London Slant: What are London’s three most important ships? All aboard to explore!

Can you name London’s three most important ships? There’s Cutty Sark at Greenwich, of course, and HMS Belfast beside Tower Bridge. But what’s the third?

SS Robin, London

SS Robin, raised up on her pontoon dais.

Congratulations to all who immediately shouted SS Robin, whose crimson flanks catch the eye at east London’s Royal Victoria Dock, close by City Airport and ExCel. She completes London’s great seafaring trio—our only ships to be part of Britain’s National Historic Fleet, the nautical equivalent of a Grade I listed building.

SS Robin, London

SS Robin seen behind a light ship, adjacent to Millennium Mills, with City Airport as a noisy neighbour.

Curious to see why SS Robin merits this acclaim, I hopped on the Docklands Light Railway to explore. I found her nestling in the shadow of Millennium Mills, a grand but abandoned early 20th century factory which, like the former steam coaster herself, is part of a wharf landscape now being revived.

Visitors can tour the ship with its expert project leaders and roam the decks, opening doors and peeking into the innards, to view restoration work in progress. Soon she will open as a museum ship that showcases both her beauty and the colourful story of her life on the high seas.

SS Robin was built in 1890 at the famous Thames Ironworks shipyard on London’s River Lea, just a mile from where she currently resides. Her first adventures took her around Britain and Northern France as she carried cargo including grain, coal, steel and granite to build Scotland’s Caledonian Canal.  In 1900 she sailed off to work in Spain where she changed her name to Maria and continued “in steam” until 1974.

When SS Robin then returned to the UK for preservation a difficult choice eventually had to be made: should she be kept intact or should much of her original structure be replaced to maintain her seaworthiness? When I got up close to the wonderfully battered sheets of steel that make up her bow, it was clear that the decision to take her out of the water was correct. Every joint and rivet spoke of great Victorian engineering and every pitted surface of a life well lived.

SS Robin, London

Fabulous flanks: the crimson body of SS Robin close up, all pitted steel and beautiful rivet work.

SS Robin now sits in grandeur, raised up on her own pontoon vessel. I marvelled at her propeller and coal/oil-fired engine room—and how the 12-strong crew survived endless days in cramped quarters and exposure to the elements out on the upper deck. But, just as the craft herself remains the only complete steamship still in existence, endurance is the name of SS Robin’s game.

Read more about SS Robin‘s fascinating history and sign up for tours, with proceeds going to fund the continuing restoration project to turn this national treasure into a heritage, community and education centre. Other activities in the area include walking over Royal Victoria Dock Bridge and a trip on the Emirates Air Line—both offering great views.

London Slant: A sensual experience in Savile Row

Would you like a luxury spa experience without the nuisance of having to undress? Or how about going deep inside a tropical forest without the bore of flying long haul? Even better, why not alleviate the guilt of overspending at the London sales by entering a sanctuary that promises “Worry Will Vanish” without paying a psychiatrist.

Worry Will Vanish by Pipilotti Rist.

Disappearing into the sunset at Worry Will Vanish Horizon by Pipilotti Rist.

Worry Will Vanish Horizon is the title of the latest immersive work by one of my favourite video artists, Pipilotti Rist. It’s the most spectacular of four video pieces in an exhibition of the same name (with the word Horizon added—indicative of its scale).

I’d had a hectic morning before I arrived at Hauser & Wirth’s Savile Row gallery but as soon as I arrived and took off my shoes I felt myself exhale. I padded through heavy curtains into a vast, dark chamber and snuggled onto one of the many duvets scattered across the floor. Then I lay back to become immersed in the scene as giant images flowed over the walls.

Scene upon scene unfolded: jungles of fleshy plants, sunsets over the sea, glistening water droplets on a forest of spiders’ webs. I roamed through mossy undergrowth, along streams, across a starry sky, among the fronds of giant ferns. I delved deep inside human bodies and explored fingers and eyes close-up. Bizarre faces and a lotus flower of flames drifted and disappeared.

All the while strange music and sounds filled the room: rippling water, sighs, plingy harmonies. By the time I’d reached the fourth loop through this exuberant celebration of life I was indeed feeling thoroughly de-stressed. But was all this joy and wonder just that bit too much? I’d had a terrific virtual massage, but would my muscles pay the price the following day?

