The gallery tart is going to be spending some time in France for the next few months, picking up on a renovation project that was rudely interrupted by Covid in 2020. We’ve had a small cottage in the French countryside for many years now, bought almost on a mad impulse. Although, as with other posts, when I sit and think about motivations for taking certain steps in life I realise that although I was doing a very English thing in wanting a hideaway in the country, I was also reaching for a European identity by finding it in France.

Food feels closer to the land

I’d fallen in love with the food, the beautiful environment, the stone cottages, the streams, the sense of being touch with the quality of life, all in a week in the Charente. The currency was still in Francs, honestly, and we laugh and look back at leafing through fixed menus for 45, 55, 65 Francs and a waiter eyeing us dubiously when we selected a 100 Franc one for a last blow out.

So, now we’re doing up our rustic hideout with an eye to letting it out for holiday lets as we near retirement and a squeeze on resources but hopefully an expansion in time. As part of that I intend to review lots of art spaces, castles and musems to link to the website as well as some favourite restaurants. So, stand by for a few electic reviews as the Gallery Tart samples the French Life.

16th November – 20th February

I was eagerly anticipating my visit to the MK gallery in Milton Keynes for another solo female artist exhibition, having been thoroughly impressed by their retrospective show a few years ago on Paula Rego.  It is pleasing to see a regional gallery championing the work of twentieth and, in Rego’s case, twenty first century female artists, who are, arguably, under exhibited.  My knowledge of Knight’s work was not extensive, but I was aware of her arresting and unusual Self Portrait with Female Nude, painted in 1913, which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery , London, and unfortunately was not included in this current exhibition.

Once a popular artist, at least in the U.K., having achieved establishment recognition in her solo exhibition , the first by a woman, at the RA in 1965, Laura Knight and her work fell out of fashion.  This major retrospective of her work , spanning her entire career, can be viewed as an attempt to rehabilitate her as an artist of contemporary resonance.  Does this exhibition make a convincing case?

Her lack of popularity over the last half century can be, at least in part, attributed to her realist, figurative style, sharply contrasting with some of her contemporaneous artists , who broke away from naturalism and explored more experimental approaches, through Conceptual Art, Abstract Art, Surrealism or Dada, for example.  This new exhibition attempts to make a case for her as an important modern artist because of her engagement with a diverse range of subjects that can be broadly categorised as modern life.  On show here include her depictions of every day working life in the north of England, plein air scenes in Cornwall, works expressing her fascination with the performing arts, particularly the ballet and circus , but also theatre, engagement with marginal communities, for example the Romany Gypsy, as well as the African American in segregated Baltimore.  Portraiture spans her career and, to a lesser extent, landscapes.  Also represented in the exhibition is her work produced when she was an official war artist during the Second World War.  In addition to the paintings, a number of her works covering graphic design, interior design , ceramics and jewellery are displayed.  Many of these subjects recur throughout her career, a few are period specific and the exhibition is displayed chronologically overall with themes explored within this framework.

Initial impressions of her very early work convey an easy and precocious facility in drawing and painting.  She enrolled at the Nottingham School of Art at the age of thirteen and her raw talent is displayed in early charcoal drawings, A Girl Reading, astonishingly produced when she was merely fifteen years old.  Other early works on show come from her period in Staithes, North Yorkshire and depict working life there.  A painting of the fishing communities shows both French and Dutch influences.  The former demonstrated in an almost pointillist style, derivative of Seurat, and the latter in the somber Dutch palette and the focus also on genre scenes.

French influences pervade her Cornish residency in Newlyn in the luminosity of her outdoor scenes.  Striking too from this period is her focus on the depiction of female nudes.  It has to be remembered that when Knight trained it was not permitted for female artists to study and depict the human form from life, that was the sole prerogative of male artists.  Clearly this structural inequality irked her as she remedied this deficiency in her artistic training by paying for her own female models.  It is a pity that her more well known work, earlier mentioned, Self Portrait with Female Nude , was not in this show as the paintings of female nudes on display are not as striking nor as interesting as the 1913 work, which challenges the norm of the male gaze and the implied voyeurism .  The juxtaposition of the female artist, Laura Knight in her formal Edwardian clothing and the female nude model depicted from behind, so the viewer cannot see the face, is an iconic work, showing how Knight overcame the barriers facing her as a woman in a male dominated profession.

Well represented in this exhibition are images from the ballet world, inevitably drawing comparisons with the more well known ballet depictions of Degas.  Like him, Knight is interested in showing the hard work and professionalism of the dancers and the liminal spaces of the wings and dressing rooms.  I particularly appreciated some of her ballet sketches, which impressively conveyed the sense of movement, although I did find her paintings lacked the interesting angles, cropping and ethereal pastel palette of Degas’s ballet world, that make his perspective so enthralling.  There is a certain heaviness about some of her ballet paintings that seems antithetical to the lightness of the Terpsichorean art form.

