Thursday, 18 December 2014

A taste of the Gothic

'In Mr Stoker's Hand' A Kendal (2014)
If you happen to be in London over the holidays and are wondering what to do, then why not pop along to the British Library to catch it’s exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic imagination?

We took it in last week, as part of my post-work birthday celebrations – and a damned good option it was too.

It begins in 1764 – a crucial date, as this was when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, generally accepted as the first Gothic novel.

Indeed, by it’s second edition, it bore the words ‘A Gothic Story’ on the title page.

Walpole, who lived in Twickenham in a house called Strawberry Hill, was such a fan of all things Gothic that he converted his home to reflect that obsession, with thousands of people visiting to see the results.

This is not to say that the Gothic novel emerged from nowhere: its roots can be found in a variety of works from the likes of Shakespeare (think Tempest and even Hamlet) to Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene.

Mind, the minute I started seeing these connections, I started thinking of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe as having Gothic elements.

Gothic may sound like a small niche market, but when looked at through the prism of this exhibition, you realise just how far-reaching its tendrils are.

The exhibition, though, takes us from these beginnings right up to the present day, with a series of photographs from the twice-yearly gathering of Goths in Whitby.

These, incidentally, were commissioned by the library for this exhibition and are well worth paying attention to – don't just rush past.

In between, there’s plenty to see and learn, including on Bram Stoker and Dracula, and we can see that the populist fears of our own times are not new: immigration/foreigners, disease, sexuality, science/technology and change can all be found in the Gothic literature of the past, although new themes have emerged in recent years, including the impact of humanity on the environment.

There are the pulp novels, and the satires as well as the literature; filmed versions of classic tales such as Hollywood versions of Frankenstein are represented, plus our own The Whicker Man and there is even, in a stand-alone glass case, the eponymous bunny from Wallace and Gromit’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

There’s a particularly interesting section on Edgar Allen Poe, who I have now been inspired to start reading.

And the section on Poe was not the only area where the power of a good book illustration could be seen too.

Boris Karloff as an iconic Frankenstein's monster
Showing an overlap of issues, one exhibit was a letter to police from 'The Boss’ who claimed to be Jack the Ripper and goaded police by saying he’d lop the ear off his next victim. When the next victim had a damaged ear, the police were slightly less skeptical.

But with this is displayed the front page from a sensation paper of the time, with its illustrations, including ghoulish – and clumsy – sketches of the face of the second victim, Annie Chapman, “before and after death”.

It’s a reminder of how the sensationalistic press – and the concomitant voyeuristic and vicarious public – has been with us for a far longer time than we might think.

But from a personal perspective, the highlights include two pages of Mary Shelley’s manuscript for Frankenstein, complete with notes in the margin from Percy.

If you have any fascination for old documents and original handwriting by famous writers, then this has the sort of jaw-dropping impact that’s worth the exhibition price alone.

This exhibition requires time: we had 90 minutes, but were still rushing a tad by the end.
It is, however, well worth the effort.

In an entirely coincidental manner, my birthday continued in Gothic vein, with dinner a few steps further along Euston Road in the Gilbert Scott, which is housed in the restored Midland Grand Hotel (now the St Pancras Renaissance) and originally designed by George Gilbert Scott.

Watch out for the Were-Rabbit!
Since we were in good time, we had cocktails – and a brief glance at the cocktail menu told me that I could manage to find a perfectly Gothic-sounding cocktail to sip.

The Herbalist is a mix of Tanqueray 10 gin, green Chartreuse, elderflower, lemon and an absinthe rinse. Pale green, and served with a garnish of mint and thyme, it looks the business, but is far more subtle than one might expect – although packing a powerful punch. But how Gothic an you get?

The food was as good as ever: foie gras to start, with a delicate garnish of cranberries, followed by haddock with a crust of crumbs and toasted almond, and served on a bed of charred broccoli with a gremolata, and with new potatoes on the side, with a garnish of seaweed (treated like chives).

For dessert, I couldn’t resist having a special Marcus Wareing confection: Kendal mint cake choc ice, which gave a rather green tinge to a dinner that had started with a pale Gothic green cocktail.

So often I struggle with portion size, but I swear, every single one of those three plates was absolutely scraped clean.

All in all, a most enjoyable evening.

And as you can see from the illustration at the top of this piece, the inspiration continued well into the weekend.

For far fuller reviews of the Gilbert Scott, see if you think food is food, think again and Comfort and joy.

