The Future Sound of London
Acrylic paint, charcoal, inks
22 x 25 inches, 1995
There I was in 1995 projecting into the future with an acrylic painting, titled, The Future Sound of London (image above). And here I am in 2018 looking into the past with this drawing titled, The Past Sound of London (image below). Each image was started on New Year's Eve in those respective years with an ambient musical soundtrack playing in the background. Life Forms by, yes, you should have guessed it, The Future Sound of London (FSOL). That music sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded. It still has the power to unlock hypnotic grooves of improvisation.
I am struggling to recollect the circumstances in which that first painting was composed. I had moved back to London following my post-grad burn out in Wales and was attempting to act out Tracey Emin's advice for an artist, get yourself a well paid part-time job, but one that you don't like too much. I was making art only for myself: my first solo exhibition was three years away, thinking about full time art and devising art projects at least a decade in the offing. Taking documentary style photographs and then retreating into the dark room was my bread and butter. Politically, Britain was ripe for a sea change after a long period of moribund Tory rule. We were on the brink of the Blair years which gave Young British Artists in London a fashionable sheen, the mirage of you never had it so good. I sense in the abstract brush work an optimistic desire to go with the flow. I had not really made a mark as a public artist.
Now in 2017 that has moved into 2018, after the promise and failure of successive governments (can it be anything other?), I am working full time as an artist and devise my own multi-layered projects. I haven't used paint for years and drawing as an aid to thinking or constructing filmic and narrative potentialities, seems to be the order of the day. The drawings now are a body of work, rather than just isolated images. I'm not necessarily certain they are any better than those first steps, but have a different contextual meaning and community reading.
In the latest drawing, there is more of an organic, biomorphic sense of being. The architecture of regeneration and gentrification, that has plagued me over the past few years, is no doubt encoded in the DNA of this image. Although it looks back onto the 1995 drawing, it also peers nervously into the future of an ever growing and unstable London landscape. The faces of people come in and out of focus in this vision of past present future. But their identities are confused as the British main land redraws its European boundaries.
This drawing was started just before attending a gig at the Coronet, I was dancing my way into the sketch, all the opening marks made by a process of dance like movement, following the flow of the soundscape created by FSOL. Ironically, that playful orientation was being rendered in a locked down state. I was expressing a niche living in London. There is a corporate feel to these new interlocking shapes as compared with the original. The uber rich or well off are increasingly at the centre and suburbs. That green space is a gated commodity. I sense residents and us artists struggling to situate ourselves and finding a space for being, opportunities for expressing, ways of connecting to an audience or patrons. This is a hyperactive, wired up landscape. The impact of the world wide web and social media is one of the most decisive social change since 1997. So while that darkroom is still there, increasingly my art will be experienced on digital platforms like this or more likely a screenshot that is recycled elsewhere.
The Past Sound of London in the Future
Oil pastels, pencil
51 x 73 inches, 2018
This is an arts project about the history of the Coronet Theatre from 1872-2017.
The ghostly presence of a Victorian actress, Marie Henderson, will be our guiding muse.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle will be both a performance piece and an exhibition.
The play will be staged at the Coronet on the 7 November 2017.
The exhibition will take place at Artworks Gallery from 11-23 November 2017
Our project is a collaboration between a visual artist, theatre director, actors and residents of Southwark.
The work will be made available to future audiences by being deposited at Southwark Archives.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle is the culmination of several years of research into the history of the Coronet. It has a deep-focus on the actress, Marie Henderson, who has hitherto been consigned to the margins of academia. Our challenge is to creatively bring her to life: the pleasures and pains, the life-pangs of a Victorian actress; one who transfixed her audiences with performances that put the oomph of drama into "melos." She will be ghost skating through our artistic timeline, materialising at pivotal moments in the history of the Coronet. This might include the WW2 Blitz and a coda section when Marie trips the light fantastic with raving clubbers. She will transport us from the age of corsets and crinoline to silicon implants, from Bedlam to Brexit and beyond.
I will be using drawings as a medium to explore ideas and emotions, akin to a visual storyboard. The aim is to produce a narrative body of expressionistic imagery that responds to the architectural spaces of the Coronet and poignantly documents its final heart beat. Because our project is fundamentally sociable and public, there is the challenge of inspiring others to participate in the process of making and thinking. I look forward to sketching out the memories and experiences of people who once visited the Coronet as a cinema and those who still club today and sent into a trance with the musical beat. The icing on the cake would be discovering a senior resident, one who is over 100 years of age, who has a story to tell about the Coronet when it was a theatre.
Collaborating with John Whelan and the People's Theatre Company is top of my creative agenda. John has worked on history-based community arts projects in Southwark, but probably none on this scale and ambition. The durational nature of this project will allow John and the actors to become more involved in the development of a poetic play about the history of the Coronet and even get to source their own period clothing in more nuanced detail.
John and I will be exploring ideas and themes of mutual interest. For example, the origins of theatre and how this fused with music to create the melodramatic play and its link to cinematic forms of expression; my educational background was in film studies. We want to show how performance and melodrama are still relevant in contemporary society.
Double bill film poster for The Crimes of Stephen Hawke and the House of Mortal Sin
Melodrama meets horror, Tod Slaughter slices Pete Walker, 1930s resonates with 1970s
Oil pastel, 40x64 inches, 2013
Sketching the spirits that inhabit a staircase at the Coronet, 2017
Shop till the zombie drops
Cultural memories of the railway arches and the shopping centre at the Elephant and Castle seem ripe for melodrama and horror.
