Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Mandergate: meanness and magnanimity

The Wolverhampton Mander scandal rumbles on, with, as far as I’m aware, no resolution yet in sight. RBS and Delancey seem well dug in. But for those who still care (I hope you do), here’s a few new thoughts …

Mandergate on Facebook

facebook
Please call in at our brand new Save-the-Hepworth Facebook page, and please – pass it around far and wide. While you’re there, it would be good if you could click to like the page, which will help boost the headline support figure. An online petition is also a possibility under discussion – news of that if and when.

How do you flog a million pound sculpture?

Perhaps not at Sotheby’s, it’s been suggested to me. The seller’s commission of 20% or thereabouts would be a distinct disincentive, certainly, while the similar buyer’s commission would deter any sane purchaser. After all, why pay a person in a suit £400,000 plus between you to bang a gavel when you could do a deal down the pub with no such overheads? And if the seller’s fee is negotiated downwards, the recent practice, apparently, is for the difference to be pushed onto the hapless buyer.

Sotheby’s flog off a Giacometti for – gulp – £65m in 2010. The ‘Walking Man’ looks about as happy as the purchaser, who was saddled with a £7m buyer’s premium.

I’m told that the million plus figure bandied about for Wolverhampton’s Hepworth has actually been offered to RBS / Delancey by a serious enquirer, so forget scanning the auction catalogues – a private sale seems rather more likely, and – for all we know – may already have happened. Unless, of course, as suggested last time, Rock Form will be stashed away in the RBS Art Vault for the foreseeable, to accrue still more value.

Why should the Scots have all the best sculptures?

Saved for the nation - the Scot Bot 'Rock Form'. Could Wolverhampton borrow it for a bit, please?

Saved for the nation – the Scot Bot ‘Rock Form’. Could Wolverhampton borrow it for a bit, please?

Here’s a nice image of another casting of Rock Form in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, looking oddly bluish in this shot. Along with a second Hepworth bronze, this has been there for nearly 40 years, almost as long as Wolverhampton’s version. After the artist’s death, the two were loaned by the Hepworth Estate to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, then housed at the Botanic Garden. Last November they were acquired for the nation via the government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, the Gallery’s director commenting that “it is wonderful that they can remain here indefinitely”.

Wonderful indeed. What a contrast to the main chance meanness pursued by RBS, custodians of the Wolverhampton Rock Form, and Edinburgh neighbours to the Gallery and the Botanic Garden! (And still 80% owned by you and me, I’d remind you.) Is a little magnanimity too much to hope for? How about a long term loan to Wolverhampton City Council, with Rock Form to resume its pride of place in the Mander Centre?

According to recent reports, RBS boss Ross McEwan admits that his company still faces “significant conduct issues,” adding: “Trust in this industry has been so eroded, I think it will take at least five years to get it back …” I believe that Mr McEwan is famous for his optimism.

Centre: a casting of ‘Rock Form’ – maybe the Wolverhampton one – apparently ready for departure in the Hepworth studio.

The Mander scandal: “Give us back our statue, say shoppers”

Yes, I know. Mandergate has hijacked this blog a bit. But bear with me. It’s important. And normal service will be resumed asa decently p. For earlier instalments on Wolverhampton’s vanishing Hepworth sculpture, go to “recent posts” (right), or see here, here and here. For bigger images on this post, just click.

“I have heard the message loud and clear. RBS cannot start to claim to be a bank that always treats people fairly unless we stop doing those things that erode trust.”
Ross McEwan, Chief Executive RBS, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2014

RBS: compulsive art hoarders!

Here’s an angle that, stupidly, I missed earlier. I hadn’t realised how fond banks are of accumulating art, whether for investment, decoration or just plain bank swank. And it turns out that RBS – Mander Centre owners – have notorious form in this area. In late 2009 RBS (bailed out by 45 billion and 80% taxpayer owned, you may recall) was revealed to be sitting on the largest corporate art collection in Britain, thousands of items including a Lowry, a Hockney, a Caulfield, a Paolozzi and a Joshua Reynolds. According to The Guardian hundreds of works were in storage against only one out on loan, despite the bank’s earnest claim to be sharing its goodies with galleries and museums. The Guardian’s report is here, and BBC Scotland’s here. Google will find you many similar.

Andrew Graham-Dixon plays the banker to salute RBS’s “social responsibility strategy”

An immediate PR counter offensive promised an end to inappropriate hoarding; public access would be provided, as reported in The Scotsman, and works would be sold off, as quoted by Bloomberg. Interestingly, even plausible art pundit Andrew Graham-Dixon was wheeled out on The Culture Show to reassure angry taxpayers that RBS were “bending over backwards to make their real treasures available to the public” (his words) and that “the so-called RBS art scandal is just a red herring”. In the seven minutes of his feature, Graham-Dixon barely bothered to look at the art, but he did do a lot of pratting about in an amusing bowler hat pretending to be a banker. He has had better moments.

daily record

Five years on, has RBS kept its promises and shaken off the hoarding habit? Far from it, according to this worrying report in the Daily Record in February this year. Only a few low value items have gone, and the value of the bank’s art holdings is still estimated at £20 million. RBS claims that collecting art is “not part of their current business direction”, but also insists that “the best works will remain within the bank’s estate”. Miserably, when approached by the Public Catalogue Foundation in 2009, RBS declined to participate by making details of their collection publicly available.

