Saturday, May 2nd 2015
It was a rather dull day, not ideal for a seaside excursion, but there’s always plenty to see and do in Brighton and we hadn’t been there for a while so off we went.
Our starting point, as usual, was St Pancras Station – or St Pancras International, as it is styled since the Eurostar came here – and the Thameslink platforms on the lower level. Being down below, these platforms have something of the claustrophobic feeling of London Underground stations and we miss the old Thameslink station a few yards along the track that was above ground.
We walked down the hill from the station, as we usually do, and encountered our first street art of the day in Gloucester Road. The wall belongs to 87 Gloucester Road, a property currently occupied by a gallery called Art Schism (Web site, Facebook), and so I imagine it can be considered part of their display. The painting on the left is by Sinna One and is a tribute to H.R. Giger, the Swiss surrealist painter, sculptor and set designer who was a member of the special effects team that won an award for their work on the film Alien. The second painting bears the caption ‘ALL THE MORE TOMORROWS X’. It is not signed but it is entitled Pallas Athene and is by Ten of Swords. (There seems to be little information on this artist and all I have found so far is here.)
Off Gloucester Road runs Trafalgar Lane, a passage between utility buildings and the back gardens of a row of terrace houses. There is plenty of art to be found here. Inevitably, some paintings have been defaced with graffiti. The blue figure is rather intriguing: I am not sure whether what the figure holds is a mobile and whether she is using it to make a ‘selfie’ or the photograph the viewer. Reminiscent of Picasso in his ‘Blue Period’, perhaps.
This gorgeous figure, with her cloud of white hair, occupied a considerable expanse of wall and the easiest way to photograph her was to take a number of partial pictures and stitch them together later. The only problem with that is that it tends to exaggerate perspective effects but that hardly matters here.
As a reminder, when I indicate that the artist is ‘unknown’, what I mean, of course, is that I don’t know who the artist is. I’m pretty sure that the street artists all know one another and recognize one another’s work. My label ‘unknown’ is therefore a confession of my own ignorance, not an assertion that the artist is anonymous.
I suppose that in Trafalgar Lane it is not unexpected to find a portrait of Britain’s great opponent of the time, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The picture is clearly based on the 1812 portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The original is a full-body portrait (for example, see here) in which Napoleon has his hand inside his waistcoat, whereas here, the hand is visible and appears to be showing a ‘thumbs up’ gesture. The work is not signed but several sources credit it to Banksy. Originally, the entire left arm was visible, including a bright red jacket cuff, but the lower part has subsequently been painted over.
This painting also appears in Trafalgar Lane. It is by an artist who signs himself as both Snub and Snub23. If you take a look as his Flickr account, you will see that this figures comes from a stable of similar ones. The title is intriguing, though. Who is Mary Jane?1
The pub is called the Waggon & Horses and the painting of a horse on the wall is therefore entirely appropriate. It is done in minimalist style, using black paint on a white background, in a manner reminiscent of Chinese drawings in ink.
During the week, Upper Gardner Street is an ordinary residential street with cars parked along the kerb. At weekends, it becomes a street market for what might be politely designated “Second-hand items”.
Next to it, the narrow Kensington Gardens presents two rows of shops selling clothes, accessories, books and jewellery, with the odd food bar here and there.
We made our way to the Royal Pavilion, whose gardens, though apt to be crowded at weekends, are still a delight. Would Brighton have come to possess the importance and popularity it now has without the Prince Regent’s adoption of it as his refuge from a stuffy royal court and an increasingly insane father? Possibly, but by turning it into “London by the Sea”, he set Brighton on a course to fame that it still enjoys.
We visited Brighton Museum which, together with the Art Gallery, houses some important collections and holds frequent exhibitions. (There is also a cafe which serves food and excellent cakes!)
One of the fascinating exhibits in the museum today was Rowland Emett’s Featherstone-Kite Gentleman’s Flying Machine which he built in 1962. Not only does this contraption possess a kind of fantastical beauty but it also engages in a balletic display of movement. Emett was famous for his weird but delicate machines – often designed to perform some simple task in a very complicated way – and his drawings appeared in many newspapers and magazines. This YouTube film shows the machine in action recently in Brighton Museum while this British Pathé News item shows a 1969 ‘flight’.