Faith, Hope and Charity
The life of Marie Henderson and the melodramatic play she starred in called Faith, Hope and Charity which introduced ghostly special effects on to the Victorian stage. The play is a domestic drama, with three murders, one suicide, two conflagrations, four robberies, one virtuous lawyer, 23 angels, and a ghost.
Singing and sketching in the rain
At the Walworth street festival on 22 July 2017, children sketch images for a scale model of the Coronet and adults talk about their memories of going to the venue when it was an ABC cinema.
History and legacy of Melodrama
Professor Jim Davis and Dr Janice Norwood provide a fascinating overview of melodrama's rich diversity and defining characteristics. We discover that melodrama was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th century. Although it was often dismissed as a cultural product, there is a growing awareness of its importance and how it influenced both film and TV.
Melodrama Workshop - Introduction
We had great fun with it, as it allowed our imaginations to run riot. The only rule we followed was that each beat of the scene had to heighten dramatic tension - preferably through the means of some jaw-dropping revelation.
Carolyn Cronin from the People's Company - Masks!
I realised how masks conceal the wearer: you’d expect to see their eyes and mouths behind them, but you can’t – the mask itself is the focus.
Interview with Sam Porter, manager at the Coronet
I’ve walked around this building on my own, at night, in pitch black, with just the little fire lights on and not felt uncomfortable at all. Apart from one space.
Culture and Capital at the Elephant and Castle
What makes the E&C Theatre important was that melodrama was established and maintained here when other theatres either adapted to contemporary dramatic fashions or succumbed to the cinema; it even achieved a brilliant burst of fame in 1927.
82 x 56 inches. Oil pastel, pencil. 2017.
Poem to a drawing
Are we walking down a corridor in the National Portrait gallery?
Walls lined with the great and good who have killed and conquered.
This is all rather tiring and I am looking for somewhere to sit.
Commotion in a room ahead, left or right?
A gust of wind blows us into the Euro wing.
We see a mother and child with candle and umbrella.
A man checks his flies are zipped.
Above his head, a tricolour ink roller in suspended animation.
On the ground, footprints of Prussian blue.
Centre stage, chaise lounge.
What is going on? Can we sit here?
Maybe in the next room, next to a woman and her copy of J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition.
In front of a painting of the British Prime Minister getting fruity with the American President.
Is that Robert Rauschenberg trapped in twine from a plumb bob?
He appears to be pointing backwards and forward, one hand to 1974, the other, 2019.
Can we trust an artist to TELL US EVERYTHING about this space within space
That has spilled out from a box labelled Highland Shortbread?
Where can I sit?
My legs are killing me.
Notes to myself
This was sketched immediately after visiting the excellent Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern and during the United Kingdom government's formal notification of withdrawal from the European Union. This was also the week when The Daily Mail newspaper on March 28th featured a photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon with the trivialising head line: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”. On the same day, a new 12-sided £1 coin became legal tender across the UK.
Pondering all these matters, I started to sketch a scene using Robert Rauschenberg as an enigmatic muse. His free and easy approach to materials, for example, building an umbrella or fan into a painted surface, had me thinking about how to use everyday objects as part of my art practice. I turned to a biscuit tin in my studio. I don't know why I started to collect objects in a biscuit tin or how long they have accumulated (more than a decade now), but this box with random objects ranging from coins, fuses, tea coaster, plumb bob, pencil emblazoned with "Tell me everything," was raided for inspiration and incorporated into the drawing. This was my equivalent to Rauschenberg's "combine" although I have made no concession to three dimensionality. There is added irony in that the box has a culinary connection with Scotland; a nation destined to have a falling out with the English over the issue of falling out of Europe. All these objects and related ideas came tumbling out of the box and into the composition.
Some other allusions for the cultural critic to register:
As we march towards the spring Equinox
Clouds blink and then cry outside my West London skyline.
Faint rays of light bend through the veiled window of my studio.
In a mere ten minutes, a dull tone of grey pastel takes a walk
With confident, improvised strokes.
As I step back and view, Lautreamont comes to mind:
"As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine
And an umbrella on an operating table."
I step forward and substitute that sewing machine for a tattoo machine.
There is also no need for an umbrella as the clouds have dissolved in real time.
On the picture plane, we have a domestic interior looking out across suburbia.
A machine vibrates and draws blood.
This is a cottage industry of body art.
Bobbins your uncle!
Bobbin's your uncle!
A New World Order
Pastel drawing, 60x81", 2016
The Grand Christmas Comic Pantomine
At the mythic Elephant and Castle Theatre
Boxing Day, December 26th, 1876
Trump and Farage;
And the Knight that fought and gained the day
Donnie Trump ------- performed by Miss Marie Henderson
A powerful and scheming knight in love with Nigella and himself
Nigella Farage ------- performed by Mr Walter Grisdale
Mistress from Ing - Land who whip lashes her Euro body politic
Hilaricious Clinton ------- performed by Miss Clara Griffith
Deposed Queen trapped in the world wide web
Theresa Maypole ------ performed by Mr Watty Bruton
The titular head of state who is forever Brexiting, stage right.
A production on a grand scale with thrilling scenes:
Donnie and Nigella riding the headless horse of the apocalypse;
Hilaricious hanging onto the tale of the headless horse;
And Theresa, trying to exit stage right, but being trampled under horse hoof.
All told, a magical transformation.
