Tatenotes – A run down to Tate Britain

This week’s “run to a museum in town” saw M and I run down to Tate Britain, which I’d never visited before. Oddly enough, on a previous run into town I had passed the gallery and made a note to visit again this way. Lo and behold it’s almost bang-on 10km door to door, so it was a satisfying achievement.

I liked the gallery itself. It’s a lovely building, and there was a variety of things I hadn’t known to expect.

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We primarily went to see Steve McQueen’s Year 3 photography display – class photos of all (most?) of the 1,500 or so year 3 classes in London, taken in the previous school year.

The visual impact is staggering – those pictures take up a huge amount of wall-space.The above shows a small section of the main gallery where the images are displayed.

If you’re like me and went to school a long time ago, and very much not in the city, you might be surprised to learn that even in primary school, year groups can be  – and often are – split into two and three and sometimes even more forms. So in this display there is often more than photograph per school just for year three alone.

Each photograph naturally contains anywhere from 2 to 30 or so school kids plus teachers and assistants. You quickly spot the similarities in the photos – the reds, greens and blues of the majority of school uniforms. The layout of school halls – generally wooden floors with climbing apparatus on the rear wall. The arrangement of the subjects – along wooden benches, children of varying heights, flanked by adults (of varying heights).

And once those similarities have bedded themselves in, it’s the differences you being to notice. Along with mainstream schools, the project naturally includes special schools which tend to have fewer pupils, or a greater adult-to-child ratio.

The rooms used for the photographs also vary: not all schools have vast halls, it seems. And any variation to the generic school hall you conjure up in your head suddenly sticks out like a sore thumb: the one with the “live, laugh, love” variant daubed on the wall in metre-high script was one such surprise.

There are, therefore, a shit-ton of photos lining Tate Britain’s walls. By the time you’ve circumnavigated the gallery a few times taking in the whole spectacle, you’ve seen the faces of 76,000 children. That’s a lot.

I came away feeling impressed by the scale of the project’s achievements – from the photography to the framing and mounting, to what that size of project even looks like all laid out on the wall like that, to the sheer audacity that such a thing could even be pulled off in the first place.

But I also came away thinking, “Bloody hell, there might just be too many people.” And I don’t think that was the intended outcome at all.


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Away from the grinning faces of tens of thousands of children – I really did need a break after that – I found myself in the Turner rooms. I was pleased to learn that Tate Britain had so many Turners on show, but ultimately it made me realise that perhaps I’m not such a fan. Or perhaps it was the number of his works in close proximity that I quickly grew tired of.

Seeing that many Turners in one space is quite a lot to take in.

In small doses I love his deft use of light and texture to show a scene in such a unique and unmistakable way. But before too long I was actually quite excited to see a crisply-rendered architectural study by Canaletto or, in the next room, paintings by any number of mid- to late-18th century artists whose names I feverishly jotted down in my phone’s notes app for future reference.

I was particularly taken by Stanhope Alexander Forbes’ The Health of the Bride (1889):

The Health of the Bride 1889 by Stanhope Alexander Forbes 1857-1947

When I showed M this painting she commented how dark it looks. Looking again at it now, she’s right.

But when stood almost with my nose pressed against it – and it’s a large painting – I couldn’t help but be taken by the life and movement present in the details of the image.

The boy taking a drink. The man’s hand lightly carressing the lady’s hip at the bottom left. The raised glasses with extended pinkies. And the way the light falls on the sailor’s uniform.

It was all very real. And somehow it struck me as uncannily photographic.

What this made me realise is how much I love paintings which reveal the influence of photography on artists of that era. And I think that just comes down to me enjoying reflections of a scene in as realistic a way as possible. I love city scenes from historic periods. I love interior ‘snapshots’ of a family or other group surrounded by their worldly goods. I love portraits which capture a subject’s skin, and life, and glint in the eye. And I love the ability an artist can have to capture light in a way that almost makes the painting glow.

So anyway. That’s what I re-realised on this latest visit to a gallery. It also reminded me that I have often found myself scribbling down the names of artists and paintings I enjoy whenever I visit galleries, and I should spend twenty minutes sometime adding those various paintings to my TV’s screensaver or something.

