Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Olivia Plender at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol

Olivia Plender’s exhibition Rise Early, Be Industrious, on at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol until September 9th, makes maximal use of every room available, each turned into a world with its own particular character, offering a series of alternatives or parallel possibilities. A common theme underpins the otherwise diverse experiences awaiting the visitor as they pass through these worlds. As the title suggests, this theme is the nature of work, the moral or philosophical framework within which it is placed, and perhaps most importantly, the question of who stands to benefit most from the industrious labour which is so often put forward as a means to personal and spiritual improvement. There is also a strain of utopianism throughout, an interest in althernative, less hierarchical approaches to education, religion and social organisation.

The first room features two tabletop models, one (Empire City – The World on One Street, 2009) reconstructing the layout of the exemplary buildings in the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley in 1924, the other (The Truth Itself Speaks Through Me, 2012) giving form to the allegory of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. In the latter, a narrow stair winds around and up mountainous hills to the Celestial City on its crest. This shining, domed, white-walled vision of paradise looks like some of the larger buildings in the Empire exhibition, offering a parallel with its version of the perfect world. It’s crowned with a radiant golden aurora which could have been cut out of a William Blake print, the new Jerusalem realised. The whole tabletop landscape, with its winding paths, railway modellers shrubbery and dramatic contours looks like the set for a particularly abstruse and esoteric episode of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. It’s indicative of the nature of the exhibition as a whole that it is both accessible, engaging and fun whilst at the same time embodying serious and thoroughly researched historical, social and political ideas. The hand-woven banner How Paul’s Penny Became a Pound takes its homily and its depiction of an earnest, bright-eyed ‘good boy’ from a nineteenth century children’s book which inculcated the idea of economic investment as a sure way to happiness and prosperity from an early age. The Victorian ethos of hard work, dogged piety and parsimony is promoted in all of these works as being both morally and materially improving. There is an ironic distancing or critical questioning implicit in the use of the kind of banner more commonly associated both with the Arts and Crafts movement, and with the socialist solidarity movements to which its leading figure William Morris and others such as Walter Crane allied themselves, to deliver a message proclaiming a moral foundation to capitalist accumulation. There’s also a marked atemporality and symbolic contrast in the juxtaposition of the Celestial City with the cluster of Manhattan-style skyscrapers which lie on the plains below. Bunyan’s city is a utopian destination rewarding spiritual aspiration and moral virtue, and it dwarfs the miniscule modern city below, hinting at an abandonment of the moral basis of the Victorian outlook on work, and of financial dealings in particular, in a world which no longer feels the need for myths and parables of the upstanding life. The relatively stunted stature of the towers of finance, in reality built to impress, and to outdo one another in an ongoing and deeply symbolic competition to see who can rise the highest, points to a diminution which Plender, critical though she is of the exploitative basis of Victorian business and financial expansion, perhaps regrets. The model’s comparisons of scale suggests that a void of purposeless and directionless wealth generation has replaced the certainties of the nineteenth century world.

Celestial and earthly cities - The Truth Itself Speaks Through Me
These certainties are represented by the buildings of the Empire Exhibition, which brings them into the more unstable environment of the early twentieth century, and the post-First World War era. It’s a period in which the foundations of empire were beginning to seem shaky, and the assertive monumentality of the buildings reflects an attempt to reassert the idea of a solid and unified global economic system drawing on a strong central authority. The pavilions laid out in this ideal city each stand for a different country, with the design shorthand for an instantly recognisable national style or defining agricultural product for export. It offers a utopian, one world vision of global unity, laid out according to a well-ordered plan. Numbers next to the buildings and an accompanying key show how systematised and ordered the condensed world of the Olympia site is. But all the buildings are a bleached out, bony white, with all differences and distinctions eradicated. It might be a utopia when viewed from a particular elevated perspective, but from others it is an imposed order, mere tyranny. The currency and power structure of this tyranny is revealed by the mobile of magnified cut-out engravings which hangs at the back of the hall, in which symbols of sovereignty slowly spin above and in front of dangling farm animals, peasant workers and seeds.

A game for losers - Set Sail for the Levant
Upstairs, the origins and future directions of such a world order are laid out in a room which has a floor plan outlined with lines suggesting the pattern of a formal garden. A model of enclosure in miniature. In the corner, stacked bales of hay point to a rural past which can be played out in a game which Plender invented in 2007: Set Sail for the Levant. It’s a standard ‘who can get to the end first’ board game, with various obstacles and set backs encountered along the way. But the odds are stacked against the peasant playing pieces, with indebtedness, exploitation, starvation and resultant enforced criminality, imprisonment and early death the more usual outcomes. Nuggets of gold are hidden inside the oversized dice, the rewards of rare fortune, and the cards are printed and written in the style of mid-17th century dissenters’ pamphlets of the sort produced and distributed by the Levellers, the Diggers and other groups proposing alternative systems of land ownership. The World Turned Upside Down card emulates the famous image of the spreadeagled figure stood on its head which served to sum up the radical aspirations of the age, the sense that a real realignment of power was possible. You can sit on the bales of hay and play the game, and see just how fast you sink into oblivion. The Levant (the Middle Eastern lands beyond the Mediterranean) once more holds out the shimmering, mirage-like prospect of a golden Jerusalem, a paradise of plenty beyond the next horizon. Here, it is an escape from rather than a reward for hard labour, however. A promised land which you may only get to beyond the veil of death.

Duck houses and hobby horses - Ignoble monuments
Set Sail for the Levant, which is a kind of anti-Monopoly exploring the roots of modern capitalism, points to the way in which games and toys can have a core of cultural programming embedded within them. A more positive way in which toys can be used as a means of educational programming is found in Friedrich Froebel’s ‘gifts’, wooden building blocks which offered a gradually unfolding developmental system allowing for the creation of increasingly complex shapes over a structured period of time. A similar opportunity is afforded the gallery visitor through the collection of wooden blocks created by Plender and called Social Construction, the underlying programmatic purpose of the toy exposed by the title rather than covertly disguised. Towers, gateways, buildings and city walls can be fitted together, but the different architectural elements are fairly limited and solidly classical in form, so the variants on the basic social patterns which you can create are strictly circumscribed. The form of the architecture also promotes traditional ideas of social order, along with the continuance of established hierarchies which classical styles imply. Clearly there’s a heavily metaphorical element at work in this constructive play. On the far wall, three objects sit on shelves just above head level (for the averagely sized person, that is), seemingly random and unrelated neighbours. Each has a double meaning which connects them to the room, to each other and to the exhibition as a whole, however. A wicker model of a beehive offers a craft-made symbol of agricultural labour, and stands as a symbol of industriousness, and of a strict and unquestioning hierarchical order, with queen at the apex. Next to it are two objects labelled with bronze plaques positioning them as sarky equivalents of the monuments erected by the great and powerful to honour themselves and their achievements. One is a Swedish duckhouse, the absurd emblem of the recent MP’s expenses scandal; the other is a battered model of a rocking horse, marking a similar semi-comical expose of power and preferment, David Cameron’s riding of a ‘retired’ police horse owned by the former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks. The latter two objects give the lie to the ethos of the former, which further expresses the sense of righteousness and god-given order propping up the Victorian age of industrialisation, and the extent to which its rigid and self-justifying moral order has withered along with its imperial hold on the world. All three are interesting objects in and of themselves, even when divested of symbolic meaning – odd ornamental knick-knacks scavenged from the rubbish dump of history and tarted up to make them presentable.