Sketches from the Bolshoi Ballet, 1956

The circus works also feature majorly in this exhibition.  Again, as with the ballet images, some of the most arresting and memorable ones are of the performers off stage, where we glimpse them still in costume but in normal conversation and interaction with each other and there is a certain poignancy and empathy to these images.  Her engagement with the Traveller communities displays a similar empathetic connection and the most compelling of these works show something of the personality of the sitters, rather than portraying them as types.  I imagine she may well have had some barriers to overcome in winning over their trust, arriving as she did in a hired Rolls Royce, on which she perched her easel.

Knight also had to face issues of trust in engaging with other marginal communities.  On her visit to Baltimore she wished to paint portraits of individuals from the African American communities in segregated America.  Understandably, she was met with mistrust and suspicion, but nevertheless produced a series of empathetic portraits, which seem to belie the racist attitudes, expressed in her autobiography and common at the time, defining racial types.  There is a real and uncomfortable disjunction between her words and her art works.

Pearl Johnson, 1929

Her appointment as an official war artist, one of the few women selected for this important project, marked another aspect of her engagement with contemporary society and politics.  Her almost Socialist Realist portrait of a female munitions worker received widespread recognition as it was used as an official poster.  Other works, such as women flying barrage balloons, while clearly primarily reportage, have a gorgeous tactile painterly quality in their depiction of the material.  Perhaps, her most notable reportage was of the Nuremberg trials, where she was present in court.  There is a sketch of this in the exhibition.

There are a number of sensitive and striking portraits in the exhibition.  The style is naturalistic and they do convey a sense of the sitter.  For example, I was particularly struck by the poise, elegance and beauty of the sitter, Ethel Bartlett, her arm lightly resting on her sheet music, the signifier of her status as a professional pianist.  Some of the later landscapes are also worth mentioning, for example , the dramatic  El Greco esque Malvern scene, depicting thunder and lightening and with a marvellous sense of movement of cyclists battling the elements and umbrellas flailing in the wind.    Her figurative style does convey drama and atmosphere.

Finally, before I assess my overall reactions to this exhibition, some mention should be made of the small, but interesting section offering a selection of a few of her design contributions.  I was especially attracted to her designs for a ceramic dinner service, produced by the acclaimed ceramicist, Clarice Cliff.  Coincidentally, two days before my visit to this Laura Knight exhibition, I had been to the cinema to see the recently released film on the life and career of Clarice Cliff, The Colour Room.  I was struck by how remarkable these two contemporaneous women were, both operating in a strongly patriarchal framework and against the backdrop of the suffragette movement, in the formative years of their careers.

Circus Dinner Set, 1934

In covering this exhibition, I found myself frequently thinking about the historical and societal context within which the works were produced.  I marvelled at the diversity of the subject matter and was impressed by the engagement with marginal communities and subject matter.  I admire Laura Knight’s transcendence of all the many obstacles that undoubtedly stood in her way in coming from a modest background and reaching artistic recognition as a fully accepted Royal Academician.  Sometimes, I felt her very traditional figurative style did not sit entirely easily with the modernity of her subject matter.  I was not often involved emotionally when looking at her work and this absence of total engagement made it a less than satisfactory experience. She is an artist I can admire but not love.  I do, however, consider this retrospective exhibition to be well worth visiting as a thought provoking experience in examining our criteria for privileging artists within the accepted canon.

I applaud the MK gallery for engaging with these issues and putting on such a wide ranging exhibition, together with useful background information, that enables each visitor to make their own judgements on Laura Knight’s position in the history of twentieth century British art.

Cecilia Wooding – Gallery Tart

Cecilia Wooding, fellow Gallery Tart, has been on her wanders again and reviewed Laura Knight: A panoramic view, at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes.

She thought it was fantastic that this female artist was being given a long overdue retrospective.

Here’s a couple of tasters, publication due on Saturday morning for you to enjoy at leisure!

Visit to the Great Tapestry of Scotland at Galashiels on Monday 27th September 2021

We arrived in The Scottish Borders in glorious sunshine the previous day, eagerly anticipating our long planned walking break.  When we initially planned this we had no idea that the magnificent Scottish Tapestry had just been installed in its new and permanent home, in a purpose built gallery in Galashiels.  Our itinerary on this holiday would, of necessity, always be determined by the vagaries of the weather and so we embraced the drizzly, grey weather on the 27th, jumped in the car,  and drove a few miles down the road to Galashiels, looking forward to seeing the Tapestry, but not anticipating fully the treat we had in store.

Galashiels was formerly a major textile town and it is fair to say that it has seen better days and initial impressions of the town were coloured by the sight of closed and boarded up shops and buildings.  The new gallery immediately stood out, a dramatically angled geometrical roof, tall windows and a boldness of design making a statement.  The ambition of the building design is matched by the contents of the building.   The scale and realisation of this project, a close collaboration between the author, Alexander McCall, the historian, Alistair Moffat,  and artist, Andrew Crummy, and over one thousand volunteer stitchers, working in local area groups, has resulted in 160 panels, using over 300 miles of wool and a tapestry longer than the famous Bayeux Tapestry.  The Scottish Tapestry was first shown to huge acclaim at the Scottish Parliament in 2013, but until August 2021 existed as a travelling exhibition.