Plus: Dracula: The Gothic classic with a sexy bite


Monday, 10 November 2014

Spot the war profiteering disguised as charidee

Don't forget the profit opportunities
A few weeks ago, flicking through my Twitter feed, I came across a retweeted contribution from one Douglas Carswell, the newly-elected – and first – UKIP MP.

In just 147 characters, he managed to mention both “sofa government” and “citizen consumers”.

The former is all about government policy being made by senior ministers and a handful of advisors.

The latter refers to an idea that citizens, via their consumption, can ensure that companies make ethical decisions.

It has been done. In the 1980s, declining sales of aerosols producing CFCs forced manufacturers to rethink the products and come up with less environmentally damaging solutions.

But apart from such high-profile campaigns, how much can it work?

For instance, will enough people to make a difference boycott companies that pay such low wages that the taxpayer has to top them up in order for workers to be able to afford to live?

Underlying it all is the ideology of deregulation: if the consumer makes the choices, no government intervention would be needed. And, of course, The Market, given free rein, will provide the ‘perfect’ results (as though the market were somehow not entirely dependent on human intervention, including political intervention and decisions – but that’s a different subject).

All of which sounds lovely, but is as divorced from reality as telling people that, if regulations are removed and those at the top were just allowed to do whatever they want in order to make money, the increased wealth would ‘trickle down’ to everyone else.

It also supposes that the majority of people are, when being consumers, able to make ethical choices that often mean spending at least a little more cash – or that most people have the time or inclination to investigate the ethics behind every purchase that they make, which itself often means digging quite deep behind the façade of corporate bullshit.

Blingtastic way to remember the war dead
In terms of affording the ethical, the fallacy of trickle-down is a major factor in why incomes for the majority have fallen, putting increasing numbers of people in a position where they can less and less afford to look for those ethical options.

Research in the US suggests that consumers (or at least some) want the companies that they buy from to be involved with ‘causes’.

I’ve dealtwith ‘cause marketing’ on this blog previously, but this is just another take on the same thing, spun a little differently and taking it to the level of political ideology.

Over the weekend, there appeared on my TV an advert from Sainsbury’s, linking that store with the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal.

The company offered, among other things, to recycle your poppy if you return it to the store after use. The advert describes a commitment to the past – and the future – with images of an elderly man (a veteran, presumably) and a young boy (a future veteran?), while also noting that stores sell a range of poppy-related objects (such as an umbrella), with proceeds going to the Legion.

So, is Sainsbury’s doing all this out a genuine sense of charity/patriotism?

Well, it might be. It is entirely possible that the company’s head honchos feel a deep commitment to remembrance and to the wellbeing of veterans.

But on the other hand, that’s not why it’s being advertised in such a way. It’s being advertised to show the company in such a light that it will encourage customers to shop there.

That is not ethical: it is nothing other, at core, than trying to profit from war.

Oh, Sainsbury’s might not make a penny from any poppy-related purchase or act of education or recycling – some of these might even cost the company money. But all that is an investment.

The chances of someone responding to that advert just to pop this year’s used poppy in a recycling tub (instead of in the recycling bag or box they get from the local waste collection service), and not then doing some shopping there seems a tad unlikely.

Will people really decide to make an extra shopping trip just to go to Sainsbury’s – when they do not do so usually – to buy a poppy brolly – when you can choosefrom seven different poppy umbrellas at the Royal British Legion’s own online shop – and then walk out and not pick up a few odds and ends for that midweek supper?

This is about persuading the ‘citizen consumer’ to shop at Sainsbury’s because it shows obvious, outward support for a cause that that shopper cares about. The adverts are deliberately placed to coincide with the annual remembrance ceremonies and Armistice Day.

They won’t be appearing next April, with a message that Sainsbury’s is still caring about remembrance and veterans, even when no poppies are on sale and no commemorations are scheduled.

Poppy pizzas from Tesco
If Sainsbury’s cared about remembrance and veterans, and not profits, it wouldn’t spend hundreds of thousands of pounds creating advertising campaigns on the issue. It could donate that cash to the Legion instead, without making a hoo-ha about it that simply screams: ‘just look how good we are by doing charidee stuff’.

This is cause marketing, aimed at the citizen consumer, and with the prime intent of increasing footfall and, with that, profits.

Of course, Sainsbury’s is far from being alone in such behavior. Indeed, Bill King spotted Tesco selling ‘poppy pizzas’.

A Tesco pizza is probably tasteless anyway, but this takes it to a whole new level.

And there will be be countless more companies playing the same sort of games.

So perhaps the ‘real’ citizen consumer should, then, deliberately refuse to spend money at companies that so blatantly exploit the war dead to make a buck.

