On Monday morning I flew back to London, and in the muggy grey early afternoon I went out for another run (thankfully, not getting lost this time, although I did manage to locate a lost dog!). I met up with mum at the Penn Club, and we spent the evening visiting local haunts. ‘Ciao Bella’ was as busy, brusque and low-key as ever. It was heaving with people by 6.30pm, with no let-up for the rest of the night! I chose my favourite (and the most salty dish ever) broccoli and anchovy pasta! We went on to the Lamb pub (which, disappointingly, has removed the little doors of the wooden bar screen that you used to have to push open in order to speak to the bar staff – but otherwise it is much the same!).
On Tuesday I travelled on the bus to South Kensington, popping into the Science Museum shop first to pick up educational(!) toys for the kids. I met mum, Jo S and Sonya in the new V&A courtyard, a startlingly white swathe of ceramic tiles that swoops up at odd angles from the newly-gussied-up stone-pillared entrance screen. It was a striking space, but anachronistic, and did no favours for the grand Victorian redbrick of the old buildings.
We visited a couple of exhibitions. The first was ‘Plywood: Material of the Modern World’. It was a fascinating collection of objects, nimbly demonstrating the importance of plywood in C20th industrial design. There was a wooden racing-car, wooden aeroplanes, surfboards, classic mass-produced designer chairs, flatpack housing etc. Plywood was the first super-strong, light, fully moldable material, and its invention (in the late 1800s) facilitated great leaps in all areas of industrial design (way before superior metals/plastics techniques came into play).
Some of my favourite objects included a pile of tea-chests (I remembered, age 5, going to collect some of these hefty, splintery things from a tea warehouse on a sunny afternoon, to use as packing cases when we moved house – drifts of black tea stubbornly clung to the foiled interiors). Also, a remarkable artefact – a plywood-bound book that had been written, illustrated, printed and published in the Antarctic by Shackleton’s 1907-09 exploration team. They had brought a printing press with them to give them something to do during the long dark nights! Of the many chairs, a heavy 1930s armchair, by British designer Gerald Summers, made of one very curvy piece of plywood, was my favourite.
Next we went to the jewellery gallery which is housed in an imposing large black safe of a room. Once you make it through the narrow doorway you are dazzled by glistering jewels of every size, shape and colour, made by (mainly European) craftsmen from ancient Greek through to modern times. Sadly no photography is allowed (if it was, the visitors would be a crowd of paparazzi!). A fascinating swirl of gem-stone-set rings demonstrated the amazing rainbow array of colours that precious stones can occur in – sapphires in blues, pinks, golds and sage greens, topaz in rusty red and white as well as every shade of blue etc. Other highlights were impossibly intricate filigree/enamel sprays of flowers, tiny birds with feathers of ruby, emerald and sapphire, diamond-studded bees on golden honeycomb, sinuous golden looping snake necklaces, even a snapping bejewelled skull. Most spectacular were the shimmering Russian tiaras with tiny diamond ‘tremblers’, and the simple settings of large, unusual peach or deep blue/green gemstones. It really was a feast for the eyes!
Back out in the (reluctant) sunshine, we walked up to the Serpentine Gallery to see the new summer pavilion, this year designed by Francis Kere, an architect from Burkino Faso.
He had constructed a simple circular, flat-roofed pavilion, the shape based on a traditional village meeting hall, the perforated geometrically patterned walls and roof made of wooden slats coloured indigo and golden (colours used in African wax relief textiles).
It was a calm, welcoming space, and we spent some time relaxing there, drinking coffee and taking turns to cuddle baby Effra.
In the afternoon we caught the bus a few stops down the road to the new Design Museum, which is housed in the old Commonwealth Institute. The original building, with its crazing plunging concrete and glass 1960s roofline, is barely visible from the road now, hidden as it is by a wall of bland new tower blocks, but once inside the museum you can admire the vertiginous angles by looking up from the 4-storey atrium.
We had come to see an exhibition entitled ‘Breathing Colour’. Hella Jongerius, the Dutch designer who devised it, explained it as ‘an installation-based exhibition that…[explores] how colours breathe with light. Through a series of phenomenological studies and experiences, the exhibition makes us question colour…’.