On entering the gallery, we were bowled over by the extent of the project as it unfolded in the interlinked spaces in the gallery, beautifully lit and connected to the outdoor space too, as the tall windows reveal the distinctive Borders hills, in the ever changing weather.  The ambition of the project is to tell the story of Scottish history from the Ice Age to present times, capturing the singularity of Scotland, not just through the iconic battles and historical moments of significance, but also looking at the lives of ordinary people.  Colours predominantly used evoke the Scottish landscape, the particular shades of blues, greens, reds, greys and browns.  The motif of the sea recurs and bookends the Tapestry.  The beauty and intricately captured detail of the work are stunning and the use of the helpfully provided magnifying glasses is to be recommended.

I particularly appreciated the collaborative nature of the enterprise, where the stitchers worked in groups from all over Scotland and the narrative covered the whole geographical area.  Where possible, the stitchers worked on subjects and themes pertaining to the areas where they lived.  It is also worth pointing out that the stitchers are predominantly female and depiction of the role of women in Scottish history was a pleasing feature, ranging from the great historical figures, such as Mary Queen of Scots, Panel 44,  to more unsung heroines , such as the Hebridean herring girls, Panel 112.  The whole enterprise felt like a welcome corrective to the usually male dominated art world and historical narratives, where women are frequently eclipsed and uncelebrated.  It also provides a striking example of a stunning work that challenges the still often expressed view that privileges painting and sculpture over genres using other media, such as the embroidery on display so magnificently in this tapestry.  An illuminating addition to the Tapestry is the taped recording of some of the female stitchers , elaborating on their involvement in the project and explaining just how creative and collaborative the whole experience had been for them.  It also seems fitting that the architect responsible for the building housing such a project is a woman, Suzy O’Leary. 

The first panel of the Tapestry gives the viewer an enticing flavour of the achievement.  The first impression is of colours and a certain rhythm, as the eye dances across the canvas, taking in the detail.  The focal point is a central female profile with two smaller female profiles to the right.  More careful inspection reveals that these women are stitchers and we are introduced to some of the recurring motives and themes of the panels to follow, the landscapes, the industries, buildings, books and musical instruments and more, signifiers of Scotland’s economic and cultural achievements .  My eye was drawn to the quirky woollen hat, worn by the central woman, depicting images of the sea, in dramatic blues and purples, the greens of the landscape , little buildings and a church , sheep, fish and a bird, wonderfully executed detail and contrasting colour palette to  the depiction of the knitted bobble in bright reds at the base of the hat.  So much to see in one panel!           

It seems invidious to pick out individual panels as the project derives its strength from the overall effect of each within the greater whole.  However, inevitably I was drawn to certain panels that perhaps evoked a particular moment of Scottish history with a resonance for me or a panel that stood out stylistically in terms of striking compositional design or an arresting colour palette and, as mentioned earlier, I was particularly captivated by some of the vignettes of Scottish women.

The best way to share my enthusiasm is to include a few pictures of either whole or partial panels that attracted me.  I loved the elongated, beautiful, dignified depiction of Mary Queen of Scots, her personage in a dramatic royal purple robe dominates the centre of the panel.  The following panel, 45, is a real contrast in both subject matter and colour palette.  It is the Reivers and the Rescue of Kinmount Willie, depicting the final  Borders’ raid in the final days of Queen Elizabeth of England before James of Scotland acceded to the throne.  Compositionally , there is a pleasing symmetry and harmony, the two facing soldier profiles at the top of the picture and below them the heads of two horses looking away from each other , all depicted in a somber muted browns and greys colour palette.

I choose another panel , 92, as the subject matter, The Scots in India, represents a particular interest of mine and I loved the colourful representation of the turbaned Sikh, with references to Indian products important in Scottish economy, such as tea, jute and cotton and depictions of Indian flora and fauna .  Best of all, I loved the recurring Paisley motif in vibrant colours; it is an aesthetic link between India and Scotland that has long fascinated me.

Other aesthetic interests of mine are reflected in panels 81 and 116.  The first is a delightfully playful , Henry Raeburn,  with the stitchers depicting their take on the  famous painting of the Reverend Robert Walker skating.  The second , Charles Rennie Mackintosh , depicting in a beautifully lyrical way, Mackintosh and his artist wife, Margaret Macdonald in the  distinctive Scottish Art Nouveau style that they pioneered.

The dignity of ordinary women in their work situations is a recurrent theme and I include details from the following panels, Panel 139, showing a washerwoman, Panel 73, depicting weaving and spinning and Panel 112, celebrating the Hebridean Herring Girls, (above).  Leisure activities for women also have their place and I particularly liked the depiction of a woman participating in the sport of Curling in Panel 103.

