I know mudlarking is supposed to be about unearthing treasures from the river, but I prefer collecting the images…
I know mudlarking is supposed to be about unearthing treasures from the river, but I prefer collecting the images…
I suppose if I told you I was off to watch a black & white film with a live music accompaniment you’d be thinking I’d taken an interest in old Charlie Chaplin movies with a bloke and his piano at the side of the auditorium tinkling away to give atmosphere to the silent performance….
And I suppose in a way, that’s exactly what I was watching. Except this is Asunder, a 21st century film about a much more serious subject than the antics of a silent movie clown.
Asunder is a charming collection of images and feisty stories of real people from the northeast of England caught up in the drama of the first world war, commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme by Sunderland Cultural Partnership and 14-18 NOW (amongst others). The project was spearheaded by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne with Esther Johnson as film maker and live musical score from a collaboration of Sunderland’s own Field Music and Newcastle’s Warm Digits, with the help of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters.
The intention of the film is to connect the viewer to the lives of people left behind in wartime Britain, centred around Sunderland at the mouth of the Wear. Footage from the war, both at home and on the Western Front, is partnered with an excellent score, emphasising the wartime tension courtesy of the string quartet and mournful loss, expressed perfectly with the plaintive flute.
Kate Adie narrates, taking us through the lives of soldiers, munitions workers, conscientious objectors, suffragettes and footballers, while Alun Armstrong is the voice of the Sunderland Echo, sharing headlines and snippets of news from the home front and the front line.
I understand totally the choice of Adie for this gig – her links to Sunderland and her interest in WW1, and her voice as a well-known, award-winning war journalist, makes her a no-brainer. Then why did I feel uncomfortable with her narration? Sure, she lends gravitas to the film, but there’s something about the contrast of her elocuted, clipped tones with Alun Armstrong’s cheeky northern accent. Something about the way she pronounces ‘Sunder-land’ with emphasis on the ‘-land’, with a hard ‘A’, when everyone in Sunderland pronounces it (mumbles it, even) ‘Sunderlund’. I wondered if by separating the Sunder from the land, that she was trying to emphasise the title.
Its premiere was held at the Sunderland Empire in 2016, performed on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme with the whole of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, but I watched it at Milton Court adjacent to the Barbican in central London. Instead of the full orchestra, we had a string quartet, but I don’t feel short-changed in any way. The acoustics in Milton Court are excellent and the emotion conveyed by the musicians was perfect. The Cornshed Sisters, with their lovely harmonies, sang ‘The Rigs of Sunderland Fair’, name checking many places from my early years and some which, even at the time of WW1, had already been wiped from the map.
The artist’s notes describe the juxtaposition of the world of 1916 with the world of 2016 where optimism has been eliminated by fear, nationalism and rage. It is set in Sunderland although the notes suggest it could be any town or city in the UK, with the universal call to arms, rise in the status of women, the pain and drive and humour of those caught up in a war-to-end-all-wars which was experienced throughout Britain.
But Sunderland it is, and that caused me a bit of disappointment.
Because I’m not sure if something had been missed in translation, but I saw very little of 21st century Sunderland in the film, sitting in the capital and watching it through the eyes of an adopted southerner. Poignant stills of derelict shipyards are interspersed throughout the film, along with an empty cafe looking out to the beach at Roker, quiet terraced roads and boarded up corner shops. Is this the celluloid realisation of Bob Stanley’s 2016 Sunderland? It bears little relation to the Sunderland I know… accepted, I haven’t lived there for 35 years, but I do visit regularly and last time I was in the city centre, it was a bustling place. Is this a true portrayal on film of the parallels of a town/city separated by 100 years? I’d like to think that those recent images were chosen merely as a foil for the film to convey a sense of loss, rather than as a representation of the coastal city I know and love.
It sounds like I’m complaining. Really, I loved the film! I loved the music more, but the film had some amazing images and some of them were repeated throughout the film, so I have a lovely bank of still and moving image memories of munitions girls in the overalls and makeshift masks hammering on the top of a shell, soldiers fooling around on the front line with makeshift armour, and kids in their Sunday-best following the camera to stay in shot. But most of all, I’ll remember the aerial footage of the trenches, zigzagging their way through the French and Belgian countryside – miles and miles of maze-like channels looking strangely neat and manicured from this height.
Did it connect me to the first world war – give me an understanding of how it was for the people left behind? Yes, it did. And in fact, it made me want to find out more. I’ll definitely be planning a trip to Richmond Castle to see if I can spot the graffiti left by conscientious objectors imprisoned there waiting for their death sentences to be commuted. I’ll definitely be researching a bit more in the life of trouser-wearing and tattooed female footballer, Bella Reay. And I’ll definitely be listening to more Field Music.
