On the way back from the British Museum yesterday, this was the scene over Soho.
(Yes, it’s school half-term again — light blogging predicted for the duration.)
It’s not hard to imagine the quirky little independent film — almost too full of character roles, perhaps racking up a critical prize or two on its journey to modest box office success — that could be developed out of the West End Extra‘s headline this morning: ‘CONSERVATION GROUP FACING CHURCH BOOT’.
Soho residents awoke today to the shocking revelation that the Revd David Gilmore, rector of our local parish church, is apparently ejecting the Soho Society — the local residents’ group which, since its foundation in 1972, has worked tirelessly to protect this historic, pungently characterful London quartier — from the small room in the church tower which it has occupied for the past three decades. According to Fr Gilmore,
‘The Soho Society’s license has ended and they must be treated like all other tenants, and in line with all other leases. Unfortunately, their historic connection with the church and the community, while valuable, does not remove them from this process.’
Fr Gilmore’s wish, he has stated, is to ‘maximise full market value’ for the tower room.
Unless I’m missing something, the room measures 4.8m by 3.2m — it’s located directly above another room already available for hire, hence the otherwise eerie specificity of that description — and is reached by climbing a very steep and narrow flight of stairs with no disabled access whatsoever. I’m not even sure it has any windows. Furthermore Soho, like much of the UK at present, isn’t exactly short of commercial premises languishing in the long wait for paying occupants.
In short, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what we are seeing here is a conflict far more simple and visceral, and at the same time more completely unnecessary, than the reported facts of the story suggest. Think of it as Barchester Towers meets Night and the City, with extra added heritage campaigners, Groucho Club hangers-on and multivalent sexualities galore, a modern jazz score and a walk-on part for the ghost of Paul Raymond. Yes, I’m sure your agent will be in touch any day now. Continue reading
Tired out from pondering the rights and wrongs of George Osborne’s selective hacking away at child benefit, Iain Duncan Smith’s modest proposals for the wholesale reformulation of state welfare provision, the general conference-season ambience of broken electoral promises, simultaneous and self-contradictory accusations of ideological inflexibility and half-baked desperation, the whole unsatisfactory spectacle of a Conservative Party enjoying no shared coherent vision about where the line ought to fall between public provision and private responsibility and hence muddling through as best it can, encumbered all awhile with a coalition partner whose history, instincts and commitments with regards to state welfare provision could hardly be more different?
If so, well, then here’s an easy question for you, by way of light distraction. The question concerns an old building. Just to make it even easier, there’s a photo of it above.
The question? Here goes. Which is a better idea — demolishing an attractive, conveniently-sited, structurally sound Georgian building, replete with historical associations which we’ll discuss in a moment, in order to throw up in its place an unremarkable tower-block providing a mixture of residential accommodation and some office space — or in contrast, preserving the old building, which could easily be converted to suit present-day purposes, including, err, residential accommodation and perhaps even a bit of office space as well?
Not exactly difficult, is it?
The historical case for preserving 44 Cleveland Street is particularly strong, not least for the commentary it offers on the past few centuries of welfare provision in London — a story, as it turns out, with more than a degree of contemporary resonance. Continue reading
Two new works by contemporary British artist Mark Alexander are currently hanging on either side of the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral this summer, selected as a part of the Dean and Chapter’s ongoing Cathedral Art Programme.
The Red Mannheim is composed of two sets of screenprints — nine panels in each, hung in a grid, about four metres tall once grouped — the palette sharply limited to black and a visceral, super-saturated red. Non-identical, the paired works are based on an altarpiece originally created for the choir of the Sebastiankirk in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, by that master of Rococco woodcarving, Paul Egell, c. 1739-41. (A photo of one of the sets of panels appears at the bottom of this post.)
The history of the Mannheim altarpiece turns out to be a story of loss, transposition of meaning and woundedness.
What does it say about the new exhibition space at the Museum of London that all the Museum’s own publicity — even the branding on their own website, e.g. here — refers to these as ‘the new £20 million Galleries of Modern London’, the ‘£20 million’ price tag conjoined with the galleries’ name as firmly as the constituent parts of some Homeric trope?