I’ve seen many works by Rist, a Swiss artist from Grabs, over the years. I’ll never forget my first encounter at a Venice Biennale when she projected images over the ceiling of a church, while viewers lay on mattresses beneath. As with Worry Will Vanish Horizon, it included naked people gambolling through sylvan glades. The church fathers objected and it was closed down shortly after I’d been. The tailors of Savile Row have no such qualms, and you’ll be able to drop by Hauser & Wirth, free of charge (and with your Oxford Street bags of bargains) next week, until 10 January.

Pipilotti Rist Worry Will Vanish

Meeting of psychedelic jungles.

Piplotti Rist Worry Will Vanish

Bizarre forms lurk in natural settings.

 

Piplotti Rist Worry Will Vanish

A swirling kaleidoscope of colour and shapes.

London Slant: My top three Bond Street art treats

If London’s Bond Street is synonymous with excess and the extraordinary, now’s the time to catch it at its most exuberant. Glamorous peacock feather illuminations arch over designer stores in full Christmas plumage. But best of all its galleries and auction houses have pulled out all the stops with several must-see shows.

New Bond St Christmas illuminations

In fine feather: New Bond Street.

I dodged the faux snow cannoning out of Fenwick and braved the Victoria’s Secret scrum to check out what is an exceptional crop of art exhibitions, free for public view. All feature a small number of works, beautifully displayed in calm surroundings—perfect for a gentle stroll at a time of year that threatens sensual overload. Here are my favourite three.

1. Bonhams. 101 New Bond Street. Burrell at Bonhams. A selection of eclectic masterpieces from The Burrell Collection in Glasgow is arranged around the magnificent Wagner Garden Carpet, an Iranian paradise of watercourses filled with fishes, exotic trees and flowers, animals and birds. The many highlights include a poignant Giovanni Bellini Madonna and Child, Paul Cézanne’s glimmering Château de Médan and a 1480 tapestry showing King David dispatching his page with a message to entice Bathsheba to his bed. There’s the elaborate bedhead that failed to work its magic on the wedding night of King Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, and treasures hailing from Egypt and Assyria. Soft background music was playing as I roamed around: a Chinese pipa strummed while I peered at a Yuan Dynasty jade vase and as I arrived in front of a Degas ballet scene it segued into an orchestra playing Debussy.

Château de Médan by Paul Cézanne.

Château de Médan by Paul Cézanne.

Burrell at Bonhams

Medieval works, including stained glass and an alabaster house shrine.

2. Christie’s Mayfair. 103 New Bond Street.The Bad Shepherd. I came to see the two splendid Brueghels of a smirking shepherd scarpering while a wolf devours his sheep, and a good shepherd being mauled by a wolf as he allows his flock to escape. But I was just as taken by the haunting waterscapes by contemporary artist Peter Doig, all atmosphere and crunchy textures, presented as “in conversation” with the early Flemish works. There was Jan Brueghel’s flower painting with its overblown blooms, a lively peasant scene that turned out to be The Murder of the Innocents and Jeff Koons’ saccharine, yet disturbing cherubs—all hinting that beneath a beguiling exterior lie more troubling elements. As if to underline this, the works are presented in a series of stylish yet darkly claustrophobic rooms.

The Good Shepherd by Pieter Brueghel

The Good Shepherd by Pieter Brueghel II.

Night Fishing by Peter Doig

Night Fishing by Peter Doig.

3.  De Pury de Pury 3 Grafton Street. Wojciech Fangor: Colour Light Space. A few steps off Bond Street brought me to this collection of 1960s and 70s works from the US-based Polish artist Wojciech Fangor. These Op Art paintings were shown to great effect in a Grade I listed Georgian townhouse replete with a sweeping onyx staircase, decorative ceilings and giant chandeliers. The works positively vibrated with—well—colour, light and a feeling of infinite space.  I drifted among them, relishing the blurry forms and subtle gradations of hue that made them shudder and pulsate.

Wojciech Fangor: Colour-Light-Space

Modern works in a London townhouse dating from 1767.

Upper floor: Wojciech Fangor: Colour-Light-Space

Rippling forms beneath a dazzling ceiling.

