David Hockney, once again, with feeling

I’ve just been to see the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, which is amazing. Some of the (more idiotic) reviwers are praising with faint damns, I think because he’s popular, therefore they’d better look austere and elite. Tuh. (Noise of contempt.)

An iPad drawing, 'The arrival of spring in Woldgate, 2 January', courtesy the artist/RA

I am slow to praise, and my friends tell me I carp too much. Yet my considered response yesterday was ‘The man is a fucking genius.’ The work on show at the Royal Academy is almost entirely work from the last few years, but in 2006 the National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective which was a revelation. My review from that, and from a concurrent gallery show, from the Times Literary Supplement, below:

David Hockney

A Year in Yorkshire: Annely Juda Fine Art (to 28 October)

Portraits: National Portrait Gallery (to 21 January 2007)

 There are three David Hockneys, I think, and only one of them matters. The first one, and the least important, although the most intrusive, is the public David Hockney, the 1960s owl-bespectacled mop-top turned 21st-century curmudgeon, the one who writes letters to the newspapers and fusses about what the modern world is coming to. He is amusing or irritating, depending on one’s own personality, but he is also easily pushed aside. The second David Hockney is more difficult to overlook. This is the David Hockney of reproductions, the Hockney of A Bigger Splash and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – not the paintings themselves, but of postcard and poster reproductions. This David Hockney is troublesome, because he stands in the way of the real David Hockney – and more worryingly, he stands in the way of a clear view of the real David Hockney’s work.

For the surprising fact is, David Hockney’s work does not reproduce well, does not give a good idea of the real thing. This is the case with many artists – Francis Bacon springs most readily to mind. But reproductions of Bacon’s work look just plain bad: unclear, muddy and fussy. Unless one is of the ‘all modern art is a scam’ school, the paintings look so bad in reproduction that it is always immediately clear that they must be poor facsimiles. Reproductions of Hockney’s works, however, look sensational. They are vibrant, clear, and full of Pop-y joie de vivre. They are slick and cheery, picking up and even intensifying Hockney’s great graphic strengths. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) is not just an iconic image of the 60s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it was number 5 in the BBC’s poll of ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’ (as well as being the only 20th-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.

Without access to the actual artwork, therefore, one can easily lose sight of the fact that the reproduction is only a pale reflection of the reality. Even when one knows Mr and Mrs Clark well, and knows how reduced it becomes in reproduction – how the whites, from Clark’s cigarette, forward to the cat, back to the balcony railing, forward to the white table and lilies, back again to the white line on the wall, how these whites, that in the painting hold the composition in a tension of combatative planes, vanish and flatten completely in a photograph. Then there are the fluctuating proportions (a telephone nearly half the size of a lamp, and the same size Read more of this post

Cleveland Street Workhouse under threat again

Below is a leter from the group that fought to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse, the sole surviving 18th-century workhouse, and a probable model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. The building was indeed listed, but now it looks like the University College Hospital Trust is hoping that weather and squatters will damage the site so badly that it can then be sold off to developers for ‘luxury’ apartments (is there any other type?).

Please take the time to write and register your concerns (details below), and if you have any access to the press, use that to publicize this backward step. And please tweet and Facebook your support.

Dear Cleveland Street Workhouse supporter,

Thank you for continuing to support our campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. Your signature, together with nearly 6000 others, was vital in our effort of obtaining listed status for the workhouse. As you will hopefully be aware, the workhouse was granted Grade II listed status by the Secretary of State in March 2011, however it has come to our attention that the building may again be under threat. We are therefore asking for your help once again.

University College London NHS Foundation Trust recently decided to evict the current guardians of the site, leaving the building exposed to possible further decay, speeding up its demise. With the recent spate of squatting in the area, our group is also concerned that squatters may take over the building and damage it, further exacerbating the situation.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse has served as short term accommodation for young professionals for more than 3 years. The inhabitants have been placed within the building through a “Protection by Occupation” scheme, which forbids squatters from occupying the premises and helps prevent decay. Without constant monitoring and heating during the winter months, the elements will take their toll.

In light of these potentially disastrous developments, we would like to call upon UCLH NHS Foundation Trust to reconsider this decision.

If you could take a moment of your time to write to the University College London Hospital Trust expressing your concern about recent developments, you would once again provide invaluable help to preserve the building. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, please address your correspondence direct to UCLH NHS Foundation Trust’s CEO:

Sir Robert Naylor

Chief Executive

UCLH NHS Foundation Trust

235 Euston Road

London NW1 2BU

e-mail: robert.naylor@uclh.nhs.uk

 

For more information, please visit our website:

http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org/ -OR- http://bit.ly/fZCI3V

 

Thank you for your continuing support.