This may put the Mander Hepworth incident in a different light. If RBS / Delancey won’t say what their options are, they can hardly blame us for fearing the worst. Despite some pushing by Mark Carney and Vince Cable, RBS boss Ross McEwan has played down speculation that the bank might relocate southwards in the event of a vote for Scottish independence in just two months’ time. If Wolverhampton’s Hepworth is not sold off, where will they keep it? At this rate, it seems not beyond the bounds of possibility that it could end up as the key valuable stashed away in the RBS art vault over the international border in an independent Edinburgh.

Speaking out: Mandergate in the press

After an initial period of silence, the city council spoke out on July 14, in the form of a forthright press release by Councillor Elias Mattu, cabinet member for communities, calling publicly on behalf of the city Labour Group for the return of the Hepworth:

mattu press release

express & star
“I am calling on the current owners to either return the sculpture immediately, or publicly reassure the residents of our City that it will not be sold for their personal profit by providing them with the date we can expect to see it back on public display again.”

The 2003 unveiling [Express & Star]

The 2003 unveiling [Express & Star]

On the back of this the Express & Star was enabled to beef up its rather timid first effort with a splendid headline the following day – “Give us back our statue, say Mander Centre shoppers” – and a revival of their fine 2003 shot of Dr Sophie Bowness and the late Anthea Mander at the unveiling of the refurbished sculpture and time capsule – a great image, in which the sculpture looks extraordinarily powerful and alive. It’s not exactly a “statue”, but never mind; the thought’s the thing. When I last looked, the article had 450 likes.

Meanwhile Dr Chris Upton of Newman University has been busy in the Birmingham Post, with a scathingly witty column headlined “Between a rock and a hard place”:

“People used to arrange to meet by ‘the thing with holes in it’. Unfortunately, in an ultimate extension of Hepworthian style, the holes have now taken over completely. That is, the sculpture has vanished.

Birmingham PostShould I be worried about this? I know that the Mander family are – they were instrumental in getting the Hepworth to Wolverhampton in the first place.

Delancey’s website tells me they ‘take a lateral approach to direct property investment’, and plenty of other things I don’t understand. I have a firmer grasp of modernist art. But I shall be keeping my eye on the hole where the Hepworth ought to be. At present this particular piece of public art is anything but public.”

So Mandergate moves into the public domain. Let’s hope there’ll be plenty more where these came from.

Tweaking the record

I’ve always seen evasion as a form of deceit. But perhaps I’m plain naïve. In business, it seems, anything goes short of the litigious. So it’s been instructive to watch Delancey airbrushing out the embarrassments.

delancey community

In a previous post I highlighted their financial support of Pallant House gallery in leafy Chichester, which hosted a fine show of Hepworth drawings at around the same time that Delancey were heaving the Mander Hepworth onto the forklift in less leafy Wolverhampton. Interesting then, that the latest version of the “Community” page on Delancey’s site is now restricted to organisations they’ve supported in the last year only; conveniently, Pallant House has slipped off the bottom of the list and is nowhere to be seen.

First version: your sculpture is showing …

debenhams

That’s better!

The rather groovy artist’s impressions of the 2017 revamped Mander Centre also featured in an earlier post. The earliest versions of these included a little “before” image for comparison in the lower left corner; one of these, unavoidably, included the prominent shape of the Hepworth sculpture. In the later version, as issued to the press, this embarrassment has disappeared.

Finally, while we’re on evasion, let’s revisit the Mander’s much quoted statement that

“The sculpture was removed on the advice of our insurers, for safe keeping prior to development. The majority of the redevelopment will take place on the lower level, where the Barbara Hepworth sculpture was located. As such, the current landlords were advised by insurers that this valuable piece be removed and stored securely off-site.”

Seems reasonable. But “prior to development” is the key phrase here; when is the work actually due to start? All a bit vague. Helpful then, that supervising architect Trevor Colman was interviewed on Wolverhampton City Radio at the announcement in February, his comments preserved on YouTube:

Trevor Colman: "... starting on the site next year ..."

Trevor Colman: “… starting on the site next year …”

“It’s really now got to the point where it’s able to be announced because we’re starting on the site next year to complete in Summer 2016 with the department store to fit out and be open for trading by Christmas 2016.”

Next year? That’s next year as in 2015? Colman says this at 1.10 on the video and repeats it later. So the sculpture was removed at least seven months before the earliest start date? I’ve heard of safe keeping but that’s ridiculous. But of course, what may be coming up a lot sooner is the impending sale of the Mander Centre – minus the Hepworth, it seems.

