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Estuary at Museum of London Docklands

Maunsell Forts, Thames Film by William Raban

From Thames Film by William Raban

After a day out in the sunshine in Greenwich yesterday, we stopped off in Canary Wharf on the way home to visit the Museum of London Docklands.

Their latest exhibition, Estuary, takes its inspiration from the Thames Estuary itself: ‘a place both specific and vague… a largely overlooked landscape’ that ‘has provided inspiration for many artists and writers, among them JMW Turner, John Constable, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and T S Eliot’. The show brings together a varied selection of work by contemporary artists exploring the estuary, its landscapes and its history, through painting, photography, printmaking and film installation.

For me, it was Michael Andrews’ paintings that immediately stood out – an homage to Turner and Whistler, beautifully painted in a palette of soft browns, greys, greens and blues that perfectly captures the colours of the shore landscape. Further on, Christine Baumgartner’s ghostly prints of rusting old ships create an intriguing contrast with Simon Roberts’ photograph of a deserted Southend Pier, which combines the gaudy fun of seaside nostalgia with a surreal, somewhat spooky sense of emptiness.

Stephen Turner’s Seafort Project, which aims to capture the artist’s experience of taking up residence alone in a derelict seafort on the Shivering Sands, resonated with me less – but I was fascinated by the idea of the seaforts themselves which recurred in a couple of other works in the exhibition. These hulking structures, on stilts raising them high above the water, were built as a defence against German aircraft during the Second World War, but now lie abandoned and rusting – see the image above from Thames Film by Michael Raban.

I also loved The Bow Gamelan Ensemble’s short film, which shows the three artists (performance artist Anne Bean, percussionist Paul Burwell and sculptor Richard Wilson) playing makeshift instruments in and around a group of abandoned concrete barges, whilst the tide slowly rises to submerge them. There are a number of interesting video works in the exhibition, including  Andrew Kotting’s Jaunt, and John Smith’s Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian), which combines a number of apparently images of the sea and the horizon to create a strangely spellbinding short film.

Thoughtfully put together, this exhibition cleverly conjures up the smell of saltwater and the cry of seagulls, offering both familiar and new perspectives on the river. Taking us on a tour of industrial estates and seaside resorts, mudflats and saltmarshes, seaforts and shipwrecks, Estuary is a portrait of an intriguing landscape – forgotten, solitary, bleak but unexpectedly beautiful.

Estuary is at the Museum of London Docklands until 27 October 2013

London Places: Kensal Green Cemetery

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A trip to a graveyard might not, perhaps, be everyone’s first choice for a Saturday outing – but when we heard that Kensal Green Cemetery was having an Open Day this weekend, we decided to go along and take a look.

I’m lucky enough to live near one of London’s loveliest graveyards – Bunhill Fields – and I love walking in Stoke Newington’s atmospheric Abney Park Cemetery – so I was intrigued to visit another of London’s most famous cemeteries and take some photographs.

Kensal Green Cemetery was first opened in 1833, its design inspired by the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Today it is considered one of London’s ‘big seven’ cemeteries which also include Highgate and Abney Park. It is a fascinating place to explore, and there are a whole host of well-known people buried there, including Wilkie Collins, Thackeray and Trollope: we also stumbled unexpectedly on the surprisingly understated grave of the inventor Charles Babbage.

The cemetery is enormous – 72 acres of grounds, including two conservation areas. It is clearly a haven for wildlife – we saw plenty of birds, wildflowers and insects as we strolled along the shady pathways.

Some parts of the cemetery are obviously in recent use, with contemporary headstones and carefully-tended plants. Other areas feel much older: here, the lettering on headstones is worn away; monuments are tangled with ivy; weeping angels have broken wings; buttercups and fallen petals scatter the long grass; and bees buzz amongst overgrown rose briars.

