Field notes: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester


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My recent outing to Pallant House Gallery in West Sussex to see an exhibition of works by Walter Sickert (1860-1942)

‘Sickert in Dieppe’ exhibition

After looking around Sickert in Dieppe – of which more below – I turned my attention to a small room showcasing works by artists influenced by him (1860-1942). I wasn’t surprised to find Frank Auerbach represented. The main exhibition, which charts Sickert’s relationship with Dieppe, the French seaside town popular with fin de siècle bohemian types such as Oscar Wilde, had made me think of the Auerbach works I’ve seen in London galleries, in particular his engagement with a specific corner of the capital and his depiction of the same scene many times over, from different vantage points.

Sickert’s restricted tonal schemes were in no way inimical to variety throughout his Dieppe stints. Inspiration came from Whistler (for whom he became assistant) and Degas, who encouraged him to heighten architectural detail in his paintings through use of preparatory drawings. While an early Dieppe work, Dieppe Harbour (1885) would have been painted out in the open, in the Impressionist manner, The Laundry Shop from the same year marks a transition to a new way of working, with the windows and door frame displaying a clear pattern of lines. We can see from his preparatory sketch (handily hung beside the finished version) how he had begun to ‘square up’ his compositions through the use of a numbered grid in red pencil.

Among his most affecting works, available as a postcard in Pallant House’s appealing book and gift shop, is The Façade of St Jacques Dieppe (1899). A patch of sunlight lingers on the rose window of the mighty church as dusk approaches.

In his later Dieppe years he returned to his interest in figure painting, which included scenes from the casino (with figures generally painted from behind, to preserve the gamblers’ anonymity). From this period comes The Trapeze (1920), a circus scene that owes an obvious debt to Degas.

gallery interior

Pallant House Gallery (photo by Claire Sambrook)

The Garden Gallery

In the Garden Gallery and out in the courtyard, where gallery-goers were eating lunch in the warm September afternoon, were some sculpted figures, many overlaid with small mosaic tiles. These were created by the untrained artist Indian artist Nek Chand, who died aged 90 in June, just after this exhibition of 50 of his sculptures from his Rock Garden in Chandigarh opened at Pallant House. He worked with found objects such as cooking pots and spare bits of iron, like many exponents of ‘outsider art’ (not the most useful of terms, when you consider how many big name artists lived their lives some way ‘outside’ mainstream society, but there we go),

The Sickert exhibition, which was well worth seeing, ends on 4th October. After that you’ll still be able to find some of the artist’s works in the gallery’s permanent collection of modern British art. But I don’t recommend gazing at the exterior of Pallant House – a Queen Anne house unhappily married to a formulaic square block modern extension.

A reminder that live music can be quite exciting, even when it’s not really my music


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I obviously haven’t been to nearly enough rock gigs in my life. Watching Later Live: with Jools Holland on BBC2 last week I was quite fascinated with the mechanics of the musicianship. First, the roistering fervour of The Maccabees’ drummer bashing out a dramatic change of tempo: he must experience all the fun of a boisterous toddler (usually, like drummers, male) who smashes his own or his sibling’s toys in an intense release of pent-up energy. Later, on the other side of the studio (and the generational divide), the grey-bearded, beret-wearing, guitar-wielding Richard Thompson entertained with a number called ‘Beatnik Walk’: the longer the camera lingered on his plucking and strumming, the more I wished someone would put a mini microphone next to his strings and a super high-definition audio system in my living room. The vibrations would send me straight to sonic heaven.

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson (photo by Anthony Pepitone)

I’m more of a Schubert and Radio 3 person these days. Even so, by the time I switched off my light on Tuesday night I had a fresh respect for old-school guitar- and drum-based popular music. The next time I hear a track on the radio that seems only so-so, I’ll remember that behind the noise lies much drumming, finger-picking and exciting physical exertion. If only I could experience the song in a live performance, perhaps at a venue of chamber music intimacy, I might really groove to it.

There’s more Later Live tonight – 10pm on BBC2.

A plug for my other blog – Bookpaths

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.”