“Prior” to redevelopment, yes. Also “prior” to the Day of Judgement, if it comes to that …

temporarily unavailable

The Mander’s missing Hepworth: out of darkness cometh … Sainsbury’s?

Wolverhampton’s wonderful Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Rock Form, has stood bravely in the Mander Centre for 46 years – until asset managers Delancey yanked it out a few weeks ago under cover of the Mander’s future redevelopment. My last two posts tell the shameful story – here and here.

For the last month and more, the owners and their associates have sat with lips zipped, cleverly managing not to deny that the Hepworth may be sold off. And it’s not just my enquiries that have been stonewalled – every objector has met with the same. The future for this important piece of Wolverhampton’s heritage remains completely in the dark.

Coincidentally, just as the Mander Hepworth has disappeared, the huge new Wolverhampton Sainsbury’s has opened for business, with “at its heart” (as the Express & Star put it – actually on a small patch of grass by the entrance) a brand new artwork commissioned by the supermarket.

Out with yesterday's meaningless abstractions ...

Out with yesterday’s meaningless abstractions …

... and in with today's bright new corporate sculpture!

… and in with today’s bright new corporate sculpture!

Out of darkness cometh light (the city motto) is an eight metre column of stainless steel, designed by Planet Art of Pelsall, who seem to specialise in monumental stuff for supermarkets. The cornetto-ish shape is oddly reminiscent of 2012’s Olympic torches; round the base are cut simplified shapes of vanished smoky industrial buildings, from which extend trees that blossom into an Escher-style frieze of escaping birds.

There is a certain portentousness about this symbolism. I was a bit stuck on what the birds might represent, apart from, well, er, birds. But according to artist Julie Edwards they symbolise hope for the future. This must be what Sainsbury’s bosses think public art should look like. I’ve seen considerably worse, I have to say. But I’m not quite convinced that Out of Darkness will still be standing proudly in 46 years’ time. With all due respect to Planet Art, is this what the City gets in exchange for its disappearing Hepworth? And is it a fair exchange?

But perhaps Mander / Delancey / RBS could take a leaf from Sainsbury’s book? If the Hepworth goes for a million pound Burton, why not silence the objectors by filling the empty space in the revamped shopping centre with a mega-impressive sheet-metallic thingumajig, symbolic of the aspirations of a reinvigorated post-recession corporate Britain? I’d suggest a base of stylised closed doors from which extend the arms of hatchet-wielding asset strippers, releasing flocks of pound signs taking flight.

It would be a vast improvement on that fuddy-duddy old Hepworth anyway. Those timeless curves and negative spaces, that grace and balance – after all, what did they mean?

 

The missing Wolverhampton Hepworth – “Outrageous!”

Outrage

My post of June 11 flagged up what looks like the imminent loss to Wolverhampton of the city’s fine Barbara Hepworth sculpture Rock Form (Porthcurno), which has stood proudly in the Mander Centre shopping mall since 1968 – but is now mysteriously removed “for safe keeping”. The post prompted this heartfelt comment from Sir Nicholas Mander:

“Outrageous and truly sad! The previous generation of my family were proud to sponsor one of Barbara Hepworth’s most striking mature works, Rock Form, and installed it in the certain hope that it would be enjoyed by the town in perpetuity. Surely a matter of trust when the Manders company was stripped and sold after 225 years of life, work and activity in central Wolverhampton.”

Deep silence

Now you see it ...

Now you see it …

Meanwhile all enquiries about the owners’ intentions have met with a significant and deafening silence. Understandable that the owners, Delancey and RBS, might be cagey – but the city council? Emails to Councillor Elias Mattu [cabinet member with responsibility for cultural services] brought this on 6 June:

“Hi Richard. Sorry for getting your name wrong … However, I have already asked Keren Jones [assistant director for partnerships, economy and culture] to look into your concerns and report back to me and your good self as soon as possible. Please stay in touch. Kind regards …”

All very promising. But since then, despite my polite prompts, not a word from Keren Jones, and even chatty Councillor Mattu has been struck miraculously dumb. Why the nervous clamming up? Would a little squabble about a sculpture really put off a serious purchaser for the Mander Centre? Hardly, one imagines, but that scenario could be a prevailing perception, and certain people may have become a bit jumpy …

Big profit

... and now you don't! But the ghostly white rectangle left by the plinth has resisted all attempts by Mander staff - I kid you not - to scrub it off.

… and now you don’t! But the ghostly white rectangle left by the plinth has resisted all attempts by Mander staff – I kid you not – to scrub it off.

So it was with great interest, if not great expectations, that I popped in last Friday to see Nick Pitt, Mander Centre Director. Nice office, wonderful view over the city, nice coffee, nice conversation. A very nice man, actually. But not giving much away, simply advising objectors to contact asset managers Delancey’s, further “up the food chain”.

