Tuesday, 31 December 2013

East End Borough and West End Wall

A few days ago I set off to explore two places I’d heard about recently and wanted to photograph: Borough Market near London Bridge Station and the Bethlehem Wall in the grounds of St. James’s Church, Picadilly.  It was such a beautiful day and the environs south of the River near the City so inviting that I meandered my way between the two places.

Some photographers insist that the best approach to the art is to have a task at hand and fulfil it.  I’ve come round to seeing the worthiness of this sort of process.  But I also agree with Henri Cartier-Bresson who said: "photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event."  I take this to mean that no matter what your actual intention, you still have to be prepared for that unexpected moment or view of great significance.  I didn’t actually get any good pictures of Borough Market at all, but I did discover Southwark Cathedral next door.  And what a find.  It’s magnificent.

Then , being true to my London flaneur temperament, I wandered over the Wobbly Bridge and on to St. Paul’s.  For me all roads lead to this structure. 


Down the strand and on to Trafalgar Square.  If you venture off Regent Street, the world suddenly stands still in St. James Square: there’s no shopping, eating or entertainment establishments so it’s a peaceful retreat from the pulsing Christmas-time hoards. 

I finally made it to my final destination: a temporary reconstruction of a small section of the wall separating Israel from the West Bank.  Though the sun was fast retreating, the graffiti was vibrant in colour and in sentiment.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Local Sparkle

As a freelance businesswoman myself, I can appreciate the challenges faced by small businesses in the current economic climate and local business structure.  Every year, just before Christmas, the local shopkeepers of Kew Village hold a fair in the elbow of trees, shops and cafes that compose our little patch of southwest London.  There are crafts on sale,  live music on the pavement, pantoesque men in Victorian dress fundraising on stilts (really!), a hog roast, children’s amusements and a fireworks display as a finale.  And all funded by the owners of the local shops – not the council.  And also unfunded by the corporations, including Tesco and Starbucks.  

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Mani Petty

Last weekend the artist colony dwelling on Eel Pie Island in Twickenham opened their studios to the public.   This ait is only accessible by footbridge or boat: no cars, no roads, no shops, no commotion.

There’s a rowing club, some rather unusual bungalows, a few contemporary flats and a disused shipyard where the artists ply their craft. 

Sure there are utilities, but basically the people who live on Eel Pie Island have chosen to be off the grid - especially the painters, sculptors, printmakers and potters.  Some of their working spaces are disused boats, propped up precipitously.  There's detritus of every form, from machinery to mannequins.

I love places like this because they remind me that there are people who are committed to a path less comfortable, certain and conventional; but to my mind a life infused with yearning, beauty and purpose.  As a friend once said to me many years ago, an artist is someone who gets her hands dirty and doesn’t mind at all. You know - so unlike those photos of David Cameron with his sleeves folded up his arms when he visits manufacturing sites.  People like Ai Wei Wei put their life where their convictions are and are willing to risk a great deal.

Even as we raise up the superstar artists to stratospheric acclaim, there are those who are sneered at by their professional neighbours and families.  It’s tough taking a stand for what you believe in: always has been, always will be.

Thursday, 12 December 2013


Contrary to stereotype, London is rarely foggy.  In fact, it’s so seldom that when we do get a blanket, loads of photographers rush to take advantage of the opportunity for this atmospheric largesse.  So it was around 2.30pm when I was still able to get out to the Gardens to take in these views.  

Friday, 6 December 2013

For there is in London

I’ve lived in London and its environs for a large portion of my adult life.  And still this city never ceases to delight – in the quotidian details that are nonetheless classical and often enigmatic to someone not well studied in English history (like me, unfortunately).  One of the strangest places – a twenty minute journey from our house in Kew - is Southbank.  When I first arrived here it was dreary and certainly not much of a destination in itself, despite the National and Hayward.  Today it’s like a hive of commerce and circus of creative activity - quite a transformation.  In fact, with the Eye, it’s now achieved iconic status.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A world away, 15 minutes away

I love the village I live in, that it’s quiet, leafy and not much happens here.  I’ve never lived in a place where representatives of local government invite residents to a village walkabout to discuss the preservation of the character of the place.  Yes, we were able to do this within 2 hours – that’s how small this place is.

Three overground stations away is Acton – a journey of less than 10 minutes.  It’s another two minute bus journey to Shepherd’s Bush Market and I was able to get there early one Saturday morning recently.  The contrast to Kew is incredible; I hope my pictures give you an idea of that.

This is the actual market, just as the stallholders were setting up:

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Who are your Homies?