This new world order has to be seen to be believed!
Trump and Farage has been expressly sketched for this theatre by Constance Graf.
1. Pantomine is a type of musical comedy performed in the United Kingdom, generally during the Christmas festive period. It has gender-bending roles and a story loosely based on a fairy or folk tale.
2. Henderson, Griffith, Grisdale and Bruton formed the cast of the Elephant and Castle Theatre company in London between 1875-1880. Marie Henderson was also the directress of the company.
3. If you want to sample a pantomime, here is a link to Valentine and Orson. This text was written in 1877 by Charles Merion and is his third adaption of the medieval romance tale about twin brothers abandoned at birth, one raised in the royal court and the other in the woods. Another version was the first play performed at the Elephant and Castle Theatre when that was opened for business in 1872. The theatre building is now the Coronet Club and this is due for demolition in early 2018 as part of the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle area.
What would you do?
Imagine your neighbour Heinrich Boll had left you a spare key and instruction to water the house plants while he boarded an aeroplane to collect a Nobel prize. Would you steal inspiration from the draft in his typewriter? Or Max Opuls had entrusted you, his dear friend, to retrieve a roll of film from his house; the one the censors didn't see in La Ronde. Would you leer at the said negative being held up to a bright light source? Kathe Kollwitz had to nip out to buy some milk and bread. Mischievous thought of adding a smiley face of ink to the desolate image in the printing press?
The aforesaid fantasies were inspired after listening to an interview Holgar Czukay gave in the early 1990s on the Radio 3 programme, Mixing It. He recounted how as a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1968, he sweet talked the secretary and gained access to Herr Aladdin's electronic cave. Holgar was able to record his debut album, Canaxis 5, with the studios impressive tape recorders looping together his interest in Musique Concrete and ethnographic folk recordings.
Not all studios live up to their profession. In point of fact, given the relative poverty of artists, they invariably have to beg a shed, borrow a broom cupboard or steal a loft. I have only had one bonafide studio. This was once a 1960s council flat (bedroom, living room and a kitchen) and came with the responsibility to practice community art. An author might build a studio around the typewriter on an heir loomed desk or a poet might dream on a hammock in the garden. Maybe virtual studios will one day be the norm for web based artists. The creation of an avatar, perhaps even adopting the identity of the Germanic artists I have already listed.
Expanding on this chain of thought -what about that elusive key to the artist's mind?
Script for This-That by Jacob Barua. Printed on continuous feed paper, Warwick University science block.
I am navigating back to 1989 and the University of Warwick. My fellow Film and Literature student, Jacob Barua, has handed me a film script and declared emphatically: you are the only person in the universe who can play this! I hesitated. Had never acted before. And then there was the troubled central character in the drama who seemed all too recognisable; forever on the edge of everything, nothing, relationships, art, politics. This begged the following question: Jacob are you taking the piss out of me or yourself? For a short period of time we seemed to swap identities. Jacob’s intense cinematic vision became one with my suited and booted persona.
Jacob was going to use this short film to catapult him into the prestigious Lodz film school. But it was no plain sailing. No film production on this dramatic scale had been undertaken at the university where theory ruled the day. It meant sniffing out equipment and resources. After two weeks of filming, a mere two days were spend in the edit suite, using equipment for the very first time. I recall a few expletives. We had set the date of screening, one day after the final day of editing. A key animation sequence shot on 8 mm film only arrived on the day of the screening and had to be added post-haste, post end-credits. Thankfully this has now been re-edited into its proper place in the dreaming body of the film.
We finally have the keys to the digital edit suite.
It's only now after 26 years and working together again on restoring the fading VHS tapes, that we’ve got a new grasp on the importance of this film for us. Let me leave the final words to Jacob Baura who was recently interviewed about his Warwick experience. What on heaven or hell was he thinking about when he made This-That?
"The reason I wanted to become a filmmaker, did not have that much to do with film per se. I had always been enthralled by Art itself in all it's aspects. I had been a poet, a musician, a painter, photographer, amateur actor, but probably loved literature most of all. Somewhat like a brat with his hand in a jar full of goodies, I did not want to let go of any of the Arts and decided that there was was only one vessel that encompassed all of them. The only way, in which I did not have to discard any, but instead fuse them, was through the glowing medium of film.
I arrived in Warwick...by mistake. One of my obsessions when it comes to the written word is History. Right until today I often wonder whether I am a self made historian expressing myself and researching through film. Warwick conjured in my mind the mystery and glory of medieval times. I was convinced that the University of Warwick was located somewhere within the town of Warwick. In those pre-internet days, a major source of information were brochures. And the university's were filled with images of Warwick Castle and the old cobble stone streets. That was enough for me to decide, given that it was simultaneously the only university offering such a broad course encompassing foremost literature and then film. I got off the train in the quaint railway station only to be horrifyingly informed that the university was far away in some fields between Coventry, Leamington Spa and Kenilworth!
I found the course at the university to be exhilirating in it's scope - exactly tailored to my needs. Great lecturers and given the small size of our department, an opportunity to bond with colleagues. The university also happened to probably have the largest independent Art Centre outside London, at the time. There was everything ranging from a philharmonic orchestra to to a cinema with plush seats and a sterling screen, to one of the best equipped professional theaters anywhere in England. Here I was active as a member of the Warwick Drama Society, taking on delicious roles for the duration of my studies. Besides, the university was a beehive of political activity, of all manner of shades. Of course I was aghast that the most prominent ones were for naive fellow travellers of all manner of totalitarian off shots. However the jewel of this mini-city was a massive library, with a salivating wealth of books that was beyond belief.
