Monday, 6 February 2017

Why Paul Nash is popular

If you had to summarise the career of Paul Nash in one sentence, it would be: It all started and ended with landscapes,. His best work always involves landscapes, especially trees, in the Home counties, and although he flirted with surrealism, he almost never abandoned landscape and natural objects, and ended back with landscapes, albeit less naturalistic, stylised, mystical landscapes (like the one above).  
A second sentence might add: Some of his best-known images are of the two world wars. In these pictures he portrays stark, graphic representations of the chaos and destruction wrought by war. He also demonstrated, certainly in the images from World War Two, a fondness for destruction: scenes of bombing, and scenes of junk from crashed planes and military hardware.
So why was the exhibition packed with visitors? At times, there were three or four people grouped around most of the paintings. The answer to this question is linked to the above. Nash is an artist of the English landscape: to be specific, he celebrates the magic of the rare wild scenes in the southern counties.  His images of Wittenham Clumps, for example, convey something other-worldly about that memorable group of trees. What captured Nash's imagination, clearly, is the stylization of the original; it is a hill with some trees on it. Almost nothing else, and that simplicity is memorable. Once you have seen a Nash depiction of Wittenham Clumps, you never look at the originals in quite the same way.
From his earliest works displayed here he uses a characteristic, soft-shade palette and a tendency to reduce detail to line and simpler forms. An early depiction of Wittenham Clumps (1913, when he was only 24) already shows this tendency to simplification. This tendency stays with him throughout his life, so even when he includes St Pancras Station in his paintings, as part of the view from his window, it is a drastically simplified St Pancras, only recognisable from the shade of the brick rather than the rich detail of the actual facade.
Popular: this is popular art, in the sense that people find the images somehow reassuring. This is not challenging art. For some strange reason, everything Nash draws or paints has a tendency to look beautiful. Even in his most stylized surrealist works, there is usually some satisfying line or relationship to enjoy; this is not stark, like the painters he claimed to be following, such as de Chirico, whose work lacks any of Nash’s lyricism. To demonstrate that Nash paints lyrically, look at the war paintings. Even the First World War images, such as We are Making a New World, despite depicting horror, look attractive – so attractive, that, we read, the image was featured on an official publication about the British War Artists (although they didn’t mention the title). Similarly, in the Second World War images, his depictions of military junk (Totes Meer) and even bombing missions over Germany (Battle of Germany, 1944) are entertaining to the eye. You get the feeling that everything he depicts will become attractive.
The same is true for the surrealist works. Although he tries his best to represent disconnected objects out of context and intrusively, he cannot resist starting with a landscape background, or even, as with the lovely Equivalents for the Megaliths, manages to convey a sense of the Avebury stones at the same time as trying to show abstract volumes. One of the best examples of an object becoming beautiful is a concrete trough he discovered in a field during a walk. This concrete trough appealed because of its rhythmic repetitious shape, and in fact he used the shape as part of a collage, removed from its environment that would make it intelligible. But then he uses the shape again, in Objects in a Field, 1936, and magnificently captures both the object in a recognisable environment and at the same time highlights the strangeness, the unnaturalness of the shape – and puts it all into a satisfying whole, so that the viewer gazes on the image with pleasure.
Finally, if I had to select a favourite image, or at least a period of Nash images, I would choose the very last room, which contains his characteristic landscapes, but now becoming mystical in the same way that Samuel Palmer or Ivon Hitchens takes a view and renders it mysterious. Landscape of the Vernal Equinox contains Wittenham Clumps yet again; but this time not only the trees, but all the landscape around, has become reduced to areas of bare colour with simple outlines, all lit from the sun and moon in the rear of the painting. If you ever wanted to feel that the landscapes of Sussex, Dorset, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire could be magical, here is a demonstration. That’s what brings the crowds in. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

How to look at Cambridge architecture

Cambridge Architecture, by Nicholas Ray, 1994

Nicholas Ray makes some interesting and perceptive observations, but before you get started in this book with any individual buildings, you find yourself in a theoretical debate with the author. Mr Ray states: 
This book is designed so it can be read in preparation for a visit to Cambridge, as an introduction to the buildings of the University and colleges. But it is also intended to contribute to an understanding of architecture more generally.
This sounds good – an introduction to architectural history via a tour of Cambridge architecture. But the author’s true colours are revealed as early as page two. Under the heading “ways of seeing”, he tells us “there are many different ways of seeing Cambridge” - I can’t deny that. He states there are three, but I counted five, which I have numbered for convenience:

1.        “It is possible to appreciate the buildings as compositions of mass and line”
2.        “Another level of our understanding ... can be reached ... by understanding where these materials come from and how they were put together.”
3.        “We may admire the compositional skill of the architect.”

