City Planning

Over the last few months, one of the oddest consequences of COVID is that the City of London, which you might have thought might be taking a long hard look at what its future is going to be after nine months in which it has been nearly totally deserted, is instead taking the opportunity to rush through approval for a large number of monster new developments on its fringes, including a big office block in Aldgate, which seems to me to sum up much of the total misguidedness of what is happening:-

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There may be people who think this is attractive, but I am not one of them: it seems to me obvious that it is absolutely hideous and totally out-of-scale, robbing what is left of Aldgate of its character.

Now, interestingly, Chris Ferrary, a former city planner, has described how members of the City Corporation did not want to allow the building of a Marks and Spencer’s in the 1980s because they preferred to retain the surviving pubs and barbers shops. I see the point: that anyone like me who objects to new development cannot see or imagine the glories of the future when all the pubs and barbers shops have gone and we have nothing but gleaming empty office blocks and branches of Marks and Spencer’s.

Having worked for a period on the fringes of the the City myself, I’m afraid I think he is quite wrong and that the City will itself live to regret the annihilation of so much of its historic character as people may have discovered the attractions of staying at home rather than working in soulless and anonymous office blocks. But maybe he and his ilk will prove me wrong.

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Roy Strong’s Diaries (3)

I have finally finished reading Roy Strong’s Dairies, vol. 3, impossible not to enjoy. They are in so many ways remarkable. He never seems to lose his energy and his sense of optimism, always embarking on a new book or a new television programme or a new suit, dressing up as figures from history, photographed by John Swanell, doing his exercises, going out to lunch, learning to ride a bicycle for the first time aged 77, going on holiday, jetting off to San Antonio, going to the gym, always with an eternal sense of confidence and the idea of continual adaptation and re-invention. It’s exhausting just to read it. Amazing to think that he left the V&A in 1987, over forty years ago.

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Roy Strong’s Diaries (2)

Reading Roy Strong’s Diaries has reminded me that I was asked to give a speech in his honour on 4 May 2006. He apparently suggested that I keep it for his obituary. It’s lucky he has reminded me of it because I had filed it under the date and not his name, so have been able to rescue it from oblivion and am re-posting it, if only for my benefit, because some aspects of his many achievements are at risk of being forgotten:-

Where does one begin ? 

I am not going to say anything about his accomplishments in fields too many to mention, nor his extraordinary success as Director of the National Portrait Gallery, not least because I know that he has had at least three other birthday parties already to accommodate the multifarious character of his many friends.

What I want to concentrate on tonight is all that he contributed to the V&A during his time as its Director from 1974 to 1987.   It was not, I know, the happiest period of his life, nor, certainly, the easiest — that, at least, is obvious, if nothing else, from his Diaries.   But I think it is a period in the history of the V&A which is in danger of being forgotten or slightly overlooked, not least because it is now three Directorships ago.

I myself arrived at the V&A in December 1982 to run the new postgraduate course in the History of Design (actually it was called ‘Design and Decorative Arts:  History and Technique’) between the V&A and the Royal College of Art.   It was one of Roy’s many imaginative innovations.   It was said that he had met Chris Frayling (now Sir Christopher) half way up Exhibition Road and, between them, they had decided that they should do something to reunite the spirit of the V&A and the Royal College of Art.   In the post-war period, they had been geographically close, but psychologically apart.   The V&A had been immersed in the close study of the history of the decorative arts, while the Royal College was rightly preoccupied by contemporary practice.   Neither had the language to speak to one another.  

It was entirely typical of Roy’s intuitive approach to the future welfare of the institution that he realised that having postgraduate students studying the collection would gradually transform the whole approach of the Museum to its subject matter.   It was also perhaps characteristic of Roy that he had told the Keepers of the day that the whole point of the Course was to bring them into the twentieth century !   John Physick was a great supporter and presented books to help with its library.

But there were many other achievements.   I must mention his many important exhibitions.   I have never forgotten — and nor has he and many other people — his great exhibition on ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ which he did with Marcus Binney and John Harris and John Cornforth and which opened with the noise of demolition and which did so much to transform public attitudes to the importance of the country house and its future.

When I arrived at the V&A, the Museum was in the middle of an exhibition ‘Artists of the Tudor Court’ and there was much tut-tutting that Roy had himself written and signed the catalogue, which in those days was expected to be studiously anonymous, as if they were written by some bureaucratic committee of faceless civil servants.   Not long afterwards, there was the great exhibition ‘Rococo’, which was a brilliant and pioneering cross-cultural study of a style which had previously been regarded, quite wrongly, as not having existed in England.

