So: Saturday was a singing day, 3 hours or so, rehearsing, performing, singing with the audience, interspersed with beer at the lovely Ivy House.
We like to have a theme or a project for Vocal Chords, in the summer it was love songs for the planet, this autumn it has been folk carols, learnt from Lester Simpson and dragged out of our collective record collections and memories, and performed with gusto!
The arrangements sound quite complex and the parts can get a little competitive as to who can sing loudest, but they are actually quite simple so long as you can keep in time.
Here is a sample, my absolute favourite of the songs we sang, although it is a hard, hard choice, as I loved all of them!
This is the definition of Joyous, for me, cynical old atheist though I am.
And then Sunday we were selling Arachne Press books at a christmas market at the delightful Alexandra Nurseries (still singing under our breaths, both ‘Curly Hark’ and snatches of Britten’s St Nicholas, mostly ‘landlord take this piece of gold, bring us meat before the cold’…although we weren’t cold, thanks to our lined walking trousers, winter coats, hats mittens, long-johns…) It was a very jolly day, good weather and plenty of punters.
The Estorick’s collected twentieth century Italian art, a period and region I thought I knew nothing about, but there are a couple of Modiglianis, the piercing turquoise gaze and pursed lips of Doctor Francois Brabander standing out in a room of more muted pictures. I did find myself thinking oh yeah Modigliani and moving on.
Then I recognised the pot-shaped women (or are they woman-shaped pots?) of Massimo Campigli with their brittle ceramic smiles looking like ancient Etruscan goddesses, until you come across one of them blandly gazing across a loom, and then another – side by side, one in polychrome, the other in red pastel (the pastel is a more accurate loom) – and the domestic usefulness makes the women seem at once more human and more unlikely.
There are some really interesting paintings by people I hadn’t heard of – I was particularly taken with Giacomo Balla‘s The Hand of the Violinist, which is a multiple image of a hand on the strings of a violin, broken into lines perhaps by the strings, and shaped like the sounding board of a dulcimer, an odd thing but pleasing. Zoran Music‘s Horses and Landscape made me think of Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, a group of multicoloured horses, spotted and striped in blues and pinks, haunches touching in a dispirited huddle against the cold, retreat into a landscape of dusky hills. It just begs for one of the riders to turn back to the viewer and say: A cold coming we had of it.
There are a few sculptures: I especially liked Marino Marini‘s Quadriga, a wall plaque of four horses face-on, crowding through a doorway knees raised as if contemplating a delicate can-can, that had overtones of ancient Rome. Giacomo Manzù‘s Bust of a Woman is a distorted long-necked bust wearing an expression of self-possessed happiness, that I think I could live with if someone asked me to; although there would be days when I’d be yelling what are you smiling at, and throwing a blanket over her.
There are some works that left me indifferent, a lot of sketches that are only of significance because of who drew them, some very studious studies of still life, and a very ugly Death of a Hero by Renato Guttuso which isn’t something I’d give house room to, but led to an animated conversation with the lady on the desk about Flemish Medieval art and Gerard David’sThe Flaying of Sisamnes being even more not what you’d want in the livingroom, although neither of us could remember who it was by, or the exact name, she knew it from my description and recollection of seeing it in Bruges. And this in a gallery specialising in Italian art of the twentieth Century.
A collection worth seeing, particularly with smells of Italian cooking wafting up from the caffé.
Wednesdayto Saturday 11:00 to 18:00 hours. Sunday 12:00 to 17:00. Late night opening Thursdays until 20.00. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
£5.00, concessions £3.50, includes permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. Free to under-16s and students on production of a valid NUS card.
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art: 39a Canonbury Square, London N1 2AN
It’s been a bit of an indulgent weekend, feasting our senses, and there’s more to come.
We started with the visual and a trip to the Guildhall Art Gallery in the heart of the city for an exhibition of John Atkinson Grimshaw paintings. Grimshaw started out as a bit of a fellow traveller with the Pre-Raphaelites, but quickly moved away to his own style, typified by his stunning nocturnes of both town and country. These have a photographic clarity and use of depth of field, and an extraordinary understanding of light, natural and artificial, direct and reflected.
I discovered his work in my teens and was very struck with his silhouetted figures and lampposts against green skies. Actually his figure work is pretty poor, he is much better at crowds where you get the essence of bustle and little knots of humanity; when he puts a solitary figure into his landscapes you feel it is there purely for convention and scale, a bit like the woman in a red coat in picture postcards of the 60s and 70s; and the proportions are frequently suspect – one group of young women all looked decidedly implausible: if the middle one had been standing she’d have been around eight feet tall!
