A different kind of beauty

When we lived in Leeds, our January walks were illustrated with photographs of snowy landscapes, skeleton trees, isolated sheep and frost dusted drystone walls. Living on the outskirts of semi rural Leeds, this was the scenery and I never tired of it. Winter weekends were for cobweb blowing off epic walks, muddy boots, cosy pub lunches, open fires and ruddy cheeks.

But living in London the scenery of our winter walks is very different, depending upon which direction we head. Heading South, we walk through the deserted weekend streets of the City of London, its timeless streets devoid of bankers. Westward, the Barbican provides a gateway to Covent Garden and the incessant beating heart of the West End, jam-packed with tourists. We’re in the East already but heading out further East finds hip Spitalfields, the diversity of Brick Lane and beyond to Whitechapel and a glimpse of the real East End.

North is an interesting one. Council housing sits cheek by jowl with millionaire priced houses in Islington and unknown areas are discovered like De Beauvoir Town and Newington Green. These urban landscapes are constantly on the move, adapting, testament to the way the city has grown and spread over the centuries. Georgian architecture cohabits comfortably with Edwardian and Victorian houses have no choice but to get on with brutal 60s and 70s social housing.

This eclectic mix both fascinates and fires the imagination: buildings and houses repurposed over the years, neighbourhoods transformed, for better and worse, stories aching to be told everywhere. A winter walk on the streets of London reveals all of these details and I think a different kind of beauty emerges.

 

DSC_2376 DSC_2378 DSC_2385 DSC_2390 DSC_2371 DSC_2374 DSC_2380 DSC_2382 DSC_2373 DSC_2381 DSC_2392 DSC_2367 DSC_2393 DSC_2386

The Chiltern Firehouse



IMG_2311

Every year on my birthday we try and do something special and this year to celebrate J booked us a table at London’s newest celebrity hangout, The Chiltern Firehouse. Anybody and everybody who is worth their celebrity salt has been, so why should we be any different?

It’s famously difficult to get a table at but getting a table here for lunch was a cinch compared to Noma and that would be my recommendation, lunch rather than dinner. The restaurant oozes California cool and has that kind of understated elegance that attracts the eclectic moneyed crowd from all over London and I suspect the local Marylebone and Mayfair set use it as their local.

The main room has an expectant, excitable hubbub with everyone is on the lookout for famous folk and on this occasion, the best we could do was Meg Matthews, not quite the dizzy heights of The Ivy Club where I shared a urinal with Liam Neeson.

Attentive staff fuss and flit, focused on getting us served quickly (we were told they needed the table back in 90 minutes when booking, all the pricey/posh restaurants annoyingly do this). Service is sharp but not stuffy and a businesslike sommelier guided us to a medium priced South African Cab Sauv which I figured would be worth the investment (it was my birthday after all). It was chewy and rich with a reassuring deep dimple in the base of the bottle, my not very scientific way of knowing if any wine is good. Julie quaffed nicely oaked but pricey Californian Chardonnay by the glass and we were all set.

After randomly bumping into another guy from Leeds in the toilets (I know), we got down to ordering from the confidently brief menu, which featured restaurant safe bets alongside interesting asides. There is no outrageous risks to be taken here — it’s all safe territory but done very, very well. Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes clearly takes the view that internationally famous folk and the well-heeled like their food recognisable and translatable but with a bit of a twist.

That said the crab donuts were a stunningly original confection, salty, seafoody. sweet and doughy. I wanted to order another plate right after I’d eaten them.

IMG_2298

IMG_2300

IMG_2301

My steak tartare starter was a classic DIY blokey dish with some much needed hot sauce on the side whilst J’s starter of cured sea trout was the hands down winner in terms of taste.

I think my main of unsettlingly (very, very) pink Iberico roast pork was the winner although served with raw and cooked sprouts, it sounds bizarre but it worked fantastically well. J’s monkfish was a plateful of meaty, fishy tenderness with bright, clean flavours. On the surface, the Firehouse doesn’t look like its expensive but the booze soon escalates the bill into Michelin territory although I would say the food isn’t in the same league as say Murano, but the prices are in the same zone.

IMG_2304

IMG_2302

So is it worth the hype? On balance I’d say yes. It’s definitely an ‘event’ restaurant, a place to go when there’s a special anniversary and for mere mortals the price point dictates it’s not an everyday restaurant. Food and service is at the top end of efficient and competent and you can definitely eat better in London for less money. But it’s the overall experience that lingers: the sparkling candlelit patio, outdoor fire, the crackle and buzz of a room filled with people enjoying life.

