London Slant: A day out in Ditchling, home of art and craft

A couple of weeks ago The Art Fund announced its Museum of the Year 2014 award. The six-strong shortlist featured winner Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Tate Britain, Portsmouth’s Mary Rose Museum…and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. How come I hadn’t been to the last one? Given its illustrious company, clearly I had to go and check it out.

Ditchling Museum

Entrance to Ditchling Museum in a former coach house close by the church.

A pretty South Downs village near Brighton, Ditchling makes a great day trip from London. I hopped on a train at Victoria and in less than an hour had disembarked at Hassocks station and was striding past a white windmill above meadows full of poppies along what’s known as the artists’ walk. I soon arrived at the cluster of old cottages that have attracted a community of creative luminaries from sculptor Eric Gill in the early 1900s right up to today. The village has a strong association with the written word: in addition to the man behind Gill Sans lettering, other craftspeople with studios here have included Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground typeface, and printer Hilary Pepler.

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

Display of work by Edward Johnston, creator of the London Underground font.

There has been a museum in Ditchling since 1985, when it was set up by two sisters who knew many of the artists whose work is now on show. But it was transformed by a major refurbishment and reopened in September 2013 with engaging, fresh displays and those other must-haves of the modern museum, a cafe and shop.

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

Edward Johnston’s desk and painter David Jones’ serene Madonna.

The displays bring together hand-printed books, paintings, wood carvings and rural implements. I enjoyed the woven textiles by Hilary Bourne who, when reluctantly approached to make costumes for Ben-Hur, tried to dissuade MGM by asking four times the going rate—to which they promptly agreed.

It was also fun to encounter a display by silversmiths Pruden & Smith, which also has a workshop and boutique in the centre of the village. Its co-owner, Anton Pruden, is the grandson of the silversmith who was part of Eric Gill’s original craft guild. Visitors to the shop may be invited to tour the warren of work rooms underneath. Be warned, though, that once you’ve seen what goes into these stylish pieces you are unlikely to emerge empty-handed.

Ditchling tea rooms

Pretty cottages and tea rooms: a slice of Ditchling village life.

On a ramble around the village I stopped at the churchyard to admire lettering in stone carved by Gill. A visit to one of the tea shops was another must. I then walked out into the fields and up onto the South Downs, en route to Brighton on the other side. From there, it was easy to catch the London-bound train—but not before I’d come across an extraordinary sight, which I’ll tell you about next time…

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, open daily from 11.00-17.00 (Sun from 12.00).

 

 

 

London Slant: Be among the first to step inside a Huguenot’s house

If I was asked to pick my most fascinating road in London, Fournier Street in Spitalfields would be near the top of my list. Ever since its houses were built in the early 18th century it has been home to artist-craft workers starting with Huguenot silk weavers and leading up to current residents Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George. I love to look up and see the garrets where looms once rattled and it’s rare that I visit and don’t encounter the Besuited Duo striding along. (On one particularly surreal day they came gliding along the pavement towards me: without breaking gait they parted to let me go between them, eyes fixed on the middle distance, then came back together and continued their unruffled trajectory once they’d passed by.)

31 Fournier Street

First floor of 31 Fournier Street, transformed into an atmospheric art gallery.

I grab any chance to go inside these houses. I’ve visited gardens on open days and attended a handbell concert in one as part of the Spitalfields Festival. So when I heard that No 31 was opening by appointment for an art exhibition, I didn’t hesitate to book.

31 Fournier Street

The garden at 31 Fournier Street.

This inaugural show by Trevor Newton was the perfect choice to kickstart what will be a series of exhibitions, book launches and performances over coming months. Many of his works capture idiosyncratic architecture and interiors—perfectly at home crammed onto the wood-panelled walls of a house that its owner, Rodney Archer, describes part salon, part cabinet of curiosities. Other works, from Newton’s travels in the Australian outback, went rather well with the tree ferns and other exuberant greenery in the garden outside.

31 Fournier Street

Part salon, part cabinet of curiosities.

Many of the house’s original features have been preserved, while incomers, like the fireplace that once belonged to Oscar Wilde, lend a theatrical touch and yet only add to the Miss Havisham atmosphere. It was a delight to amble around with a glass of wine, and imagine who had lived here before Archer arrived 35 years ago.

On 1 July a new exhibition of prints and drawings launches: portraits-cum-caricature by Edward Firth. Then, on 12,15 and 17 July the house will be buzzing once again as part of the Huguenot Thread Festival, when it will host a collection of original 1850s silk velour patterns. All the shows mentioned are selling exhibitions, at advantageous prices since there is no gallerist involved. The opening of the house is a win, win, win situation—for buyer, seller and owner, who gets to share his fascinating home with an eager public for the first time. See 31 Fournier Street  for full details.

31 Fournier Street

Front door…

 

31 Fournier Street

…back door

 

London Slant: Flashing lights and City buoys at Trinity House

“Excuse me, what is a lighthouse?” I overheard a foreign visitor enquire.

Trinity House, London

A fanfare welcome to Trinity House.

