Tag Archives: Oxford

Spitfire Parade

Paul Nash (1889-1946)
Battle of Britain, 1941
Oil on Canvas
(c) Imperial War Museums (art.IWM ART LD 1550)

So here’s a thing.  My grandmother was a painter, and both my parents were architects and also painted, and the tradition of mid-century English painting and design was present in my early life to such an extent that, for me as a child, it seemed that that was how painting was done…which was why my discovery of Pop or Abstract Expressionism at school such a mind-blowing revelation. Because Spencer, Nash, Moore, Ravilious, Baynes, Piper, Sutherland, Hale; that mid-century aesthetic, forged in two world wars, but coloured with the gentility of the middle class, created the way that I, we, perceive visual culture: the Home Counties Apocalypse of John Wyndam, or John Christopher, souring into the nihilistic rationalist psychedelia of Aldis and Ballard.

So it is hard for me to name this work or even see this as art, since this is a baseline from which all art (by definition, deviation) deviates. I’ve come to love it, but it is a love of nostalgia, not of knowledge. Living in the US, this work is unavailable to any real extent, in the same why that Turner, the antecedent of this work, is also a virtual unknown.  Nash’s painting as war artist of WW2 shows the conflict as a sometime surreal dream, a dream where the details, the shine of water, the tilt of the horizon from the cockpit, are more present than actual visceral realities of conflict. What strikes in this image is not the clash of man and machine, but sheer vastness of the space in which that conflict takes place.  Testimony from fighter and bomber pilots from the war are not about close contact, but about the distance between objects; the size of the canvas on which they played. And of course, for a boy (man) my age, the Battle of Britain is one of the heroic definitions of our generation. This painting makes real the revelation that the war in the air was not about ideology, men or machine, but about space (so back to Ballard and the surreal again).

We had a Nash on the wall in the JCR at college; a painting of tanks on exercise on Salisbury plain (where I was at school); though oddly I can’t find a reference for the painting online. I also knew Nash’s nephew, Peter-Paul Nash, the composer, for a while; he married a good friend of mine.

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Windy Miller

Peter Hazel collecting the Post
Series No. BBC19
(c) Gordon Murray Puppets ltd 1969 from the BBC tv series Camberwick Green and Trumpton

My mum sent me this from Wales to Oxford in 1986, because she knew, because she’s my Mum, that I used to love Camberwick Green. Like all right thinking people my favourite character was the de facto narrator Windy Miller, but Serjeant-Major Grout and the boys from Pippin Fort will do, as will Peter Hazel, emptying the boxes as quickly as he can. To unpack this image is to unpack everything about being English and being born in the 70’s (even down to the colonial uniforms of the cadets from Pippin Fort) No wonder that Life on Mars used Camberwick Green in an episode. Of everyone loved Windy because he not only had the best machine to work in, but he had the good life, self-sufficient and permanently drunk on his home brewed cider; try getting that into a nursery school programming today…I suppose that it makes me sound both old and privileged, but the village that I grew up in was just like Camberwick Green (bigger that Chigley, smaller than Trumpton), with a baker, two butchers, a greengrocer and a least 4 pubs. So, far from being some kind of prelapsarian fantasy world, the setting for these Gordon Murray programmes was intensely relevant for me as a child. I don’t know what we’ve lost, why we decided to lose it, and what we’ve gained in return, but I’m not sure things are better. As usual, I blame Thatcher. Which is ironic (and how my generation loves irony) since wasn’t it that kind of change what Thatcher was protecting us from?

One personal note, the postcard came from the Walnut Tree Stores in Llangynidr, and that is still there, and I’m pretty sure that you can still get these postcards. My mum addressed it to me at Worcester College, Oxford. Not sure that addressing would work today. And GET OFF MY LAWN!

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Coverley Cathedral

12th Century Norman, Romanesque Parish Church.

A double header for today. I was at Oxford University, in the mid 1980’s, but I never visited Iffley in the East of the city. I knew the Iffley Road well, and of course the Cowley Road, where all the interesting shops, pubs and restaurants were. The Cape of Good Hope pub, The Rat’s Hole Irish bar, Rainbow’s End comic shop, the Penultimate Picture Palace with the giant Paul Robson hands (where I slowly went through all the movies in Danny Peary’s books), that one Jamaican restaurant where, apparently, they only charged you what they thought you could afford (try that one on for size, David Cameron and Boris Johnson). Churches weren’t so high on the agenda, but when I was at The Courtauld, I went with my two very good University friends Caroline and Andrew one autumn day, when we fancied playing at being grown-ups. St Mary’s is wonderful; high Romanesque, built around 1170. It’s quite unusual in that it is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin; that Anglo-Catholic specificity speaks to the high church traditions of Oxford, dating back to the Civil War, when the city was an important base for the King’s forces.

St Mary The Virgin, IFFLEY, OXFORD.
12th Century Norman, Romanesque Parish Church.

Interior is similarly high quality, with Victorian pews ranged beneath an astounding Romanesque semi-circular vaulted roof with typical Norman zig-zag decoration; a motif that extends to the treatment in the interior and exterior of the great round-wheeled west window. I love the Romanesque style; there’s a marvelous element of Brutalist purity to the architecture, a sense that the use of the semi-circle and circle was how buildings should be, rather than the more efficient and safer fudge of the pointed arch that marks the debased Gothic style. My tutor at The Courtauld, Peter Kitson, delighted in telling us about the numerous earthquakes that struck English church buildings throughout the early middle ages; unusual natural phenomena, perhaps more attributable to the application of biblical knowledge to the collapse of inherently unstable stone buildings, rather than actual geological activity. And of course, the church also marks the place of the mighty Coverley Cathedral, erected at the site of the final defeat of the usurper Henry of York and conclusion of the War of English Succession, and the acclaimation of Stephen II as the rightful king of a Holy Roman England in 1526.