This-That was the result of a deep inner need to encompass my entire experience as a student who had lived in different countries, cultural and political systems. At the same time I set to creating a time capsule to be sent into the future. All Myths were after all created by somebody, even if that was thousands of years back - so why not make one too, there and then, to be flung into an unfathomable distance? My inspiration for the main character was essential to creating a core, and this was based, at least in terms of the visuals on a readily available 'blueprint'. For I used Warwick's most enigmatic and unique real life student - Constantine Gras. He did not fit into any preconception - as he neither had the persona of a typical student, nor even one from any 'civilian' from our contemporary milieu. Here was Someone who seemed to have been historically misplaced, from a 'wrong' age. Like a potter I used him as my clay, to impose onto him a narrative, which I knew would jar when combined with his persona. So here was a man creating himself i.e. Constantine, whom in turn I was creating further. Layers of creation.
One of the overarching themes is the struggle that each human has to undertake to find a space of comfort, to be able to be oneself, while struggling against the dominant societal forces. By comfort I do not at all refer to a personal one, but that of the Other. For the most crucial single question ever spoken for me, which forever thunders across all ages is; "Am I my brother's keeper?" We live in a world circumscribed by political correctness. The moment you challenge the narrative of the day, you are deemed fit for condemnation and rejection. In the case of the film, the character not only isn't ascribing to Modernity and the race to keep up with fashions both external and internal, but occupies a realm that defies the obligatory 'standards'. He is still both a reflection of the Ancient, Romantic and Future ages. Whether we like it or not from the beginnings of History, politics impinge on almost everything in life. That is why the culmination of the film is congealed within the incongruous figure of a young pyjama clad student who dares to take on the Rulers of the World. The selfish manipulators - the Daeduluses vs the selfless dreamers - the Icuruses. If I were to try to draw a circle; Sleep - Pyjama - Dream - the Impossible - Courage - Death - Eternity - Sleep.
The reception of the film, I will admit, was heart breaking. An outright regurgitating by the audience. Particularly so - when not even our lecturers or collegues could grasp or extract any meaning out of it. But this should have been expected, as it was intentionally put together in such a way as to defy conventional modes of film-making. And again, it was indeed a film made for Another age. But which one? Time will still tell.
I have no regrets about the film as it was then, and in it's curent slightly re-edited form. It turned out prescient. You are Alone among people. To be fulfilled you have to metaphorically fly, even if demise is the price to be paid. There is no escaping Newton's and other more serious Laws.
But just like there was no relevant message in the film for the audience at the time, there similarly isn't any for those today. There are plenty of other better sources, dear audience member, if you are in need of a message. This is not a cerebral feast but mainly a sensory experience.
Once I got there, one of the most satisfying experiences at the Lodz Film School was when all students were herded into a cinema, and made to watch the film by Piotr Wojciechowski; he was a Filmmaker, Scriptwriter, Catholic Philosopher but most of all a living legend as a novel writer ("Skull within a skull", "Is it worth to have a Soul" and others). He immediately took to the film. In his laudatory lecture after the film, he said he felt it had the feel of T.S. Elliot's " The Waste Land". He was the first ever viewer to fully comprehend the ambitions of this film. At the Lodz Film School I carried on with the 'tradition' of making This-Thatian films. With no pretence at all. Poland's greatest ever fimmaker, and it's Chancellor Wojciech Has, would always chide other lecturers for being baffled by my films - telling them that they were wrong to search for conventional meanings in my short films. For him they were "Intricate riddles"
I don't really have any wise tips for aspiring filmmakers. Rather warnings, in that it is going to be a lonely, cruel, and ungrateful journey, except for the very, very lucky few. Well, take heart - at least there's going to be one worthwhile viewer of your creation - Yourself.
Having been trained on 35mm makes a filmmaker by far more disciplined and honed to the workings of a film. The Digital Age has its own advantages. But the downsides are greater. More self indulgence and turning an important medium of Art into a toy.
I have been a gardener for a long time now. There's at least one massive film within me waiting to happen. Then I intend to go back to my gardening.
It's this and that, after all."
If you want to experience This-That, the film is screening on:
10th September 2016 around 7.30pm
Muse Gallery, 269 Portobello Road, W11, London
Portobello Film Festival
Full venue and programme details.
It is with great sadness that I have just received news of the recent passing away of Victor F Perkins. He co-founded the film department at Warwick in 1978 and made a decisive contribution to the acceptance of film as an art form worthy of deep study. I have fond memories of him hunched over the Steenbeck undertaking a close textual analysis of In A Lonely Place with 2-3 students; a more kinetic Victor was found over at the Student Union playing his favourite pinball machine; delivering those impassioned lectures where he poured his intelligence into the vessel of a film; seeing so much nuance in terms of decor and edit, so much so, that I seem to recall, at the end of one lecture, Jacob asked: is it really possible that the film maker meant all this?
Victor bough a copy of This-That in 1989 for the university archive. It was always a pleasure to meet up with him over the decades since I graduated. Alas he missed the screening of the remastered film at the university in March 2016, but I was touched when he specially came in to see me and we had a good chin wag about life: how he was adjusting after a recent stroke, his desire to learn the German language, his concern about the corporate development of education and his cluttered honorary office in the department which he really should tidy up. I told him that we had dedicated the film to our old lecturers who had inspired the young to fly. Victor had a rueful smile.
