The day I met Vincent

I have just come back from visiting the Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience currently open on London’s Southbank behind the National Theatre.  I have been a fan of Van Gogh’s art for years and have visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and last year (2019) I saw the Van Gogh in London exhibition at Tate Britain.  I had seen some reviews of this travelling ‘Experience’ in various Arts news media and it has to be said that not all these reviews were favourable, this is why, when I found out it was coming to London I had to see for myself.

Meet Vincent Van Gogh

The first thing you need to know about this ‘experience’ (I shall continue to call it an Experience for reasons which will become clear later), is that it has been created by the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  This is important because there is also a similar travelling show which is not “official”. Now that we are clear about the research provenance behind the show, let me tell you why I think it is one of the best art shows I have seen for a very long time.

The whole experience takes place in what is really a large and very posh marquee – a big tent pitched on the old car park at 99 Upper Ground behind the National Theatre on the Southbank in London. On entering you are given a headset and a small device which plays the recorded commentary.  It is possible not to use these things, but in my view your whole enjoyment will be greatly impaired if you did not use them.  Visitors are held in a small ante-space until the next full showing of the sound and vision commentary begins.  The first room you enter has fields of grass and corn projected on the walls with the sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the grass, this gives way to a commentary about Vincent VG from diaries kept by his sister-in-law, who was largely responsible for his art being kept together after his death, with family photos replacing the cornfields.  Some diary extracts from Vincent’s own letter to his brother Theo are heard and the family photos are replaced by the cornfields again this time a sudden flock of crows burst forth from the hidden depths up into the sky while the photographic landscape morphs into the famous Van Gogh painting “Wheatfield with Crows”.  It is a very moving moment.

Wheatfield with Crows

Following on through the exhibition space the visitor is confronted by a café style area with objects and diary extracts on the tables, all of which can be touched and interacted with in different ways.  Throughout the whole experience there are drawing stations for visitors to pick up pencils and try their hand at drawing like the great man, looking at landscapes projected on the walls or looking through a replica viewfinder device as used by VVG to help with composition and perspective.  Touch screens offer more information about his work and life, while each ‘room’ offers up commentary on a loop that links to the video projections on the walls exploring different periods of his life. 

Installation view Arles

My favourite of these themed rooms is the shadow scenes where Vincent is in heated discussion with Cezanne at the Yellow House in Arles.  This marks the most significant turning point of his mental decline and a beautifully crafted installation piece featuring sunflowers, easels and chairs is enough to bring a tear to the eye.

Using viewfinders to accurately draw a Vincent’s cottage in perspective
Vincent’s painting of the cottage

Throughout the whole experience there are many video sequences that ‘recreate’ some of Vincent’s paintings.  In addition to this, there are several actual size reproductions of VG paintings displayed on easels.  These have been recreated using the most up-to-date technology – 3D printing!  The best bit about these paintings is that not only are they faithfully reproduced, but visitors are encourages to TOUCH them!  Being able to touch a Van Gogh (even if it is a 3D printed copy) is an almost religious experience, bringing to life the depth of the paint and the intensity of the brushstrokes as laid down on the canvas.

Full image showing textured section
Close up of textured section
Closer still of textured section
Textured paint rendered in 3D using scanned 3D printer technology

Obviously, there will be many people who won’t like or even begin to understand this Exhibition Experience, and disappointingly some of those will be arts and museum professionals.  For me, it is probably one of the best things I have seen recently.  The audio narration is pitched at a level that is accessible to most people, without being overly complex or trying to push a particular curatorial idea.  There is also enough interactivity for both adults and children, again pitched at a level where most people can engage with it.  I did see that some visitors had commented on the Exhibition social media site that there had been issues with the audio soundtrack, when I visited today, I had no such problems, and everything worked very well.  If I had one niggle, it would be that 6 unisex toilets are not enough for the potentially large quantities of people likely to visit, but realistically toilet facilities are often an issue at many heritage attractions.