They might also consider that the Royal British Legion needs funds to help veterans, because governments that send people to war rarely seem much interested in those veterans once they return, and thus the public is left to fill the pick up the pieces via charitable donation.

But then again, all this would involve real and meaningful ethical or moral choices: and that is not what the concepts of ‘citizen consumer’ and ‘cause marketing’ are remotely about.



Sunday, 9 November 2014

And the prize goes to ... Turner


Peace – Burial at Sea
Poet Kenneth Roxworth once described the English painter, JMW Turner, as a “romantic abstract expressionist”, and more than one commentator has sought to link him directly to the Impressionists and, more recently still, to modern, abstract art.

But, rather akin to people describing some upcoming film star as the ‘new Gable’ or the ‘new Bogart’ etc, that merely illustrates an apparent human obsession with taxonification, pigeon-holing and tribalism, at the same time as revealing limits on our willingness to accept the new.

Turner is Turner is Turner.

He was influenced by and subsequently influenced many others: it’s incredibly easy to see his influence on Monet, for instance, but one wouldn't call the latter a ‘Turnerite’ or any such conceit.

His oeuvre, right up to the final works, reflected the issues and culture of his times. He never ceased painting traditional artistic subjects: scenes from history, from the Bible, mythology, the Classical world and the contemporary world – with political comment sometimes included.

He traveled widely and frequently and, when doing so, worked furiously in his sketchbooks.

Rain, Steam and Speed
So just what was so special about Turner that he is widely regarded as the greatest English painter ever?

Late Turner: Setting Painting Free is the autumn/winter blockbuster at the Tate Britain – and a blockbuster it most certainly is.

Hot on the heels of the Tate Modern’s look at late works by Matisse – and opening just a few weeks before the National Gallery's exhibition of late Rembrandt – this is the first major show to bring together works exclusively from the last 16 years of Turner’s life.

While it’s a shame that it doesn’t include the iconic and deeply political The Fighting Temeraire (1838), which hangs in the National Gallery (is there a link between its absence here and the privatisation plans at that gallery?), there is more than enough to satisfy and to convey a rounded sense of this period of the artist’s career.

Besides, we do have Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), which os a wonderful piece of active composition, but which has also triggered a great deal of analysis about what sort of a statement it was and, most particularly, whether it was a comment on the negative nature of industrialisation.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
There has been some carping that much of what is on display is already in the Tate’s own collection, so should see the exhibition price reduced, but there are also treats that are not seen often in this country – such as The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1834-35), which is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

That includes many figures in the foreground, one of whom, apparently in clerical garb, is speculated to be William Tyndale, the Protestant reformer and Bible translator, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1536.

To have him witnessing the fire could well be one of Turner’s political statements.

But wherever the works are usually housed, this exhibition presents a wonderful opportunity to get a real sense of Turner's work if you haven’t done so before.

Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons
Reading an interview in the Tate magazine with Mike Leigh, whose new, Cannes-lauded film, Mr Turner, is now on general release, it was fascinating to discover that he had initially viewed the artist, together with Constable, as a “chocolate box” painter.

I spent years thinking the same, and this exhibition offered me a first chance to really get a big dose of the works.

One of the particular joys here – and it’s a revelation too, if you’re not familiar with them – is the watercolours, which have a vibrancy of colour that is astonishing.

Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons from above Chamonix; Evening 1836, for instance, is beautiful.

Indeed, colour is what dominates: colour and light and movement.

I had, prior to going into the exhibition itself, had a bit of a trot around the gallery’s core collection of British art – particularly that from Turner’s own period – in order to remind myself of the context.

One thing that struck me forcefully later, was that I could not recall seeing anything like the palette that Turner himself used – particularly the blues and golds.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)
There is a radiance to his work that lights a room. Figure painting was not his forte, as the enigmatically-titled War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (1842) illustrates perfectly, with it’s oddly tall and thin rendering of Napoleon.

Fortunately, in most cases he didn’t bother to do much more than suggest figures.

The companion piece to the Napoleon one, Peace - Burial at Sea (1842), depicts the burial of sea of painter Sir David Wilkie, who had died of typhoid while on board. A tribute to a colleague, it is one of the most powerful images on display.

The same series of experimental square canvases that includes Boney also features Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843), in which the figure is so lost in the swirl of light as to be almost indiscernible, so as with other canvases, what the viewer is mainly looking at is incandescent light.

But then, as the catalogue posits, this might not have been intended as the Moses of the Old Testament, but a reference to entomologist Moses Harris, who had penned the standard 18th-century chromatic theory, The Natural History of Colours.