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G K Chesterton wrote about the cemetery in his poem ‘The Rolling English Road’:

‘For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green’

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Retracing London’s Drovers’ Roads

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This Saturday I took to the streets of Hackney for a walking tour with a difference, hosted by my friends Misty and Howard.

The walk was part of a Landscape Institute series of walks and talks for the Chelsea Fringe, imagining what London might be like if we were to adopt a green infrastructure approach to development.

Howard and Misty’s walking tour was based on their shortlisted entry for the recent A High Line for London design competition run jointly by the Landscape Institute, Mayor of London and the Garden Museum and inspired by New York’s High Line. Their design focused on revitalising the ancient London Drovers’ Roads – the route used to move livestock from pasture to market between Hackney and Bishopsgate. From 1300 up until 1900 sheep, cows and even turkeys were driven from Wales and Scotland to London to be sold at market along these routes.

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 We met at Hackney Town Hall for the start of the walk, where Misty and Howard handed out some beautifully-designed maps they had created, complete with an envelope of seed bombs to be scattered along the route.

They spoke briefly about the ideas behind their design, and then asked us to imagine we were cattle that had been driven all the way from Scotland, stopping off to pasture on rich commons along the way. To start the walk, they led us off towards London Fields  holding a teasel aloft (far more appropriate than a tour guide’s umbrella).

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En route, Misty and Howard told us more about the history of the Drovers’ Roads, and the drovers themselves. Because of the difficult and highly responsible nature of their work, they were typically well-paid and well-respected members of the community. However their life on the road was tough, requiring them to walk hundreds of miles and sleep night after night in the open air: according to Sir Walter Scott, their diet would consist of little but some handfuls of oatmeal, onions and ‘a ram’s horn of whisky’.  They were also very superstitious: Scott describes how they tied knots in cows’ tails to protect them against witches’ curses.

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At London Fields, we had the chance to put our seed bombs to good use, as well as spotting some clear evidence of the Drovers’ Roads still to be seen London today: as well as this sign for ‘Sheep Lane’ we spotted ‘Lamb Lane’ and the ‘Cat & Mutton’ pub . We learned that Broadway Market itself was once called Mutton Lane because it was so frequently used by the drovers.


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We stopped off at Hackney City Farm to see some real life livestock midway along the route, including this splendid pig, which gave Misty an opportunity to quote from an eighteenth-century essay,  the rather brilliantly titled ‘The graces and anxieties of pig keeping’:

‘A pig is sluggish, obstinate, opinionated, not very social and has no desire of seeing foreign parts. Think of him as a multitude forced to travel and wondering what the devil it is that drives him! Judge by this the talent of the drover!’

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After a peep into the pretty Hackney City Farm garden, we were on our way again.

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Following the drovers’ route took us along Columbia Road, where we stopped off for a quick coffee, and to admire some of the shop windows – as well as to meet a friendly local resident…

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 Misty and Howard told us more about their design for the competition as we went on: taking inspiration from the Drovers’ Route, it features permeable paving with hoof-shaped holes, planted with trample-tolerant plants; rowan trees (believed by the drovers to be lucky); and lighting in the trees inspired by the tail feathers of the turkeys that would once have roosted in the tree-tops. They’ve even chosen plants that could be used along the route, including plants that would have been used as fodder and those with animal names or folklore associations – Shepherd’s Purse, Lamb’s Ears, Cow Parsley, Cowslip, Cock’s Foot etc. Other plants selected have seeds that would have been transferred by the animals as they passed by.

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Almost as if we really were the animals ourselves, we were given some more seed bombs to scatter as well as some teasels, which made Woody the Boxer a bit excited: maybe he thought they were a bunch of hedgehogs he could play with?

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The last stages of the route took us past St Leonard’s Church and down Shoreditch High Street to Bishopsgate. These would be the final stages of the drovers’ journey, before the animals were taken to market and to slaughter: Misty and Howard had some gory descriptions to share of what conditions would have been like in the crowded marketplaces.