There is a corridor sized gallery at the V&A that I am forever drawn to. Literally, in the sense that I love sketching here. It's the Sacred Silver & Stained Glass collection in room 83. During my tenure as the museum's community artist in residence, I used stained glass to meditate on contemporary housing issues. Nathaniel Westlake's magisterial panel at the V&A, Vision of Beatrice, inspired an installation and artist film.
The Westlake stained glass panel was made for a V&A exhibition in 1864 and was possibly conceived in the house that Westlake had built for him in the heart of North Kensington. The house is still standing at 1-2 Whitchurch Road opposite the Lancaster West estate and embodies the complex history of social change from the extremes of Victorian affluence and poverty to modern day regeneration and gentrification. This listed building would be a multi-millionaires paradise but has been converted into six bedrooms by St Mungo's and is a hostel for those needing support into housing and work. The house was situated just across the road from my artist studio which itself was a former council flat about to be redeveloped into More West.
During my residency, I recorded an interview with Terry Bloxham who is a ceramic and glass specialist at the V&A with responsibility for the stained glass collection. I wanted to understand more about the context in which Westlake had made his stained glass panel and Terry quite rightly took me back in time. I was surprised by how the past would resonate so strongly with the way we live today: the forging of nation states; how religion can violently divide and spiritually unite; and the evolving technological and economic context to the making of art.
Here is an edited transcript of our coversation:
Terry Bloxham: Why Westlake? Why that panel?
Constantine Gras: Why that panel? I didn’t know anything about it until I started my V&A Community Artist residency. I’m based in a studio in North Kensington that is part of an estate, the Silchester Estate. It’s part of a new housing development taking place on the estate. In the run up to my residency, I cycled around the borough, looked at listed buildings and I came across a house, just across the road from where my studio is. It’s the house that was built for Nathaniel Westlake.
TB: Oh. Who be he?
CG: It’s a bit of a juxtaposition from the estates. You suddenly see this listed building that was built in 1863. It was built by his friend and architect, John Francis Bentley, who later went on to design Westminster Cathedral. And they were both converts to Catholicism and collaborated on St Francis of Assisi church on Pottery Lane in North Kensington. But I was interested in this grand looking house near an estate and that's now run as a sort of hostel. It’s had a bit of a checkered history as this area of North Kensington has. Poverty and slums. Now property that is valued in the millions.
TB: Where is North Kensington?
CG: This part is opposite Latimer Road tube station.
TB: I think I know. Basically Notting Hill west.
CG: That’s right.
TB: I know that neighbourhood. There’s a great reggae shop. Hopefully it’s still there.
CG: So that’s how I came across Westlake. As an artist with a studio in the same area, albeit in a different century, I’m very interested in predecessors and making connections with them. And to discover that the V&A museum has a work of art that has a connection to the very streets in which I'm working. I’m also interested in a film that was also made in the local area and this is called Leo The Last. It was made in 1969 by John Boorman on the site of Lancaster West estate just prior to it being built. It’s about an aristocratic person who moves into the area and he gets radicalised by his interaction with the West Indian community. Some memorable imagery in the film involves looking through a telescope and also patterned glass in a pub that distorts the point of view. I suppose at one level, I wanted to explore or create a connection between film making and stained glass. In the sense of camera lenses and glass transmitting light and how they might be used for perception and analysing or documenting the world around you. Using fragments or a diverse range of media that can be pieced together to make a whole new work of art. And one not necessarily made just by the artist, but involving collaboration. Also I feel a little like that aristocratic character in the film. The artist as an outsider who comes into an area and interacts with the community and how this might radicalise either them or the community or not as the case may be. That is the type of thing I’m wanting to do in my community focused project work. I’m hoping to create a Westlake House at the V&A Museum, in addition to making an artist's film.
CG: Perhaps you can help me shed some light on Westlake and how and why he came to make this wonderful panel.
TB: Westlake in the nineteenth century, is, near enough, the culmination of a movement that we now call the Gothic revival. And the Gothic Revival was a reaction against eighteenth century stuff and we are going to be talking about that as we progress through time. This involved a revision in the theological understanding of Christianity and also the furnishings of Christian churches. And all throughout the gothic revival period, whether you are talking about stained glass or metalworking or textiles, all of the things that were used for church furnishings, they kept harping on, we must do it in the medieval manner. And that’s why you’ve got to understand the medieval manner in order to understand Westlake. That’s why we are starting here in the medieval period. We are looking at thirteenth century glass.
CG: Was this being commissioned by the church?
TB: Yes. it was church law that you had to have some sort of decorative, figurative work in the church, that illustrated the Saint to whom that church was dedicated. All images in churches were meant to be instructive. People always say it’s bibles for the poor. But that’s sort of an insult, because it’s calling them illiterate. And I prefer to look at it, not as an age of illiteracy, but as an age when you didn’t need to read and write. Only a few people did. In the middle ages,
TB: So here we are looking at a panel from the mid thirteenth century showing a scene of King Childebert being chastised by bishop Jermanus or Jermaine. It is telling you a story, an episode from the life of a real king. His name was Childebert. He’s in the middle of the sixth century and was one of the first kings in France. After the collapse of the Roman empire in the West you have all these so called barbarians moving in. You can tell my preferences lie with the so called barbarians. Various tribal groups as they were known: the Goths, the Gauls, the Francs, the Germanys, the Celts. The celts became the Brits. These groups are going to form our nation states. Clovis was one of these Frankish groups and from Frank we get France. This is where Childebert is descended from. In the panel, we have Childebert being chastised by bishop Jermanus, the first bishop of Paris. He is chastising the King because he had just been on a campaign to conquer the Spanish city of Saragossa. The bishop was upset about this because Saragossa was a christian city. Bishop Jermanus forced Childebert to build the first church in Paris as atonement for his sins and this church was dedicated to St Lawrence. This church was being rebuilt in the thirteenth century in the newish Gothic style and it was rededicated to Jermanus who by then had become a saint.