Chat space - the informal TV studio
The next room is dominated by a wide, raised platform which you can leap up onto if your feeling agile, or ascend to via the ramp at the rear if you’re not (I took the latter option). Having thus attained an elevated perspective, you find yourself in a blend of relaxed seventies pad and open plan TV studio. Brightly coloured square cushions are scattered around to sprawl on and there’s a central declivity in which you can sit, or on the edge of which you can perch, and discuss art or anything else which takes your fancy. The whole is designed to evoke the spirit of the Open University programmes of the 70s, which sought to bring cultural education to a wider reach of the populace, and use the televisual medium to encourage participation and interaction. TVs are place around the central well, one showing Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC series Civilisation, an attempt to deliver a definitive survey of canonical Western art. Sir Kenneth’s TV is propped up on a plinth-like box to emphasise his authoritative approach to presentation. Facing him are two smaller tellies showing Open University programmes involving children on modern housing estates engaged in various forms of play, and a young, long-haired lecturer in casual clothing, which in itself rejects the formal conservatism of Clarke’s tweed jackets, holding forth on various ideas about alternative social and cultural models. There’s obviously an opposition being set up here, similar to that between Civilisation and Marxist critic and author John Berger’s response to it in The Art of Seeing. Civilisation is fairly easy to criticise from a modern perspective, with Kenneth Clark’s patrician tones (why does he pronounce mythology ‘mai-thology’?) coming from the upper ranks of the art establishment and his view of art history tending to present a parade of great figures the value of whose work as an index of both genius and of the progress of western civilisation remains largely unquestioned. Actually, watching it here and from the copy I borrowed from the library a while back, it struck me how beautifully filmed it was, with slowly panning cameras lingering on the frescoes, sculptures or paintings being discussed, or sometimes keeping the frame still for long enough to contemplate the work in question. It’s also noticeable how little Clark imposes himself on the material, appearing relatively infrequently to talk directly to camera. Indeed, he often leaves significant periods of silence to allow the art to speak for itself. I’d certainly stick up for Civilisation. It does what it sets out to do very well, and presented a definitive outline of the standard view of Western art against which Berger and the Open University lecturers could offer alternative perspectives, paying more attention to the political, economic and historical contexts within which the art was produced. The presenter of the OU films presages elements of the modern documentary approach, with his informality, his walking towards the camera and the broad gesticulations which accompany his expostulations.

A gallery attendant was perched on the edge of the central ‘forum’ well, and his presence invited discussion and involvement in line with the OU ethos. He was effectively incorporated into the installation (and I wonder whether an attendant’s presence was a prescribed part of the set up) and the engagement of the visitor was encouraged. Behind the scenes of the ‘studio’ were small heaps of communications, recording and viewing technologies from the time. There was a reel to reel tape machine and a stack of bulky, wooden framed TVs which brought to mind the multi-channel wall set up by David Bowie’s alien visitor in Nic Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth to feed his addiction to American media. There was also an office desk with scattered rolls of Dictaphone tape, local business telephone directories from the 60s and 70s (one from the Bedfordshire area allowed Mrs W to look up her grandparents’ old numbers) and a couple of phones with the old circular dialling wheels. It was surprising how evocative the ratcheting wind and release sounds of the dials were – a particular sonic aspect of everyday life which has completely vanished. This and the other pieces of redundant technology were a reminder of how bulky, tactile and time-consuming the means and methods of communication were in comparison to the modern day.

An adjacent room offers a display of materials from a 1976 Open University course which Plender is particularly interested in, Art and Environment. These booklets and posters are strongly redolent of the preoccupations of modern ‘hauntological’ artists and musicians, and many have a distinct Ghost Box air about them. The guide book for Danebury Hill Fort; the flexidisc record of ‘Natural Sound’ attached to a page opposite a black and white picture of Stonehenge casting dramatic early morning shadows; the field of newly harvested corn with the presence of big science on the horizon in the form of ‘golf ball’ satellite tracking stations, the message ‘art is not yesterday’ written across the centre; the follow up picture of a dramatic storm cloud in front of which a crudely sketched figure descends below a pyramidal parachute, the second half of the slogan, ‘art is tomorrow…’ almost acting as another riposte to Civilisation; and the various striking posters on the wall – the one for electronic sound, with clouds accumulating around the concentric ripples of a speaker, and that for natural sound, with its sketch of an ear looking like the rocky entrance to a cave; the unit Our Conversation with Things and Places borrowing Heath Robinson’s satirical portrayal of 30s modernist flats and the reduction of the Englishman’s garden to the boundaries of his balcony, and the Empty Box unit’s sculptural close up of pencil shavings and graphite dust; and the Art and Political Action module using a Maoist poster of happy red book waving peasants gathering around a cringing Nixon caricature and menacing him with giant pens, brushes and spades whilst a comrade leads the revolutionary singing on his accordeon. All of them could be part of the booklet for a Belbury Poly or Focus Group CD, featuring as they do that blend of tradition, folk custom and modernist futurism which the good folk at Ghost Box find so fascinating (a fascination which I wholeheartedly share). The module on witchcraft is also in that line, and exemplifies the strong feminist perspective which is brought to many aspects of the course. An investigation of folk song is also promised in the radio programme ‘Oral Culture’. The introduction to this module reads like an explanation of some of the central ideas behind Plender’s exhibition, which is perhaps why it has been left open at this page in its glass display cabinet: ‘There are some areas of struggle which have been so drastically concealed and distorted that they appear only in reverse: witchcraft is an example of this. There are other areas of protest and creativity that do not pass as recognised art forms and are consequently not ‘art’ and not valued’.

In the small gallery on the third floor of the Arnolfini, Plender has created artefacts which derive from or give expression to social movements which, to a greater or lesser extent, also took on the mantle of religious organisations. She has made another banner in honour of the founders of the Spiritualist movement, Katie and Margaretta Fox. She points to the fact that Spiritualism was a belief system which emerged from the common populace. It attempted to approach supernatural manifestations with the rationalist, scientific frame of mind of the Victorian age, incorporated wider progressive ideals concerning social equality, and eventually won recognition as an established church in 1951. The banner is designed to be hoisted above the heads of marchers, but unlike the young person’s guide to capitalism offered on the wall of the first gallery, this one, unlikely as it might at first seem, wouldn’t be out of place in a dissenters’ rally. There are also some brightly coloured felt tunics, which look like they might gave emerged from the cleaner and more wholesome end of the communal 60s. In fact, they originate in the communal 20s and 30s, from the kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a proto-New Age group which drew on Native American cultures for its beliefs and outlook. They emphasised outdoor living and traditional crafts, had a covenant outlining their communally held ideals, and created their own iconography and symbology. Besides the costumes, Plender has made a model, smaller in scale to those in the first room, a landscape tableau in which a colourful Kibbo Kift encampment is contrasted with the grey figures and industrial buildings beyond its boundaries.

Having created a different environment in each gallery, Plender then expands her exhibition beyond the official spaces into the reading room and library on the top floor, turning it into what she describes as an Entrepreneurial Garden. Once more inviting active visitor participation, this is her take on the modern ‘creative’ workplace, which has absorbed 60s notions of serious play and leisure as an alternative to the traditional concept of the working life and incorporated them into an environment which gives space and time for innovative ideas to flourish. A hammock strung across the corner was occupied when I looked in, although no-one was playing on the bar football table at the time. A model on a side table depicted the Arnolfini itself as such an Entrepreneurial Garden. Again, there was a great deal of fun to be had here, but with an underlying seriousness of purpose (serious fun, then). Plender made the point that such workplaces were still, indeed, places of work with hierarchical management structures in position. The products of creative work and play engaged in within these bright, relaxed anti-offices were still owned by large companies, often in the form of ‘intellectual property’. The siting of this part of the exhibition in a public space beyond the ‘official’ galleries was a clever way of showing how this new model of work affected to blur the boundaries between work and leisure. As a natural endpoint to the circuit which had begun two floors below with the Imperial and Celestial Cities, it suggested an illuminating contrast with the initial promise of material and moral improvement achieved through hard labour. Here, play can also produce value, but the question of ownership remains. And if the Victorians promoted the idea that every waking hour should be filled with productive activity, then the optimistic modern view of leisure and work combining and co-existing in and ideal balance often devolves into a competitive struggle for personal progress in which the imperative to work becomes just as dominant and all-consuming. A modern day materialist Pilgrim’s Progress, perhaps, to the moulded white plastic apex of the Dream Corp., the penthouse paradise of the CEO.