Op Art between classical columns

Op Art between classical columns.

The great pleasure of visiting these small galleries is that you avoid the blockbuster crowds. Much as I adored the National Gallery’s Rembrandt: The Late Works, it was particularly pleasurable to view the artist’s self-portrait at Bonhams without having to elbow my way to the front.

Shows run into early January 2015. Opening hours vary over the holiday season. Please check before making a visit and note the exhibition opening hours may differ from those of those of the auction house itself.

 

London Slant: An exotic evening at Leighton House

An oriental crescent moon was shining as I arrived at Leighton House and entered its bejewelled Arab Hall. Ever since this One Thousand and One Nights fantasy was unveiled in 1879 by its artist/owner, Lord Leighton, it has dazzled visitors with its panels of Islamic tiles, golden dome and mosaic floors. Queen Victoria was one of many who have come to marvel at what he built “for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while”—and to showcase paintings that included his own, executed in his upstairs studio.

Leighton House Arab Hall

A fountain, fabulous tiles and a golden dome: the Arab Hall at Leighton House.

But not since Leighton died in 1896 and his collection was dispersed has there been a better time to soak up its atmosphere. Its silk-clad walls are currently hung with 52 rarely seen paintings owned by Mexico’s Pérez Simón, the largest collection of Victorian art outside Britain. These include four works by Lord Leighton that have returned for the first time since he painted them here.

Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Sea by Frederic, Lord Leighton

Back after a long absence: Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Sea painted by Lord Leighton in his vast studio upstairs.

Roaming around these sensual rooms I felt as if I were being drawn into a dream. A fountain lazily trickled and Moorish lanterns illuminated lustrous friezes of fantasy creatures and calligraphy. Many of the paintings feature women draped in flimsy robes and I could imagine them descending from the walls to perform the dance of the seven veils.

A cruel Roman emperor drowns his dinner guests in petals: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

A cruel Roman emperor drowns his dinner guests in petals: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Adding to the mystique was the heady scent of roses that billows from the room with the stand-out painting: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This unsettling depiction of the depraved eponymous Roman emperor drowning his dinner guests in a sea of sumptuous petals is particularly strange for the lack of expression on the guests’ faces: neither horror nor blind pleasure as they suffocate in this exquisitely rendered onslaught.

Inspired by the Pre-Raphealites: Song without Words by John Melhuish Strudwick.

Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites: Song without Words by John Melhuish Strudwick.

Indeed many of the works feature wistful subjects gazing as if in a reverie. Don’t come here for psychological insight: this show is about entering a magic kingdom of myth and romance. I drifted through rooms with paintings such as Alma-Tadema’s woman on a Neapolitan terrace: Her Eyes are with her Thoughts and they are Far Away, Henry Arthur Payne’s princess sailing on a shell: The Enchanted Sea, and John William Waterhouse’s woman gazing into her future: The Crystal Ball.

I looked at works by painters who often visited Leighton in his house—Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais—and imagined the artists sprawling on the ottoman divans.

Fabulous Iznik and William de Morgan tiles and ceramics catch the light at Leighton House.

Fabulous Iznik and William De Morgan tiles and ceramics catch the light at Leighton House.

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection at Leighton House Museum, near Holland Park, London, continues until 29 March 2015. It is both a chance to view art and a piece of “immersive theatre”, where the setting is part of the show.

My tip for maximum atmosphere is to attend one of the many upcoming evening events. There are regular late night openings and curator tours plus debates, music, poetry, film and theatre evenings. I especially like the idea of the Aesthetic Soirée on 25 February. I’m only sorry that Lord Leighton, known for his “princely manner”, won’t be there to act as host.

London Slant: Come and explore the cool new Mondrian hotel

When it opened in the early 1980s Sea Containers House was one of the most glamorous office buildings in London. I was lucky enough to work there and it was always fun to welcome visitors who’d gasp when they arrived. The river views! The marble loos! The Dynasty-style brass lights and balustrades!

Mondrian Hotel London superior room

The view from my former office—now a Mondrian London hotel room.

