Stephen Cox RA

Last night, I went to a very beautiful exhibition by Stephen Cox RA in an antiquities gallery, Kallos, in Davies Street, in which he intermingles his own work in porphyry and marble with comparable antiquities.

It reminded me that years ago he asked me to write a short introduction to his work which, as things turned out, was never published.   I checked to see if I still had it.   I do and reproduce it below:-

I must have first met Stephen Cox in 1994, around the time that I was appointed Director of the National Portrait Gallery, because I remember having an animated conversation with him in a restaurant in Albemarle Street about the nature and meaning of portraiture and sculpture — how far the convention retained its validity in the twentieth century, to what extent its conventions could be stretched, and whether or not it was possible to represent someone through their foot.   I disagreed.   More recently, I have several times been invited to attend — I should say, to witness — the opening or unveiling of new work.   Each has been differently memorable because of the quality of the work itself:  its classicism;  its curious combination of being serene and mute and, at the same time, transcendent, intensely articulate in the ways by which it refers to the spiritual meaning of its material — marble, pietra serena, alabaster and sometimes simply raw stone.   Each work has also been influenced by the choice of setting, which has invariably been a part of the experience.

Most recently, we visited the two exhibitions held near his house on the borders of Shropshire and Herefordhire:  one in the new museum attached to Hereford Cathedral;  the other at the Meadow Gallery in a field by the river at Burford outside Tenbury Wells, not far from his house on Clee Hill.

Slightly surreally, we walked round and round the circuit of paths, like a miniature eighteenth-century labyrinth, admiring Stephen’s larger-scale work.   I retain photographs of him standing craggily beside his own rockwork and remember that Stephen Bann was there as well — not surprisingly as an interpreter of Stephen Cox’s work and someone who is enthusiastic, too, about the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who has, more systematically than Cox, explored the relationship between art and the garden in the Pentland hills south of Edinburgh.   In Shropshire, Cox had created a small Stonehenge, very simple, out of beautiful, quite slender, nearly vertical shafts of stone.   Unlike the real Stonehenge, this one could walk through and appreciate the quality of the geometry, the subtle distinctions in the shape and character of the shafts of stone.

Elsewhere in the circuit was a tomb, reminiscent of the Rothschild travertine tomb now in the grounds of Waddesdon;  a stone seat;  an arch into the garden;  and carvings which reflect the amount of time he spends in south India.   They are representative of Stephen’s work:  half-oriental;  half-classical;  with a powerful use of the material qualities of stone and of memory, which gives his work its elegiac quality.

 

 

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Renzo Piano Hon. RA

There are two things that I will particularly remember about Renzo Piano in conversation with Razia Iqbal last night:  one was the sense of a tall, incredibly well preserved architect with a passionate interest in the craft of building (his father ran a Genoese construction firm) reflecting intermittently on the history of architecture – the democratic forces which led to the construction of the piazza which occupied helf the public space of the Centre Pompidou and the origins of the piazza in the idea of civitas;  the other was the incredible pleasure with which he greeted the award of his diploma, more than ten years after he was made an Hon. RA.

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Paul Nash

I had no idea that Edward James employed Paul Nash to design the bathroom for his house in Wimpole Street after his marriage to Tilly Losch.   The floor- to-ceiling ladder was to help her exercise and the room was lined with purple glass to match her ice blue eyes.   Quite something (the photograph is by Dell and Wainwright):-

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Stepney City Farm

I am frequently thankful for Stepney City Farm, not just for its Saturday farmers’ market bringing coxes into central London, but for its greenness, so close to the city and the construction site for Crossrail, both of which can be seen beyond the goats:-

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Post-war Stepney

Every so often I get a glimpse of what post-war Stepney was supposed to be, not the planners’ wasteland lamented by Ian Nairn, but carefully considered yellow brick, low rise and green, as in the Cleveland Estate, named after the Earl of Cleveland who owned the estate up until 1720 and tucked behind the chapel at the end of the almshouses on Trinity Green.   I had never walked through until this morning;  it has an unexpectedly arcadian sense of privacy, helped by the allotments in its middle:-

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Stephen Spender

Prompted by the Hauser and Wirth’s display at Frieze Masters about Stephen Spender’s interest in art – a friend of Henry Moore, took drawing classes with William Coldstream at the Euston School in the late 1930s, bought work by Auerbach at his first gallery show in 1956, travelled to China with David Hockney in the 1980s – I have been reading his son Matthew’s account of his parents and his upbringing in A House in St. John’s Wood:  In Search of My Parents.  It doesn’t tell one much about their interest in art (she taught Visual Perception in the Department of Cultural Studies at the RCA), but it does a great deal about their respective love lives.   I was intrigued by the story that when Anthony Blunt discovered that he was being investigated by MI5 for spying, he simply went to their offices and removed his file, thereby considerably slowing the investigation;  and his description of his wife Maro’s ‘habit of treating a secret as if it were a delicious substance to be spread over a large area, like anchovy paste on toast’.

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Newnham College

The discussion round the legibility or otherwise of Cathy de Monchaux’s new sculpture at Newnham (is it a vulva or is it a tower of books ?  The answer – very appropriately – is that it’s both) made me intrigued as to what exactly had been demolished in order to allow the construction of Walters and Cohen’s new brick building facing onto Sidgwick Avenue.   The answer is Lyster & Grillet’s mid-1960s Strachey building, named after Pernel Strachey, the suffragist Principal who tried, but failed, to get degrees awarded to women in 1921.   I can understand why it was better that it went than a new building constructed in the garden, but I remember rather admiring its hexagonal contextualism at a time when these characteristics were so unfashionable.   This is what the building looked like (not my photo):-

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