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Adventures In Time And Space

LUCIO FONTANA. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ 1960
Canvas, 93x73cm
Tate (T00694)
Purchased 1964
5032495-015516 1.5M1201

This is a birthday card from my mum for my 4oth birthday. I know next to nothing about Lucio Fontana, and what I do know you can know out too, by searching ‘Lucio Fontana’ on Google. He was Argentinian. He lived in Italy and the US. He invented an artistic movement that he called ‘Spatialism’. He died in 1968, and was born in 1899. He was a precursor to Arte Povera.Born, like me in 1the 1960’s,  Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’, entered the Tate collection in 1964.

I was taken to the Tate, the old Tate Gallery at Millbank, before all the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Oil Tanks etc, often when a child, and when at boarding school, and when at college in Oxford and London, I went a lot on my own. Though I knew then even less about Fontana than I know now (how did we really know anything before the internet?), this enigmatic image, dour and dun, with the vertical slash of black, was one of my favourites. It seemed to be always on display in some amorphous modern gallery or whatever, and thus, in the days before education departments and audio tours, it hung un-connected, without explanation or argument, silent and solitary. While we were taught art history at school, with varying degrees of success, Lucio Fontana, buried in the complexities of post WWII Europe, beyond the trajectory of A Level Art History, was on his own, a artwork without history or meaning.

Fontana wrote (taking from the Tate catalogue note): ‘The picture “Spatial Concept” WAITING was based on my researches….to be precise a new dimension beyond the canvas, time and space, the freedom to produce a work of art, liberating myself from the traditional canons of painting and sculpture’. The sculpture (painting? It’s in a frame) seemed to promise a world beyond, behind or between; that a simple act (an act of violence? Not necessarily) could result in something never seen, something genuinely new. I still prefer my art experience to be unadorned and unmediated; and in those days one could directly confront an artwork without needing know about its means or method. And that seems to be appropriate for this work, which speaks only of possibility and challenge. Perhaps the browning canvas reminded my of the hessian wall coverings and carpets in my parent’s modernist home; that one could strike beyond the veil of the normal to wild adventures in dimensions unknown. I think Fontana was striking a blow for art; for the boy watching for worlds beyond even that.

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Athena Che

And here’s an old one. Che Guevara by Alberto Korda (1960), interpreted by Jim Fitzpatrick (1968), as re-intepreted by Athena (1986). This was a 20th birthday card from my school friend Phil; he doesn’t have my address at college. How does he get hold of me? I don’t have a phone in my room (in fact I only remember maybe four payphones in the whole college) How did we stay in contact in those days? It’s really easy to forget what it was like before mobile phones and internet.

Here Che’s started to go a little Madchester, in preparation for the second summer of love, 1988. My favourite Che image is the one from Scott King, Cher Guevara (2000). This was produced for the (now defunct) Institute of Visual Culture space in Cambridge, ran by the redoubtable Stefan Kalmar (now presiding over Artists Space in NYC) and the poster for the show was on my wall for a long time. Sleazenation was our bible for a time in the late ’90’s. That seems a long time ago too, now.

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View from the bridge

This is a combination of a 35mm slide that I took for recording purposes and a postcard that I received from a friend Beccy Jones for a dinner party or whatever, back in the early ’90’s.  A nice combination of the personal and political.

Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Project for the River Medlock 1998, bullet proof glass, audio, Oxford Road Bridge, Manchester

I used this image in lectures to demonstrate what I believed (and still do believe) is the most central and key role of the artist in public space; the other with the ability to see what cannot be seen by the everyday. When Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, two artists based in Manchester, were approached by Arts Transpennine 98 for a project in central Manchester they proposed one of this most simple and effective urban project. The brief was to reconnect the City with the rivers than run in gunnels beneath Manchester; and they did in the most elegant way possible; they cut into the steel bridge, and installed glass panels so that instead of craning over these 5 foot high panels to see the river, one could just look through. Perfect, simple, elegant, and had the advantage of placing them and the work directly within all that Iain Sinclair/Alan Moore/Patrick Keiller psychogeography that was so big at the time. Beautiful.

Adolphe Vallette, The Irwell 1913 Whitworth Art Gallery

…and here’s a river in Manchester from the City’s glorious heyday, smokey in an impressionist sunset. This is in the Whitworth, I think, and of the River Irwell, of which there was an Arts Lottery funded sculpture trail (more on that later). Nick Crowe was the project manager for Rita McBride’s Arena sculpture in Salford. My father was from Manchester and this the City that he would have known, just 10 years before his birth. I’ve always had a strange attraction to the city, though I’ve spent very little time there. It’s changed a lot, but then so have most things.

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A kick up the Eighties

This one always made me laugh. This was up all through college and several places since, hence the coffee stains.

Part of the point of this blog is to post images that don’t seem to be available anywhere else. This postcard was purchased from one of those small second-hand bookshops in the Covered Market. Does that kind of shop even exist anymore? Last time I was in the Covered Market it was all souvenir shops for coach parties.

Anyway, this was the era of Biff and Daisy Pulls It Off, and for me the card perfectly captured the sense of entitlement to past and present that was the hallmark of the Thatcher government. We’re all supposed to admire what the chemist from Somerville did for us all now, but the smug suburban self-satisfaction of the Thatcher gang was what stuck in my throat, and made them so unbearably English. Maybe it had to be done; but why did they all have sound so pleased to have to do it?

The Boyhood of Norman Tebbit, recycled images, Oxford Covered Market 1986

The reference is to Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit’s response to the 1981 riots that he “grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it”.

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