CG: Can you tell me about the designs used in stained glass and the process of making?
TB: Medieval decorated windows are composed of small, irregularly shaped pieces of coloured and clear glass. The idea was not to have big square panels of glass which they could make, about A4 sheet size. It was to make a sheet of glass, cut it into irregular shapes and move those shapes around to form a picture. And then those shapes are held together by lead. So it became known as a mosaic-type construction. When you think of a Roman mosaic floor, little pieces of tesserae arranged to make a picture shape. And then they are embedded into cement to form a solid picture. It’s the same thing with mosaic glass. The only painting that you have on it are the details that you can see in the hands and the face, the folds in the clothing. That’s just simple blacky-brown iron-based pigment which is fired onto the surface of the glass. Glass when made is clear. But in its molten state you can add colouring agents to it. Cobalt will make blue. Copper will make green and also red. Manganese will make a purply brown. Depending upon the intensity you can get this nice purply-brown robe or flesh colour. That is know as pot metal because you hold the liquid glass into a pot and add the metallic oxide. So you have clear glass and pot metal glass, cut into small irregularly shaped pieces, put together to make a nice, pretty little picture, all held together in this lead framework. And whatever paint you have was just an iron based pigment onto the surface of the glass to give you your details. That is mosaic glass made in the medieval manner. That is what Westlake is trying to achieve.
I have to introduce another element in the manufacturing of medieval glass. Something that was a big technological revolution. I mentioned earlier that properly speaking, it’s not stained glass, it’s decorated glass. And the reason why I say that is because stained means penetration of glass or staining glass. That doesn’t happen until the magic year of about 1300, probably in Normandy. Some bright spark discovered that putting silver into oxide of some form and then firing, what it did was to penetrate the upper levels of the glass and create this lovely lemony yellow to a burnt orange colour. And the reason why that was so revolutionary was it enabled you to have more than one colour on the sheet of glass. We looked at yellow glass and red glass and blue glass and green glass that is known as pot metal glass. That is clear glass that has been coloured. Coloured glass is more expensive than clear glass. Any time you have extra processes it’s going to increase the price. We do have those few surviving documents that give us prices for the middle ages. So we know that glass coloured all the way through was more expensive. Staining it is incredibly cheap to make relative to the older way and once it comes in, it doesn’t disappear.
When we get to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Europe is torn apart by different believers or practitioners of the Christian faith. In the middle ages, remember there is only the church. There is no protestant, no catholic. It is just the church. So you have to put yourself in a time when your world, your faith is being torn apart, is being questioned by people who are very learned and very persuasive. And in some cases also inciters of violent activities and feelings. We tend to blame the whole reformation on him, Martin Luther. He was pretty moderate. You also had people like Calvin and Zinger who were the militant side of the reformation. And there was a lot of destruction and a lot of change. But in Europe today, you will still find this part of Germany is Catholic, but that part is Protestant. But fortunately not fighting each other. England’s story is different and was more violent. Not so much people killing each other, but people destroying anything suggestive of religious imagery.
CG: You get a snapshot of those times at the recent iconoclasm exhibition at the Tate.
TB: Yes that was a good snapshot. And we also have documents from stain glass makers, petitioning the local leaders of the city, the principalities. Saying you are putting us out of business. We used to make a living making religious windows for churches and it was just no longer allowed. On the continent they started to turn their hands to other iconographic subject matter in stain glass making.
TB: What we are looking at now are products of Netherlandish workshops who mastered from the fifteenth century onwards, the art of very fine, but mass and cheap production of glass windows. These are simple pieces of cylinder glass, cut into a circular shape and solely painted. So its clear glass, in silver stain and black pigment. They are cheap. They are incredibly finely painted because this is the age of the printing press. So engravings were made and then they would be printed and they would be used as models for these stained glass workshops. So infect they’re copying exiting art works, unlike in the medieval period where they don’t have the benefit of mass produced engravings and stuff to copy.
This panel is the story of Sorgheloos which is a secular version of the old testament story of the prodigal son. This guy, Sorgheloos, goes out, he inherits a whole bunch of money, spends it on wine, women and song. And in the end, all he has left is an old woman, two starving animals and a bunch of straw to eat. So unlike the prodigal son he’s not welcome back with the fatted calf.
What also happens in the middle of the sixteenth century, these chemists as we would call them today, alchemists as they were known, developed more pigments that could be fired successfully into glass. In the medieval period it was just that blacky-brown iron based pigment. Now we have enamel colours. So we have the greens and all the shades. Red and all the shades. Blue and all the shades. And the yellows.
CG: It must have been a wonder to behold, a sort of technicolour movie.
TB: Yes it was. That’s why they were popular. Also coloured glass was expensive and enamel paints are cheaper than coloured glass. So we are now in the age of just simply painting on glass. Think of it as a transparent canvas. Because that is where we are going, painting on glass.
