Savage Beauty at the Victoria & Albert Museum

An exhibition like this does not come along often and when it receives unanimously positive reviews I am inclined to think that someone or several someones are doing something very right! I found myself outside the Victoria and Albert museum on a rather bleak morning at 8am. The museum had, due to the popularity of the exhibition, extended opening hours and as I entered through the rather labyrinthine side entrance I was very much looking forward to getting to the exhibition. It did not disappoint. Savage Beauty, featuring the designs of Lee Alexander McQueen, pays homage to the corpus of his designs and displays them in such a way as to make the designs both theatrical and relevant. McQueen died in 2010 after having completed some 23 shows. He was a great friend of the late Isabella Blow and many of the pieces were taken from her collection for the exhibition as well as from the McQueen archive.

On entering you go into a very dark space which features the head of McQueen in video form. I would be lying if I did not say this was eerie and unsettling but at the same time the performative quality of the start to the exhibition was really engaging. In the first room, with music playing, you saw three of his collections, one, somewhat disturbingly entitled Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (1992). The pieces were quite extraordinary and connected very directly with McQueen’s interest in the nineteenth century. In his early collections his work frequently contained a lock of his hair, in reference to memento mori jewellery Many of his jackets had human hair in the lining or woven into the fabrics. The references to the Nineteenth century did not stop there as another of the rooms looked at Victorian Gothic with impressive pieces made from feathers alongside rather disturbing face masks made from leather. Each room followed a theme and had music to accompany it; lighting altered from the very dark to the almost mesmerizing light. The Cabinet of Curiosities featured a series of boxes spanning the height of the room; some seemingly too high and yet you could still get a good look by changing your position. I was particularly keen on the China Garden hat made from cork with a detailed and very delicate scene. The Brides of Culloden featuring the McQueen tartan and engaging with his Scottish heritage and what he saw as the absented Scottish history was set opposite pieces referencing the British Empire. Beautiful fabrics, and designs, quite often impossibly unwearable and at the same time desirable! The room decorated much like Santa Maria della Concezione di Capuccini in Rome ( with bones and skulls lining the wall and a dish in the middle of the ceiling with a video projected upon it. The collection looked at representations of the other and the designs featured intensely beaded dresses and fabulous fabrics. This was continued with his collection Voss which set up the works as they had been for the catwalk show. A box reflected your image and then lights let you see the clothes but stopped the models seeing out played with the gaze. The video that completed the show and featured Kate Moss played too. The armadillo boots, the bumster trousers, the alien shoes: all an exaggeration of ordinary clothing and yet intensely playful. The dresses displayed in decorated display cases, were made from shells, leather and stiffened fabric, much like the ones you can see at the Natural History Museum with birds inside. A dress made from razor clams and another from stiffened and painted leather, all so very tactile and yet untouchable.

Descriptions of the items on each piece, often quite impossible to read due to the lighting, were accompanied by quotations from McQueen such as ‘There is no way back for me now. I’m going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible’ and “There’s something kind of Edgar Alan Poe”, he once observed “kind of deep and kind of melancholic about my collections.” The nineteenth century references alongside the cultural and material culture references were thought provoking and engaging.

In as much as McQueen can be seen to be a fashion leader the curators of this exhibition, first shown at MOMA in New York in 2011, are leaders too. The success of the exhibition, the drama, emotion and theatricality were equal to the clothes on display. I do not have anything negative to say and as such it may be deemed a review that is lacking in impartiality but I defy anyone with a love of fashion, not to be moved by this exhibition, and anyone with nineteenth century research interests not to be engage by the interpretation of nineteenth century references and allusions.
Tickets are in short supply with the exhibition ending on 2nd August 2015 but if you can go, do! I wasn’t disappointed!

