I support this proposal (as below) to commemorate Mary Prince which feels like a good and constructive idea to make use of the existing plinth outside the Docklands Museum. But the question will soon arise as to who should undertake the commission ? And the truth is that there are very few people who have the skill and interest to make good and convincing modern commemorative monuments, as I learned when I was involved in the group to commission a monument to Lloyd George in Parliament Square where there were so few sculptors even willing to enter a proposal. Until the recent upsurge of public interest in civic monuments, it was treated as a dead genre and no-one has been taught or trained to undertake them for at least three generations (ie since the second world war). Or am I wrong ?
I had my first trip back into the west end today – to see Linda Heathcote Amory’s exhibition at Browse & Darby and have a sandwich in Green Park. It was a strange sensation – the streets so empty, so few people about, just a very few tourists forlornly carrying Fortnum & Mason’s green bags. One doesn’t know quite how to behave, giving people the widest possible berth on the pavement, half acknowledging their presence as fellow survivors, but without warmth. And yet the shops of Burlington Arcade were all staffed up, waiting vainly for customers. Then I got absolutely soaked bicycling home. I had forgotten that it rains sometimes.
A blackbird has built its nest right outside our dining room window. I feel more than faintly intrusive taking a photograph of her as she probably thought she was safe from prying eyes, deep in summer foliage, and I feel she is looking at me backwards and resentfully:-
We had our first expedition out of town to walk in the grounds of Penshurst, which was much more impressive than I’d expected – a large, rambling set of mainly fourteenth-century buildings which grew incrementally, like an Oxbridge college, added to in the nineteenth century and surrounded by still formal gardens, laid out by Devey in the 1850s with long brick walls, old apple trees and box hedges:-
Listening to Mark Padmore sing Schubert’s Winterreise so incredibly movingly in the empty Wigmore Hall inevitably makes me reflect on the nature of the way culture has been experienced online in the last three months. Music seems able to transcend the limitations of the physicality of performance in a way that I don’t feel that art can. I’m sure that performers will, and do, say that it is impossible to replicate the interaction with an audience in a concert hall; but I find myself relishing the intensity of the experience of music transmitted through the web to our garden in a way that I don’t find zooming through exhibitions is in any way an adequate substitute. So, I suppose the issue is whether there is any difference between listening to Schubert semi-live as broadcast at lunchtime today and on Spotify. I’m sure I’m not the first person to try to differentiate between the nature of these musical experiences.
I just attended an interesting online discussion organised by the British Academy about the future of public culture post-Coronavirus and what the pandemic’s long-term cultural effects might be. A bit of me thinks, and half fears, that human memory of difficulties will be short and once museums, cinemas and theatres have been allowed to re-open and once social distancing ceases to be necessary, normal activity will resume. But as François Matarasso pointed out, this is in practice increasingly implausible, because funding will have been decimated, some institutions may go under, and some cultural habits may have changed long-term, especially the greater use and experience of culture online. Some cultural forms have actually benefitted from Coronavirus: book sales are apparently up, so people are reading more; I have found that I have been able to experience music more, but not museums; I also think that social media have benign elements of sociability, even if they do act as echo chambers.
The biggest issue which came out from the discussion is how online cultural activity can ever be monetised, because we have got so used to experiencing it free. I have been enjoying the Wigmore Hall lunchtime concerts, but I have not so far been asked to pay, except through the licence fee. How performers get paid – actors, musicians, dancers, museum curators – feels deeply problematic and totally unresolved, unless through the public purse which will be, and is already, hideously depleted.
In writing my book about postwar museums, I have included a section on the design of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, which is important for its postmodernism, but also that it led to Jim Stirling being considered for every other major museum project during the 1980s, including coming second in the Getty competition and submitting a fascinating drawing which I have been unable to reproduce for the Sainsbury Wing (it’s inaccessible in the CCA because of Coronavirus). I wish I had had access to the attached very detailed and poignant description of the gestation of the Staatsgalerie’s design by John Tuomey, which gives a brilliantly detailed account of the gestation of the Staatsgalerie and of Stirling’s working method more generally, in the days when everything was done through drawing:-
I’ve been asked for some book recommendations from my recent reading. I’ve been trying to catch up on books about art in the 1950s and 1960s and have two recommendations. The first is Catherine Lampert’s short, but beautifully written (and beautifully produced) book about Frank Auerbach which tells one everything one wants to know about his work from her long and deep knowledge of him. The second is the amazingly enjoyable book about the life and work of Bryan Robertson, The Life of Bryan. When I die, I would like to be the subject of a book which is as comprehensive, funny, truthful and generous. It makes it only too obvious why he wasn’t appointed to the Tate as he hoped – he was still quite young, was magnificently disorganised, never did any planning and, according to John Hoyland, worked from 9 to 5 (9 at night to 5 in the morning); but he supported the work of an amazingly wide range of artists, not just the Abstract Expressionists.
I am open to suggestions of other good books about the period
I listened this evening to Sharon Ament, the Director of the Museum of London, and Asif Khan, one of the architects of its new plans (he is working with Stanton Williams and Julian Harrap) about what they have proposed for the development of the existing historic buildings in Smithfield and their development into a complex, multicultural and food-based account of London’s history. What I hadn’t realised while they talked was how nearly we escaped the development and demolition of the entire site, as is clear on the attached description by Save of what might have happened. It’s a salutary reminder as to how much radical and random demolition is currently happening all over London and how important it is to retain the historic fabric and texture of the city (please note Robert Jenrick).
I have been watching with interest how museum directors have responded and reacted, first, to lockdown and now, as of yesterday, to the opportunity to reopen. Few have been as insanely adventurous as Christopher Woodward, the director of the Garden Museum, who is not only re-opening the Garden Museum on July 4th, the first day he is allowed to, and is opening a Derek Jarman exhibition and the lovely Garden Museum cafe for takeaway sandwiches, but in September is embarking on a sponsored swim from Newlyn in Cornwall through the treacherous seas of the Atlantic eight hours a day to the gardens of Tresco in the Scilly Isles. I salute his bravery. The Museum is still open to donations to give him strength in his endeavours (https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/a-sponsored-swim-to-save-the-garden-museum/).