Our office team worked late and we regularly saw the sun sink down in a flaming ball, passing dead centre through the London Eye. We often joked that we might as well bed down in our offices for the night. Now, the spaces where we beavered away have been turned into the guest rooms of the chic new Mondrian London hotel—and we actually could sleep there.

Mondrian Hotel London

Sea Containers House: like a liner moored by Blackfriars Bridge on London’s South Bank.

Even as an office block, Sea Containers House had the feel of an ocean liner, drifting grandly along the Thames. Its designer, celebrated US architect Warren Platner, was sometimes spotted striding through, captain-like, checking that we didn’t wreck his concept by sneaking in unauthorised table lamps or blinds. Today, the building has been transformed from workplace to hotel by designer Tom Dixon. It’s fascinating to see how he has maintained the original Platner and nautical aesthetics in an interior that is thoroughly 2014.

Best of all, he has connected the building to the riverfront. Restaurants and watering holes open up onto the Thames walkway, there’s a terraced rooftop bar with splendid views of the City spires and many suites have balconies that hover over the river below. It’s a place to sit and be amazed by the diversity of boats and their activities, rather like being on Venice’s Grand Canal with a backdrop of the dome of St Paul’s instead of the Salute and the pealing bells of St Bride’s replacing those of St Mark’s campanile.

Mondrian Hotel London

The copper reception desk, like a ship’s hull, is part of a structure that starts outside the building and continues within.

But the big drama happens at the main entrance, where’s there’s a desk in textured copper shaped like a ship’s hull. Dixon has also brought back the model boats from the building’s office era and mixed them with giant contemporary sculptures for check-ins with “wow”.

Mondrian Hotel London

Contemporary sculptures contrast with model ships to make the lobby funky and fun.

 

My second intake of breath came in the spa, where a droplet of gold is suspended as if set to splash down into a pool. (I was also intrigued to see that the former office reception desk had reappeared at the spa entrance, its marble surface buffed and perfect for this ethereal space.)

Mondrian Hotel London

The dramatic drip in the spa.

Platner‘s layered brass lamps and maritime mirrors appear all over the hotel. I glimpsed the maestro’s touches everywhere from the screening theatre to the Sea Containers private dining room, where the huge gold S and C that formerly sat on the building’s facade now decorate the walls.

Mondrian Hotel London

Riverview suite with Warren Platner chair (centre).

But what most grabbed my attention were Platner’s iconic 1960s chairs. (If you fancy one, they’re yours for £2, 256.) We had them in our meeting rooms and today they look as contemporary as ever in the Mondrian’s top suites.

Full marks to Dixon for taking a building’s heritage and, without ever resorting to cliché, bringing it bang up to date. Sea Containers House was originally constructed as a hotel, but switched to offices before it could open. Now it feels like it has sailed back into port and come home.

London Slant: Bournemouth—art, fantasy and haddock by the beach

Art is now as much a part of the English seaside as fish and chips on the beach. Margate has Turner Contemporary, Hastings has The Jerwood Gallery and then there’s Bournemouth—with the granddaddy of them all. So, one sunny Saturday found me heading out of London Waterloo bound for a splash of culture on the south coast.

Russell-Cotes Museum

The Russell-Cotes Museum, set in beautiful gardens.

Jumping down from the train, I made straight for Bournemouth Pier—then turned to look back inland at what I’d come to see. Perched high above the promenade was the flamboyant former East Cliff Hall—now the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum—the treasure-stuffed extravaganza of wealthy Victorian entrepreneur Merton Russell-Cotes. Owner of an adjacent grand hotel, he built the mansion in 1901 as a gift for his wife, Annie.

Russell-Cotes Museum

The Dining Room of the Russell-Cotes Museum.

If I was impressed by the turrets and balustrades of its fanciful exterior I was even more dazzled when I went inside. This was once home to a couple who travelled the world and brought back curiosities from every continent. When they went to Japan in 1885 they returned with 100 packing cases stuffed with objets d’art, many now displayed in The Mikado’s Room.

Russell-Cotes manga

Page from a “manga” produced by the museum, based on Annie Russell-Cotes’ travel journal of the couple’s trip to Japan.