Notice that the first three of these are phrased as ways of admiring buildings - although in practice we may not choose to admire the buildings, but to complain about them. He then adds a further two:

4.        How much did the condition of patronage determine what it was possible to build?
5.        How does the building reflect ... the social conditions within which it was conceived?

 And these five ways of seeing may not be the only five. I would suggest three others, and I’m sure we could all add more:
  1.  Some buildings, but especially many in Oxford and Cambridge, were designed partly for show. They are buildings to show off the capabilities of the architect, the craftsman, and the builder. And sometimes the desire to show off has exceeded the attempt to provide pleasure or delight for the users.
  2. Most of the buildings exist in a historical context. Nobody could build a church without some reference to existing churches. Buildings at Oxford and Cambridge universities were built with reference to a tradition of what a university building should look like and how it should function. For example, it was traditional for older colleges to have a chapel and a dining hall. More recent colleges have a dining hall, but not necessarily a chapel (Murray Edwards College, for example, has no chapel). How do the buildings in Cambridge reflect this very specific requirement to relate to the college tradition?
  3. Finally, like most buildings, the University buildings have been modified over time by later architects in light of changed priorities and (presumably) by the experience of users trying to make some sense of the buildings as delivered. This aspect is typically ignored or only mentioned in passing. The changes might remove the original intentions, but then again they might improve the building aesthetically or for the users – or even both.

What is distinctive about Cambridge architecture? He has an answer for this as well. “Buildings for the colleges in Cambridge are specially pertinent ... because ... the way in which they are inhabited has changed so little over the centuries.” Hence, for the author, “the brief for a new college, such as Churchill or Robinson has not altered fundamentally since the middle ages.”

Is this true? If it has not changed, that may simply be the habit Oxford and Cambridge have of retaining outmoded practices that are no longer relevant, partly because of their unusual administrative structure that makes change less likely, and partly because most of the users (notably the undergraduates, but also many of the postgraduates) cannot complain in the way that most building purchasers can: you can decide not to buy a house; you can decide not to stay in a hotel; but you have little or no choice about your accommodation as an student. 

Here are a few examples of how college life has changed over the life of the University:
  1. College chapels are today no longer required. Even the names of the college imply a Christian tradition that is not relevant for many of the students and fellows.
  2. College dining is no longer relevant for the majority of academics. Since they typically have families, they will live outside the college and certainly not go to college dinners.
  3. Perhaps the idea of the single student in a single room is outmoded. There are plenty of examples of students living in separate bedrooms with shared catering and living spaces for each group.
In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for colleges to try to create a new paradigm for student living that is more appropriate to the 21st century. Don't ask me what these might be - that's for the architect, or the students, or both, to tell us.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Anna Karenina 

Can you remember what you were doing when you read Anna Karenina? With a novel as vast as this, probably every reader makes a note of when they start, or perhaps more likely when they finish, the book. It’s so overwhelmingly huge it is difficult to do anything else. For me, it was some 25 years after I had first started it. I remember listening to it read aloud to me in the car while I drove to work. I got as far as Anna and Vronsky travelling to Italy to a supposed life of bliss – that turned out to be anything but bliss.  I stopped reading (or listening) at that point because I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that it was downhill all the way from that point. 

