The Art Museum in Modern Times

I was casually browsing my Google news feed when I discovered to my surprise and pleasure a review of my my book in the South China Morning Post, not a paper that I normally have access to (see below). It says, which is true, that I would have wanted to include the new Herzog and de Meuron M+, had it been completed in time. I have only seen it from outside. And I am conscious that my survey of new museums in China is confined to those on the West Bund in Shanghai, ending with the outpost of the Centre Pompidou which opened in early 2019, the most recent of those included.

Maybe I can do a second edition…


Whitechapel Bell Foundry (91)

This morning, The Heritage Crafts Association has published its list of endangered craft practices. Not surprisingly, bell founding is one of them, regarded as ‘critically endangered’. Of course, there is another Foundry at Loughborough as well, but it too is said to be struggling in spite of attracting funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It is perhaps worth making clear in what way the alternative proposal put forward by Factum Foundation is conceptually different from that of Raycliff, the developers, since the Inspector saw no difference in his report.

Factum Foundation plan to retain the site as a whole, including the 1980s extension, as a working Foundry, continuing to make church bells, but also working with contemporary artists in order to ensure its profitability (this is its core business in Madrid). It also plans to work on the introduction of new, environmentally clean technology in conjunction with the Bartlett.

Raycliff, following criticism of its original hotel plans, now expect to instal a small Foundry into the corner of its ground floor cafĂ© as a memento of the building’s previous use.

These ideas are conceptually – and practically – totally different. One preserves the Foundry in active use, keeping manufacturing alive in East London, the other treats making things merely as a picturesque curiosity, a funny bit of the old world (actually, twelfth century).

The Inspector expressed scepticism of Factum’s business plan, as if it would already have a full order book. This is surely an unreasonable requirement. It’s a fully functioning and successful business in Madrid. Why should it not be in London ?


Whitechapel Bell Foundry (90)

There is still quite a bit of activity on twitter about the Bell Foundry. There are two key issues I have been pondering:-

1. It looks pretty obvious that Robert Jenrick’s Department passed the redevelopment without consulting him. You can hear the pleasure and glee in the coverage on planning websites that he has been so effectively snookered. So, the question is: can he circumvent the advice he is probably being given by his civil servants to let the matter drop ? Perhaps his Special Advisors can help ? Or his legal department ?

2. In the late 1970s, the Hughes wanted to move out of the historic building. The Historic Building Division of the GLC, which was extremely knowledgeable and very effective, immediately moved in and – I think – paid for the extension by James Strike, now being demolished. I haven’t consulted the relevant archive, but there must be people who know the history. Were conditions attached? Did Historic England check the relevant papers before encouraging redevelopment? I doubt it. In which case, there could have been demonstrable negligence which would emerge through Judicial Review.


The National Gallery

It’s such a pleasure going back to the National Gallery post-lockdown, partly because everything has been re-hang to allow for works to travel to Tokyo and Canberra; partly because I find one views everything afresh after months of visual starvation.

Bartolomeus Bruyn’s Virgin, Saints and a Holy Woman, acquired 1924:-

Altdorfer’s Christ taking leave of his mother, bought in 1980 when the National Heritage Memorial Fund was first established:-

Hobbema’s Avenue at Middelharnis:-

A Pourbus portrait on loan from a private collection:-

I sensed throughout that it had hugely benefitted from a radical re-hang, everything placed more logically, with greater variety, and slightly more thematic, but not too obviously, altogether a great achievement.


Whitechapel Bell Foundry (89)

I have been encouraged to illustrate my posts about the Bell Foundry with more photographs. The reason I don’t is because, much as I love the many photographs which have surfaced during the long campaign to save it, I am always wary of copyright and don’t like reproducing things without permission.