Allegedly Grimshaw’s fellow painters were scandalised by the fact that he worked from photographs (black and white obviously and fairly rudimentary at this stage) and by his style of painting which is very smooth – there are no visible brush marks. This gives his skies a clarity and lucidity which is very true to life – you can feel the cold of his winter moon, wrapped in scudding cloud, and there is definitely a feeling of the painting as a source of light.
You do start to notice his tics when you see a large collection of pictures all at once – his female figure-in-a-landscape is generally mob-capped and clutching an open basket to her waist with one hand, there is generally a bay window on the dock with a net curtain on the lower half and venetian blinds on the upper; there is likely to be a chemist in a street scene – so that the light can pour through those red and green bottles. I would not for a moment suggest he has invented the chemist, just chosen that spot to paint because the chemist is there – I’m less persuaded of that window with the venetian blind in Hull and Glasgow and… and its surprising how regularly the woman about to open her umbrella appears –
it’s as though he created his own clip art figures to go into his landscapes. However I can honestly say there isn’t a single painting in the exhibition that isn’t at least entertaining.
My particular favourite is of tall ships at anchor (Nightfall down the Thames).
At first you see the moon, and then the thin cloud, then the mass of St Paul’s in the background and then the forest of masts and rigging … and then you notice that there is a small light on the rigging of the most prominent ship, and then you notice another and another … lights everywhere, tiny pinpricks, reflecting in the gentle ripples that ruck the surface of the water. You can almost hear them slap against the wood.
Reproductions do not do these pictures justice. It is really exciting to see the real thing.
There are some gaw’blimey interiors with a bit of a Tissot feel to them (an influence apparently), though more sentimental and fussy – this is where you remember he was a Victorian, and wish he wasn’t quite so photographic in his recording of every last plate, but even in the ghastly Dulce Domum, where the woman of the house doesn’t quite manage to sit convincingly in her over decorated chair, I was captivated by a small patch of green velvet in a chair back, the nap brushed up the wrong way where someone has been resting against it.
In his later works Grimshaw turned to daylight most emphatically: there is a lovely beach scene that reminded me of Hendrik Willem Mesdag’s Panorama of Scheveningen in 1881 (though nothing like the same scale!) which must be close in time, with its crowded busy water edge, and empty sands in the foreground, but the detail is more sketched and the light is all his own, flooding and overwhelming the day-to-day excitement of children at the sea.
We had a quick look at the rest of the collection while we were there, and they have a hilarious collection of large-scale historically themed paintings of great imagination, Salome dancing for Herod, (some fascinating faces in the onlookers) Greek warriors dancing a ‘pyrrhic’ dance like some ancient version of Strictly…, rival philosophic groups in a cabbage field… (why?) some predictable worthies of London, some Pre-Raphaelites, and some London cityscapes (my favourite by John Virtue, almost entirely black with a sky just emerging behind St Paul’s) and, in the basement, discovered relatively recently, the remains of the Roman amphitheatre.
There is only a scattering of foundations and a bit of wall about hip height, and a miraculous drain with the wooden lining still preserved, but the way it is presented, lit only as you walk into it, the columns holding the building up with figures drawn in light, and the rest of the amphitheatre and gladiators sketched in on the wall ahead of you as you come in, like some soon to be realised hologram, is quite thrilling: despite being in a fairly small underground space it feels like you are in the amphitheatre, and then you notice above the air-conditioning a faint hubbub of voices that occasionally peaks in roars of approval, though still very faint; like voices reaching from the past. I’ve seen more complete Roman amphitheatres in France and Spain, including ones still in use they have worn so well, but this works. It shouldn’t but it does.
We had walked from London Bridge, and decided to walk back via St Paul’s, the Millennium Bridge and Bankside. This is a bit of the City that is hard to love, all unattractive concrete, glass and steel, whereas the walk up was all limestone, just as ostentatious and blocky, if marginally less oppressive; but I do like the way the streets still hold the medieval pattern of London in their narrow twists and dog-legs, and their names. And there is a church on almost every corner, and mostly they are open, often with a café in the crypt. We bought sandwiches, and A said, we need a churchyard to sit in, and I glanced up and there was a spire, we walked a few yards turned left and there we were, at the Guild church, which seemed appropriate seeing we’d just been at the Guildhall.