These canvases are displayed in a single room with the walls painted a deep blue – a wonderful move that really accentuates the light that radiates from them.

The difficulty in dealing with Turner is illustrated clearly by some of the final canvases, which were almost certainly unfinished – he often only finished a work when it was just supposed to be being prepared for exhibition.

Norham Castle, Sunrise
Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) is a perfect example of one of these (probably) unfinished works that, to our eyes – accustomed to Monet and to Abstract Expressionism – seems complete.

It’s easy to imagine that the man now revered around the world was always highly thought of, but that’s not quite the case.

In his later years, even his supporter, John Ruskin, thought he’d lost his marbles and, with them, the artistic plot.

And while Turner left vast amounts of his work to the nation, the nation didn’t seem entirely sure what to do about such a bequest.

The 20th century was well into its stride when the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clarke, found 20 unrolled canvases, thick with grime, in a “small and remote vault,” which he thankfully decided to check before ordering someone to throw them away.

This exhibition is a glorious valediction, and one that, instead of looking to the past, looks – to our eyes – very much to what was then still some way in the future.

The Tate has also done a great job with the catalogue too but, as with the pictures shown here, no reproduction can do justice to these pictures; to the light, the colour and the movement.

You really do need to seem them in the ‘flesh’ to fully appreciate the magnificence – and revolutionary nature – of Turner’s late work.

It’s well worth the effort to visit.

• Turner: The late years, is at the Tate Britain until 25 January.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Discovering art in the internet age

Short and Stout by Susan Harrell
After musing over the merits of this year’s Turner Prize nominees – and trying to remain open-minded and positive – I was left not with any sense of elation or revelation, but certainly with a need to go back and look at some rather more ‘traditional’ work.

If the big galleries seem to obsess about the latest trend in conceptual art, then the screen on your desk or your smartphone can provide a door to a world where painting and drawing and printing are alive and well – and most certainly not just ‘stuck in the past’.

Technologies may change, new materials may be developed, but that doesn’t have to mean that the only way to approach art in today’s world is a dumbing-down of traditional art skills: rather, it can provide the chance to explore new ways of creating visual images.

Moscow Taxi by Mattias Adolfsson
And so, remembering August’s exercise, which came about as a direct response to an online conversation where someone was voicing the doubt that any real art existed any more, here is another set of brief introductions to artists and their work that I have encountered in cyberspace.

They deliberately range across style, subject and medium – and also place: one of the great advantages of the internet is that it allows us to find things from the other side of the world that we should not otherwise be likely to know about.

But then again, art is a universal.

Southwold by Annie Cowdrey
Annie Cowdrey’s work is varied, from pen and ink to oil to watercolour to lino cuts; while her subjects range from landscape to portraiture.

Based in the south west of France (lucky, lucky her), she maintains a particular interest in the processes of art.

It’s well worth reading any notes she makes on works: for instance, her comments on how working on a portrait is not just about the subject but about the artist themselves, is a fascinating idea.

Three Trees by Annie Cowdrey
It’s so easy to view the artist simply as a conduit when it comes to portrayals of other people, but inevitably part of the painter comes through in the subject.

Her works in white ink on black paper – particularly those featuring trees – have a ghostly and almost mythical quality. They’re so simple, one might think, but they are also so effective that they stay long in the mind.

Personally, they instantly conjure childhood journeys from Tebay to Newbiggin on dark nights, when the car lights lit up the skeletal trees ahead.

Roy's lillies
You can follow Annie in Twitter at @anniethepainter. And find out more at anniethepainter.com.

@fabartstuff is different to anything in the realm of art that I’ve written about previously.

This is a three-way, Twitter collaboration between Dr Theresa Porrett, who works in the NHS supporting nurse specialists, and describes herself as a “would-be photo journalist”, health policy analyst, writer and commentator Roy Lilley, and digital professional Fran Maher.

Their feed offers a range of art-related tweets, including retweets of works by various artists, but it also includes Lilley’s own iPad pictures, which are frankly amazing.

His results are put into particularly sharp perspective by my own rather clumsy digital efforts – ‘how on earth do you even find a stylus that works properly on an iPad? I find myself asking, every time a new work pops up on my Twitter feed.


St Paul's by Roy Lilley
And that is no minor question. But even such a technology-related matter doesnt alter the basic point that, the tech aside, hes simply a damned good artist.

Although he also paints traditional watercolours too, Lilley’s portraits and landscapes done on the tablet have a distinctive and highly effective style, and are a prefect illustration of what I mean by new technologies not meaning a waning of skills.

