure paint and pure sensation

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water exhibited 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water, 1840

At Greenwich we went to see the current exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – Turner and the Sea – which brings together a large number of Turner’s most celebrated seascapes.  Turner had a lifelong fascination with the sea, and wrestled throughout his career with the challenge of how to represent the natural forces of wave and wind, mist and cloud, on canvas.

Turner was, in Ruskin’s words, ‘the man who beyond doubt is the greatest of the age . . . at once the painter and poet of the day’, and so this exhibition is bound to be significant.  For me, its particular excitement resides in the late experimental canvases and the large number of impressionistic watercolours from Turner’s sketchbooks that are on display.

The exhibition adopts a strictly chronological approach, meaning that the first two or three room present more traditional early works (though with evidence of experimentation even here), including one room devoted to his huge patriotic oil painting celebrating the Battle of Trafalgar, which is, to be honest, an embarrassment.

In the early stages of the exhibition, the curators set out to reveal some of the influences on Turner and to show the extent to which Turner was an accomplished showman from the start of his career, strategically displaying works to generate patronage and publicity. He used marine painting to explore dramatic subjects and introduce dynamic colours that commanded the viewer’s attention in crowded and tightly hung galleries.

Turner exhibited a series of impressive and often controversial canvases at the Royal Academy summer exhibition, the most important art event in London at the time. In 1804 he built his own gallery, attached to his house in Harley Street.

Fishmarket on the Sands - Hastings, 1810

Fishmarket on the Sands – Hastings, 1810

‘Fishmarket on the Sands – Hastings’, painted in 1810, is hung alongside Simon de Vlieger’s ‘Beach at Scheveningen’ to reveal Turner’s debt to the Dutch 17th century landscape tradition.

Simon de Vlieger, The Beach at Scheveningen

Simon de Vlieger, The Beach at Scheveningen, 1633

Another illustration of Turner’s love for Dutch landscape painting is from much later in his career – ‘Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael’. By the early 1840s, when Turner painted this work, his exhibited pictures were often astonishingly spare in the way they were finished.

Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael, 1844

Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael, 1844

The ‘Port Ruysdael’ of the title is imaginary – Turner’s tribute to the work of the seventeenth-century artist, Salomon von Ruysdael which he first encountered during his first visit to the Louvre in 1802. He remained an admirer of the Dutch artist’s work throughout his career. When Turner entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1789, marine painting had a long and prestigious history, notably the work of artists from the Netherlands and France.

Fishermen at Sea, 1796

Fishermen at Sea, 1796

‘Fishermen at Sea’ was the first oil painting that Turner exhibited, and shows the young artist’s command of the continental tradition of marine painting.  Whist Turner studied the art of the past at every opportunity, he also understood the importance of giving his art contemporary relevance. This was a time when revolution across the Channel, resulting in a new war with France from 1793 onwards, lent a patriotic importance to the art of the sea for British artists and their public.

Turner enjoyed the public acclaim he received, and relished the sense of competition that was encouraged by the London art world. Whether painting in oil or watercolour, he always wanted to be better (and charge more) than any other painter. He followed his fellow artists closely, especially those he most admired, and was quick to respond if ever their work threatened to overshadow his own. In the 1820s, a new generation of marine painters emerged to challenge his position. They often followed Turner’s example by emulating the style of painting that had first brought him to public attention. Turner responded by taking his work in a new direction.

Keelmen heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835

Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835

‘Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight’ was deliberately painted by Turner as an companion piece to the sun-drenched view of Venice below.  He contrasts the pleasure-seeking crowds of Venice with the hard labour of stevedores on the Tyne, transferring coal from barges, or keels, to ocean-going vessels.

Venice - The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834

Venice – The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834

The sea remained at the centre of Turner’s work until the end of his life, as he continued to explore the sights and spectacles of modern maritime Britain.  As he got older, though, he divided critics by experimenting with new and unconventional ways of representing the sea. When ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ was shown at the Royal Academy in 1842, it was met with disbelief. Turner’s response was to say that he didn’t paint it to be understood but simply ‘to show what such a scene was like’.