If you live in or near Sunderland, you can find a screening near you.
It’s amazing what you can do with a metal rod, some molten glass and a selection of mediaeval tools. Perhaps I should clarify – it’s amazing what you can do with a metal rod, some molten glass and some mediaeval tools… IF you have years of experience and a large dose of talent under your belt.
I will be grateful for the rest of my life for the fabulous gift Mr Jenkins gave me for my last birthday – a day of glassmaking at London Glassblowing – but I will also be aware that I’ll never be glass artist, and instead will merely appreciate the work, skill and talent that goes in to making the beautiful works of art displayed at London Glassblowing, Peter Layton‘s glass studio in Bermondsey Street.
I’ve loved watching glass artists from an early age. I think I saw my first glass blowing demonstration around the age of nine or ten and found it instantly fascinating. I’ve witnessed the same techniques being used in glass studios around the world, in the States, Australia, Italy, Portugal…. and in my home town, Sunderland. I was lucky enough to see glass being made at Hartley, Wood & Co in the Monkwearmouth area of Sunderland in the early 1980s before the factory closed. The scene inside probably hadn’t changed much over the previous century, perhaps a few nods to health and safety, but the guys there explained that the tools were identical to their Roman counterparts.
And here I am watching a glass making demonstration in 2017, feeling a little bit annoyed with myself that when I booked last July (yes, demand for these classes is that high!) I hadn’t realised there would be a planet-wide women’s demonstration marching through the major cities of the world. I felt that I was letting the side down a bit, but then I soon became absorbed in the art of glassblowing and a fear of major injury!
Our demonstrator is Anthony, one of the two tutors on hand today to take us six novices through our paces. It looks so simple; collect the glass, add some pigment, mould it, poke it, heat it up again if it’s losing its pliability, work it a bit more with the scary pincer things (they’re called ‘jacks’, apparently), knock it off the rod and stick it in the oven to gradually cool.
So while you’re doing all that, you also have to concentrate on keeping the glass centred on the end of the rod by twisting it constantly, while also being aware of the magnificent heat given off by the blob of red hot stuff a few centimetres from your hand. And then there’s remembering not to touch the rod with your right hand – turn it with the left, the right hand will be too close to the end of the metal rod which has just been in the furnace and could cause a bit of unnecessary welding between rod and skin!
During our health and safety intro, we were all warned that most people will try to touch the rod with their right hand – and at least two of the three in my group did. So we took on board Anthony’s advice and sat on our right hand when it wasn’t in use.
Our tutors Anthony Scala and Tim Rawlinson are both artists in their own right, and part of the London Glassblowing studio. But today they are putting their own work to one side to help us realise our goal of ‘3 to 4 pieces by the end of the day’.
We all begin with a vaguely triangular-shaped paper weight with a single colour. I’m up first. We work in a team, my two fellow novices and I. One shapes the glass, one works as assistant and one takes photos. And Anthony guides you through the techniques managing to do much of the work himself. Although it’s me holding the rod and the tools, he’s guiding my hands and correcting any mistakes as we go. My assistant Lisa is on hand to shield my hand from the heat of the glass with a paddle of wood, to spray water on my pad of paper made from a copy of the Metro and to make sure I’ve replaced the tools pointing in the right direction. Jane is the official photographer for this first session, though I’m far too engrossed and terrified in equal measure to bother smiling for the camera.
We swap so that Jane can can be put through her paces, I take over as assistant and Lisa takes the photos. Then it’s all change again. And we have three triangular paperweights in the big oven over in the far corner. I forget the correct name for it, as I have for most of the tools, equipment and techniques in use during the day.
Next we make a more complex shape using two or three pigments, and by lunchtime we have three more paperweights in the oven.
Lunch is a welcome break. Leaving the searing heat of the studio to the freezing winter day outside and the short hike to Tanner & Co just up the road. The price of the class includes lunch too, and it’s a great choice for lunch – a lively atmosphere and great food, not to mention the home-made lemonade! We’ve already chosen our dishes, shortly after our health and safety talk, and our order was sent on ahead. I went for the haddock and crab fish cakes, which were lovely, but it didn’t stop me hankering after Lisa’s bacon and cheese burger.
