Charles I Reassembled

When I chose to go grey five years ago…

Um – let me clarify. I’ve been going grey since I was thirteen. What I mean is, when I chose to stop covering my grey with various shades of brown, I thought I’d be mistaken for an old lady. But one mid-week trip to the Royal Academy is a sure bet to make you feel young at heart. If only by comparison.

The Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy is, according to the blurb, the first time the iconic art collection has been reassembled under one roof since it was carved up and sold off by our short-lived republic in the mid-1600s. It is a unique chance to see countless Van Dycks, Rubens, Holbeins and the odd Velasquez and Rembrandt; to appreciate the detail and texture at close quarters of an amazing collection of art.

Well, it would be if it wasn’t for the gaggle of old ladies planted in front of each and every painting. Seeing so many of them in one place makes me realise that even if I am, physically speaking, looking older these days, I know that in my heart I am miles away from these old biddies.

For one thing, I haven’t perfected the lethal bony elbow for nudging people out of the way when you want to get a better look at Van Dyck’s self-portrait. Luckily Charles I was heavily into enormous portraits of himself befitting his God-given status, and most of them are best viewed from a distance, and I’m still tall enough to view them over the combined mop of grey heads. But my feet, unfortunately, are still at ground level and not quite as lucky – especially when those with no spatial awareness decide to use their seriously deficient reversing skills to step on my toes with their sensible shoes.

Alongside some incredible allegorical art by Rubens, I was equally amazed at the seriously wicked glances given by the tiny old people to anything shorter than themselves – people in wheelchairs, children, and the like. I haven’t reached that milestone of intollerance just yet.

And I know for sure that after gazing at Velasquez portrait of Philip IV Of Spain, I was probably the only person in the gallery inwardly humming Everything Everything’s Hapsburg Lippp.

Yeah – still worlds apart!

Back to the art then. My favourites include the Bronzino’s Portrait of a Woman in Green – the lovely direct gaze of a women probably not noted for her beauty, but the artist has captured a wonderfully kind and wistful expression; Van Dyck’s three-way police mugshot of Charles I (possibly predicting Charles’s future run-in with the authorities), and the lovely chalk portrait of Anne Cresacre by Hans Holbein the Younger. I overheard one old lady in front of this portrait point out rather begrudgingly, ‘He is quite good, isn’t he?’ Major understatement!

And of course, there are the exquisite miniatures, and here I had to implement my own bony elbows in order to get a look-in.

As always, I find lots of thought-provoking questions come up during these exhibitions that need further research. Like, in Van Dyck’s portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria and Sir Jeffrey Hudson, I’m wondering – I think I’d like to know a bit more about the child-like Sir Jeffrey. And why, if the collection was so widely dispersed during the civil war, then how does HM the Queen seem to own the majority of the paintings on display. How did they fall back into Royal ownership after the restoration?  What exactly is a Hapsburg Lip?

Off to do some research…

National Glass Centre


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.

img_2381Verdant Seascape Sculpture, Fritz Dreisbach

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.

img_2392 img_2394

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!

img_2377The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Andrew Miller

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.

Pebble Homage & Antony Gormley’s Land

Pebble Homage
© Sue Jenkins 2016

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.

Land, Antony Gormley
© Sue Jenkins 2016

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’.

image  image  image

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


Monet, Monet, Monet
it’s a Gardener’s World!

Royal Academy

I knew there was a reason I’d been avoiding the Monet to Matisse (Painting the Modern Garden) exhibition at the RA.

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.

Plague, Fire, Revolution – Samuel Pepys at the National Maritime Museum


You know what it’s like when there’s something right on your doorstep and you don’t think to have a proper look at it because you can see it anytime… and then, too late – it’s gone? Well, I was in danger of missing out on the Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for exactly that reason. Right on my doorstep and months of good intentions to visit culminated in a last minute dash on the penultimate day of the exhibition.

And was I please I did!? It was up to the usual high standards of the Maritime Museum – imaginatively laid out and engaging, covering all the usual amazing highlights of that one decade in the 1600s.

Beheading God’s chosen ruler, a brief flirtation with republicanism, a deathly epidemic and a big fire. Everything covered with great images, portraits and exhibits. The Restoration theatre kept me entertained for ages, moving only to ease my achy bum from the hard benches. The animation depicting the Great Fire of London with voice-over reading from Pepys’ diary was very well done; exciting and poignant, and again moving only to reduce the pain caused by the hunting stool-style seats which were too narrow for my chunky hindquarters.

With each area covered by the exhibition is an interactive screen with images from the diary. Touch the screen and a translation of Pepys’ shorthand allows you to read his entry, with highlighted sections annotated for further clarification. In the plague section I was very excited to read about his witnessing a plague victim left out for collection in a lane by Coome Farm. Excited, because thats my home! Not the farm itself, but my home is a Victorian terrace build on land once belonging to the aforementioned ‘Coome Farm’.