In later years, his work also became more reflective, both personally and of his own time – ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ being a good example.  The ‘Temeraire’ had played a distinguished role in Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, after which she was known as the ‘Fighting Temeraire’. The ship remained in service until 1838 when she was decommissioned and towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up.

Turner’s main concern in the painting was to evoke a sense of loss, rather than to give an exact recording of the event. The spectacular representation of the setting sun draws a parallel with the passing of the old warship. By contrast the new steam-powered tug is smaller and more prosaic.  It’s the end of an era.  However, as Adrian Hamilton wrote in the Independent:

Look more closely and you see that Turner pays as much attention to the setting sun on the right of the picture as to the Temeraire kept on the left. For all the temptation to interpret this as Turner’s elegy to a dying world of the sail-ship, it’s hard not to see it also as a study of light and reflection.

The Fighting Temeraire, 1838

The Fighting Temeraire, 1838

Turner was in his sixties when he painted ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. It shows his mastery of painting techniques to suggest sea and sky, as much as Turner’s  desire to offer a commentary on his time. As Richard Dorment observed in his review for the Telegraph:

Throughout his career Turner was always drawn to current events, sketching the ruins of a theatre on the day after a fire, or the burning of the Houses of Parliament as it was happening. As we see in this show his method was to fill notebooks with quick sketches that became the raw data he used for finished landscapes and seascapes in watercolours or oils. It’s what he did with that data that is the key to understanding Turner’s art. For his landscapes and seascapes divide broadly into two categories – the accurate topographical views which are primarily intended to convey information and the landscapes and seascapes in which he omitted, distorted or added details to express his thoughts on history, nature, politics or society.

Sunset amid Dark Clouds over the Sea,

Sunset amid Dark Clouds over the Sea, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

For me, the best has been kept to the end in this exhibition – the last two rooms bring together an astounding collection of the late, impressionistic oil paintings, and examples of pages from his sketchbooks. I know the watercolours from Turner’s sketchbooks are not finished works but quick impressions intended to be worked up later.  Nevertheless, I love them; to a modern eye they speak of nature, landscape and light as brilliantly as any finished work.

There are exhibits from two sketchbooks – the Whalers Sketchbook filled around 1844, and the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbook of 1845.  Turner was rarely without a sketchbook and colours, whether working at home or during his many journeys throughout Britain and on the continent. At the end of his life, around 20,000 of his drawings and watercolours, together with numerous unfinished oil paintings, were left to the nation as the Turner Bequest. Since his death in 1851, these once-private studies have helped shape Turner’s reputation as much as the oil paintings and watercolours that were finished and exhibited during his lifetime.

The Sea,

The Sea, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

Whalers at Sea at Sunset,

Whalers at Sea at Sunset, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

Whalers at Sea,

Whalers at Sea, from the Whalers’ Sketchbook, c 1844

The Whalers’ sketchbook features pages in which Turner has used coloured chalk with watercolour washes to convey the urgency and violence of a whale hunt (though the whale remains elusive), while the Ambleteuse and Wimereux sketchbook was made during Turner’s penultimate visit to France in May 1945.  Most of the pages record impressions of light and colour, as seen from the beach at Ambleteuse.

A Storm Clearing Up,

A Storm Clearing Up, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

Storm Clouds, Looking Out to Sea,

Storm Clouds, Looking Out to Sea, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

Sunset at Ambleteuse,

Sunset at Ambleteuse, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

Yellow Sun over Water,

Yellow Sun over Water, from the Ambleteuse and Wimereux Sketchbook, c 1845

In addition to the sketchbook pages, the exhibition also presents several exquisite, minimalist watercolours from the Tate and Manchester Art Gallery collections, all of them dating from the early 1840s.  They are from a consignment of fourteen sketches on millboard only discovered in the early 1960s.  They were in a parcel among the works from the Turner Bequest transferred from the Tate Gallery to the British Museum in 1931, and had not been included in the 1909 inventory of the works in the Bequest.

