I have been one of the judges in the Historic England “100 Places” competition. The idea is to “help us create a list of the 100 places, buildings and historical sites that tell the remarkable story of England and its impact on the world”. My own sub-category was “Loss and Destruction” and I was asked to choose my “top ten” from a long list of nominations that somehow memorialise, in different ways, the disasters and destruction that have left their mark on the English landscape.
It’s, of course, a tricky category because — by definition — it is about what has gone. You can see here what I shortlisted. The places include some of the most memorable “absences” of modern England. Who could forget the Euston Arch (pictured above), which has come to stand for the twentieth century denial of its architectural past, demolished to make way for the ghastly new Euston station? And no-one should forget the wreck of the SS Mendi, a troopship carrying hundreds of black South Africans that was ‘accidentally’ (and recklessly) rammed and sunk in 1917 — with the loss of more than 600 lives. The site is out to sea off the Isle of Wight, and hardly visitable, but too important to miss.
My other choices ranged from the Hillsborough Stadium to the Must Farm Bronze Age Archaeological site in Cambridgeshire and the Monument to the Great Fire of London. They are a mixture of disaster sites and memorials to the past,with the hope of recapturing some of the untold stories of the country too (the story of the landlady of the Farfield Inn in Sheffield surviving a dam burst is just one of those).
I was also asked for a wild card of my own. And I couldn’t resist choosing the Lady Chapel at Ely.
I feature this in my next episode of Civilisations, partly because it is such an ‘artful’ example of iconoclasm. Parts of the sculpture and the once luscious stained glass were smashed in the English religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. But what is left is impressive in a different way.
It’s not just light and airy (quite different from the stained glass environment there once was), but almost a memorial document of the very wars that half destroyed it.
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As regular readers of the blog will recall, I have hosted an intermittent series of posts on great little museums, all over the world. I now think we might add to that a rather more British version of this game: namely great Town Halls, and well the equal of your average cathedral.
A couple of weeks ago I managed to get a peek at Manchester Town Hall (which is a jewel of the species, currently being restored).
Yesterday it was the turn of Leeds, built in the 1850s to the design of a young, and relatively unknown, architect, Cuthbert Brodrick (with full information on a great Leeds history website).
I didn’t get more than a peek at the inside, but the vestibule was a wonderfully Victorian shrine to Victoria and Albert (even if my pictures don’t quite to it justice). This is the overall impression.
And here is the queen herself:
What I missed was the organ.
OK, you would think it unmissable, but I actually spent most of my time there outside, on the portico. In truth, as you can see in the picture at the top of this post, this is impressive, but the colonnade, made of local stone, does feel just a little bit bleak, even with the addition of the flowers.
And I wondered if it had always been thus. So here’s a puzzle for you. Around the bottom of the column drum and on the bases are some distinctive markings. Though it is hard to see on my photos, it is clear enough to the naked eye (promise!) that there had been once been painted decoration (a kind of egg and dart pattern) in the mouldings on the base.
But what puzzled me was the staining around the bottom drum on most, if not all, of the columns. And that is clear on the picture. I wondered what caused that. I haven’t yet seen any clues on the nineteenth-century drawings I have looked at. But was everything brightened up with some metal ‘swags’ around the column bases?
You would be correct if you think that I am currently preoccupied with the Civilisations series. But as it is filling my head at the moment (and as this blog tends to focus on what I happen to be thinking about)… apologies, but here is one final Civilisations related post.
The point is that television series don’t simply take your time in the actual making of them, though that IS one big aspect, of course . . . . and it includes a hell of a lot of hanging around, which the cameras are set up, the lighting adjusted, the unsightly barbed wire temporarily removed (thank heavens for the iphone; at least you can keep up with you life and your emails).
But almost as much time is spent in launching them as a healthy baby into the world. That is not just writing background pieces and doing publicity interviews (this week on the sofa at BBC Breakfast … but just as important is local radio; the most interesting interview I had was actually with Becky on BBC Radio Manchester). In the case of Civilisations the BBC has tried to get something more, and more widely shared, out of the series. So there is a whole Civilisations Festival running in collaboration with regional museums and we have all been travelling the country talking to school groups, museums etc etc about Civilisations (contested term that it is). I had a wonderful time with a great audience in Belfast in conversation with the great William Crawley.
And then, just as important, are the Tweets. As I have said before, in the old days when you made a TV programme you might have received a few handwritten letters a couple of weeks later. But that was about the only feedback you ever got directly from the people who watched it. Now what I really like to do is to sit down and watch the programme, and simultaneously respond to comments and questions that come on Twitter… it is as if the presenter is actually watching, and discussing, along with the audience. It makes for a wonderfully new style communal experience.
Now I guess that those comments are a bit self selected (you have to be very cross to tweet someone and tell them how much you hate their programme, rather than just switch off). But over the last few days (some people have been watching on the iplayer) the tweets have been really cheering, and a wonderful antidote to the sniping from the ‘professional’ critics about my clothes and stupid ideas. Thanks to all.
So now, there is just one more episode of mine to come in the main series (ep 4), and then an extra (‘tenth’) episode, solely focusing on art in the UK, which is just being finished… and then I am putting my book on images of Roman emperors to bed (finally).
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I realise that us over 60s are probably not the right ones to be commenting on the new designs for the ten pence pieces. I mean we remember the old chunky florins, which put even the new pound coins to shame. But, when I was examining a presentation set of these new ‘florins’, even a friend twenty years younger than I am observed that they looked like the coinage of a failing state.
Let’s leave on one side the artistic quality of the design. It’s the choice of images my mate was meaning. There are 26 designs each matching a letter of the alphabet, with an emblem of Britishness (you have the S for Stonehenge above).