Though Nick did insist that no decision about a sale has yet been made.  But in that case, why whip out the Hepworth long before the redevelopment had even been given planning approval? And why clam up? Nothing may yet have been minuted, but you can hardly blame us for suspecting a definite intention to sell.

Rock Form was bought from Barbara Hepworth for the Mander in 1968 by its architect Stanley Sellers, who died last year (and so is no longer in a position to object to its removal), at the reduced price of £4000. Someone who ought to know tells me that at auction it could fetch well over the million pound figure recently bandied about. Even allowing for the seller’s commission, that’s not a bad profit.

Refixing an asset?

But does Wolverhampton really have to kiss its Hepworth goodbye? The city’s on its uppers these days, and asset stripping its best piece of public art is just another kick in the teeth we can do without. Hepworth’s and the Manders’ intention was that the sculpture should be enjoyed by Wolverhampton people, not by Saudi or Russian billionaires. There are two possibilities:

Judging by the artist’s impressions, the redeveloped Mander Centre will look a bit big on bland and a bit short on inspirational. Surely those whitened acres of horizontal perspective could use a focal point, a familiar marker with a bit of verticality, something iconic, something symbolic of Wolverhampton reborn and reinvigorated, the Centre past and the Centre future? Seriously, what could be better than Rock Form, whose curves and voids are both heritage-ancient and space-age-futuristic, with a popular “retro” flavour that brings the ‘sixties into the 21st century? Stanley Sellers chose well when he picked it from Hepworth’s St Ives garden. It’s just right for the Mander, and the Mander will look sadly bereft without it. How many other shopping malls do you know with something of this quality – something to be proud of? I mean, have you seen the kitsch in the Trafford Centre?

Corporate Social Irresponsibility

Plan B: if there’s no place for the Hepworth in the Mander, shouldn’t it move to Wolverhampton Art Gallery? With recent panic talk of bins unemptied and libraries down to 15 hours a week, the idea of coughing up a million is unlikely to go down too well with the council, even with an Art Fund sub. But the Hepworth was bought at a mate’s rate in 1968, and if they can’t house it, the least its custodians can decently do is to find it a new home locally on a similar basis. Counting inflation at RPI rates the £4000 paid in 1968 would be a tad over sixty grand in today’s money. That seems about the right price to me. And the massive kudos that this act of generosity would bring to the beleaguered Evil Empire at RBS would surely be a bargain in the circumstances? After all, RBS managed to find not one million but £576 million for bonuses in 2013.

rock form originalDelancey’s March 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility policy document is proudly packed with all the right noises – “avoiding commercial short termism”, “high quality spaces that people enjoy” and so on, and lists all the community arty things they support, including Dulwich Picture Gallery, The Wallace Collection and Pallant House Gallery, no less. As it happens, the Pallant’s exhibition of Hepworth drawings has just finished. Accompanying that exhibition, by a fine irony, was a talk by Dr Paul Bowness, Hepworth’s grandson, whose sister Dr Sophie Bowness, with Anthea Mander, re-unveiled Rock Form in 2003. So as Delancey’s right hand was subsidising Hepworths in upmarket Chichester, their left hand was ripping out the Hepworth in downmarket Wolverhampton …

Reading between the lines, I’m not so sure that disposal of the Hepworth is quite a done deal – yet. Rock Form is not actually on the van to Sotheby’s as we speak, but those of us who would like to see it stay in Wolverhampton, where it belongs, will need to do some button-pushing before it really is too late, and we may not have long. Here are some possible buttons …

Steve Burgin, Retail Asset Management Director, Delancey – steve.burgin@delancey.com

Tim Haden-Scott, Property Director, Delancey – tim.haden-scott@delancey.com

Nick Pitt, Mander Centre Director – Nicholas.Pitt@mandercentre.co.uk

Councillor Elias Mattu, City Council Cabinet Member, Leisure & Communities – Elias.Mattu@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Keren Jones, City Council Assistant Director for Culture – Keren.Jones@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Corinne Miller, Head of Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum service – Corinne.Miller@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Councillor Roger Lawrence, City Council Leader – labourleadersoffice@wolverhampton.gov.uk

Keith Harrison, Editor, Express & Star – claire.hancox@expressandstar.co.uk

Wolverhampton’s Barbara Hepworth – how safe is “safe keeping”?

rock formA mooch across Wolverhampton’s depressing and disintegrating city centre usually takes me through the Mander Centre shopping mall, where at least there’s a stately Barbara Hepworth bronze to cheer me up. Rock Form (Porthcurno), one of six castings made in 1964, has stood in the Centre since its opening. At first it sat on a low plinth, but was later made the focal point of a rather tacky water feature thing, hemmed in by tinkling fountains. When that was wisely removed the sculpture was given a clean and re-unveiled on a new plinth in 2003 by the late Anthea Mander and Dr Sophie Bowness, Hepworth scholar, trustee of the Hepworth Estate and the artist’s granddaughter. Inside the plinth was sealed a time capsule, containing items donated by Wolverhampton children. On one spot or another Rock Form has been at home in the Mander Centre for 46 years and in 2003 the intention was clearly that it should stay there for a lot longer. But not any more, perhaps. My most recent stroll revealed a ghostly rectangle on the floor below the escalators where the plinth had been. So what’s going on?