After coffee, it’s back to the studio. I first visited Peter Layton’s studio in London Bridge when he had premises further down the road. I went off in search of him after seeing one of his Ice Baskets on display at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. Being greedy, I now have two Ice Baskets and a couple of smaller pieces by other artists at the studio. It’s like being a kid in a sweet shop – so many different colours and shapes beautifully offset against the white background of the gallery, it’s difficult to choose your favourite. At the back of the gallery the studio can be seen between two pristine white walls. The contrast is not restricted to just colour, but to atmosphere too. The lovely calm of the the gallery gives way, in a matter of footfalls, to a mixture of energy and excitement. Hushed tones in the sparkling white room are exchanged for the constant noise of the furnace, the heat and a hint of terror in the concrete and breeze block studio. I feel more at home in the studio. It’s exciting and it’s filled with stuff. I have to remember to stop taking photos and check to see where the next molten blob of glass on a red hot metal pipe will be coming from. It’s so easy to become mesmerised by the twisting pieces of glass slowly forming into its final shape, watching the pigments change colour as the glass cools, that you forget that there are real dangers close at hand.
In the afternoon, we’re learning to blow glass. We start with a simple glass tumbler, no colour, just clear glass. It’s a laugh. So now we have to remember all that stuff from this morning AND blow down the rod at a constant, controlled rate. This is much harder. I’m in danger of becoming demoralised, I don’t think I’m a natural at this. It’s not just the fear of making a mistake, it’s the realisation of how many techniques and senses you need to have on the go at any one time and, frankly, I don’t think I’m up to the job! Yeah, there’s the constant turning of the rod, treat it gently thread it through your fingers and don’t grab it stressfully in the palm of your hand. Don’t panic and twist it too manically if the glass moves off-centre, ease it back calmly and slowly. But in contrast to the light touch needed with the rod, you then have this hulking great lump of hell to deal with, and the more glass you collect from the furnace to build up your object, the heavier it becomes. Muscles much larger than mine are needed to move it easily from the furnace back to the chair. Balancing the glass on the end of the rod takes more coordination than you would think. Using the jacks to pinch in the glass needs strength that was comically lacking in my right hand.
I decided that I’d put so much of my heart and soul into making that ‘simple’ tumbler, that I chose to form it into a small vase instead. That way it would be less likely to get damaged in my household!
Then, towards the end of the day, when you’re hot, dehydrated and worried about a deodorant breakdown situation, comes the finale. The end piece of the day – a piece of blown glass in the shape of a bowl, vase, dish, using two, three or more colours. The range of colours to choose from is amazing. There are plastic drawers full of pigments, powder and crystals. I knew this was my last chance, so I tried to think which of my many favourite colours I should choose. It was a hard choice and it took me a while pondering, but I finally went for a rich green-blue with a streak of red. Not really sure how it’ll turn out, it was a compromise – choosing a gorgeous colour, but adding something that might make it fit in with my sitting room decor… just in case it’s good enough to go on display. That’s one of the fascinating things about glassmaking, you can’t truly know how the colours and pattern will turn out until you see the finished object. I made a bowl, goldfish-style. Not a dramatic statement, but a shape I like. I was so pleased when I finished – proud of myself and delighted that I hadn’t met with any major injuries!
Jane was next up while I took photos. She too went for a round bowl, but her colours were inspired by her beautiful rusty pink jumper with flecks of heathery blue. Lisa, who had previously created a paperweight using primary colours, decided to go the whole hog for her final piece and create a rainbow bowl. With the help of Anthony, ribbons of coloured glass were wound around the bowl in ‘roygbiv’ sequence. It was amazing to see the colours change as the pot cooled, but we will all have to wait to see the final results. Roll on next Saturday!
I would heartily recommend the day-long class as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s great to think I’ve created a hand-crafted piece of glass, but I can’t honestly say it was all my own work. And anyone thinking you can turn up to the class and produce a piece of art without any previous experience might be a tad disappointed. Luckily, I had no preconceived notions that I could be a glass blowing genius. We’ll leave that to Anthony and Tim and the rest of the talented artists at London Glassblowing.
Thank you to Lisa and Jane for their help with photography.
Mr Donkin, my enthusiastic history teacher, tried his hardest to make the historical relevance of folk music of interest to a bunch of 13-year-olds. He failed miserably. He should have waited a few decades to introduce us all to Seth Lakeman.
I saw him last night at the Union Chapel in Islington. (That’s Seth Lakeman, not Mr Donkin.) What an amazing venue and what a stonking gig!
I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about the venue.
It’s fine, said Mr Jenkins, it’s an old church and you sit in pews.
Still wasn’t convinced – but hey, worth a go.
We got there early enough to see the support band. I wasn’t sure who they were. In truth, I’d just let Mr Jenkins arrange the whole thing, with my input being a brief ‘Yup’ to the question, ‘Do you fancy seeing Seth Lakeman?’
The Union Chapel is an incredibly atmospheric place. The lovely stained-glass windows are still in place to complement the stage lighting, with a Christmas tree and some illuminated reindeer thrown in for seasonal good measure.