Let us jump forward to the middle of the eighteenth century. We have aristocrats interested in the gothic. Walpole made Strawberry Hill which was his idea of Gothic. And then In the early part of the nineteenth century we start getting academics in Oxford known as the Oxford movement. They were also called the Tractarians because they produced a lot of tracts. They are looking at medieval theology and seeing it or pre-reformation theology as a more pure form of the Christian faith. They are not advocating a return to catholicism but they are advocating breaking away from the corruption that crept into the English church in the eighteenth century. Shortly after, a complimentary, although at times, rival group, grows up in Cambridge known as the Cambridge Camden society, but also known as the Ecclesiastics when they are sitting in London. They were interested in pre-reformation theology, but more importantly in pre-reformation architecture and church furnishings. So you have in Oxford, the academics looking at theology. In Cambridge, they are looking at the physical structures of the furnishings. So we are at the beginning of the nineteenth century at that time when people are looking back to the medieval world and things done in the medieval manner. So this is where the Gothic Revival begins. Also in 1824 the Government passes what became known as the 600 churches act. Christianity had fallen into corruption in the eighteenth century. The church fabric itself, the buildings were neglected. There were a lot of people assigned as clerics in churches who just stayed in their country estates and took the money and they didn’t even maintain the churches. So the government steps in and makes a proclamation, effectively going, thou must build churches. Into this comes the great architects like Butterfield, Street, Pugin. So the very first half of the nineteenth century is what we know as the Gothic Revival. Church building, church furnishing going on and stained glass starts apace.
Also in the 1850s and 60s craftsmen were thinking why can't we do it like the medieval stained glass makers. They couldn't simply because medieval glass is mouth blown. So there is no evenness in its thickness. Each bit of glass that the medieval craftsman made, this bit is thin at one end, but it might be thicker at the other. So that when you put it into a window and light comes through that little bit of glass, the light will come through differently. It will be less bright in the thicker bit and more bright in the thinner bit. The medieval craftsmen knew that. That's what the Victorian stained glass makers were really trying to discover.
TB: Nathaniel Westlake was a freelance designer. You could make a living by doing that. He went around to companies like Powell’s who were probably the biggest manufacturer of windows at this time. He would show his portfolio of how good an artist he was. Also a portfolio of stained glass design that he could offer to them. And that is how he was making his living. But in about 1858-59, clearly by 1860, he had become involved with the stained glass firm of Lavers and Barraud.
In 1864 the V&A had an exhibition of stained glass and mosaics and one of the firms that submits things that were selected to be displayed was a panel made by Lavers and Barraud to the design by Nathaniel Westlake. So this is just made for an exhibition piece as far as anyone has ever been able to find out. It wasn’t actually a potential commission which a lot of exhibition pieces were. This just seems to be solely their own making and as it’s a design by Westlake, one makes that big assumption that it’s Westlake’s idea. The iconography of this panel was all in his head. We know that Westlake was friends with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood like many groups in Europe were interested in things medieval. They’re looking at more literary subjects. Morris and co were doing lots of things like George and the Dragon windows. Dante Alligheri, the writer of the famous Divine Comedy, from the early part of fourteenth century was big. There was a lot of interest in him.
The iconography of the Westlake panel is quite complicated. It is derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this poem Dante was granted a trip through hell into purgatory and finally into paradise. It’s a wonderful story. Dante is lead by the Roman poet Virgil who to him represents reason and as Dante is going through hell and purgatory he is reflecting on his own life. He is working out his own sin. At the very end of purgatory, this person called Beatrice starts to be mentioned. Beatrice was a real person, Beatrice Portinali. It seems that Dante knew her when they were children in Florence. He was a member of one family and she was another. For whatever reason and remember Italy wasn’t a unified country, it was a bunch of city states and these city states had noble families fighting each other. So marriages were not love matches, they were political matches and Dante had fallen in love with this young Beatrice. Madly, head over heels, quite perversely. Like, get over it Dante. But he never did. But he couldn’t marry her. She married someone else. We don’t even know if she realized his devotion. But anyway she had to marry someone else and she died quite young. So he was stuck on her all this time.
Now when you read the Divine Comedy it becomes apparent that Beatrice is divine love. And divine love is the only way you can go through heaven. Reason cannot take you into heaven. So at the very end of purgatory, before he makes that last crossing of the river and going up into heaven, Dante is given a vision by a woman called Mathilda and her companions, often known as the three graces, but really faith, hope and love. They give Dante a vision of what is to come. And this is the first time that he realised that this woman, who he has always loved and is now dead, has become divine love. This vision of Beatrice is going to lead him into paradise. This is what is depicted in the panel designed by Westlake. Beatrice up there in that top left corner. Faith, hope and love are those three figures who are often referred to as the three graces. First personified in that form by Sandro Botticelli in the middle of the fifteenth century in the Primaevera painting. This is Dante kneeling at the front, eyes closed, given that vision of Beatrice. That moment when he realises that his love has become divine love and so will take him into heaven.
It’s done in the medieval manner. So we’ve got little pieces of glass just like in the medieval way, irregular shaped pieces carefully chosen. It’s not just take that one, put it there to make the picture, but trying to get the right balance of light coming through. By this time in the nineteenth century they are using the equivalent of light cables. So they can start to see the effect and so they can choose the glass, arrange the shape in order to maximise the light coming through.
