Sunday, July 20, 2014

Art Therapy

I was meant to be in Wales this weekend, attending a reunion, but circumstances conspired against me. It was frustrating - I'd be been looking forward to going for months - so I decided to make up for it with a day out in the local area.

Instead of driving 275 miles west, I drove 20 miles east:

Beachy Head is usually a little bracing, as the almost horizontal trees bear witness, but yesterday it was more like the Costa de la Luz, with warm winds gently buffeting the coast.

The suicide chaplin half-heartedly did his rounds, looking for solitary figures at the cliff edge, but I think he knew that it was going to be a quiet day.

Before going to Beachy Head, I stopped off at Birling Gap, to see what damage the winter storms had done. The small pile of debris at the bottom of the cliff was a bit of a disappointment, but I knew that the tearoom I took my mother to last summer had fallen into the sea.

The newly-rendered side of this terrace suggests that the storms had also claimed a house:

I don't know how much these houses are worth, but I suspect that a 25-year mortgage isn't on the cards.

After viewing scenes of carnage and destruction, I ambled along the coast to Eastbourne's Towner Gallery, to see an exhibition of works by Peggy Angus:

Rather than give you a potted history here, I would recommend visiting the website of James Russell, who is an expert on mid-20th century British artists in the Ravillious/Nash/Bawden milieu. He has written some excellent books on Ravillious, Paul Nash and Edward Seago and has just published a new title on the life and art of Peggy Angus.

I think it would be fair to say that the sum of Peggy Angus's art was greater than its parts. Her paintings don't compare well to those of her friend Eric Ravillious, but her greatness lay in her determination to bring art into everyday life, energising everyone around her.

Not content to remain in the rarified world of fine art, she also designed tiles for public buildings, wallpapers for homes and clothes to wear. She passionately believed that we should resist mass-production and uniformity, creating our own art.

Mrs Steerforth was as impressed as I was and we both agreed that we should put some of Peggy Angus's ideas into practice in our own lives.

The Towner Gallery is one of the best in the south-east. The building is well-designed and, unlike some of its counterparts, has an impressive amount of content. Entrance is free, but after a visit to a chi chi cafe with 'artisan' bread rolls, I must have funded the purchase of at least one new painting for their collection.

In addition to the Peggy Angus exhibition, there is also an excellent collection called Designing the Everyday:

I particularly like this rather insouciant depiction of the male theatre-goers as porcine, purse-lipped fops.

And this plate by Ravillious is one of many that I coveted.

Bouyed-up by our day at the Towner, we decided to take our youngest son to Charleston Farmhouse, where the Bloomsbury Group covered almost every square inch of the interior in murals, tiles and paintings:

My son is eight and has an interest in art and architecture (his favourite programme is Grand Designs) that has come entirely from within him. We are trying to foster this enthusiasm with visits to galleries and 'make and do' sessions at home, but don't want to be too heavy-handed.

It mustn't feel like schoolwork.

Charleston usually has guided tours, which are very interesting but would have bored my son rigid, so I picked the one day in the week where there are no tours. I wanted him to be able to wander around freely, looking at whatever took his fancy.

Sadly, from the moment we arrived, a posse of eager women pounced on us. Would our son like to fill in a quiz? No. Had we been here before? Yes, so bugger off and leave us alone.

There was one volunteer guide per room and most of them seemed determined to tell us everything they knew about each room, whether we wanted to hear it or not. When one particularly keen woman asked my son what the table legs reminded him of, I wanted to say "Leave the boy alone! Let him look in peace."

Luckily, my wife was only too happy to respond to the guides and started asking them increasingly obscure questions. She pointed at a violin and asked "Who played that?" The guide looked crestfallen. "Oh...I don't know." Then, like an admonished child, added "But I know all of the main things."

I shouldn't be rude about the guides. They are genuinely passionate about Charleston and the guided tours are some of the most interesting I've ever had, but they need to realise that some visitors just want to look at the art without any distractions.

I used to have similar problems with my older son, who has Asperger's. During one visit to Kipling's house, a well-intentioned volunteer started asking him questions about school. She was trying to be friendly, but within seconds he went from being relatively relaxed to feeling as if he was going to be sick.

Perhaps these places could introduce a scheme where people who wanted to be left alone could wear a simple badge. If it was successful, it could extended to taxis, hairdressers and barbers.

The visit ended in the beautiful gardens. I asked my son what he thought. "It was great. I really liked it, but not those guides."


Canadian Chickadee said...