There’s a bar and I fancied a drink, but it was on the opposite side of the venue from where we’d chosen to sit. Handy for the loos, but not the bar. I considered struggling through the pews to get a pint, but I noticed that most of the audience with drinks where holding on to bottled water or a mug of something. I wondered if it had been a Methodist chapel and in fact the bar only sold tea, or was there some by-law about having to serve lager in a mug to appease the relevant gods. Or perhaps they just didn’t allow alcohol into the auditorium, cos I sure as hell saw no-one drinking alcohol near me. But the guy in front did have a hot chocolate with marshmallows. And the guy two rows in front was cuddling his mug of tea with one hand and cupping a Tunnock’s foil-wrapped Tea Cake with the other.
Before I could consider the plot of Alan Garner’s Elidor (about slipping from one dimension to another inside a decommissioned church), the lights faded and the support band started up. I haven’t had such a delightful surprise in ages. Beautiful voices and acoustic folk music reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel, but they were women, and there were three of them, so there was another, deeper level to their impeccable harmonies. But there was also something Bluegrass there, mixed with a bit of Celtic – like Pictish Trail meets the Soggy Bottom Boys. Before the end of the first song, I was checking my phone to find out who they were.
Wildwood Kin – that’s who. Check them out, they are something else.
They finished their set and we all clapped enthusiastically. There was some whooping too, but we all stayed in our pews. I think the combined memories of the audience (averaging the age of 50, I reckon, but ranging from mid-20s to nearly-90s) forced us to remain seated and respectful in our pews (or was that just me?). I know I used to fear the uppy-downy dance on a Sunday morning, especially when I joined my friend at her Catholic church. It was a dance I didn’t know the steps to and often missed the beat, standing when I should be sitting, kneeling when I should be standing. It was safer to keep with the crowd, and so I did at the Union Chapel and remain seated.
Even when Seth Lakeman arrived and invited us to get up and dance in the aisles, we pretty much remained seated – except for one lone women at the far side near the bar. I admired her from afar for her confidence, but remained in my pew. The audience in the gallery were more enthusiastic though.
It wasn’t actually until the encore when Seth told us to get up, that we all, every last one of us (except for the 70-odd year old bloke just down our row and a woman with a crutch), rose up and gave the music the attention it deserved.
It seems I’m a little more taken with the antics of the audience, than with the gig itself. Not true – not true at all! It was amazing! During the short and perfectly formed solos I didn’t have time to let my mind wander to interesting diversions like ‘Is Seth short for something?’, ‘Why is the audience still sitting down?’ and ‘Does playing the violin like that hurt your neck?’.
The band were dynamic. Seth was funny and engaging between songs. The music was, like, amazing. There were a few songs I didn’t know, but we were asked to join in anyway. I probably would have obliged with the singing if I’d been standing in normal gig circumstances, but I was sitting in a pew and the guy in front would have had my tuneless drone spoiling the gig, and I found myself mouthing the word I did know in homage to my time spent in church as a girl.
What I hadn’t realised was that the support band were even more supportive in the main event. New songs from a collaboration between Seth Lakeman and Wildwood Kin were aired and when the rest of the band returned to the stage, the women hung around in the background to provide backing vocals and some Celtic reels.
The music roller-coastered from beautiful ballads to breakneck-speed fiddling – it was dynamic and forced you, even seated, to pew dance and the floor bounced and vibrated with tapping feet and clapping hands and pew drumming. It is always such a pleasure to experience accomplished musicians playing a great set.
It was an awesome night of music, full of atmosphere, new musical finds and a slightly numb bum thrown in for good measure!
The new album Ballads of the Broken Few is available on CD & vinyl.
You wonder, as you walk in to the curiosity cabinet that is the Whitby Museum, why you have never visited it before! At first glance it appears to be an old fashioned museum stuck in a Victorian time warp. And that’s correct – it has all of the dry display cabinets of the old Geological Museum in London’s South Ken, coupled with the eclectic collection of Forest Hill’s beautiful Horniman Museum. And it’s true, some of the exhibits have been in the Whitby Museum for so long that their typed up description label is fading on yellowing paper, so much so that in some cases I had to photograph the label and enlarge it on my phone to be able to read it! It’s actually quite a charming little foible of the museum.
But did I just mention the electric nature of the Horniman Museum? Well, bless me, it has competition with the Whitby Museum – if you’d like to consider museums which have the most wide ranging and frankly quite bizarre collections I’ve come across. The Hancock Museum of my childhood (circa 1970) had a similar atmosphere, but the amazing thing about Whitby is that the collection is housed mostly in one room. It’s not large by museum standards, but it is absolutely packed to the brim with artefacts and oddities.