Just before Liverpool Street Station, the walking tour came to an end –  and the hungry drovers’ party went in search of some sustenance at the nearby Well & Bucket pub. Thankfully we managed something a bit better than oatmeal and onions…

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Thanks Misty and Howard for an intriguing morning – and the chance to see some familiar East London places in a new light.

The Chelsea Fringe runs until 9 June 2013.

The Surgeon and the Photographer

Image 2. Geoffrey Farmer _ The Surgeon and the Photographer. Photo by Alessandro Quisi

Photo by Alessandro Quisi courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery

Following on from the phenomenally successful Rain Room, the Barbican’s Curve gallery has a brilliantly intriguing new exhibition as part of the Dancing around Duchamp season: Geoffrey Farmer’s The Surgeon and the Photographer 

The exhibition sees the gallery populated with hundreds of strange puppet-like figures that the artist has pieced together from images cut from old books and magazines, and scraps of fabric. Each idiosyncratic character is part surreal Dada collage, part shaman’s poppet. An otherworldly soundscape and the spiky shapes of the shadows that the figures cast across the gallery floor only add to the sense of the uncanny. Weird, fascinating and highly recommended.

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Photo by Alessandro Quisi courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery

Geoffrey Farmer presents THE SURGEON AND THE PHOTOGRAPHER for his first major exhibition in a UK public gallery. Constructing 365 hand-puppets from book images clipped and glued to fabric forms, Farmer populates The Curve, in the Barbican Centre, with this recently completed puppet calendar.

Photo by Jane Hobson courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery

Photo by Jane Hobson courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery

Photo by Jane Hobson courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery

Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer is at the Barbican Curve Gallery until  28 July 2013 (and it’s free!)

See You at Rick’s!

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Casablanca has been my favourite film since forever, so clearly I couldn’t resist Future Cinema‘s latest extravaganza, which sees the Troxy  in Limehouse transformed as if by magic into Rick’s Café Américan.

I’d never been to a Future Cinema event before and having heard tales of their most recent Shawshank Redemption themed event, I had to admit to feeling a bit unsure about what I was getting myself into. The fun begins as soon as you book your tickets and receive your instructions and ‘papers’ complete with your new identity for the occasion – I became Gabriela Ostrowska of Italy for the evening. Arriving at the Troxy, the queue was full of people decked out in impressive 1940s finery, clutching their papers for inspection, whilst members of the Moroccan police shouted out orders, and various shady characters lurked in the shadows or struck up conversations with those waiting in line.

Once inside the theatre, however, there were champagne cocktails, swinging music from Benoit Viellefon and his Orchestra, roulette tables and Moroccan food from Moro. The music was fantastic and I enjoyed the chance to practice my (pretty woeful) swing dance steps on the dance floor, but even more fun for me was spotting the various characters from the film as they appeared amongst us: from Major Strasser and his fellow Nazi officers striding about, to Senor Ferrari, complete with fez and fly-swat, chatting with guests; from Sam leading a rousing chorus of ‘Knock on Wood’, to Rick himself coolly playing chess in the corner. There was plenty going on around us: the police hauling off anyone who looked like a ‘suspicious character’, much hushed talk of exit visas, and of course, the arrival of Ilsa and Laszlo to look out for.

 My highlight of the evening, however, was singing the Marseillaise in a recreation of my favourite scene from the film – I’ll admit to having been a little disappointed that most of the audience didn’t seem to share quite the same level of enthusiasm for joining in (but perhaps unlike me they hadn’t got the words ready in advance, ahem…).

Finally came the opportunity to watch the film itself, with every ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ getting a big cheer from the audience. Even though I must have seen it dozens of times, it was just as brilliant as ever, and I still teared up at the final scenes, as Laszlo tells Rick, ‘Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.’

At the very end of the evening we were granted our exit visas assuring us safe passage to Lisbon. Sadly it was time to leave Casablanca behind us and head back out into the cold and wet East London night…

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