She illustrated the colour wheel with a beautiful ring of glazed ceramic vases, and themed the rest of the display around times of the day. ‘Morning’ comprised strings of delicate blocks of translucent resins and loosely-woven textiles, ‘Noon’ utilised a flock of pale blue/grey multi-faceted ‘colour catchers’ (see picture) which, when placed on brightly coloured pieces of card and lit from the side, caught all the subtle gradations of colour mixes and shadow. These were particularly intriguing, after concentrating for a while, you really could see a myriad of subtly different colours. Also in this section was a light box full of small mono-coloured boxes which dramatically changed colour (from the palest to the darkest hues) depending on the hue of the light.
There was also a ‘Night’ room, the walls painted with the very deepest shades of every colour – instead of using carbon, Jongerius had developed 16 shades of black using ‘handcrafted pigments including ultramarine blue, ultramarine green, cobalt green, natural umber, ruby red and magenta.’ At first glimpse, in the dim light, they all appeared black, but after your eyes had adjusted, the different shades glowed through.
Mum and I went down to the South Bank as we fancied an al fresco evening meal on the river bank (as soon as we sat down, the heavens opened, but happily we were under a very large parasol so remained dry!). We enjoyed a tasty meal at Giraffe – the dessert of cinnamon banana waffles was particularly memorable!
I then caught a very slow train out to Kingston, and joined Di and Andy for an unlikely night of polished Big Band jazz performed by a scratch band of accomplished London musicians, in the brightly-lit atmosphere-less back room of a pub. Di and Andy go to the gig regularly, and told me that they’d rarely seen the same musicians more than once! Most of the (small) audience were at least twice the age of the musicians, but they were very appreciative!
On Wednesday mum, Jo, Sonya and I met up at the Photographers Gallery. Their entire gallery space had been devoted to ‘Cathedral of the Pines’, a new series of images by the American photographer Gregory Crewdson. In the early 2010s, he retreated to a small woodland village in western Massachusetts. That location, and members of the local community inspired, and became the focus of his latest series of bleakly eerie, hyper-real images.
Most of the images feature a dishevelled, semi-clad female, staring off into space, whilst inside a chilly (often snow-lit) brown 1970s interior, or amongst a cheerless, sunless, forest of scarred pine-trunks. There is the sense of something awful just about to happen (or perhaps it has already happened) – they are always moments in-between. They look like stills from a David Lynch movie. And they are as meticulously designed/staged as a film shoot. For every shot Crewdson employs vast amounts of equipment, and a large team of skilled specialists.
I found the interior shots most atmospheric – a mother and daughter curled up on a sofa, the french window ajar, letting in a drift of snow, a frozen dusk lake shimmering through the window. I also liked an outside-in view of an elderly couple, she at the sink, he eating his meal at the table, the mouldering fruit trees outside dropping startlingly dark tawny-red crab apples.
We grabbed a quick lunch at the Nordic Bakery – strong coffee, herring and egg on rye bread, Karelian pies, and, of course, cinnamon buns (fresh and still warm from the oven!) before doing some Oxford Street shopping, and then, sadly mum had to head home.
I popped in to the National Gallery where I was happy to find that they had re-opened the Impressionist/Post-Impressionist galleries (closed during my last visit). I spent some time with my favourite Monets and Gauguins. Two gloriously-coloured newly acquired pieces by Derain and Matisse also caught my eye. I went to see Chris Ofili’s new tapestry (made by the Edinburgh Tapestry Workshop), which was, perhaps more admirable for its craftsmanship than its art. Outside, in Trafalgar Square, David Shrigley’s ‘Thumbs up’ made its unsubtle comment about the state of the nation!
I caught up with Jules over an after-work pint in a pub near her new Waterloo studio, then Jo and I headed up to the Soho Theatre to see a new theatre piece by young British playwright Vicky Jones (of ‘Fleabag’ fame). It was a sharply-dialogued, witty, snapshot of a bright 30-something’s chaotic, impermanent life and love-life. Dee has recently moved from her Swansea home to London. Working as an intern for a media company, living in a squalid bedsit (very well realised on the tiny stage!), co-ordinating a string of unsatisfactory boyfriends (the anxious but controlling hipster, the practical but dull Welsh ex, the charmingly unreliable 18-year-old son of the boss, the older Nigel-Farage-alike fetishist etc.), she is struggling to make anything of her life.