A handy returnable laminated guide sheet is handed to you when you hand over your £5 entrance fee, but it doesn’t give you the full gist of what’s in store. Wandering around I found many displays pandering to my wide range of interests, from the huge collection of ammonites (a favourite obsession of mine), to the collection of cameras collected over the last century (tying in with my love of photography), to the handicrafts section (my other job alongside picture research), to the cabinets packed with china and glass (both lifelong passions) and the amazing miniature models (harking back to my early days studying precision modelling). There’s also a standing stone with cup markings, for goodness sake (… thinks back to the many holidays spent dragging my kids round fields looking for wild versions… ).
And if you’re looking for weird juxtapositioning, opposite the stone you’ll find a grandfather clock alongside a ceiling height totem pole!
Then there were the work related exhibits – the orrery in the explorers exhibition tying in nicely with my four years of working on the orrery and tellurion model making magazines, the amazing fossils, including the huge ichthyosaurus embedded into the wall of the museum, harking back to the geological and fossil publication I worked on a few years back.
It may have been synergy that guided me to Whitby and the museum during the October half term holiday and leading up to Halloween – and neither disappointed on the gothic front. Whilst a fine selection of goths roamed the streets of Whitby looking for the Bram Stoker experience, the ghoulish highlights amongst the museums collection left a more subtle skin-crawling impression.
Top of the list were the incredibly haunting faces of the dolls in the toy section, the boat of bones – a model of a gun ship made by French PoWs during the Napoleonic wars from the bones left over from their meat rations, and best of all, the creepy Hand of Glory – a desiccated human hand found in a local criminal’s home kept as good luck trophy (and in fairness, the guy was never caught!).
I felt that perhaps I was on a nostalgic journey, enjoying hunching over the wood and glass cabinets the way I used to with the semi precious gems in the Geological Museum in days or yore. I felt that I was enjoying the museum so much because it transported me back to my childhood. I felt that no child in its right mind would enjoy such a dry display in these days of instant entertainment. And as I look around over the top of the cabinets, I was one of 5 adults all around my age, who seemed to be the only visitors to the museum – hmmm, what would a child make of this museum, I thought.
After a brief trip upstairs for a speedy journey through the history of the wedding dress, I arrived back in the main room to find it full of families – one girl dragging her mum to see the stuffed birds in their display case, and a family pouring over the amazing dolls house back in the children’s toys section, and one boy gobsmacked by the tale his dad told him of Victorian headmasters beating naughty children with the cane displayed in the education display case. An older girl gazed at the carved Whitby jet trying her best to photograph it through the reflective case.
Perhaps I was wrong then, perhaps kids today appreciate the object on display more if it’s not surrounded by all singing, all dancing interactive gadgets.
I wondered again, as I left the museum, why I hadn’t visited it before now. I’d had, after all, a mere 50 years of visiting Whitby on a regular basis! If you find yourself in Whitby – on a seaside holiday or as part of a gothic retreat – I would highly recommend the museum. You can find it in Pannett Park, open daily and costs a fiver for adults (concessions £4 for seniors and £3.50 for students). Children under 17 go free.
I’ve been a regular visitor to the National Glass Centre for many years now. It celebrates the glass-making heritage of Sunderland in a unique building, with its unassuming, industrial entrance in direct contrast to its show-off riverside façade. I love the entrance which dips away from what is ostensibly the roof of the Centre, drawing you down into a progressively enclosed channel of claustrophobia before propelling you through the doors and back into the light.
In the early days I became a ‘friend’ and spent many happy hours there with my children in the great interactive gallery with its imaginative explanations of the history, the properties and the possibilities of glass.
My recent visit was interesting. It’s been a good few years since I was last there, so I dragged my sister along for a trip out. She was quite surprised that I wanted to have a look around – thought I’d be more interested in heading straight to the cafe for a coffee. But I managed to stop her in her tracks and drag her around the recently renovated top deck of the centre, completed a couple of years ago after a £2.3 million overhaul.
Now, I might eat my words here, but I do believe that the National Glass Centre appeals to all ages. In the early days when it first opened, one side of the top floor was dedicated to an informative, hands-on, children-friendly exhibition. After a few years it started to look a little tired; worn out by little hands and big, hell bent on lifting flaps and turning cranks. It’s been replaced by a more subtle display of the history of glass making on the Wear – imaginatively done, with archive images and phone points to listen to the voices of workers from the Jobling, Pyrex and Corning factories of days past. There are peep-hole displays with a fine selection of locally made glass oddities, glass displays with front and back transparency to tempt you into the next section, and a fine rotunda-style film show. Sadly, the lighting in the rotunda was too intense and introductory film show, which offered much in the way of eye-candy with beautifully photographed glassmaking processes, was too weak to compete. I’d like to think they’ll have it sorted by the next time I visit.