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, c1843-5

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, c 1843-5

Calm Sea with Distant Grey Clouds, c1840-5

Calm Sea with Distant Grey Clouds, c 1840-5

Red Sky over a Beach, c1840-5

Red Sky over a Beach, c 1840-5

Sunset on Wet Sand, 1845

Sunset on Wet Sand, 1845

In his final seascapes, Turner broke free from the established rules and conventions of maritime art (or of art generally at the time). He began a series of experimental canvases that revealed a deepening interest in the open sea and a quest to capture the effects of breaking waves in paint. Experts remain divided as to whether some of Turner’s last works, were finished paintings or unfinished ‘works-in-progress’; this is the Tate’s summing up of the matter:

Two main problems about this group of works. The first is the question of dating: the dates adopted here are highly tentative and are based on the supposition that there is a logical progression from a more substantial, three-dimensional style to one that is more impressionistic and less solid, together with a feeling that Turner’s colouring was perhaps at its strongest from the early to the mid 1830s. However, as will be noted, the compilers do not always agree on even the tentative datings given here. In any case, what may look like a less three-dimensional picture may in fact be merely a less finished picture.

However, as with the watercolours, a modern viewer has no qualms about treating them as finished works. Adrian Hamilton again, from the Independent:

The watercolours and the oil sketches, even the earlier ones on display from the 1820s, are experimental enough as you witness Turner using rapid strokes of colour to catch the thrashing of water and the looming of cloud over the horizon. No artist has ever been able to use red the way he does to give urgency to the scene and mood to the weather.

But what leaves you gasping is that he does exactly the same with his late oils on canvas as he did with the watercolours. Whether he intended these oils, stacked away in his studio, as finished works or rough drafts we don’t know. But presented along the walls of the final room they are art of a different dimension. Even in the wonderful  ‘Whalers (The Whale Ship)’ of 1845,   the ship is surrounded by a seething mass of whale, wave and weather that defy all rules of realism. In the three paintings that are considered final works but have no date – ‘Waves Breaking Against the Wind’, ‘Seascape with Storm Coming On’ and ‘Seascape with Distant Coast’ – there is no point in saying what they are about. They just are – without rules, without objects, without composition – pure paint and pure sensation.

Off the Nore - Wind and Water, oil on paper laid on canvas, c1840-45

Off the Nore – Wind and Water, oil on paper laid on canvas, c 1840-45

Whalers, 1845

Whalers (The Whale Ship), 1845

‘Whalers’ was the first of two whaling subjects Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1845 (followed by two more in 1846), probably painted in the hope of selling them to his patron Elhanan Bicknell, an investor in the whaling industry.  The four pictures were inspired by Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), with this painting based on an account of the pursuit of a whale in the North Pacific. At the right the creature has been harpooned and is bleeding, while men in three boats stand with their arms raised to strike again. Some accounts suggest that it was this painting that provided Herman Melville with the inspiration for Moby Dick.

A Wreck, with Fishing Boats c.1840-5
A Wreck, with Fishing Boats c.1840-5

Turner made many of his later seascapes powerfully immediate and disorientating by not including any foreground or landscape reference points. This absence of traditional framing devices immerses the viewer more directly in the tempestuous scene.  In ‘A Wreck’ the paint suggesting the white crests of the waves is vigorously applied, often with a palette knife. In the distance are the sails of one or two smaller boats alongside the bluish hull of a much bigger wrecked ship, possibly recalling an incident Turner witnessed off the coast of Kent.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842

Turner painted many pictures exploring the effects of an elemental vortex. In ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, there is a steam-boat at the heart of the vortex, perhaps seen by Turner as a symbol of man’s futile efforts to combat the forces of nature.  This is the painting which, it is said, Turner conceived while lashed to the mast of a ship during a storm at sea, though the story is probably apocryphal.

Jackie Wullschlager, reviewing the exhibition for the Financial Times, said this:

Vortex-like compositions, suggesting history’s repetitions as doomed cycles of catastrophe and of man sucked to his fate recur in Turner. They are the violent side of the Victorian anxiety, which found sentimental expression in the “Temeraire” – and they shocked contemporaries. “Soapsuds and whitewash” was the response of one critic to “Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842), built up from looping swaths of dark/white impasto and conflicting diagonals, and exhibited with the provocatively realist subtitle “The Author was in this Storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich”.

