28 June 2011

Peter Blake at the Holburne Museum, Bath

Sir Peter Blake, RA will be 80 next year and spent 10 years of his long artistic career living near Bath (SW England). Appropriately the reopening of Bath’s Holburne Museum is being marked by a show he has curated: Peter Blake A Museum for Myself. Blake is best known for his Pop art, particularly the cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper LP. He is a compulsive and eclectic collector – model elephants, shell teapots, images of Monroe and other curious things are artfully arranged in this show. The displays seem to draw even the most sceptical visitors into Blake’s view of the world. There are family tickets available for this enjoyable summer holidays exhibition which runs to 4 September. Access to the Holburne’s permanent collection of art and other decorative objects is free.

The architect of the extension to the Museum, Eric Parry, has managed to attract the praise of both the Guardian and the Telegraph, no mean achievement in itself. Designing a substantial addition to a neo-classical Georgian building in Bath must be one of the more challenging commissions to receive. A extension faithful to the existing style can disrupt the original, probably carefully considered, proportions, and, even if well-executed, may look flaccid – Bath has some of those. A bold, but inevitably discontinuous, contemporary addition risks attracting the wrath of the “monstrous carbuncle” brigade. Parry chose the latter and it seems to have worked well. The frontage facing Great Pulteney Street has not been affected, while the rear view is dominated by the extension which conceals most of the original. 

Because of the confines of the Holburne’s grounds, there are only a few sightlines of the inevitably tricky interface between the old and new.

The Holburne extension cost over £11 million provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The ground floor, in the modern way, is given over to a café, so at a rough guesstimate that might be about about £4000 to £5000 per sq ft of gallery space useful for exhibits. Most of the visitors didn’t look the lottery ticket-buying type.

23 June 2011

Sculpture in Gloucestershire

There are currently two opportunities to see some modern British sculpture in Gloucestershire (SW England) – at Quenington and at Chalford, 18 miles (30km) to the west.

The Quenington Sculpture Trust has been running shows of contemporary sculpture in the riverside gardens of Quenington Old Rectory since 1992. The 10th show, Fresh Air 2011, which started on 19 June, features about 170 items from over 100 contributors, all in the delightful setting of Mr and Mrs Abel-Smith’s garden. Thanks to their support, what started as a local event has now become a significant biennale of sculpture with coverage in the national media.

Soaring Figure by Rick Kirby

Fragment by Jilly Sutton
Gallery Pangolin at Chalford is the showcase for the sculpture foundry, Pangolin Editions. The foundry had a long relationship with the sculptor Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) and to mark the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, when Chadwick’s talent was first recognised, the Gallery is showing Strange Beasts Lynn Chadwick and the New Generation.
Beast VII by Lynn Chadwick

Lorraine Robbins, the curator, asked five young artists to produce responses to Chadwick’s work and these are displayed alongside the relevant piece. Robbins gamely made her own contribution intended as a reaction to Chadwick’s Beast VII, commenting:
What strikes me about Chadwick's work and this piece in particular, is a real maleness in its welded angular construction, emphasising hard geometric shapes. In her book, The Nude in Art, Lynda Nead suggests that ‘if the male signifies culture, order, geometry ... then the female stands for nature and physicality.' She also posits that within the ideal, muscular, male body there lies a fear that it may revert to ‘its own female formlessness' or 'the beast within'. Beast 43 started as a desire to physically become Chadwick's beast. I wanted to perch heavily and precariously on a plinth, an unsavoury intruder in the gallery. In making the cast I chose to wear a bra and G-string, (a garment described by Roland Barthes in his essay 'Striptease' as the ‘ultimate triangle'), the flimsy, ornate triangles of underwear forming a distorted echo to the simple, masculine forms of Chadwick's Beast VII.
Beast 43 by Lorraine Robbins
We are left to draw our own conclusions as to the significance of Robbins' head being concealed by an empty box of dog biscuits, in contrast to the ravaging mandibles of Chadwick’s creation. Beast 43 was still on sale when I visited – I hope it finds a buyer at £2000 before the show ends on 15 July.

Fresh Air 2011 closes on 10 July.