Meanwhile there’s a dedicated kids’ area in the Learning Studio, adventure backpacks and family workshops. And of course, there is always that perennial enjoyment for kids – running across the 6cm thick glass roof while terrified parents look on – hoping to their own personal god that the glass is strong enough to hold their weight. Best ever fun my children had was lying on the glass roof making faces at the tea-drinking customers in the cafe eight metres or so below!
The temporary exhibition when we visited really appealed to my sense of recycling – Andrew Miller’s ‘The Good, the Bad & the Ugly’. I love his philosophy behind the exhibition, a collection of discarded objects, apparently worthless, but considered for their history, their previous design credentials, their past emotional attachments and their ultimate rise in status as a work of art. I’m sure that there will be the odd observer who will look at Miller’s work and exclaim, ‘It’s just a load of old rubbish!’ – and yes, they’d be right, but the ‘rubbish’, like the work of Joseph Cornell to Ai Weiwei, has been thoughtfully combined to create a compelling piece of art.
Finally done upstairs and having paid our suggested, but not compulsory, donation of £5 each, my sister finally got me to the lower level and the much sought-after cup of coffee. The Glass Yard cafe here has won awards, and it’s a fine place to sit and watch the Wear wander past the huge panoramic windows on its last leg to the North Sea. It’s also next to the amazing gift shop, which has introduced me to a few glass artists in the past, including Peter Layton at London Glassblowing (where incidentally, I’ll be trying my hand at glassblowing in the new year. Exciting stuff!). As often happens, I managed to spend a wee amount on a piece made at the NGC, and you can actually wander down the corridor at the far corner of the shop and sit yourself down for spell of glassblowing voyeurism.
It’s great to see such artists at work moulding the glass to their own fancy, seemingly unfazed by the tremendous heat of the furnace (for lovers of eco-friendly facts, you’ll be happy to know that the heat from the furnaces is also used to heat the building). The NGC has had links with the University of Sunderland for some years now – it’s only fitting that a city so emphatically linked with glass-making is now teaching the next generation of artists.
The National Glass Centre sits on the north bank of the River Wear in Sunderland – entrance is free with a collection box for the generous.
I recently found myself in Grantham with a few hours to kill, so true to form I sought out the nearest museum…
Sadly, Grantham Museum has been hit by funding cuts and this is reflected in the quality of some of the displays. Not all, though. There are some imaginative arrangements going on here, but the display boards invariable sport a spattering of typos and, more heinous from my point of view, bad quality, pixelated images!
It’s a small affair, slightly minimalist in layout, but covering the main points of interest from these here parts – Barnes Wallis and the Dambusters, transport links, D-Day landings and Thatcher, the Milk-Snatcher. But most interesting as far as I’m concerned is the small exhibit dedicated to Isaac Newton.
I hadn’t realised Newton hailed from Grantham – perhaps he’s been overshadowed by a more invidious inhabitant – but soon got an inkling with the Newton Shopping Centre and sign posts pointing to the Isaac Newton School. Newton moved into the home of William Clarke in Grantham at the age of 12 so that he could attend the town’s grammar school. There is a replica of his foster father’s apothecary shop included in the exhibition, along with a cast of his sundial, an interactive display of the town during Newton’s lifetime and his death mask, which was used to sculpt the marble likeness for his tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Thatcher’s display has a late 1970’s sitting room with a telly, running a continuous loop of her victory over Jim Callaghan and the Labour Party. Alongside is a timeline of her ‘successes’ and a display case holding her shoes and handbag. I wondered if in years to come someone would think to display Obama’s toilet bag or Blair’s shower cap in a museum. But then, perhaps someone is actually interested in such trivia.
The museum was threatened with closure by local council cuts and is now run mainly by volunteers. After an interesting hour mooching round the museum I headed to the small cafe at the front of the building, tempted by the coffee machine I’d spotted on my way in. Sadly though, it appeared to have been hit by the cuts too and the elderly volunteer waved a jar of instant at me asking if this would be OK. Nope, I don’t think so. I opted for a tea instead, which duly arrived in a cardboard cup. I would have passed on that too had I realised…
While we we were waiting for the kettle to boil (a veritable lifetime!) the volunteer made small talk and suggested a pilgrimage to the home of Margaret Thatcher after my visit to the museum. A pilgrimage! I would much rather slit my own throat, and I told him I was much more interested in the architecture of the town and its links to Isaac Newton, (The rest of the sentence ‘…than some foul politician who spent most of her time in office dismantling the lives of those least able to defend themselves.’ remained unspoken.) In spite of my obvious antipathy to Grantham’s greatest leader, the staff were very helpful and informative about the museum and the town, which is situated on the route of the Great North Road. The hotel in which I’d just spent the previous night was apparently, a main stopover and had links to English royalty from days of yore, including Richard III and King John. So off I went to have a closer look and continue my tour of Grantham…
We’ve just spent a week of warfare in Normandy. It wasn’t our intention to have a holiday there slap bang in the middle of the D-Day commemorations, nor did we intend to rock up at Gold Beach on the actual anniversary.
