Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The potager's back in business

Not really like coffins at all
It’s just possible that some visitors to this corner of cyberspace may wonder what has happened to the potager – the unkempt wedge of a carpark flower bed that gave me my Schleswig-Holstein moment a couple of years ago.

Well, there were plans, but last autumn, with its soul-destroying grey dampness, rather put paid to them.

But although it was two seasons later than intended, the central scheme has now been realised.
The potager as it existed had a number of problems.

After the housing association had accepted a tender for gardening services from a different company, the flowerbed areas at the back of our small block of flats had been allowed to get into a mess.

In one, weeds had run riot, while a bush that had been growing around a small tree was dying, and rusting bikes, left by long-gone residents, had been left chained to the trellis that formed one border of the patch.

Initially, mine had been a small land grab – enough to put some beans in.

But these things are addictive and, the following year, I increased the size and even managed to produce some very small carrots.

As it was at the start, in 2012
Neighbours then took up the cause and helped clear the entire patch, apart from the tree and one deep, old root from the bush.

And last year, there were a few more very small carrots, one or two miniature turnips, a couple of gigantic courgettes, a few salad leaves and chard that eventually threatened to reach record heights.

But the ground was uneven because of that tree, with roots breaking the surface in a number of places.

The soil is fairly shallow soil, with sand beneath, and that soil is, typically for cities apparently, also very, very clayey – that means it’s very rich, but also very difficult to work and not much cop on the drainage front.

There are now, though, three large raised beds in place, built to fit the space perfectly.

Ian, a local craftsman who has done a number of jobs for us, built them just as I wanted – and then went down to nearby Hackney City Farm and returned with enough well-matured manure to provide a substantial layer at the bottom of each new bed, which was then topped up with soil.

There is, apparently, a whopping two tons of the latter there now – a frankly amazing figure that would never have entered my head when I was planning the little development.

In effect, though, while the area is technically the same, the actual planting space is greater – simply because he has built around and then over roots and unevenness, to create evenness above.

And of course, drainage will be considerably improved.

So we’re back in business.

The first weekend back, I started off by making two trips to Colombia Road flower market – the first with The Other Half to provide extra carrying capacity – coming home with vast amounts of herbs, plus flowers.

Otto exploring slightly later developments
One planter now has those herbs arranged around the outside, with a splash of summer colour in the middle.

Our neighbours seem particularly impressed – even though one of them did apparently suggest to Ian that he could start a new career as a coffin maker.

There’s common thyme and lemon thyme, rosemary, flat leaf parsley, chives, French tarragon, chervil, lovage, common sage and bloody dock sorrel.

We still have oregano on the patio, plus the bay tree, and I’m going to get a really large pot to go there for mint.

But that seems to me like a great herb collection, and the sorrel and sage are already growing at an incredible rate.

And the inclusion of the likes of lovage and chervil are exactly the sort of thing that inspires me to continue this adventure – there is no shop that I know that ever sells such things.

One of the tarragon plants has some leaves that are not happy, but by and large it’s doing okay – and tarragon is notoriously delicate – while the chervil looks to be thriving.

On the herb front, everything else seems to be fine too, although, in spite of regular watering, some of the flowers didn’t take too kindly to the sunshine in the days that followed their being planted out.

This last weekend, I took enjoyed my first harvesting – just a few chives, snipped for a garnish, but bang full of flavour.

And of course, it won’t take long before such things have more than paid for themselves.

If I have to buy chives, for instance, then I have to pay for a bag of (less tasteful) ones at 80p or more, with the chances being that most won’t get used.

This way, I get to just harvest my half dozen chives when I need them, and waste nothing.
And for the winter, I may explore freezing some winter.

The flowers include French marigolds, which apparently help to keep pests away: I’m still trying for the most natural way of gardening possible.

I timed it well – which was a fortunate accident, really – because July seems to be the final month for sowing seeds outside for autumn and winter food crops.

So in the coming days, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and fennel will all be sown in the next planter.

Now, this isn’t guaranteed to be a rip-roaring success, but there’s really only one way to find out.

And there’s a great deal of pleasure in doing just that.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Paris to Bow: an encounter with the East London Group

Bow Bridge, Walter Steggles
Paris might now be consigned to the past, but the return to England’s own bustling metropolis didn’t mean an end to viewing art.

With only a few days left before it closed, I finally made it down to the East End for an exhibition of work by the East London Group.

The Nunnery is so much in the East End that, never mind being within the sound of Bow bells, it’s almost directly opposite Bow Church itself.

This is, indeed, the very heart of Cockneydom.

Bryant & Mays, Oscroft
It’s odd how different it feels to Hackney – given that it’s not really very far away, but the same is true of many parts of London: it’s far from being a single, homogenised entity.

The Nunnery Gallery itself is situation in a former Carmelite nunnery that dates from 1850 and is now part of the Bow Arts Trust.

There’s an element of stepping back in time about the area – and this was an exhibition that emphasised that.

The East London Group was the brainchild of Yorkshire artist John Cooper, who taught at the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute from the mid-1920s.

