London Slant: A waterfall of wool meets Edmund de Waal ceramics

A waterfall of wool comes cascading down into London’s Southwark Cathedral. It’s as if the heavens have opened and streamed in.

Angela Wright. Southwark Cathedral

Forty Days: Angela Wright’s 152-kilo wool installation in London’s Southwark Cathedral.

This is Forty Days, an installation by Angela Wright, and one of two that make up the cathedral’s annual art programme for Lent. The curdling wool drops from above the Great Screen behind the altar to pool in foaming rivulets on the sanctuary floor. I was struck by its resemblance to the world’s tallest plunge of water—Venezuela’s Angel Falls—quite appropriate since Forty Days descends between gold cherubim.

Tomb in Southwark Cathedral

Candlelit tombs flank Angela’s Wright’s installation.

Its creamy texture echoes the wax of votive candles flickering by the ancient tombs on either side. Yet it is also light and fluffy, and calls to mind spring lambs or a baby’s christening shawl. Rebirth, the cycle of life, the seasons: there’s much to contemplate while admiring the exuberance of this piece.

Behind the sanctuary the atmosphere darkens. Shafts of light strain to illuminate low archways above flagstones with bodies buried beneath. This is where artist/writer Edmund de Waal, who shot to fame with his family biography The Hare with Amber Eyes, has positioned translucent vitrines with his signature white ceramics inside. An air of mystery surrounds these 12 freestanding pieces, their simple contents barely visible within.

Edmund de Waal Southwark Cathedral

Now we see through a mirror dimly: Edmund de Waal’s installation, Another Day.

Both artists live and work within the Diocese of Southwark. They’ve clearly spent time absorbing the cathedral’s special atmosphere, and reflect it in works that capture both its ebullience and calm.

Angela Wright Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral nave, with Forty Days visible behind.

Beyond these installations, there’s so much to admire elsewhere in the cathedral: the carved wooden effigy of a knight, a stained glass window of Chaucer’s pilgrims gathering for their journey and wonderfully rude ceiling bosses.

Southwark Catherdal

The ceiling bosses are a particular treat.

And as an added bonus, when you step back outside into the dazzling sunlight, the heaving crowds lead to Borough Market and a row of food stalls. It’s time to grab a falafel or masala dosa and take a seat beneath the Southwark spires for lunch.

Southwark Cathedral Borough Market

The spires of Southwark, the perfect spot for a Borough Market lunch.

Angela Wright and Edmund de Waal will give free Sunday talks on their work. Angela’s talk is on 16 March, and Edmund’s on 23 March. Both take place in the cathedral, after Choral Eucharist, at 12.45pm. While the art remains on display the cathedral cat,  Doorkins Magnificat, has gone on a Lenten retreat (she’ll be back at Easter). It may be just as well. What a soft playground all that wool would have been.

London Slant: The Lady and the Unicorn are back—in glory

I’m always on the lookout for an excuse to revisit Paris’ Museum of the Middle Ages.  It’s full of treasures that culminate in its six exquisite Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. To me, they’re the most wonderful woven works of art ever.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

“To my only desire”, the most celebrated—and mysterious—of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.

So imagine my excitement on my recent Paris trip when I spotted posters up and down Boulevard St Michel emblazoned with the words “The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, as you’ve never seen them before”. Yes, these medieval gems had just been conserved and redisplayed. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better reason to go and lap them up again.

The museum itself is a fascinating Gothic-Renaissance mansion, built over Roman baths. Just stepping inside is like entering a swirl of French history, from the ruins of the calderium (hot chamber) to rooms displaying brilliant stained glass panels, gold caskets, illuminated books and marble sculptures. There’s even a medieval-style garden outside.

Cluny Museum Paris

Heads of French kings displayed in the remains of the Roman baths.

But I was here to enjoy the mysteries of the Lady and her mythical beast. The six hangings show the pair surrounded by trees, flowers and other animals. Five appear to depict the five senses, while the sixth  is enigmatically entitled A mon seul désir  (To my only desire).

Freshly cleaned, their rich colours sing out from their crimson backgrounds. Hi-tech lighting picks out every thread. There are dozens of different recognisable flowers: chrysanthemums, roses, daisies, bluebells. Luscious fruit is plentiful: on strawberry plants and orange tress. Rabbits play in the grass. Foxes, deer and dogs leap and pose. If the statuesque central figures and heraldic animals seem straight out of a fairy tale, these delights of nature are instantly recognisable as something we might spot on a country walk today.