I remain immensely grateful to be surrounded by institutions of the calibre of Tate Britain, the Science Museum, and the British Museum, and so on. And I also remain grateful that I am able to get up and run to these places – not to mention relieved that no one seems to mind seeing me in my running gear as I peer at paintings and other artifacts.

For those of you considering running to it: Tate Britain does a great, stodgy flapjack packed with goodies, which goes down nicely with a flat white.

The Charterhouse

I was lucky enough to go on a visit to the Charterhouse last week. It was our annual staff training day – we tend to go to interesting and/or historical lumps of architecture, and this was a wonderful place to explore.

The Charterhouse opened to the public in January 2017, but its history goes back to the 14th century. The story is diverse and fascinating, and the fabric of the buildings themselves is very special. It’s a cliche, but it walking around the place absolutely feels like stepping back in time. If you can visit, I highly recommend taking a tour as the guide we had was knowledgeable and very engaging. We had a wonderful day.

 

The Tube

I love The Tube.

blast! Films has put together a really fun, interesting series looking at the life both in front of and behind the scenes of London’s Underground railway. I’m coming at it as someone who’s rather fond of the Tube, and I can see that it might not appeal to everyone. But for the most part, like any good documentary, it’s just a story about people.

Episodes have focussed on ticket inspectors, drivers, station staff, track engineers and head office  and many more. It’s slickly edited to give a broad view of the system over the course of a day, night or weekend, with lots of interwoven ‘stories.’

You can catch The Tube on BBC iPlayer. All episodes to date are still online. Episode one is here.

As a series of vignettes, I can’t help but find that it reminds me of HV Morton‘s series of essays, brought together in little volumes with titles like Nights of London, The Spell of London, or The Heart of London.

Although Morton’s London was studied and written about in the 1920s, the London Underground features regularly in his writing – as it will in most London stories from the 20th century onwards.

Morton’s writing is detailed and vivid – but not without humour. His observations are often as amusing as they are serious. One of my favourite things is that he writes about scenarios and people that you can still find in London today – just as much as he writes about ways of life that have all but vanished.

I love Morton’s books on London – it’s a joy to flip through slices of life from all over the city, all walks of life, from almost a hundred years ago. He also wrote books about travels in England and beyond.

You can read his 1936 book The Call of England online, and the chapter on Manchester is great. It opens with: “I came into Manchester over a road as hard as the heart of a rich relation,” and goes on to say: “I have been told that it always rains in Manchester. This is a lie; it had just stopped.”

Read the chapter (and the whole book) online, thanks to archive.org. (Tip: if you click the ‘i’ button, top right of the ebook reader, you can download the entire book in other formats.)

In praise of Charles Paget Wade

I never properly rounded-up my time at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, where I spent five weeks this summer. The last few weeks were very busy, and as soon as I had stopped there, I got stuck into another new project. In short, I guess I never fully rounded it up in my head either.
This is all part of a much wider feeling of placelag, a term I’ve come to use more often, and one which rather aptly encompasses how I’ve felt for most of this summer.

But what I want to tell you about today is a man named Charles Paget Wade.

As part of my work at the Trust this summer, I was collating research on some of Hampstead Garden Suburb’s more prolific architects. The plan is to produce some rather neat little monographs on a handful of them, complete with timelines and photographs and drawings of their work. Some preliminary research had been done by Trust staff, and it was my job to bring it all together, fill in any gaps, and write something rather more readable than mere bullet points and dates.

I was honoured to be given this task, and I think I gave it my best shot, completing draft monographs on the lives and work of architects Michael Frank Wharlton Bunney, Cecil George Butler and Courtenay Melville Crickmer.

But what I found really enjoyable was raking through all the gathered research on these men; delving into their world and finding contemporary resources to back up what they did.

My time on the reference desk at Chesham Study Centre (and my general in-built nerdiness) means I have a thirst for such information, and a small but useful repertoire of places to go looking for it. Along with online resources, I also had access to the Trust’s own archive of maps and books.

In one of these books, Raymond Unwin’s seminal Town Planning in Practice (read online at archive.org), I found a map of the Suburb. A fairly decorative map dating from 1909, it contained not just the roads and place names, but also little illustrations of buildings dotted around the area, and small doodles of historic events that took place nearby.