But it encouraged me to go back to some photographs I took in July 2019 when a concert was held in the back section of the Foundry which the Planning Inspector regards as totally worthless and sees no reason to spare from demolition, as is proposed in its redevelopment. It has made me recognise that planning law pays no attention, and perhaps cannot, to patina, to the slow accumulation of relics of history, which help to give a building its character. Instead, those who support the Foundry’s redevelopment, including, most remarkably, Historic England, think that it will be in some way ‘better’ if it is restored and improved, poshed up into a modern-day simulacrum of its former self. So, they welcome the intervention of the developer, who will put money into its restoration and turn it into something entirely different from what it was – more modern, more contemporary, serving cappuccinos instead of making things, which is the modern way. But they seem to have entirely forgotten, and disregard, the generations of writers and historians from William Morris onwards who have been hostile to this form of restoration, which disregards the fabric and texture of buildings, the details of construction which make them come alive, and the relics of former use, old machinery as well as bricks.

In July 2019, the fabric of the building was still substantially intact and it would still be relatively easy for someone, preferably Factum Arte, to move in to keep its continuity alive as a working environment, not as a wine bar.

Do the planners not see that there is a difference ?


Whitechapel Bell Foundry (88)

I have been asked if anything can still be done about the Bell Foundry. The answer is:-

1. We need to keep the pressure up on Robert Jenrick to find a solution to the mess we are in, given that his Department has now approved redevelopment, while he himself would like it stopped. What’s the answer ?

2. There could be a legal solution by launching a Judicial Review, particularly over the fact that a junior minister made a statement last summer in the House of Lords which may have influenced the way the Planning Inquiry was handled.

3. Nothing will happen if the issue goes quiet. So, we need to do everything we can to keep up the pressure: in American newspapers if possible; on television and radio; in the Daily Mail. If anyone can help in alerting and encouraging journalists to write on it, please do.

4. There is a relatively straightforward solution if Raycliff can be persuaded to pull out of the historic part of the Foundry and concentrate on the development of the adjacent site, leaving the historic bits properly intact, as would happen in the States, where everyone knows and understands the importance of living history as being as much about people as buildings.


Whitechapel Bell Foundry (87)

I have just been listening to the excellent and very thoughtful appraisal of the issues surrounding the Bell Foundry by Hettie O’Brien, who wrote the recent Guardian long read on it. She conveys how important the Foundry is to people’s experience of London: their regret that so much of London is being sold off for glassy, high-rise redevelopment; the importance of ‘intangible living heritage’ which involves the local community, not just statues of slave traders; she recognises that the redevelopment might not be horrible, but that it is a nail in the coffin for manufacturing as part of the culture of London. I recommend it:-



I’ve had a long day exploring Bath, which I don’t know at all well – so incredibly rich in eighteenth-century architecture and now miraculously traffic-free.

I don’t know whether it’s a result of COVID or some ban at the outskirts. Anyway, it’s surprisingly calm post-COVID:-

In the afternoon, I walked up Great Pulteney Street:-

Up Broad Street and Lansdown Road:-

To the Royal Crescent again:-


Slavery and the Holburne Museum

Given the ferocity of the debate round how far the role of slavery should be shown in National Trust houses, it’s a pleasure to find a very informative display at the Holburne Museum about the ways in which Sir William Holburne’s wealth came from sugar grown on plantations in the West Indies. His grandmother was born in Barbados and her first husband was a plantation owner. His grandfather was a Rear Admiral. Much of his income came from an aunt who owned plantations in Jamaica. Upstairs, the great Gainsborough portrait of George Byam and his family makes clear that his wealth came from plantations in Antigua. This was true of many of the great West Country families. I think it’s vastly much better that it is now made explicit, not brushed under the carpet as it used to be.



I have never been to Woburn Abbey, so have never seen the astonishing collection of Canalettos which apparently hang triple-decked in the dining room and have now been lent to the Holburne Museum.

They are amazing in the way they document the experience of Venice, as the fourth Earl of Bedford did in the early 1730s.

Il Redentore:-

The tower of Sta Maria della Carita, which collapsed in March 1744:-

They are re-doing the roof on a building next to the Palazzo Moro-Lin:-

Shops on the Fondaco next to the Rialto Bridge:-

Alighting at the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi:-

The piazza outside the Scuola di San Rocco:-

You end up, as one does, in the Piazza San Marco:-

It is a way of seeing and experiencing the different sestieri as an eighteenth-century grand tourist, documenting it with remarkable impassive curiosity and precision.