At Greenwich, this is joined by further maelstrom masterpieces from the US: the Clark Institute’s “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to warn Steam-boats of Shoal-Water” (1840), in which smoke, steam, spume and spray swirl into dissolutions of pure light and colour; Yale’s “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” (1832), recording a storm Turner encountered in the Highlands in a steamboat, at the moment when “the sun getting towards the horizon burst through the rain-cloud, angry”. Romanticism’s great theme was man’s insignificance before nature’s overwhelming force; Turner’s whipped-up vortices gave it a new language, infused with Victorian pessimism about impermanence and meaninglessness. Even more than mountains, the sea was Turner’s natural element, allowing the most extreme expression of his fatalism.

Seascape with Distant Coast, c 1840

Seascape with Distant Coast, c 1840

Seascape with Storm Coming On, c 1840

Seascape with Storm Coming On, c 1840

Whether or not these are unfinished works, they provide an opportunity to study Turner’s technique, revealing a great deal about how he built up his images. In ‘Seascape with Storm Coming On’, Turner has begun the work with two distinct areas of colour for sea and sky, washed in very broadly. He used a similar method in the large batch of watercolours known as ‘colour beginnings’ that he produced from the late 1810s onwards. The lower of the two areas is an extraordinary golden colour, permeated by passages of grey and black. The surface is further animated with light, but very deliberate, touches of white, green and brown.

Waves Breaking against the Wind, c.1840

Waves Breaking against the Wind, c.1840

In the 1830s and 1840s Turner made dozens of watercolours and oils based on close observation of the sea from the shore. Some of these were worked up into exhibited pictures, while others were used as studies for paintings, or left in an unfinished state.  In ‘Waves Breaking against the Wind’, the shadowy grey shape emerging through the mist may be the harbour wall and lighthouse at Margate, which is the subject of a related canvas, ‘Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore‘.

I think Adrian Hamilton in the Independent has it just right: the watercolours and late (possibly unfinished) seascapes in oil ‘leave you gasping’:

They just are – without rules, without objects, without composition – pure paint and pure sensation.

See also

A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

Greenwich 1

The view from the north bank of the Thames

Heading for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, we decided to take the Docklands Light Railway, past the improbably named Mudchute, to Island Gardens, the last stop on the north bank of the Thames. We wanted to take advantage of the excellent views across the river to the complex of elegant 17th century buildings at Greenwich – Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House, and the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Hospital for injured and disabled seamen designed by Christopher Wren.

Greenwich 2

The Cutty Sark at Greenwich with the glazed dome of the foot tunnel entrance on the right

Another attraction is that from Island Gardens you can walk to Greenwich under the Thames using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.  The tunnel was opened in 1902 to allow workers living on the south side of the Thames to reach their workplaces in the London docks and shipyards then located in or near the Isle of Dogs.

Greenwich 3

Entering the tunnel

The cast-iron tunnel is 1,215 feet long and burrows 50 feet below the river bed.  Its cast-iron rings are lined with concrete which has been surfaced with some 200,000 white glazed tiles.  At each end, access to the tunnel is by means of a round entrance hall with a glazed dome.  There are lifts as well as steps!

Greenwich foot tunnel entrancea

The tunnel entrance at Greenwich

We emerged from the tunnel on the south side to what was originally the site of Greenwich Palace, built by Henry VII and the birthplace of the Tudor queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. Having fallen into disrepair during the Civil War, the palace was demolished and replaced in 1692 by the Royal Hospital for Seamen, a permanent home and healthcare facility for disabled sailors of the Royal Navy which operated until 1869. The building was designed by Christopher Wren, who was also the architect responsible for the Royal Greenwich Observatory up the hill beyond.

Our main purpose in coming here was to see the current exhibition at the National Maritime Musuem – Turner and the Sea (to be the subject of the next post), housed in The Queen’s House, designed by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.  Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. It was his first important commission and the first fully Classical building built in England.  The building was completed in 1619.

Queen House colonnade

The Queen’s House colonnade, a 19th century addition

After seeing the Turner exhibition, we climbed the hill to the Greenwich Observatory, commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II who also created the position of Astronomer Royal to serve as the director of the observatory and to

Apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.

Greenwich 5

The Greenwich Observatory

The Observatory was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain and played a major part in the history of astronomy, especially in solving problems of navigation and timekeeping. Both were critical to the development of colonisation and overseas trade in the 17th century, and representative of the Enlightenment focus on scientific method and knowledge.  The Observatory is probably best known as the location of the prime meridian, and on the day we were there groups of schoolchildren were excitedly photographing other standing astride the meridian.