Engineers in the UK (and China)

In a post in February I lamented the status of professional engineers in Britain, and the misuse of the term “engineer”. I didn’t hold out any prospect of significant change then, and the situation was hardly helped last week on the BBC1 reality show, The Apprentice.   Lord Sugar (enobled, and rivalled for charm, by Gordon Brown) chairs a “Board” and selects an aspiring young business person for (in this series) investment and partnership – tasks are set and each week one of the wannabes is stood down. On the 15 June show Sugar decided to ‘fire’ senior design engineer Glenn Ward from the competition because he was an engineer. According to the New Civil Engineer, Sugar told Ward:
“I have never yet come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business. I’m not convinced that a leopard is ever going to change his spots, and [that] an engineer is going to have the right ideas to come in business with me.
He later said that Ward was “exactly the example” of an engineer who fails at business.
This produced a predictable chorus of complaint, for example in the Observer from James Dyson, the inventor and vacuum cleaner tycoon. He was kind enough not to bring up Sugar’s famous prediction in February 2005: 'Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput,'.   In fact it was well before then that Sugar seemed to have lost the nous for consumer electronics he had shown in the 1980s.

While not intentionally trying to make amends, the BBC is providing a much less half-baked view of the role of engineers in Made in Britain, a three-part series presented by Evan Davies . Unfortunately this is on BBC2 and will get a much smaller audience than The Apprentice on BBC1. In the first episode on 20 June Davies visited China, including Shanghai, to look at high-volume, low-value manufacturing of the type no longer viable in the UK. That morning, The Times (£), under the headline, Children get maths lessons from Asian ‘Tigers’, reported that maths teaching in English schools would adopt practices from Singapore and Hong Kong. It also pointed out:
Singapore came second in the latest international league of pupil achievement in maths, the UK was in 28th place. Shanghai came first.
Davies’ later programmes (if his accompanying book of the same title is anything to go by) are very likely to bring out the need for graduate engineers, if Britain is to undertake the necessary expansion of its manufacturing base. There is already no lack of demand: Dyson remarks “… the City loves engineers. I wish it didn't. I'm trying to lure another 400 bright minds to our Wiltshire laboratories.”

Rory Sutherland (vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK ) revealed in an article in the Spectator on 18 June, a marked contrast to the British way of running things :
This is from a 2007 blog, listing the Chinese politburo:

Hu Jintao, 62, President of the People’s Republic of China, graduate of Tsinghua University, Beijing, Department of Water Conservancy Engineering.
Huang Ju, 66, graduate of Tsinghua University, Department of Electrical Engineering.
Jia Qinglin, 65, graduate of Hebei Engineering College, Department of Electric Power.
Li Changchun, 61, graduate of Harbin Institute of Technology, Department of Electric Machinery.
Luo Gan, 69, graduate of Freiberg University of Mining and Technology, Germany.
Wen Jiabao, 62, premier of State Council, graduate of Beijing Institute of Geology, Department of Geology and Minerals.
Wu Bangguo, 63, graduate of Tsinghua University, Department of Radio Engineering.
Wu Guanzheng, 66, graduate of Tsinghua University, Power Department.
Zeng Qinghong, 65, graduate of Beijing Institute of Technology, Automatic Control Department.

I just checked to find out if anything had changed since 2007; perhaps they had recently decided to embrace diversity, appointing two female poets and someone with a background in contemporary dance. And so they have. Of the four new appointments since 2007, one is only in his late 50s and only three are engineers. Li Keqiang, the lone non-engineer of the nine, has a PhD in economics. This preponderance of engineers is not quite so exceptional as it first seems, since it reflects the communist fetish for heavy industry 45 years ago. And it is not all good — left unchecked, engineers are prone to devise grandstanding infrastructure projects that deliver little human value. But it is still revealing.

How many scientists are there in the House of Commons? Rather few, it seems. … No, I don’t want to be ruled by engineers. But you can’t deny that over the past 150 years they have solved more problems than politicians have.
China came up again in The Times when, kicking off its CEO Summit, it provided the results of a Populus opinion poll which had asked voters to rank the UK alongside its five major competitors on tax, infrastructure, skills, workforce and business friendliness, as summarised in the table below.

Obviously this is about public perceptions more than realities on the ground – after all how could “2,047 adults aged 18+ online between 17th June 2011 and 19th June 2011 across Great Britain”, and, “Generally speaking from everything you know or have heard or read”, be equipped to make such judgements?   38% of the sample had not taken a foreign holiday in the last three years, and 34% had left school before the age of 16. “Infrastructure” was defined “like the road & rail networks and other transport links” – but what about broadband, secure supplies of electricity and water, and so on?