Walking over Millennium Bridge we passed two accordionists and a fiddler playing Autumn Leaves as a Tango, which managed to make it rather more dirge-like than ever. The far end of the bridge there was a steel drum player who was a lot more cheerful. We had been thinking of dropping into the Tate for the Gerhardt Richter, but we already had museum feet (and hips and knees) so we kept going and, recalling that it was Friday, instead went to Borough Market.
We were intending to just pick up a bit of cake for tea, but you can’t just anything there, you have to check every stall and resist what you can bear to resist, and leave only when your bags are full or your purse empty.
We found an interesting liquorish stall, and the Chocolate Artisan (of course) and a spice stall, and a cake stall which we could not resist, and plenty that we could.
Saturday, and I persuaded A away from her book proofs to go to the Union Chapel at Highbury ( I love the Overground! 34 minutes on the train, 3 minutes on foot either end) for their daylight music concert at lunchtime.
Sensibly they have a food stall, and just ask for donations to get in. The concert kicked off with Heidi Elva, a harpist from New Zealand, with an annoying giggle who is over fond of playing with her sampler and her iPhone apps. The harp isn’t my favourite instrument, but I can enjoy the complexities of the harmonies one person can create on it, Ms Elva was more into mood music and the occasional plink repeated ad nauseam on her sampler so I felt no guilt at all in taking advantage of the daylight to read a book until she’d finished. No doubt she has fun, but it wasn’t a performance: there was nothing to look at and I really take exception to being played sampled flute on a sodding iPhone – she said that despite her constant plugs of iThis and iThat she wasn’t employed by Apple… just as well, she was putting me right off.
The London Bulgarian Choir were quite a different outfit, energetic, exciting and charming. I can’t tell you the names of the songs although I recognised some of them, they ranged from flirting to death, via sock-knitting (no, really!).
Led and discreetly conducted by Dessislava Stefanova, a long line of mostly women, in black but sporting vivid red embroidered aprons and big silver belt buckles, and men in Astrakhan hats and embroidered waistcoats, linked arms and gave it some welly. There are some glorious harmonies, great dynamics, humour, pathos, drama.
The occasional lead singer, drummer or windplayer steps forward for a moment in the limelight, then steps modestly back, smaller groups take over briefly for a verse or two, but this is about ensemble and community and having a good time. The acoustic in the Union Chapel suited them perfectly, and they probably didn’t need the minimal amplification they had. (UPDATE: I have been corrected, Ulrike from the choir has contacted me to say the mikes were recording them not amplifying… they really are that loud. As she says, – It’s the singing style for mountains! ) New album launched next month. It’s in my diary.
I do like a mix and match day. So we started with a couple of kilometres of walking round Rainham Marshes bird reserve. Not many birds to see, but there’s not much to beat a marsh in the sun; a beautiful morning, a stolen September summer Sunday, wandering about in shirtsleeves with the end of the month in sight.
Rainham Marsh was in danger of being developed for years before the RSPB finally secured it, and they are being very conscious of stepping lightly now they’ve got it – the visitor centre makes use of natural light, ground heating, harvested rainwater… the tradition of grazing is kept up with a mixed herd of beef cattle relaxing in the scrubby grass, and dragonflies flitting hither and yon. The walkways keep you above the reeds so there is some hope of seeing something – I have been places where all you can see are head high reeds – no doubt wonderful for the birds, but
I’d want at least a bittern under those circumstances!
I don’t mind the lack of birds when I can see the scenery, and they provide you with the odd sculpture to make up for it, and there are old military posts and firing ranges to distract from the lack of rustling and chirping.
Apparently the kestrels use the giant wooden numbers on the range as hunting posts, but not today.
We walked back along the river path, trying to work out where we were on the southern bank last week, but I think we were a lot nearer the mouth of the river than last week, although we could identify Shooters Hill in the distance.
We got rather lost trying to find our next stop, the Royal Opera House Production Centre, where they were having a sale of costumes. It could hardly be more different, although the building is again ecologically minded with a Sedum roof.
We have a great time window shopping, trying on full length white Astrakhan coats, eighteenth century frock coats and monstrous cloaks.
There were queues from four in the morning yesterday, but it is quieter today with a very comfortable, good-humoured crowd, much laughter and enthusiasm, complete strangers taking pictures of each other and offering opinions on the fit of the Cinderella dress or the Hussar’s uniform.
There is something for everyone, and then some:
Rococo, Barbarian or Grand Guignol, people were pulling dresses and armour on over their jeans with a fine disregard for modesty. And some of the transformations are worthy of Cinderella.