I could wax lyrical about many more of the panels.  We spent a long morning totally absorbed in this exhibition and I would recommend it without reservation, giving it five stars.  If revisiting the area I would certainly take the opportunity to enjoy the Tapestry again and focus more on some of the later Panels as we did spend more of our time on individual works at the start of the exhibition not fully comprehending the extent of the exhibition and how long we would need to do it justice.  The gallery provides a calm, meditative space that encourages an unrushed contemplation of the panels.  It should also be mentioned that the gallery is staffed by extremely pleasant enthusiasts that were genuinely delighted at our clear surprise at the scale and accomplishment of the Tapestry and our enjoyment of the detail and beauty of it.  There is also a little café in a pleasant, light and airy space and an interesting shop too.  So all needs are catered to for a highly enjoyable day out.  I hope this gallery does for Galashiels what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao and regenerates the town, putting it firmly on the itinerary of anyone with an interest in art and Scottish history.

Cecilia Wooding – Gallery Tart

Ok, not quite multiply but I’d like to introduce a fellow Gallery Tart, Cecilia Wooding. We met during our studies for our Art History degree at Birkbeck College, quite a few years ago, and, we were mature students then!

The thing about studying Art History is that you meet people who are as facinated by Art as you are, and, the thing about Art History at Birkbeck, is that being an evening University, it attracted people who already had established careers and were there purely to learn more about Art, which made for an amazing learning experience and making life-long friends.

We’ve kept in touch and like me, many of us are off looking at Art and Culture here there and everywhere. So, I’m pleased to present a piece by Cecila, she was on holiday in Scotland and visited The Great Scottish Tapestry in Galasheils and was blown away by it. The next post is her piece, enjoy and thanks Cecilia.

Back in my beloved Malta for a few days I wanted to do at least one review, I had originally planned to review some churches but on such a short and busy stay I had to be content with one afternoon of museum visiting.  ‘Masterpieces at Muza’, at the Muza museum in Valletta, caught my eye, Muza itself is a relatively new art museum in Malta, launched in 2018 as part of Valletta 2018, European City of Culture. 

 ‘Masterpieces at MUZA’ is a collection of thirteen old master paintings from a private international collection that have been loaned to MUZA on a long term basis.  It’s quite a small exhibition with the aim of introducing masters of the Western cannon to a wider public, the exhibition is set out thematically covering both religious and secular art over the period of 15th-18th centuries.

It starts with Portraiture, there are two portraits from the 16th century, both by Italian art schools, I liked Portrait of Pietro Soderini, in particular, the catalogue points out that the background of the picture is, unusually, quite plain and thus there are none of the usual indicators of status that are quite often associated with portraiture, causing the viewer to focus on the man himself.  It does indeed make you look at the sitter, now a man long gone, and consider who and what kind of man he was, his humanity reaching out over the centuries.

Unknown Florentine Artist, Portrait of Pietro Soderini, 16th C

In the next section the theme changes to images of the Madonna and child, there are two here that are attributed to the circle or school of Leonardo da Vinci.  The image of Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist, inevitably brings to mind the Madonna of the Rocks paintings at the National Gallery in London and in the Louvre, Paris.  The catalogue does discuss this comparison in depth and comes to the decision that the question of whether Da Vinci may have had a hand in the design, if not execution, of the painting is inconclusive.  For me, the interest was the similarities of the models in both these paintings, they look very much like the same Madonnas and child.

Moving on, we come to Passion and Devotion, what I really liked about this section was the focus on religious images as objects of veneration.  Often, in art historical discussion of religious images, all sorts of aspects of materials of production or artistic merits are discussed except the original intention of the images as objects for veneration which tends to be seen as secondary.  It’s good therefore to see that the labelling directly references the intended use of the paintings as either for illustration of Christ’s life to the faithful during church services or for private meditation in the home. 

What did Rubens have in mind for the viewer?

This opens up an added dimension to consider when thinking about the execution of the images and what artists were trying to reflect. In, Crucifixion, by Rubens and his workshop, another work by a major artist of the Western cannon, there is an intense focus on the suffering of Christ through his muscular, contorted body, the indignity of near nakedness on the cross and the greyish flesh tones that indicate coming death. By making the connection to the expectations of the viewer of the piece, as the labelling indicates, the viewer is directly able to engage with the imagery for a spiritual experience.

The next section takes us to Greek mythology with a 16th century painting indicated as being after Michelangelo’s famous lost painting, Leda and the Swan.  Of all the paintings in the exhibition, this one blew me away, I love the copy of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery in London in any case and this was no less awesome.  I don’t know what it is about this painting that I like so much, let’s face it, it’s quite weird, a swan impregnates Leda who gives birth to Helen of Troy.  But it’s not the imagery of the myth that I like, it’s the image itself, it’s so intense, Leda is totally focused on the swan which in turn appears to respond with equal emotion, both of them deeply caught up with each other to the exclusion of the viewer.  I often wonder if Michelangelo was reflecting on the sadness of impossible love here.