A Musical Interlude

This, my third week, had me going to a rather wonderful concert at the Royal Albert Hall organised by students from the Royal College of Music. I was walking my dog one evening, and passed by the Royal College of Music and saw the concerts advertised. I don’t know why I had never noticed them before, or indeed why I haven’t been before, but when I arrived home I quickly searched and found a great concert to attend. I mentioned before that it was held at the Royal Albert Hall, however this wasn’t an ordinary concert it was one of the Royal College of Music’s concert with two students playing; one a cellist and the other a pianist. The two students, Jane Lindsay and Jennifer Hughes played three pieces: Ludwig van Beethoven’s 7 variations ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fülen’ from the Magic Flute, Maurice Ravel’s ‘Piéce en forme de Habanera’ and Sergei Rachmaninov’s ‘Sonata for cello and piano in G minor Opus 19. These concerts are held in the Elgar Room, a really beautiful space with windows overlooking the Royal College of Organisists: . An additional perk was the yummy pastry and coffee included as part of the ticket price! At only £11 I thought this was a bargain as the music was lovely – more on that shortly – and so was the location. Interestingly some of their concerts are free to attend so it really is a fantastic opportunity to hear glorious music! The Royal College of Music holds these concerts in a variety of locations and, just in case anyone is interested in attending another of their events, here is a link to their site:

The first piece, by Beethoven, 7 variations ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fülen’ from the Magic Flute, went through several stages and the music itself was moving and very delicate. I found the range of notes played by the cellist quite remarkable and the pitch was far more diverse than I might have anticipated. There was something slightly ethereal about the piece and the different sections each brought out the richness of the instruments. The second piece was by Ravel, and was, I must confess, my favourite. Ravel was a French man however his mother was Spanish and it was interesting to hear the Spanish influence on the piece. It was deeply moving and had rich, warm tones. The final piece by Rachmaninov, ‘Sonata for cello and piano in G minor Opus 19 was much darker and although I do not doubt the technicality of the piece, for it was clear that it took a lot of skill to play, I found its darkness to be less moving, although it certainly was captivating, just in a way that I would not necessarily choose. The two performers were also remarkable to watch; I do not remember the last time that I saw another person feel music like that. When one goes to a concert at, say the Albert Hall, you do not have the pleasure of being in quite such close proximity to the musicians and here you really felt every movement and emotion from both the musician and the music.

This was clearly a very different outing to an exhibition visit but the ability to take advantage of being in London and hearing music played with such passion was a real treat and something I will hope to do again.

A Classical Journey

Week two presented itself with the opportunity to visit the British Museum and after a little bit of internal debate about exactly which exhibition I wanted to see: either ‘Mummy: The Inside Story’ or ‘Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art’, I decided upon the latter. I have dabbled in classical sculpture, namely with my A Level in Classical Civilisation (which is sufficiently long ago as to not really warrant a mention!) but have not really engaged with classical sculpture for some time. Upon approaching the British Museum I was struck, as I often am, by the sheer scale of the place. I admire the collection and the range of work all housed under one roof and yet it isn’t always a place that I find engaging. I think in part this is due to the fact that I feel as though no matter how long I spend there I will never see it all, and that is both exciting and somewhat demoralising.

I arrived inside and the place was awash with conversation; primarily tourists navigating the museum and I enjoyed the walk across the entrance to the exhibition space. The exhibition was divided into several clearly defined spaces and areas of thought. The first looked at the ways in which the Romans copied and restored Greek sculpture. The first room had an old faithful of Greek sculpture, the discus thrower, as well as other figures from antiquity. The discus thrower was displayed on a raised structure and somehow this drew out the beautifully captured positions of the figure. There were also giant marble heads of the two adversaries Hera and Herakles, which were both powerful and evocative. Moving into the next room I was very much struck by the colour. Past exhibitions would have had one think that he marble, or other materials, were not coloured but here there were a real range of hues such as a cast of as archer from the Temple of Aigina c. 490 – 480 BC. It was covered in ochre tones, blues, greens and reds; detailed zig-zagging patterns created tights and sleeves and even the bow and arrow were coloured. It was very bright and it made me reflect on the very narrow view I had previous held about Greek statues. There was also a spectacular stature of Athena which was gold and silver and incredibly ornate. It reminded me of two things; firstly the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens which was viewed initially after the restoration work with horror due to the very shiny gold worked Prince Albert and also Athena which is on display at Vanderbilt University (it is well worth a Google not least because of its sheer scale!) There was also, on the way out a very small, sculpture of Ajax. Pointing the knife inwards and this particularly sculpture, in terms of scale, had a very large appendage; apparently it was supposed to reveal his fear at the moment! Next was a room full of vases with quite extraordinarily detailed paintings. I was stuck by the real sense of movement that was achieved as well as the beautifully detailed pattern work on the arms.