Sadly, nothing fits me – that’s the problem with costumes, they have all been made to measure for particular people, and it wasn’t me!
The quality of the costumes was astonishing, I had expected it to be a bit gimcrack and just good enough to be seen from the gallery, but the stitching was mostly exquisite and not too worn and sweaty either.
I was surprised at how heavy most of the costumes were, I can’t imagine how they stand it singing under lights in such thick heavy (but gorgeous) clothes.
If I could have found something that fitted I would almost certainly have bought it, regardless of whether I would ever wear it, just for the pleasure of looking and touching.
A and I are a bit last-minute with exhibitions and regularly miss things because we think we’ll go ‘later’ and then just forget. However, we actually made it to the Folkestone Triennial with two days to spare. We followed the yellow seagulls sprayed on the pavement from the station to the visitor centre. There was a lot to see, and we resigned ourselves to not managing it all. I particularly wanted to see the Martello tower installation Towards the Sound of Wilderness by Cristina Iglesias, but it was a long way out of town and we just hadn’t got sufficient energy. So putting that to one side, high spots were:
Folk Stones, (Mark Wallinger) a square of 19,240 pebbles set in concrete, each one numbered, and the total number is the number of British soldiers killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme: they set out for France from Folkestone. This is a permanent installation.
While we were there a young man was laboriously cleaning each pebble.
Out of Tune (A K Dolven) The sixteenth century church bell suspended on the beach which may only be rung every two minutes as it drives the neighbours to distraction, and can be heard tolling at…
… the former harbour station, where the first world war troops moved from train to ship. A bleak spot where nature is taking over – the perfect post-apocalyptic film set, all rusting girders, rotting wood and sprouting chamomile. The art here is a rather odd 5 headed sculpture on a rug on the tracks; Rug People (Paloma Varga Weisz) has a built-in anxiety – are these refugees arriving, or exiles leaving? Either way, the train done gone; and it is the station which excites.
We were not alone – a girl child flitted amongst the metal columns and a man poked around the dishevelled rails, (“Isn’t this awesome?” he asked in delight) but there were not enough people to make anyone think they could possibly expect a train.
They were like ghosts, glimpsed from the corner of your eye.
The Navy in the Nave – a fleet of model boats floating suspended for the ceiling of the ancient church of St Mary and St Eanswythe.
A and I argued over the pronunciation, and then forgot about it as we gazed at the extraordinary collection of vessels sailing from nowhere to nowhere, seemingly jostling for space.
The piece is called For Those in Peril on the Sea, (Hew Locke) and it is as though we are looking up from the sea bed at a drowned armada, gradually settling down to join us. It feels like something Terry Gilliam would dream up. Oddly moving.
Folkestone in September is not wildly populated and there are a lot of dilapidated properties and empty shops. It has only one small sandy beach, the rest are stony and a bit bleak, the harbour is attractive and there are plenty of fish shops, (more A’s thing than mine!). We were lucky with the weather and it was a delight to walk along the seafront with warmth and late summer sun.
I’m glad Folkestone has the Triennial, because I wouldn’t have come otherwise and it is important to visit our seaside towns, and celebrate them.
At particular points about the town there are plaques with locals’ comments on what you can see. Everywhere Means Something to Someone (Strange Cargo). Just so.
I will probably be following the yellow seagulls again in three years’ time.
It’s day two of London Open House and we’re off to Crossness Pumping Station. This has been a long-held ambition, but with so much to choose from over the weekend it has taken, ooh, six years? to get here. The instigator of this sudden resolve is our friend J who phoned and said:
I’m going, come with?
So we did. Trying to avoid using the car and with the promise of a special bus to meet the train, we meet J and C at Lewisham and get the train to Abbey Wood. There is a bus … a minibus that seats 12. I count the queue. The bus takes half an hour to make its round trip… We are going to be here two hours. We rebel and get a mini cab to the gates. We walk up to the back of the queue for the door, which is moving very slowly indeed. There is a distinct smell of drains, and I find myself absentmindedly humming Sweet Thames Flow Softly which we learnt over the summer.
Forty minutes later, we arrive at the door, and are given our tickets for the engine house. We enter, and there is another queue. We join it with dread, but it only takes another twenty minutes to finally reach the sacred portal and to be handed our hard hats.
Now. Why would I be prepared to put myself through this? I am not a patient kind of gal. And visiting a sewage works isn’t your average glamorous London day out. Well, the several thousand people who have visited Crossness will be grinning just now.