Not much, perhaps. Yet it’s worth going on to read the other claims the brief online synopsis makes for the Museum’s redesigned lower floor rooms:
Three years in the making, five new galleries tell the story of London and its people from 1666 to the present day. 7,000 objects, show-stopping interactives, specially designed family areas, film and changing displays transport you through the capital’s tumultuous history, rich with drama, triumph and near disaster.
As is so often the case with history, it’s the rhetorical colour that lingers long after what detail there is has begun to fade away — in particular, that familiar emphasis on novelty, abundance and spectacle.
Combine this with the launch of the Museum’s own iPhone app, Streetmuseum — and for those interested in the relationship between the launch of Streetmuseum and the opening of the new galleries, there’s a fascinating interview with the Museum of London’s marketing manager here — and the nature of the ‘repositioning’ underway here could hardly be more obvious. Out with the merely didactic displays, the rows of carefully-labelled items, silent and thoughtful contemplation of history’s wreckage, the dark romance of extreme street-by-street specificity and hard-won local knowledge — in with diversion, distraction, sensory skimming over the surface of a past at once highly generalised yet also fragmented into incoherence, projections both metaphorical and literal, noise, restlessness half-attention always in search of something marginally more interesting — in a word, ‘entertainment’, which is what the new exhibition space seems to be all about.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Galleries of Modern London have already proved an enormous success.
School half term holidays traditionally signal large gaps in the admittedly already pretty gappy posting schedule here at Fugitive Ink — and who are we to overturn tradition? In lieu of comment on the Coalition, the Queen’s Speech or even Stephen Games’ Pevsner: The Early Life, then, here is a photo from a recent excursion to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, if only to pass the time until normal posting resumes.
Kew, incidentally, is a marvellous place — that rare thing, an institution in receipt of substantial public funding which nevertheless appears to deserve every single penny spent on it. Not least, unlike most of our ‘public services’, it offers something for more or less everyone. The buildings, from Sir William Chambers’ elegant little follies (1760s) to Decimus Burton’s brilliant Palm House (1844-48, pictured above) to the strangely effective Princess of Wales Conservatory (1987), read like a lively survey of the past three centuries of English architecture. Although no great fan of most ‘environmental’ projects, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank scheme appeals to me enormously. Perhaps this is because it somehow comes across as an eighteenth century project — encyclopaedic, engaged with agrarian improvement, benignly imperial — as opposed to some sort of rite of nature-worship.
There’s exoticism to be enjoyed amongst the glasshouses, tranquility to be found in the parklike prospects, an education in the habits of herbs available in the neat little gardens behind Kew Palace, civilised strolls to be undertaken amongst the regular beds of roses. For those of faintly melancholy inclination, there’s a cycad that’s more or less the last of its line. In Chambers’ handsome Orangery, there’s not only respite from the sun, the possibility of very good coffee and walnut cake, but also heavy glasses with moulded flies perching on them — extremely enviable. There’s a nicely laid out shop selling everything from plants to books to gardening tools, although, alas, not those heavy glasses with the moulded flies perching on them. And then there’s an enormous pagoda, a Minka house, dozens of sweet-smelling lilacs, ideas for things to be done with herbaceous borders and wildflower lawns, beehives, a heron, art galleries, a playground, more plants than one could learn about in a lifetime and, well, quite a lot else besides.
Kew is, in other words, highly recommended, not least for those whose normal lives are on hold until school half term finishes. More serious posting will, one hopes, resume next week.
There are times when art matters a lot to me, but also times when it hardly registers. Over the past few weeks, for obvious reasons, politics has engaged, entertained and enraged in a way that art has not. It turns out that the end of an era, when viewed in the right sort of light, trumps even a very good picture. Who knew?