The two areas that followed were of particularly interest to me; the first dealt with funeral monument and objects and the second looked at representations of children. In approximately 317BC it was decided that gravestones with sculptures were ostentations so they moved to a simpler design of just the name and dates. This struck me as at odds with many of the Victorian grave stones which were often elaborately detailed and made to a grand scale as well as those grave stone which held details not only about the age and date but also their precise whereabouts. The nineteenth century funeral industry was so grand, and put people at such an emotionally charged moment in such extraordinary financial pressure that perhaps the Greeks had a point with the slightly simpler memorialisation. Having said that the gravestone showed a woman, very simply posed leaning inwards; it was elegant and beautiful and at the same time intensely moving. The exhibition spoke about the additionally sadness that unmarried women’s deaths were met with. This made me think about the continued importance placed on finding a spouse throughout history. The section looking at children was also moving and charming. Greek families did not announce the birth of a child until ten days had passed due to the high mortality rate. The little gifts and commemorative items from the baby’s birth were exquisite. One had a small, rather chubby baby, crawling across a small vase and another stature showed an old woman holding a baby, representing the span of time and ages. I think that what I particularly liked about these were the fact that I had never seen anything like this before and also that they were so small and very evidently meaningful for those who commissioned them.

Next was a room dealing with pornographic vases and cups; one of which was shaped like a breast with a nipple and detailing on the inside. Vases with men indulging in relationships with men and women were also on display and the liberated way in which such acts were engaged with contrasted with other ages representations of sexual acts and intimacy. The room that looked at ‘otherness’ was also excellent; the Greeks had spent time both stereotyping the physical features of other groups as well as engaging in physical differences. These were captivating in light of the less that progressive adoption of similar stereotypes in the nineteenth century. These vases and sculptures felt, to an extent, a celebration of these differences whereas so often in the nineteenth century such differences are displayed to infer hierarchy and British perceived superiority. Ideas about realism, character and perception abounded throughout these rooms and I felt that the curators had achieved a pleasing range and balance of examples. The final room looked at more recent sculptures and drawings which had taken their inspiration from classical art. Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Creation of Adam as well as two very damaged sculptures which had filled the Victorians with awe due to their realism and size.

This was, I felt, an excellent exhibition. I would suggest that the first two rooms were a little too full of sculptures, for my taste, but the slightly more niche areas really brought the scope of Greek material culture to life. Entrance was reasonable, especially with student discount, and the knowledge that the rest of the museum is free means that the whole visit is not too ruinously expensive and yet pleasingly rich as an exhibition.

A Victorian Pre-Occupation!

After believing that I could spend some time away from the nineteenth century and my research interests I need to immediately report that I am wrong and it cannot happen! I can provide testimony for this in the three exhibitions I went to this week. I didn’t mean to go to three this week, however, somehow it happened and I am not at all sorry that it did!