If I lived in London I would probably visit again before it closes, but sadly that is not likely to happen.  I can only urge people who are interested in Van Gogh to take the time to visit.  It is an interesting concept, and a brave one on the part of the Van Gogh Museum to invest so heavily in a touring  Experience of this nature. It makes VG and his work more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with him and also for those who may not be able to travel to Holland to visit the museum.  For me, having an interest in VVG and also having been to the VG Museum, it is the innovative use of technology to bring a collection out to a wider audience.

Installation view

Meet Vincent Van Gogh (created by the Van Gogh Museum) is at 99 Upper Ground on London’s Southbank (behind the National Theatre) from 7th February to 21st May 2020.

I met Vincent Van Gogh

A Seaside Fantasy House

It’s been a few years since I was last at the Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, Dorset and a visit yesterday reminded me of how incredible this place is.  The house was built in 1901 as a home for Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, and was as much a luxurious residence as it was a showcase for their huge collection of art and artefacts.  On the death of Merton in 1921 the house and its entire contents were given to the people of the Borough of Bournemouth.  This amazing fantasy house is now a grade II listed building housing a world renowned collection of art and artefacts from across the globe.

hand painted Peacock frieze

The house itself has a dramatic fantasy exterior, it’s terraces, canopies and turrets a combination of Scottish Baronial, French Chateaux and Italian Renaissance styling, and yet the famous exterior is actually the back of the house, the front and original main entrance is far more understated.

Russell-Cotes Gallery

Once inside, each room is opulently decorated with hand painted wall friezes and ceilings complimenting bespoke printed wallpapers and tiling.  Each room has a different style influence which reflects the art and artefacts within it.  Where else could you find a Moorish fountain and pond in the main hallway?  Above this is a 3 panelled stained glass skylight depicting the daily cycle of the sun from sun rise to sunset surrounded by the signs of the zodiac.  The skylight currently in place is a copy of the original which was destroyed by bombing in 1941.  The Russell-Cotes’ made use of every available space to display their vast collection, including the visitors toilet.  Today this room is the Ladies toilet, and it has to be said is probably the most opulent ‘convenience’ I have ever seen!

Moorish fountain in the main hallway at the Russell-Cotes Gallery
The Ladies Toilet at the Russell-Cotes gallery

In 1916 Annie commissioned a local architect to design a gallery space in which their collection could be seen by the public after their deaths, and galleries 1 – 3 were officially opened by Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter) in 1919.  Due to planning issues it was not until 1926 that a simpler version of gallery IV was completed.

Crocodile Lyre, one of the many artefacts collected by the Russell-Cotes’ on their travels

Merton was a champion of the ‘modern’ British School of Art and was not  a fan of the Old Masters.  Much of his collection features the work of major 19th century artists including the Pre Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Evelyn De Morgan, John Brett and the 20th century painter Harold Williamson.

Hand painted bird ceiling

Galleries 3 and 4 are often used to show temporary exhibitions and on the day of my visit the exhibition was of ceramics by William De Morgan, called Sublime Symmetry.

Sublime Symmetry is a small travelling exhibition featuring ceramics by William De Morgan and exploring the idea that his designs were heavily influenced by mathematics.  William’s father, Augustus, was a professor of mathematics at University College London and his brother George, together with a friend formed the London Mathematical Society, with Augustus being duly elected as its first president.  William was not a member of the LMS, but he did study mathematics for a year while a student at UCL.  While there he learned about Euclid, trigonometry, logarithms and algebra which were all standard fare for college-level study at the time.  Several studies of De Morgan have revealed that he was an ‘accomplished engineer’ and that he had ‘considerable mathematical skill’. 

Symmetrical patterns are evident in much of William’s work.  Indeed perfect symmetry has long been associated with traditional notions of beauty.  In mathematics symmetry is the transformation of a shape by reflecting, rotating or scaling it without changing other properties.  In art the eye is drawn to the central ine or point, through the rest of the design and it is this order and structure that makes the design aesthetically pleasing.  William was greatly influenced by Persian ceramics and it was while working on a commission to install Lord Leighton’s collection of Arab tiles he became entranced by Iznik[i] designs.   An example of this on display is the Floral Ogee Panel.  Here De Morgan has created a particularly intricate design by decorating the wide blue border of the ogee shape with a repeated floral pattern.