I was recently able to view an exhibition of the work of the artist Madge Gill at the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham.  Ms. Gill, who lived from 1882 till 1962, is described as a medium and visionary; her artwork in pen, ink and painting was prolific. She’s held up as one of the premier British exemplars of outsider art, also known as brute art.  This genre has received great interest and press of late, including a significant seat at this year’s Venice Biennale, Alan Yentob’s excellent Imagine show of the 19th of November and the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition earlier in the year.  Some of the ‘outsiders’ have mental disabilities, others emotional health problems and still others, visions or voices.  They’re a myriad of people with ‘issues’ who feel compelled to create and often their production is prodigious. Carl Jung famously induced hallucinations with drugs and other conscious-changing techniques in order to enter into altered states; his works can be seen in a collection called The Red Book

There is much to celebrate about outsider art: not just that the disabled are able to find purpose, though that in itself is something quite wonderful, but that the art itself often has the quality of honesty in its anguish, longing, urgency, obsessiveness, humour, confusion, elation and sometimes despair.  In some esteemed works of contemporary art, we can sometimes find more calculation, more self-consciousness, more disdain or cynicism – characteristics which have their place as well.  It’s just great to see those with an alternative vision of the world given some attention, and in some cases some critical recognition.  Artists from Creative Growth in Oakland have been featured on Oxford Street and many others have been shown by the Museum of Everything here and abroad. 

Now to get back to the work of Madge, because she has a special interest to me.  Her works are best described by one of her biographer’s, Roger Cardinal thus:
Gill’s frenetic improvisations have an almost hallucinatory quality, each surface being filled with checkerboard patterns that suggest giddy, quasi-architectural spaces.  Afloat upon these swirling proliferations are the pale faces of discarnate and nameless women, sketched perfunctorily, albeit with an apparent concern for beauty, and with startled expressions. (from Cardinal's The Life of Madge Gill) 
Madge Gill had no training nor aspirations to fame as many of her drawings were produced in secret.  In her letters and diaries she claims to have been inspired by an ethereal spirit guide called Myrninerest.  The focal point of the exhibition at Orleans House Gallery is her giant scroll – over 10 metres long – called The Crucifixion of the Soul featuring Gill’s signature doodle-like drawings and female faces.  

Her early years were difficult as being an ‘illegitimate’ child in Victorian times meant that she was placed in an orphanage at the age of nine and subsequently shipped off to Canada to work as a domestic servant on some Ontario farms.  She returned to London later and lived with an aunt who introduced her to spiritualism and mediumistic practices.  It was after the still-born birth of her fourth child and her own illness which cost her an eye that Gill claims she was first possessed by her spirit guide.  She says that Myrninerest remained in contact with her for the rest of her life.  

In 1926 her son records his mother’s first experience of delirious trance-states which she apparently found overwhelming and frightening.  The manifestation of these states was not only drawing and painting, but writing, knitting, crochet-work, weaving and piano-playing as well.  In 1922 Gill was treated in a women’s clinic in Hove where her work was brought to the attention of the Society for Psychical Research in London.  The expert opinion at the time judged the drawings to be “more of an inspirational than of an automatic kind.”

Madge Gill lived with her sons and also a brother-in-law who was an ardent follower of astrology.  From around 1930 she became known as a medium in her Upton Park neighbourhood, organised séances at her home, drew up horoscopes and offered spontaneous prophecies.  Her work was displayed at galleries including the Whitechapel and even turned down the offer of a show in a prestigious West End one, explaining that her works could not be sold, since they all belonged to Myrninerest.  It’s believed that in her later years she worked in her bedroom through the night, viewing her work with her one good eye, succumbing to “a seductive auto-hypnosis which distracted her from reality.”  Some neighbours claimed she had a disturbing gaze, eccentric remarks and deranged behaviour.  Over 200 of her works are conserved in the Newham municipal archives and much are preserved in public collections such as the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne and the Aracine collection in Lille.

When you enter the exhibition at Orleans House, you’re met with The Crucifixion.  Since much of this is done in pen on faded paper, it looks very different from huge paintings or murals you see in museums.  There’s dreamlike quality to her work that reminded me of Chagall and also a child-like feeling that called to mind the drawings of the author and illustrator of children’s books, Lauren Child.  There were some that were colourful, decorative and design-wise, very pleasing.  When you’ve passed along the upper gallery, you then enter a room full of bits and pieces of occult paraphernalia including ghost photographs, a Ouija board, a séance trumpet as well as modern day spiritualist painters. This room epitomises where Madge Gill was coming from – this was the worldview that she’d been drawn to as a young woman and it was from the occult that she derived her beliefs, values, identity, relationships and her art. 

The following are a selection of other mystically-influenced contemporary artists on display at the Orleans Gallery: 

After viewing this collection, I remembered a lecture I attended last year by Marianne Williamson at St. James’s Church Piccadilly.  Ms. Williamson’s worldview is based on A Course in Miracles and is peppered with phrases and terms which sound traditionally Christian such as God, love and forgiveness.  But make no mistake, the ‘universal principles’ she refers to are anything but.  When she makes her run for Congress, I’ve no doubt many will erroneously believe that her religious convictions are of the liberal Christian variety.  But look carefully at the company she keeps.  Her workshops are advertised in publications like Alternatives which also hawks the seminars, workshops and lectures of mediums, psychics, tarot card readers, pagans, alchemists and those working with crystals, angel cards, dowsing, mindfulness, scrying, divination, out-of-body experiences, Gnosticism, channelling and palmistry.  These are varied practices, but what they share in common is a devotion to the occult; these are the homeboys of Ms. Williamson and were those of Ms. Madge Gill as well.