Mander Centre director Nicholas Pitt manages to mask out the sculpture while parading his artist's impressions for the Express & Star

Where’s the sculpture? Behind the artist’s impressions unveiled for the Express and Star, but not for much longer …

In 2010 the Mander Centre formed part of a portfolio of “distressed assets” bought by property firm Delancey, backed by a partnership loan from RBS, the British public’s favourite bankers. In late February this year the Centre management announced an ambitious revamp and extension to be completed in 2017, with a new Debenham’s signed up as an “anchor” attraction. In mid-May, surprisingly, Delancey announced that it would be offloading the Blade portfolio, the Mander Centre included. The revamp, apparently, will not be affected. Agents for the Centre’s sale are Cushman & Wakefield and the asking price is reported to be £50 million. In late March an application was made for planning permission for the first phase of the redevelopment, but no start date has yet been announced. In which case, why has the Hepworth been removed? “For safe keeping prior to development,” according to a Mander Centre spokesperson. This seems a tad premature, given that (a) there is no start in sight, (b) the projected first phase, the demolition of the Bell Street corner, is nowhere near the sculpture and (c) Centre management has promised that the site will stay open throughout the development. Perhaps significantly, the groovy artist’s impressions of the revamp show no sign of the Hepworth.

property week

Property Week: ‘more than a million’ …

Asked to elaborate on “safe keeping”, the Centre spokesperson declined. Asked about the fate of the children’s time capsule, she was silent. Invited to offer a denial that there was any intention to sell off the sculpture separately, she flatly refused, saying simply “The sculpture has been removed for safe keeping. We would not discuss anything else further.” Awkwardly phrased, but I get her drift. In their May report of the impending sale, Property Week estimated the value of the Hepworth at “more than £1m.”

Lots of shoppers, all young white, middle class and buying stuff. Can this be Wolverhampton?

The artist’s impressions of the revamp. Lots of shoppers, all young, white, smart and affluent. (Can this really be Wolverhampton?)

But no sculpture in sight ...

But no sculpture in sight …

Am I worrying too much? In 2004 Royal Mail removed a Hepworth that had stood for 40 years outside Chesterfield post office, for temporary exhibition elsewhere. Mysteriously, it failed to come back, but was later spotted at Bonham’s, sporting an estimate of £600,000. A public outcry eventually forced its return in 2009, at a cost of £500,000 (largely from the Art Fund), though Royal Mail had been pushing for a million. I assume that the Wolverhampton Hepworth is now owned by Delancey and that they can do what they like with it. But let’s put this into some context. Wolverhampton is not unblessed with sculpture of sorts in public places (not least roundabouts), but Rock Form is by far and away the finest and most important. Its selection for the Mander Centre in 1968 was a matter of some controversy at the time, the opposing lobby favouring something trad and figurative, but the Centre’s architect Stanley Sellers, who died last year, was a St Ives insider and a close friend of Hepworth, so Rock Form it was – a bold but entirely appropriate choice. The building went on to win a Civic Trust award, and the Hepworth must certainly have helped.

'Rock Form' in its original location

‘Rock Form’ in its original location

According to Chris Upton’s authoritative account of British shopping malls, the planning committee that granted outline approval in 1964 had been partly won over by the prospect that the Centre would be more than just shops; a ballroom, bowling alley and arts centre or cinema were also promised. In the event, all these community facilities evaporated, but the prestigious Hepworth served “to soften the blow”. According to Dave Smith’s recollection, Barbara Hepworth, interviewed on local telly at the unveiling, “stressed that in donating[??] the work to the town … she intended to enrich the cultural life of the place and to give Wulfrunians a rare opportunity to … experience a piece of living art.” Put like that, it might come over as a bit condescending, but we know what she meant. The intention was good. The Mander Brothers paint magnates owned and built half of Wolverhampton, and the Mander Centre was developed on the site of their original works. The Mander family pile at nearby Wightwick Manor is still stuffed with Pre-Raph and Arts & Crafts goodies, and is now operated by the National Trust. The choice of the Hepworth was entirely in keeping with the legacy of public access to good art that has long been associated with the Mander name. Whoever may own it, the Hepworth is an iconic local landmark and part of Wolverhampton’s heritage. Which makes the Mander Centre’s silence concerning its future particularly frustrating.

'Time is the most valuable thing anyone can spend.' Take note please, RBS.

‘Time is the most valuable thing anyone can spend.’ Take note please, RBS.

