To the Lighthouse

… the lighthouse or faro at Bonanza in Andalucia, to be precise, not Virginia Woolf’s Hebrides set novel of 1927.  The fishing village of Bonanza is on the estuary of the Rio Guadalquivir as it reaches the Atlantic, just north of the Bahia de Cadiz. The derivation of its name is from the Spanish (and Latin) for calm sea, or tranquil waters, though it has come to mean a windfall, or unexpected piece of good fortune. It was our good fortune to be there last Sunday.

I doubt Ms Woolf ever visited, though the place itself is small and charming, with one main street running parallel with the river, houses backing onto a deep sandy beach. Bonanza does feature elsewhere in literature, however, in The Confusion, the second in Neil Stephenson’s rip-roaring and erudite Baroque Cycle (2005) as the location for an audacious piece of thievery. There are no grand mansions to be found there now, though fishing boats bob on the swell and there is, at the Alguida end of town, a port area with docks and factories. There are, unsurprisingly, good places to eat fish, which was what we were there for.

Beyond Bonanza is farmland, now often given over to poly-tunnels, interspersed with houses whose architects certainly had exuberance and imagination, though they didn’t tend towards understatement (the Baroque featured here too, though attached to flat-roofed bungalows). If you continue along the single road you eventually gain access to that portion of the Donana National Park which lies on the south eastern side of the Guadalquivir.  Here there are wonderfully tranquil forests of Iberian pines and a lagoon, complete with bird watching hides.  The flamingos were displaying and we saw not one other human being.

Or maybe head back to Sanlucar de Barrameda, of which I have written before ( see Contrasts ) the rather larger port and holiday town. Both Columbus and Magellan set sail from here, their voyages being recorded in sculpture and tile work around the town. The former completed his first circumnavigation of the globe from Sanlucar, while the latter returned to his own discovery of Hispaniola. The town is intensely proud of its hugely influential maritime history. On Sunday afternoons the Plaza de Cabildo is the place to be and be seen, amongst the bougainvillea entwined palms, as the inhabitants drink manzanilla or eat ice cream at the square’s two competing ice cream parlours.

Maybe visit the Castillo de Santiago the fifteenth century fortification on the edge of the Barrio Alto, with its two museums and excellent views over the Barrio Bajo or take tea in the gardens of the 13th century Palacio de Medina Sidonia, now a hotel/hostel, for similar views.  There’s an interesting monument between the two, indicative of today’s desire among many Spaniards for the truth to be told about what happened during the Fascist era and commemorating just some of those killed or ‘disappeared’ during that time for opposing Franco. The Duchess who owned the aforementioned Palacio was one of those who was imprisoned, although she was, presumably, too eminent to do away with quietly.

If you’re in this part of the world Sanlucar and Bonanza are worth visiting – we will do so again.

Not Quite a Fleeting Glimpse….

…is what one gets at the Dennis Severs House, or 18, Folgate Street, Spitalields, E1.  Not quite a fleeting glimpse of those people who have just left the room, who were eating that meal just before you walked in, or smoking that pipe, or baking that loaf.  Whose wig sits on the wing of the chair? Or whose floral perfume scents the formal withdrawing room?

18, Folgate Street is an 18th century house (1724) which has been preserved and restored and, during his lifetime, lived in, by Dennis Severs, the American artist and storyteller, who died, aged only 51, in 1999. Twenty years after purchasing the house he saw the Spitalfields Trust buy the house and commit to keeping it going, when on his death-bed.  It’s still going twenty years later.

The House is chock-full of antique furniture and fol-de-rols, china, costumes, tapestry and tat, but all in period. So is the lighting, mostly candlelight, but some gas-light in the Victorian rooms. We visited on a sunny Monday lunchtime so it was relatively light, but the house is most often open in the evenings, from 5 – 9pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and on Sundays ( see Tours ).  I imagine that then it is even more atmospheric, though it would also be more difficult to see the multiplicity of objects on show, often close together.

Severs created an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers called Jervis to inhabit the house and it is their homely detritus (and comestibles) that one comes across as one climbs the narrow stairs, either down to the kitchen and cellar, where there are the supposed fragments of St Mary’s, Spital (1197) and the warmth of an iron range and the smell of…what is that smell?  Or upwards, through fashionable London entertaining to the elaborate boudoir and then up beneath the eaves to the penurious lodgers’ rooms.

