The Artist, the Architect, and the Ladybird

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A few months ago, the artist Miriam Elia produced We Go to the Gallery, a book that satirised the contemporary art world via the classic medium of Peter and Jane, the idyllic brother and sister from the Ladybird book series for children. Elia was threatened with legal action by the publisher for copyright infringement and even asked to destroy the remainder of the books she had made. While watching the media maelstrom unfold around Elia and the publisher, and enjoying her book a great deal, I also became more interested in Ladybird’s history and modern British visual culture in relation to gender.

Because I’m not a British person who grew up with Ladybird books, the look and feel of the format and pairing of simple text with Rockwellian imagery is both novel and strange, and sometimes no less than disturbing. Without a rosy hue to my own viewing experience, these items seem all the more available for cultural criticism. Binary roles for men and women are underscored again and again, and Britain’s all round awesomeness at everything from religion to power stations, and from racing cars to winning wars, is invested in practically every page. A book on ‘Danger Men’ celebrates heroes whose heads for heights means these masculine figures balance on tightropes, toil on steel girders high above a city’s skyline, and – the oddest of the scenarios – crawl out onto the ledge of a tall building to rescue someone considering a suicidal jump (how might one explain that to a young Ladybird reader, I wondered?).

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While I was getting increasingly curious about the weirdness of Ladybird and its legacies, curators Jane Won and Alan Powers were preparing an exhibition that focused on the varied career of architect and designer Ivan Chermayeff at the De La Warr Pavilion. Chermayeff’s playful collages were displayed alongside his influential logo designs for some of America’s most prominent institutions. The exhibition fit this curvy 1930s cultural centre perfectly, as Chermayeff is the son of Serge Chermayeff, who designed the pavilion together with Erich Mendelsohn. The pavilion is among the 20th Century Society’s top picks for Britain’s 100 best buildings and it’s on the cover of the Society’s recently published 100 Years 100 Buildings collection edited by Susannah Charlton. Lawrence Zeegen was among the large number of viewers who came to see the Chermayeff show, Cut and Paste, last summer. He was already working on a design history of the Ladybird series, and an idea was born to begin an exhibition project with Jane Won. Ladybird by Design opened at the pavilion on 24 January and runs until 10 May 2015.

 

The exhibition’s wall text lucidly explains the utopian and conservative values the Ladybird books extoll, and there is as much emphasis on their social significance as on their artistic and technical production. Affinity between the font for the exhibition design and the Ladybird books themselves works well in a sequence of white spaces informed by the horizontal seaside thrust of Chermayeff and Mendelsohn’s building. The books and original artwork are organised into a series of sections that reflect the various themes within the Ladybird titles. Shopping, industry, travel, and children’s skills from simple counting to magic tricks are interlaced to create a coherent story not only of Ladybird’s artists and ethos but also of priorities for educating British children between the 1950s and the 1970s.

Items on display are rarely accompanied by their associated text, truncating the possibility of gaining a deeper reading by probing the didactic relationships between words and pictures across the book’s pages. Reading and seeing are tightly linked in these books and their original purpose, and the exhibition does not always do this justice. The thematic sections are both thoughtful and evocative, however, and the placement of many of the original paintings for the books is often generative for further reflection. The series of images associated with a book about a ‘big store’ – department stores on the shop floor and behind the scenes – pairs a view of a woman admiring herself in a new coat in a mirror with a painting of a seemingly infinite row of working women at sewing machines in a darkened room, with the figure closest to the viewer looking up from her repetitive mechanised task and staring blankly into space. Surely, many of Ladybird’s artists were intelligently going against the grain even within their confined brief, opening children’s eyes to a world of ambiguities just as often as a universe of safety, pleasure, and useful vocabulary.

Ladybird title highlights:

The Story of Clowns

Man and His Car

Making a Transistor Radio

People at Work: The Customs Officer

Cocky the Lazy Rooster

The Conceited Lamb

Piggy Plays Truant

And my very favourite… Teeth

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Nature and Culture on St Stephen’s Day

For the first time in many years, I’m in Victoria BC for Christmas. Though my mobile takes photographs that could only be described as mediocre (Apple, I’m looking at you….), there’s been a great deal to capture and I’ve been struck by how many images of coastal British Columbia life past and present are leaping out with a new freshness. I lived in Victoria for a decade during school and my first degree in art history (which they call History in Art – a subtle twist I’ve always liked) at UVic. The city, like any city one returns to after a long interval, is completely different and pretty much the same. Places, buildings, and familiar experiences have greater and lesser meaning, I find. The first place I wanted to go was the art gallery (naturally), closely followed by the BC Archives to search for information about the lives of my great great grandparents with my mother, who’s a keen family history explorer. We found some wonderful things, including photographs of my great great grandmother Eunice Harrison that neither of us knew existed.