Sources Public Monuments and Sculpture Association entry for Rock Form (Porthcurno) Wolverhampton Express & Star 25 February 2014 Wolverhampton Express & Star 29 March 2014 Wolverhampton Express & Star 13 May 2014 Property Week 2 May 2014 Royal Mail and the Chesterfield Hepworth Chris Upton, Shopping Heaven and Hell Birmingham Museums Trust obituary for Stanley Sellers Dave Smith on Hepworth’s interview (start of Preface)

Still more lost British surrealists

A final dozen “lost” British surrealists, or quasi-surrealists, picked from an extended plod through the latter part of the alphabet on the BBC’s Your Paintings site. (Click for enlargements / slideshow. For the previous batches use the “surrealism” tab or go here and here.) Again, the qualifying period is the ‘thirties to ‘sixties, so none of that knowing ‘eighties pseudo-surrealism, which was essentially a post-modernist look promoted in art schools.


Edith Rimmington
has only one painting in public ownership, judging by the BBC site, and this is it. And barely half a dozen visible online, it seems. A great pity, given her considerable ability and her important role in the British surrealist movement. This one is not entirely typical, but it does exemplify the interestingly violent physicality of her images. Next, lest we forget, a nice item by Grace Pailthorpe, the other half of Reuben Mednikoff; I’ve featured Pailthorpe and Mednikoff in a previous post. And then an early piece by the always interesting Julian Trevelyan. Or interesting until the later years, perhaps; at this point Trevelyan was well in the surrealist mainstream, and very much into myth, mescaline and Mass Observation.


Next, some extended perspectives, with and without extended shadows. Who was John Pemberton? Scottish, apparently, born 1908, died 1960. More I can’t say at the moment. But Since the Bombardment is a cracker. Josefina de Vasconcellos was best known as a Cumbrian sculptor, but here, interestingly, stock surrealist elements are employed to carry Christian content. But why not? No date given, though the mushroom cloud on the horizon suggests the immediate post-war period. Last in this trio is a typical trompe l’oeil piece by Oscar Mellor, a stalwart of the Birmingham surrealist group, and often remembered as a publisher of poetry, though his painting career was long and productive. Curvy chicks with their vests off feature largely in his paintings, as Google Images will quickly reveal, but his pics are always something more than banal surrealist porn. Well, almost always.


More wartime angst from Fitzrovian painter and photographer Peter Rose Pulham, represented by this single image on the BBC site. The animal skull is a recurring motif in British neo-romanticism, and this is a powerful version, with an appropriately photographic quality. Pulham knew the Paris surrealist scene, but seems to have been a more marginal figure in the British context. Angst of a post-war nuclear variety from William McCance, here working in a surrealist vein, though better known for his paintings of the ‘twenties, when his portraits borrowed strongly from Wyndham Lewis, alongside landscapes of shiny cuboid constructions. The troubled architect and painter Ralph Maynard Smith (1904-64) seems to have been quite outside organised surrealism, but his work, somewhat akin to that of Paul Nash, is well worth attention, and his legacy is now promoted by the Trust that bears his name, which maintains a revealing website.


Frederick MacDonald is another mystery, with just this single canvas on the BBC site, painted around 1960. I like the surrealist atmosphere and the period feel of these scratchy mechanomorphs. Much better known is Gordon Onslow Ford, friend of Matta and surrealist insider, though his force-line automatism deserves higher billing.

To be fair, some of these names may be rather less “lost” than others. I’ve not bothered with Dorothea Tanning, John Tunnard or Edward Wadsworth as all too well known. I’ve also left out Conroy Maddox, whom in any case I consider (despite – or rather because of – his affected surrealist ultra-orthodoxy) a mere pasticheur. Nor am I fond enough of the squidgy doodles of Desmond Morris. Well, it’s my choice. But to finish the round dozen, here’s another Birmingham name that, admittedly, is not truly “lost” – John Melville, a number of whose paintings feature children bewildered by nature. Michel Remy describes The Museum of Natural History of the Child as “one of the key paintings of British surrealism”, though he doesn’t really explain why. On the BBC site the title of the painting is altered and the image is mirrored. I imagine that Melville, who made a very spooky drawing of Carroll’s Alice, would have enjoyed that.

Nico, the moving target

cible mouvanteAn earlier post on the poetic status of the heroic and heroin-riddled chanteuse Nico was made in shameful ignorance of this – Cible Mouvante, her collected writings as scrounged together by her son Ari Boulogne, and published by Pauvert in 2001. Translations into French are by Daniel Bismuth and the whole thing is organised by Serge Féray, with a brief preface by Ari, le petit chevalier himself.

The collected lyrics are useful, but the main interest has to be the previously unpublished stuff, a mélange of poems, drafts and fragments, together with the surviving pages of the “journal” that was to make her fortune; these latter drift between diary entries, thoughts for the day and stream of (un)consciousness meanderings. Much else must have been lost or discarded along the way. It’s maybe not the “Collected” we would have wanted, but it’s a long way better than nothing at all. Much (the journal included) was written in English, and is set alongside the French translations, making it considerably accessible for the English reader.