Scent is something the House does well, as is sound – the ticking of a clock, the half-caught chatter, like Eliot’s rose garden ‘full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter’ in Burnt Norton. Visitors are asked to walk around the house, on a pre-determined route, in silence, so that this sound track has full effect. There are wordless guiders, who will direct you if you go wrong.

There are other symbols of life lived in the house.  The half lemon on the mantlepiece, the half drunk glasses of sherry on the card and occasional tables, the cheese and bread in the kitchen.  I like to think of the guiders going round each morning setting everything fresh into position, spraying the scents and lighting the candles ( there are piled candle ends in several rooms, today’s occupants being as thrifty as Madame Jervis could have been ).

It takes about 45 minutes to walk through the house and costs either £10 on Monday lunchtimes, or £15 in the evenings ( a guided tour is available for groups at £50 per person ).  We arrived at about 12.45 on Monday lunchtime and had to wait for a further twenty minutes, in a queue, as only small numbers are allowed in the house at any one time.  Once inside, you realise why ( people were smaller then ).

It’s an unusual and, for me, unique, experience and well worth visiting.

For more visiting of history try                        Undiscovered                  The Real Thing      Mother of Parliaments                           An Old Prospect                     Metamorphosis                    Waterloo

All photographs are from the House web-site, photography inside the House not being allowed.

Chelsea 2019

The day dawned bright and this south Londoner rose early, if not quite with the lark.  It was the first day of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show and I was to rendezvous with a group of friends at the Royal Hospital.  I set out, in my English linen and sensible shoes, along side the commuters, checking the weather app as the 137 bus crossed Chelsea Bridge. Yet I wasn’t the first of our group to arrive, some hardy souls were there when the gates opened at eight o’clock.

Programme purchased, I headed to the River View Cafe for an absolutely  necessary shot of  caffeine and a chance to text other members of the group.  I could even see the river.  Meeting up was always going to be something of a logistical issue, given that we were from all parts of the UK – from the West Country, North Wales, the south coast and Scotland.   Plus, my phone seemed to throw a tantrum.  Why don’t they work properly when you need them to?  No matter, there was nothing for it, I would just have to wander around until I found the others – amid a crowd of thousands!

At this time of day the betting was that some, if not all, would be on Main Avenue looking at the Show Gardens, before it became too congested to see them. And so it was.  I met the West Country contingent by the Resilience Garden and we were shortly joined by those from Wales and some from Oxford, via Putney.

It was time for some serious garden viewing.  The planting this year was natural, but not quite the garden meadow and sprinkled wildflower natural which has prevailed in recent times.  There were a lot of mature trees, including a glorious Scots Pine, and green predominated.  Andy Sturgeon’s M & G garden deservedly won Best Show Garden, in this humble gardener’s opinion, with its burnt timber formations resembling ancient rock and setting off the jewel-like colours to perfection.

Thence to lunch. Fizz and smoked salmon on the grass, picnic style, where we met the Scottish and south coast contingents for some chat and catching up ( and lots of talk about this year’s Clapham Book Festival ). We disperse again in the afternoon, it being impossible to keep over a dozen people together in the growing crowds.

The Grand Pavilion is always worth visiting, with its wonderful displays and, this year, a Show Garden, the IKEA Tom Dixon; Gardening will Save the World garden.  This was intriguing, if not the most aesthetically pleasing garden, with the science on display beneath the raised ‘garden walk’.  Here were hydroponics, artificial light stimulated growing and lots of other clever ways of nurturing food plants.  Very interesting, but it couldn’t compete, in terms of impact on the eye, and the nose, with the traditional stands and their carefully chosen cultivars in riotous display.  ( This year the Bloms Bulbs man was in full tartan rig. ) Serious purchasing was done.

Time for a quick swing around those gardens which we hadn’t had the chance to visit, before meeting at a Pimms Bar – but which Pimms bar? There were several groups by now, all doing their own thing and lots of Pimms Bars, it was lucky that other people had functioning mobile phones.

