Sunday, April 22nd 2012
Call me a Philistine if you wish but I think that a lot of modern art, including stuff that is exhibited in famous galleries and wins prizes, is unmitigated rubbish and I wish a few more critics would have the courage to say so instead of defending it with meaningless jargon. A visit to an art gallery therefore fills me with both anticipation and foreboding, emotions that I felt this morning as we set out to meet a friend for a trip to the Saatchi Gallery.
As we started early and had plenty of time, we took a bus to Holborn, hoping to find somewhere pleasant for breakfast. We walked through Sicilian Avenue, which is quiet and peaceful at this hour, perhaps sleeping off the excitement of the night before. I must admit to preferring places when they are empty of people and you can populate them – or not – with your imagination.
A lot of places were closed for the day or opening only later but we found a branch of Pret A Manger open – and serving porridge! I was not keen on this chain of cafes to start with but have become quite fond of them. Many of the branches now have comfortable seating, like Starbuck’s, Costa et al, and the service is usually friendly and efficient. The coffee may not be fantastic but where, after all, can you find good coffee in London?
After breakfast (porridge, croissant, coffee), we walked on down to the Strand and peeped in at the Savoy Hotel which has just emerged from a multi-million pound refurbishment. That shiny plinth with a statue on it reminds me irresistibly of the bonnet of a Rolls Royce with its Flying Lady mascot. The flamboyantly gilded sculpture of a Medieval knight in armour was done by Frank Lynn-Jenkins (1870-1927) and represents Peter II of Savoy. His connection with an English hotel is that he came to England during the reign of Henry III and the latter gave him a title, Earl of Richmond, and a grant of land hereabouts, upon which he built the Savoy Palace. The Palace was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt and today, the the Savoy Hotel stands on more or less the same spot. A note for trivia fans: the Savoy Hotel is unusual in that vehicles driving in and out are required to keep right (see above photo), instead of left, as is customary elsewhere.
We took a bus to Sloane Square and as it was still not time to meet our friend, we went for an exploratory ramble. Holy Trinity, an Arts & Crafts style church, was built in 1888-90 on what was then the estate of the 5th Earl of Cadogan who paid for it. Many of the streets around here still bear his name – Cadogan Place, Cadogan Lane, etc.
There is an affluent feel to this district, where everything is clean and tidy, and often flower-bedecked. While some streets are quietly unassuming, like Cadogan Lane above, others are more obviously opulent in style and intent, though many, if not most, of the big houses are now divided into flats.
Such a street is Cadogan Place whose houses have pillared porches and basement “areas” behind stout iron railings, once the domain of the domestic servants.
If the ghosts of past neighbours still haunt the street, there will be those among them who bear famous names, such as William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, who died at number 43,
and Dorothea, Dora or Dorothy Bland, also known as “Mrs Jordan”, the actress. This good lady is perhaps better remembered in our day as the long-term mistress of the Duke of Clarence and eventual King William IV, to whom she bore ten children.
In Pont Street, we find a rather unusual sculpture. It may not be to everyone’s taste but what is unusual about it is its commercial nature. It stands near a branch of Jeeves, the dry cleaners, and, according to a plate affixed to it, is a three-dimensional representation of the Jeeves logo, that the firm won permission to display in this manner. As Tigger pointed out to me, one of the ladies looks strangely like an air hostess on an airline of one of the Muslim countries, though that’s hardly likely to be intentional. I include a snap of the more usual logo so that you can decide whether you think the sculpture is a good representation of it.
Entering Duke of York Square from King’s Road, one encounters this lively two-piece sculpture by Allister Bowtell. An inscription explains the work as follows: “TWO PUPILS c1814, from the Royal Military Asylum which occupied this site from 1803 to 1909 when the Duke of Yorks [sic] Royal Military School relocated to Dover.”
This grand building was originally the Duke of York’s Royal Military Asylum, set up in 1803 to educate the orphans of servicemen killed in the Napoleonic wars. This institution moved to Kent in 1909 and was renamed the Duke of York’s Military School. The building then became known as the Duke of York’s Headquarters and was used as a barracks, ultimately by the Territorials, until the Ministry of Defence sold it in 2003 and the square was developed for retail and upmarket housing. Today, the old HQ, with modern additions, is the Saatchi Gallery, which houses ever changing exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.
Admission to the Saatchi Gallery is free and photography is allowed in all rooms, without restriction. I wish other museums and galleries, especially those funded with public – that is, our – money, would take the lesson.