Hackney Empire, Turpin
It was made up of two core groups – aspiring East Enders, plus some who, like Cooper himself, had trained at the Slade.

According to art historian David Buckman, Albert Turpin, for instance, was a “professional window cleaner, Anti-Fascist protestor and Labour mayor of Bethnal Green”.

Walter Sickert was involved, addressing classes and even showing with the group for a while.

There was a great deal of acclaim for the artists at the time, with a final group exhibition taking place in West End gallery the Lefevre in 1936, although works were also displayed collectively and individually elsewhere, including at the National Gallery and at Tate Britain.

Old Ford Road, Harold Steggles
But all this has been forgotten in the decades since WWII, although the work of dedicated people, including family members and Buckman, has been starting to turn that around.

One of the particular pleasures to be gained from exploring the work of the East London Group is the chance to look back in time to a very different London – although, as touched on above, they painted pictures of buildings and places that are still recognisable today.

The exhibits included a work by Harold Steggles, for instance, showing Grove Hall Park, which is still there – right behind the Nunnery.

Farringdon Road, Osbourne
There’s the instantly-recognisable Hackney Empire by Turpin, and his Salmon and Ball, which is an equally-recognisable corner of Bethnal Green.

Indeed, these two stood out in the exhibition as being rare examples of heavily-peopled works.

In most other cases, the streets are devoid of either traffic or people, which lends a haunting quality to the paintings.

The Arches, Mare Street, Turpin
There are occasional figures – walking away from the artist, with their back to us, or simply too distant to tell us anything.

But that only seems to add to the feeling, whether intended at the time or not, of the isolating nature of the city.

Grace Oscroft’s Bryant & Mays is a case in point: the bright palette used – seen among many of the artists – seems only to emphasise the lack of people and suggest a philosophically mixed view of the world they lived in: on the one hand, with industry offering a bright future, but on the other, it replacing humanity.

It’s inevitable that seeing many of these works, set as they are in working-class areas, one is reminded of Lowry, but that absence of people and that brightness of colour are two of the most obvious differences.

The Great Ventriloquist, Cooper
Sickert in particular urged the group to realism, but Walter Steggles’s Bow Bridge uses blues that almost take it into the realms of Impressionism.

A note helpfully points out that this is where the Bow flyover now starts. Imagining Bow Road with no traffic today is not easy.

This shouldn’t be read as suggesting a uniformity of approach, though.

Cecil Osbourne’s Farringdon Road (1929) – or the rooftops above it – goes down a very different route, with muted, dark tones that give it a very broody atmosphere.

But Harold Steggles’s Old Ford Road (c1932) is another bright but almost deserted world.

Perhaps surprise at this is because we mentally tend to view their world as a smog-filled monochrome. ‘But’, they seem to be saying to us, ‘there was plenty of colour. It wasn’t just unrelentingly grim’.

Kitchen Bedroom, Turpin
Cooper’s own The Great Ventriloquist – like many of the works, undated, but we known it was shown at the Lefevre in 1930 – shows clearly enough that the group were neither averse to painting people nor incapable of it, with Turpin’s Kitchen Bedroom (c1930) is another example of this.

Indeed, it’s possible to see in these two a passing of the baton: the realism of Cooper’s painting is tempered by a certain sentimentality in the image.

With Turpin’s domestic, working-class interior, there is none.

Harry Tate: The Freeman of Bethnal Green, Turpin
The teacher was being surpassed.

But it’s those deserted yet colourful scenes, such as Water Steggles’s tiny – just 15x20cm – Canvey Island (c1933), that stick in the mind.

And The Arches, Mare Street is another Turpin piece that, while colourful, has a deserted, mysterious air.

More than one of the artists were commissioned to provide artwork for the sort of travel posters that are now iconic, and the presence of two of these in the adjoining café was a reminder of how that lack of people was not limited to the group’s activity: you recognise it in those suggestions for motoring out to see some old church.

No people: just the bricks and mortar. 

Canvey Island, Walter Steggles
The group painted parts of London other than the East End, and they painted parts of England other than London and parts of the world other than England.

They didn’t limit themselves to the urban, while there are still lives, interiors and portraits too – Turpin’s Harry Tate: The Freeman of Bethnal Green is a fascinating example – but it’s those deserted landscapes that stay with you.

It was a case of better late than never getting to this exhibition, but it was not something that was held in isolation, but as part of an ongoing campaign to revive knowledge of an interest in these artists. 

Travel poster, Walter Steggles
In that, it has already had success, with good crowds and a decent level of media coverage.

And if you want to know more, search out Buckman’s excellent 2012 book, From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group.

Online, there’s much more about Walter Steggles at www.wjsteggles.com, and about the group as a whole at www.eastlondongroup.com, while you can keep tabs with what’s going on – and see plenty of pictures – on Twitter @EastLondonGroup.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Art that sweeps away the dust from the soul

Inside the one of the Orangerie's Monet rooms
Commeth the hour, commeth the artist. Saturday dawned in Paris with the expectation of solid rain, but it proved to be reluctant to pitch it down as forecast.

