Category Archives: AROUND BRITAIN

Three ways to be beside the seaside—in London, now!

Oh I do love to be beside the seaside—especially when it’s in London, in February. Well, if Margate and Hastings can open art galleries with urban style, why shouldn’t London steal some of their holiday fun?

Magnificent Obsessions, Barbican

Classic gem: one of photographer Martin Parr’s retro seaside postcards, on show at the Barbican Art Gallery.

Every seaside foray starts with a stroll along a breezy promenade. I let the blustery winds on the Barbican’s High Walk blow me to its art gallery’s Magnificent Obsessions exhibition where 14 artists’ private collections are on show. Magnum photographer Martin Parr’s trove of 1950s and 60s seaside postcards got me straight into the sun-and-sand mood. There were, of course, the cartoon images of busty blondes in polka dot bikinis scaring wimps with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads. But I most enjoyed the nostalgic scenes that Parr himself might have captured when working as a rookie photographer in a Butlin’s holiday camp.

Many of the postcards were of seemingly mundane scenes such as the new motorway service stations that drivers en route to Bognor would have sent to impress friends. Others showed hotel rooms with candlewick bedspreads—the ultimate in postwar style. As a collection they skewered a vanished era, of innocence lost and luxuries gained.

Parr’s sharp eye was just one highlight of an exhibition that ranged through Howard Hodgkin’s ravishing Indian paintings, Arman’s African masks and Edmund de Waal’s netsuke, including the hare with the amber eyes.

But soon I was off to seafront attraction number two: Swingers crazy golf.  This uproarious tee-party took place inside an abandoned printer’s warehouse near Old Street roundabout. Stepping inside I walked past the bar serving craft beers, the stalls cooking artisan street food and on to the nine-hole course. I grabbed my club from a wooden shack and tapped my ball up and under bridges, along teetering ledges, past miniature windmills and around swerving bends. I’m proud to have steered round the water hazard but confess to landing in a bunker twice.

Swingers crazy golf

A player circumvents the water hazard at Swingers crazy golf.

The last stop on my seaside jaunt was Novelty Automation, a witty take on the amusement arcade. This new “museum” of slot machines in Holborn is all screams and wry laughs. I slipped my tokens into “Micro Break”, and settled into a mechanical armchair that rocked and rattled as it took me on a simulated package holiday by a palm beach. At the adjacent machine, Is it Art?, I put my house keys before a model of Tate Director Nicholas Serota and was disappointed when he shook his head.

Novelty Automaton

Tim Hunkin’s Micro Break slot machine experience at Novelty Automation.

Novelty Automation

Place an object in front of a model of NIcholas Serota and he will tell you whether or not it’s art.

 

Novelty Automation

Sadly my keys did not make the grade.

These were just two of a clever collection of machines created by cartoonist and wacky engineer Tim Hunkin. Some I had enjoyed before, in his arcade on Southwold Pier. But with the many coastal capers going on all around, they now seem perfectly placed in their new home at London-on-Sea.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, Barbican Art Gallery until 25 May; Swingers Crazy Golf is a pop up open until 26 February, then returning in September; Novelty Automation, 1a Princeton Street, London WC1A 4AX 

Butlin’s Bognor Regis postcard courtesy of Collection of Martin Parr.

 

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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: An exotic encounter outside Brighton

Imagine the quintessential English country scene: emerald valleys, swathes of buttercups, cows gently munching the grass. It couldn’t have been more idyllic when I climbed up the South Downs on a day out from London.

South Downs, Ditchilng and Brighton

On top of the South Downs, between Ditchling and Brighton.

A path from Ditchling village led up to a ridge; I walked along enjoying fabulous views of fields flowing down on either side. Then, as I began to descend towards Brighton, a strange white dome emerged behind a slope. As I approached it took on a distinctly Moghul form; I felt as though I was being transported to the banks of the Ganges. I wasn’t expecting any sort of building in this rural setting, let alone one that appeared to be transported from a hot, sandy plain in India. Whatever could it be?

Chattri Brighton

The Chattri Memorial, on the spot where Indian soldiers who died after fighting in WWI were cremated.

I drew closer and discovered a plaque describing it as the Chattri Memorial, built to honour Indian soldiers who fought alongside Britons in the Great War. Constructed in pure, white marble, I found it very moving, alone among a scattering of windswept trees.

Chattri Memorial

The word “chattri” means umbrella in several Indian languages. It was designed by Indian architect EC Henriques and is now a listed building.