Social Construction
Plender has managed to combine an engaging and enjoyable visual (and tactile) experience of immediate appeal with philosophical exploration of real depth and breadth, of those who wish to investigate further. A couple of small boys in the first gallery seemed genuinely enchanted by the models, and a discussion was in full swing in the informal TV studio installation, which showed the exhibition could be enjoyed on many levels by people of all ages. A thick wodge of accompanying notes, offered as a glossary, gives background information on a number of the themes which run throughout the exhibition, including the OU Art and Environment course and the Dartington College of Art with which it was indirectly linked (a local connection for me, there), Google and the modern workplace, the political scandals, comical and serious at the same time, for which she has produced her amusing proposals for official monuments, the Kibbo Kift and Spiritualism movements, and cybernetic and systems theories (as recently explored in Adam Curtis’ documentary series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, itself in line with Plender’s ideas about cultural TV programming). All of which further demonstrates the extent of the research which lies behind the exhibition, and the links and associations which Plender has forged between different cultural and historical ideas and movements. The kind of unconventional route through knowledge which the OU would have encouraged, in fact (and still does, of course). You can hear Olivia Plender explaining in clear and cogent terms the many ideas behind the different rooms in her exhibition over here. Rise Early, Be Industrious continues until 9th September, when it will be put to bed.

Friday, 27 July 2012

This Was Tomorrow at the Spacex Gallery

The new exhibition by Michael Samuels at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, This Was Tomorrow, makes explicit reference to the famous This Is Tomorrow exhibition staged at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956. A major contribution to the show was made by the members of the Independent Group, including Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter and Alison Smithson, and Richard Hamilton. Artists, architects and graphic designers formed groups to create displays in discrete zones. Its renown as one of the key moments in post war British art resides in its heralding of the pop art age which paint the 60s in bright primary colours. Richard Hamilton, who collaborated on a display with John McHale and John Voelcker, installed a large promotional lobby cut-out of Robbie the Robot carrying a limply unconscious woman in his segmented alloy arms in classic pulp SF cover style (the Robbie of Forbidden Planet, a passive slave Caliban, would never do anything so lasciviously aggressive, of course). He/it towered like a futuristic metal colossus over a cut-out of Marilyn Monroe in her classic hot vent pose from The Seven Year Itch, and a full scale model of Robbie himself was on hand to welcome visitors to the gallery. The best known work associated with the exhibition is, appropriately enough, a promotional poster produced by Richard Hamilton for his group’s sector. Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing is a collage which gathers together almost all of the elements which would characterise British pop art, almost amounting to a manifesto. Included in this parodic ‘ideal home’ are comic strips, commercial ads, American movies and cars, television programmes, pin-ups, domestic appliances and, represented by a reel-to-reel tape recorder, music. The word ‘pop’ itself appears on the wrapper covering the succulent head of a sweet lolly, which the Charles Atlas muscleman grasps firmly and suggestively.

Relaxing in the house of the future
Also included in the exhibition were the architects Peter and Alison Smithson, both leading members of the Independent Group, who collaborated with Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson. A few years earlier, in 1952, they had produced a design for the Golden Lane Estate due to be built on the northern edge of the City of London, and incorporated cut outs into their drawings. Amongst the ideal inhabitants were Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, and their monumental plan with its linear grid of flats drew on the scale and asceticism of certain examples of American abstract expressionist art. In the same year that they exhibited at the This Is Tomorrow show, they also created a ‘house of the future’ for the Ideal Home exhibition at the Olympia in London. This is a retro-futurist’s dream, all moulded modular furnishings, hexagonal tabletops, pod-like chairs, irregular cave-entrance doorways, gardens indoors, and corrugated iron interior walls, with inhabitants dressed like extras from Things To Come for the publicity photos. The Smithsons would go on to pioneer the Brutalist architectural style (an unfortunate name purportedly deriving from Peter Smithson’s nickname Brutus), which would change the face of so many British towns and cities in the 60s and 70s. Their careers culminated (or ended) with the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar in the East End of London (which I have written about in a previous post), a building which is still hugely controversial. Some (mostly fellow architects such as Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid) want it listed, many more would be happy to see it demolished. It certainly generates strong opinions on either side of the divide. In many ways it can be seen (along with the Alexander Road Estate in Camden) as marking the last dying gesture of post-war British modernism, a defiant gesture which could almost have been designed as a seplulchral monument. The title of Samuels’ exhibition, with its sense of futures past, also feels like an epitaph, a marking of an era which is dead and buried.

The Tragedy of the Commons
The major work in the exhibition is called Tragedy of the Commons, a title taken from the 1968 article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin which put forward the idea that land or resources open to unrestricted use will, in the nature of things (or in the nature of human self-interest) become degraded and depleted. It could be extended metaphorically to apply to the failure of the utopian ideals espoused by the likes of the Smithsons which lay behind large scale public housing schemes in the post-war period. It’s certainly constructed on a similarly monumental scale, stretching in a tall and narrow line to fill the central gallery space. Looked at from the far end of the gallery it offers an impressive prospect, with diminishing lines of perspective suggesting a potential extension into greater distances. Michaels has constructed it from broken down elements of utilitarian modernist furniture, mostly cupboard doors and cabinets, which are fitted together, modular style, to create a larger structure. It brings to mind the large estates of the sixties and seventies, like the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens or the Park Hill in Sheffield. The use of colour in the interiors of the partly opened drawers, in the lighting, and in the straps (orange and yellow) and g-clamps (blue) attached at various intervals to break the monochrome brown veneer, along with the overall rectilinear pattern link it to artistic precedents such as Mondrian, Ben Nicholson and Picasso and Braque’s early cubist works. As such, it also follows the way in which the Smithsons drew on artistic influences as an inspiration for their architecture. Michaels adds further dimensional variation to the surface by having some of the drawers open to different degrees, echoing the way that modernist architects would vary the face of their buildings by having windows or balconies of different sizes, or set at staggered intervals. The Brutalists favoured exposing the workings of their buildings, not hiding their functionality, something which the Smithsons put into practice in their first completed building, the Hunstanton Primary School. The influence of such a philosophy can be seen in the Pompidou Centre and Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building in London, both of which proudly hang their guts on the outside for the world to see. In Samuels’ work, the straps and g-clamps which appear to be holding the whole structure together could be seen as a reflection of this tendency. They also could be seen as a kind of scaffolding, holding together a worn-out, unstable construction in an ad-hoc fashion which doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence. The spectre of Ronan Point, the shoddily put together high-rise one quadrant of which completely collapsed in 1968, rears its head at this point.

Saint Etienne's modernist pop
Angle poise lamps perch in nooks at various heights, their crouching, acute angled frames breaking up the generally right-angled grid of the whole. A classic Habitat design, they show a brighter, more domesticated face of modernism which reached out to a broad spectrum of the populace, and was more accommodating to pre-existing tastes than the ascetic, doctrinaire approach of the Smithsons. The lamps are switched on and, in the fairly shadowy space of the gallery, provide what could be seen as the day side of the building. Walking behind, into the shadows cast by its looming height and expansive length, you enter the nightside, the largely featureless rear of the building lit with a nocturnal blue. Some of the open ‘modular’ spaces in the front are filled with old speakers of appropriate size and fit, with a smaller, horizontal aperture housing an eight track tape player. These hint at an inaudible soundtrack, associative songs which the viewer can play in their head. This Is Tomorrow by Saint Etienne, the song they wrote for their own paean to post-war modernism, a film about the Festival Hall, would seem a particularly apposite choice. This implied music draws on the link, via the Independent Group and the This Is Tomorrow exhibition, between the Smithsons, Brutalist architecture and pop art, which was always closely linked to music, both in its inclusion of pop stars amongst its iconography, and later through the design of album covers (Peter Blake’s for Sergeant Pepper being the most famous). It’s a sculptural installation which is full of rich associations (yours may be entirely different, of course) but which is also absorbing and impressive as an imposing object in its own right.

