So, what did I learn about Joseph Cornell in the course of the opening ? That he was, shy, reticent, unknowable, never travelled to Europe except in his imagination, was obsessed by the nineteenth-century ballet. Richard Feigen, who became his dealer, used to visit him in his small house on Utopia Parkway on the way back from Kennedy Airport. He kept his collections of objects and memorabilia in the basement. His great nephew sat on the beach with him but still did know him because a) he was unknowable b) he spent his time travelling obsessively in his imagination.
I haven’t had as much time as I would have liked to go through our Cornell exhibition, which opens tomorrow, designed by Carmody Groarke. I remember the 1981 exhibition at the Whitechapel which was a revelation, introducing an artist with an intelligent eye for the imaginatively suggestive assembly of disparate objects and paper artefacts into boxes. I gather he didn’t want to be regarded as a surrealist, but, looking at the exhibition, it seems pretty obvious that his aesthetic was surrealist in terms of the unlikely and witty juxtaposition of different elements of collage, quite apart from the fact that he was a friend of Duchamp and, at the end of the exhibition, did two works which are homages to Magritte.
Immediately south of the Horse Guards Parade and normally monumentally reticent is Sir Gilbert Scott’s great building for the Foreign Office which ended up being a victory for the Neo-Renaissance in the Battle of the Styles after Lord Palmerston rejected the first gothic designs:-
Every so often I can half imagine the scene which Canaletto painted when he depicted the Horse Guards Parade from the south west, full of picturesque incident, the pond in St. James’s Park much less lush than it is now. The Horse Guards itself is not an especially distinguished building, designed by William Kent right at the end of his life (he died in 1748), a piece of flat, patternbook Palladianism, aggregated out of distinct parts like a children’s toy. But tonight it looked good in the evening sun:-
It was my annual visit to the Grange, always a pleasure to see Wilkins’s great Greek Revival mansion; and to find out what Wasfi has in store this year. It was Antony McDonald’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, not merely starring, but completely dominated by Bryn Terfel, his size, beard, acting and stage presence at least as much as his voice. It’s the first time I have ever experienced a full standing ovation:-
Yesterday I made unexpectedly good progress in my efforts to understand what makes good street design. Because he was in London as an external examiner at the Architectural Association, I was able to meet Vittorio Lampugnani, the designer of Novartis in Basel, and pick his brains over lunch in Bedford Square. He confirmed that there is not much literature on the subject until his own book is published next year. Meanwhile, he has published Urban Design as craft: Eleven conversations and seven projects 1999-2011. His teaching is eminently straightforward. Good street design depends on paying attention to it, treating streets as central to the experience of the city, being attentive to the benefits of repetition, and using the best quality materials instead of tarmac. The only problem is that we do none of these things.
In walking down Hanway Street yesterday I was struck by this bright red oversize door surround. But I have been unable to find out anything about it. Hanway Street was developed in the early eighteenth century by Major John Hanway, who translated the odes of Horace and whose nephew Jonas invented the umbrella:-
I finally made it to Oliver Hoare’s beautiful and well chosen exhibition of objects of use and beauty, which he has displayed in a house in Fitzroy Square. He is a traveller and adventurer who knows and understands the individuality of objects and their histories in the spirit of Bruce Chatwin. It closes on Friday:-
I have been trying to remember the history of the casts in the Royal Academy. Some of them may survive from when George Michael Moser first established a new Academy in Richard Dalton’s print room on Pall Mall and commandeered some of the casts which had been acquired for William Hogarth’s St. Martin’s Lane Academy. William Hamilton supplied a group from his collection in Naples. Some were made specially for the collection in the late eighteenth century when, for example, a smuggler was made into a cast by Agostino Carlini (currently in loan to the Museum Leuven in Belgium) and James Legg, a Chelsea pensioner, was cast by Thomas Banks straight off the scaffold in 1802. A group of casts was bought by Thomas Banks and John Flaxman from the sale of Romney’s collection on April 1801. More were donated by the Prince of Wales from the Vatican. And a collection of architectural casts was bought from the architect John Sandars in 1830 (see Julia Lenaghan, ‘The cast collection of John Sandars, architect, at the Royal Academy’, Journal of the History of Collections 2014, pp.193-205). Together they make up one of the best and most historic collections of casts. They will be back on display when the building work is completed.
Tonight I attended a talk by Professor Gerald Libby, the Professor of Anatomy in the Royal Academy Schools (he is only the thirteenth holder of the title since William Hunter was appointed by Sir Joshua Reynolds). It was to mark the departure of the cast collection from the Schools into storage before building work commences. He gave a very clear indication of the importance of anatomical teaching by reference to the glorious history of anatomical illustration, beginning with Leonardo and including Vesalius and William Cheselden.