Now, October 10th, 2016,  I have completed the book, was it all downhill from that point? Well the big surprise was that the novel did not end with Anna’s death. Her suicide, one of the best-known events in C19 fiction, is followed by a much less discussed and commented section that seems to be about nothing more than Levin’s family life. Levin, who seems increasingly to be Tolstoy’s alter ego, has deep thoughts about the meaning of life – and eventually reaches a cosmic acceptance of his state, a kind of religious feeling that requires the renunciation of reason, and that gives him a feeling of universal acceptance of all religions, and a harmony with other people. However, in a rare moment of understanding by Tolstoy, when Levin rejoins society after this mystic moment of harmony with the universe, he immediately realises he has no more patience than before. He shouts at his servant, he gets annoyed with his friends and with his wife. Has anything changed, therefore?  He realises it is a personal feeling, a sense of being, rather than anything he can communicate – even with his wife, and it is revealing how he pointedly refuses to try to explain his state of mind to Kitty. So at least Tolstoy has the magnanimity not to show his major character triumphant at the end of the novel. Levin has to take his place, as before, in the social scheme of things, where he will not impose his ideas on anyone else, but will have the satisfaction of a serene peace with the way things are.

Of course, it being Russia, things were not going to stay that way for long. Tolstoy would have hated the revolution, and would have hated the present state of affairs. Little cosmic acceptance in either world. But then again, we (or I) the readers are mighty pleased to be free of Tolstoy’s endless, boring asides while he tries to interest us in his concerns, which are of little interest to us. Such a major novelist wasting so many pages on trivia – the elections, Levin’s soul-searching, when his consummate skills meant he could have had us on the edge of our seats for four hundred pages, rather than alternating between frenzied admiration and boredom over eight hundred. Both inspired and boring, both infinitely aware of human feelings and ignoring them - that seems to be Tolstoy. I’m not inspired to read War and Peace

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The ten ugliest buildings in Cambridge

We all walk past buildings and sometimes say how awful they look.  (We might do the same when driving, although for some reason a car window makes the buildings outside look much less immediate.) But is our judgement of any value? Is it just that I disliked building X while you liked it, and that’s all there is to say? It’s just a matter of taste?

We tend to notice buildings when we see them for the first time; and even then, only when we observe them in a certain way. When you visit a place you tend to look at the buildings more carefully. When you live somewhere, as I now live in Cambridge, you rapidly forget all about buildings as buildings. You use them, you walk past them, but after a few days or perhaps weeks you usually forget that they had a designer and a purpose. So it takes a special effort to drag yourself out of the everyday, and to look at the buildings around you.

Why ten ugly buildings? Why not ten beautiful buildings? The answer to this is simple. By looking at a building that in some way fails – fails its users, fails its surroundings, for example -  it might be possible to come up with a set of criteria for what makes a building succeed. Heaven knows, we have enough buildings around us to draw some conclusions. So my goal is to determine if there is a set of criteria, of principles, by which it is possible to measure if a building is a success or a failure. And to some extent the comparison of buildings is both fun and also revealing.  

Another limitation of identifying an ugly building is that I may never have been inside the building concerned. This is certainly a failing, but gaining access to buildings is often so difficult I would never be able to comment about most of the buildings I see if I had to see inside them. I would love to, and I will try to enter them, but in many cases it cannot be done.

One specific reason for noticing buildings in Cambridge has been the book Hideous Cambridge, by David Jones (2013). I saw this book in the window of a bookshop on Hills Road, and I admit I was intrigued. A full review of this book would take up a full post, but suffice it to say that Mr Jones has very definite opinions about buildings that fail – often on aesthetic grounds, but sometimes others, and it has been very helpful to have another opinion on Cambridge buildings to measure against mine. If I quote many examples from Hideous Cambridge it should not be thought that the book is without merit. For example, Mr Jones rightly stresses the importance of buildings on the approach to Cambridge, whether via the train station or coming in by road. But he does have a list of worst buildings, including Botanic House and Parkside Piece.

To get the series underway I wanted to include one of the most noticeable ugly buildings, right in the corner of Parker’s Piece and adjacent to Regent Street. As I approached it last year, I noticed it had scaffolding around it, and to my surprise, I find that it has been demolished! This was the University Arms Hotel, or more precisely, the sixties extension to it facing Regent Street. This was designed by Feilden and Mawson, 1965-66, and Pevsner states “Not their best work”. But since I can’t illustrate because I didn’t get to it in time, any discussion of why or how it was not their best work is clearly not possible. I hope my selection of buildings will not always result in their immediate demolition, so we will have something to look at and to discuss, in future posts. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Cambridge college that didn’t opt for ostentation