And so to the seafront, where there are still palpable remains of an age when Brighton was a fashionable and elegant watering place and the promenade lived up to its name. Surviving from those days is the Queen’s Hotel, built in 1846 and still going strong. Despite the name, I doubt whether Queen Victoria ever stayed here. After all, she had that fancy palace up the road, though barely had she begun to adapt it to her use when she and Albert discovered that they preferred the Isle of Wight as their getaway retreat.
If the Queen’s Hotel is Beauty, then the Thistle, a few yards further along the front, must be the Beast. An all too typical example of modern in-yer-face design by architects who understand nothing about aesthetics and seem unable to distinguish between hotels and prison blocks, it does Brighton’s seafront environment no favours, though I suppose that the willingness of big business to invest vast sums of money in such ugliness at least proves that Brighton, as a resort, is as popular as ever.
The beach is, of course where all the fuss about Brighton as a resort started. Or rather, all that healthful salt sea water that lapped so becomingly at said beach. From then on, fishing boats were out; bathing machines were in. The bathing machines soon disappeared, however, but the fishing boats continued operating from here for quite a while longer. In fact, they were still here, and so was the accompanying fish market, when I was a kid in Brighton. Now, the only fishing boats left are those you see in the picture and they are exhibits belonging to the Brighton Museum of Fishing.
In the distance is the Palace Pier, built 1891-1901. Well, that’s what it was called then. In more recent times, its owners decided to rename it Brighton Pier. Happily, the pier has won Grade II* listed status which should protect it from developers and other despoilers. I note, too, that the English Heritage listing refers to it as the Palace Pier.
Piers are difficult things to photograph. This is because they are low but long – often very long. This means that you either photograph them close up, as above, and lose all sense of their majestic length, or…
…you photograph them from a distance and end up with a tiny distant image that loses resolution when you zoom in. The answer is to photograph it close up, but in sections, and then stitch the sections together. That way you get both the whole pier and a decent amount of resolution. (Click to see a larger version.)
We went down onto the beach and saw this wonderful place. Regrettably, I cannot show you inside because photography was not allowed. When I was a kid, the Palace Pier had an arcade full of machines that you operated by putting a penny in the slot. Look on this site to see what a pre-decimal penny looked like. They were 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) across and at decimalization were worth about 0.4 of a decimal penny but that was still quite a lot in terms of my weekly pocket money. The machines provided games of various sorts, music with automaton musicians, automaton fortune tellers and animated scenes, such as a Haunted House or an execution by decapitation. To generations brought up on Flight Simulator and Grand Theft Auto, these look clunky and simplistic but they were very cleverly designed and in an age without electronics, satisfying. Mechanical Memories has managed to save some of these machines and put them back into working order. You hand over some modern money in return for a handful of old pennies and off you go. We had fun. Yes, we did. We soon used up all our pennies but, so what? We can have another go on our next visit.
After frittering away our pennies, we went for a little walk along the front, passing under the pier. This might be described as the seamy side of pier life, but it provides the solid foundations for the huge structure above. Those Victorian engineers knew their business.
The pier has stood – and withstood – for over a hundred years. During the Second World War, it was feared that the enemy could use the piers (there were two in those days) as beachheads for an invasion. Destroying them was out of the question so a section was removed from the middle of each of them in order to provide some sort of obstacle to putative invaders. Fortunately, the invasion never took place and the piers were repaired and put back into service.
We saw that there were a lot of gulls flying around the pier head. They were not feeding but flying around and around. I call this activity “social flying” because I think it has something to do with establishing one’s place in the group and the pecking order. They use places like this because the updraught from the wind meeting the solid pier gives the gulls a cushion of air so they can fly back and forth, round and round, barely flapping their wings. We decided to have a go at photographing some of them in flight. Here is a selection of my photos.
It’s fun to try to catch them with the camera. You have to wait until one comes fairly close but then it will be moving at speed making it hard to keep it in the frame. I will admit that there’s more than an element of luck in getting a good result.
After having fun with the gulls, we walked up the road to the bus stop on the other side of the aquarium (a place we intend to visit one of these days). There we caught a bus to the station. During this part of the year, so many people come to Brighton at weekends that it’s wise to leave early. Later in the evening the trains are often packed with standing room only. In the event, seats were available and we enjoyed a comfortable ride back to St Pancras.
1Any information in response to my queries and uncertainties will be welcome and will be duly acknowledged (unless the informant requests to remain anonymous).