We’re all familiar with Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, where the future King George IV played out his oriental fantasies as the 18th century drew to a close. Less well known is that this extravagant palace was a hospital for thousands of Indian military casualties who served on the Western Front. Fifty three Sikhs and Hindus who did not survive their injuries were cremated here on the South Downs and the Chattri Memorial built in 1921 on the actual spot of their funeral pyres.

Chattri Memorial in 1921

The dedication ceremony for the Chattri Memorial in 1921.

The Prince of Wales presided at the memorial’s opening ceremony. Now, every June, crowds continue to gather here to remember the dead.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Royal Pavilion at Brighton, an unlikely hospital for Indian soldiers injured in WWI.

I was pleased to have come across the Chattri by chance during the World War One centenary year. As I continued my walk down into Brighton my thoughts turned to the Pavilion: it seemed fitting that the Prince Regent’s extravagance could have also served a worthwhile purpose, and that many more men were nursed back to health under its outrageous chandeliers than turned to dust in the green hills beyond its domes.

I travelled from London to Hassocks station, walked to Ditchling village with its Museum of Art+Craft, then continued up over the South Downs to Patcham and into Brighton, for the return train journey. 

 

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: Inside the house of Britain’s richest man

Imagine the house of a man who in the 1940s was the wealthiest self-made man in the UK.  An industrialist who during his lifetime gave around £1 billion to charity in today’s terms.

Walls covered in Rembrandts and Monets? Vistas of formal gardens and lakes? At the very least a gold tap or two?

Nuffield Place, National Trust

Nuffield Place, designed by a pupil of Lutyens, built in 1914 and acquired by William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, in 1933.

Probably the last thing you’d conjure up would be “school-of-Hyde-Park-railings” art and carpets covered with stains from his wife’s wayward Scottie dogs. But prepare to be surprised when you enter Nuffield Place, home of the late Lord Nuffield, near Henley in Oxfordshire.

When I walked into the garden of this recently opened National Trust house it was  like arriving at a vicarage fete. Bunting was strung across the 1930s-style Coronation Cafe and families clustered on the lawn tucking into sponge cake with cups of tea.

Nuffield Place National Trust

Visitors to Nuffield Place had parked their vintage cars outside the house.

Some fabulous vintage cars were parked outside, their owners milling around in flat caps and tweed. The scene was set for stepping inside the world of William Morris (1877-1963), a man who left school at 15, began a bicycle repair business with £4 capital, then moved into cars in a massive way.

By the mid 1920s Morris Motors Cars was earning its founder a fortune. But instead of spending it on a fancy home he gave away the money to medicine and education. His Nuffield Foundation, College and hospitals are still active today.

As I explored the house I was struck by visitors’ exclamations: “That’s just like my grandmother’s dressing table” and “I had one of those when I was a child.” It’s a perfect time-capsule of mid-20th-century life and of someone whose driving force was business and benevolence, not showing off to guests.  It’s a place to delight in the quirky innovations and gadgets that Lord Nuffield loved, such as his automatic match striker in the drawing room.

Visitors are free to ramble through the pine-panelled billiard room and the sitting room with its wireless and 1950s-style cabinet TV.  Upstairs is a dressing room with the one display that shows this is no ordinary middle-class home: its owners’ velvet and ermine coronation robes. There’s a sunroom full of equipment that Lord Nuffield liked to tinker with, including fire extinguishers and an ultraviolet lamp.

But for me the house’s highlight was Lord Nuffield’s bedroom and more specifically the huge tool cupboard by the end of his bed.  Every man has to have his shed and how luxurious to have it at your feet: shelves packed with clocks, wires, screwdrivers and even equipment for mending his own shoes, with stick-on soles.  In among them nestle curios such as his appendix in a jar.

Nuffield place National Turst

The multimillionaire’s bedroom, with furry hot water bottle, curiously wired reading lamp and bedside sword.

Nuffield Place National Trust

Inside the bedroom tool cupboard, just as he left it: Lord Nuffield’s pickled appendix and equipment to mend his own shoes.

So who was this dynamic entrepreneur who preferred to hunker down in padded sofas rather than to schmooze and entertain? Let’s leave the last word to a plaque presented to William Morris by his golfing buddies, dedicated to “A sportsman and good egg”.

* Even if you don’t have a vintage Morris car you can motor to Nuffield Place from London for a great afternoon out.

National Trust photographs, from top, courtesy of James Dobson, (vintage car by London Slant), John Hammond and Cristian Barnett.

