Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: John Lewis

Snaps of mortality

Here’s a few odd things that turned up around corners on our recent trip up North. Even if I have a camera with me when I’m away, in the event I too often end up using my phone, though at times it gives a sort of pleasing phone-y quality, especially in black and white. (Click for slides and click lower right of the slide for full size.)

1: Wystan in Derbyshire

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
at Cashwell raises water …

The boy W H Auden’s fascination with industrial dereliction was stimulated partly by, among other things, a holiday in Derbyshire, and the landscape of the lead mining areas contributes to the decaying backdrop of some of his earlier work. Here, by the side of the Cromford canal, are one or two abandoned buildings and the Leawood pumphouse.


2: Barbara in Sheffield

Spotted in the womens’ wear at John Lewis’s in Sheffield: Hepworth’s Writings and Conversations roped in as a signifier of  “Modern Rarity”, the flower arrangements in the cover image cunningly extended into the display. As prices of Hepworths continue to spiral beyond all sanity, Barbara herself, in trademark beret and stripey top, is now employed by Lewis’s as a “national treasure”, at least of a northern sort, it being not too far from Wakefield here.


3: Damien and Lucian

And on to Chatsworth, the simply too, too large residence of the Devonshires, for the eyeball-bashing “House Style” fashion and costume exhibition, knowingly curated as a stately spectacle of shameless excess. Dramatically subdued lighting made it difficult in places actually to see much of the clothes or to work out what it was that one was unable to see, not that the elbowing crowds of tablet snappers seemed too bothered. In one vast room, housing an elevated, candle-lit, Fellinian parade of sepulchral wedding dresses, I felt a little sorry for the Damien Hirst at the far end, on loan from Sotheby’s but now unable to hold its own against the invading weight of all the other kitsch. (An oversized gilded Saint Bartholomew, holding aloft his flayed skin, this is nicked from Vesalius, as all Hirst’s ideas are nicked.)

It was a relief to struggle out of the sumptuous vampiric gloom to find myself in a small, overlooked, sunlit corner hung with half a dozen Freuds, various Devonshires having trooped off to have themselves done by family friend Lucian in the ‘sixties. After all the spotlit satins, baubles and feathers, what a welcome dose of honesty! The upper classes as they are, beneath the costumes – saggy, vexed, irritable, bored, anonymous. Just people, in fact. The baby has a worrying quality of elderliness, as if Freud had seen in his or her features the sufferings of the adult to come. Now there’s a lesson in mortality that Hirst, a successful dealer in attractive surfaces, just can’t match.


4: Poor Keith

Another passed-over piece of corridor holds a sampling from the archive of Jorge Lewinski artist photos purchased by Chatsworth. Among the familiar faces I noticed the less familiar one of Keith Vaughan, photographed by Lewinski in 1963. Set against the company of his life sized young men, all hard edged, vigorous and assured, he himself seems ill at ease, poorly defined, subdued, resentful, as if the stick and the stool are there to give him something to do with his hands and feet. Or perhaps as if instructed, a bit too cleverly, to mimic the pose of the central figure, generating an unhappy irony. It’s too easy, of course, knowing of his suicide in 1977, to read suffering into any image of Vaughan, but looking at this, while admiring the painter one can’t help feeling for the man.

Curated to death

If there’s one word that’s been abused recently to the point of transparency, it has to be “creative” (as a noun). And if there’s another, it has to be “curate” (as a verb). Wandering through John Lewis in Birmingham the other day I was shocked (but shouldn’t have been) to stumble across this placard:

“We regularly update this space with a carefully curated selection of contemporary designers and standout pieces.

 Discovered. Loved. Curated. All here to be found.”

Space … curated … designers … pieces … found: the language of the art gallery. (Are retail displays yet tagged as “installations”? I expect so.) But I know this isn’t new. In 2012 John Lewis first used “Curated” as an in-house brand for their “boutique space” housing “bespoke selections.” Lately and more generally, “curated” has come to mean simply “offered for sale”. Here fine art and shopping have achieved a horribly overt congruence. But it’s no more than we deserve.

In this particular case, John Lewis’s “curated selection” seemed to be just a bunch of Urban Decay cosmetics, including Vice lipsticks. Again, nothing new, but the brand language is interesting here, isn’t it? It shows where the moral compass is pointing at this moment in the post-millennial flux, and that’s still firmly towards the dark side. Is it possible to imagine anyone keen to buy makeup labelled “Civic Regeneration” or “Virtue”? Outside of some Age of Enlightenment time travel scenario, I don’t think so, but the key question is: why not?


Urban Decay regularly use the language of junkiedom to give their products edge, and I notice that (at least in the States) their sun screen is tagged as “Urban Defense”. Already the fashion industry is not afraid to co-opt the frisson of terrorism, counter-terrorism and mass shootings, witness also the Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb aftershave, whose hand grenade packaging set off a security scare at Edinburgh airport a while ago. Not long now till the suicide belt moves from the bad taste fancy dress market into the high street. Just the job to hold a carefully curated selection of loved and found objects.