Enough introspection, this is a great little exhibition, sadly it ends at the end of October so this review is probably a bit late, but Heritage Malta do indicate that the loan is a long-term one and that this exhibition is only the start of the presentation of the collection.  I liked the way the exhibition was set up, quite dimmed lights with a red background to the paintings, grouped nicely within the themes.  There’s a large, red velvet, buttoned seat in the centre of the exhibition inviting the viewer to sit and contemplate a while so that it feels like you’re taking a tour through a private collection, which, indeed you are.

The museum is clearly trying hard with it’s mission to bring art to a wider audience and to that end I really liked that the panels are both in Maltese and English, and furthermore, that the Maltese comes first.  This is an incredibly generous loan to the museum bringing to light, as Muza point out, old masters that have been hidden away from public view in private collections.  The benefactors clearly want to help Muza to succeed by providing such an asset and not, unusually in these days of patronal sponsorship, expecting recognition in return.

My only criticism is on the catalogue, which labours, I feel, on the provenance of the paintings when there could have been more about the historical contexts of production for the reader.

The museum website is very good on the exhibition so if getting to the exhibition is impossible, you can read about and see more information, with better pictures than mine, here. But, if you are in Malta, then put down that Aperol Spritz and head down to see this priceless collection of Art and support our Heritage!

Rita Fennell – Gallery Tart

This week the Gallery Tart was down in deepest Dorset enjoying the English countryside with family and friends. I was originally going to review one of the National Trust houses nearby but I found myself more inspired to review the tour we took of Furleigh Estate.

We took the Classic Tour which lasts around 90 minutes, it was a wonderfully sunny day and we started in the vineyard.  Our guide, Nick, was very informative and knowledgeable about the estate.  He explained the process of growing, harvesting and preparing the grapes for making wine, explaining the threats to vines from diasease and predators and the mechanics involved in harvest. He also told us about the about the varieties grown on the estate, Rondo for reds and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Bacchus for whites. 

English wine production is steadily growing, particularly in the area of sparkling wine.  It seems that this is partially down to climate change, drier, warmer weather is making England more appropriate for grape growing, and apparently, even the large champagne houses are buying land here for grape production.

We headed next to the winery itself, Nick explained the ageing process using oak barrels made from French Oak, apparently because they have a more appropriate grain than English Oak, and the finishing process in the stainless steel tanks before bottling. 

He then explained the champagne method used for the sparkling wines and we were able to see various stages of the process.  The most fascinating was the riddling machine used for turning the wine bottles to bring the sediment to the neck of the bottle.  A whole cage of bottles is gently turned through a cycle, while it replaces turning by hand it still seemed quite a gentle method.  We then saw the sediment being frozen and extracted and the bottles corked ready for storage and maturing.

The gentle giant riddling machine

We set off back to the shop and were seated for a wine tasing session.  Again, Nick was highly informative and told us some interesting anecdotes about the wines, the winery and wine history.  We tasted three wines, they were all really nice, I really liked the Bacchus Fume, I’m not going to try to describe it in more detail as my knowledge of wine is limited but it just felt very clean, light and drinkable.  We all picked up a couple of bottles of something on the way out through the shop and, suffice to say, they didn’t make it back to London. 

I felt inspired to write a review about this tour because it was so interesting and a real insight to English wine production whether you’re a great wine drinker or not.  I’ve been on tours of vineyards and distilleries before and, often, with the big houses you’re lead around by a young person with a sweet smile but surface knowledge. This was cleary not the case with Nick and his passion for the subject and this artisan vineyard really made it a worthwhile trip.

So, if you’re deep in Dorset, do give them a visit and support aritsan producers!

Rita Fennell

Gallery Tart – and possible part-time wino…

Blists Hill

This week the Gallery Tart wandered a bit further away taking a journey to North Wales for a family visit.  We decided to break the journey about halfway and happened upon Blists Hill Victorian Town.  This is an outdoor museum and forms part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust which encompasses a number of museums locally that reflect on the area’s heritage especially with reference to the Industrial Revolution.

Subtle way to tell you to mask up!

The site originally housed many industrial buildings including a brick and tile works, ironworks and coal and clay mines.  Many of these remain and have been restored and, in addition, whole buildings from the period that were in danger of demolition have been brought to the site to create the sense of a Shropshire Victorian town with a variety of shops, houses and facilities all alongside the industrial works.  It’s all brought to life by a team of interpreters dressed in period costume.

Interpreters make this town

The first stop on the walk is the recreation of Lloyds Bank, lots of beautiful old wooden panels that were so sturdily constructed the would easily outlive current bank buildings.  We chatted to the bank teller, very informative, I liked that she didn’t play a character but explained what her character would be doing in the period and the kind of people that would have entered the bank.  Her first point of note was that she probably wouldn’t be working in the bank as she was a woman and the Gallery Tart would be told to bring her husband in to transact any financial business.  We were able to change some money here into pre-decimalisation, pounds, shillings and pence that we’d be able to use in the shops.  Great fun, like an excited child I handed over £5 to be given a chunk of change  to spend!