After the show Jo and I ventured in to the Korean dessert cafe over the road, where (on a chilly evening, it wasn’t well advised!) we ate huge bowls of colourful shaved ice with red beans and exotic fruit!
On a beautiful soft, mild, autumnal Thursday, I travelled over to Richmond to meet up with Nye, Madi and 2-year-old Zya. Jo and Val also joined us and we went for a walk in Richmond Park.
We climbed the hill up to Pembroke House and had lunch on the elegant terrace looking out over parkland and the pretty old cottages and villas of Richmond village. The only thing marring it was a crow, who came and grabbed a mouthful of my crayfish sandwich!
Jo had to head home afterwards, but Nye, Madi, Zya (who walked a long way on her 2-year-old legs), Val and I went on a gentle afternoon stroll through the oak, ash and sweet chestnut woodlands, towards the lakes and meadows at the heart of the park.
We picked blackberries and admired mushrooms and toadstools (see picture!), and enjoyed the smells of bracken and summer grasses. We caught up on several years worth of news and gossip – I love a long walk for the opportunities of leisurely conversation it affords!
In a small copse we came across a resting herd of deer. Most of them were lying down, lazily munching the surrounding grass, but a few of the young bucks were practising their wrestling, horns locked in a friendly scuffle.
After all that green quiet and space, it was hard to get the energy up to join the rush-hour bustle, but it was very exciting to be heading to a gamelan rehearsal with Nye and Val! We met the rest of the gamelan crew (no Andy, sadly, as he was in Kenya), at SOAS, and crashed out way through what Semar Pegulingan repertoire we could recall. Emily had baked us a box of gold-sprinkled salted chocolate cookies which gave us the energy for a spirited rendition of ‘Jaya Prana’. We went for a drink afterwards at the Euston Tap. They had no lager – it was just like being in Melbourne (I had to resort to a glass of dodgy red wine)!
On Friday (after a bus journey that took me past the sad ruins of the Battersea power station) I met up with Debbie at the Tate Modern. We went to see the Giacometti exhibition, a survey of his career, focussing mainly on his sculpture. The first room was wonderful – it was a crowd of his sculpted heads, some (the earlier pieces) smooth, three-dimensional and naturalistic, some in knobbly bronze, others just simple terracotta slabs, the features scratched in. He often sculpted his friends and family and you could recognise a few of them captured in early, then later life. The second room was devoted to his more abstract, surreal, sculptures. I liked his spiky piece ‘Objet désagréable à jeter’ [disagreeable object to throw away!] and the bleakly symbolic kinetic sculpture ‘Man, Woman and Child’, where the wedge/sail-like man can spin in any direction, the open-armed ‘mother’ can only dodge from side-to-side, and the ball-bearing ‘child’ is stuck in a groove.
Later rooms were devoted to his more familiar works, the emaciated elongated plaster and bronze figures anchored by heavy wedge-shaped feet. The precursors to these were a series of startlingly tiny heads and figures that he made during WW2. I liked the figures that seemed to be captured in mid-stride (how he made them balance was impressive!), and the loping dog.
Towards the end of the exhibition were a couple of rooms of his portraits – and they were even more intense than the sculptures, whilst also being like two-dimensional representations of the sculptures, all thickly layered frantic narrow daubs of white and grey paint on gloomy brown backgrounds.
Sonya and Effra joined us for a trip up in the lift to the viewing platform at the top of the Tate’s Switch House extension, where we gazed over the ugly changing London skyline, and into the empty flats of the property investors in the neighbouring speculative glass towers (they are campaigning to get the viewing platform closed for their ‘privacy’ – we didn’t spot a single person actually living there!). We had a quick look at Bruce Naumann’s neons and his still uncomfortable video pieces, then went out for lunch at the ‘healthy fast food’ joint Leon’s. It was fast, and it was very tasty too!