So said Franz Kafka.  It may have sounded better in German.  I’m trying to explore a few unknown chambers myself in my other blog, Bookpaths.  It’s not quite a book review site.  Rather, it’s a space for saying something about some books I’ve read and, hopefully, capture a bit of the magic of literary discovery.  Perhaps, like me, you find that by the time you have finished one book you have opened up pathways to so many more adventures in reading.

You can find my blog here.

Path along South Downs

Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts


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A stay-at-home artist whose collages and cabinets attest to a mind that wandered far and wide…

Not being much of a photographer, I’m drawn to the idea of collecting so-called ‘found photographs’. I’m similarly curious about – well, Cabinets of Curiosities.

Two good reasons, then, to visit ‘Wanderlust’, the exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s diverse work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last weekend.

Cornell (1903-72) wasn’t a trained artist, and his ‘art’ is not easy to summarise.   Let’s start by positing that his acute eye for other people’s creativity led him to scoop up photos and objects and then slowly, methodically rework or rearrange them.

He hardly left New York State, and resisted all invitations to visit the Europe of poets and ballets that loomed large in his imagination. It’s tempting to connect Cornell’s fascination for winged creatures with his own flights of fancy and self-denied yearning for foreign lands, or simply to say he displayed magpie instincts in the way he collected trinkets.

a cabinet

A typical Cornell arrangement sits inside a glass-fronted box. In Untitled (aviary with parrot and drawers), from 1949, a swirling wire tape like a two-dimensional drawing of a snail’s shell hangs above a flat model of a green parrot, possibly imitating a bird’s crest. I spotted this same metallic motif reoccurring in his Medici series. Here, cut out reproductions of Renaissance portraits are worked to look like photos and placed in boxes reminiscent of the slot machines Cornell knew so well from his childhood. The spherical object sitting in the corner represents, I guess, a kind of pinball.

Cornell was a reserved character, but it seems he wasn’t short of acquaintances. A little model swan sitting on a mirror was a homage to a ballerina, Tamara Toumanova, who owned it for a time.

Like his friend Marcel Duchamp he had a clear affinity with strange juxtapositions, though he shied away from the often dark world-view of the Surrealists. I like to imagine him as an eccentric, excited scientist-artist – discovering and describing the world, revealing the extraordinary inner workings of the commonplace. I learned that he kept folders labelled ‘Natural Philosophy’, which harks back to an era – a happier one in some respects, if we’re honest – before the two disciplines went their separate ways and science was left isolated and boringly specialised.

Cornell was an experimental filmmaker too. The flickering captions he added to a grainy six-minute collage from the 1930s make the film seem cruder still.

I hadn’t heard of the man before the exhibition previews started appearing in the media. He has inspired creativity in others, across a number of art forms.  I would have liked to see gallery space dedicated to telling us who they are and how his strange career left its mark on them.

Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery


An exhibition of photos by ‘social documentary’ photographer Shirley Baker, showing at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 12 September, depicts Manchester and Salford during the housing clearances of the 1960s and 70s.

After the first few black and white shots of scruffy children playing on derelict streets, I was thinking I’d seen plenty enough. But a series of photos taken in Hulme, a suburb of Manchester, provided some lighter fare, perhaps simply because they are in colour and a touch more varied but more likely because her subjects seem more cheerful, as if the photographer has brought some spring sunshine into their grimy lives.

My indifference melted, I was ready for the remaining ranks of black and white images. Children fill up most of the frames, though some feature women, often large and pinafored like Les Dawson in his northern battleaxe drag outfit. Fewer men appear. They are frequently solitary, seated for a portrait. We sense they have the leisure of the unemployed.

A photo meriting more than a few moments’ contemplation shows a boy in Salford, 1964. Broken glasses are slipping down his face. An especially tiny boy stands on steps behind him, facing sideways and staring intently at something. He is quite cute in a first-day-at-school way. I can’t be the only person who liked this shot: I later discovered it was chosen for a record sleeve by a band called The Jazz Devils.

The perspective is not always wide enough to add deep context. Yes, we can see these people are poor, but we ought to know that anyway. More revealing are the photos in which we can see tower blocks rising behind terraced housing. We’re forced to consider the demolition of these humble but still cherished terraces and their replacement by soulless blocks which will bring their own sets of social problems in the years to come.