Early FX list tells you so much!

My first stop was the grocers’ AF Blakemore, what a lovely emporium this was, lots and lots of originals of brands that were established in the era and are still going today.  It’s all very well presented in beautiful old wooden cabinets so browsing among the products was a joy.  Fry’s Cocoa, Bovril, Brasso and ginger beer bottles brought back memories of seeing these in grandparents’ houses and kitchens. 

The next stop was the Chemist’s Bates & Hunt, again the shop is full of beautiful old cabinets, this time the displays are of the preferred lotions and potions of the period, Vaseline, Epsom Salts, Germoline, embrocations and powders.  Fascinating, you really felt like you were going back in time.  What stood out for me in some ways though is how embedded the idea of display is and how wedded we are to certain brands, the Fry’s packaging evokes a love chocolate bars while Brasso reminds me of my grandmother cleaning brassware. 

Displays matter

I took my sweet tooth to the sweet shop and splurged my ‘old money’ on boiled sweets and fudge!  We chatted here with the shop owner and she explained how, often, the shop formed part of the home, explaining the reason for the doorbell rigged to ring when a customer came in, since the proprietor might often be in the back of the house. I think you still find this in small villages but I suppose it is unusual.  I was drawn to the sugar mice, our local shop in Malta had a jar of these and they were a penny each, yes old money, yes I am.  I loved them, I know, it explains a lot!  What I found interesting was that local people often bought sweets for energy, eating them between shifts in the local factories to keep themselves going.


We sat and ate chips from the chip shop before taking a walk along the canal path past the ruins of the Brick and Tile works to the Inclined Lift.  It was a shame that the lift wasn’t working but we had a clamber down the hill, there’s a path, and found ourselves by the ruins of the blast furnace of the Ironworks.  I do love a ruin, that emptiness which is so redolent of the echoes of past lives.  Built in brickwork, the arches are reminiscent of ancient abbeys rather than industrial processes.  Not so much in the foundry, there’s lots of industrial machinery on display which revives more of the sense of how busy, noisy and dirty the site must have been. There’s a sense of beauty though as well in the designs of the machinery found all around the town, although now redundant, they stand testament to the Victorian love affair with its favourite material; Iron. 

We rounded back towards the start of the town dropping in on the Doctor’s surgery on the way.  A really charming cottage, it’s packed with items from the period.  The gentleman here explained the  cottage would have been a tied property for the manager of the works, so although it was very comfortable while employed, it was necessary for the manager to make enough savings so that when he retired he would be able to afford a home.  One way to do this was to rent the back of the house as a surgery to the local doctor, it was really interesting to go from the living quarters at the front of the house to the surgery at the back and side.

There were lots of other places we visited that I haven’t talked about, pub, bakery, china manufacturers, blacksmith, loads, this was an amazing place but what really brings it to life are the interpreters, they were all so knowledgeable about their own roles and wider history of the site.  As I mentioned earlier, I liked that they engaged with us out of character, I have been to lots of museums that incorporate living history and ones where the interpreters stay in character create a division between the viewer and the actor so that there is no chance to get into a dialogue about the site.  Equally though, if you just wanted to view and enjoy they allowed you to do that without over bombarding you with information.

I also loved the money changing thing, it really sets the tone for immersion but, again, you aren’t left to fully scramble with changing the amounts, the interpreters made it easy for us to spend the funds but understand the differences in the monetary value. 

It would be easy for a place such as Blists Hill to slide into Disneyfication without the right direction from the museum.  While we can all smile about fish and chips, old fashioned sweets and enjoy the cosiness of the manager’s office, the interpreters rightly also point out the negatives of the period for ordinary people, the dirt, difficult and dangerous working conditions as well as the negative impacts on the area once all the resources were mined through. 

Very enjoyable, very informative, we spent a couple of hours here as we were on our way to Wales, I’m very glad though that we took the time to stop, if I’m very honest, I’d chosen it mainly because it was halfway and had places to eat but it was a real eye opener to the Iron Gorge museums and the industrial heritage of the area.  We’ll be back!

Rita Fennell

Gallery Tart

This week the Gallery Tart was on her holidays, having left the limits of London behind and landing in Scotland.  It hadn’t been my intention to write any reviews during my time off but I was inspired to put pen to paper after my visit to Teasses Estate in the Kingdom of Fife.  I’d booked a private tour around the gardens of the Estate for a birthday celebration.  Of course it was raining a fine drizzle when we got there after it had been hot, yes I said hot, in Edinburgh the previous day.  Never mind, we donned our raincoats and set off to find Craig, the Head Gardener.