I was taken in by its combination of simplicity and complexity; its informative yet childish style. The doodles were silly and unnecessary, yet the map didn’t lack attention to detail.

I noticed, in the bottom corner, the artist’s mark:
The map can be viewed in full at the Trust website, here.

Something about his turn of phrase – “Charles Wade made me” – urged me to find out more about this Wade fellow, and fortunately I was in the right place. Not only was the rest of Town Planning in Practice illustrated by him, but I had access to plenty more books he had collaborated on, and I was able to ask David Davidson, the Trust’s architectural adviser about him too.

Before long, I had a figurative rough sketch of Charles Paget Wade – one he could have penned himself. “A very strange man,” David told me, who liked to dress up and who had a very childlike nature his whole life.

Another of Wade’s signatures on a different map ran, poetically: “On winter’s nights Charles Wade made me, in solitude in his upper room, in nineteen hundred and nine AD, at the Vale of Temple Fortune.”

(It’s worth mentioning here, too, that Wade’s peculiar turn of phrase helped inspire the name of my girlfriend’s craft enterprise: Lisa Made Me.)

The more I found out about Wade, the more I wanted to know. It turns out he was an architect as well as a book illustrator (and more), with a handful of works on the Suburb itself. I managed to combine some photographic surveys I was conducting with visiting some examples of his work, and I used any downtime I had to read more about him online.

It turns out that Wade was an architect for only a few years, instead concentrating on illustrating several books with his distinctive drawings, and building up a collection that would become his life’s work. Whilst at war in 1917, and having inherited his family’s fortune of a sugar plantation on St Kitts, Wade stumbled on an advert for a run-down manor house in the Cotswolds which he went on to buy.

The house was, Wade said, ” in the most deplorable state of ruin and neglect, but had not been spoilt with modern additions,” and he proceeded to fill it with items he had collected over the years.

He was a real magpie of a chap, with an eye for the exotic; he picked up items from antique dealers all over the country, anything that exhibited great craftsmanship. He lived next to the manor house in a small cottage, giving the larger building over to house his eccentric, growing collection. He welcomed guests, clearly enjoying the items being seen and enjoyed by others – and using the strange collection to live a rather unusual, somewhat theatrical life. When Queen Mary visited in 1937, it is said she thought Wade himself ‘the most remarkable part of the collection’. (From Jonathan Howard’s essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available here.)

Wade gave Snowshill Manor over to the National Trust some years before his death in 1956, and it has been looked after by them ever since. A massive restoration project took place in 2004 on the house and its collections, taking care to reproduce the ambience and presentation Wade had painstakingly created.

I’m still in the early stages of my quest for more information about Wade. Luckily it seems that as well as illustrating for most of his life, he also kept scores of notebooks and diaries. I have ordered a copy of his memoirs, and a visit to Snowshill Manor is on the cards when I get the time. (National Trust website here.)

© National Trust

Whilst he remains something of an enigma to me, a handful of quotes about Wade (found here) only go to further cement my belief that he’s a fascinating chap, and one I want to know more and more about:

J B Priestley said of Wade:

“He was, in fact, one of the last of a famous company, the eccentric English country gentry, the odd and delightful fellows who have lived just as they pleased, who have built follies, held fantastic beliefs, and laid mad wagers…”

A visitor to Snowshill in the 1920s said:

“with his slightly sinister sense of humour… he would sit as still as a waxwork till one saw him, or to my terror as a child, he would leap out from the parted flames of the fire with his grey hair streaming…”

And finally, in Some Country Houses by James Lees-Milne

“With his old wax complexion, angular features and sharp nose, his presence was daunting. He admitted to Lutyens that he loved toys and had never grown up. He had a child’s insatiable wonder and curiosity. A tassel to him was an object deserving intense scrutiny and examination. How was it made, and of what, and by whom, and for what purpose?'”

It’s that kind of curiosity and nerdiness that I absolutely love. So here’s to the eccentric and obsessive Charles Paget Wade.