Overwhelming, over the top, Ro-co-co (except it isn’t) Byzantine, laughter inducing mayhem. The outside gives no clue to the interior. The austere if decorative brickwork could be any typical Victorian engine shed – railway architecture at its best – Lombardy arcading, arched windows, bah blah.
Inside the first hall where the queue is, it is airy, spacious and light… and then, hat on head you enter the inner sanctum, and the dazzle and razzmatazz of the theatre takes over – every surface is moulded or filigreed, even the floors. There is a feel of Moorish palace, except that the colours are wrong, and then there is the noise.
The beam engine is steady, regular, almost relaxed and surprisingly quiet, a sort of sigh and knock and hiss as it slides up and down, and the flywheel spins. it is awesome in its grandeur. There are four of these gracious monsters, but only one has been restored. And only part of the engine house is painted back to its former glory, about which I am glad – I hope they don’t restore it completely, the ironwork is magnificent and the paint is garish, and whilst amusing, once painted the true skill of the iron casting is hidden.
And the still, silent end of the hall, is magnificent in its cathedral-like space.
Up the stairs, (also pierced into a pattern) there is yet more filigree floor, which is humming ever so gently. I find this rather unnerving. In fact it brings me out in a cold sweat. I am quite relieved to get down again.
And yes, there is another queue to get into the basement. The basement is very different dark, dusty and cramped.
I’m not surprised the queue is so long, as we spend ages going round, and they can only let people in with a hard hat.
After a cup of tea and a bit of cake, we take advantage of the fact that there is a gate onto the Thames path (not normally open) and walk back to Woolwich along the river.
Every year in September, buildings of historic, architectural and ecological note open for the public for free. In London Open House is in full swing. Take a look at the overwhelming website – it’s all going on tomorrow as well.
Most years I go and feast my eyes and wear out my feet: holidays are planned around Open House we have to be in London the right weekend! Fortunately, Heritage Open Days which is similar but nationwide, is usually the weekend prior so some years we’ve managed both, although for the forseeable future we will be Singing for Water over H-O-D weekend.
So, A is busy with a family wedding, and I’m on my tod, and decide to take full advantage of the lovely Overground and quarter the borough of Hackney. I set off with my ‘favourites’ list and Transport For London maps, full of purpose and enthusiasm.
First stop Hoxton. I’ve been to the Geffreye Museum recently so I bypass it and head for Graeae Theatre’s offices and rehearsal space, right next door. I bump into R, who I know from BSL classes and who works there, so I get a personal tour. The building started life as a Tram depot and stables and has great arches all along the front which make for excellent natural light and a showcase for the sculptural logo that runs the entire length of the building.
The rehearsal space is particularly fine, with a sprung floor, and sophisticated lighting rig, all of which can be accessed and controlled from ground level. The whole building has been thought out very carefully for access issues with textured flooring, good adaptable lighting, plenty of circulation space, induction loops… And according to R it really is a pleasure to work in.
Galvanised by this first venue, I toddle round the corner to Hoxton Hall, which is a very different kettle of fish – still with a drama theme – HH is a tiny musical hall. It has done time as a temperance hall, a Quaker meeting-house and various other things, and is typical of theatres of its time in being seriously uncomfortable! I notice a pile of patchwork cushions in the gallery, I’m sure they are needed.
The Hall is being brought to life by a couple of performers, singing about wanting their beer and not getting it. Disconcertingly they are flanked by a couple of headless dummies in theatrical costume, which in the dim lighting are a bit on the sinister side!
Back to the station and a short hop to Canonbury and then a stroll up to Newington Green for the Unitarian Church, at over 300 years old it is the oldest dissenting church in London that is still in use. Built when religious dissenters were still breaking the law ,and expanded since, it isn’t a particularly beautiful building, though it has a peaceful, open atmosphere (they were positively encouraging a young child to play the organ) and apparently the ball-hinges on the pew doors are rare… but it is its history that matters, both in terms of religious dissent, and in terms of feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft worshipped here (pew 19), and I have a soft spot for her.
I am struck as I have been before, by the similarity of layout in religious buildings of this period, and the musical hall I have just come from. Something about the galleries…
I have a long list of other places I could go – a tower off Mare Street, The Hackney Empire, another theatre at Dalston (in the old Reeves paint factory), a tour of the East London Line stations… But I’m hungry and its trying to rain, and we are doing Crossness Pumping Station tomorrow, so back to Canonbury station and the train all the way home with no changes. I love the Overground!