@fabartstuff is new, but what it also shows is just how much talent for and love of art there is out there, across all walks of life – and also how the internet can offer us a portal both to discover and share a wide range of art.

Washed Clean by Susan Harrell
Meanwhile, taking a leap across The Pond, Susan Harrell is a self-trained oil painter from North Carolina, who creates photorealistic works on canvas, wood and aluminium.

Ive loved photorealism since my teens, and these works simply make me awed at the effect.

Her work ranges across subjects, but it’s in her still life paintings where the approach really works – not least in her sometimes quirky compositions and unusual takes on otherwise traditional subjects.

In the 2013 oil on panel, Washed Clean, for instance, she takes a very conventional bunch of red grapes, but gives it a distinctly modern twist by painting it from a bird’s eye view, in a metal colander, gaining wonderful light, textures and reflections in the process.

Three's Company by Susan Harrell
Short and Stout is a beautifully-realised picture of an old-fashioned, stove-top kettle – but standing outside, so that the sky and landscape are reflected in the curved metal.

Three’s Company takes a trio of apples, but this is no cliché. Instead, she paints two of them in a damp plastic bag that is clinging, in places, to the fruits.

Follow Susan at @susanharrellart and find out more about her work at www.susanharrell.com. 

David Stamp hails from Plymouth and is now based on the other side of the Tamar in Cornwall.

Self taught, he works in acrylic, watercolour and mixed media.

We Have Green Light by David Stamp
We Have the Green Light – a mixed-media, semi-abstract work – is indicative of the light that he conveys in his flower paintings.

And here seems the perfect moment to mention another little point: Davids subjects matters of choice include flowers – surely a feminine subject, while Susan Harrells photorealism is a style that is most often associated with male artists.

The reality is that art is a world where we can find such stereotypical and limiting ideas being happily ignored, as artists find and develop the styles that suit them – not on the basis of preconceived gender roles.

Market Jew Street, Penzanze by David Stamp
But back to David’s work. The mixed-media, semi-abstract approach is not just to be found in the flower paintings.

Market Jew Street, Penzance (the name comes from the Cornish, Marghas Yow, which means Thursday Market), includes aspects of collage and, as David himself challenges viewers: “spot the tin mine chimney in the centre”.

How much more Cornish can you get?

To find out more, Davids own website is at davidstamp.co.uk‪, while he tweets at @stamper485‪.

The sheer breadth of art that you can find online is illustrated by @GardenGallery2, whichis the Twitter feed for Frances, a Derbyshire-based artist who creates felted art, most of which is inspired by the wildlife in that county.

Felted Hare by Garden Gallery
This is art that is craft-based – which would have been looked down on snootily in the past.

The works produced have lovely colour, while the felting provides textural interests that Frances matches extremely well to her subjects.

Frances doesnt appear to have any obvious outlet for selling her works, so – and Im guessing here – for her, this seems to be mainly a hobby.

Its another way of seeing that the desire to create goes far beyond the walls of galleries and beyond those who studied at art school.

The internet offers the chance to explore a hugely democratic world of art.

‪Check out (and ‘like’!) her Facebook page for more examples of her work.

Raygun by Mattias Adolfsson
Mattias Adolfsson is a freelance illustrator from Sweden, producing some highly imaginative – and fun – ink drawings and, with these, some exquisite books.

Raygun, for instance, brings to mind steampunk, but then gives it a delightful, fantastical spin by turning a sci-fi hand weapon into a dragon.

Similarly, Unorthodox Friendship takes the idea of a boy meeting a dinosaur and turns that on its head by making both of them robots.

These works have real charm and humour, while his blog is a wonderful insight into an artist’s sketchbooks: Moscow Taxi is gloriously, bonkersly detailed – something that’s far from unique in Mattias’s work.

Unorthodox Friendship by Mattias Adopfsson
Ilustration is a particular art form, but what you find when looking at works like these is that it also provokes another way of examining that old question about what constitutes art, particularly when it comes to highly graphic work.

When I was in my teens and my teachers were busy mapping out a career path for me as a graphic artist, I couldn’t see that as having any link with ‘fine art’. Or put another way, with what I considered to be ‘real’ art.

Knight by Roy Lilley
Nowadays, I look at works like this and conclude that they’re all art, and that one thing that conceptual art achieves, oddly enough, is to help to eliminate some of the old definitions that created a sort of artistic caste system.

And after all, who paints history or mythological or religious scenes any more?

So whether its Mattiass illustrations or Garden Gallerys felted hares or Roy Lilleys digital creations, it’s all art: simples.

You’ll find Mattias’s blog at mattiasa.blogspot.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter at @MattiasInk‪.