The question of photography as an art form continues to nag me. At what point does a photo graduate from illustrating a journalist’s words to earning its keep on a gallery wall? So I was interested to read Shirley Baker quoted in a newspaper article on display:

“If there is any art in photography, it surely lies in the ‘candid’ snapshot… opportunities for this kind of photography are unlimited”

It seems spending time with people in their environments, time that you would need if you want take a large number of photos and gain the trust of the subject, yields the possibility of a compelling and timeless image. Note in her modesty (“If there is any art in photography…”) the hint of doubt about photography’s status. Photography’s power lies in getting as close as you can to the heart of the subject, and that way too lies its art.

Photographers' Gallery

The travel bug



Being a touch unwell reawakens happy memories…

Three weeks ago, on the first night of my short stay in Weybourne, on the Norfolk coast, I woke up in the early hours feeling a little sick – a curious, special kind of nausea which I’d only experienced during my travels in India and Mexico. More a taste than a feeling: sour, pungent, redolent of solo breakfasts far from home when the sight and smell of spicy food both attracted and repelled my post-sickness, fragile self.

My Norfolk nausea never really developed, thank goodness. Yet those subtle traces of my Indian and Mexican sicknesses, or maybe memories – they are not the same thing – lingered on throughout my day’s cycling.

The sun that glared down on East Anglia undoubtedly helped to scramble my past and present senses. Far from numbing my perception of the world, the torpid heat intensified it.

This sensibility lasted. Two days later, back in Sussex, I was walking in the woods after rainfall on a humid afternoon when I was struck, not by a taste-feeling, but by a scent, a sort of eau de wet undergrowth. It reminded me of wanders near the village in the Himalayan foothills where I lived for a time in late 2010. I looked up at the leaden English sky: no mountain mist, but enough greyness to take me right back to that all-pervasive dank murkiness that had enveloped my village for so many hours every day.

pink temple

Temple in Kalimpong, India

The art and graft of photography


On reading about celebrated photographer Steve McCurry’s recent project

Ahead of his appearance at the Hay Festival next week, Steve McCurry was interviewed in the Daily Telegraph about a new book featuring photographs taken in coffee-growing communities around the world. Apparently, he made trips to eight countries over ten years, returning several times to each location to get to know the people he was photographing.

The time and energy that went into producing his images, some of which were reproduced beside the article, impressed and surprised me. There I was, naively thinking a photographer arrives in town, strolls around, spots the perfect shot, and snaps away. Or goes up to a local and asks him to pose for a photo portrait. That, I always reckoned, was more or less it. It’s not as if taking a photo is like settling down to work with pencils or watercolours, is it?

So I have a refreshed respect for the minds behind the lenses. John Berger may have pointed out in Understanding a Photograph that unlike the painter the photographer makes only a ‘single constitutive choice’, which is when to click the button, but I don’t think this belittles the photograph in the slightest. After all, he does also imply that it is as meaningful as any other art form once the viewer has ‘lent’ it a past and a future.

The practice of photography has been demeaned of late, I feel, because it is ubiquitous. A photo is so easy to take. You whip out your digital camera and blast away. It doesn’t matter how many potshots you take as there’s no film to waste. And you get to see the results instantly, even if it’s only on a tiny screen.

Of course, instant results aren’t exactly new. I remember using a polaroid camera when I was small. Out of the front of the device popped the finished photo. But the paper it was printed on was still a commodity of some value, and had to be replenished (by Dad, not me), so I wasn’t encouraged to be snap happy.

The recent World Vinyl Day was a reminder of the pleasures of valuing music, which like photography is all around us and all too accessible. Vinyl-buying returns us to the days when music could not be downloaded for free, and walking out of a shop with a new record under one’s arm, anticipating its first play, was a necessary but enjoyable ritual to be performed. By getting your hands on a real object (in this case, a record) you feel a connection with what it is you have purchased, deepened by the physical act of placing the record on the turnstile and moving the needle – and perhaps, as vinyl enthusiasts claim, by the quality of the sound too.