Blue projector - The Metronome portal (?)
Other works in the exhibition are inevitably on a smaller scale. On the wall in the central corridor are two small assemblages, Die Fraktale 14 and 15, once more created from drawers and fragments of utilitarian furniture, which have a Mondrian or Ben Nicholson-like blend of square shapes and sparely used colour. Both have slots through which a blue light shines, adding a further element of radiant colour, and include g-clamps both as an exposure of the materials of construction and as a part of the composition. In the smaller gallery there are three pieces, Metronome , Portal and Metabolist. The first, Metronome, although it feels more like a portal, is an open frame clamped to a table surface, its inner rim limned with blue light. Other smaller frames, with inner surfaces painted blue, green, yellow or red, are laid out flat or positioned horizontally, like a three dimensional projection of an abstract painting. The blue light casts a pool of cool monochrome colour onto the white wall, the edge of the frame dividing it with a bar of shadow, creating an amalgam of Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still-style abstract expressionism. The next piece, Portal (Metronome?) balances several long, thin frames on a small stool, and has a tottering, drunken look, as if it might keel over at any moment. As with all three pieces in this room, it casts great shadows, and also reflections in the glossy black paint of the floor. In this case, the shadows look like cartoon outlines of a Metropolis skyline of high-rises. The final piece, Metabolist, looks a little like one of Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculptures in form. Boxes and drawers are accumulated in a chaotic jumble, overarching the small table on which they’re piled. The clamps which hold the elements in precarious balance are like tiny, tyrannosaur appendages sticking out. The title Metabolist hints at a figure possessed of life, the blue light shining beneath the tabletop some sort of energising force. You can imagine it as some sort of surrealist beast, self created out of an office skip, staggering into uncertain motion on its spindly giraffe legs like a stop-motion animated sculpture in a Jan Svankmajer film.

Ready to come to life - Metabolist
This is a thoroughly absorbing and stimulating exhibition, which is well worth coming along to see. I was privileged to get a sneak preview before it’s opening on Saturday 28th July, for which I thank Steve, of Instant Steve renown, and Rowan and everyone else there. Michael Samuels himself will be present for the opening of the exhibition and will give an introductory talk. There will also be a talk on Saturday 8th September by Dr Deborah Sugg Ryan, Senior Lecturer in Histories and Theories of Design at University College Falmouth which will look at the Ideal Home Exhibition between 1926-1956, and discuss the Smithson’s House of the Future.
City of shadows - Portal

Mary Tamm

It’s been a year or so of terrible mortality for actors playing Doctor Who companions. First Elisabeth Sladen, then Caroline John and now Mary Tamm. Tamm played Romana alongside Tom Baker’s Doctor in the 1978-9 season. She followed on from Louise Jamieson’s hugely popular Leela, a hard act to follow. Leela had been written out in a disappointingly underwhelming fashion. The noble, fearless savage deciding to settle down and marry a man she had only just met! The producers wanted Elisabeth Sladen to return as Sarah Jane Smith, but she was firm in keeping her distance from the character (for the time being). The choice of Tamm came once the decision had been made to make the Doctor’s new companion a fellow time traveller. She was initially suspicious of the whole idea of the female companion, believing that it would too easily devolve into the standard passive role assigned women in adventure stories, the woman in peril or the admiring observer of heroic male deeds. Having been assured that this would not be the case, she accepted the part. Romana was indeed a character of great intelligence and cool assurance, the polar opposite of Leela’s hot-headed primitive. She was imposed on the Doctor at the beginning of his quest to find the Key To Time, a clumsy contrivance which grafted a story arc onto stories which would otherwise have stood as individual adventures. The Time Lords assigned a reluctant Doctor to search for the fragments of this grail-like relic which maintained the balance between the opposing forces of the Black and White Guardians. They are the equivalent to the forces of Law and Chaos in Michael Moorcock’s multiverse, although here rather crudely envisaged as pantomime figures of good and evil. Tamm’s Romana is given the job of assisting him in this quest. She introduces herself as Romanadvoratrelunda, which the Doctor immediately shortens to Romana. ‘I don’t like Romana’, she complains. ‘It’s either Romana or Fred’, he retorts, a line which has the hallmarks of a Baker ad lib. ‘All right, call me Fred’, she coolly replies.

Coolness and a certain haughty froideur were the hallmarks of Tamm’s Romana. She provided an excellent foil for Baker, who by this time was showing an increasing tendency to clown around and introduce his own amendments to the scripts in order to keep himself amused. She is a top grade graduate from the Academy on Gallifrey, an intellectual with an encyclopaedic knowledge and academic understanding of the nature of the universe which is the match of the Doctor’s. Indeed, it is revealed, much to his huffy chagrin, that the Doctor only just scraped through his own examinations. Her knowledge has not been tempered with the wisdom of experience, however, and in this respect she still functions as the Doctor’s junior, and as the questioning figure of identification for the audience. The testy nature of her relationship with the Doctor perhaps reflects Baker’s reluctance to have a companion at all. His ego was, by this stage, large enough to lead him to feel he could carry the show on its own, and he was reluctant to share the spotlight. There’s little real interaction between him and Tamm, and at times he might as well be talking to himself. Some of the Doctor’s dismissive lines could almost be seen as little satirical digs on the part of the scriptwriters. The Doctor rudely rebuffs her initial overtures in which she asks how she can be of assistance, telling her ‘I’d like you to stay out of my way as much as possible and try and keep out of trouble’. ‘I don’t suppose you can make tea?’ he adds, summoning up another one of the elements of the traditional female character which Tamm was keen to avoid. She was also lumbered with the lumbering K-9, who returned for this and further seasons to act as the occasional plot deus ex machina and obligatory cute post-Star Wars robot. The producers were assured that his internal mechanisms would be improved for this series, but he still experienced difficulties in navigating the slightest ruck in a carpet.

It has to be said that this was not a great period for Doctor Who. The Key to Time structure was clumsy and unnecessary, and was for the most part an incidental aspect of each story. It never really led to any great conclusion, either. The Doctor was best left as a bohemian wanderer, without the need for any extraneous quest to spur him on. There were a few good stories, along with several dull ones, but nothing attained the level of the classic gothic tales of the Philip Hinchliffe era, or the domestic SF and political allegory of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ Jon Pertwee stories. Tamm looks regal in long white dress and cape trimmed with feathery fur in her first story, The Ribos Operation. But the story itself, written by Robert Holmes, one of the finest Doctor Who scriptwriters, is merely competent, and fails to rise to his previous heights. It’s probably best to gloss over his later story in the series, The Power of Kroll, which conforms to Margaret Atwood’s expectations of science fiction by featuring giant squid-like creatures who menace the Doctor and Romana with wholly unconvincing rubbery tentacles. The Pirate Planet, Douglas Adams’ debut script for the show, is enjoyable in a broad, comic way (it was written at the same time as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), with a memorably over the top villain, deadly robotic parrot perching on his shoulder. The Stones of Blood reaches back to early 70s preoccupations with its mixture of stone circles and pagan beliefs given a space operatic rationale. The image of a mobile megalithic standing stone draining the blood from a hapless camper is definitely one of my early ‘behind the sofa’ moments. The Androids of Tara adapts the form and look of a Ruritanian adventure story in the Prisoner of Zenda or Man in the Iron Mask mould, and whilst the story is rather flat and uninspiring, this does allow for some splendid and colourful costumes and set dressing. Tamm plays multiple roles in this one, as Romana and as her double on the planet Tara, Princess Strella, as well as their android doubles (a return of the companion revealed to be a robotic replica plotline used in the Sarah Jane story The Android Invasion some years earlier). Tamm wears a vaguely Edwardian purple and green ensemble as Romana, whilst her princess is decked out in spangly disco queen finery.

Mary Tamm and Peter Jeffrey in The Androids of Tara

Tamm got to act alongside some fine co-stars during the series: John Woodvine, Iain Cuthbertson, Peter Jeffrey, the towering, craggy-faced Neil McCarthy and the recently deceased Who regular Philip Madoc (best known for his role as mad scientist Solon in The Brain of Morbius) all delivering distinctive performances. Disappointingly for Tamm, however, her character remained underdeveloped and scriptwriters swiftly reverted to using her primarily as a passive focus for cliffhanging peril, her worst fears realised. She was menaced by the embarrassing ‘man in a suit’ dragon the Shrivensale in the Ribos Operation, falls off a cliff and is transported as a captive to an orbiting spaceship in The Stones of Blood, is almost immediately taken prisoner in The Androids of Tara and replaced by a killer android replica, is captured once more in the Power of Kroll and offered up as a sacrifice by a primitive tribe to their cephalopod gods, and is threatened with torture by the Black Guardian in the Armageddon Factor. In the light of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that she decided not to return for another series. The producers and scriptwriters may have taken heed of her dissatisfaction, however. When Romana returned in regenerated form, portrayed by Lalla Ward, she took a much more active role, whilst retaining her function as a foil to Baker’s Doctor. Tamm’s Romana remains as a bridging character, possessed of great intelligence (and beauty) and a cool, sardonic wit which the writers didn’t quite know how to incorporate into the more traditional stories which predominated in this period. She pointed the way towards the more active heroines of the future, however, and Tamm always maintained an elegant poise and displayed effortless style. They are qualities which make her six episodes worth revisiting.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Bristol Harbourside Festival, Danceroom Spectroscopy and Radio On