The first exhibition I attended was at Leighton House, A Victorian Obsession and was co-curated by Véronique Gerard-Powell and Daniel Robbins. The exhibition has been widely publicised and the backs of several London buses have been covered. I have been to Leighton House a few times before, however I really felt that this exhibition bought not only the paintings to life but also the house itself. Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) had the house designed by the architect George Aitchinson and it really is the most incredible fusion of Eastern and Western influences. I think one of the most beautiful parts of the house are the exquisite tiles going up the main staircase which are a vibrant greeny-blue. Anyway, onto the exhibition! The works were from the Pérez Simón collection and each room held a different range of works pertaining to a particular style. The primary focus was upon the female form and works from artists such as Leighton, Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), William Clark Wontner (1857-1930), John William Godward (1861-1922) John Everett Millais, (1829-1896), John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937), John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Talbot Hughes (1869-1942), Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Simeon Solomon (1840-19005), Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Henry Arthur Payne (1868-1940), Arthur Hughes (1832-1912), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Clark Wontner (1857-1930), Edwin Long (1829-1891), Frederick Goodall (1822-1904), Edward John Poynter (1836-1919), Charles Edward Perugini ( 1839-1918) and Emma Sandys (1843-1877) . It was a real treat to go round the exhibition and every room had something of note. I think what particularly struck me was the classical and medieval quality of some of the works; this was particularly true of Alma-Tadema’s work. The attention paid to the folds and patterns of the fabric was remarkable and the scenes were hugely evocative. I also particularly liked the smaller works, one of which was by Strudwick entitled Passing Days (1878). The painting captured a young man who was so preoccupied with the past that he was letting the present pass him by and the disengaged from the future. The details of the faces and the wizened old woman to the left of the corner was rather beautifully conceived in what might ordinarily be considered grotesque. Another painting by Alma-Tadema which I found evocative was The Architect of the Coliseum (1875), the figure is privileged and the pensive look upon his face as his gaze settles on the ground was, I felt, extremely well conceived. Whilst the focus is supposed to be on the architectural achievement, for me at least, it felt that the figure was carrying the weight of expectation which made the experience more personal to the architect than the grand ambition. Undoubtedly the star of the show was The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The painting was incredible with delicately painted, yet effusively produced, roses, dispersed like confetti in the left hand side of the painting, though they appeared to be blowing in from the right. Faces peeked out from underneath and some of the men and women were locked in intense gazes. The woman dressed in softly draped materials looked out piercingly towards the spectator and you really felt drawn into the image and moment. Small studies had been made in advance of the larger painting and the sketches of these were placed around the room. The couch that Alma-Tadema had used in several other of his paintings was also there in the painting and available to be seen ‘in person’ in one of the other rooms. The room was also scented with Jo Malone diffusers from which wafted a rose scented perfume. It was an extremely sensory experience and one which I thought was immensely powerful. One challenge that I felt was experienced in the hanging of the exhibition was the often rather heavy varnish which was used and which, as a result, shone rather brightly on the canvases as it reflected the overhead lights. Exactly what could have been done about this I am not entirely sure but I wonder whether dimming the lights a little further might have made viewing some of the paintings (especially those on the staircase, and in particular Frederick Goodall’s The Finding of Moses) easier, as what I ended up doing was repositioning myself several times in order to see all the different parts. It was a really excellent exhibition and I was very pleased to have made it before it ends on the 6th April 2015.