Floral Ogee tiles

The exhibition is spread through the two galleries which are, in truth, a little too large for it.  There is a lot of open space with mostly bare walls save for a few text panels which describe ideas about mathematical concepts of shape, symmetry, design and pattern as well as some information about De Morgan and mathematics.  My favourite item on display was the ‘Bulbous vase with Persian Décor’ in the small display cabinet in the far rear corner of gallery 4.  A small but visually stunning vase with a repeating floral design and deep, sparkling blue and blue-green glazes.

Bulbous vase by William De Morgan

Other notable display items for me were the Peacock Dish and the Bee Plate, both large charger style plates  in a vibrant red lustre glaze.  The Peacock Plate shows a bird displaying its tail to one side which is balanced by its body and head and two opposing lazy S scrolls.  The Bee Plate shows three bees with interlocking wings in triangular formation surrounded by stylised leaf and bud motifs.

Peacock Plate in red lustre
Bee Plate in red lustre by William De Morgan

This exhibition has one of the best children’s activity areas  I have seen.  Billed as “William De Morgan’s Delightful Design Den”  it features a puzzle table with sliding tiles for children to recreate the Floral Ogee Pattern and a rotating cube puzzle which requires the child to match the different design elements to make up a repeating pattern.  A small table is also provided for children to draw and colour their own designs based on what they have seen.  At the time of visiting, several youngsters were making use of it.

Children’s activity area at the Sublime Symmetry exhibition in the Russell-Cotes Gallery

This small, but interesting exhibition has a perfect venue at the Russell-Cotes Museum with De Morgan’s pattern and design influences being evident in many of the rooms throughout the house.

The Russell-Cotes Gallery and Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays 10am to 5pm.  Admission fees apply.

Sublime Symmetry is open until 2nd February 2020.

[i] Iznik is a small town in Turkey which became established in the late 15th century as a centre for the production of brilliant blue, green and red ceramics with formalised floral designs, geometrically structured where symmetry is a key underpinning device.

Don’t try to find a picture…

This may be a strange title for a blog post about art, but they are wise words from the sketchbook of British painter Ivon Hitchens.

Hitchens career spanned 6 decades and a large part of it was spent painting the landscape around his home deep in the trees in West Sussex.  His early output couldn’t be further removed from his last paintings as he developed and refined his style and technique from pure representation to abstraction.  Hitchens was influenced by and an admirer of the late 19th and early 20th century French painters, but it was the writings of Clive bell and Roger Fry about “significant form” which was to become his moment of epiphany, and caused him to create my favourite early work “Curved Barn” painted in 1922.  While still very much a representational image of a barn in trees, the stylised forms and flowing curves highlight his awareness of shape and form, something that was to become increasingly important during his career.

Curved Barn by Ivon Hitchens
1922, oil on canvas
postcard published by Pallant House Gallery

One of the things about Hitchens’ work that appeals to me, is the draughtsmanship evident in his paintings.  At first glance some of his paintings can appear to be the result of random and sometimes haphazard placing of a colour on a canvas, yet on closer inspection these images reveal themselves to have the depth and structure brought about by careful planning.  Much as I love Hitchens’ work, I have to confess that I do find much of his mid-career work to be a little on the drab side colour-wise.  He seems to have had a fixation with the most hideous ‘hospital green’, often teaming it with other equally drab greens and greys tempered with sienna, umber, ochre and ultramarine, which dominate his landscapes of the mid 20th century.  His floral works are a complete contrast, and are my favourite genre in Hitchens oeuvre. Hitchens said about his floral painting “one can read into a good flower picture the same problems that one faces with a landscape, near and far, meanings and movement of shapes and brushstrokes.  You just keep playing with the object.”