The Matthew sails again
The Bristol Harbourside Festival, which took place under sunny skies last weekend, has grown into one of the largest city festivals in the country over the last decade, and the waterside paths and bridges are always teeming with slowly circulating crowds. The harbour itself is packed with rows of moored boats both humble, flashy and more remarkable. The reconstructed three-masted ship The Matthew, the original of which sailed across the Atlantic under its captain John Cabot until it bumped into Newfoundland in 1497, glid through a short circuit, smaller modern boats puttering past and around it like fussing court attendants. Steam tugs, canal barges and fire-floats took their turns along the artificial channels and basins dug and engineered in the early 19th century to circumvent the widely fluctuating tidal levels of the river Avon. The pannier-tanked harbour steam railway engine chuntered up and down past the remaing dockside cranes. The whole place was full of the noise and bustling activity which would have been a daily reality when it was a busy working environment, but with historical eras overlaid and thrown into unlikely proximity. A Brunel lookalike is generally to be found wandering around with cheery civic pride near to his ship The Great Britain, identifiable by his towering stove-pipe hat and black frock-coat, if not these days by a fat cigar clamped in the corner of his maw, Edward G Robinson-style. Stages are scattered around the waterside, and in the neighbouring Georgian environs of Queen’s Square, showcasing some of the best established and up and coming local music, dance and circus acrobatics.

The Sailor and the Sea - the Mark Bruce Company
I always particularly enjoy the dance here, which takes place in the natural theatrical piazza of the Millenium Square, with its faceted and reflective ‘spaceship’ globe and watery pools and fountains, which the children were making full splashing and screaming use of on this hot day. The light-footed statue of local boy Cary Grant, or plain old Archie Leach as he was known in his Bristol days, provided an invisibly presiding presence from behind the stage. There was some energetic street dance from Keneish Dance and the Hype Dance Company. The latter, with t-shirts bearing a Nike-ified Hype logo, featured young dancers spanning a wide age range, all of whom got to show off their own special moves as passages of group unison fragmented into more individualistic or small group displays. The music stuttered through a swiftly edited collage of ever-changing styles, accompanying similarly sudden shifts in dance styles. There was a definite sense that they were going to fit everything they could into the short time available, and show us just how much they capable of. So, punchy Hip-Hop moves suddenly morphed into Michael Jackson-style routines, old-fashioned body-popping and R&B posing intercut with other sounds and steps which I’m far too uncool to know about. The smallest member, a girl with a naturally assured manner and attitude to spare who looked like she could be destined to go far, was swung up and spun around by the other dancers, soaring high, a dramatic move which provided an impressive demonstration of the absolute trust which must have developed within the troupe. They all looked like they were having a fabulous time, and there were obviously some proud family members or friends in the crowd. It seems like a brilliant way of getting young people together and developing their confidence and sense of themselves and their own physicality. Watching them, it was impossible not to smile.

Angular bodies - the Julia Thorneycroft Company
More classical dance styles were represented by Julia Thorneycroft and the Mark Bruce Company. The Julia Thorneycroft piece involved her and three male dancers both interacting as a group and breaking off into individual, isolated movement. The music was loud, amplified cello, developing from mournful, Elgar-like expressiveness to more strident, attacking passages, which prompted more energetic and animated activity from the dancers. Mark Bruce’s piece was a duet, with a Gene Kelly-esque sailor, thumbs slotted into pockets with devil-may-care nonchalance, strolling on and meeting a woman dressed in a shimmering, electric blue dress. They fell into a dance which wavered between passionate embrace and arms-length disdain and rejection. The sailor and the female embodiment of the sea crossed and circled the stage, acting out the oceanic love which bound them together through tempest and calm. All played out to the romantic, yearning strains of an orchestrated version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

The Arnolfini Gallery, situated in an old tea warehouse on the harbourside, paid host to a special interactive exhibition in their performance theatre in the afternoon. Danceroom Spectroscopy brought together the generally mutually exclusive worlds of art and science. People wandered in and mingled in front of a large screen. Their moving bodies were scanned by the 180° sweep of a 3D imaging camera, which sent its signal to a nearby computer. The Danceroom Spectroscopy computer programme, designed by theoretical chemist David Glowacki and artist Phill Tew, interpreted people’s movements and interactions with each other and the space in terms of molecular energy fields, which were then visualised as shifting patterns built up from modelled representations of the five most common elements in the universe. Hydrogen atoms were represented by swarms of blue, pin-prick particles, helium by caroming red particles, carbon by regal purple particles, iron by a more solid orange, and oxygen by the turquoise of the Earth’s atmosphere. These were all projected onto the screen, so that people could see the fed back output which they were creating, and alter and shape it further. As people moved in different ways, clustering together or drifting apart, the nature of what appeared on screen changed. You could generally recognise yourself by waving like a loon or jumping up and down. One boy brought in a balloon, which created an interesting new shape and dynamic, bouncing movement. Sometimes you would be composed of a vibrating, Brownian motion of hydrogen atoms contained within a spectral outline. At others, you would be a shivering purple waveform, approaching the state of those ‘being of pure energy’ which used to crop up in Star Trek every now and then. The burbling ambient sound backdrop was also subtly altered by people’s activities, which provided the input for the evolution of its generative musical patterns. People had a great deal of fun getting their molecular or waveform avatars to go through their transformations. It was an engaging and accessible installation which allowed people to see themselves in an entirely new light, as light.

There was also a dance piece, Hidden Fields, choreographed by Laura Kriefman using the spectroscopy system, featuring five female dancers. This followed a vague narrative scheme of birth, the exploration and discovery of the self and its connection with the world, interaction and connection with others, and eventual death and dissipation. It was fascinating and a little bedazzling to have to flicker the focus of your perceptions between the dancers and the motions they created on the screen. It must have been strange for the dancers to not be the sole object of attention during the performance, and indeed to have no following lights drawing the eye to their movements. But the essence of the piece lay in the interaction between the human element and its computer-projected analogue on the screen, and it was necessary somehow to be aware of both. The images on screen were often abstract and strikingly beautiful. Waves of colour would ripple across, or oscillating pulses of light would waver back and forth. Particulate clusters in roughly human form would merge with one another and then bifurcate with the appearance of fluid cellular division. Joseph Hyde provided electronic music which drew on the visuals, reacting to them in real time, and gave them sonic contours. He began with the hum and hiss of white noise, the aural analogue of the chaos of the untuned TV screen with which was what the projections initially resembled. As forms began to emerge, along with the dancers, the music too began to resolve into individual notes and tones. Thick, angular particle trails slowly drew lines across the screen before ricocheting off the edges, accompanied by oddly mammalian squeaks and cries of surprise. One of the dancers played a game of interrupting or evading these firefly atomic contrails, the first tentative exploration of how the self could affect the world through which it moved. Towards the end, the human shape became a container for shimmering colonies of pointillistic atoms. The dancers began to lose their energy, and their partners cradled their dying forms and lay them gently down onto the ground. Their atomic clusters lost coherence, and slowly dissipated out into the general particulate matter which drifted all around them. It was a mystical image of essential indivisibility, of a certain continuity of being, and of the connection of all things which was in keeping with the spiritual tenor of the piece as a whole. The projected visuals, with their semi-abstract and vibrantly coloured but still somehow recognisably human forms, gave the impression of a technologically-enabled emanation of some inherent essence of spirit, and iridescent imprint of the soul. It all ended with the music crackling and humming with the background noise of the universe. The screen was a frosty white, etched with the black craquelure of shattered safety glass. The last of the dancers slowly made her way to the wings, her movements creating a ghost which passed across the patterned screen like a watery shadow beneath thick ice. Life spiriting away in the face of the heat death of the universe. The whole was a fantastically beautiful and at times very moving meeting of science and art, human grace and technological ingenuity, rationalism and mysticism, dispassionate programming and emotional engagement. After the dancers had left, the floor was open once more, and the audience were free to project their own stories and selves onto the screen, to make sport and play in the Atomic World.