Not that my views are likely to be of much value, either. I’ve been to the US and Germany in the last 10 years, but never to China or India, although I’ve probably been to France enough to have a stab at comparisons with the UK. Looking at the Table, the workforce skills relativities look dodgy: China second to Germany – one day maybe. France is almost certainly not fifth in workforce skills, nor behind the UK in my view, I’m sorry to say (plombiers being only a minor element of the French workforce). I also find it difficult to believe that France is worse than India as a place to set up a small business, and I wonder if France’s infrastructure is superior to Germany’s, taking the old East and West together, despite the enormous investment of recent years in the former. With its large fleet of nuclear reactors, France certainly won’t have Germany’s dependence on imported gas for electricity production in years to come.

To end on a more upbeat note, I see that BT send a ‘technician’, not an ‘engineer’, out to fix your stuff, unlike British Gas (see previous post). However, BT are well aware of the cost of what they call “wagon rolls” and, unless the problem is their fault, you may well get a bill shortly after the visit! I would expect that in China they are all called technicians.

21 June 2011

Will the Queen Retire at 90?

I have no idea, but it is something to speculate about in an idle moment. Prince Philip was 90 last week (17 June), and told the BBC that he is "winding down" and reducing his workload as a senior member of the royal family. In an interview with the BBC's Fiona Bruce, the Queen's husband said: "I reckon I've done my bit." So might the Queen follow his example after her 90th birthday in April 2016?

Usually when the possibility of the Queen’s standing down is discussed, the idea is quickly ruled out on the grounds of the A-word. Certainly the Abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 represented a major crisis for the Royal Family at the time, but for most people who have seen The King’s Speech this year, Edward was as historically remote as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown. Very few people would begrudge the Queen’s stepping down after so many years of service, or would now regard it as being constitutionally destabilising. Although it might take a little time and effort to induce popular enthusiasm for Charles’ accession, if his sons were to make their support clear any public misgivings would probably soon disappear. All the better if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have produced an heir by 2016.

There might be political attractions too. Bruce Anderson in the FT recently described David Cameron as a man, “Absolute in his own intellectual self-confidence”. So presumably the PM is certain that coalition policies will lead to the British economy being well on the way to recovery by 2015. If so, in the election due that year the country could be expected to return a Conservative government. The PM at the time of the last Coronation, also towards the end of a period of enforced austerity, was Winston Churchill. David Kynaston in Family Britain 1951-1957 remarks (page 305) that the Coronation and the preceding period of anticipation “were not comfortable days for the British left, or indeed the progressive intelligentsia as a whole”. He goes on to quote Barbara Castle: “Winston has just introduced her [the Queen] on the radio, exploiting the romantic mood of the moment to its fruitiest uttermost.” Churchill left government two years later at the age of 80. If Cameron were to stand down in 2017, probably in favour of George Osborne, he would be only 51. But like Tony Blair he would then have time to earn a substantial amount, and he would be able to remove his children from Downing Street before their teenage years. SEE ADDENDUM 22 JUNE BELOW.

Some statistics provide another perspective. The chart below shows the lengths of the reigns of the Queen’s 10 predecessors (excluding Edward VIII) plotted against their age at accession. The data points for the Queen (QE2) and the future King Charles (C3) assume that they leave the throne at the age of 90 (ignoring actuarial considerations). Most sovereigns have been crowned in middle age or later, with only the two Queens and George III (G3) acceding under the age of 30. Queen Victoria (QV) was on the throne for more than 63 years, a record which the Queen will overtake by the end of 2015. If Charles were to accede in 2016, and follow the precedent set by his mother of retiring at 90, he would have reigned for over 15 years, longer than his grandfather and four other sovereigns in the preceding 300 years.

This all seems so neat that it is most unlikely to happen. The relevant non-conjectural data is tabulated below.

Beware of the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar during the reign of George II!

ADDENDUM 22 JUNE: In his Daily Telegraph blog today, Benedict Brogan, who is reputedly close to Number 10, makes a good case for Boris Johnson being the other likely successor to David Cameron.  Johnson’s intimesexpect Mr Cameron to step aside some time in a second term to pursue other interests.”

This post still gets the occasional hit, so I should draw the attention of anyone who reads this far to the following. The Queen gave a speech to Parliament today to mark her 60 years on the throne. She said:
I have been privileged to witness some of that [nearly a thousand years of British] history and, with the support of my family, rededicate myself to the service of our great country and its people now and in the years to come.