Greenwich 9

Astride the Greenwich meridian

If you climb the winding stairs to the upper section of the observatory, you emerge inside the onion dome which houses the 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope; completed in 1893, it’s the largest of its kind in the UK and the seventh largest in the world.  We were here for something less astronomical though, but inspired nevertheless by similar questions of time and space.

Greenwich 8

The 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope

Entering the dome, you slowly become aware that you are hearing music of an ethereal beauty: ringing tones, bells and unearthly vibrations.  This is Longplayer, a piece of music designed to last for one thousand years. It started to play at the start of the millennium in 1999, and if all goes to plan it will continue without repetition until 31 December 2999. Then it will start over again.

Longplayer was designed and composed by Jem Finer, formerly of The Pogues (he co-wrote several of the band’s songs, including ‘Fairytale of New York’, with Shane MacGowan).  We had wanted to visit Longplayer ever since encountering another Jem Finer sound installation – Score for a Hole in the Ground – while walking in a wood in Kent.

Longplayer is a piece of music designed to last 1000 years without ever repeating itself, and currently exists in both online and live versions (at the Royal Observatory, inside a 19th century lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London Docklands, and at the Science Museum. Longplayer is based on an existing piece of music, 20 minutes and 20 seconds in length, which is processed by computer using a simple algorithm. This gives a large number of variations, which, when played consecutively, gives a total expected runtime of 1000 years. The music was composed using Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, which are able to create a range of sounds by either striking or rolling pieces of wood around the rims. This source music was recorded in December 1999.

Greenwich 7


Longplayer reflects several of Jem Finer’s concerns, particularly relating to systems, long-duration processes and extremes of scale in time and space. Finer explains on his website that:

Longplayer grew out of a conceptual concern with problems of representing and understanding the fluidity and expansiveness of time. While it found form as a musical composition, it can also be understood as a living, 1000-year-long process – an artificial life form programmed to seek its own survival strategies. More than a piece of music, Longplayer is a social organism, depending on people – and the communication between people – for its continuation, and existing as a community of listeners across centuries.

An important stage in the development of the project was the establishment of the Longplayer Trust, a lineage of present and future custodians invested with the responsibility to research and implement strategies for Longplayer’s survival, to ask questions as to how it might keep playing, and to seek solutions for an unknown future.

As to how the long duration of the piece has been achieved, Finer says:

Longplayer is composed in such a way that the character of its music changes from day to day and – though it is beyond the reach of any one person’s experience – from century to century. It works in a way somewhat akin to a system of planets, which are aligned only once every thousand years, and whose orbits meanwhile move in and out of phase with each other in constantly shifting configurations. In a similar way, Longplayer is predetermined from beginning to end – its movements are calculable, but are occurring on a scale so vast as to be all but unknowable.

Longplayer has been playing since 1999 and will continue to play till 2999. On the 12 September 2009, 1000 minutes was performed live at The Roundhouse in London:

Leaving the Observatory, we walked back down the hill.  Along the way there is a dramatic view of the City skyline, its steel and glass towers dwarfing the classically-proportioned buildings on the near bank of the Thames.

Greenwich 6

I found the view deeply depressing; it provoked the thought that here, in concentrated form, was an image that spoke of the contrast between an age of enlightenment, distinguished by scientific enquiry and the pursuit of human dignity, and one in thrall to the pursuit of wealth and the power of financial institutions (see their names emblazoned there on the towers!); between an architecture whose proportions were in tune with the human scale, and one with no humanity which subjugates humans to little more than ants.  I thought of Blake’s ‘London’:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

See also

The Tord Gustavsen Quartet: intense presence and calmness

The Tord Gustavsen Quartet: intense presence and calmness

Tord Gustavsen Quartet

The Tord Gustavsen Quartet l to r: Jarle Vespestad, Tore Brunborg, Tord Gustavsen, Mats Eilertsen

I like a bit of melancholia in my music, and you couldn’t get more melancholy than the second album by the Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Ground – described in the Guardian when it was released in 2005 as wallowing ‘in those feelings of faint melancholy you get when gazing out of the window on a wet Sunday afternoon’.  The spare, slow moving but hauntingly beautiful melody of ‘Tears Transforming’, the opening track of that album, was my introduction to the Norwegian pianist’s trio which, ‘if there was an award for the quietest band in the world’ – to quote the Guardian again – ‘would win it hands down’.