Flower Piece by Ivon Hitchens
1943, oil on canvas
postcard published by Pallant House Gallery and Museums Sheffield

The current exhibition at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex is the largest retrospective of Hitchens work since 1989, showing over 70 works, covering most subject matters from his well known landscapes, flowers and interiors to some figure studies which show a strong influence of Matisse ‘Odelisques’.  Personally, I don’t think figurative work was Hitchens’ forte.  Moving through the exhibition rooms the works chart his progress on the route from representation to abstraction, with a group of 3 paintings being the perfect illustration of this being ‘Outflow’ from 1961, ‘Divided Oak’, 1958 and ‘Spring Millpond’ from 1950/51.  I have listed them as they are hung on the gallery wall, but really they should be hung with ‘Outflow and ‘Millpond’ reversed so the viewer can get a real sense of the move from the representational to the abstract.

Hitchens painted the same scenery for decades, not to achieve the perfect representation, but to express the feeling and spirit of these places.  During the 1960’s Hitchens bought a seaside home in Selsey and this was to rejuvenate his palette, casting aside the drab blue-green-greys and introducing vibrant blues, yellows, red and white.  Huge blocks of spectacular sumptuous colour now filled his canvasses.  The exhibition closes with a quote from T S Eliot which acknowledges Ivon Hitchens’ singular vision through the decades – “in my end is my beginning” and chimes perfectly with Hitchens’ own words from one of his sketchbooks –

Don’t try to find a picture.  Find a place you like and discover the picture in that”.

Publicity material for the exhibition –
Ivon Hitchens: Space through Colour
at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex, UK
29 June to 13 October 2019

20th Century Gothic

It’s been several years since I last visited Nymans Gardens, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I visited recently.  The weather wasn’t great, which was a shame for the middle of August, but although overcast, the rain did manage to hold off while I was there. 

The basic layout of the gardens hasn’t changed, but what had changed was the amount of activities there were available for children.  Nymans has lots of lovely wide open space which is ideal for children to run about in, and it was heartening to see that the team at Nymans has recognised that fact and come up with various garden activities including activity trails and games such as giant Jenga, skittles and croquet.  All this child friendly activity doesn’t detract from the formal garden areas where the interest is more adult orientated.  The Rose Garden had almost finished, with just a few blooms left, while the long border was looking suitably spectacular full of late summer flowers such as phlox, rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan), dahlias and sunflowers.

Wild meadow planting at Nymans Gardens

What had changed since my last visit was the house itself.  A charming country house dating back to the Regency period, the house was remodelled first by Ludvig Messel to reflect his Germanic roots, and later by his son and daughter-in-law Leonard and Maud.  Sadly, on the night of Leonard’s 75th birthday a fire broke out destroying much of the house, with only a small part being saved.  About half of the original property still stands a ruins giving the property a romantic, gothic feel . With only 4 or 5 rooms available to visitors, there was still plenty to see and helpful room guides were pleased to chat about the past occupants and to show interested visitors a selection of albums showing the house as it was before the fire which destroyed most of it and Messel family. The upstairs has now been turned in to a gallery space showing the work of a Polish artist, Mariusz Kaldowski  depicting views around the garden and estate.

The main room have been dressed out as the house would have been in the early-mid 20th century when the Messel family were in occupation.  One of the ‘funest’ things is the stage curtain surround that has been placed around the television set.  The Messel family were very keen on theatre. 

TV ‘Theatre’ (with another scary lady portrait above)

There are several portraits of quite scary looking females which sort of reminded me of Rebecca in the eponymous Daphne Du Maurier.  

One of several ‘scary’ looking female portraits wearing period costume

I was impressed with the small collection of blue and white china displayed in a side room, and had to laugh when, as I was leaving, a man entering remarked that I looked like I had escaped from the room – I was wearing a blue and white striped dress! 

Blue and White china display

Currently the property is trying to raise money to create a special garden in the ruins of the house left behind after the fire.  Some work has been carried out to make them safer, but general public access is not permitted.  The picture here shows the charred remains of the library of rare and specialist botanical books collected by Leonard Messel.  A fitting place to site a brand new garden.