It had fashion, art, science, architecture and a real taste of the period. So much so that I feel I need to read his diary in full. (Something I’m a ashamed to say I’ve never done.) There were ‘Eureka!’ moments when I thought, yes, that explains it all, moments of clarification in the complicated line of Royal succession and, finally, the great realisation that, in my opinion, Sir Christopher Wren was a dead ringer for Christopher Walken.

Apart from the slightly uncomfortable nether quarters, I don’t think I’m able to find fault with the exhibition, and had I seen it sooner, I would have definitely been back for a second viewing.

If you are in Greenwich on bank holiday Monday, go and see it – 28 March is your last chance. Worth the trip – I promise you!

Old Bones

I’ve just met the oldest man in Yorkshire! Well, I think he is. He’s definitely the best fossilised bloke to emerge from beneath God’s own soil, and he’s definitely the most notable tree burial in the county.

Meet Gristhorpe Man. He was discovered by William Beswick, a local landowner, who donated his find to the Scarborough Philosophical Society and the Rotunda Museum. The museum curator’s 17-year-old son, William Crawford Williamson, compiled the excavation report and some of the comments and observations made by the young geologist in 1834 proved spot on. In 2005 further investigations at Bradford University shed more light on the incredibly well-preserved remains (thanks to the Philosophical Society boiling them in horse glue!) and now Gristhorpe Man is back in his home town (or at least a short walk from it) residing in Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum, just a few miles from his burial mound.

The Rotunda Museum is a delight in its own right; a lovely sandstone column overlooking the sands of Scarborough’s South Bay. It’s small, but perfectly formed. The bottom floor allows access, toilets and a mini shop. Stairs or lift to the next floor opens up to two wings of prehistoric galleries. One concentrating on dinosaurs and the other exhibiting two of the museums finest archaeological finds – the 4.5-meter-long Speeton Plesiosaur from the Filey coast and Gristhorpe Man himself.

The thing you need to know is that these are the actual remains of Mr Gristhorpe. No casts or replicas here! We have a lovely little nook with the intact skeletal remains on one side, the lid of his hollowed out oak coffin opposite, and at the end you can view a small selection of grave finds. Interestingly, here you can find Williamson’s original notes side-by-side with the later findings of the researchers at Bradford University.

I know the Rotunda is a small museum, but I was surprised that there weren’t more people making the most of it – especially in the foul weather assaulting Scarborough that day! One woman had dragged her family in from the rain and proceeded to instil some enthusiasm into her teenage son, but he was more interested in checking out his reflection in the grave finds display case and altering his fringe accordingly.

They soon left the gallery and I was free to examine more of the story of Mr G on my own, including the digital reconstruction of his 4000-year-old face, animated and telling us something of his life and time. Turns out he was probably about 60 and 6 feet tall when he died, and a seriously important guy while he was alive. Sadly, DNA tests were inconclusive due to the horse glue casserole of 1834.

On the top floor of the Rotunda, in contrast to the modern interactive galleries downstairs, you find yourself in a delightful circular (obviously) gallery full of curiosities collected by and donated to the museum over the previous two centuries. Fossils and archaeological finds from Egypt and Peru lie side by side with an early 18th century cello and vintage photos of Scarborough. The display cases themselves need to be admired too. Dating from 1850, it’s a lovely circular curiosity cabinet, displaying the fossils according to their associated strata. But to be honest, the educational aspect was lost on me, I was too busy working out how to fit one in my own home, including the lovely old original spiral staircase to the upper gallery (sadly not accessible to the general public). The whole gallery is designed to be flooded with light from the skylights in the raised dome, and doing a pretty good job considering the grey conditions beyond. It’s such an amazing space; I didn’t want to leave.  But leave I did – off into the rain to visit the nearby Art Gallery….

… which is included in the price of the Rotunda entry fee of £3. Yes, £3! And it lasts for a year!


It’s not who you are, it’s how you are Alice Theobald & Atomik Architecture at the Baltic


Now this was interesting. In the blurb about Alice Theobald & Atomik Architecture’s installation at the Baltic it states that the gallery has been designed to ‘create a series of familiar, yet unsettling spaces’. Hmmm – always interested in how architecture (or the architect) yearns to mould us and our lives. My thesis (many years ago now…) looked at the creation of new towns in 20th century Britain and how architects developed town plans to differentiate between private and public spaces and, particularly in the new towns, strove to create a ‘sense of community’. I’m often suspicious of manipulated spaces to create an atmosphere – I’m not sure it always works. But let’s see…

The gallery has been divided vertically and horizontally with raised platforms and soaring padded towers. A walkway leads you through a series of viewpoints and stages, though circular towers smelling comfortingly of the bed department in John Lewis with images projected on the walls. The projections are courtesy of the cameras on the stages with their live feed of the gallery, the lifts in the foyer and beyond, through the windows to the Quayside and the Tyne bridges.