So Westlake is the culmination of this late eighteenth century, first half of the nineteenth century, Gothic revival way of doing it in the medieval manner. He is a medieval craftsman. He is a medieval artist. Let’s put it that way. Lavers and Barraud are a workshop that operated in the same way as a medieval workshop would have done. You have a centre in which you had your designer, your painter, your glass maker, your lead worker, all in one institution producing the window and each one being prized for their skills. As the nineteenth century moves on the designer becomes more of an artist. You start to get into, what is known in the ceramic world, as art pottery. You might as well call it art stained glass.
Four film stills from Vision of Paradise, 2015. 30 minute, high definition video.
Sketching during TV coverage of EU Summit
17 x 12 inch, oil pastels, 19/02/16
Sketching during TV coverage of Masstricht treaty
12.5 x 9.5 inches, acrylics, 1990
I've almost concluded my artist residency at Lancaster West estate. There has been a hiatus to the community project work that has consisted of making large scale drawings for a mural and a short film. The regeneration works on Grenfell tower has entered its final phase and we are also in the festive season when even self-employed artists might be afforded a break. However it was a pleasure to be invited back onto the estate by residents and I attended two contrasting events in December.
The first was the Christmas meal for seniors. This was held at Aldridge Academy that has recently been built on the former green of the estate. The meal, drinks and raffle went down exceedingly well. This was the first event organised by the new resident association under the guidance of Clare Dewing and Andrea Newton. I had a chance to film residents and chat to them about the estate and how this area of North Kensington has changed.
June Toma: "We've lived here for 34 years and slum clearance in the 6os and 70s has changed it a lot. It's a very multi-cultural area which is lovely. A community is what you make. If you have good neighbours and you're friendly with your neighbours and get on with them - that's important. I think as this generation grows up, it will become more of an up-market area. The housing they are building here is quite expensive. I think it pushes out a lot of young families because they cannot afford to live around here any more."
Norman Lewis: "I came here in 1985. The estate has had its ups and downs. But I have very nice neighbours and we are very close. We watch each other's backs. The food today is lovely and its nice to have all the community together."
Cllr Judith Blakeman: "Today we are reviving the Lancaster West pensioners christmas dinner. We couldn't have one last year because of the building works. It's always the most fantastic event. The estate is becoming a coherent community partly due to the building works and what residents have gone through. This has really brough residents together. It would be a huge shame if this community was destroyed. The big problem is central government policy towards social housing and that's what's worrying us."
The second event was a mediation meeting between residents of Grenfell Tower at Lancaster West estate and the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) that run the estate. Also in attendance were the local councillor and MP. I have been to several meetings and residents are now comfortable with me ether filming or sketching during the proceedings.
Let me give some background information. Grenfell Tower has had a £10 million regeneration with new double glazed windows and heating for each flat; the latter has involved a complicated overhaul of the 1970s boiler system. There has been an upgrade to the exterior cladding of the building. In addition to this, new flats are being created and hopefully providing much needed housing at affordable rents. The nursery and boxing club will both be returning to much improved facilities in the building.
Despite all this positive regeneration, there has been a bitter dispute between a large number of residents and the TMO; specifically regarding the location for the new boilers in each property. The newly formed Grenfell compact group that represents residents in the tower has also called for an independent investigation into how the TMO have managed the regeneration. One issue that Lady Victoria Borwick, MP, constantly reiterated during the meeting was the pressing need to set aside differences and for all residents to cooperate with the TMO in getting heating and hot water supplies completed in time for Christmas. Over the past year many residents have refused to let contractors commence work in their flats. This has resulted in some of them being threatened with legal action as the TMO has a responsibility to complete the works. In the run up to Christmas the last few properties were having work done to install new boilers and radiators.
As an artist working with the TMO on community engagement it has not been an easy residency. I have hopefully overcome initial skepticism about art being a waste of time and money. I have embedded myself very closely with the community in an attempt to reflect all shades of communal life from vibrant tinsel to more sombre monochrome. So let me raise a slightly chipped glass and propose a toast to Lancaster West; to all residents who live on the estate and all the personnel from the TMO who manage the 1200 properties. I look forward to finalising designs of the mural with residents and to work with the TMO in celebrating the 40th anniversary of Lancaster West next year.
The story so far.
An alien space ship is drawn to the mythic high rise structures and Westway (A40) in North Kensington. TX1 the leader of the alien race has decided this was a suitable location to make contact with earthlings rather than equivalent structures at Stonehenge and the Houses of Parliament (too much static and interference detected at the latter).
A local ritual, a fair, is taking place on the green which the locals call estate. Those assembled are feasting, singing and dancing and the universal translator has detected a rap in Christian religious style. There is no threat level although the atmosphere contains noxious hydro-carbons which are a by-product of the engines they use in four-wheeled mode of transport.
TX1 after eight light years of travel through cosmic dust and zero gravity is impressed by the colours of life, especially the shades of green which reminds her of the fertile fields of her planet.
This word, cool, is used a lot and the children like the gladatorial sports, especially football. Should I tell them that their local tribe, QPR, will one day win the double? Bobby Zamora seems to be a local God.
These humans live life in alternating patterns of work and domestic relaxation. The younger ones are happy to write these words on a sheet of paper: awesome, cool, delicious. I do not tell them that I cannot stomach the food they offer, it does not agree with my metabolism. But I find the flowers growing nearby very edible. Who planted these? They should be praised.
As TX1 flies away from Silchester Estate and planet Earth, she takes away memories that are cool and has a few seed cuttings that will be transplanted into the soil of her home planet.