We walked through the back streets of Bermondsey to the White Cube Gallery, which was presenting ‘Dreamers Awake’, a fascinating selection of surrealist/post-surrealist works by 50 women artists active from the 1930s to the present day. I enjoyed a series of collaborative works about the female body by Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin (see picture), and the photos of Claude Cahun (who explored gender roles), and Francesca Woodman’s beautiful photographs of mysterious nudes in empty buildings.
Helen Chadwick’s ‘I thee wed’ – five knobbly cast gherkin-digits, each wearing an animal fur ring, was very striking! As was Linder’s ‘It’s the buzz, cock’ a powerful protest poster of a sexy nude with an iron instead of a head. Most gory was Kelly Akashi’s ‘Life Forms’ (pictured with Debbie’s London skyline-decorated nails!). It was also fascinating to see paintings by the woman associated with the 1930s surrealist movement – Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Leonor Fini.
Debbie and I then made our (painfully slow, due to general rush-hour transport failures) way over to South Kensington. She had secured us complimentary BBC tickets for the evening’s prom at the Royal Albert Hall, a performance by the Filarmonica della Scala, conducted by Riccardo Chilly (the picture is blurry but it conveys something of the atmosphere!). We had fabulous seats, very close to the orchestra, and slightly to one side so we could watch the interaction between conductor and players, and enjoy the swaying movements of the charismatic violin soloist (Leonidas Kavakos) who was performing Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major. It’s a sumptuous piece of music, featuring long lyrical melodies in both violin and wind section in the earlier movements and a final lively Hungarian ‘gypsy’ dance Rondo. I’m afraid to say we didn’t stay for the second half of the concert (Respighi) but enjoyed the rest of the warm summers evening eating fresh sourdough pizzas (anchovies and capers – my favourite!) at a nearby pizzeria.
At 4.30am the following morning I was in a taxi speeding through the night-empty London streets to Kings Cross, where I caught an early train to Paris. I arrived at 9.30am at the Gare du Nord and Lizzie was there to meet me (she’d just caught a train from Reims).
It was already a hot morning (temperatures hovered around 30 degrees for the 4 days we were in Paris) and we strolled through the city, stopping off for coffee and croissants, passing through the gardens of the Grand Palais and the courtyard of the Louvre, crossing the Seine and peeking in the windows of the smart August-shut boutiques and tantalising patisseries/chocolatiers of St-Germain-des-Pres.
Our hotel (a favourite, Neil and I have stayed there before) was just across the road from the Jardin de Luxembourg. We were upgraded to a surprisingly spacious (if view-less) room on a perfectly silent upper floor.
We bought picnic food from the local mini-supermarket (beautiful honey and ash-flavoured goats cheeses, fresh baguettes, the most fragrantly sweet sugar plums) and headed to the Jardin de Luxembourg where we pulled up a couple of the sage-green metal chairs (all the parks are full of these chairs, which you can place anywhere apart from on the grass – no-one is allowed on the grass in Parisian parks!).
The flower beds were a great verdant eruption of reds, oranges and purples. In the shadier corners of the gardens elderly men were playing petanque, and children rode on little ponies.
In the afternoon we wended our way back to the river. The wonderful gargoyles – leering fantastical creatures – jutting from the roof of the Church of St Severin stopped us in our tracks and we went inside to explore. The church was founded in the C13th, with new sections added in the C14th and C15th, in a fairly random way, so it is a rambling asymmetrical structure.
There were so many fascinating details, such as the coiled C15th ‘palm tree’ columns holding up the complex stone vaulted roof, and a suite of gloriously vivid ‘modern’ (1970s) abstract stained glass windows.
As we (and other tourists) wandered around gawping, a beautiful Parisian couple was getting married – we heard them say their vows, it was very romantic! Their congregation was extremely well dressed. Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time admiring the Parisian chic – men, women and children all looked so graceful, in their muted colours, crisp pressed linens and white shirts, and well-cut summer frocks. No one (not even the kids) wore a t-shirt or trainers – these clothes were strictly the province of the easily-spottable tourists!