The Grosvenor today

From the flyover - Radio On, 1979

Beneath the flyover - Radio On, 1979

On the way back to Brunel and Francis Fox’s majestic Temple Meads station, I passed the sad remains of the Grosvenor Hotel. Apparently unloved by both the City Council and the people of Bristol, it’s boarded up, sports unruly sproutings of buddleia and is scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by yet more mixed-use office blocks and retail and restaurant outlets. This odd and distinctive building, which looks as if a modernist thirties frontage has been grafted onto a Victorian red-brick rear, featured in Chris Petit’s 1979 road movie Radio On. The protagonist Robert’s road journey begins in on the Westway in London and ends on the spindly little one way flyover which used to curl past the windows of the Grosvenor in a manner suggestive of a cut-price Metropolis set. Iain Sinclair, talking about the film in his book Lights Out For the Territory, described the Grosvenor as ‘a Bristol hotel and flyover unmatched in British cinema for their powers of displacement’. It provides a visual rhyme with the sixties retro-modernism of the Monsoon ‘battleship’ building which Robert passes on the elevated roadway out of London. He goes to the Grosvenor with a German woman called Ingrid, whom he meets in Bristol, who speaks little English and who provides a link with the Wim Wenders films which inspired Petit (the film was co-produced by Wenders’ Road Movies company). Lisa Kreuzer, who plays Ingrid, had appeared in all three of Wenders’ 70s road movie ‘trilogy’ of films (Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move and Kings of the Road), and she provides the impetus for a coda to Robert’s journey, as they go to Weston Super Mare to look for her son, and reach the farthest extent of the land, the end of the pier marking a faded and rather melancholy full stop. Robert’s car breaks down, and he starts his journey back by catching a shabby two-coach train from Blue Anchor station, near Minehead, helped on his homeward way by the propulsive strains of Kraftwerk’s Ohm Sweet Ohm. The Grosvenor provides the perfect locale for the pervasive atmosphere of anomie and alienation which permeates the film. When they sit listlessly in her hotel room, Robert and Ingrid are effectively speaking two different languages, although they do manage to make some sort of connection, perhaps as a result of the simpler and more direct level of communication which results. There is an effective moving shot taken from the flyover which captures them framed in separate windows, gazing blankly outwards, each in their separate world, the faint echoes of Robert Fripp’s dark piece of frippertronics Urban Landscape, from the Exposure album, just discernible in the background. Petit went back to the locales of Radio On in 1998 for his short video film Radio On (Remix). He was just in time to witness and film the dismantling of the flyover in the pouring rain on the 13th June 1998, an effective packing away and discrete disposal of modernist dreams.

Alienation framed - Radio On, 1979

The flyover dismantled - Radio On (Remix), 1989

Friday, 20 July 2012

Dartington Ways With Words Festival: Edward Burne-Jones and Angela Carter

The Dartington Ways With Words literary festival came to the end of its packed two week programme last weekend, and I went along on the Saturday to see two speakers: Fiona MacCarthy talking about the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones, about whom she has written in her most recent biography, and his friendship with William Morris, the subject of one of her previous biographies; and Susannah Clapp talking about her friend Angela Carter, for whom she acted as literary executor, and about whom she wrote the recent memoir A Card From Angela Carter. MacCarthy spoke in the medieval Great Hall of the Dartington estate, and commented upon how appropriate the setting was for her subject. She said that she’d always been interested in utopian artistic movements, having written about William Morris and his attempts to revive a tradition of noble artisanship in the face of industrialisation and mass production, and about Eric Gill and his attempts at communal living based around spiritual and artistic practices on Ditchling Common and later at Capel y Ffin. She thus felt an affinity with the Dartington experiment, set up by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in 1926 with the intention of fostering a thriving and fulfilling local rural culture, with arts, education and agricultural labour all interlinked.

Burne-Jones and Morris n 1874 - Frederick Hollyer
MacCarthy began by highlighting the unlikely nature of Burne-Jones and Morris’ friendship, given that, in so many respects, they possessed entirely opposing qualities. Burne-Jones was tall and gangly and often in poor health, whereas Morris was short and squat and always bursting with boundless energy. Burne-Jones came from a fairly humble Birmingham background, his father a picture framer, whereas Morris was from the prosperous Southern counties, the son of a very wealthy family. His father was a bill-broker in the City, the kind of capitalist he would later affect to despise when he turned to radical Socialist politics. Morris was outgoing and a natural leader, whereas Burne-Jones could be withdrawn and lugubriously melancholic. MacCarthy made it clear, however, that he could quite suddenly ‘switch on’ and become the epitome of solicitous charm and the most engaging of company. Morris was very outward-looking, always concerned with the state of the world and the effect his work could have upon it. Burne-Jones’ art tended to drift off into interior dream worlds, full of personal symbolism and suffused with a languid, sensuous atmosphere. But despite (or perhaps partly thanks to) all of these differences they were close and inseparable friends for many years. MacCartney suggested that the names Morris and Burne-Jones were akin to those of the conjoined pairings of the great Victorian department stores such as Marshall and Snelgrove or Debenham and Freebody – forever associated with one another. Given their contrasting stature, Laurel and Hardy might also be an appropriate comparison. She portrayed the friendship as a romance, with intense feelings expressed in correspondence from both sides, although she hastened to add that there was no sexual component to the relationship.

They met at Exeter College, Oxford University in 1853, where they quickly discovered a shared fascination for romantic literature and medievalism, both of which were refracted through the poetry of Tennyson, who would prove an abiding influence. They were initially both intent on becoming clergymen, and enjoyed passionate discussions about the nature of religion. But a trip through northern France in 1855, during which Morris was awed by the Gothic architecture, and Burne-Jones by the Renaissance and Medieval art in the Parisian galleries, affirmed them both in a life dedicated to art – albeit art pursued with a religious devotion and sense of the sacred. MacCarthy related an incident which took place in the Louvre, in which Morris got Burne-Jones to close his eyes and guided him to a position immediately before Fra Angelico’s painting the Coronation of the Virgin. He then bade him open his eyes, and Burne-Jones was duly overwhelmed by the sudden revelation of the painting in all its vivid colour and splendour.

The Oxford Union with murals restored
MacCarthy commented on the lightness and frivolity with which Burne-Jones and Morris and their circle would often address each other. It was part of the foolish and tenderly sentimental side of the Victorian character which is often subsumed by the perceived sobriety of the age. Burne-Jones was Ned, and Morris Topsy, after his unruly mop of curly hair. They would also dress in colourful, bohemian clothing, playing the part of the artist to the hilt. MacCarthy commented on the portrayal of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, of whom Morris and Burne-Jones would become a peripheral and late arriving part, as raffish, rebellious rogues in the TV series Desperate Romantics, lamenting the fact that it failed to capture their essential seriousness, their dedication to their art and the philosophies which underlay it. In 1857 Burne-Jones and Morris, along with their new London friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne and a few others, managed to gain a commission to paint murals on the ceiling of the debating room of the Oxford Union. The summer they spent doing this was one of those magical periods of lightness and effortless gaiety soundtracked, as MacCarthy pointed out with her sense for the telling detail which brings the scene alive, by the popping of soda bottle corks. There was plenty of larking about, with the shambling, bearlike Morris often bearing the brunt of the humour. MacCarthy related an incident in which he became trapped in the medieval helmet from the suit of armour he’d had designed for himself, and stumbled back and forth roaring to be released. The decoration of the Oxford Union firmly sealed the friendship of Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Swinburne. It scarcely seemed to matter that the paint almost immediately began to flake away, the murals swiftly fading into spectral shadows.