The couple’s enthusiasm for culture and life itself pours out of every artefact and architectural flourish. Golden peacocks strut around the wood-panelled dining room ceiling. A fountain surrounded by torchères sits at the centre of the Main Hall, its walls hung with lavish paintings including Rossetti’s sultry Venus Verticorda. There’s a Moorish alcove inspired by their visit to the Alhambra, a fanciful boudoir where Annie had tea with Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Beatrice and a room full of memorabilia associated with Shakespearean actor Henry Irving whom Merton greatly admired.

Russell-Cotes Museum

The grand staircase leads down to the Main Hall, with its exotic pool.

Victorian portraits, landscapes and genre scenes cover every surface; four art galleries unfold one after another, with sculptures, ceramics and works by artists like Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton. Ethnographic pieces range from a Norwegian sleigh the couple brought back for their children to an Ashanti wisdom stool and an impressive model of a Maori canoe. It’s a heady mix, but there are seats among the palms in the conservatory to take a break and admire the sea views.

Russelll-Cotes Museum

The Upper Gallery, crammed with art.

Russelll-Cotes Museum

Even the elaborate ladies’ loo is a work of art.

As if the permanent collection was not reason itself to visit, the Russell-Cotes is currently hosting an exhibition of works by William and Evelyn De Morgan: The De Morgans and the Sea.  This display of paintings and ravishing Arts and Crafts ceramics is every inch as exuberant and colourful as the house in which they currently find themselves.

Russell-Cotes Museum

William De Morgan: sea snake tile panel.

 

Rusell-Cotes Museum

Evelyn De Morgan: The Sea Maidens.

The Russell-Cotes sits in beautiful grounds that include a small Japanese garden and a grotto. I sat there in the sun, then wandered down to the beach below. And there, right on cue, was a Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips shop offering haddock in crunchy batter to complete my classic day out beside the sea.

 

Journey from London Waterloo to Bournemouth takes just under 2 hours, then 15 minutes’ walk. The De Morgans and the Sea continues until 28 September 2014.

 

 

London Slant: Prepare for takeoff on a gastro-journey into the unknown

What sort of crazy person would stump up £50 weeks in advance for an unspecified dinner at an unknown London location anywhere between Highbury and Croydon?

It turns out there are lots of us about. I was lucky to get a slot: tickets disappeared with a swoosh.

And so, one evening at 6pm I was anxiously awaiting a text to tell me where I’d be eating that night. Please, please, don’t let it be Croydon, I thought—a one-hour-plus schlep back home. I couldn’t believe it when my phone pinged with instructions to hot-foot it to a location ten minutes from my front door. My secret themed dinner, part of a season of wacky gourmet evenings by event organisers Gingerline, was off to a flying start.

Planet Gingerline

Arrival at the entrance: let the evening begin.

The given address might have been my stomping ground, but it wasn’t easy to find. After circling around a dilapidated community centre I eventually arrived at the appointed place. I shuffled down a concrete ramp, into the basement of a disused council building that had been kitted out like Thunderbirds.

Planet Gingerline

Our flight attendant hosts, who provided drinks, dinner and dance.

An orange-haired flight attendant checked me in. It was cocktails all round before I and my fellow 80 or so ‘travellers’ took our seats at tables ready for our journey into outer space. Safety instructions for the gastronomical voyage were issued and with much whooshing and juddering we were off.

Planet Gingerline

One of the innovative courses: a mix of unexpected tastes.

My heart sank when the first course arrived in polystyrene containers. But when I started eating I realised it was all part of the spacey show—not a foretaste of packaged food to come. Amazingly, the concoction of goat’s cheese lollipops and a salad with dressing served in a syringe was rather good.

Next up was a dish called UFO: a seafood ravioli with a roast pepper coulis and a dash of cumin—mmmmm. Now I started to concentrate on the food. An illuminated glass dome arrived, showcasing a duck confection in billowing dry ice. Then came chocolate with explosive ‘space dust’.

In between dishes we were led behind the scenes on sundry research missions: the evening rocketed past at the speed of light. All too soon we were ordered to prepare for landing, urged to keep the event a secret so as not to spoil the surprise for others—and disgorged back into the east London night.

Gingerline is taking bookings for its next series, somewhere along the Jubilee line, from today. Previous dinner scenarios have included a magical wood, a gothic Christmas and a casino. What will they come up with next?