Of course, there have been exceptions. The magisterial Paul Sandby show at the Royal Academy, the important Paul Nash exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the happy rediscovery of Rupert Lee (one of Nash’s less well known contemporaries) at Gallery 27 in Cork Street were each as distracting as art ever can be, although of course not without their own various penumbras of political content. Who, for instance, could glance at Rupert Lee’s hurried, inelegant yet startlingly honest sketch of a dead fellow soldier without reflecting that for us, as much as our Great War predecessors, this remains a forbidden image — that during an election campaign in particular, there are some truths about conflict judged a little too ripe for consumption by the voting public? And by the same token, who can view Paul Sandby’s cool evocations of well-ordered, civilised, richly productive landscapes, or for that matter his vicious attacks on Hogarth, without wondering at the distance that Britain has travelled in a mere two centuries when it comes to making political arguments by means of popular culture?
So perhaps the distinction between art and politics isn’t as firm as that first sentence might have implied. All of which brings us to another topical matter — Tate Modern’s tenth birthday. Can it really be right that a decade has passed since those days when the atmosphere in the Turbine Hall was all but literally electric with the buzz of novelty, controversy and Cool Britannia ambience? Continue reading
It’s rained a lot in London over the past few days. Surely, though, that’s no bad thing?
For while it would be wrong to underestimate the greater and lesser inconveniences of rain — flooding, the hazards posed by deceptive reflections or slippery pavements, cabin fever on the part of those who, for whatever reason, won’t go out when it’s wet — there’s a lot to be said for the miscellaneous pleasures of swimming in an outdoor pool when it’s raining, going out for the sort of walk where it doesn’t matter at all how soaked one gets, or indeed, as far as that goes, staying in, and enjoying civilisation’s greatest perk — the primal satisfaction of observing gale-force winds and driving torrents from the safety of a warm, dry, comfortable, sociable shelter. Bless buildings.
Some man-made structures deserve more blessing than others, though, which brings us to the subject of Crossrail. In a word, blast Crossrail. For those of you fortunate enough to live in ignorance of this eye-wateringly expensive, entirely pointless enterprise — proof positive, as if we needed any more of it, that Britain is no good at all at les très grandes projets — Crossrail is a scheme involving digging up much of central London over a period of half a decade, demolishing historic buildings and causing unendurable levels of disruption to local residents and workers, in order to connect by rail a number of locations already connected by public transport. Yes, quite. Continue reading
For quite a number of our local councillors, the business of representing a local community boils down to one of two things — a particularly rotten and unreliable rung on the way up the ladder of their chosen party-political cursus honorum, to be skipped across swiftly, sustaining as little damage as possible in the process — or, conversely, a sort of subsidised long-stay car-park for the local association’s more troublesome old bangers, offering just enough polish and maintenance while keeping them out of the way of those younger, faster models, revving through quickly, leaving an odd smell of opportunism in their wake.
The career of Cllr Ian Wilder, who died this week at the age of 62, reminds us that local representation can be a sort of quasi-sacred vocation, as opposed to a burden or safe berth.
A chartered accountant, Cllr Wilder represented the West End ward — Mayfair, Chinatown and Soho — on Westminster Council from 2002 onwards, having represented Baker Street 1994-2002. He sat as a Conservative. In truth, though, more often than not he surmounted faction through a highly individual combination of charm, unfailing energy and an absolutely passionate commitment to his locality. Continue reading
Until some point soon after lunchtime on Friday, 10 July 2009, No. 76 Dean Street probably looked, to the thousands of people who rushed or ambled past it daily, much like any other Soho building. A few, perhaps, would have glanced up and seen it for what it was — a townhouse of some quality, built c. 1740, and thereafter subject to the usual vicissitudes, serving variously as residence for the seventh Earl of Abercorn, a workhouse, premises for a firm of leather-cutters and, most recently, offices for a financial services company. A brief look into one of those tall ground-floor windows might, if correctly timed, have revealed an elegant deal-and-oak staircase curving up towards the right of the front door. Sometimes, indeed, passing by after dark, it was possible to gaze upwards, usually more by accident than design, and to be astonished once again at what the chance illumination revealed inside that front first-floor room — elaborate cornices, surfaces painted with scenes of various sorts — a fleeting impression of gilt, brightness and even grandeur reclaimed from the slushing tides of ambient, could-be-anywhere ordinariness lapping about our city.
Soon after lunchtime last Friday, however, a fire seems to have started somewhere within the air-conditioning system of No. 76 Dean Street. By the time dusk fell, the roof had collapsed. Continue reading