A word for my favourite gardens, the Silent Pool Gin garden ( alas no gin, but excellent planting and lovely use of copper ) and the Greenfingers Charity Garden, not for the double storey so much as for the planting, with liberal use of fennel and angelica.  The D-Day sculpture garden was also immensely impressive in its own quiet way.

Another Chelsea over – though it goes on until Saturday of course and the sell-off.  It’s expensive ( £75+ for a day ticket and steep prices for everything once you’re in the Showground ) but then a ticket to a Premiership football match is not much cheaper and you only get ninety minutes ( at least the cricket goes on all day ).  I wouldn’t miss it.

For articles on Chelsea’s past and other gardening try                   London Summer Starts Here            Under Canvas                  RHS Chatsworth 

Voting in Spain

Amid all the Brexit turmoil ( though it’s gone suspiciously quiet recently – could it suit the two main party leaders to drift towards the Euro Elections I wonder ) we might forget that the polarisation of politics is going on in plenty of places other than the UK.

A ray of hope therefore from Spain.  On Sunday Spain went to the polls for the third time in four years after Pedro Sanchez’ minority government of only 84 deputies ( out of 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies ) failed to secure enough support for its budget.  This followed a period in which, since 2015, Spain has had no single strong ruling party, voters having returned the equivalent of a UK hung Parliament. This also coincided with the rise of the first extreme right-wing party – Vox – since Franco’s death in 1975 ( see Vox ).

The turnout was up, at 75%+, despite a degree of election fatigue. There was speculation, at least among my Spanish friends, that this was in reaction to the  apparent voter apathy which allowed Vox to take its first seats at regional level – in Andalucia and Extramadura – and a determination that this should not be repeated at the national level.

The result – an increased number of seats, up to 123, for Sanchez’ Socialists (PSOE) a left of centre social democratic party.  PSOE is now the largest block in the Cortes. In second place, just, the Partido Popular with only 67 seats, followed closely in third by Ciudadanos with 57.  The last of these, though tacking to the right, went nowhere near as far as the PP, which tried to steal Vox’s thunder.  Alberto Rivera, Ciudadanos leader says he wants to lead the opposition, but already media ( and many Spaniards I spoke with ) like the look of a PSOE Ciudadanos coalition.  A coalition of the centre.

I enjoyed watching the TV coverage in the run up and on election night.  My TV aerial was not functioning well so I watched the results come in on a channel I wouldn’t normally watch politics on, which made it even more interesting. Think Peter Snow, but in faded jeans, and speaking even more quickly, as coloured columns rise and fall around him.

I also went to check out the local polling station, in the large Post Office building near to us. I went along at lunchtime on Sunday and there was a long queue of voters snaking round the large room.  The Spanish system uses the D’Hondt method of proportional representation ( the same to be used in the forthcoming European Parliament elections ) with parties having lists of candidates.  I gathered up the listings, as well as a ballot paper (see photo above). One of my neighbours then went to register and cast her vote in a temporary voting booth ( which looked suspiciously like a temporary shower ).

On Sunday there was the leisurely perusal of the results in papers local and national.  The right-wing vote had fragmented, the centre had held. On-line and to the BBC and one could be forgiven for not noticing that the centrist socialists had won at all, so focused was the story on the rise of Vox.  That party did become the fifth largest, but did not do as well as many predicted and had itself proclaimed it would.  It’s sad to see the BBC so in thrall to what one can only describe as ‘click-bait’ news reporting.

Now it’s back to London, where the skies are less blue.  For more on Spanish politics and the remarkable trajectory of Pedro Sanchez see            All Change in Spain                                    Democracy III

Last chance to see – John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

This year’s Spring exhibition at 2, Temple Place is a collaboration with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George to bring together a range of paintings, drawings, metal works and plaster casts to celebrate the work and legacy of John Ruskin (1819 – 1900).

Ruskin was an only child, his father was a wealthy sherry and wine importer, partner in Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, his mother an innkeeper’s daughter. Both parents were fiercely ambitious for their son and he grew up in a hothouse atmosphere in Herne Hill, south London.  A road there bears his name today.