But the thing which many people will have forgotten — Roy himself may have done — was that, not long before he left, he set up something called the Future Strategy committee.   It was to look at future change to the permanent galleries, with Michael and Patty Hopkins as Masterplanners.   I was a member of it.   In California recently, Malcolm Baker, now a Professor at the University of Southern California, and I sat over lunch and recollected that much which has happened since at the V&A — the idea of a Masterplan, the idea that galleries should be about ideas as well as about objects, the split between Art and Design Galleries and Materials and Techniques, the belief that they should be funded privately — all of this was owing to Roy.

So what did Roy stand for as Director ?  In my view, as a young and then newly appointed Assistant Keeper in the Education Department, he stood, above all, for modernity.   You felt that he wanted to sweep all the cobwebs away, perhaps sometimes almost too vigorously.   He stood for fashionability in the best possible sense of the word.   He was interested in the history of dress and the history of gardens and the history of food and the history of photography.   He supported the opening of the Boilerhouse Project in the basement under the auspices of Stephen Bayley.   He was interested in the contemporary crafts and opened the Crafts shop supported by the Crafts Council.   But, he also stood, and let us not forget, for the intellect, for the ways in which ideas have shaped the life of objects, for new ideas and fresh ways of thinking, for staff who came out of the universities like Debby Swallow now Director of the Courtauld and Craig Clunas, now at SOAS, and Joe Earle, now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  

Not everyone shared Roy’s vision.   Not everyone has been retrospectively as generous as they should have been in their assessment of Roy’s era.   But I for one have always been a great admirer of Roy as a creative innovator in the world of museums.

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Roy Strong’s Diaries (1)

My copy of volume 3 of Roy Strong’s Diaries has just arrived, which will give me unalloyed pleasure, particularly now that I have checked the entries about myself, in one of which I am described as ‘portly’. It’s true that I’ve never managed to keep up with his exercise regime and every time he sees me he pokes me in the stomach to remind me of its inflation. Now, I can just enjoy the rest of the gossip.

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Alison Wilding

I called in on Alison Wilding’s very beautiful, small, choice exhibition in Karsten Scubert’s gallery upstairs on the second floor of 44, Lexington Street: the domestic scale of the spaces suits the found quality of some of her work, which is mixed in one of the display cases with objets trouvés:-

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The Sainsbury Wing

We spent the afternoon in the Sainsbury Wing, a great treat as all the slots for Artemesia Gentileschi were sold out, meaning that we were able to spend time with the permanent collection, after a long period of enforced starvation of works of art.

I had not truly registered how much the Sainsbury Wing has benefitted from its 2018 re-hang and also, I suspect, from the loan of works to the exhibition in Japan. I’m afraid I think that these two things have been a gigantic benefit, enabling a much richer and more diverse hang, more clearly historical and geographical, moving away from a display of great masterpieces only to a demonstration of the amazing wealth and depth of the National Gallery’s collection, enriched by loans from the Courtauld, including a case of incredibly beautiful ivories.

Having just re-read Dinah Casson’s Closed on Mondays, I was alert to the value of Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s windows looking outside and to the benefits of a re-hang which makes one look at work afresh, including, as it happens, the Madonna of the Pinks:-

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Skulls

I had forgotten the two stone skulls guarding the entrance to St. Nicholas, Deotford Green which we discovered by chance walking back to Greenwich: surprising and faintly shocking as the guardians to the church, where John Evelyn must have worshipped, and much admired by Ian Nairn who wasn’t at all enthusiastic about St. Paul, Deptford:-

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St. Paul, Deptford

I had wanted to visit St. Paul, Deptford again, one of Archer’s major churches, but no hope. Not only was the church shut, but the whole churchyard, so one could not get close enough to admire its Roman baroque detailing. Archer, unlike Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, had after all spent time in Italy. But it could only be seen from afar:-

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Goldsmith’s CCA

I have been meaning to visit Goldsmith’s Centre for Contemporary Art and finally did so today: a very nice conversion of the old Laurie Grove water tanks by Assemble, keeping as much as possible of the disorderly plan and patina of the old Victorian building. It was empty apart from a lone drummer in one of the galleries upstairs:-

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