Thursday, October 24th 2013
Today we set off for our three-night stay in the picturesque and historic city of Durham. Durham has a special appeal for me because it was to its University that my son came to study for his first degree and to which he returned some years later, now an internationally known scientist, to assume an important position in teaching and research.
We had booked our train tickets some time in advance, in order to get the cheapest deal, and the outward journey involved a change at Darlington. The station at Darlington (opened 1887) is a large but handsome Victorian building and a regular shuttle service operates between it and Durham. Breaking our journey was not a problem and gave us a chance to look up an old friend.
This is a frequently noticed item of furniture on the station and is a wooden bench dedicated to the Yorkshire Regiment. The gift of Ron Cowen, it was installed in May 2008 and was made by the firm of Thompson’s of Kilburn (Yorkshire). Its unusual feature is the pretty carved mouse at one end. This is a signature of Thompson’s or, more properly, of Robert “Mouseman” Thompson (1876-1955). Robert inherited the firm from his father and gradually became successful, building a reputation as a top craftsman. A story has it that he adopted the mouse signature after describing himself to a colleague as “poor as a church mouse”. Since then, the mouse has appeared on many of the firm’s products and “Mouseman”, Robert’s nickname, has been registered as a trade mark.
We arrived in Durham too early to register at the hotel but they let us leave our bags in the meantime and we set out to explore the city. In Millennium Square is to be found this rather striking1 public sculpture by local sculptor, Fenwick Lawson. It represents six monks carrying an open coffin in which lies the body of St Cuthbert. The somewhat gruesome implications of this are, of course, sanctified by art and history. The art you may judge for yourself and an outline of the history is as follows.
Not far up the coast is the holy island of Lindisfarne where Bishop – later Saint – Cuthbert, died in 687. First prior and then bishop, Cuthbert came to be considered a saint, and when the monastery was threatened by Vikings in the late 9th century, the monks took his remains with them to the mainland, seeking a place of refuge. They settled first at Chester le Street, building a church there, but, finding themselves again threatened by those pesky Norse pirates, they set out once more and in 993 arrived in Durham, then little more than a crag at the bend of a river. According to chronicler Symeon of Durham, the coffin now became immoveable, and this was taken as a sign that this was to be its final resting place. A church was built here but replaced in 1093 by the present Norman cathedral.
The body is exposed in the sculpture because legend has it that when the coffin was opened some years after Cuthbert’s death, the body was found to be remarkably well preserved and this circumstance gave impetus to the belief that Cuthbert was a saint.
Without particularly intending, we found ourselves in Market Place, in front of the Church of St Nicholas. (Durham is actually quite small, and you do tend to keep finding yourself back where you were a short while before.) The sun had decided to shine and, as always, this gave a pleasant caste to everything.
The statue represents Neptune, apparently pronging a sea serpent to death. What is Neptune, the god of the sea, doing in Durham, you might reasonably ask? As usual, a helpful inscription explains all: “This statue was given to the city in 1729 by George Bowes M.P. of Gibside and Streatlam as a symbol of the scheme to link Durham to the sea by improved navigation of the River Wear. It stood on top of the Market Place wellheads until 1923 when it was moved to Wharton Park. It was restored in 1986 following an appeal by the City of Durham Trust.”
Did this scheme ever come to anything? Unfortunately, I do not know. I think that these days, the River Wear is navigable only from Chester le Street downstream, though I could be wrong. In that case, poor old Neptune risks drying out, apart from the odd splash of rain.
Market place is appropriately so called because it is where the market was held from ancient times. In the mid-19th century, it came to be felt that better accommodation was needed and, fortunately, such accommodation was to hand. Called New Place, it was the palace and gardens built in medieval times by the Earls of Westmoreland. Luckily for the marketeers, but unluckily for the 6th Earl, Charles Neville, the latter found himself on the wrong side in the Rebellion of the North (1569), as a result of which the Earl died in exile (1601) and his property was confiscated by the king. After use for several other purposes it at last became the Market Hall which it still is today.