We walked over to the Ile de la Cite where we discovered all the tourists milling about outside Notre-Dame. Round the corner, we were surprised to find that there wasn’t a queue to get into the extraordinary C13th Saint-Chapelle, which was built to house Louis IX’s collection of relics of Christ.
I have been inside before, but on a second viewing it was just as breathtaking. The vast, seemingly uninterrupted, red/blue stained-glass walls (the supporting structure is barely visible) sore into the heavens, the distant ceiling is a night sky studded with golden stars. Every column and section of wall is richly patterned in shades of dark red, gold and blue. Trompe d’oeil panels conjure up drapes of heraldic cloth.
In contrast to the straight lines and regular geometric shapes of most of the windows, the (later-constructed) Rose Window, with its expanded palate of reds, blues, greens and yellows is a glorious swirl of curving leaves and petals, each one containing a fantastical episode from the life of a saint or a martyr.
There were other intriguing uses of glass in the decoration too – on the walls, sheets of coloured glass had been laid over coloured foils, and big beads of coloured glass had been stuck on the borders of saintly images like jewels (and it was clear that, like jewels, they were coveted – quite a few of them were missing!). The exterior stone carvings flanking the great doorways were lovely too – biblical scenes depicted in a gentle, naturalistic manner.
Our continued wanderings took us down to the riverside, where a buzzing local weekend crowd was gathering. All sorts of facilities had been set up for the summer folk – parasols and deck-chairs, temporary cafes, bars and inventive children’s play areas. There were even (well used!) board game tables and cooling misters.
Some people preferred to find a quieter spot for a picnic perched on the edge of the stony embankment.
In the afternoon light the white-beige cut-stone-walls of the elegant Ile Saint-Louis terraced apartments glowed warmly (in bright or misty sunshine the whiteness of Paris can be painful to the eyes!).
We ate tasty salads at a pavement cafe in the square of the Sorbonne, before buying a bottle of sweet Rose D’Anjou (chilled with our mini-bar ice) which we sipped whilst sitting in the green-arbored shade of the Jardin de Luxembourg until the whistles were blown at dusk and we were all shepherded out.
On Sunday morning, after an early morning thunderstorm, we headed out for a cafe breakfast, deliciously buttery scrambled eggs and tartines, and watched the locals doing their grocery shopping, baguettes under their arms.
While we were walking along the Seine we happened to glance down at the lower river walk and saw a couple of fire engines setting up for a training exercise. What caught our eyes at first were the pompiers’ ridiculously shiny silver helmets (and their generally stylish suspendered outfits).
Then we watched them raise a very high ladder and set up a couple of thick coiled hoses, which they rigged up to a river-water pump, before squirting huge jets of spray across the river, the Louvre providing a magnificent back-drop.
Most of the passing pleasure cruisers kept a safe distance from the spray, but one boat full of pink-clad hen-partiers motored straight through cheering and catcalling! It was all quite a show!
We crossed over to the Tuileries Gardens, where we were to spend most of the day, admiring the glorious flowers, and visiting its two wonderful art galleries – The Orangery and the Jeu de Paume. The planting in many of the flower beds had been inspired by famous medieval paintings from the Louvre (which were reproduced on tiny boards at appropriate points).
The shady avenues of neatly-manicured horse-chestnuts were in various states of health (not all of them dying, which was something – perhaps a few will survive the blight).
We came across a beautiful series of small sculptures of hands by Louise Bourgeois. They were gentle, supportive, connecting hands – with a real warmth and liveliness to them (we didn’t need to read the title – ‘The Welcoming Hands’ – to feel that!).
We were surprised to be able to walk straight in to The Orangery, and when we entered the first gallery of Monet’s Waterlily paintings, there were only ten or twelve other visitors there. We all sat at the centre of the oval room and peacefully contemplated the vast almost abstract muted blue/grey/purple/green canvases, occasionally shifting spots to get a slightly different perspective.
It was a very special experience, being able to spend so much quiet time with some of the worlds most admired paintings. Sometimes you might focus on little details of texture, brush-stroke, and colours, other times you might absorb the dusky stillness of the pond at Giverny.