Magdalen College, First Court (largely 16th century)
It is exceptional to discover an Oxford or Cambridge college that is an old foundation but that has not at some point indulged in a craze to display its wealth by building. Today I discovered one: Magdalen College, Cambridge. Of course there are poor colleges in Oxford and Cambridge (Somerville is an example), but as a rule they tend to be the more recent foundations. Magdalen has quite a simple building history, compared to that of most of the older foundations: just one complete quad, and one building (the Pepys Building) that might have formed part of a quad but never quite made it; one side was never built, and the side that was built faces the other way, towards the river.  Magdalen did have space on its original site to extend its building – the Fellows’ Garden is a lovely informal tree-lined walk alongside the River Cam – but, fortunately, never did. The rear side of the Pepys Building is a rather quiet brick range that blends well with the relaxed, almost unkempt style of the garden it faces.

Magdalen College, Fellows' Garden (by the river)

So where to build next? Magdalene College took over many of the buildings on other side of Magdalen Street. Here again, the policy was largely small-scale and unostentatious. Rather than demolishing the higgledy-piggledy set of old buildings they had bought up, the College had them restored, and the result is a marvellous informal collection of buildings. None of the buildings is major in its own right, but the impression overall is of a human-scale neighbourhood – perhaps unique in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, the story on that side of the street isn’t entirely a good one. It’s unfair to single out less than impressive newer buildings alongside an older foundation, but one or two of the 20th-century buildings are very poor. There is a huge block by Edwin Lutyens, Benson Court, 1931-32, which Pevsner praises for its details. The details may be fine, but the overall impression is on overbearing, inharmonious whole. Nice details, perhaps, but lacking any kind of overall statement. If you want proof, simply look towards Powell and Moya’s Cripps Building of 1963-67: bold, stark, but undeniably powerful, and a statement, which Benson Court is not.  Mercifully, the College prevented Lutyens continuing – what he completed was only one-third of his plan.
David Roberts, River Building

Unfortunately, Magdalen College has a building even less successful than Benson Court. It is by David Roberts, the very man who demonstrated such awareness of existing landscapes and interactions between buildings at one end of the site; but in his River Building (1956-57), he manages to build something at the same time ugly, out of touch with its surroundings – not linking to the river any more than it links to the existing buildings on the site - and looking more like retirement flats than student accommodation. It seems such a shame to build something so intrusive when the example of keeping a human-scale collection of buildings is just a few yards away.   

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Victory, by Joseph Conrad: more relief than victory

What was Conrad thinking when he wrote this novel? It feels as though he were not fully engaged, as if he were simply going through the motions of writing. There is nothing here of his best work, which appears to be either (a) a Western response to colonization, and (b) the response of humans to moral challenges, that force them to confront themselves. The two factors often appear together.

But in Victory, there is none of this. One rather feeble man, Heyst, does a good deed but is unfairly condemned for it. As a result, he runs away from society to live on an island by himself (although it turns out that is he not quite by himself – he has a Chinese servant, Wang). He is confronted by some very Western villains who are simply cardboard cut-outs of evilness; they don’t convince. He fails to defend himself or the woman staying with him (who he has rescued from a difficult situation).  That’s it! No great moral controversy; most of the book is about westerners against westerners. As a reader, I wasn’t very bothered about any of them.

My complaints about this novel:
1.      The hero is a ditherer. When confronted by a challenge on his island he fails to take decisive action.
2.      The phrase “motiveless malignity” applies to Heyst’s enemy, Schomberg. He is the mechanism that leads to the denouement. But nobody would be convinced by his arguments.  Why would a gang of murderers chase a man for his money when the company he worked for has gone bust, and there is no indication that has ever had any money?
3.      The novel is written by an omniscient narrator, who takes it in turns to write as if from the standpoints of individual characters. Some of the narrative is written as if by the main female character, Lena, a member of a touring band. That narrative doesn’t ring true. On the basis of this novel, Conrad couldn’t write as a female character.
4.      Where is the moral choice, the quintessential component of a Conrad novel?
5.      Is there ever any questioning of why Heyst retreated to a desert island? After all, it’s a strange thing to do (even if it is matched in another Conrad story, ‘The Planter of Malata`, another rather indifferent Conrad tale, which, it seems was written at the same time as Victory.
6.      A few Shakespearean parallels (Schomberg as Iago, Pedro as Caliban, did not lift the novel above the commonplace.
7.      Is there any awareness of any humanity in the non-western characters? No, they are treated as inferior beings. The character of the Chinese servant, Wang, as described by the narrator, reveals a colonial attitude that does not reflect well on Conrad.  By contrast, Kipling has a respect for and a genuine interest in other civilizations; on the evidence of Victory, Conrad has neither.

