We were back in the West Country for Christmas, and we went to Bath for the day. I hadn’t seen the Roman Baths for 20 years or so, and was curious to see how this site had been developed, since I remembered it as pretty cramped and BANES being not exactly a by word for quality visitor experience. The tourist stream must be incessant (as, presumably, it has been since the baths were founded 2000 years ago; plus ca change etc), and that’s difficult to handle. One thing that has always been wonderful about the baths (apart from the raw energy of the hot spring, which is an astounding thing to see on a cold grey December day in England) are the lead curses that Romano-British patrons of the baths and their attendant temples would throw into the healing and sacred waters. The messages are so immediate and present. That got to me thinking about this card, which is from the excelent Corinuim Musem in Cirencester. The Cotswolds were the play ground of the rich and monied upper classes in Roman Britain (plus ca change etc), and Cirencester (Corinium) was the richest city outside of London.
So this litle acrostic is a fun graffito from that time; and immediate record of an individual long dead; something never meant for anyone’s eyes other than the person who wrote. I’m going to be making liberal use of Wikipedia here, but here goes:
R O T A S
O P E R A
T E N E T
A R E P O
S A T O R
My card calls it an acrostic, Wikipedia calls it a pallindrome, I call it something that reads the same whichever way you look at it: Rotas (thing with a wheel), Opera (working), Tenet (has commands, preserves), Arepo ( a creeping thing, a proper names of some kind), Sator (the master, sower, the first principle).
This includes opposite and alternating directions; since Latin has no set word order, it still reads the same: ‘farmer Arepo uses a plough’. The literature on the Sator Square appears to be vast (just go to the Wikipedia page, already), especially concerning the proper name Arepo, which, apparently appears no where else (which means it’s code?A made up name?); but if it’s so famous (the Sator Square appearing from Pompeii to Cirencester to Manchester to Sienna to Dura Europos to the island of Gotland) then why didn’t people start adopting it as an actual name?
It’s been used for magic (such word play confuses the Devil, apparently), but also, it says here. contains a secret Christian message. The centre cross can be read as the first two words of the Pater Noster (Our Father, who art in heaven etc), surrounded by A and O; Alpha and Omega. As such, it could be a Christian code, something that you’d write on a wall to tell other Christians that there were Christians about, or, more simply, something that one might idly scratch to affirm ones own identity, a tag. And, as it did spread across the entire Mediterranean world and beyond, over hundreds of years, it might be earliest example of what we all now call a meme…
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.
Staying on the Welsh theme, a postcard of Crickhowell Bridge. This was a thank you card for birthday presents from my niece, and so might be the newest card on this blog. It shows, in the boring style, an expanse of tufted green field, with the 13 spans of the bridge behind, carrying the A4077 across the Usk (Afon Wysg; River Usk) into the town of Crickhowell, and behind that the Crug Hywel, Table Mountain, from whence the town gets its name.
This is an intensely familiar vista for me, since I spent many long holidays in the Brecon Beacons with my family in the 70s and 80s; and my sister now does the same. My family have owned a house, up the A479 in nearby Tretower, since before I was born, and I know the area from before it was the gastro–polo mecca that it is now. That’s not really the subject for this blog, which is about images, but maybe for another day. The bridge was built in 1709, and modified up until 1749 (and many times since; I can remember when cars passed on the bridge, and for many years a bailey bridge ran alongside before they installed the traffic lights. This was a feature that my father, an army engineer in Burma in WW2, was never tired of pointing out; and I follow in his tradition).
These vernacular architectures, designed by many other forgotten engineers and architects over the centuries are a largely untold story. Coming from an academic art historical tradition of taxonomies and conaisseurship, I long, Ballard-like, for a typology of these bridges, an analysis of source and influence. It’s amazing to me, especially given where I live now, that these simple structures still carry traffic, and are still known. Crickhowell was the birthplace of Colonel Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, from whom we get Mount Everest. Names and histories are important.
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!
Despite its aged appearance and style, this is postcard from no later than 1993; nearer 1991, I think, purchased by me and my now wife during one of our road-trips across country when she was at Brown, Rhode Island and needing to get back to Minnesota for the summer. I’m not sure that there’s much more to be said about the insanely ambitious (and largely just insane) Falling Water. It’s actually only a late-period Wright, but for me marks a point where he could have persisted to become a true modernist master rather than dissolving into the twiddlely world-building of the 1950’s. Those two crossed slabs suspended over the water fall in the woods; taking the ‘prairie style’ from out of Chicago and off the prairie and placing it deep in the Pennsylvania woods created a shocking and abstract clash of form and intention that has never been (and possibly) couldn’t be equaled.