What’s intended as poetry is not extensive. Some pieces are clearly first drafts, offhand jottings. Others are more resolved. Some are rather good:

Neutrino

Give me my stage the only territory
That belongs to me alone
There are a few other examples
They might be in a house
A theatre in a country that has deceased
My stage belongs to a country
That has not yet been born
On a planet not yet named
It is the biggest stage of the universe
I had to leave some time ago
You cannot see it
90 million miles away from here
Neutrino is

The Model Millionaire

Do not look at him as he appears
His guises they are rags like mine
And do not think that his rags are poor
A model millionaire has a choice of rags
To suit his soul to wear
Better than an overcrowded sphere
A man that hides between the crowd
Of faces crying for some fun …

It’s also interesting to see the thin remains of evidence that Nico did in fact re-draft and hack quite hard in the transition from a “poem” to a song lyric, as Féray notes:

Reading the first drafts of the poems sung in Fata Morgana, and collected here, we can appreciate the work of pruning achieved by the author before making “public” her “intimacy.” (My translation)

This goes against the conventional wisdom. “As usual, Nico only had a few sketches,” comments her keyboard player James Young in his account of the preparations for her last concert, at the Berlin Planetarium. But Young often seems gratuitously waspish for the sake of a good yarn. Biographer Richard Witts makes the same assumption, asserting that “she’d written next to nothing. One song comprised two lines.” It’s true that I Will be Seven, as played at the concert and released on the (official) Fata Morgana CD and the (rip off) Hanging Gardens does indeed contain just two lines of lyrics:

I I will be seven
When we meet in heaven

But these have to be set against the extremely rough draft from which they were refined:

On a Cross-Road in Shanghai

There was grace
nicoAt other a time there was a face
What I see (at the present time) today
Is so different and does not
Make me smile at what makes me sight
Can you ask me to be blind
It (there) will be a day perhaps in December
for everybody to remember
on a crossroad in Shanghai
you can be the story of my life
and I I will be seven
when we shall meet in heaven
You can be a crocodile
And I I will be seven
on a crossroad in Shanghai
you stand as one (stands) in a dream.

As her ability to write receded, she was absolutely correct to trim away all the obvious dross, leaving herself with the two decent lines remaining. It shows commendable integrity. Likewise, the three surviving sung lines of Your Voice must have been boiled down from something considerably longer, but the sacrificed text no longer exists.

While this –

A hazy horizon is closing
The curtain to a perfect stage
I stumble twisted slightly
Atrociously the world
Is landing at my feet
Who of all the faces would it be
Where of all the places should it be
(Late as always you enter
wondering who is standing in center)
Laughing and coughing
Coughing and laughing
In the hanging gardens of Semiramis

- is judiciously reshaped to this:

The Hanging Gardens of Semiramis

A hazy horizon is closing
The curtain to a perfect stage
How I stumbled twisted slightly
Atrociously
The world is landing at my feet

Who of all the faces could it be
Where of all the places should it be
Laughing and coughing
Coughing and laughing
In the hanging gardens
Of Semiramis

Incidentally, there is something of a Nico-spotting industry these days, her countless early anonymous appearances in fashion pages, knitting patterns and so on being assiduously clocked and posted on Nico sites or flogged off on eBay. This can throw up some telling juxtapositions.

der stern

popular

 

 

 

Inside the cabinet

cabinet

Found photos, manipulated.

The Kensingtons in Parenthesis: 1914-18’s best poem and painting

Still some weeks to the precise centenary of the outbreak of war, though in telly terms we seem to have been in the trenches for a considerable time already. This may be a quick, cheap post, but last time’s woodcut by David Jones brings to mind his panoramic book length poem In Parenthesis, which to my mind has to stand as the single finest poetic response in the English language to the experience of that conflict.

More of that in a moment, but for the equivalent finest British painting – Lewis, Nash, Nevinson and others notwithstanding – I’d take a step back from modernism and go for Eric Kennington‘s haunting The Kensingtons at Laventie, which shows the painter himself (the left of the two faces in balaclavas) and his comrades at a stilled moment of exhaustion.

laventie
It’s a big piece, and painted on glass, so that with Kennington standing behind his “canvas” the tiniest of details were put in first, working back progressively to the larger areas of colour. Though in itself that doesn’t necessarily make for virtue, you have to admire his technical wizardry – how the hell did he do it? However it was done, the effect is to dislocate and flatten the already limited perspective in a manner reminiscent of Uccello, heightening painfully the luminous physical presence of the figures and of the curiously graceful debris that surrounds them. Like In Parenthesis, Kennington’s painting presents the sufferings of the ordinary soldier at a sacramental pitch.

parenthesis

Though Kennington, wearing his sculptor’s hat, later went in for some sub-Epstein direct carving, it always came out a bit cartooney, as if he didn’t really get modernism. It’s for his portraits of servicemen that he is still known, and this – being not yet the propaganda that he later turned out effortlessly – has to be the best.

