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.


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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.



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.

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


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


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


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


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.


Swords. Lots of swords.


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).


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


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


Stunning contrast – ancient and modern in stark relief.


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


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


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.

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


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?



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

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



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


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


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.

Futuristic Retro

I’m loving the styling of the new Nikon Df, it’s both retro and futuristic at the same time. Interesting to see that they are using the tag line ‘fall in love with photography again’. The 35mm SLR styling is clearly more than a nod to photographers of a certain age – i.e. me – who cut their teeth on film based SLR photography and kind of miss it. The price point is clearly positioning the camera in the ‘well off boy’s toys’ bracket too at an eye watering £2,400. It looks beautiful though…

nikon-df_1 nikon-df_2

The aluminium and black styling looks effortlessly stylish and the crisp lines and detailing takes me right back to my early days with a camera in hand. My very first SLR camera was a Ricoh KR10, which was one of the first all black models. I do remember coveting the far more expensive (and therefore out of my price range) Pentax K1000, which had the traditional silver/black finish. I remember my parents buying me the Ricoh for Art College at the princely sum of £110, which back in 1980 was a lot of money, but as far as our budget could stretch. When I look at what cameras cost these days, £110 was quite a lot of money (that reminds me: I must phone my dad, remind him about it and thank him, again).


You can see the styling of the latest Nikon harks back to a cleaner, straighter aesthetic evident in the Pentax K1000. It’s nice to see design going full circle (just like skirt lengths or trouser widths I guess) and although a lot of revisions is due to designer whim,  classic and timeless design never really goes out of fashion.



Interesting to see below how my old KR10 isn’t quite as beautiful as the Pentax (although it was camera of the year I might add rather protectively) but the styling and proportions aren’t perfect. The black looked uber cool at the time where most of the cameras were ironically black and silver.

I still loved that camera, mind – it took some of the best photographs of my life and was built to last: it had a reliability and heft in the hand that was reassuring and was virtually bulletproof. The Ricoh KR10 sparked a lifelong interest in image making which continues to this day.




Ansel Adams


If you love photography in any way then you will know all about Ansel Adams. His strikingly beautiful black and white photography of the American wilderness is timeless and majestic.

All students of photography will know his work inside out and those of us who haven’t looked too closely will surely recognise his iconic work from many an office calendar or coffee table book. His most famous images were amazingly shot in the 1920s and 30s and their freshness to this day is testament to the visionary talent of the photographer.

Adams was one of the first photographers to embrace  ‘photographic realism’ – photographs that showed everything pin sharp, as the eye sees it. Up until then, photography was very much an extension of romantic art with blurred, artistic edges and soft focus techniques. Adams was also a founding member of the F64 club – an elite bunch of photographers committed to the realistic depiction of their subject matter using the smallest aperture on the camera lens which delivered the deepest depth of field.

I was also intrigued by Adams’ criticism by fellow documentary photographers who felt that he and his fellow F64ers should be photographing the grim reality of dustbowl recession in America. Adams remained committed to his work and stuck resolutely to nature photography, claiming not unreasonably that his work was art someone had to continue with it amidst the gloom of the period. Some of the most iconic photography comes from this period with Dorothea Lange leading the field with unflinching investigative journalism  and Ansel Adams creating timeless, nourishing images.

A large body of Adams work is currently being shown at The National Maritime museum in Greenwich, with prints that don’t travel cross the Atlantic that often. I made the trip across London not really knowing what to expect as photography exhibitions can leave me a little ambivalent.

The show was beautifully staged and full of drama. Well designed with lots of moments throughout, the exhibition contained a wide selection of water related imagery – which is much of his work to be honest – showcasing the handsome imagery to full effect.

Adams huge body of work must take some interpreting. He was a hugely prolific image maker (not taker, please note) and finding a meaningful narrative in his work must take some doing as many of his images are riffs on texture, time, repetition, movement, reflection and stillness. In some ways his work is documentary in style and to that end, can lack depth in the beauty presented.

But it is the large format prints that take the breath away and this is where he excels. Where the vignettes titillate, the vistas take the viewer by surprise, delivering life-size monochromatic Californian scenery. My personal favourite s winter storm clearing the half dome in Yosemite, an image alive with the unpredictability of a winter storm in the High Sierra.

The show is well worth catching but you’d need to look sharp: it finishes at the end of April, but it is well worth the effort and the rather excellent National Maritime Museum adds to the value of the excursion.