Taking photos and acquiring music: both pursuits are more satisfying if we devote more time and effort to them, and if they compel us to interact with people and things around us.

camera film

On being a curator



There are words you have to be careful of using, because people no longer know their proper meanings. Disinterested is in grave danger of losing its ‘unbiased observer’ sense, with most of us thinking it’s synonymous with uninterested. And ‘refute’ is in a sorry state, shorn of all usefulness by people who utter it when they really mean ‘deny’.

At the same time, specialised words are reinventing themselves for all-purpose, popular usage. This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing, because language is always evolving. But the speed at which the internet scatters new usages into all areas of anglophone life is disorientating.

Take the verb curate. These days it can mean programming a music event or concert series, but also the simple act of adding stuff to your blog. I recently read of a new restaurant where the food ‘will be curated in a very stylish way’. Back in the day, you’d only be curating if you worked for a museum or art gallery and had ‘curator’ printed on your business card. I wonder if those curators who are the real deal mind that their job title, earned after years of diligent study, is being taken over by riff-raff with none of the right university qualifications?

Variety in listener choice is music to the ears


Radio 3, which I happened to write about in a post last autumn, has decided drop its breakfast show listener phone-ins. From the very first day they introduced on-air listener babbling I saw it as a pretty worthless flirtation with ‘accessibility’, so I’m pleased to see the station controllers acknowledge that these things don’t boost audience numbers.

My first thought was that this turnaround is a rare example of dumbing down and then dumbing back up.

Except the phone-ins weren’t quite an example of lowering brows. Many of the callers were articulate, and they didn’t always outstay their welcome.

It’s just that the phone-in grated as an intrusion into the agreeable Radio 3 cocoon of knowledgeable presenters and quality, varied music. As often happens when commercialisation gets the better of good judgement, or when there’s a scramble to appeal to an unrealistically broad spectrum of people, an unnecessary flavouring is introduced which, like spooning sugar into a claret, alters a pure product for the worse.

I don’t actually mind the changes Radio 3 has made in recent years. For starters, I think jazz has found a natural home there. But an important segment of the output, the morning show, tried to become like so many others. We see this in TV programmes, and of course mass market films too, and my dismay in all cases centres on what the point is of having more of the same. Why would Radio 3 try and become Classic FM?

Being Classic FM is something Classic FM already does, rather well. This is, in fact, why the BBC Trust, mindful that the corporation’s output has to be different from commercial channels if it is to justify its public funding, nudged Radio 3 into ‘resting’ its phone-in.

Doing yoga on church property



For some, yoga and Christianity are incompatible…

It’s just as well that ones of the benefits of yoga is stress relief. Those helping others to discover the discipline are increasingly burdened with searching for new venues for classes – never an easy or inexpensive task – as church councils decide to bar them from their halls.

Yoga as practised by non-Hindus here in the UK is promoted as a form of physical exercise, and only ‘spiritual’ in the sense that it can induce feelings of inner calm, rather as strolling in the woods, fishing or any number of other leisure activities do. Is it right to see it as a spiritual rival to Christianity?

I’ve read an objection on a Catholic website to a yoga mantra which sounds like ‘so-hum’ and means ‘I am He’: this merging of the divine into the human self is a definite no-no in some people’s holy book.

But Christians believe that God is everywhere, and knows everything. And I know this because I’ve looked at the ‘Christian beliefs concerning God’ section of the BBC religions web page. So even if a yoga practitioner does want to start connecting with the divine, can there be any objection to God becoming part of the ‘self’ during a yoga class?

Pantheism – essentially the belief everything is a part of God and that God equals the universe – is a feature of Hinduism, but it’s not unknown to Christianity. No less a theologian than St Augustine, writing in City of God, asked, “In brief, why is God angry at those who do not worship Him, since these offenders are parts of Himself?”

Unless we are going to say that no activities, unless incontrovertibly Anglican, can take place on church property then I reckon the yoga mats should stay put.

After all, who knows in what spiritual directions a watercolour artist’s thoughts bend in the course of a church hall art class?


West meets East: St Paul’s Cathedral, Kolkata