Incidentally, where is the victory of the title? The novel ends in disaster for all the major characters. My feeling on completing the novel was more like relief at having finished it.  

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Pembroke College, Cambridge: big clock tower, minor Wren, medieval scraps

Like most of the older Oxbridge colleges, Pembroke is a hotchpotch. It does contain the genuinely old, but the old (that is, medieval) is often interesting just because of its small scale. Unfortunately it can rarely compete with Victorian exuberance and egotism, making the original buildings look puny, and as if that wasn't enough, you often find with old colleges the Victorian extravaganza was followed by some modern enhancements that often decides to compete with either or both of the other two styles. In the case of Pembroke, the genuinely old quad, 14th century no less, remains (at least about one side of it) but it has been so tampered with that you need a guidebook to explain what is original and what has changed. If you try hard you can imagine a real medieval quad, but to be honest, you have to import your idea from seeing one of the very few original and still recognizable medieval Oxbridge quads, such as Merton College Oxford. Even the front to Trumpington Street (shown above) has the original scale, but later stone refacing and the addition of two oriel windows. The result is more Tudor than medieval. 

Typical of the Victorians is that they would seemingly change things for the sake of it. Pembroke is famous because it contains Wren’s first building, the college chapel. It’s not the world’s greatest building, nor the worst – an acceptable enough rectangular hall-church, with elegant wood panelling inside But the Victorians were not satisfied with that. They extended the chapel by one additional bay and then rebuilt much of the end wall a few feet to the east. The purpose of this was not to change the outside so much as to incorporate four enormous columns of marble to mark where the extension begins, thereby creating a kind of chancel. Vast expense, conspicuous ostentation, and not at all in keeping with the restrained classicism of the original building. Why did the architect (Sir G G Scott Junior) do it? It’s as if he was saying, I can change any building I like, right or wrong.  

Pevsner likes the quality of the carving on the west front of the chapel, but to be honest, it’s so high up on the street front that most people walking past will never notice if it’s good or not.
Most of the architectural history of Pembroke, like the other older colleges, is the switch from gothic to classical. It’s a bit like a parlour game, trying to spot a little bit of classicism, then pointing out inconsistencies, as in the case of “Hitcham’s Cloister”, a bit of infill joining the original quad with Wren’s chapel, which is classical inside, but which remains gothic on the outside. Nobody is going to notice this inconsistency, except Pevsner.

What all visitors will notice is the amazing clock tower on the library, by Waterhouse, which Pevsner wonderfully describes as “municipal”, imposing a feeling on all the surrounding space that this is a public square. Intimate it is not. The clock is big enough for the whole of Cambridge, not just for one small college.

The other part that I liked was that for once, the modern buildings did not impose themselves on the rest of the college; nor were they apologetic. This is Foundress Court, by Eric Parry, 1995-97. It’s a lovely understated half quad (just two sides) of student accommodation, that simply displays to good effect the lovely white stone of which it is build, with a simple but effective asymmetrical pattern of windows and recesses.

The other thing you notice is the lovely gardening. The stark lawns of the quads are contrasted by a couple of lavish herbaceous borders, and most impressive of all, some completely over-the-top planting to try to compete with some completely over-the-top Victorian building by Waterhouse (Pevsner calls it “fiercely assertive”, and you need something like a banana palm to complete with it).

The feature of Pembroke that is perhaps most noticeable to passers-by is a completely unrelated bit of connecting wall in Pembroke Street, an entrance screen that is not used as an entrance (doesn’t look as though it was ever used thus, and so has a minimal relationship with the rest of the college) but which is astonishingly eye-catching. It is, like so many of the features in Oxbridge that catch your eye, Victorian – actually just beyond Victorian, 1907 by W D Caröe. It’s a great gateway to nothing, but lovely to walk past.