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At the Victoria Art Gallery, women are centre stage. The Emily Carr exhibition, Emily Carr and the Young Generation, focuses on her impact on modern art in Canada amongst those she taught and befriended who were younger than she was. Myfanwy Pavelic was a striking example, and her mirror images arrestingly take viewers deeper into making and seeing processes of portraiture. In a nearby display of twentieth-century Ukiyo-e, I learned about the British artist Elizabeth Keith, who made full use of Japanese woodblock technique and aesthetic in her images of beach scenes from the 1920s. Tucked in the back of the gallery, an exhibition on Lucie Rie and her artistic networks presents a small selection of pots curated with a delicate eye for detail. Archival material on display includes clippings of newspaper articles written by a young Fiona McCarthy in the 1960s. A pot by Bernard Leach converses in bold language with Rie’s creations, and both texture and colour invite long and slow observation. It’s a gentle room full of big ideas.

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For Midnight Mass, I went to Christ Church Cathedral, finished in 1929 but with only the nave built. The ambitious plans loom large in the cathedral’s identity and one wonders, might they ever be realised? Inside, the Gothic vaults rest on unfussy piers; one features a little bird carved by a whimsical mason. When the cathedral’s Victoria embroidered velvet banners went forward in the procession through the nave, I noticed one of them features Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt’s representation of Christ – with cope and lantern – from his wildly popular painting, The Light of the World. How many more Anglican churches throughout Britain’s former territories have similar banners? On Christmas Eve a group of friends went to hear new music by Vox Humana accompanying a spirited reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales inside Alix Goolden Hall. This building, completed in 1890, was a Methodist church long before it was a concert venue. The architect, Thomas Hooper, also designed Munro’s Books (which started its life as a bank) and the Carnegie Library. As one of Victoria’s busiest architects towards the turn of the twentieth century, Hooper also designed the house I’m staying in on this Christmas visit to Victoria, one of the most imposing in Cook Street Village. A few steps from the ocean, it used to be a brothel.

 

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On this Feast of Stephen, I head out into the mild west coast air – not a speck of snow to be seen – with eyes open for little architectural details. There is so much to see.

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‘From the Forest to the Sea': Emily Carr and Memory

Emily Carr, A Skidegate Pole, 1941-42

Emily Carr, A Skidegate Pole, 1941-42

What is modern Canadian art? That open question is surprisingly personal. In 2000, I began a BA in Art History at the University of Victoria. I took classes on Canadian art and architecture alongside modules on Islamic design, Mesoamerican art, film studies, and critical theory. My first serious job was as an architectural guide and curatorial assistant in Victoria for the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. Victoria’s architecture taught me how to be an architectural historian, and my first major research project focused on a group of nuns, the Sisters of St Ann, and their art education programme on colonial Vancouver Island. Much of my current research still focuses on the Gothic Revival and on nuns and the arts in the nineteenth century.

 

Back in Canada my first serious academic paper, in the Art History department’s annual symposium, focused on Alexandra Biriukova, the Russian modernist architect who came to Canada in 1929 after studying with Arnoldo Foschini in Rome. In Toronto Biriukova met the Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, and worked on designs for his sleek white-walled flat-roofed modern house. This was completed in 1931. Later that year, Biriukova gave up on architecture – there were no further opportunities or invitations in Toronto. Was Modernism too much for conservative Canadians? Was the Depression too crippling? Was being a Russian woman in Canada too vast a chasm of difference to overcome? I was 19 when I posed these questions, and it was this architectural project that really brought me strongly into contact with the Group of Seven and with Emily Carr. Like all BC kids, I grew up surrounded by Harris, Thomson, Carr, and the rest. I know their paintings like I know Beatles lyrics – easy to envision, easy to voice, embedded at a mysteriously intuitive level. That does not make their work easy art, and there is a wealth of scholarship and indeed even a kind of discomfiting reverence that attends the Group of Seven in galleries and on bookshelves. This is true of Carr, too, particularly on the west coast.