It was easy to point to an answer since there were two right there: either side of the door. While some of London’s grand old buildings illuminate their entrances with coach lamps, and others blazing torchères, Trinity House offers the beams of twin model lighthouses. You’d expect no less of the flagship headquarters of an organisation in charge of the safety of shipping since it was granted a charter by King Henry VIII.

Trinity House

One of the twin lighthouses that illuminate the entrance at Trinity House

Yesterday was a quite an occasion: a rare Open Day to celebrate 500 years since Trinity House’s foundation in 1514. Since then the corporation has set up beacons all around Britain. It now operates some 600 lighthouses and lightships—the former mainly on the rocky west coast and the latter largely off the lower-lying and sandy eastern shores—as well as supporting seafarers and their families. It also has a strong engineering and technology remit, and spearheads development in satellite navigation and piloting of ships.

Trinity House

Trinity House, celebrating 500 years. The building, by Samuel Wyatt, dates from 1796.

A grand, double staircase curves up to the first floor past globes and coats of arms, to reach a row of high-ceilinged rooms that look out towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Walls are decorated with portraits of royals associated with Trinity House, from the Tudor monarchs right up to the current Master, Princess Anne. Other notables depicted include past Master Winston Churchill, shown signing the Atlantic agreement with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oil paintings of storm-lashed vessels at sea and model ships including Nelson’s Victory and Cutty Sark, plus the Court Room’s lavish ceiling, add a touch of drama.

Trinity House

King Henry VIII, who gave Trinity House its charter, presides over the Court Room.

In the library there’s a display of silverware, including grand table ornaments shaped like lighthouses and a magnificent wine cooler that’s a riot of sculpted corals and shells. I imagined an admiral hosting dinner here, musicians playing in the minstrels’ gallery above, as these objets d’art glinted beneath the chandeliers. In the adjacent Pepys Room there’s a portrait of the diarist; Samuel Pepys was Master of Trinity House shortly after the Civil War.

Trinity House

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower.

As I continued to nose around the cannon balls, the bell from Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia, globes and coats of arms, hordes of visitors came flowing in. Many were from overseas, had just arrived by chance and were really excited to find themselves inside such a venerable place. We may not have been private guests invited to the captain’s table, but it was a real party atmosphere. Here’s to the next 500 years, Trinity House. Carry on lighting the way.

Trinity House will be free to explore once again as part of Open House weekend (20 September) or you can visit their website to book guided tours. Find out more in their appropriately named magazine, Flash.

London Slant: What’s inside London’s three new cultural caskets?

It’s a year since a red inverted table called The Shed appeared at London’s Southbank. This temporary theatre’s first play, appropriately set around a table passed down through generations of a family, kicked off a string of full-house hits. Now this rough timber building with a fringe vibe has had its planning licence extended until 2017. Could it end up a permanent landmark alongside its neighbouring once-temporary structure, the London Eye? As a showcase for edgy works that are tapping a new, younger audience, there seems no reason why it shouldn’t run and run.

The Shed, National Theatre, London's South Bank

Extended run: The Shed at London’s Southbank Centre frames St Paul’s.

It’s just one of three timber boxes that have freshly sprouted in London’s cultural hubs. A short amble along the Thames leads to another fizzing theatre: the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s also been packing ‘em in since Bond girl Gemma Arterton took to the stage as the Duchess of Malfi a few months back.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The gorgeous candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe.

This intimate “jewel box” is a real feast for the senses. You don’t just wander in and sit down. You wait until invited to make your entrance: just stepping inside is a piece of theatre in itself. The scent of the hand-crafted oak auditorium wafts over you as you step among flickering beeswax candles, the only source of light. Then, as your eyes adjust to the dim glow they wander from the richly patterned backdrop up to the ceiling, a celestial scene of cherubs among clouds.

On the occasion of my audience with The Duchess, I took my seat as strolling minstrels in Elizabethan garb appeared onstage playing viols and lutes. Then came figures in fabulous ruffs and pantaloons bearing tapers. Chandeliers came spiralling down from the ceiling which they lit with great bravura to enthusiastic applause. Now it was time for the performance to begin.

Sam Wanamaker ceiling

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ceiling, lit by candles in revolving chandeliers.

If the Sam Wanamaker has been designed to reflect a true Jacobean-era night out, right down to its bum-numbing benches, the opposite is true at the high-tech Milton Court Concert Hall. The Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s new performance space boasts indulgently bum-hugging seats. From its light-flooded glass lobby with a Martin Creed artwork to its white ceiling and walls, this 600-capacity hall feels fresh yet surprisingly intimate. And yes, it too features masses of wood—in this case sapele, a native African cousin of mahogany often used to make musical instruments. The acoustics are superb.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London

The intimate Milton Court Concert Hall.

The Hall hosts concerts by the school’s musicians alongside performances by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Britten Sinfonia, bookable through the adjacent Barbican Centre. It’s part of a complex that also include two new theatres, which I’ve yet to sample but could well take my tally of beautiful new boxes to five.

 

Photography: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse by Pete Le May; Milton Court Concert Hall by Morley von Sternberg

 

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.