Drinking coffee in the girls’ school staffroom

On Wednesday this week, I and some of my colleagues at the Trust had the pleasure of visiting Henrietta Barnett School, the prestigious girls’ grammar school located on Hampstead Garden Suburb’s Central Square. Formerly The Institute, the school is in a beautiful 100-year-old building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, which overlooks the Central Square’s two churches and a wonderful arrangement of flowerbeds and trees, all also originally designed by Lutyens.

The school has recently had a brand-new wing added, designed by Hopkins, and we were pleased to be given a brief tour by the school’s deputy head.

We were visiting the school for Lauren Geisler to deliver a lecture to the year 7s about the Suburb, with regards to its geography, architecture, and to its founder, Henrietta Barnett – the school’s namesake.

Lauren’s talk was well-received by the 90-odd girls aged 11-12, and if the enthusiastic question-and-answer session that followed was anything to go by, I’d say it was a great success. Questions after a talk are interesting and often quite revealing – about the nature of the audience, and the kinds of topics that were picked up on. Some of the girls were intrigued as to the Trust’s (and Barnet’s) powers to restrict building work deemed unsatisfactory, and about where the money for the Suburb came from in the first place.

But the best question had to be from the girl who queried: if Henrietta Barnett was “kind of… sort of… well, dead,” then why such care and attention was spent on keeping the Suburb as she had first devised it more than 100 years ago. An amusing way of putting it, but a salient point (one of many, in fact) which highlighted the need for such educational and informative outreach activities from the Trust, in and around the Suburb.

It was heartening to see the girls being so receptive of their school’s ‘architecture day’; when the deputy head flashed up a few examples of innovative school buildings recently erected around the capital, gasps of awe and delight could be heard. I hope it also helped them to further appreciate their own building – not just the original part, but the innovative new extension.

As a new extension to a beautiful old building in a protected conservation area, it was bound to attract controversy. But in my opinion, the work was done to such a high standard, and in a way which compliments Lutyens’ original, that the result is a harmonious union of new and old. The new build houses state-of-the-art drama and music equipment, including a music room that looked more like an IT suite, replete as it is with wall-to-wall iMacs, and several soundproofed practise and rehearsal spaces.

It all made me feel like I’d left school thousands of years ago; I remember us getting our first proper IT rooms in secondary school, which were to replace the handful of computers dotted around other classrooms. I can still remember using green-screen BBC computers in the middle of primary school, even.

After a warm welcome, an engaging tour, and a very successful lecture, it was time to split the girls into groups for a Suburb walking tour. We wanted to point out some of the areas of interest that Lauren had brought up, and it became clear that although these girls go to school on the Suburb, few of them were aware of its significance.

The nature of the school’s selective intake policy means that many of the pupils (and staff) don’t live on the Suburb, being bussed and driven in from surrounding boroughs and counties. It was therefore a great opportunity to show them some of the architectural and geographical oddities and attractions quite literally on their doorstep.

Split up into more manageable-sized groups, the girls were led around a circular walk by various Trust staff and volunteers, along with some of their teachers. Luckily for me, I wasn’t in charge of a group and merely tagged along with one led by Ruth Ash. I was ready to jump in if I could, but fortunately my main tasks were ferrying the girls across the busier roads and just enjoying the tour myself.

The walk was good fun, and it was again interesting to hear what the girls had picked up on. Some were asking about a house featured in one of the Harry Potter films, while others were more impressed by the number and value of several sports cars in the driveway of a certain television personality. One girl was driven to ask about the Trust’s policy on dog mess removal – after finding a rather unholy amount on one section of pavement.

It was a short-ish walk, but a good length and enough to introduce some of the varied architecture and sights available. The girls returned to school for lunch and another talk, this time from a Hopkins architect (I rather wish I could’ve stayed for that one myself!), while the staff sloped back to the Trust office to see what lay in store for our Wednesday afternoon.

As an exercise in promoting not only the Suburb but also the invaluable work the Trust does to preserve it – along with it being a fun and informative morning – I’d say it was a huge success. Lessons were learnt, too, and it’s all useful experience for similar events in the future, such as Open House.

For me personally, it was yet another in a long line of interesting, unique opportunities that working with the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust has offered me; drinking coffee in a school staffroom is something I’d never done before – let alone in a girls’ school!