On Sunday evening we went to the Barbican’s new Milton Court venue, exquisitely furnished in what could possibly be Norwegian wood, to hear Tord Gustavsen’s Quartet play a considerably more dynamic show.  The music here – as on Extended Circle,  the new album by the Quartet – sounded more muscular, more purposeful, than on the trio of restrained Trio albums (Changing Places, The Ground and Being There) that we have grown to love in our house. I don’t know to what extent the addition of saxophonist Tore Brunborg was responsible – he was certainly not alone in launching off from the passages of meditative stillness into less fragile, more gloves-off improvisations.

They began quietly enough, as Gustavsen explored the keys of the piano almost inaudibly, the hush broken only by the whispering of brushed cymbal from Jarle Vespestad.  But Gustavsen was soon on his feet, Keith Jarrett-style, black-suited and hunched over the keyboards like some Nosferatu figure, writhing and twisting as the sinuous melodies spooled out.  Jarle Vespestad is, apparently, renowned for his aggressive drumming; as if recognising his own predilections, but affecting some restraint, at times he applied a towel to his drum kit, in order to muffle the sound.

The programme consisted of tunes from the new Quartet album, Extended Circle, along with older trio pieces – all of them re-worked in fine improvisations that revealed an ensemble in perfect tune with each other.  In interviews about the new album Gustavsen has agreed that the quartet cuts loose more than on the trio albums:

But to me, it is the same basic approach. We’ve always had a combination of restraint and passion, but that can work out in different ways. On this album we’ve found ways to include a bit more dynamic and more…you could even say extroverted playing, within our framework of a contemplative, stripped-down approach.

Tord Gustavsen

Tord Gustavsen

Gustavsen introduced several of the numbers in a hoarse whisper.  One, he said, was in a major key – ‘something rather difficult for us as Norwegian musicians; we are more at home in the minor, the melancholy’. But there’s something else: he has described some of his songs as ‘wordless hymns’:

I grew up singing hymns.  Whenever I can stretch out for new land musically on the basis of a fundamental hymnal structure, then the music becomes liberated.  Anyone can play weird stuff, it’s finding a way that feels rooted yet free, and for me, that freedom is connected with spirituals and lullabies.

This religious influence has often been acknowledged by Gustavsen, who played in church while growing up, and it was apparent at times in this performance. Introducing ‘Eg Veit I Himmerick Ei Borg’ (‘A Castle in Heaven’) from the new album, Gustavsen explained that it is based on a Norwegian folk song, often sung at funerals,  which nevertheless has at its heart a message of hope:

I know of a heavenly stronghold
shining as bright as the sun;
there are neither sin nor sorrow
and never a tear is shed.

I am a weary traveller;
may my path lead me
from here to the land of my father;
God, protect me on my way.

Gustavsen says has known this tune since childhood:

It carries an intense duality of sorrow and hope, both in its music and in its lyrics. And those lyrics are at the back of my head. Hymns and spirituals are a fundamental part of my core and it’s a blessing to find new and mature ways of relating to those roots.

It’s on this beautiful number especially that Tore Brunborg’s sax soars to the most passionate solo of the night – one very much in the style of Jan Garbarek. It’s a spine-tingling moment in a a brilliant concert.

With regard to the title of the new album, Gustavsen has described the Quartet as:

A creative circle or community – pulsating through communal experience, but also through whatever the individual musicians do outside this circle and bring back to the collective. The modernistic notion of linear progress is dead… we want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles, developing the musical approach or ideology with – hopefully – a deeper insight, a deeper set of experiences and skills.