Burned library at Nymans

I enjoyed my visit to Nymans, the property has undergone some changes which make a real difference to the visitor “experience” and the staff and volunteers I came across were all very friendly and knowledgeable. It’s a lovely place and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Navigating the past

Tucked away behind the cricket ground in Guildford are the Wey Navigations.  Opened in 1653, the site was dominated by two boat building families the Stevens and the Edwards but is now owned by the National Trust. This compact property offers an interesting snapshot of a what traditional barge building yard was like. It has been over a decade since I last visited and much has changed including the  addition of the Wey barge Reliance, built at Dapdune between 1931-2 and which sank in the Thames after striking a bridge.  It was acquired by the NT it is now moored at the Wharf for visitors to board and sample cramped, dark conditions that made up everyday life for watermen. Various outbuildings and old stores provide an array of information panels and interactive exhibitions including model navigation system and the block and tackle weight lifting exhibit, where three 56lbs weights are attached to different lifting methods to demonstrate how difficult and easy it can be to lift the same weight.  The complex is very child friendly and would make an excellent schools visit, with plenty of activities available for families.

Relaince, built at Dapdune Wharf 1931-2

The day I visited was the final day of an exhibition by 4 graduate students at UCA Farnham, titled ‘Tumblehome’ it is the result of how these four artists reacted to the surroundings, history and traditions of the wharf.  I found out about this exhibition by accident, and being a huge fan of site specific artwork, was curious to see their ideas.  There was disappointment from the start as there was no information available at the entry kiosk, now it may be because it was the last day of a month long exhibition, but the reception staff didn’t make any mention of it when they spoke about what there was to see on site.

There’s an exhibition here….somewhere

A couple of inconspicuous ‘A’ frame poster boards  signalled where artworks were sited, but I almost missed the largest exhibition area completely as it was so inconspicuous!  A quick check on the NT website revealed a short section about the project and the inevitable self-important verbose statements by each artist.  Of all the work on show, the digitally printed papers and fabric of Noelle Genevier, I felt were the most engaged and relevant pieces on display.  I have to confess that the large piece of canvas and rope suspended from a makeshift wood frame did little to provoke any questions, while the slideshow running in the background opposite was pretty standard stuff, modern photographs interspersed with archive images presumably drawing comparisons to how the use of the wharf has changed from industry to pleasure.  The quirkiest piece was the installation of cottage shaped teapots on show in the Smithy and the giant papier mache teapot in the main exhibition area and which apparently draws attention to our relationship with tea and comfort, a comment I am assuming, on the changing nature in use of the site from industrial workplace to leisure attraction.

Digitally printed fabric in the old stable
teapots in the old smithy
Giant papier mache teapot

Unfortunately most of the labelling of the artworks had disappeared and in the absence of any other information I think that most visitors would have found it all very hard to engage with.  This is hugely disappointing and a massive missed opportunity.  Art is a fantastic way to draw attention to an historical collection or site and to engage a more diverse audience than may usually be expected.   Overall I suspect that the students were not given enough time to work on this project alongside their degree show work which is a shame, although I feel that some of the work missed the mark in terms of thinking and display.  Still, there is always next time.

Live your own life


“Live your own life” – no idea who said that first!

Thank you for taking the time to read this first post of my new blog. My name is Gillian and I am an artist, curator and social history nerd. The above quote, and I assume it is a real quote although I have no idea who may have said it first, sums up what this blog is all about living my own life. The modern world puts us under so much pressure to fill our lives with ‘stuff’, buckets lists of places to go, things to do, food to eat and so on. It has even become a ‘thing’ to have a huge map of the world in your home with flag pins stuck in to show off to your friends how many place you have visited, as if this makes you a better or more superior person in some way.

I am an advocate of the global Slow movement, I think we all need to slow down and put more thought into what we do, and to care more about how our actions affect other people and the world around us. This blog will be a sort of shared ‘personal’ journal of my thoughts and ideas on a variety of mainly art and heritage related subjects and places and from which together we might stumble across something awesome that we didn’t about know before.

The image at the start of this post is the Atlas fountain in the grounds of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. It was commissioned by the 7th Earl in 1850 from the landscape gardener William Andrews Nesfield. The gods surrounding the central figure of Atlas were carved by the sculptor John Thomas of London and were transported to Castle Howard by railway, something that not so many years earlier would have been impossible.