LONDON SLANT: A SERPENTINE MEANDER

The swallows have swooped in, roses have burst into flower—and the Serpentine Pavilion has sprouted in Kensington Gardens. There may be other signs to the contrary, but these three arrivals announce that summer, unequivocally, is here.

Serpentine pavilion

The Serpentine Pavilion: a dazzling addition to Kensington Gardens.

Anything involving London’s Serpentine Gallery is always an event. Its exhibitions invariably catch the zeitgeist: thought-provoking, off-piste, fun…I rarely regret the pilgrimage to check them out.

And what better advertisement hoarding could the gallery erect than its pavilions, temporary structures designed by international names which have popped up here every summer since 2000. Following a parade of wacky designs by starchitects like Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Oscar Niemeyer, for 2013 it’s the turn of a comparative unknown, Sou Fujimoto from Japan. Knowing the Serpentine’s knack for backing winners (I recall an exhibition years ago with a pickled sheep by a young artist called Damien Hirst) I think we can be assured that Fujimoto is One To Watch.

I like to use my annual pavilion foray as an excuse for a stroll through Hyde Park’s glorious swathe of green. This year I set off from Lancaster Gate and plunged straight into the freshly restored Italian Gardens. Their spouting fountains and urns with tumbling flowers made an exuberant start to my stroll.

Next landmark was the Henry Moore Arch, now happily back in place after it became unstable and was off show for 16 years. It looks terrific reflecting in the Serpentine, framing the vista towards Kensington Palace. Just beyond is The Magazine, an historic former munitions store, which is being transformed by Zaha Hadid into the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery. It’s due to open later this year with exhibition space and a cafe. Mark your cards for the opening now!

And so to Fujimoto’s pavilion, a non-building or at least one that seems to have vanished, leaving only its shimmering scaffolding behind. You can see it as many different forms: billowing mist, a mass of phone masts…but it struck me as a magical oversized child’s climbing frame. I’ve never seen so many grown-ups clambering around with such glee, beaming down from the highest points as if to say “I’m the king of the castle”. I stepped gingerly from one glass box to another, never sure whether I was planting my foot on thin air, and confess to feeling quite superior when I secured a lofty perch.

Rock on top of another rock

Rock on Top of Another Rock outside the Serpentine Gallery.

Rock on Top of Another Rock eventually drew me on my way. This teetering monument by artist duo Fischli/Weiss is so dramatic in this natural setting it’s a shame it will move on next March to the Middle East.

And so to a waterside coffee among yellow irises fringing the Lido as a bunch of swimmers battled the waves. And along the lake to The Dell and Rose Gardens, bursting with colour and scent. At Hyde Park corner my carriage awaited—on the Piccadilly line.

LONDON SLANT: MR FOX, I’M ON YOUR TAIL

It started, innocently enough, around four years ago. Returning home one Thursday night, there he was. Tripping along the pavement with his nose in the air.

This was the most urbane and elegant of foxes, entirely at home in his central London domain. He’d left his top hat and silver cane with the doorman and was about to have dinner. It was all set out and waiting for him in the black bin liner for the dustman by my front door.

Over time, he became less of a bachelor gadabout and settled down with a mate. I’d spot the pair of them curled up in the sun on the conservatory roof opposite. Aaaah, I thought. They look like a cosy couple on the beach. Then, late one evening, I heard terrifying wails from over the garden fence.

Sure enough, a few weeks later three little cubs came scampering over a wall. A lighter colour than their parents, they looked like delicate ghosts flitting among my ferns.

Fox

Mmm…I wonder where I can dig another hole?

Then, one morning I awoke to find a huge pile of earth at the end of my tiny garden. Someone had dug two huge holes and uprooted plants. Next to this, like a calling card, was some unfortunate creature’s desiccated skull. My suspicions as to the perpetrator seemed to be confirmed when a cheeky face with pointy ears peered down over the fence and looked as me as if to say “What are you doing on my patch?”

So now they’re no longer loveable neighbours. In fact they’re full-on pests. Google told me they hate the scent of urine, so I peed in a bucket, poured it on newspapers and shoved them down the hole.  Cayenne pepper was mooted as a deterrent, but didn’t work (perhaps because the use-by date was June 2002?). I then bought a product called Scoot that had no effect and was all set to get lion dung from London Zoo until a friend said it, too, definitely doesn’t work. As far as I can see, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to see them off.

Does anyone out there have any other ideas? Help, before we’re overrun!