The second exhibition was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, curated by Kieran Long and Rory Hyde, and I attended the free evening opening. It was far more popular than I had anticipated and I stood queuing (fairly cheerfully) whilst I waited to be let in at 8pm. Upon entering my first thought was: wow! There was live music, lots of people and the sort of cheerful atmosphere of a massive crowd of people that I found pleasant. I went to the bar expecting to buy a glass of something but became somewhat captivated by an elderflower and burdock drink which I succumbed to instead – I wasn’t sorry as it was lovely! The exhibition was entitled All this Belongs to You and featured five artists who each addressed the notion of public space and ownership in different ways: ‘five eyes’, ‘The Ethics of Dust’, ‘muf architecture’, ‘ways to be public’, ‘ways to be secret’ as well as a phonological clock and a series of civic objects. The first room I entered was in gallery 50 which had works reflecting on ‘ways to be public’. The work looked at the ways in which places are conceived and engaged with and the artist moved some of the works to different parts of the room to engage with different ways of seeing. There was a rather fantastic quilt knitted by 400 refugee women as well as boxes containing different artifacts relating to different places. The room though that I found most interesting was ‘five eyes’ which was conceived of by James Brindle; the name five eyes alluded to the five security agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. He had processed all of the 1.4 million digital records from the items in the V&A through an intelligence analysis system. This generated connections between items in really quite surprising ways and I thought addressed questions about the links that other intelligence forms create which are quite different from the ones that the human brain might ordinarily forge connections between. Each of the five glass cabinets had a series of documents and on top of these filed documents rested three physical objects. In terms of my own research and interest in material culture I found this especially thought provoking. ‘Ways to be Public’ looked at the continually evolving nature – and uses – of public spaces and this was in part visually reliant on the holographic photos which revealed – and hid – people depending upon where you stood. I suppose one of my anxieties about such an exhibition is inherently tied up with ways of seeing. The exhibition covers a good part of the V&A and you needed to actively move between rooms and floors. On this note I found two rather amazing things, a painting of “Florence Dombey’ and some celestial balls both of which connected very nicely with my research on Dickens and China! It seemed however that rather than seeing those parts of the gallery that were being walked through and, as a consequence, the paintings and artifacts that were passed, people were on a mission to find the ‘right’ room and the ‘right’ thing to look at. It made me reflect further upon our desire to engage fully with set ideas and somehow the notion of All this Belongs to You was lost at times by a drive to reach a room rather than to witness what was around us. The artists involved with these commissions managed, I felt, to negotiate in really exciting thought provoking, and evocative ways, the ideas under discussion and the connections we all have with public spaces. The exhibition has a series of events attached and ends 19th July 2015

My final exhibition this week was Sculpture Victorious which has been widely panned by the press ( ) however I very much enjoyed it! The exhibition was curated by Greg Sullivan who was assisted by Hannah Lyons and Caroline Corbeau-Parsons. The exhibition was wide ranging yet well organised and moved between six rooms under the following headings: The Image of Victoria; The Presence of History; Art and the Antique; Great Exhibitions; Commemoration and Craft and Art. Each room addressed a different notion, aspect or role of sculpture in the Victorian period and it made me reflect on the ways in which memorialisation facilitates an engagement with ideas, objects and people. In the room looking at the ‘Image of Victoria’ there were some wonderful busts of Victoria along with some coins. There was a Jamaican one-penny coin which looked very similar in design to our current two-pound coin. This made me think about an idea addressed at BAVS in 2013 at Royal Holloway by Professor Michael Hatt entitled ‘Numbering Sculpture’ in which one of the ideas he reflected on was that we all hold sculptures daily in the our purses through the coins that are present there. The coin itself made me reflect on the ways in which we often look backwards in history when designing them and how interest it was that, in my opinion we have borrowed a design. The busts of Victoria were interesting too in as much as they showed the physical changes of the monarch, some of which were less sympathetic than they might have been anticipated to have been. In the second room, ‘ The Presence of History’, there was among other things a highly decorated staff featuring Jesus at the top and the disciples lower with a trailing plant around the main body. Perhaps unsurprisingly the room that focused on the Great Exhibitions really caught my attention! There was also a musical piece that accompanied a sculpture and this reminded me of the way that A Victorian Obsession’ had made the experience of viewing a piece more sensory. The two most prominent pieces were an elephant from 1889 made from lead and majolica and a peacock, made from the same materials that managed to survive a shipwreck. They were vibrantly coloured and the attention to detail was striking. The other piece that I was especially interested in was a finely carved piece of limewood in a glass cabinet which depicted a hung bird with ivy and a snail – it reminded me of some of the cabinets you find in the Natural History Museum of the birds. Equally of note were the small ivory pieces, one of which showed two men working on two pieces of carving and an already carved elephant. It was very small but I was amazed by the detail. The room looking at ‘Commemoration’ was interesting with a series of pieces as well as a video. I did not know that the Eros sculpture at Shaftesbury Avenue had originally had small goblets attached and had been intended as a public drinking point. Apparently some of the vessels had been cut off which marred the celebrations. I suppose, somewhat idealistically, I had not thought of Victorian vandalism – I think of it more as a twentieth and twenty first century issue but clearly I am wrong. The final room looked at some work by Edward Burne-Jones as well as a rather striking piece entitled ‘Pandora’s Box’ in which Pandora held, in a different medium, ivory, a box. The contrast in textures created an unusual effect but one which was highly successful.