Self-parody - William Morris Reading Poetry to Burne-Jones
MacCarthy highlighted Burne-Jones’ mastery of caricatures, which he produced regularly throughout his artistic life. It was a side of his art which was diametrically opposed to the ethereal dreaminess and solemnity of his paintings. This was suggestive of a personality with many different and divergent facets, which were also reflected in the wide range of artistic directions and media he explored. These included the design of stained glass, tapestries and interior furnishings and designs. He worked on the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington Museum for the firm of Morris and Co., painting the panels with the signs of the zodiac and creating the stained glass for the windows. You can still eat there today, in what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, as indeed I did a couple of weeks ago, enjoying a tasty fruit scone and a refreshing cup of Darjeeling tea underneath one of Ned’s panels. MacCarthy noted that he even had some suggestions for a more pleasing design of piano. Burne-Jones’ caricatures were often of the friends he’d worked with on the Oxford murals, with Morris frequently portrayed in an affectionate but far from flattering light as a comical bumbler. MacCarthy pointed to an underlying element of cruelty and hurtful mockery in these caricatures, which hinted at a certain rivalry between the two friends. Perhaps this was inevitable in two who were so close and who had dedicated themselves so completely to the pursuit of their art. Each wished the other success, but not to a degree wholly incommensurate with their own. Burne-Jones was himself a perfect subject for caricaturists, especially after he’d achieved widespread renown. His thin, languorously drooping figure and doleful mien made for an ideal contrast with Morris’ rounded form. Burne-Jones also shared or inherited Rossetti’s fondness for wombats, and his cartoons of the rotund marsupials often bore an undeniable resemblance to Morris.

Georgiana MacDonald
In 1857, Burne-Jones and Rossetti went to a small theatre in Oxford and met a young woman named Jane Burden. Actually they spotted her in a theatre box, and later bumped into her in the street, and at some stage asked her to model for them. She would go on to become the ultimate model and muse for the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetics, and the object of chivalric, self-punishing devotion for Rossetti after she’d married Morris in 1859. After their marriage, Morris had his ideal of a romantic, late medieval home, the Red House, built in Bexleyheath, now a distinctly unromantic London suburb, but then a fairly undeveloped part of North Kent. It was designed by Philip Webb and decorated and furnished by Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti, all of whom would go on to be the core of Morris and Co., the design and manufacturing company which defined the style of the arts and crafts movement. Burne-Jones married Georgiana MacDonald in 1860, having first met her at her house in Handsworth back in 1852 when he was still living in Birmingham. They would visit the Morrises at the Red House for weekends or lengthier stays, with other friends also sometimes in residence. The place took on the pleasurable and convivial familial commune, with friends always welcome. It was from this stable base that Morris planned the business which was to revive the ideal of quality handcraftsmanship in the applied arts. This was in reaction to the rapid growth of industrialised mass production, which Morris opposed so vehemently as representing a cheapening of life, both in the nature of the goods and the means of their manufacture. Burne-Jones was to be his key partner throughout at Morris and Co., specialising particularly in the design of stained glass. MacCarthy recalled that she had visited countless churches across Britain in order to view his work close-up and at first-hand. Such peregrinations are a sure indication of a dedicated biographer.

Family days at the Red House - The Morrises and Burne-Jones photographed by Frederick Hollyer
The Burne-Joneses moved into their own ideal house in 1867, The Grange in Fulham, and Morris regularly came round for Sunday breakfasts and lunches, where current projects would be discussed and news and views exchanged. It was during the years at the Grange that Burne-Jones began his own romantic folly, an affair with Maria Zambaco, the daughter of wealthy Greek family living in London. It would last until she left the country in 1872, during which time she provided his ideal model of feminine beauty and dangerous allure; his Venus and Nimue. At the same time, he rather hypocritically disapproved of Rossetti’s infatuation with Jane Morris, which put a strain on their friendship. Georgiana (or Georgie, as she was known to Ned) somehow managed to stoically turn a blind eye to her husband’s affair, just as Morris affected to ignore his wife Jane’s intense romantic friendship with Rossetti. Burne-Jones would later use his daughter Margaret, with whom he was very close, as a model, although MacCarthy assured us that there was no incestuous element to their intimacy – a relief to hear from the biographer of Eric Gill. He would also go on to have many close but platonic friendships with younger women. As MacCarthy comments, ‘he was never not in love’. To his credit, he was one of the few who stood by the artist Simeon Solomon, who had been part of the Rossetti and Swinburne circle, after he’d been arrested for soliciting in a public toilet and charged with the crime of sodomy, and event which started him on the long descent into destitution and alcoholism, ending in early death.

Portrait of Maria Zambaco, 1870
The Grange would become one of the centres of the Aesthetic Movement, a place which attracted visitors such as Oscar Wilde and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as Georgie’s nephew, a small boy called Rudyard Kipling. Burne-Jones was considered a key member of the Aesthetic Movement after the triumph of the opening show at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, which attracted a huge amount of publicity, and in which several of his major paintings were on display. The attracted widespread acclaim and also caught the public fancy, and he was soon well known beyond the usual artistic enclaves. His success launched him on a swift upwardly mobile trajectory which culminated in his earning a baronetcy, which he accepted despite previously expressed republican views. At the same time, Morris was becoming increasingly involved in radical politics, joining the Socialist Democratic Party in 1883 and subsequently breaking away to form his own Socialist League in 1884 (leftist politics was then, as now, rife with divisions). The ever-solicitous Ned was worried that the socialists might be taking advantage of his friend’s naivety and idealism, and more particularly, of his wealth. He talked about him having crossed the ‘river of fire’ into revolutionary politics, suggesting that there was now a significant and unbridgeable divide between them. Morris, for his part, was deliberately turning his back on the kind of wealthy patrons (and often artistic subjects) of the Aesthetic Movement. These were exactly the sorts of people whose company Burne-Jones was new enjoying. Morris held the Aesthetic Movement, with its art for art’s sake credo, in contempt, now believing that, on the contrary, art should have a definite social purpose. He decried ‘an art cultivated professedly by a few and for a few, who would consider it necessary – a duty if they could admit to duties – to despise the common herd, to hold themselves aloof from all that the world has been struggling for from the first, to guard carefully every approach to their palace of art’.

Morris and Burne-Jones never stopped meeting one another, or thought of putting an end to their friendship and professional partnership (Morris and Co. would outlive them both). But a definite rift grew between them as they drifted into entirely separate and mutually exclusive worlds. MacCarthy recounted this with real sadness, telling us how hard it had been to write the chapter detailing this split. It was like the end of a great romance, a falling out of love after so many years of passionate intimacy. She clearly has a great deal of affection for both of her subjects, Burne-Jones and Morris, Ned and Topsy, and has grown to know them almost as friends herself in the writing of her books. She ended by noting that Burne-Jones died only a few years after his great lifelong friend and boon companion, the one in 1896 and the other in 1898, as if neither was wholly at home in the world without the balancing and contrasting force of the other.

In The Barn, across the courtyard from the Great Hall, Susannah Clapp gave a talk about Angela Carter in this, the 20th year since her death at the terribly early age of 51. Clapp has written a short memoir of Carter, a reflection on her life and work using a series of postcards sent to her during the 80s as cues, triggers for personal reminiscences and insights. She was one of the founders of the London Review of Books, and commissioned a number of articles and reviews for it from Carter. She noted, possibly with the benefit of rueful experience, that Carter was a terrible one for meeting deadlines, once commenting that ‘the only time I ever iron the sheets or make meringues is when there is an absolutely urgent deadline in the offing’. Clapp was also appointed as Carter’s literary executor, and she recalled her first foray into her study in her house in Clapham (the latter half of the postcode, 0NR, given Carter’s topical mnemonic Oliver North Reagan) after her death. It was a fairly spartan, sparely furnished room, and she dreamt of discovering some unpublished masterpiece, a great novel or the odd short-story or two stashed away for future use or revision. But Carter, for all her occasional air of disorder, was a pragmatic writer who was intent on getting her work out into the market as soon as possible. She did find some stage and screenplays which had gone un-performed or filmed, however. Her 1988 filmscript The Christchurch Murders took as its subject the true story of the intense, self-absorbed adolescent friendship of two girls in 1950s New Zealand, who lose themselves in a closed-off world of their own creation. When this world is threatened by their enforced and potentially permanent separation, they murder the mother of one of them. It was a story which later formed the basis of Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. Her theatrical script Lulu, also from 1988 and also unproduced (it was clearly a frustrating year), was adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays about the doomed femme fatale for a potential production by Richard Eyre at the National Theatre. She was not happy when the National eventually turned it down, which may have been a contributory factor in her dislike of the theatre in general, which Clapp mentioned. Lulu was a character who fascinated Carter, not least because she loved Louise Brooks, who had portrayed her in GW Pabst’s film of Pandora’s Box. She said that if she ever had a daughter, she’s call her Lulu. There was also a 1980 libretto for an operatic adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time travelling and gender shifting novel Orlando, which was to have been scored by Michael Berkeley, and which she suggested might be performed in an old Victorian department store (the same Marshall and Snelgrove mentioned earlier by Fiona MacCarthy). All of these unrealised scripts were eventually published in 1996 (alongside several others which did see the light of day) in The Curious Room, which gathered together Carter’s Collected Dramatic Works, and which has an introduction by Clapp. Also in the study were a pile of journals which Carter had kept since the 60s, writing in exercise books covered in cut-out pictures and doodled designs. These included a number of poems which she’d written in her 20s, and which anticipated some of the fantastical and fairy tale themes she would go on to explore.