Kind Regards,

Aimery de Malet Roquefort

on behalf of the Cleveland Street Workhouse Group

http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org

Bryan Robertson: a hero for our times

I’m off to a preview of the new Rothko show at the Whitechapel Gallery in a few minutes, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first showing of that artist’s work in Britain, curated by the Gallery’s then-director, Bryan Robertson. I posted a somewhat bilious piece a few weeks ago about the use of the word ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’, so I think that it’s probably only right I post now about ‘curate’ to mean ‘look after’ in the greatest sense – the way Bryan Robertson looked after artists – and art.

Robertson was mostly self-educated, without the university education that would have made him the right contacts (and the lack of which probably cost him the directorship of the Tate – that and his flamboyance, and his love of mischief, of which more below), yet by the age of twenty-four, in 1949, he mounted the first British museum exhibition of contemporary French art at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. Then, at the age of 27, he beat out the ostensibly more qualified candidates to become the director of the Whitechapel, at the time a shabby gallery in a part of town that was not only unvisited, but unknown by the art world that clung to the West End.

And there, for nearly 20 years, he showed, as well as the great European modernists, Rothko, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and some of the lasting names of British mid-century art: Hepworth, Richards, Clough.

I met him in the early 1980s, when he was preparing his great Dufy show at the Hayward (1983). This was a revelation – not only an artistic one. It was a revelation because I had thought I knew what I thought about Dufy, but through the care and love and sheer blazing intelligence that Robertson gave to the show, I realized that I knew nothing. It was a revelation, too, because it took away that adolescent sense of certainty and made me see that aged twenty (or thirty, or forty, or fifty), there is always space for rethinking. That was Robertson’s gift. And he taught me, too, that you can have fun while you do it. He would talk about Dufy, and then leave messages on my grandmother’s answering-machine, claiming to be the Scotland Yard vice squad (all of it, I assume): ‘We have been watching for days, and we’ve seen 37 young men going in to your flat, and all coming out exhausted. And we just want you to know that we think it’s disgusting.’ (She was amused and more than a tiny bit thrilled.)

He got pipped to the Tate directorship, it going to someone who more closely resembled what the trustees thought a civil servant should be like. But he was a hero. And hooray for the Whitechapel for remembering not just Rothko, but 50 years on, Robertson’s brilliance, and foresight, and courage.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

Staging death, Victorian style

When Palmerston, Prime Minister from 1855-8, and 1859-65, died, in 1865, White’s, Boodle’s and Brookes’s clubs in St James’s all covered the front of their buildings in black drapery.

The Reform club, however, topped that: it covered its street frontage with ‘a sable curtain, bearing a viscount’s coronet and the letter ‘P’, with yellow wreaths of immortelles tastefully festooned…and the pillars and balustrades dressed in black and white’.

Can we see any London clubs even contemplating, say, lowering a flag or drawing their blinds for Mrs Thatcher, much less Tony Blair — or John Major? Street-theatre is not what it was…

 

Stealing in motion, 19th-century style

Not that long ago, my neighbour’s car was stolen. Not a very unusual, or even a interesting story. He parked, he went into his house, went to bed, woke up, car was gone. Happens all the time. But until this morning, short of a dramatic, gangland-style car-jacking, I thought you could probably only have your car (or parts thereof) stolen while it was parked.

Wrong.

In 1828, The Traveller’s Oracle; or, Maxims for Locomotion: Containing Precepts for Promoting the Pleasures…of Travellers (which is one of the world’s great titles: I’ve always longed for a ‘Maxim for Locomotion’, I just never knew it) warned those who owned their own carriages that they needed to have them fitted with spikes at the rear if the household did not keep a footman: ‘Do not permit Strangers to place themselves behind your Carriage at any time, or under any pretence whatever’, it sternly warned. They are either climbing up behind to rob you , or they will steal bits off your carriage while you are on the road, taking the ‘Check Braces, and Footmen’s Holders’ (the lead-strings by which passengers notified the driver they wanted to stop, and the leather straps that the footmen who would normally stand on small steps at the rear held onto). These items could be removed by street-thieves while you were in motion  ‘in half the time that your Coachman can put them on’. Therefore, ‘unless you think that two or three outside passengers are ornamental or convenient, or you like to have your Carriage continually surrounded by Crowds of Children, incessantly screaming, “Cut! Cut behind!”’, the ‘Spikes are indispensable’.

It really makes our streets seem astonishingly tame, doesn’t it? No windshield-wipers stolen as you drive down Fleet Street, no children (sorry, Children) shrieking out as you pass them on Madison Avenue, ‘Tear off the chrome strips!’

A Victorian Puzzle: Westminster Abbey for whom?

A puzzle for untangling, suggestions extremely welcome.

On 2 January 1858, the Illustrated London News reported that ‘Great exertions have been made’ at Westminster Abbey, ‘to adapt the nave…to the purpose of popular worship’.