I knew I was going to enjoy this tour as soon as we got to the meeting spot of the Walled Garden, there’s a little wooden honesty box for self-guided tours of the garden, it was so un-corporate and friendly.  Craig found us, introduced himself and led us off on the tour, we started with the Walled Garden, the centre piece is the renovated glasshouse, it had fallen completely into ruin but the current owners have totally rebuilt it in the original Victorian style, it looks and feels completely in keeping with the garden.

We walked around the walled garden which is in fact, only half walled, Craig explained that the walls have pipes through which heated water had been run originally to provide a warm environment for growing exotic fruits and vegetables.  The whole garden has been replanted, the layout may feel formal but it’s actually practical.  The grounds are mostly given over to growing food produce and flowers for use in the main house, the focus is on growing organically and some interesting approaches are taken such as experimenting with growing certain vegetables together.  Craig explained that in the squash patch, the squashes are grown with corn and beans, the corn supports the beans, and the squashes provide ground cover, which works very well.

The tour then moved into the woods and we tramped down to Sir Fraser’s garden, Craig explained that different family members have gardens within the site, Sir Fraser’s was the first.  The area felt quite Victorian again, with a giant rhubarb and small pond giving a sense of lush rainforests, exploration and adventure.  We climbed up towards the summer house where Craig gave us a short history of the house and estate. On a clear day, he assured us, we’d be able to see Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge.  We settled for a romantic, misty drizzle.

Craig enthused about the finds that have been made in the house and gardens that give an indicator of the long history of the estate which stretches back to the 1200s when it was granted to Master of Blair by the Earl of Fife.  The history of the house is slowly being pieced together through these finds and, this summer, in commemoration of 25 years since the present owners bought the house, a small exhibition has been created showing the progress of the restoration.  It was really interesting and shows how much work has been put into restoring the house.

We walked on to come into view of the main house and formal gardens with its and one holed golf course!  The present house was built in the early 19th century by William Burn and extended by John Curie in the 1870s after it was bought by the Baxter family.  It’s really reflective of the Neo-Gothic era with its castle style turrets, arched windows and brickwork.  It was apparently even more Gothic looking with additional spires but these burnt down in a fire. 

We carried on through the gardens passing through a conifer hedge that was covered over with a beautiful climber plant with jewel-like red flowers.  I really loved this, you can see the photo below, it doesn’t harm the main plant, I think I liked it’s delicacy and vibrant colour. 

Loved this

Definitley a ‘Hidden Gem’ of a garden

This led us to the pool house and pond.  Although contemporary, the pool house was built in Victorian style with a beautiful pond nearby with reeds and water lilies, it was still drizzling so the flowers were closed, I can imagine it makes a great display when it’s dry and sunny!  I did get a sense of Monet’s garden about the Teasses gardens, the view from the central spot of the greenhouse onto the sloping lawns with the iron frames for climbing plants, is reminiscent of Giverny as, of course, are the ponds with their lilies.

Towards a new Giverny?

We rounded back to the Walled Garden and the welcome shelter of the Glasshouse to have some lovely tea and cakes.  Despite the weather and possible trench foot, this was a great experience, Craig’s joy in being Head Gardener is abundantly obvious which made the tour really enjoyable, he was happy to answer any questions and add lots of anecdotes about the history and revival of the estate.  I felt like we’d gotten a private glimpse into the running of a contemporary estate, house and gardens.  Definitely a ‘Hidden Gem’.

Cake was good too!

Rita – Gallery Tart

This week the gallery tart was invited to an open studio event taking place at Kingsgate Workshops in West Hampstead.  Kingsgate Workshops is just the kind of slightly rickety, not quite converted, old factory space you imagine when you think of artists’ studios.  A look online told me that the structure is far more complex than that, the workshops have just celebrated their 40th Anniversary and house a really diverse collection of artists working in all sorts of practises. I was a little rushed so I only got to meet a few artists, so I thought this week I’d home in and give a more in-depth view of those I did meet – a portrait of the artists, if you will!

Rickety gloriousness

Martha Green Doran

I spent a good while talking to Martha, she has been working in fine art all her career but has recently moved towards abstraction.  It was fascinating to talk about that journey as an artist, she was very happy to be open with me and explained that letting go of figurative representation is difficult but, equally, freeing.  Art history has taught me that abstraction was a massive journey for the pioneers of abstract art, if you’re not trying to represent an object then what are you representing?  No wonder letting go is hard. 

For Martha this is coming from within, led mainly by colour she follows where that inspiration takes her.  It’s here,

Martha explained this particular painting, The Crossing, 2021, has been a hit during the open studios session, I can see why, there’s a real vibrancy about the yellows and a sense of candlelight and journeying, it feels uplifting. 

The Crossing seems connected to this image, El Pueblo, from 2020, again the yellow lifts the piece but we also see pinks and purples, it makes me think of a beachfront with lined up houses and water, although from the title, maybe not, but again, it’s joyous, sunny and vibrant.

Wherever the representations, Martha seems to be in a good place.