Interestingly, the towers did, in my opinion, feel like a private space and I felt awkward entering them, though Mr Jenkins felt no such pang. Other people hurried apologetically through if you’d already taken up residence in one of the towers – in spite of there being space for six or so people in each one. Also unsettling were the walkways between the towers, all black with the raised platform and performers making you feel like you were watching a one-man/woman stage show for you alone. It seemed voyeuristic, watching them moving around the stage, sitting, sleeping, singing, altering the camera position – and hoping not to make eye-contact…


In contrast was the unhindered naturalness of the other gallery visitors in the foyer who hadn’t yet clicked that the cameras were pointing right at them. It was fascinating to spot the moment that they realised they were part of the show and how their behaviour changed. Some turning immediately from the camera, others smiling and putting on their best photo face.

Putting aside the theme of ‘It’s not who you are, it’s how you are’, and getting back to the space – the creative manipulation of the dark spaces in the gallery and the light from the foyer suggests a series of windows with ever changing views as you journey from tower to tower. Rather disturbingly though, it’s sometimes difficult to tell if you are look in or looking out.

So, yes, it does work, but go and experience it for yourself – – on until 10th April 2016. Any exhibition that references Adolf Loos has to be checked out!

Brian Griffiths at the Baltic


Brian Griffiths’ Bill Murray exhibition at the Baltic messes with your head. It is a lovely, witty and warm-hearted interpretation of Murray’s life using ‘found objects’. One man’s rubbish is, after all, another man’s treasure, and Brian Griffiths elevates foil packets and lampshades to a status well beyond their original purpose.

A number of dolls houses and architectural models entice you to peer through the tiny windows to get a better glimpse of the actor’s real or imagined interests – drawing you in so that you can experience the classical music issuing from one exhibit or the aroma of coffee from another. Each building sports an oversize image of Murray pasted across an external façade, echoing the huge photo of Murray taken at the Cannes Film Festival which adorns the riverside façade of the Baltic.

The exhibition toys with scale, using oversize pots atop a tiny commode, or a stack of pennies to prop up a miniature chair, or a full size digital radio balanced on top of a scaled down grand piano. Reminds me in parts of the Joseph Cornell’s work I saw recently at the Royal Academy, but on a much larger scale!


But it’s not just the individual exhibits that display this contradiction of scale – the whole exhibition is curated in the huge space in the Level 4 gallery with only a portion of the space being used to house the nine individual buildings, some displayed on office or dining tables.
Small it may be in terms of the overall space in the gallery, but it’s large in terms of content and humour. As an admirer of creative recycling and ad hocism, I couldn’t miss out and it was well worth the journey up to Tyne & Wear.

The exhibition Bill Murray: a story of distance, size and sincerity at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead ends on the 28 February.

There’s not much time left – don’t miss it!

Posted in

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

S.A.C.R.E.D by Ai Weiwei Studio at the RA

Interesting trip to the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday – on the day that the Queen met the Chinese president…

Walking through Chinatown after lunch, we spotted a lot on people carrying banners and flags in protest against the state visit, but a trip to the RA gives you a quieter yet more potent protest against China’s human rights record.

Most of the works comment on state censorship or refer to China’s cultural vandalism, though one piece highlights China’s failure to protect its population. ‘Straight’ features hand-straightened steel reinforcement rods from the Sichuan earthquake – substandard building materials gathered from schools where over 5000 lives were lost. The rods create an enormous floor sculpture in the main gallery, whilst the walls house a poignant reminder of the victims by listing them individually.

Let’s hope that the new power station proposed by George Osborn and subsidised by Chinese money will be built with more regard for human life.

Straight by Ai Weiwei Studio at the RA

RA Summer Exhibition infiltrated by Art Tourists!

SJ_RA1_web SJ_RA2_web SJ_RA3_web

It was the final day of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy today. In a break with tradition this year the RA allowed the public to take photographs in the galleries. I have mixed feelings about this – I can’t remember how many times I’ve been in an art gallery and wanted to take a photo. Not necessarily of a painting or sculpture, but of a view through a doorway, a person or a detail. Generally, it hasn’t been allowed, so I was really surprised to see people taking pictures.  And it just felt, well – wrong! I asked the staff and there were various explanations, but basically it looks like most of the artists signed an agreement allowing photography – except for a minority… the big names like Tracey Emin managing to stand their ground.

So in amongst the people jiggling their way through the gallery to get a better look at something that had caught their eye were a number of art tourists, hardly pausing for breath while they snapped another painting and moved on. Art in a hurry with no time to stand and appreciate the work, the meaning or the skill – just another digital image to look at later. Why bother? Why not just look up the artist on the internet – you can easily see them all on the RA’s website. But how can you possibly appreciate it that way? One guy took a photo of one of Tom Phillips’ versions of ‘A Human Document’ almost at a run without seeming to look at the work while he pressed the button on his phone. Did he realise it was one of a series? Did he know which version?

Anyway, it took me a little while, but I did whip out the camera in the end and take a couple of shots. I’ve always wanted to take a photo of the grates in the Royal Academy….