We had the annual visit last night from history students at Queen Mary who come to see our house as part of a course in eighteenth-century domestic life. I never feel that it is completely satisfactory as an example because the house is a composite and, to an extent, a replica, built in the early 1740s by a local builder on the site of a much larger house owned by Archibald Hutcheson, a crypto-Jacobite. But in 1854 Samuel Briggs cut an archway through the middle of the house to convert it into a carriage works, so that for most of the twentieth century you could drive through it and, before we bought it, it was an exhaust pipe garage. So, it is better as an example of the changing social fortunes of Stepney than it is of how to live in an eighteenth-century way.
I went for a brisk walk on Martinsell to enjoy the great natural amphitheatre overlooking Wootton Rivers and the woods which have grown up along the earthworks of the Iron Age fort:-
It was the weekend of our annual visit to Oare, normally in the height of the summer, but this year in the autumn, with a multitude of rare varieties of apple, the herbacious borders past their best, the trees in the avenue a brilliant orange, and pumpkins piled up for Halloween. Each year we admire the greenhouses, the immaculate range of tools hanging in the potting shed and the compost bed, and this year the apples and onions all classified in boxes. Going round the garden, we were able to refer to a printed catalogue which details every tree and plant, where it was acquired and when it was planted, which even I, as a non-horticulturalist, admired.
After a week of discussion about the decision to axe art history, it has become clear that it was not a direct decision of government (Gove has denied responsibility and Cameron has claimed that it was his favourite subject), but instead was decided by AQA on grounds of the cost and difficulties of administering the exam: in which case it is surely the responsibility of the Chief Executive of AQA to find a way of examining the subject in a way that is manageable; and the responsibility of the current government to make sure that this is done.
I had a sleepless night having volunteered to do cloakroom duty in the morning, the hardest of the front-of-house duties in a busy exhibition from my admittedly limited experience. Thank goodness, it wasn’t raining and the queues weren’t too long so that people checking their coats, bags, scarves and cameras were more friendly than when I did it before. I find it interesting to experience the full mix of people coming to see Abstract Expressionism from all over the world – young and old, families, Scandinavians and Americans, most of them polite as they extract their cameras and mobile phones from their bags. There were no complaints, I hope.
I have just been to a breakfast meeting in which the Grosvenor Estate discussed its plans for the future. The maps which were provided of their estate confirmed what I have increasingly realised as I have paid more attention to the surroundings of the Royal Academy that London, and particularly Westminster, is still very much dominated by the landholdings of the eighteenth-century aristocracy, particularly the Grosvenors who acquired 50o acres of land west of the city by a judicious marriage in 1677. Thomas Grosvenor, the third Baronet, had been on the Grand Tour and returned to marry Mary Davies, the 12 year old daughter of a city scrivener. It was a smart move. The swampy meads which she owned became Mayfair. Now they face the issue of how to maintain the distinctive – and very profitable – character of the estate in an era of a rapidly rising city population, changing patterns of retail, bicycling, Crossrail and autonomous vehicles.
I was invited to visit a collection of livres d’artistes of extraordinary quality – the sorts of book that one can never normally see and handle, laid out on a glass table to pore over and enjoy: works by Bonnard, Sonia Delaunay and, most of all, Picasso, produced in the 1930s and during the war when there were printers and bookbinders using vellum and gold leaf to the highest standards, one offs produced in tiny editions, hand painted, dated to the day they were produced. Of course, the tradition continues, to an extent, in books produced by Dieter Roth in the 1960s and Anselm Kiefer more recently and even a work produced specially by Louise Bourgeois, but they cannot draw on the technical skills of bookbinders like Paul Bonet and Pierre Martin or a culture, as in Paris in the 1930s, which revered the book as a work of art.
I went to a lecture tonight by Michael Heseltine at Queen Mary University on the subject of ‘The Forgotten People: the consequences of over centralised power’, which was the title he would have given to lectures he was planning to give throughout the country had he become Prime Minister in 1990, instead of his friend, John Major. I was particularly interested in the answer he gave to a question about the reasons for the success of docklands. He said that he had been careful to structure it in such a way that its first chairman, Nigel Broackes, came from the private sector, while the deputy chairman came from local government; and reckoned that much of the succcess of the LDDC was owing to the character of its first Chief Executive, Reg Ward. He said that it was important that government was not necessarily able to predict the outcomes of its initiatives. He then told the story of the origins of Canary Wharf: how he had been disappointed that Nigel Broackes had not done much more than buy some cranes and restore the Hawksmoor churches; how G. Ware Travelstead had come up with the idea of a new city which could accommodate the appropriate scale of trading floors; and how Mrs. Thatcher herself had rung up Paul Reichmann in Canada inviting him to invest in the development of Canary Wharf.
It’s been a short while since I went round our building project, but in that time there has been a gigantic change as the project has moved from large-scale demolition to reconstruction so, for the first time, one can see what it will look like when completed.
This is the front entrance hall with the original stone floor revealed:-
This is the entrance staircase:-
There’s more about the ending of Art History A Level in this morning’s Guardian with thoughtful articles by Cornelia Parker, Anish Kapoor and Yinka Shonibare stressing the obvious connections between art practice and knowledge of its history and also the economic as well as cultural importance of visual skills in today’s world. It’s not clear if the end of art history is part of a deliberate cull of so-called ‘soft’ subjects (ie ones which open up broader perspectives on the world) on government orders or whether it is just the unwillingness of AQA, the relevant examination board, to administer exams which cover broad intellectual territory and so are harder to mark. Either way it’s regressive.