The thing that concerned me about this exhibition, and something that I spoke with one of the guides about, afterwards was the expense. In a public institution like The Tate, I rather feel there is duty to make things financially manageable for all visitors. You were not allowed to take photos inside the exhibition and when you left, thinking perhaps that you would buy a few postcards instead, not only were they more expensive than anticipated there was also only a limited range so, the very things that one might want a postcard of, couldn’t be had! The exhibition catalogue was prohibitively expensive (£50). It was explained to me that a lot of items on display did not belong to the Tate and that the catalogue had, had to be outsourced to a different company. I was also told that the Tate’s budget, quite shockingly, had been cut by 1 million pounds. I am not criticising the institution itself, it does wonderful work, there are a massive range of paintings which are always free to view, and it is only the special exhibitions which are charged for, but I do feel that in order for all visitors to be able to enjoy some of the aspects that one can take home, that these should be a little less pricey. I do also want to add that usually the Tate’s exhibition catalogues are around the £25 pound mark but this is when they are produced by The Tate. This exhibition ends on the 25th May and I would suggest that the very negative reviews were put to one side so that you can draw your own conclusions after viewing it; I thought it was thoughtfully curated and presented a stimulating range of works.

So, I will now draw to a close. I have to say I have enjoyed every visit I have made to the galleries this week but this week really is an exception to the rule in as much that three exhibitions in one week is really quite a luxury and won’t be occurring too often! I am looking forward to visiting the British Museum on Wednesday and viewing the exhibition Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art.

Let’s start at the very beginning!

So, what might make me decide to begin a blog? Well, perhaps a little context would be helpful. I have just completed my PhD (well, almost, as the viva is only a few weeks away) and it is a year since I lost my father on 17th March 2014. I have enjoyed my research and feel immensely privileged to have been able to work with the people I have. My research has looked at the ways in which Charles Dickens engages with Chinese commodities as a means of revealing anxieties about the stability of national identity. Dickens is an author I am passionate about but my research interests range broadly in the nineteenth century.

I am beginning this project for two reasons; firstly I want to actually make the most of the city, make the most of the country, goodness, why not make the most of the world. I think that too often I have just been in London and not really taken the opportunities that I might have. Certainly in terms of the PhD I have been dedicated and focussed but somehow or other actually enjoying and learning from the city has taken a back seat and I think that this year is the year to change this. I also wanted to have a project to focus upon and I hope that in undertaking this it will both interest those who read it and also build upon some of my current understandings which I can then productively engage with in in my work.

So, what exactly is my project? My intention is to commit to doing one cultural thing every week for a year, and after going to an exhibition, place or performance, I will blog about it. I must state from the outset that not every outing may be considered to be massively high brow, what I am aiming for here is a happy balance. I also intend to read one book a month for a year that is not connected with my research area. This brings me neatly to the name of my blog: 52 weeks and 12 months.

The first three cultural activities are: 

Sculpture Victorious at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Defining Beauty: the body in Ancient Greek art at the British Museum

Music in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall

The first book I will blog about is:

Mark Tully’s No Full Stops In India

I will very much welcome feedback on my thoughts and equally welcome any book suggestions as I work my way through this project. I will begin this project in earnest on Thursday 2nd April; a date that is meaningful for a number of reasons.

For now, I will sign off but I will look forward to making regular visits to the blog and hopefully getting to know some of those who engage with this project.