The Other Half went off to hunt for a jacket in one of Paris’s great department stores, while I went to see a woman about a watch on the Ile St Louis.

Grande Nature morte, Picasso
Meeting up again later, we decided to take the opportunity afforded by the continuing dry weather to head down toward the Tuileries, taking a stroll down the Rue du Rivoli.

When we were most of the way there, the rain decided to fall. Fortunately, we were near to the road and to a rather smart-looking eatery with an unsmart name – The Welcome Café.

Since lunch was required, we sat down under the colonnade to wait out the shower with food.

Paul Guillaume by Modigliani
And very pleasant it was too, with both of us opting for an omelette with girolles, which came garnished with chervil, flat leaf parsley and chives, and was washed down with a glass of Chardonnay from the south west of the country.

For all that the establishment was clearly catering largely for a tourist clientele, the kitchen did not make the error of turning the lightly-beaten egg into something solid and dry, but had clearly cooked it for only a minute at the most.

Mrs David would have approved. I most certainly did.

And so to the Musée de l’Orangerie.

Originally built in 1852 to shelter the garden’s orange trees, it later metamorphosed into a temporary display space, before being assigned to house Monet’s eight monumental Nymphéas canvases in 1922, following the suggestion of the artist’s friend, Georges Clémenceau. It opened to the public in 1927.

Paul Guillaume by Derain
In the basement, the gallery houses the Paul Guillaume colllection of late 19th century and early 20th century paintings.

It’s an extraordinary collection by the dealer, including a large number of Renoirs – this was the point at which The Other Half decided we’d seen more of his works than you “could throw a chocolate box at” – plus plenty of works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and others.

Of the ‘others”, this was when at which I concluded that Andre Derain really is overrated – a dilettante, hopping from style to style to style.

Two canvases of harlequins seem to illustrate the point – he simply couldn't make up his mind what he was seeking.

The Matisse works are not his best – being from the ‘awkward’ Nice period, which left his disciples angry and bewildered, as he tried to find his way to the next stage in his artistic journey – but they’re still worth seeing (obviously).

Three Sisters (1917), Matisse
And much the same can be said of the Picasso works there, although a Blue Period couple hugging was well worth seeing, as was a still life, Grande Nature morte (1916-17) that was genuinely Cubist.

There was a sprinkling of Modiglianis – my favourite being a 1915 portrait of Guillaume himself, which knocked one of the same subject by Derain, from 1920, into a cocked hat.

The Other Half was particularly fascinated to discover works by Chaïm Soutine, whose work helped to build the bridge between traditional approaches and expressionist ones.

Le Village (1923) gives an idea of how Soutine viewed the chaos of the modern world, but his portraits are equally interesting, including Le Garçon d’étage (1925).

There are also a number of works by Maurice Utrillo – one of the few famous painters of Montmartre who was actually born there (and died there too).

Le Village, Soutine
We particularly liked La Maison Bernot (1924).

So much for the basement – and well worth the price of admission on its own.

But the two vast, oval rooms that house those Monet canvases, painted in an attempt to find something that would soothe people’s spirits after WWI, are in a different league again.

As I’ve noted previously, I was never particularly ‘in to’ Monet, but these extraordinary canvases made me think again.

Perhaps my lack of interest in them previously was because I’d only seen some of the smaller waterlily paintings in the National Gallery, where the rooms tend to be crowded and you don’t easily get the chance to spend time with the works.

Le Garçon d'étage, Soutine
The Orangerie concentrates the mind.

As you enter the first room, a notice asks you politely to “enjoy quietly”.

And that is precisely what is needed, and the staff enforce it – particularly welcome when a family behind us at one stage decided to start a row about whether they were going back to their hotel or not.

Benches allow you to sit and contemplate the works, and the light and the colour make it easy to get lost in them as they take on a life of their own.

There is something extraordinarily ‘spiritual’ about these works: time spent with them seems to produce something akin to a religious experience.

And it is entirely true to say that their beauty has a soothing quality.

La Maison Bernot, Utrillo
Generally, people are quiet, although an element of disruption can still occur around you. I found it useful to try to ‘play’ Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune to myself in my mental concert hall, and it certainly helped to clear the mind.

Monet died before the Orangerie opened for the first time to display these works.

But these career-ending and defining works, inspired by his garden at Giverny and executed as he struggled with cataracts, go well beyond being simple decoration.

Nymphéas detail, Monet
In the summer of 1931, Amédée Ozenfant, the French Cubist painter, writer and co-founder, with Le Corbusier, of the Purist movement, noted in his journal:

“Monet devoted his last years to the poetic series of the Nymphéas ... I found myself taking off my hat.

When an experience provokes such a decisive reflex, there is no doubt about it; the work is a strong and elevated one.

In spite of this apparent superficiality, Monet, like Matisse, attained results as elevated as certain severe works.

The chapel-like presentation, the submarine light, contribute to this strong impression: but, all the same, Monet had something to do with it.”

Or to put it another way, they also put me in mind of Picasso’s comment, that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”.

My view of Monet is changed beyond recognition.