IMG_2310

Matisse Cut Outs

072_1

 

Tate Modern is showing a huge Henri Matisse retrospective. I always liked his work: it appealed to the art student in me, enormous slabs of colour, cut out and pasted down with such exuberance. This show contains all his greatest hits, vibrant with flat gouache colour.

Matisse.PA

 

The colours and shapes move and dazzle as you walk past them. Up close the patience of flat colour being laid down and the precision and delicate composition is evident. Each room fizzes with energy, unfolding stunning giant tableaux.

henrymatisse

 

A compilation wall where every piece talks to each other, cheerfully social. Making the most of it before they are scattered to the four corner of the earth.

050rt_1

 

The famous blue figures are all movement and sinew. The composition is taut and balanced. Cut paper and gouache, gradient clearly seen with a softer wash.

Henri Matisse - Violet Leaf on Orange Background (Palmette) 1947

 

The simplicity of two colours, jarring against each other because they are tonally the same but because they are from different parts of the spectrum, they co-exist beautifully.

the fall of icarus 1943 matisse

 

Icarus crashes to earth, his dreams destroyed along with his wings.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is one of those places that everyone’s been to as a kid. So when we had a request from our weekend guests Paul and Carol to go there, I couldn’t resist it!

It was bound to be super busy but what the hell, it had to be done. We were blessed with amazing weather which made everything look luminous. Of course it’s very touristy but that aside, it’s very well presented and for a history geek like me, it’s the closest thing to heaven you’ll get. Of course for some people it was the closest thing to hell.

 

DSC_1695

The Tower is still officially the headquarters of the Royal Armouries (with the full collection up in Leeds of course) and is chock full of impressive arms and armour, including this exquisite detailing on Henry VIII’s quite voluminous suit.
DSC_1674

Ancient doorways with history steeped patina lead to infamous courtyards featuring murder, torture, executions and, er, ravens.

DSC_1700

Breastplates a go-go. Must have been quite uncomfortable and chafed somewhat.

DSC_1678

This medieval stained glass is reported to be the last thing Henry VI saw before he was murdered.

DSC_1702

Beautiful detailing belies the true nature of the job its required to do.

DSC_1682

Solid gold crowns sit atop William the Conqueror’s impressive white tower, built just after the Battle of Hastings, a proto power play if ever there was one.

DSC_1704

Swords. Lots of swords.

DSC_1705

Up until relatively recently, the royal mint was based in the Tower of London harking back to times when the monarchy needed hard currency to fight wars and keep the peasants under control (a bit like these days).

DSC_1689

Nice art commissions dot the site too with the famous menagerie of animals that were kept there represented as chicken wires sculptures.

DSC_1691

Vivid cannon detail belies an energetic creative streak in the casting designers.  Who knew?

DSC_1687

Stunning contrast – ancient and modern in stark relief.

DSC_1677

If you didn’t believe me about Henry VI, here’s the proof…kind of.

DSC_1697

Loving the detailing and craftsmanship on another of Henry VIII’s suits.

DSC_1684

In many of the towers there is ancient graffiti left by prisoners awaiting their fate in either the torture chamber or the executioner’s block.
DSC_1680

Named after the Tower or actually its towers, mmm. Not sure, any ideas?

DSC_1672

Blood and the shard. There’s something poignantly beautiful happening at The Tower of London…

 

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The evolving installation by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, will be unveiled on 5 August 2014; one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War.

Entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, the installation is being created in the Tower’s famous dry moat. It will continue to grow throughout the summer until the moat is filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British or Colonial military fatality during the war.

The poppies will encircle the Tower, creating not only a spectacular display, but also an inspiring setting for learning activities, as well as providing a location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation reflects the magnitude of such an important centenary, creating a powerful visual commemoration.

The last poppy will symbolically be planted on 11 November 2014

– See more at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/stories/firstworldwar/TheTowerofLondonRemembers#sthash.hxSoeBfc.dpuf

Is art for the elite?

Visitors walk through the Royal Academy galleries during the Summer Exhibit

 

I finally got around to visiting the 246th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this week. I’ve always wanted to go, loving the romantic notion that all members are eligible to submit work and if it’s good enough, it will be in the show. Art lovers have long known that it’s the place to pick up a bargain piece of art from an artist on his or her way up the ladder and there are many stories of collectors having done just that.

