Last night was my first chance to see Matisse in the Studio, a very choice and thoughtful exhibition which was organised jointly by the RA with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, with many loans from the Musée Matisse in Nice of objects he had in his house, and painted – an eclectic collection of vases, two chocolate pots, a green glass vase he bought in Seville, an uncharacteristically ornate rococo chair (he calls it baroque) and wine bottles by which he surrounded himself and transmuted (or was inspired by) in his paintings. He loved objects, lived with them, and learned the particularities of their form and character. He bought African masks in junk shops, visited an exhibition of Islamic art in Munich in 1910, looked at Chinese art in the V&A in 1919, and was photographed by Cartier-Bresson with Kuba cloths stuck on the wall behind his bedside wireless.
Using the second edition of the Shell Guide to South West Wales in its second edition (first edition published 1963, second edition 1976), I became intrigued by the quality and character of the photographs, invariably black-and-white, in a tradition of people-less, atmospheric photography of wild landscape and cottages (there is also a page of vanished workers’ cottages in Llanelli). Most of the photographs were taken by John Piper, a great photographer, and his son, Edward, who died young, but some were taken by someone called Peter Burton. Who he ? It turns out that he was a school master in Scarborough who had read English and Spanish at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had rooms under Wittgenstein, with whom he would go for walks in Grantchester Meadow. A bachelor, he was a keen amateur photographer who sent examples of his work on spec to John Betjeman, the editor of the Shell Guides, who recognised the quality of his work and thereafter commissioned him. One of his photographs of Whitby Abbey apparently hung in the lavatory at John Piper’s house in Fawley Bottom.
We had been going to have dinner in Wright’s Food Emporium even before it was recommended by a reader. Simon Wright had run several restaurants in the neighbourhood before buying an old coaching inn on the road from Carmarthen to Llandeilo which he has established as a grand emporium – restaurant, bar and delicatessen – with local bacon, Hafod cheddar and, for dinner, roast beef tonnato and Cardigan Bay crab, and, as a main course, fresh wild salmon caught in the River Towy by one of the coracle men who are allowed to fish according to one of the nine licences issued each year. They have to wait to put their nets out until they can see seven stars:-
We’ve come to a part of West Wales which I scarcely know at all, beyond the old industrial heartland of Swansea and Port Talbot, over the hill to the Towy valley and then up past the chapel-at-ease of Court Henry into the more remote valley of the River Cothi which is deep green and solidly agricultural:-
I travelled back from Oxford House by way of the back streets and alleyways of Bethnal Green, admiring the sculpture on the street front of the Old Town Hall:-
And the old chimney and block of flats behind:-
The railings behind the Bethnal Green Museum:-
And the modernist shelter in Bethnal Green Gardens:-
The library was lit up by the evening sun:-
So was the railway line:-
And the walk through the back streets:-
I was asked by Josh Spero, one of its Trustees, to visit Oxford House, a community-oriented settlement just off the Bethnal Green Road. It’s one of that generation of high-minded, Anglican, late Victorian settlements, which were established by Oxford and Cambridge colleges (in the case of Oxford House, Keble College, Oxford) to bring ‘sweetness and light’ and a dose of high Anglicanism to the poor of East London (‘come and be the squires of East London’ was the slightly unfortunate way of finding recruits). The building was designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield in the heavy, late Victorian, institutional gothic he had perfected at Selwyn College, Cambridge. In the Second World War, it was run by Guy Clutton-Brock, later one of the founders of the ANC, and turned into more of a local community resource which it has remained ever since, now rundown, but due to be revived by an HLF project.
This is the chapel at the top, currently little used, with an altarpiece dated 1914:-
The arms and Victorian brickwork:-
I need to complete my sequence of posts on John Brinckerhoff Jackson, because I have discovered that he is crucial to the invention of what he called ‘odology’, that is, the study of the American road. ‘Odology is the science or study of roads or journeys and, by extension, the study of streets and superhighways and trails and paths, how they are used, where they lead, and how they come into existence. Odology is part geography, planning, and part engineering – engineering as in construction, and unhappily as in social engineering as well. That is why the discipline has a brilliant future’. For cross-continental travel, he recommends George Stewart’s US 40: Cross Section of the United States of America which he described as the ‘best and most original guide book yet produced’. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that he influenced, if not inspired, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, although naughtily he did not credit Denise in his review (he had his faults).