 

From November 2014 until March 2015, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is home to a major Emily Carr exhibition, From the Forest to the Sea – it’s the first significant show of Carr’s work in British history. The symposium on 31 October at the gallery demonstrated what a wide and sometimes problematic array of viewpoints circulate in relation to her work. I learned that Carr enthusiasts are so vocal and prevalent that they have a nickname: Cardiacs. Over and over again, I heard scholars and curators (not all, but some at least) refer to her as ‘Emily’. Would any art historian – or indeed member of the public in an exhibition – refer to Paul Gauguin as ‘Paul’? Roger Fry as ‘Roger’? Unlikely. There is a strange and perhaps even irresponsible intimacy that Carr’s work and its historical treatment seems to invite, even amongst her most scholarly attendants. This element aside, the papers were generally stellar and full of new research. Ian Thom, Charles Hill, Kathryn Bridge and Gerta Moray all shed light on who this Canadian artist was, what she was doing, and how her training in the US, London, and Paris and her unique approaches to modernity, form, and encounters with groups of people in a time of crisis shaped Canadian art and indeed shaped modern art.

 

The director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Ian Dejardin, opened the day’s set of talks with an expression of acute worry that despite his confidence in the exhibition and Dulwich’s strong record of excellent shows on early twentieth-century art, British audiences just wouldn’t get Carr. He suggested that we could use a road-map of influences, demonstrating that Carr’s work resonates with Paul Nash, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mark Tobey, along with Paul Gauguin and even Eric Ravilious. All this is true, and Carr was particularly engaged with O’Keeffe and Tobey’s work at different points in her long career. But that’s not the point. To what extent is it really necessary to insert Carr’s work into a canon when it’s already established, and permanently, proudly displayed in Canadian collections? Carr to the Vancouver Art Gallery is what Turner is to Tate Britain.

 

Will visitors to the Dulwich Picture Gallery ‘get’ Carr? I think they will. The work’s subjects, palette, techniques, social contexts – they all communicate whether visitors feel the need to compare it to Nash, or add it to a long list of Cubistic works of art, or smile to themselves when they see links with Gauguin and Van Gogh, or not. I noticed that amongst all the strong arguments and elegant art historical interpretations of Carr, there was a tendency to do two things that always give me cause for pause. These things make me pause precisely because of my deep interest in British twentieth-century art. They are: a) Carr’s work is good because she went to France and admired the Fauves and Cubism and Post-Impressionism; and b) Carr’s work is good because we can locate it at the avant-garde boundary-pressing progressively thrusting edge towards triumphant abstraction. So far, so Greenberg. That these factors are the ultimate standard of modern art, like a big sign hanging outside the threshold of an artist’s oeuvre stating ‘You Must Be This Tall to Ride This Ride’, should trouble us. Their double-claim on modern objects, images, and subjects leaves too much rejected and despised within a twentieth-century art world teeming with vitality and alternative creative directions.

 

And what of Carr’s main subjects? Primarily, she painted the trees, ocean, sculptures, architecture, and people of the northwest coastal villages of British Columbia. As curator Charles Hill explained at the Dulwich symposium, her work is interpreted as ethnographic, feminist, modernist, proto-ecological, and much else. She evidently wanted to document (and this is a delicate issue in relation to the legacies of ‘primitivism’, undoubtedly), and she was striving to develop a visual language through which the power of the monumental first nations’ visual culture could be translated effectively and expressively into paint, onto canvas, into new contexts, for new audiences. Without attempting to pretend I’m an art historian who knows much about Carr (truly, I don’t), the best material to read that investigates her practice in relation to first nations’ communities is by Ian Thom and Gerta Moray. Both spoke at Dulwich; both were eye-opening. Emily Carr’s paintings were, in part, bearing witness to people in crisis. Here’s an illustrative statistic: in 1900, if you were Haida and you’d survived the quick and deadly smallpox epidemic, 80% of the people you’d known were dead. First nations’ cultural practices were banned and outlawed, and the colonial damage done to native populations and the tragic and complex legacies of this are well-known narratives with ambiguous and all but eschatological conclusions.

 

At the beginning of this text, I noted that the question of modern Canadian art was a personal one. At the end of the Dulwich symposium, a small group of people walked up to the front of the room carrying drums. Jim Hart, chief of the Haida Nation, spoke about Carr and about Haida history alongside his family and artists from Haida Gwaii who are traveling through the UK visiting museums. They are studying traces of their cultural heritage, from totem poles to textiles, collected and displayed at the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, and elsewhere. They performed several songs, and they explained without hesitation that Carr was an interpreter of Haida material that they respected. One of the musicians has an elderly aunt in Haida Gwaii that remembers Carr during her painting trips. To a room full of white middle-class middle-aged academics (it was a symposium at Dulwich, after all), Hart suggested that visiting Haida Gwaii could not help but deepen understanding of Carr’s own curiosity more than a century ago. He’s right, and he’s chief of the Haida Nation so of course he would think so. But this reminded me of something I don’t often think about.