Let’s be fair, there are one or two more or less up to the minute(ish) emblems. There’s an Angel of the North (A) (though I wonder what Antony Gormley makes of it) and World Wide Web (W).
But most of it is pure nostalgia, rolling out all the cliches of Olde Britain, as you might see in some not very good movie. Q is for the great British tradition of Queuing, E is for the hi-fat, hi-cholesterol English Breakfast and B is for Bond … James Bond
These are joined by Tea, of course, a Yeoman Warder, Cricket, the NHS, a Postbox, Fish and Chips.. and a load of other predictable logos. It’s the whole gamut of Theme Park Britain.
I just cant help thinking that after all the discussion on which figures should decorate our banknotes, we might have done better her. I can see that you might have thought of some of these things in the bath one night. But what happened the next morning. And who was it that actually signed off on it all. Did no-one actually think.. hang on a minute?
But I guess before we get too sniffy we might wonder what WE would put on there.
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I am doing a bit of binging at the National Gallery on Friday. At 6.30 we are doing a ‘Civilisations: the inside story‘ discussion event there, which will be also live online (the event itself is fully booked). I am not sure what the inside story will turn out to be (a good selection of very un-glam stories about getting to the locations might be a start, but I think the aim is a bit more cerebral). I really hope we will be able to get to the big arguments underlying the series, and the potential problems and controversies. I feel very pleased with what we have done, but there is more to being ‘multicultural’ (in any sense) that putting an S on the title of the series and going to a lot more countries than Clark. That is the easy bit and not enough. The difficult next step is wondering how to turn a wider selection of works from a wider range of countries into a different kind of argument about the history of art and culture….and I hope we will get a chance to talk about that. Despite what Mark Lawson has to say in the Guardian, this wasn’t an air-miles documentary for me; it was much more a chance to rethink big questions in a much wider perspective and I hope that comes across. And I hope that some of those same issues will come across too in the extra episode of Civilisations (‘on your doorstep’) that I am filming, partly to insist that you don’t have to get on a long haul flight to see some of this material (and, of course, to wonder why that is!) It’s discussed here, but it will be a bit less about loot and plunder than this suggests … or at least a bit more complicated.
But that is for the early evening. In the afternoon I am going to record a discussion for the Gallery’s Facebook Live on the ‘RokebyVenus’ above, to be released on International Women’s Day. This painting was made famous, or notorious, when it was attacked by the suffragette, Mary Richardson, in 1914. And we will of course discuss that, and what her aims were. It has often been represented as an attack on an objectified nude (and much later Richardson herself did give that impression), but her words at the time suggest a bigger underlying question about what we value in culture and its monetary price. What do we set store by and why? What was the fame of this painting actually based on?
Richardson herself went on to have a prominent role in the British Union of Fascists — which obviously is another part of the complicated tale. But all this will be discussed further .. in the National Gallery Facebook Live and (without giving away any state secrets) in the extra programme.
There is something rather reassuring when art causes controversy, a reassuring reminder that it matters . . . even down to the ‘regulation’ portraits of ‘great men and women’ (or perhaps especially with them). One of the most interesting has been the recent debates about the Obama portraits just unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington (his by Kehinde Wiley, hers by Amy Sherald).
There have been queues of people lining up to see them in Washington (some of it I suspect is the reverse Trump effect); in fact, there were recently so many that the Portrait Gallery arranged for two separate queues, one for people who just wanted to see them, the other for those who wanted to take selfies. Apparently the waiting time for a selfie with the President was recently running at 90 minutes. (Say what you like about selfies, this seems a rather laudable and touching use of them.)
But while this display of popular affection was going on, there were matching criticisms, pouring in especially (but not only) on social media. One was the cost of them (half a million dollars). Another was the degree of veritable likeness (particularly in the case of Michelle). And there were some not so predictable comparisons of Barack to Homer Simpson.
It was hard not to feel a certain artistic and political blindness underlying these objections. Most criticisms of verisimilitude in portraiture (and they often come at their first unveilings) bypass the question of what counts as a good likeness. In this case, the grey-scale colour of Sherald’s face and arms of Michelle is far from an instance of artistic error (it’s not that the artist didn’t notice that Michelle wasn’t really grey). It’s part of Sherald’s signature tones for portraying her African American subjects, and as such is a comment on how Michelle’s skin is seen and represented, rather than a ham-fisted failure to get it right.
Similarly if you see a dense web of foliage behind a portrait’s sitter and don’t do better than comparing it to Homer Simpson disappearing into a bush, you’ve missed something. On this many critics have now made it quite clear that the flowers and plants behind Barack refer (in gratifyingly un-blokeish way) to different aspects of his own personal history: African lilies, jasmine from Hawaii and so on.
It is hard not to suspect a certain resistance in all this to to the ways these African American artists are part adapting, part subverting the traditional tropes of presidential portraiture to the first African American POTUS and FLOTUS.
That said, I instantly warmed to that of POTUS rather more. I couldn’t help thinking that, striking as her painting is, Michelle is seen here, too much for my taste, as the model wearer of a dress.. Now I realise that all kinds of points are being made with that dress — from its black and white colour, to the reference to the traditions of quilting and to one of Michelle’s favourite fashion designers. And maybe I have missed too much. But, once again in the long history of presidential, royal or imperial consorts, it felt to me as if she had become submerged by the high fashion of her role.
I think I might still be tempted to a selfie though.
Just how odd was Isaac Newton? Quite, it turns out, because as well as being one of history’s greatest mathematicians, he was also an alchemist and a millenarian, happily wallowing in conspiracy theories – Oliver Moody joins us to tell us more; did the Cold War ever end? Not as straightforward a question as you might think – the historian David Motadel considers a controversial new book