A new, circular display enables visitors to stand among the tapestries and be absorbed into the action. We might wonder at the mystery of this ethereal lady in her gorgeous robes, yet instantly relate to the birds fluttering over her head and feel a part of this sylvan scene.

Lady and Unicorn Music

Hearing: the Lady plays a portable organ, powered by bellows.

Lady and the Unicorn

Touch: the Lady holds the unicorn’s tusk.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

Taste: the Lady is offered a tempting dish.

I spent far too long relishing every holly berry and pine cone, every naughty monkey and snooty stoat. Now I have just one problem. How can the museum come up with a better reason to draw me back again?

More details: Musée National du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages, in the Hôtel de Cluny)

Images of tapestries courtesy of RMN-Grand Palais/Michel Urtado

London Slant: The Greek Cathedral—music, mosaics and a museum

I’d always longed to go inside London’s Greek Cathedral but when I’d passed by the door was always locked. So when I was invited to a concert there I leapt at the chance. A few steps from Queensway’s hubble bubble cafes and Chinese foodie hotspots, it’s a landmark in an area known for its exotic Eastern mix.

London Greek cathedral nave

The nave of London’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia.

I struggled through the wet, windy night to this Byzantine-style building designed like a cross around a central dome. Then wow—it was as if I’d arrived in Istanbul. The scent of incense hit me and there were glittering mosaics everywhere.

London's Greek cathedral

The mosaic-covered entrance hall.

I took my seat for an evening that charted the journey of Greek music over two millennia. It began with centuries-old sacred chants by the cathedral choir and led up to contemporary pieces including a string quartet world premiere. It was magical to hear the melodic story unfold as candles burned in the silver cross overhead and mosaics glimmered in their flickering light.

London Greek cathedral dome

The dome and silver cross filled with candles.

After the concert I admired the paintings of saints covering the iconostasis and the gorgeously patterned marble floors. Then I tipped back my head to gaze at the mosaics in the dome. I imagined how overwhelmed London’s Greek community must have been when they first came to worship here in 1879. The cathedral’s architect, John Oldrid Scott, had given them a masterpiece that was the inspiration for Britain’s Arts and Crafts style.

Then, as I prepared to leave, I came across the cathedral’s hidden jewel: a tiny museum tucked away in a crypt-like space. On display were church treasures and objects donated by wealthy families. Among them were a solid gold chalice and pair of huge candlesticks standing next to a print showing them in use when King George of the Hellenes visited in 1863.

London Greek cathedral museum

An exotic gold chalice, stamped “Made in England”.

But what most caught my eye was a gold icon left by a man whose mother had bequeathed it to him, presumably shortly before she died. It is displayed next to her handwritten note, urging him never to remove the diamonds, and in turn to leave it where it would be respected. Her final wish was that he would “wed a noble maiden”.

London Greek Cathedral museum

The icon bequeathed by a mother to her son with its accompanying note.

Saint Sophia Cathedral is open for Sunday morning worship; the museum can be viewed after the service on the last Sunday of each month.

London Slant: Hunting down surreal animals in Paris

Did you know that most museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month? Remember this when planning your next budget cultural weekend. Plus there’s no queuing at ticket desks, which means more time to track down off-piste treats.

I began my pursuit of the unexpected at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature). Now, a place with this name wouldn’t normally get my guns firing. But “freedom Sunday” encouraged me to try it out.

It’s an old-established collection in a 17th-century residence; I’d envisaged wood-panelled walls, antique pictures and stuffed animals beneath glass domes. I wasn’t wrong (although it’s had a fresh and funky makeover), but what hit me as I stepped inside was its joyful family atmosphere. As I ventured into the shadowy Room of the Wild Boar a grandfather was eagerly asking a child “Are you afraid?” Both were clearly relishing the bristly creature facing them down.

Un aigle et une colombe se transforment l]un dans l'autre

A dazzling installation: an eagle and a dove become one another

I continued to a side room with a ceiling covered in owl heads and wings. Then I discovered a stag that had been turned into bagpipes. An adjacent video showed how the carcass could be inflated to play a wailing lament when pressed. I watched as a mother had to drag her two transfixed offspring away and on to the Room of the Unicorn (or was it the Wolf?).

A stairwell was illuminated by flickering candelabra. Stuffed panthers were poised to pounce out of the gloom. A delight in the natural world was balanced by glimpses of a darker side, both its threatening recesses and how humans menace it in return.

Migratory bird machine Paris

A machine made of feathers for meditating on migratory birds

Part of the eccentricity derived from a temporary exhibition, Art Orienté Objet, of strange animal artworks inserted throughout the museum’s permanent display. Inspired by the weird world of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, they focused on unexpected aspects of the relationship between animals, nature and man.