I love the fact there is world famous artists whose work is for sale well into six figures sitting alongside complete unknowns. Artists like Tracy Emin also have fun with it too, selling limited edition prints at a very attractive price, OK it’s a print, but it’s a signed and numbered print by an internationally renowned artist.

The first thing to note is that the galleries are stunning. A hugely diverse collection of art has been curated carefully into 12 galleries, each gallery curated by a different member of the RA. This is a feat in itself as the eclecticism of the work means themes and dialogue have to be found to help make sense of the exhibition. For the large works by well-known artists this is clearly great fun for the curators but with the smaller pieces, the sheer volume and scale of difference is a virtue in itself.

Unlike a traditional gallery, where pace and them is easily controlled by artist or collection, the Summer Exhibition is an explosion of vibrant colour and thrilling execution, challenging the viewer to try to absorb not just an individual piece but an entire wall of artworks, all talking to each other. Each gallery is paced cleverly and allows respite where needed from the sensory overload.

I think modern art can sometimes feel like a club, excluding people who aren’t in on the gag. But this show feels truly inclusive in a way I’ve never seen before—the sheer democracy of style and subject matter makes it feel like a show for the people, by the people. Of course it’s still in a gallery and it still costs £12 to get in, but once past the hallowed porticoes of the Royal Academy, there is a truly levelling experience to be had.

Do you think art is for the elite or should be made more available for the masses?

 

yi4cbpo48zv3rspuutpi

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 c. Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 c. Benedict Johnson

large-weston-room-before-sanctioning-day

p020byfp

work on paper by John Carter

 

Photography is strictly not allowed, so thanks to Benedict Johnson for use of his stunning images.

Spellbound by Stardust

image7

We’d promised ourselves a visit to The National Portrait gallery because a) Julie and never been and b) we were drawn to it by the recent TV programme where Simon Weston was the voted the people’s portrait and we wanted to see the result in the flesh.

Of course, this gallery is way more than that with portraiture from the middle ages to right now with everything in between. In truth, it’s a beautiful gallery, carefully curated to display our relationship with our own image through the ages. From Richard the third through to Kate Middleton, the gallery holds a mirror up to how we see ourselves and catalogues society’s obsession with fame and recognition. And yes, the Simon Weston portrait was actually really, really good.

The whizz bang show when we visited was David Bailey’s personally curated exhibition of his work, over 250 images cataloguing British celebrity culture from Twiggy and The Krays on to Kate Moss and Damon Albarn. It’s not as ephemeral as it sounds though. The show is a unique collection of images that capture the heart and soul of the sitter, whether it be Hollywood A-listers or East End hard men — Bailey definitely has a unique eye for the story behind the eyes.

The collection was much larger than I expected and as a retrospective, incredibly thorough. The arts were well represented with fashion, film, music, art, photography all providing iconic and striking imagery (I thought churlishly David Bowie seemed a little over represented) and alongside the more commercial work, experimental journalistic projects jockeyed for position, with mixed success. It seemed to me that Bailey is most comfortable in the studio where he has ultimate control of the output. His iconic black and white photographs against a white back drop beautifully capture the essence of the sitter where his location images seem to lack this power and cohesion.

I find it impossible to criticise Bailey for no having a go though. He’s had a pop at everything and this exhibition is in itself just a snapshot of a prolific career. But the black and white portraits still endure: eyes telling stories across the decades, images that look like they were taken last week, an entire room of Rolling Stones photographs catalogues a supergroup in the making (although we’ll forgive him shooting the Stones amidst the Stones at Avebury, but it was the sixties after all).

David Bailey: Stardust, National Portrait Gallery

Bailey Stardust 30

David_Bailey_22YM404729_393high

His unflinching nudes demand attention: ordinary people getting their kit off as part of the project, piercings and all, sit alongside statuesque images of Bailey’s ex model wife with alabaster skin. I particularly liked the shots of a bygone age in the East End of London, a way of life captured, gone for ever. Bombed out post war-time streets in Whitechapel sit comfortably alongside Hollywood royally and Bailey seems to revel in this journey from poverty to wealth, never losing sight of the image maker in him.

We saw this show before we explored the rest of the gallery and it was interesting how it provided a filter for fame, a contemporary take on the portrait as a status symbol. It seemed no different to me as the prolific Victorian portrait artists, desperate to capture everyone’s fifteen minutes no matter how obscure, or the first world war officers painted sketchily and somewhat hubristically before heading off to the front. In the pub afterwards, someone was confused why there would be photographs in the national portrait gallery and I was quite glad to have that heated discussion and put them straight, as I’m certain would David Bailey, with bells on.