After a while the selfie-photographers invaded, and we went down the stairs to look at the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection of late C19th/early C20th French paintings. It was a great whistle-stop tour of some of the great names of the period.
A room full of Renoirs reminded me that I’m not too keen on his pretty full-cheeked portraits, but I did like a small painting of a bunch of flowers, the vase a beautiful glossy emerald green (pictured). There were a few lovely Cezannes, several of Matisse’s colourful Odalisques (see picture) and some blank-faced Modiglianis. A room full of Rousseau’s work showcased some of his odder pieces (see picture!).
The only female artist included was Marie Laurencin, who was famous as a set-designer. Her paintings were of whimsical fantastical pink, purple and green ballerinas, and they were mainly notable for their lovely frames – one was an elegant mosaic of mirrors.
Other paintings that caught my eye, by artists I hadn’t heard of, were the series of ‘white’ painted landscapes by Maurice Utrillo (pictured is an image of the house of the composer Berlioz), and a striking portrait entitled ‘Le Jeune Anglaise’ by Chaim Soutine, which, from across the room, I could have sworn was the young Maggie Thatcher. The painting certainly captured a very English look!
In the heat of the early afternoon we sat in the parasol shade of a pop-up Japanese bar, by the Jeu de Paume gallery, drinking fresh apple and ginger juice (paired with wasabi peas). Afterwards we went into the gallery, which, like the Orangery, is an impressive modern white several-storied space hidden in the elegant shell of the original C19th stone garden pavilion.
Although the place is billed as a photography gallery, its remit extends to video and sound art too. The first of the three temporary exhibitions focussed on the Columbian artist Oscar Murillo, and featured a video of an installation he had made of his home-town’s chocolate factory, which he had temporarily relocated to an art gallery in New York. He compared the ‘process’ of this, with the movements of a group of traditional Columbian dancers.
The second exhibition showcased the elegant, simple video pieces of the Tunisian artist Ismail Bahri. One of them showed a drop of water resting on a pulse point – it was surprisingly mesmeric! Another focussed in on a piece of paper igniting at the centre and gradually burning out in a perfectly circular hole. In a third sound/video piece, he had covered the camera lens with a piece of white paper, then taken a walk round the streets of Tunis, chatting to local people, the camera recording very subtle shifts in shades/shadows of white.
The main gallery space was devoted to a retrospective look at the career of Dutch photographer Ed van Elsken. Active from the 1950s to the 1980s, he was a street photographer, with a fresh, lively, cinematic eye. He loved to travel, and would often get involved with the marginal people he (sought out and) photographed, he was fascinated by the ethnographies of places and social histories, and made a number of films about places he knew which were changing.
In the 1950s he photographed the young bohemian drop-outs of St Germain des Pres, they were his friends and co-conspirators, glamorous in their messy lives, and most of them didn’t live long. Later in the 1950s he travelled in (what was later to become) the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone and Senegal, working with local communities on projects about cultural identity. His lovely atmospheric picture of fisherman at dusk (pictured) was taken during this period.
What I loved most in the exhibition was a great panoramic frieze of crisp black and white gig photos of famous jazz musicians. In the 1950s, so many of the greats played in Europe (it was easier/safer for them to gig there than in America at that time), and van Elsken went to hear and photograph them all. Virtually all the iconic names were there – Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Benny Golson etc. etc.
As the afternoon light softened into evening, we walked back through the Tuileries Gardens, where we pulled up a couple of green metal chairs and enjoyed watching the perambulating crowds and continued to admire the brilliant flowers, the colours of which seemed to gain in intensity as the shadows lengthened.
On our walk back through our classy neighbourhood we passed a commercial gallery with some very striking pictures in the window – one artist appeared to have laser-cut feathers into tiny delicate designs of flocking birds.
We went out for supper at the bistro on the corner of our road. Our charmingly sardonic waiter (who looked like a lean, if ageing, Jean-Paul Belmondo!), served us boeuf tartare (which we washed down with a bottle of chill dry rose), whilst around us, the French locals gossiped and chain-smoked. It all felt very authentic!!