If you visit Paris before the exhibition closes do drop by. It’s just behind the Pompidou Centre, among quirky boutiques, cafes and townhouses with notable residents (I saw the name Renzo Piano on a door). But the museum’s collection of art and artefacts is fascinating in itself. And no doubt there’ll soon be another offbeat exhibition to plumb the more macabre realms of our natural world.

Art Orienté Objet by Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin, until 2 March.  Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 rue des Archives – 75003 Paris.

Photographs by Nicolas Hoffmann

London Slant: Fear and Loathing under Waterloo Station

Picking my way through clumps of spray-paint cans, I entered The Tunnel—London’s “Authorised Graffiti Area”—and headed for a dark doorway. This dank passageway under Waterloo Station once was part of London’s world-beating railway prowess. Now that the city’s less known for train technology than wacky nightlife in offbeat haunts, it’s back at the sharp end. A labyrinth of spooky chambers beneath the tracks make it the perfect place for immersive performance and live bands.

Fear and loathing in las Vegas

The audience arrives for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, part of the Vault Festival, beneath London’s Waterloo Station.

Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were blaring out as I passed through gloomy corridors and a mockup casino to take my seat for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, adapted for the theatre from Hunter S. Thompson’s cult 70s’ book. Centre stage was the red Chevy convertible in which journalist Raoul Duke (aka Thompson)  and his attorney, Dr Gonzo, down a cocktail of drugs and drive to Las Vegas on assignment to cover a motor race.

The Vault Festival Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The hitchhiker, as yet unaware of what Duke (left) and Dr Gonzo have ingested.

It’s a wild and rollicking ride with a larger-than-life performance by Rob Crouch (Gonzo) regularly intoning “As your attorney I advise you to…” before suggesting sundry misdemeanours. In the duo’s wake lie a string of terrorised bystanders, from a hapless hitchhiker to the hilariously po-faced delegates at a narcotics conference.

But behind all this crazy men-behaving-exceptionally-badly froth and fun there’s a dark driving force. For this piece of “Gonzo” journalism,  in which the writer’s antics become part of the report, is about the death of the 60s’ American Dream. It skewers the spirit of its age: the loss of free-love innocence and descent into decadence.

Scenes from the Vietnam War flicker onto the walls. The looming face of Richard Nixon mirrors a scene when LSD grips the two protagonists and guests at the Vegas hotel dissolve into tongue-flicking reptiles. All these disparate episodes are brought together by the excellent narrator, John Chancer. As Thompson/Duke’s alter ego he interjects telling passages from the book.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

“When the going gets weird…” Duke and Dr Gonzo hit Las Vegas.

By now I’d concentrated so intently on Thompson’s delicious words—and, OK, laughed a lot, too— it was time to repair to the neighbouring caverns for a drink. Thompson’s favourite Wild Turkey Bourbon had been turned into outrageous cocktails with donuts floating on top and a taco stall in a sand-covered “desert” was doing a roaring trade.

A live band and dancing was getting underway as I headed home, burning to download F&L for a second read.  To quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson himself: “Buy the ticket [they're £25], take the ride”.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, adapted by Hunter S. Thompson’s friend, Lou Stein, is part of the Vault Festival.  The play continues until 28 February. Vault Lates with live music from 10.30pm onwards.

Images of the play by Nobby Clark.

London Slant: a king-size bed and Lady Gaga at the Louvre. Ça c’est Paris!

I was walking along the St Pancras platform to board my train to Paris when urgent steps came rushing up behind. I turned to face a Eurostar official brandishing a clipboard. My heart sank.

But then, unbelievably, came the question every budget traveller longs to hear: “Would you like to upgrade—free—to First Class?”

As I settled into my extra-wide seat it was clear I was on course for a great weekend. It also turned out to be as unexpected as it began.

It’s usually deemed that for quirky originality London trumps Paris every time. But on this trip our Gallic friends had put on an exhibition with more than a nod to us eccentric Brits. Our current fondness for “cabinets of curiosities” has certainly travelled south.

Robert Wilson's bed at the Louvre, Paris

Robert Wilson’s bed in Living Rooms at the Louvre

The Louvre, touchstone of French culture, can be an exhausting place: galleries and sculpture courts packed with instantly-recognisable treasures from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s Slaves. So when I stumbled upon a king-size bed in one of its rooms I wasn’t just taken aback—I’d have loved to collapse onto it and curl up. Two silver boots lay discarded at its side.