But we did, and it was a strange thing.
Arriving in the midst of a sea fret we gazed out at the strange shadows emerging from the bay. Bit by bit, the mists cleared and within minutes we were bathed in steamy sunshine. The atmosphere, too, seemed to sway between melancholy and celebration, with equal numbers of visitors meditating on the events of 72 years ago and those dressed in 1940s kit out for a bit of a party.
From the cliff top above the small town of Arromanches-les-Bains, a sobering glance out to sea reveals the remains of the landing port build by the Allies. Not much remains of Mulberry harbour, but enough to get a general idea of the scale of the thing, built prefab-style in sections towed from Britain and built in the days after the initial landings.
Luckily, Arromanches itself was spared much of the bombing that devastated other communities in Normandy and as we looked down from the cliff towards the seaside town you could make out the strains of Scottish bagpipes and French choirs, performing on the now-peaceful promenade in remembrance of the fallen of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of France.
The cliff-top bears witness to the remains of the battle with rusting gun emplacements and floating bridges. The latter form an unlikely backdrop to the memorial honouring the sappers of the Royal Engineers, where we stopped a-while. Just down from the memorial, past the statue of the Virgin Mary and a row of multi-national flags is the Arromanches 360° Cinema.
The Cinema bombards you with images and sounds of D-Day, while down in the town itself is the Musée du Débarquement gives more detail about the Mulberry harbours and the turn of events following D-Day if you want to immerse yourself in the action or learn more about the context.
Tootling along the coast to Gold Beach we started at Ouistreham and Sword Beach, landed by the British Paratroopers, past Juno Beach, taken by the Canadians, and if we’d continued up the coast, we would have hit Omaha Beach, where US troops landed. It seemed that most nationalities chose to invade again (on a much more peaceful scale) in a show of unity, and throughout Normandy while we were there British, Canadian, American, German and (of course) French flags flew together as the region celebrated an all-encompassing accord of peace.
Driving south west of Arromanches, past the fields full of cars and camper vans and pedestrians spilling on to the roads, we headed to Bayeux. Leaving behind the memories of twentieth century warfare, we went in search of a less sophisticated, yet no less barbaric, battle.
Growing up in the UK, you can’t avoid the date 1066 – it’s our history! But it’s also the history of Normandy and one if it’s most famous sons, William the Bastard, soon to be William the Conqueror, and the amazing tapestry telling the tale of his accession to the English throne.
Now, if I’m honest, I didn’t think much of the Bayeux Tapestry when I was a kid. I thought the figures were a bit basic and the story-telling a bit confused. But, hell – what did I know. Seeing it now, being able to appreciate the historical context and the skill of the embroiderers, I was quite taken with it. I have over the years as a professional picture researcher had to research the tapestry for various publications, and of course, it’s ideal for depicting a king (three of them are featured) from the days before photography. But seeing it in real life with the imaginative and humorous commentary was really worthwhile. The museum housing the tapestry also includes a gallery showing the techniques and materials used to make the tapestry, the history background, genealogical charts and a cinema presentation – all described in both French and English (though actually, some of the translations could have been checked out!) But fair play to them, how many museums in the UK have extended French translations, with or without the odd grammatical error?
What you don’t see in school when you’re learning about the Battle of Hastings, are the delightful caricatures in the friezes above and below the main event of the tapestry. Yes, we’ve all seen William, and Harold with the arrow in his eye, and Halley’s comet – but who’s managed to spot the naked man with the unfeasibly large penis, the dragons and griffins, the soldiers nicking battle trophies and the little Gilliam-esque details?
Hasting and D-Day were separated by nearly nine centuries of turbulent warfare throughout Europe. I wonder if in the 28th century the D-Day beaches will still be tempting tourists. I’m sure if they are, the visitors will be greeted with the same friendly attitude which welcomed us. Normandy, on the eve of the UK referendum, was flying the flags of almost every nation under the sun; outside Bayeux Cathedral where a whole row of union flags flew to honour the British who fought for France’s liberation, at tourist sites where flags of every nation seemed to be represented, and in small towns where the flags of the EU nations flapped alongside the EU flag. Everywhere there seemed to be flag-inspired symbolism of tribal unity and it would be a shame to turn our backs on a united Europe which has held its peace now for over 70 years.