Inside, the building’s a mess, dark (especially, I suppose, in the summer), small, cramped and pretty uncomfortable (just like a real cabin!). Outside it’s a surrealist/modernist sublime. Thinking about Albert Speer and his Ruinenwerttheorie, (this is the 30’s after all), one can hardly wait to return one day and see the whole thing collapsed into the rushing water, blocks strewn with weed, amongst a cloud of dragonflies and kingfishers.
Another post card to the Bartsch’s in Mankato. Sent Jan 6 1963 from Las Vegas from Kurt, Vi, Gladys, Wally and Hilda. Written in very faint and spidery capitals: HI: WE ARE HAVING A VERY ENJOYABLE TIME. WEATHER IS IDEAL. SAW THE WELK SHOW LAST NIGHT AND ALSO WENT TO THE PALLADIUM BALLROOM. NOW ON OUR WAY TO LAS VEGAS. Links for my non-US readers; fans of mine from the US will already know about the Welk show and North Dakota’s most famous son…
Cars race down the freeway past the LA Civic Center; you almost hear the theme tune to Dragnet. Not much to say about this one, only to observe that America is the country where modernity arrived first. They blazed the trail for all of our futures…and the lesson is that that, no matter how awesome, every present will become a past.
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.
In the spirit of the boring postcard, here’s lovely one of the sadly defunct Antiques Village from the Metro Centre in Gateshead, Britain’s first shopping mall/centre. I can’t remember when or where I bought this, but, I suppose, given the specialised nature of the image, it must have been in Gateshead (Newcastle Central Station, WHSmiths?). The card is a classic of its type, with subject of the photograph in darkness, while the expanse of brown-tiled flooring takes up 1/3 of the picture.
I spent a lot of time in Newcastle in the 90’s, working on a lot of arts funding projects; both Newcastle, and especially Gateshead, who were very prescient in their arts infrastructure decisions. Gateshead suffers from being ‘on-the-way-to’ Newcastle, and I’ve never been to the Metro Centre, but it looks wonderfully eighties. The nearest I got to the Metro was the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990, part funded by my then employer. Pre-the John Major National Lottery, the Garden Festivals were a Thatcher-era boondoggle to assist in the regeneration of post-industrial Britain. The Gateshead festival had a pretty forward looking arts commissioning programme, that has provided me with many happy hours of identifying where all that art ended up (some, weirdly, in the pre-YBA collection of Lord Palumbo: whatever happened to him?). I was going to try and come up with something on the awesomeness of Edward Thomas West Dennis & Sons Ltd., Scarborough, postcards, but I see that the internet has beaten me to it.
This one seems appropriate for the month that Neil Armstrong and Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury used the rocket as an exuberant metaphor to get both his characters and his stories way from Earth, where both narrative and character could be free. Armstrong, a real actor in the drama of the space race was more prosaic and quite clear about his place in history: “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer, and I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.” While we like to talk about Armstrong as hero, he displayed few of the attributes that one might expect of a hero; indeed he was better exemplified the super-attenuated nullities that crewed the space craft in Kubrick’s 2001, a film where the villainous computer, the spaceship itself, displays more emotion than its victimised human passengers. Armstrong revealed the race to put a man on the moon for what it was; the engineered delivery of the organic guidance system of a three-stage missile to the surface of the moon. Armstrong was simply the tip of the nose-cone of a vast project that had only one goal, like a bullet has only one goal; to deliver itself to its final destination.
The moon landing was a ‘professional achievement’, not an epoch defining miricle, not the beginning of a new age, but an end in itself. The existential nature of the project places it more in the realm of, of course, one of my favourite writer, JG Ballard. In his Memories of The Space Age, astronauts wander confused amongst the deserted 60’s ramblers, swimming pools and abandoned launch gantries of a future Cape Canaveral, where the dream of space, of civilisation itself, has collapsed into a fugue state of languid meaninglessness. When asked about his favourite books, Ballard replied that the LA Phone directory would be all that he would need; the perfect amalgam of obsession, boredom, precision and C20 technology that both exemplifies Armstrong and Missile Row.