This passion for uniting raw emotion with elegance and an almost meditational type of playing will never be finished. It’s probably my life’s mission to keep exploring the different dilemmas and challenges and potentials of that, because it’s connected to a very fundamental life purpose of mine – musically and spiritually – to unite intense presence with calmness.
– Tord Gustavsen

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles crop

Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’ (detail)

He was 59 yet looks, even by the standards of his time, very old. He would die four years later.  Standing before Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait with Circles’ in Kenwood House last Sunday afternoon as crowds jostled and surged around me, face to face with the intensity of the artist’s stare, I felt myself drawn into a zone of contemplative stillness. In this large self-portrait, Rembrandt the painter has a commanding presence, yet as the poet Elizabeth Jennings observes in ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits‘, in the gentleness and melancholy of that stare there is ‘a humility at one with craft’:

There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.

Love of the art and others.  To the last
Experiment went on.  You stared beyond
Your age, the times…..

As in all of the late self portraits, Rembrandt looks out from the darkness. John Berger, in an essay in The Shape of a Pocket, wrote that ‘painting – particularly in the second half of his life – was… for him a search for an exit from the darkness.’

Kenwood House is open once again after renovation, and this was the painting I most wanted to see there. It shows the artist, looking toward us, holding the tools of his trade: a palette, brushes and a maulstick.   He’s wearing a simple linen painter’s cap whose brilliant white is depicted in slabs of paint slathered on the canvas thickly.  In Rembrandt’s Eyes, Simon Schama wrote of how Rembrandt had here:

produced a manifesto of painterly freedom: his cap built higher with lashings of thick lead white, crowning the face still sovereign of his own studio, if not the world, the grey cloudlets of hair still curly with vigour.

There is more evidence of that ‘manifesto of painterly freedom’ in the way in which Rembrandt has painted ‘his hands, rendered as a blurred whirl of paint, slathered and scribbled, with the brushes also crudely suggested with just a few summary lines’.

Rembrandt portrays himself at work in his studio, intently studying his reflection, before turning to the canvas whose edge we can just barely discern at the right side of the painting.  While Kenwood was closed, the painting went off to New York, to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum. In an essay for the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote:

The work’s emotional gravity and psychic complexity underscore why Rembrandt is often likened to Shakespeare; no artist before him had painted human interiority in all its uneasy, ambivalent, conflicted glory. Again and again his portraits and self-portraits give us pictures of consciousness valiantly making its way through life. […]

The Kenwood painting is a superb example of Rembrandt’s late style, from a time when he had long forsaken the smooth-surfaced, so-called neat style of his earlier years and the Baroque compositional complexities of his middle period. The simple frontal pose and unadorned garb are about as Classical as Rembrandt gets; much of the surface exudes the painterly bravura of loose — or what the Dutch called rough — painting. The face is keenly real if still visibly textured; no one captures the play of light on ageing flesh like Rembrandt, but he abbreviated or omitted other details as needed, keeping the reality of paint and process and the reality of his subject equally before the viewer in a way that still feels innovative and even proto-modern.

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles

Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’

Jonathan Jones,writing on his Guardian blog as Kenwood reopened to the public after refurbishment, reckoned that ‘this is a supreme work of art, the best we have’:

Rembrandt, at the age of about 59, looks at us from the depth of his years, and with the authority of his craft. He has portrayed himself holding his brushes, maulstick and palette, in front of two circles drawn on a wall. Why the circles? Do they represent a sketch for a map of the world? Or is Rembrandt alluding, with this drawing on a brown surface, to stories that say the first picture was a drawing made with a stick in sand?

His eyes contain so much knowledge and melancholy that even looking at this painting on a computer screen, I get the eerie feeling that Rembrandt is looking back and weighing up my failures. You can deduce the power of the original.

He was a failure when he painted this, a proud man reduced to poverty by his enthusiastic spending – but here he throws it back on the burghers of Amsterdam. Art is not a business; it is a struggle with eternity. Rembrandt stands not proudly or arrogantly, but in the full consciousness of the heroic nature of his work.

First there is nothing, then there is a circle. The human hand, guided by the eye and the brain, makes a mark that only we can make – there are no other geometricians but us, no other animal that can draw or presumably conceive a circle.

Rembrandt was a famous man, but, living beyond his means in the decade after he had completed the commission to paint the ‘Night Watch’ in 1642, by the 1650s he was bankrupt. He had failed to pay off the debt on the house he had bought in 1639, had not accepted any commissions since 1642, and had spent large sums building his art collection.