As the Abbey had been a place of worship for 1,000 years, this at first (and second and third) seems startling.

I wondered if it meant simply improving access, but the article continued:  ‘Within the gates a kind of lobby has been constructed, with double doors, in order to exclude draughts. Gas pipes are laid on both sides of the nave — the burners being supported on standards of iron and brass…The stone floor is covered with cocoanut matting…’ So the suggestion is that standards have changed, and without lighting, and attempts to warm the interior, it was no longer considered suitable.

But then, the following week, it continued, ‘In accordance with previous announcement, Westminster Abbey was opened on Sunday evening last for evening service’; half an hour before the service began, nearly 2,000 people were waiting, and the congregation ultimately numbered 3,000.  The following week these arrangements are specifically described as ‘special services for the working classes’.

I am left with questions. 1) Does this mean that previously all seating in the Abbey was by subscription, or paid for on the day? or 2) were the working-classes just tacitly banned from the services beforehand? And, whatever the answers to 1) and 2) I find it difficult to believe that 3) without draught-excluders, matting and gas-lighting, the middle- and upper-classes attended, but the working classes wouldn’t come.

So what is going on here (she cries, throwing up her hands)?

Dangerous cars, or dangerous drivers? 19th-century style

In 1867, says the Illustrated London News, 170 people in London were killed by  vans, omnibuses, cabs and carts. Well, actually what it says is, 170 people were killed by ‘van-drivers, and omnibus-men, and cabmen, and carters’.

I find that striking. Today we say someone was killed in an ‘accident’, ‘killed by a car’. It is impersonal, passive. An ‘accident’ could happen to anyone, and it’s no one’s fault; the car, presumably, just suddenly took it into its little internal-combustioned head to leap out and attack someone.

The Victorians had it right: people are killed by other people, by the drivers of buses and carts and cabs, not by the inanimate objects they control, or fail to control.

I wonder if our attitudes to the inevitability of road accidents would alter if we stopped using inanimate objects as proxies for our own mad, bad or careless behaviour.

*Gets down off soapbox*

Workhouse saved

The good news has just come through that the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of the very few surviving 18th-century workhouses, has been listed, and gained therefore a stay of execution. Instead of being turned into another (yawn) block of ‘luxury’ flats (does anyone ever put up flats that are projected to be ‘ordinary’?) we will have preserved one of the few reminders of the hated Poor Laws, to which our beloved government seems to be hoping to return us (but that, my pets, is another story).

This workhouse, and the excellent work done on its history by Ruth Richardson and the Cleveland Street Workhouse group, is an amazing nexus of historical goodies. Thomas Hardwick, the Georgian architect who renovated St Paul’s, Covent Garden, and Inigo Jones’s St James’s, Piccadilly, designed part of it; Giles and Gough (architects of the Langham Hotel nearby, on Portland Place) later updated a pavilion behind the building.

 

Cleveland Street in the 1930s, with the workhouse (both images courtesy of Cleveland Street Workhouse group and website)

Every bit as thrilling is the Dickens connection. Dr Richardson has done some astonishing detective work to discover that the house Dickens lived in as a child at 10 Norfolk Street , previously thought to have been destroyed, is in fact still standing, renumbered as 22 Cleveland Street, a mere nine buildings away from the workhouse.

Dickens' home in 1830, now numbered 22 Cleveland Street

It is impossible to imagine that Dickens walked past the workhouse on his way to and from home, without taking some note of it. (One only has to read Sketches by Boz to realize how much the city meant to Dickens.) Thus, there is almost no doubt that when it came time to create a fictional workhouse in Oliver Twist, although it was located outside of London, this daily site was not utilized in some degree.

Dr Richardson’s 1987 book, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (apart from having one of the greatest titles ever) is a tour-de-force of readable scholarship opening up an entirely new subject to general readers. For that alone, she has always been one of my heroes. Now her work on discovering Dickens’ early home, and in the campaign to save the workhouse, shows just how important serious scholarship is: not just an ivory-tower pursuit, but transforming and preserving the fabric of our daily lives.

Kids, don’t try this at home!

As more and more smokers congregate outside, should we worry about the hazards of smoking? In 1843 it wasn’t lung-cancer, it was exploding houses that smokers trailed in their wake.

A man in Clerkenwell lit his cigar at a gas light on the outside of a shop, using a paper spill, a curl of paper. And as all debonair gents do, once the cigar was lit, he tossed the paper away. It blew down the pavement grating, into the gas-filled sewer, and ‘an instantaneous explosion of gas took place’. ‘Ten houses only have sustained injury, and these not to any great extent.’

Surely the interesting part of this today is the ‘only’? Man lights cigar, causes explosion that damages ten houses, and the reporter thinks that it wasn’t a big deal?

Elf ‘n’ safety, Victorian-style.

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