 

When I was seven years old, my family went on holiday. I had never been on a plane before. I remember this holiday more clearly than most events from my childhood. I remember being irrepressibly excited. I remember feeling a bit grand at the prospect of 30 000 feet and food served at one’s seat in tiny packets. I remember what I wore on the plane (a jazzy little lime green, neon orange, and black ensemble. It was 1990.). I remember the smell and the feel of Tlell, Skidegate, Masset, and long walks along logging tracks and rocky beaches. I constantly worried that my parents were lost. I suspect occasionally they were. There was a wrecked ship, tall grasses, endless trees that were impossibly huge and heavy with rain (it rained. The. Whole. Time.). This was our first big serious family holiday. My parents wanted to see the villages, to study the art, to walk through the forests, to respectfully understand this place a little better, and appreciate it as a rich, thickly layered, deeply scarred heritage. I had no idea what any of this meant. I was seven. Now I’m thirty-one. And today I saw Emily Carr’s paintings on the walls of a British gallery for the first time. I expected it to be a fascinating and stimulating exhibition of modern art that I would view with affection because it reminded me of my point of origin in British Columbia, which I left over a decade ago. I didn’t expect it to provide such a potent collision of early memory and present research questions.

 

Going to Dulwich to meet Emily Carr will be nourishing for all who make the journey. I’m not just saying that because I’m Canadian.

Giants of the Gothic Revival

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On Saturday 25 October at the V&A, leading experts on the Gothic Revival and modern British design will convene for an innovative public study day exploring how Victorian and modern architects contributed to cultural history across 150 years. Everyone is welcome, and tickets are selling quickly!

Giants of the Gothic Revival: Watts & Co. from Pugin to Comper celebrates two anniversaries: the 140th anniversary of Watts & Co., a design firm founded by the architects G. F. Bodley, Thomas Garner and George Gilbert Scott Jr in 1874, and the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect and designer Ninian Comper.

With presentations from textiles historian Mary Schoeser, architectural historians Gavin Stamp, Alan Powers and Gerry Adler, and a panel discussion with the directors of Watts & Co alongside the director of the Soane Museum Abraham Thomas, it promises to be a stellar day of research and discovery. Talks are accompanied by sessions with rare and unique items from the RIBA, V&A and Watts & Co. archives. Original drawings by Comper, Scott, Bodley and many other key designers will be on display to enrich the day and highlight new understandings of design history as a process of continuity and innovation. Michael Hall’s new book on George Frederick Bodley and the Gothic Revival, published by Yale University Press, will be available for purchase and Michael will be on hand to sign copies.

From the Houses of Parliament and coronations at Westminster Abbey, and from cathedrals to domestic interiors, this V&A study day highlights the power of the Gothic Revival to shape and challenge cultural identities from the Victorians to the present.

Books that Matter – Two Lists

Like a large number of people over the past few days, I’ve been asked by Facebook friends to write a list of 10 books that are really significant for me. I stuck to fiction and found that the books that I remember best from childhood to the present have a lingering connection with my academic interests around the intersections of religion, sexuality, modern Britain, and architecture.

Within those vast fields and across disciplines, my primary focus is on Gothic Revival architecture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Why were all those arches and crockets and stained glass windows so appealing? With this in mind, I decided to write another list. Below is a group of ten Gothic Revival texts (and a bonus short preface by William Morris because it’s so clear about why and how his politics and art connect so firmly to John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice). I come back to these publications again and again as key works that commented on and contributed to the Gothic Revival in Britain and America. Most are by architects, two are by priests, and one of them is a translation of a medieval text by the leading lights of the Ecclesiological movement.

THE GOTHIC REVIVAL LIST

Ralph Adams Cram, The Gothic Quest (1907)

William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, J. M. Neale and B. Webb, transl. (1843)

Charles Locke Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival (1872)

Ernest Geldart, A Manual of Church Decoration and Symbolism (1899)

Thomas Graham Jackson, Modern Gothic Architecture (1873)

John Mason Neale, A Few Words to Church Builders (1844)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Contrasts (1836; 1841)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841)

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 3 Vols (1851-1853)

George Gilbert Scott, Personal and Professional Recollections (1879)

…and William Morris, ‘Preface’ for John Ruskin, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Kelmscott Press (1892)

THE FICTION LIST

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
E. M. Forster, Maurice
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant
Leonid Borodin, The Year of Miracle and Grief
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Modern Monasteries and Convents in Britain

This summer the Twentieth Century Society organised a packed tour of modern convents and monasteries, ranging from John Ninian Comper and Leonard Stokes’ architectural designs for the Anglican All Saints Sisters of the Poor at London Colney to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Carmelite chapel in London, Francis Pollen’s 1960s sweepingly monumental church for the Roman Catholic Benedictine community at Worth Abbey, and Maguire and Murray’s characteristically simple and light-filled space at the Anglican Benedictine convent in West Malling.