Pebble Homage has been going on in Aldeburgh for the last 12 months. It’s a great idea – enjoy the pebbly beach, pick up a stone and imbue it with your thoughts. Some people have simply added their name, others have embellished with the art of illustration rather than words, and then there are other much more intellectual offerings.
The participative art installation at the Aldeburgh Beach Lookout has been running alongside the Antony Gormley installation on top of the Martello Tower further along the beach. The suggestion is to add a thought to your pebble inspired by the walk to the tower. Sadly, I’m not sure all participants had read the blurb!
Our walk to the Martello Tower was interrupted by sea wall works and we were diverted through the yacht club to get to our destination. Not actually sure if we were trespassing, but it was worth it to get a closer view of Gormley’s sculpture – one of a series of five figurative pieces called Land commissioned by The Landmark Trust. From the base of the tower, the human form seems to be constructed from numerous weathered metal cubes of varying sizes, looking rather like Iron Man contemplating the magnificent and powerful view of the churning North Sea. Gormley would like us to reflect alongside his five sculptures; find a moment for meditation and our place in this environment.
The Pebble Homage too, would like us to look at our relationship with the beach, the waves and the endless sky and bring something noteworthy to our pebble poetry. The pebbles will be returned to the beach waiting for some unsuspecting recipient to benefit from its message. Reading one or two of the stones, I suspect a lot of thought had gone into the process of choosing a clever phrase, not necessarily connected to the experience of stumbling across the beach, but to prove the writer as a serious philosophical being. Few people, though, had managed to get beyond the need to sign and date their pebble. And then there was the one that just said ‘Bum’.
So, I suppose in general, there’s a lot of self interest that emerges from such contemplation – no surprise there – and it has shown itself in the simplest sense with a name on a stone. But there’s a lot of humour too and its strangely satisfying to find one of the decorated pebbles beyond the immediate environs of the Lookout and adjacent table, having already started on its journey to spread its stoney message.
© Sue Jenkins 2016
The world assumes that everyone loves Monet and the impressionists, and it’s probably right in most cases, but I’ve never been a great fan. Coupled with the frustration of seeing some of those beautiful flowers depicted with just a few touches of colour – never quite understood why I couldn’t achieve the same effect! Tripled by the realisation that most of the people there are going to be elderly garden-types… if you know what I mean…
But then a friend mentioned her interest in the exhibition and I dug out my ‘Friends’ card and off we trotted – typically for me, just as the exhibition was nearing its final days.
The exhibition is huge and, as expected, full of ladies of a certain age. I found it quite exhausting, both the overwhelming culture daze and the elderly visitors. I have a problem with people on their phones or listening to music in public places when they disappear into their own little world, oblivious to the people around them. The same is true of the aural guides dished out to exhibition visitors. Many times I was elbowed, barged and stepped on, having become invisible to the earphone-wearing elderly – and sometimes to those not even wearing headsets.
On occasion, the layout of the galleries made it difficult to view the paintings at their best (that is, from a distance for the Impressionist paintings) and I think I would have been happier to see a reduced number of paintings. For me, there were two outstanding Joaquín Sorollas on display and I could have done without the others, though I’d be happy to spend my day gazing at the vibrant beauty of all three Emil Nolde paintings chosen for the exhibition. The Making a Garden installation with its cold frames and miniature greenhouse falls short of showing the essential inspiration for the exhibition – the humble flowering plant, and serves only as a clever idea to house the archival material in Robert Carsen’s exhibition design. I thought I would enjoy his approach to displaying the paintings, but I’m not sure I quite got it.
The gallery exhibiting the ‘Gardens of Silence’ suggested that the gardens depicted were ‘devoid of human presence’, which I think is tenuous at best. Yes, I agree, there is not a living figure in the paintings, yet they are imbued with human presence. With the exception of one or two more natural gardens, the rest are full of man-made manicured lawns and trees, tables set for tea, lights burning in distant windows, decorative statues and urns and idealised landscaping.
There are some absolute treats though – the amazing (and huge) Agapanthus Triptych at the end of the exhibition – reunited in Europe for the first time in 65 years. The wall of Monet’s Water Lilies is interesting – of the five, my friend and I chose totally different favourites and second-bests, proving that it really is each to their own where art is concerned. We both agreed though, that in the Avant-Gardens gallery, Kandinsky’s amazing abstract Murnau The Garden II was the most appealing painting – and, for me, of the whole exhibition.
You can catch Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Mattisse at the Royal Academy until 20 April 2016.