He first came to the attention of the art world with Modern Painters (1843) written while Ruskin was still at oxford. It was a passionate defence of the art of J.M.W.Turner and redefined art criticism of the day.  It brought him to the notice of luminaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte. This was followed by Modern Painters II (1846) written while on the Grand Tour with his parents. He married Effie Gray, the young daughter of a family friend in 1847. Together they journeyed to Venice where Ruskin worked on perhaps his most famous three-volume work The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). It was in The Nature of Gothic chapter in Vol II that he set out his belief in artisanal integrity and attacked industrial capitalism which had such an impact on socialists like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

The marriage was, apparently, unconsummated ( though Ruskin contested this ) and was subsequently annulled in 1854, though not before major scandal when Effie left Ruskin for John Everett Millais. Ruskin had championed the Pre-Raphealites and continued to do so, even providing a stipend for Elizabeth Siddal, Rosetti’s wife, to encourage her art.  He also became a firm friend of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These friendships are documented in the exhibition, as is his late crossing of swords with James McNeill Whistler.  While the case bankrupted Whistler, it also tarnished Ruskin’s reputation and may have contributed to his mental decline. I have never understood how a devotee of Turner’s art could have denigrated Whistler’s and that isn’t something which is tackled here.

The exhibition shows items from the Ruskin collection at Sheffield including his Turner paintings and Durer engravings ( loved the cat ) as well as many of his own drawings and paintings.  In addition there are newly commissioned pieces exploring the legacy of Ruskin, from Timorous Beasties, Grizedale Arts, Hannah Dowling and Emilie Taylor.  I very much enjoyed Dan Holdsworth’s moving image Acceleration Structures, based on the peaks and crevasses of three Alpine glaciers above Chamonix, where Ruskin would sketch and paint.

Ruskin died at Brantwood House, on the shores of Coniston Water in January 1900. Lionised in his lifetime, his reputation suffered in he early years of the twentieth century, but his international influence continued, with his works translated into Russian ( Tolstoy was a fan ) into French by Proust and Gujarati by Gandhi. Architects, writers and educationalists, politicians and thinkers all acknowledge their debt to him.

The exhibition ends on 22nd April, so only three days left. It is FREE to enter.  A very good idea if you want something interesting and stimulating to do on a sunny Easter weekend. More details on the web-site here.

For more on the Pre-Raphealites, Arts and Crafts and earlier Temple Place exhibitions try                Edward Burne-Jones                      Arts and Crafts                      Walking Burne-Jones        Beyond Beauty                    Rhythm  Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain 

Soane and Kapoor

On Friday to leafy Ealing to see the newly opened, refurbished Pitzhanger Manor. country house and showcase for architect and collector Sir John Soane, with its attached art gallery. In the sunshine Ealing looked leafy indeed, with its Common and Green ( who knew, not me, certainly ). Still there, set back from the Uxbridge Road, the original Ealing Studios where so many classic films were made. We even found a handsome Georgian/early Victorian hostelry named The Sir Micheal Balcon, after the legendary producer and head of the studios in its heyday.

Sir John Soane’s house sits on Mattock Lane, Ealing Green, its neo-classic frontage and garden now behind a formal war memorial.  Entrance gates are to the right hand side of the formal gardens. Inside it is less chaotic – less mad – than his house and museum on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but it still demonstrates his distinct architectural style and idiosyncratic and impressive design. The interior has been meticulously restored to a very high standard, including the hand-painted and beautiful ‘chinese’ wallpaper in the gloriously light drawing room, the exquisite ceilings and ‘marbled’ walls.

The oldest part of the building is the south wing, which was build by Soane’s first employer George Dance and which Soane retained, demolishing the rest of the mansion and rebuilding it, including a colonnade of ‘ruins’, which now links the main house and the modern gallery.

Inside there is his trademark use of space and light, the arched ceilings, friezes and roundels, niches and other stone decoration, like the caryatids in the ground floor room, front right. It isn’t a large house and Soane uses a designer’s tricks to fool the eye, drawing the gaze through open, often mirrored doors, from room to room to give the impression of greater space. The entrance hall goes straight through the house to the long gallery at the rear and doors open off it, as well as rooms having linking doors between them.  The main staircase, of iron and stone, is off to the left beneath a large and elaborate skylight.  Jet, marble in various colours and, very clever, wallpaper of fake marble make the interior very dramatic.

