ARTYFACTS: March 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wellsbourne Society: talk, film, slideshow, nude man and 3-legged dog (training for para-Crufts?)

The inaugural Wellsbourne Society event in The MusicBar last night was a very ‘Brighton’ affair. A dark cellar bar, crammed with people of indiscriminate age but all young of mind, to watch a talk, poem, film and slideshow – all dedicated to the history of Brighton. How ‘Brighton’ is that?
First up Mathew Clayton, sporting a greying quiff, lit by a strong blue spotlight that made him look half-Avatar, half 50s rocker– a good look by the way. Mathew entranced us with his tale of Brighton’s secret river, mentioned in the Doomsday Book, now gone underground but occasionally erupting to cause chaos, as in 1705 when the whole of South Street and its inhabitants were washed away and again in 2000, with the Argus headline ‘Floody Hell!’. Mathew has a lovely lilt which flowed soft and deliberate, like the river he so clearly loved.
A documentary by Brighton’s then ‘Theatre Critic’, Jack Tinker, about a lost Brighton, was actually about him and his little theatre clique. His now quaint BBC accent, name dropping and clear distain for anything NOT to do with the ‘thaaaaitur’ turned out to be a great comic interlude. No mention of Max Miller
For me the highlight was Peter Crisp’s delightful slide show. Peter has lived in Brighton since 1976 and was one of the first people I met when I moved here. He took us back to the real Brighton I moved to in the early 80s, a shabby, seaside town full of old shops, greasy spoons, and great little run-down pubs. Keith Waterhouse wrote a wonderful piece comparing Brighton with Edinburgh, my home town. He saw Edinburgh as being a city of architecture and Brighton a city of people. But there’s delight in these little nook and cranny shops and pubs. The real Brighton is on a small scale, like a miniature, model village, narrow twittens, small houses in the lanes, peculiar niche shops , the narrow pier and little corner pubs. Peter photographs these but more than this he goes inside and knows the people. I know of no one who gets out more than Peter – he’s a Brighton legend as ‘man about town’ but he’s one of the nicest people you’re likely to meet and curious about everything, and I mean everything.
Lastly, Dr Bramwell gave us a verbal tour of the Brighton he knows, bringing to life the Steine, it’s fountain but above all the presence of the sea. He told of hands being chopped off from hanging victims and murders to be sold to criminals who used them as charms. This is a side of Brighton I hope to hear more of, it’s violence, drugs and trunk murders. So thanks to Dr Bramwell for his event (co-hosted by M Clayton).
As we stumbled out of the dark cellar into Manchester Street, we could see the sea lit by the lights of the Palace Pier and the huge, new Ferris Wheel. St James Street pubs were loud and raucous, a nude man was exercising from his top floor flat in full view and we passed a drunk Scot with a  three-legged dog (in training for the Para-Crufts?. It all looked rather wonderful, as indeed it is.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Scottish National Portrait Gallery – odd experience

Revamped at a considerable cost, I was expecting more. This is a second-rate collection, low on both quality and quantity.  For a start, the building is just too big for the collection. Witness the huge, empty education rooms. A red sandstone, late-Victorian, Gothic building, it sets grandiose expectations for what lies within. Its Gothic revival partner in crime is the earlier Scott Monument on Prince’s Street and that’s the real clue. Scott’s reinvention of Scotland after George IVs visit in 1822 led to an explosion of faux-Scottishness and romanticised history from which Scotland has never recovered. In fact, recent nationalism seems to have given these Victorian inventions a new and even gaudier second life.
Step inside and you get an atrium with a frieze that show Scots from the stone age to the twentieth century. But the works themselves are a disappointment, of historical rather than aesthetic interest. There’s few portraits with even a glint of inner thought or character. The two failed Pretenders get big billing but their ill-fated risings in 1715 and 1745 were catastrophes. Unable to raise enough support beyond a few feudal clans, their sojourns ended in the last battle to be fought on British soil, the bloody massacre at Culloden, where more Scots fought against than for their cause. From the Normans onwards Scottish history is a series of very occasional victories but mostly defeats. We’ve fought far more battles for others and against our own, than for any serious political cause.
To be fair there is an attempt to look at Scottish dress realistically through the eyes of the fabricated Sobieski Stuarts, albeit shoved in a cupboard and drawers (their inventions are exposed in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland). I’d love to see an exhibition titled ‘The Invention of Scotland’ where invented Victorian romanticism is exposed but in this political climate that would be impossible.
Hume out of reach
The Raeburn portraits also bring some sense of worth to an otherwise second rate set of paintings. Yet the two well-known Hume paintings and Rousseau are set above inferior works, hung too high and badly lit. Scotland has long preferred pretender kings and queens and third rate aristocrats to its true talent. Many Scots of international renown are missing. There’s no John Paul Jones, Carnegie or Alexander Graham Bell.
National Portrait Gallery (London)
Curiously there are more and better portraits of Scots in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Their Mary Queen of Scots, Stuarts, Adam, Watt, Macadam, Ramsay (better than anything in the Scottish gallery) Miller, Boswell (Reynolds), Flora Macdonald etc. is a bigger and better selection.
We should perhaps admit that Scotland is peripheral, if not irrelevant in European art. It’s impoverished past then post-Reformation revulsion of imagery, limited both commissions and artistic ambition. So these paintings have curiosity, rather than aesthetic value. However, if you look through the lens of realism and not romanticism, and see the building and these images as part of propaganda campaigns, you can read the real, as opposed to imaginary, Scotland.