Robert Wilson, Louvre, Paris

Ordered chaos in Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

All around was an array of quirky objects: masks, gourds, plastic toys, strange pieces of furniture. But if you’re thinking Tracey Emin mark II, think again. All were exquisitely arranged, ordered and pristine.

Robert Wilson's Living Rooms at the Louvre, Paris

A corner of Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms at the Louvre

It turned out to be US theatre designer Robert Wilson’s recreation of his Long Island home and studio, a mass of items that inspire him—in bizarre juxtapositions. I could see how his creativity would be unleashed by lying in the timber bath with a view of the Louvre’s glass pyramid—and then stimulated by the melange of paraphernalia hanging above. I loved moving among white shelves displaying a stuffed rabbit next to a pre-Columbian pot, an elegant Asian buddha next to a contemporary American art photograph. And most of all I was intrigued by the many chairs in styles from Shaker to 1950s’ kitchen, several suspended on the walls upside down.

I moved on to a room of Wilson’s video portraits of Lady Gaga depicted as well-known works of art. There was Gaga as the head of John the Baptist and again as Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière. The near-static scenes had sudden flickers of movement: eyelids fluttering or a bird flitting behind.  I guess the original works that inspired the videos have celebrity status in their own right, and were therefore ripe for reinterpretation by today’s cult star.

Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist.

Recognise this person? It’s Lady Gaga as the head of John the Baptist. Of course!

Lady Gaga at Caroline Riviere

Lady Gaga as Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere by Robert Wilson

I continued my Louvre journey past its most famous female image. My best view of her was on a video being filmed on an  iPhone held above the scrum. I wondered whether she might wink, or least break into a grin.

Mona Lisa at Louvre

View of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, best seen by iPhone

Living Rooms and Lady Gaga by Robert Wilson is at the Louvre, until 17 February

London Slant: Lunch in the most amusing room in Europe

Have you savoured our city’s culinary speciality—London Particular Soup? I confess that until recently I hadn’t, but that’s now been rectified thanks to an unlikely intermediary, the glamorous new staircase at Tate Britain.

Tate Britain new staircase

View from the Tate Members’ Room: staircase leading to the Rex Whistler Restaurant.

Much has been written about this grand spiral of steps inserted at Tate Britain’s original entrance more than a century after the gallery opened. All agree it’s a sensation—daring, dazzling yet looking as though it’s been there forever.

Tate Staircase

Swirling steps designed by architects Caruso St John.

But what’s its purpose? Such a flight of fancy is surely only there to lead into an equally impressive space. And so it was that I swept down the scalloped marble steps and into the newly refurbished Rex Whistler Restaurant.

Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain

The Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain.

Suddenly I was plunged into the rural idyll depicted on the mural by artist Rex Whistler that covers all the walls. Castles, caves and craggy mountains alternate with formal gardens and river valleys. As my eyes grew accustomed to the scene I noted the hunters that inspired its title: The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats (or, as we might say now, out foraging for food). The gusto with which this royal party are tracking down their dinner helped inspire the description that greeted the restaurant’s opening in 1927 as “the most amusing room in Europe”.

Today, it’s not just the painting that’s packed with entertainment value: the London-inspired menu and English wine list are an adventure, too. Of course, we had to try the London Particular Soup, named after the pea souper fogs that were a regular feature of the city when Whistler took up his brush. But there was also an artichoke, walnut and caper salad. Who knew that Camberwell was once famous for its artichokes (just like Epping for its butter)?

But what to choose for the main course? Should it be traditional sirloin of Scottish beef or Dingley Dell pork? (The puffy, golden Yorkshire puds easily swung that one.)  Or how about the tangy beetroot and pearl barley vegetarian option? This took some lengthy, but delicious chewing that left me with no room for Sussex Pond pudding—suet pastry with lemon sauce inside.

Well, perhaps I should admit that earlier on another staircase had led me astray. This more modest set of steps takes Tate members spiralling up into the heavenly heights of the rotunda. There, in front of a mirrored counter designed to evoke Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, is an incredible display of pastries and cakes. I’m afraid I had already exhausted my day’s dessert quota in these ethereal surroundings, with great views down to the hall below.

So how does the new rehang of Tate Britain match up to its eateries? I’m happy to report that it more than rises to the occasion. Now that “themes” have been replaced by “chronology”, it is back to an exciting journey through the story of art in Britain, from Queen Elizabeth I in her finery to an empty room with Martin’s Creed’s Work No. 227—the lights going on and off.

The Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain. Lunch from £21 for two courses and £27 for three.