19 June 2011

Toulouse-Lautrec at the Courtauld

What a relief, after the visual bombardment of the good, bad and calculatedly commercial at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, to go on to the Courtauld Gallery’s current show, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond The Moulin Rouge, which runs to 18 September.  Not only has the Courtauld secured a loan of the Art Institute of Chicago’s At the Moulin Rouge as the highlight, but the Gallery provides additional ophthalmic balm in the form of an opportunity to wander through its permanent collection of late 19th and 20th century art.

As might be expected, the Gallery has produced an exceptionally informative webpage about the current exhibition. But there is scope to add a minor footnote here relating to one of this blog’s preoccupations: SW France. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864 in Albi (Tarn départment in the Midi-Pyrenees region). In 1883 his mother, Comtesse Adèle, bought a château, Malromé, in the Gironde département (Aquitaine region). Lautrec visited frequently and died there in 1901. He was buried nearby in Verdelais.

'La Comtesse Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec dans le salon du Château de Malromé'
Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi
Château Malromé has produced wine since the 1600s. Currently it makes red wines (including Cuvée Comtesse Adèle) designated as Bordeaux supérieur, and whites, Bordeaux Blanc. There are about 40ha of vines. Some of the Malromé labels incorporate an image of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

PS In the unlikely event that the anonymous donor who sponsored the Courtauld exhibition should read this – your generosity is much appreciated.

18 June 2011

François Ozon’s ‘Potiche’

François Ozon’s films in recent years include the dramas 5x2, Under the Sand (Sous le sable) and Swimming Pool (La piscine) and the comedy 8 Women (8 Femmes). Potiche, ( a trophy wife), which has now been released in the UK, is, like 8 Women, based on a comic play and stars Catherine Deneuve. As in her 100th film, A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), Deneuve plays the matriarch of a French business family. In the musical film which made her name in 1964, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, she helped her mother in their umbrella shop (parapluiterie? – probably not), so it seems appropriate that in Potiche she steps in to run the family umbrella factory (which seems to bear as much resemblance to the real thing as Willy Wonka’s did to Cadburys), and ends with a song. 
The film is set in late 1970s France under Giscard d'Estaing’s presidency when his Prime Minister, Roland Barre, advocated industrial restructuring leading to increasing unemployment against opposition from the powerful French trade unions. Gérard Depardieu plays the local (and communist) mayor (a significant figure in France).  Not surprisingly, with Deneuve and Depardieu and its retrokitsch 70s setting, the film was a hit in France, so as with another success there, Little White Lies, don’t expect intellectual profundity. Nonetheless, without making heavy weather of it, the film touches on issues of feminism, adultery, abortion and deindustrialisation –  perhaps too lightly for some tastes.

Pretty certain to entertain in a drab wet June here in England.

12 June 2011

Tate and Hepworth at St Ives

A post last month described the recent exhibition at Compton Verney of works by Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson, two artists associated with St Ives (Cornwall, SW England). Virginia Button’s St Ives Artists: A Companion, published by the Tate, provides a helpful introduction to 18 of the best-known members of the colony of artists working there in a significant way from the 1930s to the 1960s (and also to the potter Bernard Leach.

The mission of the Tate’s outpost at St Ives is to present 20th-century art in the context of Cornwall. The displays change regularly, allowing a different selection from the Tate's extensive collection of St Ives art to be shown each year. Visitors need to be aware that there is no permanent display of St Ives artists’ work in the Gallery. However, this year the Tate St Ives Summer Exhibition includes works by two artists with local links: Naum Gabo and Margaret Mellis, both active there during the Second World War.

The St Ives artist whose works are permanently held locally is Barbara Hepworth. Her former studio, now Museum and Sculpture Garden, is near, and part of, Tate St Ives. Gabo and his wife, and Hepworth and her husband, Ben Nicholson (and their triplets), moved to Cornwall in 1939, having been part of the Hampstead community of artists and sculptors from earlier in the 1930s. Common influences such as the use of strings in sculpture can be seen in the Gabo and Hepworth pieces currently at St Ives. Mellis and her first husband also moved to St Ives in 1939 (the Nicholsons lived with them for a while). The work of Nicholson and Gabo led Mellis to experiment with collages, some of which are exhibited. Most of her work on display is from the 1970s: attractive constructions made from driftwood found on the beach at Southwold (Suffolk), where she lived until her death in 2009 at the age of 95.

The St Ives colony was the second such in west Cornwall. There had been rail links to Penzance from 1859 and through services on the Great Western Railway reached St Ives in 1877. The area soon attracted artistic attention: the scenery, the fisherfolk and their boats, together with the exceptional quality of the light and the vogue for painting en plein air, influenced by the naturalism of French painters of the time, led to a settlement of artists at Newlyn. Part of the attraction of Newlyn was its similarity to Brittany. Penlee House Museum and Gallery in Penzance is the only Cornish public gallery specialising in the Newlyn School artists including Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes, Walter Langley, Harold Harvey and Laura Knight.