There is a compelling, mysterious quality to Rembrandt’s later work that derives not just from the intensity of observation and the painterly execution, but from their remarkable stillness. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, wrote that in the later paintings Rembrandt turned the traditional purpose of portraiture – to be an an advertisement for the sitter’s good fortune – against itself:

All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him – who is both and less than the old man – has found the means to express just that, using a medium which has been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.

 ‘A Face To the World’ is a poem on Rembrandt’s self portraits written in Scottish dialect by Laura Cumming:

He kent as thae een lookt at his
Oot’e the dark he made in yon picter
He lookt on a man, himself, as on
A stane dish, or leaf fa’ in winter.
That calm was his strang sough.
But in that dark twa wee lichts,
Een that is hope like lit windaes
An in that hoose muckle business.


Arriving in London that lunchtime from a chilly Liverpool, it was as if we had skipped a season: the capital was basking in the warmth of a summer’s day under skies of uninterrupted blue.  The grounds of Kenwood were thronged with Londoners enjoying the sunshine after a winter of prolonged rain.  We joined them, making a leisurely circuit around the grounds, with the elegant house designed by Robert Adam always in sight.

The interior restoration of Robert Adam-designed rooms, and the redecoration of a further four rooms in the 18th century style, was recently completed, meaning that visitors can once again see the paintings once owned by Lord Iveagh, the last owner of the house who donated it to the nation, along with his art collection.

The house dates originally from the early 17th century. In 1754 it was bought by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield who commissioned Robert Adam to remodel it.  This adds to the interest of the house for me, since I had been inspired by studying Lord Mansfield’s famous judgement in the Somersett Case for A-level History Special Paper back at school in the sixties.

Mansfield’s judgement in the Somersett Case came at a time when ships registered in Liverpool, Bristol and London carried more than half the slaves shipped in the world. James Somersett was a slave owned by Charles Stewart, an American customs officer who sailed to Britain for business, landing on 10 November 1769. A few days later Somersett attempted to escape. He was recaptured in November and imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, owned by Captain John Knowles and bound for the British colony of Jamaica. However, three people claiming to be Somersett’s godparents made an application before the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus to determine whether his imprisonment was legal.

On behalf of Somersett, it was argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England, nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery, and slavery was therefore illegal. The arguments in court focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. Finally, on 22 June 1772 Mansfield gave his judgment, which ruled that a master could not carry his slave out of England by force, and concluded:

 The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the man must be discharged.

Mansfield’s judgement did not end the slave trade, but only confirmed that slavery was illegal in Britain. Although slavery was not completely abolished in the British Empire until 1834, Mansfield’s decision is considered to have been a significant step in recognising the illegality of slavery. As a result of Mansfield’s decision several thousand slaves were freed, some of whom remained with their masters as paid employees.

Back at school, I remember we were taught that Lord Mansfield declared in his ruling that ‘The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe’, but in fact no such words appear in the judgement. Instead, they were spoken in court by counsel for Somersett, citing a report of a case from 1569, in the reign of Elizabeth I, in which

One Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

Painting of Dido Belle with her cousin Elizabeth, attributed to Johann Zoffany

There’s an interesting personal twist to this case.  In Kenwood House there is a painting of Lord Mansfield’s great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, Sir John Lindsay, and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Mansfield was Lindsay’s uncle – and thus Dido’s great-uncle.

Lindsay sent the child Dido to live with his uncle at Kenwood. Mansfield and his wife were childless, but were already raising Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother’s death. Both girls were about the same age. Dido lived at Kenwood for about thirty years, her position an unusual one, since she had been born the daughter of a slave, and as such would have been considered a slave outside England.

Dido was treated as a member of the family, though would not dine with the rest of the family if they had guests, only joining the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence – an indication that she was fairly well educated. The running of the dairy and poultry yard would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual, since this was normally done by a male clerk. She  received an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic servant. By contrast, Elizabeth received around £100 – being an heiress in her own right.

When all is said and done, many in the social circles that Mansfield and wife moved in must have been appalled by the couple’s embrace of a woman who was both the daughter of a black slave, and illegitimate.  Certainly Mansfield was so worried for her future security that he specified in his will that his ‘mulatto’ great-niece was to be considered a free woman.

See also