Jones’s In Parenthesis was published two decades after the events it describes. It is both claustrophobic and epic, collaging immediate physicalities with the music hall slang of the common soldier, the bitterly bland voice of the official communiqué, or the ancient histories that Jones finds echoed in current events – whether in an Arthurian dimension or as a reminder of the soldiery who witnessed the Crucifixion. Despite the extensive footnoting required by such allusiveness, the book remains intensely readable. Here is a typical enough passage, describing the emptiness before the advance, the shelled landscape populated only by stretcher bearers and their burdens, by a lone Forward Observation Officer, and by the engineers who creep out to repair his line:

Carrying-parties,
runners who hasten singly,
burdened bearers walk with careful feet
to jolt him as little as possible,
bearers of burdens to and from
stumble oftener, notice the lessening light,
and feel their way with more sensitive feet -
you mustn’t spill the precious fragments, for perhaps these raw bones live.
They can cover him again with skin – in their candid coats, in their clinical shrines and parade the miraculi.
The blinded one with the artificial guts – his morbid neurosis retards the treatment, otherwise he’s bonza – and will learn a handicraft.

Nothing is impossible nowadays my dear if only we can get the poor bleeder through the barrage and they take just as much trouble with the ordinary soldiers you know and essential-service academicians can match the natural hue and everything extraordinarily well.
Give them glass eyes to see
and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward and O, O, O, it’s a lovely war with poppies on the up-platform for a perpetual memorial of his body.

Lift gently Dai, gentleness befits his gun-shot wound in the lower bowel – go easy – easee at the slope – and mind him – wait for this one and
slippy – an’ twelve inch an’ all – beating up for his counter-attack and – that packet on the Aid-Post.
Lower you lower you – some old cows have malhanded little bleeders for a mother’s son.
Lower you lower you prize Maria Hunt, an’ gammyfingered uplands Gamalin – down cantcher – low – hands away me ducky – down on hands on hands down and flattened belly and face pressed and curroodle mother earth
she’s kind:
Pray her hide you in her deeps
she’s only refuge against
this ferocious pursuer
terribly questing.
Maiden of the digged places
let our cry come unto thee.
Mam, moder, mother of me.
Mother of Christ under the tree
reduce our dimensional vulnerability to the minimum -
cover the spines of us
let us creep back dark-bellied where he can’t see
don’t let it.
There, there, it can’t, won’t hurt – nothing
shall harm my beautiful.
But on its screaming passage
their numbers writ
and stout canvas tatters drop as if they’d salvoed grape to the mizzen-sheets and the shaped ash grip rocket-sticks out of the evening sky right back by Bright Trench
and clots and a twisted clout
on the bowed back of the F.O.O. bent to his instrument.
… theirs … H.E. … fairly, fifty yards to my front … he’s bumping the Quadrangle … 2025 hours? – thanks – nicely … X 29 b 2 5 … 10.5 cm. gun … 35 degrees left … he’s definitely livening.
and then the next packet – and Major Knacksbull blames the unresponsive wire.
And linesmen go out from his presence to seek, and make whole with adhesive tape, tweezer the copper with deft hands: there’s a bad break on the Bright Trench line – buzz us when you’re through.

And the storm rises higher
and all who do their business in the valley
do it quickly
and up in the night-shades
where death is closer packed
in the tangled avenues
fair Balder falleth everywhere
and thunder-besom breakings
bright the wood
and a Golden Bough for Johnny and Jack
and blasted oaks for Jerry
and shrapnel the swift Jupiter for each expectant tree;
after what hypostases uniting:
withered limbs for the chosen
for the fore-chosen.
Take care the black brush-fall
in the night rides
where they deploy for the final objective.
Dark baulks sundered, bear down,
beat down, ahurtle through the fractured growings green,
pile high an heaped diversity.
Brast, break, bough-break the backs of them,
every bone of the white wounded who wait patiently -
looking towards that hope:
for the feet of the carriers long coming
bringing palanquins
to spread worshipful beds for heroes.

You can hear him,
suppliant, under his bowery smother
but who can you get to lift him away
lift him away
a half-platoon can’t.
How many mortal men
to bear the Acorn-Sprite -
She’s got long Tom
and Major Lillywhite,
they’re jelly-bags with the weight of it:
and they’ll carry out Deth tomorrow.

There are indications that the enemy maintains his positions north-east of the central-ride. At 21.35 hrs units concerned will move forward and clear his area of his personnel. There will be adequate artillery support.

poets cornerJones was slid in among the “war poets” at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where, like Aldington or Read, he hardly seems a good fit, given that he was so much more than just a war poet.

 

 

 

 

The gardener’s clothes

David Jones 'The Resurrection', 1924

David Jones ‘The Resurrection’, 1924

“She turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was him. He said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She looked at him and said, ‘Rabbi!’ “

What had Jesus found to wear immediately after his resurrection? Why, the gardener’s clothes, of course.

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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