As well as a selection from its permanent collection, Penlee House is running an exhibition this summer, Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys, featuring some of the artists who came from the Midlands to work in Newlyn from the 1880s onwards.

There are tickets available for combined entry to Tate St Ives, including the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Penlee House, which offer a useful saving – these do not seem to be publicised on either organisations’ websites, but are featured at the Tate St Ives ticket desk.

Among the London galleries, Messum’s has a continuing interest in West Country paintings from the 1880s onwards. Locally, the Market House Gallery in Marazion holds a good stock of prints by Terry Frost and others, any of which might suit the whitewashed walls of what was once a fisherman’s cottage.

However, any visitor with a taste for late St Ives abstractionism, should not ignore the vagaries of the Cornish weather, well-appreciated by the realists of the Newlyn School:

The Rain it Raineth Every Day by Norman Garstin

5 June 2011

Eagle – the 1950s Comic

The Works describes itself as Britain’s Leading Discount Book Store. I think that their branches are worth dropping into from time to time - good value on UK road atlases. When I saw this volume, and being a man of a certain age, I had to buy it, having fancied it when it first came out in 2007 - at three times the price I paid in The Works.

There is a good account on Wikipedia of Eagle and its seminal influence. It was a weekly comic printed in colour aimed at teenage boys, launched in April 1950. Every year Eagle produced an annual, so this volume’s title is a bit of a misnomer being a collation of material selected by Daniel Tatarsky from Eagle’s best decade, the 1950s. It certainly educated and entertained in a wholesome way, and with its emphasis on space flight (Dan Dare Pilot of the Future, subject of a recent Science Museum exhibition) and excellent cutaways of engineering achievements (in 1953 ‘British Cars for Export – the Vauxhall Velox’, but also in 1956 the German pocket battleship Graf Spee scuttled in 1939), it anticipated Harold Wilson’s vision of a Britain of white–hot technology. In fact, its editor had an exaggerated view of the rate of progress likely in aerospace, and a limited appreciation of the potential for the development of electronics and eventually IT. Reflecting its period, not much attention was paid to football, and none at all to pop music or TV, at least in this selection. Apparently works by the young Gerald Scarfe and David Hockney appeared in the Eagle, but not in this volume, as far as I can tell.

Some items which struck me:

The size of the Royal Navy at the time of the Coronation Fleet Review at Spithead in 1953 – numerous battleships (scrapped shortly afterwards), eight aircraft carriers in line and scores of lesser ships (pages 90/1). (Coincidentally, the Graf Spee had represented Germany at the previous Coronation Fleet Review in 1937.) For sure, there will be nothing like it ever again – even the French are now feeling sorry for the RN, despite Trafalgar and Mers-el-Kébir.

Numerous articles from the Eagle Special Investigator, Macdonald Hastings, father of Max, who has recently written about his upbringing in Did You Really Shoot the Television?: A Family Fable. Not quite the set-up that the parents paying for Eagle, anxious at the time to divert their grammar school-directed offspring from Beano and Dandy, might have expected.

A Reader’s Letter (paid 5/- ie 25p, but worth about £10 now) in 1951 (page 43) from a David Irving of Hutton, Essex: “I think it is a deplorable hobby for boys to throw messages inside bottles into the sea. When they reach the shore they invariably break and can thus cause many accidents.” This might be the writer, David Irving (b 1938), whose details can also be found on Wikipedia, for anyone not aware of him.

Fans of ‘The King’s Speech’ would like ‘The King Speaks’ (pages 40/1), a diagram of the Royal microphones, GPO land lines, BBC transmitters and control rooms etc. needed for ‘HM The King’s Christmas Broadcast’ to travel from Sandringham to the “four corners of the Empire” “with the same velocity as that with which light is transmitted from the sun. … so that His Majesty’s voice travels once around the earth in one-seventh of a second.”

Apart from its preoccupation with technology, some obsolescent even at the time, the attitudes and values which Eagle embodied seem to belong to a lost world. Oddly, the Eagle’s 1950s seem beyond halfway from the present to the 1890s (Sherlock Holmes's fictional heyday), even with the two world wars in the interim.

The Dan Dare Corporation owns the global media rights to the Eagle comic and the comic strip 'Dan Dare'.