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.
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
It’s hard to know what to make of Walter Sickert (1860-1942), some of whose Venetian paintings and drawings make up Sickert in Venice, on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 7 June 2009.
Britain typically imagines its art historical tradition to be primarily pastoral, decorative or based in formal portraiture. Sickert scarcely registers on any of these indices. As an artist whose working career spanned seven decades, it’s hard to know where to place him amongst his contemporaries. His cultural identity is also confusing. The son of a Schleswig-Holstein-born artist father and a half-Irish, half-English mother, most of his childhood was spent in Munich; he was entirely at home in Dieppe and Paris, close not only to a mistress and illegitimate son but also to his teacher and mentor Degas; as the present exhibition attests, he lived in Venice, at the time an economical choice, for the better part of several years; his application of paint derived as much from Velasquez and Goya as from the examples of his actual teachers and contemporaries; the semi-American Whistler was variously his studio assistant, colleague and irritating competitor. Yet this most cosmopolitan, ‘European’ of artists nevertheless achieved his most notable success in depicting London — not an imperial, ceremonial or even picturesque vision of London, either, but the grubby unlovely Camden Town, quartier of music halls, bedsits and whores — with the sort of devoted obsessiveness unmatched by anyone else before or afterwards, Hogarth and Auerbach perhaps excepted. Continue reading
As if in some oblique gesture of compensation for the fact that his school’s Easter holidays had prevented me from getting anything at all done over these past three weeks, my son told me that I could post the photo you see above — flowers blooming on Monday afternoon at Hampton Court Palace — on my blog, for which he shows a touching solicitude, no doubt much nurtured by his currently limited, if swiftly advancing state of literacy.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good photo, too. Would I have had the strength of nerve, myself, to leave those green leaves at the left of the image so assertively out of focus? Almost certainly not — and yet the intensity of that recession, the sheer unabashed superabundance of colour and incident apparently stretching on towards eternity, would never have worked without it. One might be tempted to parse this as something to do with a child’s cheerful greed, a willingness to be overwhelmed by pleasing sensation, were it not so powerfully reminiscent of just how the sun-flooded gardens looked, felt and indeed smelled at Hampton Court Palace on Monday afternoon, the sudden appearance of spring somehow every bit as magical for grownups as it was for their offspring. In any event, the photo now signifies, to me anyway, that near-miraculous thing, a little shard of joy somehow gathered up and preserved, perchance to be enjoyed again on days not quite so sunny. Not bad going, anyway, for a four year old.
Unsurprisingly, the unfailing proximity of my youthful, incessantly talkative boon companion over recent weeks means that I’ve experienced everything that’s taken place during that time — the G20 protests, Smeargate, the very loud whining of a smallish clique of architects — through the prism of a four year old child’s queries, critiques and considered analysis. Continue reading
Before long, I may even post a review of the Royal Academy’s fascinating if sporadically frustrating Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy, celebrating (only one year late) the quincentenary of the birth of the Paduan architect who, however indirectly, did more to shape Britain’s built environment than anyone else.
Until that moment arrives, however, here are two Palladio-related distractions.