There was, in a sense, a great lost novel in the form of an outline for a story titled Adela: A Romance. It’s protagonist was to have been a character taken from Jane Eyre, who had lived under Mr Rochester’s guardianship, but who turns out to be his daughter, a fact which she discovers after having ended up in his bed. She escapes to 1820s France and finds her mother, has various adventures and becomes a heroine of the Paris Commune in the process. Carter’s casual shifting of the time frame of Jane Eyre (which is set in the time of its publication, the 1840s), is indicative of her disdain for the limiting dictates of realism. This put her outside of the literary mainstream, and Clapp draws a comparison with JG Ballard, who was also something of an outside whilst his works were published as science fiction. Ballard was accepted into the literary fold once he’d written his relatively conventional autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, which was set in a recognisable historical context. Adela was Carter’s tongue in cheek bid for similar respectability, the Shakespearean allusions of Wise Children having apparently proved insufficient to woo the Booker judges. She was in fact never nominated for the Booker Prize (for those who think this matters), and when she herself sat as one of the judges in 1983, went unrecognised by Selina Scott as she glided around interviewing the attendees for the TV coverage of the event. Clapp could also have mentioned Michael Moorcock, with whose modern day harlequinades and transformative collisions of generic materials her work had a great affinity. She would have fitted in well with the style and outlook of Moorcock’s New Worlds in the 60s and 70s, an SF magazine in the loosest sense of the term, with Ballard and his literary hero William Burroughs as its figureheads. Serialisations of Heroes and Villains or The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann would certainly have been at home within its pages. Carter did publish a couple of stories in the early issues of the SF magazine Interzone (The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe and Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream), initially an inheritor of the New Worlds spirit in the early 80s.

Clapp talked about Carter’s abiding love of fairy tales, and her well-known and loved recasting of these malleable stories to bring out the strength of their often passive or secondary female characters. She made real heroines of them, suitably resourceful models for young girls to replace the standard insipid and vain ‘princesses’. It was through the fairy tales, Clapp suggested, that Carter best expressed her feminism. Although when questioned about which she considered more important, her feminism or her socialism, she opted for the latter, the greater social equality envisaged by the one ultimately encompassing and including the demands of the other. She was once challenged in a TV interview about her comments on the lack of women as central characters in fairy tales, the interviewer pointing out that Sleeping Beauty had her own story. Carter paused (and Clapp observed that the Carter pause was a particular conversational characteristic) before remarking that yes, this was so, but Sleeping Beauty wasn’t exactly ‘a figure full of get up and go’.

Clapp asked Carter about her own literary tastes in 1991, when Wise Children was about to be published. Evidently in a seriously minded mood at the time, she cited Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, all of Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which she felt put properly drawn working class characters centre stage, and the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell, who combined social and political satire with frankly horny, if beautifully phrased, expressions of lust, particularly in To His Coy Mistress, perhaps the most exquisite come on in the English language. It also seems to be a poem with a particular appeal to writers of the fantastic, having provided titles for stories by Ursula le Guin (Ursula le Guin), Peter Beagle (A Fine and Private Place) and Joe Haldeman (Worlds Enough and Time). Dickens, contrary to expectation, was not someone she particularly liked. Chaucer was always a particular favourite, coming as he did from a pre-novelistic age still rooted in the oral tradition, in which tale-telling could encompass the romantic and the bawdy, the tragic and the comic, the fantastic and allegorical and the mundane. Just as long as it held the attention of the listener. She was also a huge film fan, ever since her childhood days when her father used to take her to the resplendent Granada cinema in Tooting. She loved both the lush romanticism of classic Hollywood and the self-consciously cinematic films of the 60s and 70s new waves. She uses a quote from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville to preface her 1969 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel Heroes and Villains which is appropriate for her work in general: ‘There are times when reality becomes too complex for Oral Communication. But legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world’. It sits on the title page just above lines from Andrew Marvell’s poem The Unfortunate Lover.

Clapp is also very enthusiastic about Carter’s journalism, which she fells includes some of her finest writing. She pointed to her use of the personal pronoun ‘I’, an inclusion of herself in her pieces which drew on personal experience and were not chary of openly putting forward a subjective viewpoint. She talked admiringly about how Carter could write about almost any subject and find something interesting, insightful and engaging to say about it. Her articles and reviews ranged from literature, film and TV through travel, fashion, and popular culture, to politics, philosophy, art and animals. She also wrote about food, which could prove controversial, especially when she suggested that the new vogue for gourmet cooking and culinary indulgence was immoral at a time when famine was rife in Ethiopia. This prompted some angry and very personal responses to the London Review of Books where the piece in question was published. Clapp made it clear that food was important to Carter, however. She could often be found in the kitchen at home, preparing a meal for friends with one of her cats (either Ponce or Female) on her lap. The book which she chose to take for the Desert Island Discs which she never in the end got to record was the Larousse Gastronomique encyclopaedia, whish she described as ‘a good read’. Clapp pointed out that Carter had suffered from anorexia as a teenager, partly a response to her mother’s imposition of her own ambitions on her daughter. She was pushing Angela when she was still at school to aim for Oxford or Cambridge or nothing at all, and told her she’d move up with her if she went to Oxford. She went to neither, and said she stopped bothering with her studies, as well as with proper eating. The results stayed with her for many years, both physically and psychologically. Clapp described the young Angela as being ‘faun-like’, having been quite a healthily plump child (and ‘a lot of people’s second best friend at school’). She remarked on the ‘shape-shifting’ nature of the way women try to take control of their bodies and thereby their selves. Carter herself felt she looked a bit like Byron.

Carter’s memorial service reflected her passions, pleasures and amusements, as well as her wry sense of humour and the absurd. These included cinema going and the South London life, so it was held in the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. The fabulous Granada in Tooting, a real old cinema palace full of extravagant Moorish and medieval architectural fancies, which her father had regularly taken her to as a child, wasn’t available as it was now in use as a bingo hall (an occupation which might not seem ideal for the film-lover, but which may well have saved the building from destruction). Hopefully it might be open again during this year’s London Open House weekend. If so, go and have a look. It’s quite astonishing, and it’s easy to see how Carter would have been enchanted by its gaudily fake theatricality. The memorial evening was based around Angela’s Desert Island Discs choices, with a number of friends invited to hold forth. The designs for the invitation cards (reproduced in the flyleaves of A Card From Angela Carter) and the screen which stood at the back of the stage were designed and drawn by Corinna Sargood, a good friend since Angela’s time in Bristol in the 60s who also provided the illustrations for the Virago Book of Fairy Tales which Carter edited. When it came to the end of the evening, her desert island luxury was revealed, her partner Mark and son Alexander turning the screen around to reveal…a zebra. A zebra on a desert island. It offers a picture of fantastic, absurd and slightly sad incongruity which sums up Angela Carter’s writing and the vibrant imagination, energy and engagement which led her to live life so fully, and gather so many friends along the way. Clapp made it clear what a privilege and a pleasure it was to be drawn into her welcoming orbit. She wouldn’t be pinned down as to what was her favourite of Carter’s books, but she did say that one of her favourite things about her was her lengthy, enjoyably rambling phone calls and her loquacious nature in general. One of her rhetorical mannerisms was to say ‘may I digress?’ It was not so much a request as a statement of intent. Clapp’s book follows this discursive, free-flowing associative approach, as did the talk, offering a series of intimate, revealing and surprising insights in the life and character of a writer who continues to speak directly and personally to so many.