Reminds me of the comment a friend's son made after his first trip to see The Nutcraacker.
"It would've been okay if it weren't for all the dancing," Steve said.

Steerforth said...

I can relate to that. As a boy I was dragged to see The Sound of Music and thought that it was completely spoiled by the tendency for people to spontaneously burst into song every five minutes or so.

James Russell said...

Thanks for this - glad you enjoyed the Peggy Angus show. I think I saw you in the cafe, strangely enough, but assumed I was mis-recognising as I often do!

According to friends and family of Peggy's, post-war Charleston was gloomy, grubby and generally uncared-for. I'm not sure that the present incarnation, though beautiful, bears much resemblance to the reality!

My youngest son has resisted any kind of craft/art activity for years... Now 11, he has discovered loom bands and, having abandoned the xbox (temporarily), spends every waking hour weaving.

Steerforth said...

James - Yes, that would have been me - probably scoffing some Victoria sponge.

I don't get the loom band thing at all, but anything that gets children off the xbox can't be bad.

I've no doubt that Charleston is far brighter and cleaner than it really was and I have mixed feelings about the reverential attitude of the Bloomsbury groupies that treat the place as if it's a sacred shrine, but from my son's perspective, it was a place where there was a lot of 'make and do'. He now wants to decorate his furniture!

worm said...

great ravilious plate! ..actually here's another one from the exhibition for under £20 -

Helena said...

"Perhaps these places could introduce a scheme where people who wanted to be left alone could wear a simple badge. If it was successful, it could extended to taxis, hairdressers and barbers."

That's inspired!! I'd be a founder-member. I much prefer to look around in peace, and ask specific questions if I need to. But I often feel very self-conscious doing that, as though I'm snubbing the guides. But taxi drivers really annoy me! They should realise that many (most?) people don't want to talk -- or, in reality, to listen to them going on. I now feel that I have to challenge those who are racist and otherwise prejudiced, or else I'm somehow complicit, and it's exhausting.

It's difficult to find the happy medium for children. I'm impressed that there's an effort to engage them, but I did feel the other day that the activity sheet resulted in the child looking only for the items listed and not looking about taking the whole thing in. Although in the past, children often didn't do that either, and instead saw nothing at all because they were resentful and bored.

Steerforth said...

Worm - I'll be watching that plate like a hawk.

Helena - I agree that activity sheets can be useful for certain situations and I appreciate the effort guides go to to make children feel welcome, but when they start asking the "What do you think this is?" questions, my boys shut down and can't wait to leave.

The other day I found my youngest reading all about Munch's 'The Scream'. We hadn't encouraged him to read an art book, but just happened to leave a few lying around. Without pressure from grown-ups, his natural curiosity got the better of him.

I prefer self-directed learning, where a child's enthusiasm is the driver, rather than the demands of a curriculum that wants to turn them into a drone.

joan.kyler said...

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes about guides! I appreciate that they often volunteer their time to share their enthusiasm for a place or a time in history or an important / historical person.

But so many times, my husband and I have felt trapped and distracted by guides. Once, in a small museum, we were the only visitors and an elderly volunteer kept losing his place in the tour, getting distracted, and repeating where he's left off. I finally looked at my watch and told him we had a luncheon engagement and would return. Which we never did.

Steerforth said...

Joan - I'm glad it's not just me. I wondered if I'd be chastised for being so ungrateful - after all, these are volunteers.

But I can't help wondering if these guides are lonely, as they seem so desperate to talk.

In an ideal world, I'd read a short introduction, like the brief biographical sketches they have in galleries, then be free to wander around in silence. I'd then read around the subject afterwards and arrange a return visit to see the things I really enjoyed again.

I also enjoy lectures and talks. James Russell, who I mentioned in the post, gives excellent talks with slides and his passion for the subject is infectious.

Lucille said...

I'm looking forward to spotting some of these.
Agree about the guides but sometimes it is the other visitors that blight the experience with their loud commentaries. We were pursued by one such group of four women at the Jerwood in Hastings on Saturday.
Do go if your ramblings take you even further east.
I met Sir Quentin Blake there in the cafe! He has a small exhibition on at present.

Steerforth said...

Lucille - I'm a big fan of the Jerwood and really like the way it blends in with the fishermen's huts. It could do with a little more content, but I haven't been there for a year so maybe that has changed.

I completely agree about the visitors - usually a self-appointed expert who decides to lecture their friend, or members of an art appreciation society who feel compelled to ariculate their banal observations in loud voices.