A final little mention for her small scale pictures, these are cute little essences of life I think, sorry about the bad photography, I like these, a few, seemingly simple, lines and dots expressing a lot. Life here, to make you smile.

Dana Lazarus-Cass

Dana is a well-established ceramicist, originally from New York.  She’s just recently moved into Kingsgate Workshops and feels very at home here.

She had utilitarian ceramic pieces on display, little salt and pepper pots, spoons and vases, all beautifully made, but I was then drawn to her plate display, these were no ordinary plates.  We talked about Boy with a Grenade, 2018-19,  inspired by the photograph by Diane Arbus, it homes in on the shock of a child holding a grenade. Dana further explained that the symbols on the child’s shirt are those of hobos who would leave these marks on their travels as a complex language for fellow travellers of things to look out for.  What a fascinating piece, the boy looks confused and estranged and the addition of the symbols adds a further layer of distance.  Unless you truly look for me, you cannot know me, it says, to me. 

Boy with a grenade, on the left

Dana then explained that other works also contain these symbols, such as these bowls, also from 2081-19.  The symbols add texture to the ceramics, but also layers of meaning, obvious but hidden, and maybe awaiting a new interpretation, I loved that addition.

The next area I found fascinating was her series of pieces containing small figures, from 2014-17, these feature small figures against backgrounds that contain normal sized ceramics.  The effect is to dwarf the figures and bring into relief how over-awed by life we can often feel.  I love the pearls in this piece, the woman looks so tiny and lost, there are good things, it seems to say to her.     

Tina Leslie

I clambered up to the top floor and found artist Tina Leslie sitting surrounded by her paintings.  She’s a long established artist having started out in ceramics and moved towards painting.  Tina was very welcoming and spent time explaining her works to me.

The cityscapes stood out for me, taken from a bird’s eye view they ranged from the abstracted cool greys of Silver Thames, to the vibrancy of London Dreams with it’s vivid colours.  If you live in London this language will go straight to your heart.  Silver Dreams, gives you the density of London, it’s packed and highly abstracted, but the clutch of tall buildings and small circle of the London Eye position the City and Westminster while the silver snake of the Thames leaves you in no doubt as to where you are. 

If Silver Dreams is London on a grey day, London Dreams is London alive and buzzing.  There’s an exuberant mix of blues, reds, yellows, purples all giving London and electric glow.  This painting is not as abstracted, I could pick out the ‘Cheesegrater’ a recent building in the City of London, City Hall in the south and of course at the centre of it all, Tower Bridge.  It’s a great painting, you could spend hours looking at all the different details and hints towards life in London. 

We talked about London and the listlessness that has settled on the Capital post Brexit and Pandemic, I remember being carried on the crowd as you surged out of stations, the buzz of packed pubs and shops that made you feel you were part of something great.  It seems like a distant world now, let’s hope we find what London Dreams captures once again.

Wynn Jones

The final artist I want to talk about is Wynn Jones, Wynn is so established he’s retired! Joking aside, he’s a very well established artist and art teacher and it’s the teaching he’s retired from.  Martha Doran Green and Wynn Jones share a studio, after discussing Martha’s work she introduced me to Wynn and we discussed his paintings.

The paintings Wynn had on display are a triptych based on images from the Greek trilogy, Oresteia, composed of Sacrifice, Tower, and Rescue.  I have to confess I had no knowledge of this tragedy,  I did some research and discovered it is the only extant example of an ancient Greek theatre trilogy.  Wynn’s website features an article that was published in Argo about his work on this tragedy and his progress towards it.  Having retired, he now has the time to explore it fully and explained that he has become comfortable with working in the size of each triptych panel, 75 x 201 inches. 

They are large, Wynn talks on his website about the influences from Picasso and that much is evident in the flattened, geometric forms, which, although very minimalist, are highly expressive.  The tones and colours in the triptych certainly convey the horror of Tower.  Wynn explains on his site that the character Tamerlane makes towers of his victims heads. Not only a tower, at the base of the panting are several other heads in a sea of red giving the impression of endless killing, almost like a conveyer belt.

Going further into Wynn’s site there’s a discussion about the developments in Wynn’s paintings within the archive, with a reference to the idea of memory and how memories re-state themselves as we get older, I was struck by this and Wynn’s notion of re-visiting his early years in Wales and how this has influenced this group of paintings.  It’s was privilege to be introduced to such an accomplished artist and be set off on a journey of being able to explore how his work has grown and continues to develop.

In fact, it was a privilege to be able to spend time with all these artists and I thank them for being welcoming and willing to talk about their work.  This was my second open studio event this summer, I think it’s a great idea, it brings down the barriers between the artist and the viewer, although your response to art is always yours, here is the opportunity to discuss that with the artist and for artists to understand what viewers see.

My apologies for not getting to more artists, I feel sure though there will be more opportunities to visit Kingsgate Workshops, in the meantime, have a look at the site, at the artists and the fabulous work that’s being created there.

Rita – Gallery Tart