Aberlemno

Continuing with that ongoing churchyard-related theme — just the sort of cheery carefree image one associates with summer holidays — here is a Pictish stone carving erected in what is now the kirkyard of the small village of Aberlemno in Angus, Scotland.

The stone was probably carved in the 7th or 8th century AD. It may or may not commemorate the Battle of Dunnichen of 20 May 685, in which the Picts won a major victory over their Northumbrian Saxon neighbours.

On the other side of the stone (not shown) is a large cross decorated with extremely elaborate knotwork, flanked by fantastical beasts.

The churchyard site is beautiful, by the way — a peaceful little wooded enclave, including the old manse and some stone-built barns — all of this set just below a ridge overlooking the richly productive rolling fields of the Vale of Strathmore. No wonder, then, that people felt strongly enough about all this not only to fight for it, but to record that fighting in a form that has lasted for perhaps 1,200 years or more.

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Announcement

Summer is upon us, bringing with it school holidays, visits to various places, miscellaneous distractions galore. For this reason — as well as for the reason that, during the summer, most people quite reasonably have better things to do than sitting inside looking at the internet — blogging here is going to be light in the extreme until some point in early September.

For the moment, though, here are a couple of cheerful snaps of gravestones from the churches of the Glaven Valley in north Norfolk. The one above is from the churchyard of St. Margaret, Cley-next-the-Sea, while the one below is from St. Mary, Wiveton. The first I liked because of its, ahem, casually syncretic Christianity, as well as the good carving, while the second serves as a reminder of a time in which a life spent learning to be a capable millwright was clearly a source of some pride.

Enjoy the summer.

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Mark Alexander’s ‘Red Mannheim’ at St Paul’s Cathedral

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.

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Christen Købke at the National Gallery

When I set out to see Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery recently — on the day before it closed, in fact, although it’s now moving to Edinburgh, where it remains until 3 October 2010 — the name ‘Kobke’ rang no loud bells, so I assumed that I’d never seen this early nineteenth century artist’s work before.

So much for the reliability of memory, eh? Although I didn’t post about it at the time — although I can’t quite reconstruct the crisis of confidence that prevented that 10,000 word draft getting as far as actual publication, unpublished it remains — in truth I could hardly tear myself away from the Royal Academy’s extravagant, eye-opening Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, the late Robert Rosenblum’s final major gift to art-historical revisionism. I know I must have visited that show half a dozen times, perhaps more. And while the the slightly disorienting array of treasures there included work by David, Reynolds, Houdon, Zoffany, Goya and Ingres, as well as dozens of less stellar figures, one of the pictures that really stood out was, of all things, a portrait by Christen Købke himself.

Painted when the artist was only 22 years old, Købke’s Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sodring (1832) is an extraordinary, lucid, arresting little work. Across its surface, the oil has been applied as thin as tempera. The details of that pot of trailing ivy, the enamel snuffbox, upturned brush, oh-so-practical improvised chair-cover and meticulous sketches of the Roman Forum are all so ‘real’ as to seem almost hallucinogenic. None of this, though, is achieved at the expense either of warmth — the coolness of those blue-grey tonalities notwithstanding, could anyone doubt that these two young men were friends? — or indeed of structure. Everything in the relationship between the panels of the door behind the figure, the round mirror over his head, the sheets of pinned-up paper and the slope of that resting body, all apparently so casual, even proleptically ‘photographic’, has surely been calculated with precision. For how else could it be the case that the viewer’s glance runs round and round, weighing up this and that, wondering at the balance of colour and tone — not really caught by the digital image to which I’ve linked above — incredulous that this initially rather informal-looking keepsake should, in fact, turn out to be a work of such slightly weird, distinctive brilliance?

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On the Saville Report

One of the few house rules operative here at Fugitive Ink is a prohibition on posts that merely re-duplicate an obvious point almost certainly made better elsewhere. The web, we all know, is too cluttered already. Why advert to the defects of CGT, for instance, or deplore the persecution of David Laws MP, when there’s scope for a 20,000 word piece on some dead diarist’s minor intellectual inconsistencies instead?

All the same, however, despite several hours of trying, I can’t quite stop myself from posting a few quick lines on the Saville Report, published yesterday — less because I have anything distinctive to say about it, than because the obvious things to be said about it are so crucially important, both for our understanding of recent history and for what civilian commentators believe to be the case about our own armed forces, both then and now.

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On the Museum of London’s new galleries

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.

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Kew Gardens

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.

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On Tate Modern’s first ten years

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

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Strange bedfellows: on the prospect of a Con-Lib pact

By the time tomorrow dawns, the Conservative Party may well wake to find itself curled up in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Is this a good or a bad thing?

Gradually, having caught up on that lost sleep — can anyone remind me why it seemed at good idea to stay up in order to watch Ed Balls being charmless yet again? — the Tory commentariat has begun to acclimatize itself to the realities of a hung parliament, at least to the extent of organising itself into semi-predictable factions.

Both Guido and Iain Dale, for instance, are four-square behind full entanglement, rebranded as something called the Change Coalition. In Guido’s case, this involves making common cause with the more libertarian adepts of the Orange Book in order both to ‘open up politics and government, to roll back an authoritarian state’, but also ‘to destroy the Labour Party as a party of government forever’. Quite why the Labour party would somehow be ‘destroyed’ by the opportunity to select a new leader, to sit out what will inevitably be a period of deeply unpopular spending cuts and public sector contraction and to establish itself anew as the only credible left-of-centre party on offer, remains unclear to me. Iain Dale, in contrast, substitutes for argument the lapidary assertion that ‘it’s no good following Norman Tebbit’s logic and sticking your head in the ground like an ostrich and ignoring the realpolitik of the situation’ — which at least is quite funny, what with the implication that e.g. Oliver Letwin, one of Cameron’s key coalition negotiators, is a more reliable practitioner of realpolitik than Lord Tebbit — Continue reading

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May Day

Wondering how best to pass a sunny May Day morning in Blakeney, Norfolk? Here’s an idea — why not try making digital, full colour pastiches of the photography of Edwin Smith?

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