I always try to keep my banal observations to myself (with the exception of this blog).

Steerforth said...

Sorry, I meant articulate. I'm hopeless at avoidong typos.

Anonymous said...

I second the call for a badge scheme, and would extend it to shops. I am always dismayed when staff pouncing on customers when they enter is cited as a sign of good service. Be available, yes, but leave people alone. And don't get me started on being asked how my meal is...

Lucille said...

I'm looking forward to spotting some of these.
Agree about the guides but sometimes it is the other visitors that blight the experience with their loud commentaries. We were pursued by one such group of four women at the Jerwood in Hastings on Saturday.
Do go if your ramblings take you even further east.
I met Sir Quentin Blake there in the cafe! He has a small exhibition on at present.

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - I was stopped by a market researcher as I left Tesco in Lewes recently - would I answer a survey about my experience in the store?

One of the questions was "Did the staff at the till chat to you?" and I could tell that it was clearly a 'good thing' if they had. I wanted to tell them that not everyone wants to engage in small talk with a stranger, particularly when the other person is doing it under sufferance. But the questionnaire didn't allow responses like that.

When I worked in a bookshop, I wouldn't initiate a conversation, but would take my lead from the customer. Surely that's the best approach?

MikeP said...

Almost as annoying as the guides at Charleston are the visitors who know a thing or two about Bloomsbury and want to show off their knowledge. Doubles the length of the tour...

Steerforth said...

Yes, although they came in useful on Sunday by keeping the guides occupied. But you're right, there is a certain type of person - I can picture them now" "Witter witter witter Duncan Grant...witter witter...incestuous *chuckle*...witter...Vanessa Bell...her sister...Monk House..." etc

Chris Matarazzo said...

Heaven help those of us who just want to breathe things in sometimes...without joining tours and participating in group activities. Often kids need just to look and follow the path of their own thoughts. They're given so little time to do this by a world that wants to capitalize on every "educational" opportunity for them. Sad. Your instinct seems right to me: it simply can't be like school if you want the passion to continue.

Steerforth said...

Chris - Yes, the box-ticking "bucket list" mentality has taken over.

One of the reasons why I love to visit end of year shows by art students is that the works aren't weighed down by the cultural baggage that goes with 'great' art, and it's possible to feel that sense of surprise and delight that sometimes eludes me in galleries.

Canadian Chickadee said...

About officious shop clerks: I always get the feeling that they're afraid I'll shoplift if I'm left alone for a few seconds, so they have to hover ....

Dale in New Zealand said...

I do so agree with you about the "freighting" that accompanies great art and well-known cultural attractions like Charleston. Art students' shows allow one to confront/enjoy one's own judgment.

But you can still find surprises no matter how well known the venue - it was the meagre bathing facilities at Charleston that gave me pause for thought when I visited about 16 years ago.Such a spartan and unappealing bathroom for such hordes of occupants, compared with the over-ornamentation of the rest of the house.

Makes me believe that James Russell's comment above about Charleston's being grubby and gloomy might apply to its denizens as well.

PS Did you notice that all the rondels in the decoration at Charleston are either dinner plate or side plate sized?

Steerforth said...

Carol - There certainly used to be that feeling that they thought you were going to steal something, but these days I just sense desperation.

Dale - No, I didn't notice the plate size. I'll look out for it next time.

I agree about the bathrooms - I suppose comfort was a little petit bourgeois for them. I wonder what their visitors from London thought.

Philip Wilkinson said...

The badge idea is an excellent one. The Resident Wise Woman, who has spent a lot of her working life trying to organize volunteers, says that the problem of loquacious room stewards (or room guides, or whatever they are) is a perennial one. No matter how many courses you run or briefings you hold, there will be loose artillery that will fire information at you, come what may. Volunteers' motivations are varied: some are lonely, some are frustrated teachers, some have a missionary zeal about the house or whatever it is, many want to help but aren't quite sure how to go about this. Asking questions to which the guide is unlikely to know the answer, about obscure contents and details, can be a good diversionary strategy, but runs the risk that they may know the answer.

Steerforth said...

Philip - I was interested to learn that I'd touched a nerve with this post, rather than simply being a lone curmudgeon. Your wife's experience suggests that a polite letter to Charleston would be futile.

I agree about the varied motivation. Some guides had an irrepressible ethusiasm for the place, whilst others just seemed desperate to talk. If my eyes fell on anything, I'd be assailed with comments like "That was given to Duncan Grant by..." before I'd had a second to savour it.