The Saatchi Gallery comprises four floors, so there is a lot to see. There are several rooms or galleries on each floor and all are numbered. You are supposed to start at gallery number 1 on the ground floor and follow the signs to visit each in turn, progressing upwards. We preferred to be rebellious, starting at the top and working our way down.
While there were paintings and other sorts of objects such as sculptures and installations and a few things I have no name for, there was a major photographic exhibition on. Much of what was on display was what would probably be described as “art photography”, art works in which a camera or photographs have been used in some way to create the finished product. Now, I have no objection to this and think people should be free to pursue their artistic bent in whichever way best suits them but, on the other hand, most “art photography” leaves me cold; I don’t see the point of it, don’t find anything interesting in it and don’t feel inclined to waste any time on it. On the other hand, I did like some of the photographic works I saw here today, sufficiently in some cases to retain the names of the photographers: Katy Grannan, Kyrre Lien and Pinar Yolaçan. Are these people “art photographers”? I don’t know, but their work appeals to me because they are first and foremost photographers, and that is what I can relate to.
Though the photo above entitled “Viewing the art works” shows only one person in the room, that was a rare moment. There were plenty of visitors and it was good to see so many people interested in art. Usually, it was quite difficult to get an uncluttered view.
We explored the whole Gallery from top to bottom, which, with the necessary climbing of stairs, is more tiring than it might sound. Once satisfied that we had seen all we wanted to see and for as long as we wanted to see it, the delicate subject of lunch came to the fore. We set out along King’s Road in search of a certain establishment.
There are so many things to see along King’s Road that there are too many even for me to cram into a blog post! I can only show a few that caught my eye, such as the flower stall above, on the corner of Wellington Square,
or the commodious Royal Avenue with the unusual sanded central area. Is this intended for horse riding – surely it’s a bit short for that? Traffic is allowed to go round the Avenue in an anti-clockwise direction only – meaning that vehicles keep to the right instead of the left.
The pointed tower you see in the distance belongs to Burton’s Court. This is a property owned by the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the organization to which belong the famous red-coated Chelsea Pensioners. Burton’s Court is not the actual hospital – that lies further to the south – but is used to raise money for it by selling passes to those who wish to make use of its facilities.
This quirky-looking establishment attracted some attention and, predictably enough, a few ribald comments, from passers-by, because of its rather daring name. This is of course a pun, “soles” being explained by the fact that it is a retailer of designer fashion boots, while the ‘R’ comes from the name of the designer of the said boots, Judy Rothchild. It was founded in 1975 and still seems to be going strong, despite the somewhat tipsy posture of the cyclist on the roof.
Incidentally, this illustrates a phenomenon we have often witnessed as we go around taking photos. Most people go about in a daze, unaware of their surroundings until something causes them to pay attention to it. No one remarked on R Soles until we began to photograph it. Then passers-by noticed it and commented on it and took photographs of it themselves with their mobiles.
This rather pretty building currently houses the local branch of an upmarket store called Anthropologie. What this has to do with the study of human society and why they would feel the need to put it in French, I do not know. One of life’s little mysteries. The chain currently has 5 branches and two Web sites (one for the US), so perhaps they have a good understanding of human society after all. But what about the building itself? Well, it’s listed, of course (Grade II), and turns out to have been built as a Temperance Billiard Hall, no less. The Edwardian Queen Anne style hall was built in 1912-14 and later became an antiques centre and now a posh store.
When I saw a group of fire fighters outside Chelsea Fire Station with a banner (admittedly a small one), a table and a bucket for money, I churlishly thought they were protesting about something. No, not this time. They were collecting money for a perfectly respectable organization called the Fire Fighters’ Charity.
Where we were heading was to the local branch of My Old Dutch for some of their tasty Dutch pancakes but we found the place packed out and a queue waiting for tables. Fortunately, we knew of another eatery not far away and there we had better luck.
This was the Stockpot, a no-frills restaurant that specializes in good food at modest prices. They have two more branches, one in Panton Street, SW1, and the other in James Street, W1. The cuisine might be described as Anglo-Italian and while vegetarians are not catered for specifically, you can usually find one or more items to suit.
It was now mid-afternoon and although we had entertained vague ideas of going on somewhere else, it began to rain heavily, literally putting a damper on things. In the circumstances, it seemed best to take a number 19 bus back to the Angel where we could make tea and dry out. So we did just that.
I said at the beginning that I go to a gallery like the Saatchi with a mixture of anticipation and foreboding, that is, hoping to find works that I like but fearing that I will be confronted with another display of nonsense and end up feeling I have wasted my time. Today, there was enough to entertain and impress me to make the visit worthwhile and to leave a good memory of it. Let’s hope I can say the same after my next visit.