My eye was caught this morning by the façade of Abercrombie and Fitch which looked fleetingly like the American Embassy, flying the American flag in the morning sun. Once upon a time it was Queensberry House, the town house of Charles Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry, although it was originally designed in 1721 for John Bligh, an Irish peer, by the Venetian architect, Giacomo Leoni. According to Leoni, he showed the design to Lord Burlington who ‘gave leave to the person who executed it, to set the Front towards his own garden’. Constructed by a Chelsea bricklayer, John Witt, it was later remodelled by John Vardy for the Earl of Uxbridge. In the nineteenth century it became a branch of the Bank of England. So it is perhaps not surprising that it looks more like an Embassy than a fashion store:-
There was a book launch tonight for not one, but two new books by Michael Craig-Martin: one a book which I couldn’t afford on DRAWING and another, which I could, On Being an Artist, which consists of a whole series of short texts which he has written over the years, some published, many of them notes or computerised aide-memoires. He writes with admirable simplicity and clarity about his life, his experiences, and his attitudes to the practice of art.
I have always thought that the back road which runs alongside the Royal Academy, behind the Society of Antiquaries, is one of the more mysterious spaces of central London, a phantom space unused for most of the year, like Down Street, the forgotten stop of the Piccadilly Line. But the road is opened once a year to allow for the delivery of sculpture to the Summer Exhibition, so tonight there was a view down what may be the longest unadorned wall in Europe to the gate which was open onto Piccadilly:-
Unusually, I was at a dinner in which there was discussion about the likely outcome of the election and its consequences, to the extent that we were each required to write down the number of votes cast for the winning party. The majority of people who cast their votes before me thought that Cameron will win by a greater margin than currently predicted. This is based on an assumption that, in the poll booth, there will be a vote for economic stability, as opposed to the constitutional uncertainty of a coalition with the Scottish Nationalists. This may be wishful thinking. I am more cautious, only because I think that people underestimate the hostility to economic inequality and the desire to protect public services and that this will swing votes in the other direction.
There was an event tonight to celebrate the teaching of art history at Cambridge. Reference was made to its antecedents in the 1950s, when Michael Jaffé was teaching in the architecture department, Francis Haskell was a Fellow of King’s, and Michael Baxandall and Michael Podro were undergraduates, but of English not art history (Baxandall was a pupil of Leavis at Downing). The tradition really began with the appointment of Jaffé to run a separate fine arts department, based on the model of the Fogg, where he had been – rather briefly – a student. I remember the core to the methodology as being the comparative method, requiring students to write about the relationship between objects, rather than the identification and attribution of single works, as was supposedly required by the Courtauld. Not a bad discipline.
I was until today unaware that in 1837 a National Monuments Society was established to campaign for free admission to all the public institutions concerned with the display of art, including the British Museum and National Gallery. It was set up by the two brothers, George and James Foggo, who were, like Benjamin Robert Haydon, specialists in the painting of grandiose biblical narratives and, like Haydon, believed passionately in the idea of free access as a way of improving public taste in art.
I have spent much of the weekend grappling, not wholly successfully, with the politics of the 1835 parliamentary Select Committee, one of whose purposes was to enquire into ‘the Constitution of the Royal Academy’. What seems to have happened is that once parliament agreed to pay for the new building of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and that it should incorporate new premises for the Royal Academy as well, then a group of MPs assumed that the Academy should be open to parliamentary regulation. Sir Martin Archer Shee put in a pretty stout defence as President, at least in the published transcript of the hearings. But the attack was in some way counter-productive, causing the Academy to retreat from a more public role.
I was trying to do some background research on the area of the Gard to the west of Avignon when I discovered on my shelves a book by Freda White entitled West of the Rhone. The book gives little information as to who she was, other than the author of Three Rivers of France, a cult book to my parent’s generation. The answer is that she was a Scot, went to Somerville, worked for the League of Nations, was assistant editor of the New Statesman during the war, and stood as a Labour candidate before turning to full-time writing in the 1950s. She is described as ‘a small and determined figure in her trademark tweeds’.
Last night we watched some archival films by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, including an interview late in his life with Magnus Magnusson. Wheeler is a type who would probably never find his way onto television nowadays – so robustly opinionated, so deeply knowledgeable and so obviously politically incorrect. I was particularly interested because he was for a time the Honorary Secretary of the British Academy and I can now more easily imagine him holding court in the British Academy room downstairs with his pipe and carefully curled moustache and vigorously trenchant views.
I was approached today in connection with the campaign to save the small seaside cottage where William Blake lived in Felpham, a village now subsumed by Bognor Regis. In 1799 and 1800, Blake exhibited big works in tempera at the Summer Exhibition, commissioned by Thomas Butts, a minor government servant in charge of military pay. In July 1800, he visited Felpham for the first time, invited by William Hayley, a local poet and patron whose son had just died. Blake loved being by the sea as an escape from ‘Londons dungeon dark’ and thought that Felpham would be ‘propitious to the Arts’. It was for a bit and he thought Felpham ‘the sweetest spot on earth’. But his relationship to Hayley gradually soured, he was accused of sedition by a local drunk, and he and Catherine returned to London in September 1803.