I loved the long glass gallery which runs across the rear of the house and overlooks what would have been the private gardens, including a lake with rusticated bridge.  These have now been merged with Walpole Park (1901) a public park which includes another lake, formal gardens and a sporting pavilion. I also loved the two huge rooms in George Dance’s wing, the dining room on the ground floor and salon or drawing room on the first. I’m not surprised that Soane couldn’t bring himself to demolish this even if it means that the whole Manor has a rather lop-sided look.

On the other side of the central classical building there is a modern conversion of the old kitchen buildings into Pitzhanger Gallery. The current exhibition is by Anish Kapoor and it complements Soane perfectly. Kapoor’s mirrored and sculpted discs and boxes play with light, vision and sound just as Soane’s interiors do, tricking the eye.  The pieces are interactive and huge fun. A gallery employee told us that he saw something new in each of the pieces every day he turned up for work and took great pleasure in watching visitors play with the distortions. We certainly enjoyed doing so, taking photographs into the sculpted mirrors which captured one of us upside down in the middle ground while the other was the right way up nearer to the piece.

Entry to both house and Gallery is £7.70 (£4.95 concessions).  I recommend it highly, especially while the Kapoor is on, until 18th August.  Ealing Broadway is the nearest tube and rail station, turn left out of the station and follow the signs for Ealing Green (not Ealing Common as we did).  There are signs painted on to the pavement. There are plenty of places to eat and drink on the High Street.

Bonnard Colours

At Tate Modern’s big Spring exhibition yesterday I (and a lot of other people) enjoyed some vibrant Pierre Bonnard paintings. I confess that I hadn’t seen many before, indeed, I knew little about this contemporary of Matisse.

Born in a suburb of Paris, the son of a senior civil servant, Bonnard (1867 – 1947) began to show works in the 1890s. He met Toulouse-Lautrec and, in later life, was a regular visitor to Claude Monet at Giverny and a correspondent of Henri Matisse. The exhibition includes photographs of Bonnard, his studio in the south of France and his companion and wife, Marthe de Meligny, by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Ostier.

He is feted as a colourist and one can see why. He juxtaposes the very brightest of hues, many not found in nature, yet they capture nature. It is easy to understand that, in the depression of the 1930s, his pictures were regarded by critics and the art-loving public as happy and hopeful celebrations of nature, both wild and tamed. Some of the more serious and original aspects of his art were ignored.

He is fond of unusual perspectives, choosing to paint views, interior and exterior, through doors and windows, or through tunnels of greenery.  He painted landscapes, many around his house in Normandy and subsequently in the south of France where he bought a house. The red tiled roofs of Le Cannet and small towns around it feature prominently in the rooms covering his later life.

As do pictures of his wife bathing, and, indeed, it was one or two of these which I had come across before. De Meligny suffered from ill health and following the water cure prescribed for her, bathed every day. Bonnard painted her doing so. These paintings are full of light and reflected light, in the water, in the bathroom tiles and on the walls, They are also so full of pattern – the carpet, the bath robe – that I began to think of post Impressionists like Gauguin and Van Gogh.  One can also see the influence of the Japanese prints which Bonnard had admired so much in his formative years.

De Meligny was his principal human subject, though he often placed small figures at the forefront of his landscapes, sometimes just sketched lightly, like the shepherd who features in a number of them.

Bonnard’s interiors are equally colourful, though with the colours still found in older houses in rural France today – the dark-brown paint of doors and wood panelling, the distinctive blue-green of the shutters,the red-brown and sometimes black of the terracotta floor tiles.  I recognise these from visits to stay in the south of France.

The exhibition is a large one of twelve rooms.  I very much enjoyed it, despite the crowds. If, however, you asked me where Bonnard stood in my personal pantheon of  twentieth century European artists he wouldn’t be at the top of my list. That’s not to say that he wasn’t taking forward the ideas of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists ( though he preferred to paint from memory in the studio, not in the open air ), it’s just that more interesting developments were, by that time, taking place elsewhere.

The exhibition runs at Tate Modern until 6th May 2019 and costs £18 to enter. Booking is essential (unless you are a member) and be prepared for crowds.

For more posts about art in London see                   Doreen Fletcher; a Retrospective                 Art on the Underground               The Queens House                   Arts & Crafts             Edward Burne-Jones