Some of these places are thriving, some are dwindling, and some – London Colney in particular – are under significant threat. What happens to these places of major architectural, cultural, and religious significance now and in the future remains uncertain in some cases, and the C20 Society day highlighted advocacy and conservation as much as it showcased an array of approaches to crafting holy spaces in new ways.

Led by Kate Jordan and John East with contributions from Alan Powers on Francis Pollen and me on Ninian Comper, the event’s architectural diversity proved the dynamism, innovation, experimentation, and tradition that guided new building projects for these unique religious communities from c.1920 to the present. As 31 July is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, it seems apt to focus on monastic architecture for modern Britain which has been done ‘to the greater glory of God’.

 

 

 

 

Neo-Gothic and Neo-Byzantine: Two Montreal Churches

In 1823, reconstruction of Montreal’s Notre-Dame began. This building dominates the oldest precinct of Montreal; it was the first sacred space I visited when I arrived in the city this June. Approaching it on a Bixi bike (which was the perfect way to get around the city, from Buckminster Fuller’s biosphere for Expo 67 to the Five Roses flour mill), the two towers signalled a transformation in the urban landscape from sprawling business and industry into preserved settings firmly associated with the French settlement’s earliest history. The church’s seventeenth-century foundation building proved too small for the city’s growing population in the early nineteenth century, and the new structure was to be a grand statement of Roman Catholic power wrought in fashionable Neo-Gothic forms. The architect was an unusual choice: James O’Donnell, a New York Irish Protestant. He converted to Catholicism during the building process. The church was inaugurated in 1829, months before his death. The towers rose slowly through the 1840s, and the interior is a mixture of blaring high-contrast jewel-toned polychromy, late nineteenth-century flowing tracery toplighting, and a series of sturdy stained glass windows from the 1920s. The interior was inspired by Ste Chapelle in Paris, but the building couldn’t be anything other than nineteenth century in its detail, materials, and deployment of Gothic features. East of the sanctuary, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart was designed by Perreault and Mesnard in the 1880s. A fire in 1979 destroyed this section of Notre Dame and it was rebuilt in an uneasy (and very, very brown) mixture of postmodern elements, combining Gothic Revival arcades and side chapels with a vast bronze altarpiece by Charles Daudelin. Neither fully embracing the modern possibilities of 1970s architecture nor offering a renewed and innovative historicist view on modern Gothic, the chapel’s stylistic awkwardness suggests anxiety regarding past, present, and future in relation to revivalism and Catholic identity towards the close of the twentieth century.

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A week after my visit to Notre Dame, I went to Mile End for three things: brunch at Nouveau Palais, comparative bagel shopping at the city’s two prime locations for their bulk production (they bake them on long wooden boards, and both shops are stripped to essentials: counter, fridge full of cream cheese, infinite bags of flour, massive roaring open oven. C’est tout.), and a church I spotted while walking over the flyover from the nearest Metro station. This was the last sacred space I visited in Montreal, a few hours before I caught a flight back to London. In 1902, the parish of St Michael the Archangel was founded for the region’s Irish Catholic population. The church, completed by 1915, boasted the largest dome in Montreal until St Joseph’s Oratory surpassed its hefty scale. The Byzantine style was suggested by Aristide Beaugrande-Champagne, the building’s local architect. He was a vocal advocate for reinforced concrete, an archaeologist, and a founding member of the Groupe des Dix. The interior of the church combines searing orange and green floral motifs in stained glass panels with a complex scheme of figural and patterned painting alongside rhythmic structural polychromy. The lighting made it nearly impossible to photograph; the dome’s interior features an aggressive Archangel Michael casting rebel angels from heaven. The rogue divine creatures tumble into the pendentives, falling towards the nave in graceful billowing drapery, surrounded by staunchly upright trees representing fruits of a lost paradise. The artist was Guido Nincheri, whose murals and stained glass are a key element of Quebec’s sacred sites, including the Trois-Rivieres cathedral and Set Madeleine d’Outremont. I’ve been researching twentieth-century murals and religion lately, and am delighted to have been introduced to Nincheri’s work before heading home. London’s C20 churches could have been enhanced by a rogue angel or two, perhaps.

 

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