The market is extensive and as well as the ground floor has an upper terrace. By the time we arrived, many of the stalls were closing down for the day but those that were still open presented fine displays of all kinds of goods. I imagine the shopper would find pretty much all the daily necessities here, plus some of the luxuries of life as well. I was rather taken by this poor old cigar store Indian who seemed to be having a hard time avoiding being submerged in boxes of crisps.
As you walk around Durham, the narrow and often hilly streets make you feel that you only have to scratch the surface to find a medieval city under the modern veneer.
This impression is reinforced by the narrow passages and thoroughfares that branch off, often stepped because they climb from one level to another.
Silver Street leads down to the River Wear (pronounced to rhyme with “beer”). The light was beginning to fade but there were still impressive views to be had. As you can see, the river here is criss-crossed with weirs to regulate its flow and is therefore not navigable. Above the river, you can see part of the Norman castle and beyond it the tower of Durham Cathedral.
I wonder whether you can spot something interesting in the photo, near the bottom left corner. If you click to see the larger version, the object is about 1 cm from the left margin and 1.3 cm from the bottom. To be honest, I didn’t see it while taking the photo and spotted it only afterwards.
It was a heron and, remarkably, he had found a firm place to stand amidst the quite violent currents of the restrained river. He stood, rock still, as herons do, only moving his head from time to time. I did not see him catch, or try to catch, anything.
The next thing I noticed was that there were fish leaping up, trying to cross the weirs. These are not very high but the current is strong so they present quite a challenge to the fish. I noticed that if a fish leaped and was carried back downstream, it was some time before he tried again. This is probably because of the huge expenditure of energy needed to make the jump against the current. I managed to get this picture as a salmon dropped back into the water after a successful crossing of the weir. You can see, by the depth of the water on the top of the barrier, what a force the fish has to beat. They do it by leaping clear of the water and tracing an arc through the air into the river beyond the weir. Seeing the work ahead of them in just this short section of river, I was full of admiration for them. Happily, there are no wild bears in Durham and the salmon are too big for the heron to catch!
We had arranged to meet my son and his wife for dinner and were now filling in time before going to the restaurant. The light was fading rapidly, in any case, taking the colours with it.
Durham, ancient city that it is, of course has its share of historic buildings, many of which are, like this one, listed and thus protected for the enjoyment of present and future generations. The compact, Classical solidity of this building makes it attractive, at least to my eyes.
One of the notable features of Durham is the tall viaduct that brings the trains into Durham from the south. For the arriving passenger (and also, the passenger merely passing through on the way north) this provides a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the city. Seen from below, the viaduct itself, slender and yet strong, is a sight to behold, a Victorian engineering marvel.
I was surprised to find this drinking fountain built into one of the viaduct’s pillars. It bears an inscription but this was too eroded for me to read. It seems quite likely to me that the fountain was built when the viaduct itself was built, that is, in 1857. Parts of it are now missing and the water long ago ceased flowing. When was the last drink taken from it, I wonder?
We spent a long time over dinner, talking and catching up. By the time we emerged from the lighted interior of the restaurant, the world outside was in darkness, except for the the electric lights here and there. We made our way back to the hotel, looking forward to a night’s rest before continuing our explorations tomorrow. The sight of the night-time river begged to be photographed, however. There was no longer any sign of the heron or the leaping fish and all was quiet but for the rushing of water over the weirs. Under the bridge, however, the water was as flat as a mirror, turning the arches of the bridge into a pair of eyes, seeming to watch over the river.
1I tend to use the adjective “striking” to describe art works, monuments, etc. that I do not find particularly beautiful or appropriate but which are, well, er, striking!
Friday, October 25th 2013
Tigger was keen to pay a return visit to Newcastle and as this is just a little way to the north of Durham, a day trip is perfectly feasible. We have already been to Newcastle, of course. The first time was another day trip, during our stay in Whitby in 2009 (see Whitby 2009 – 4) and the next was in July 2010 when we spent a week there (see Newcastle 2010).
Unfortunately, the weather did not seem inclined to make the conditions pleasant. As you can see in the above picture, looking across the River Tyne, it was raining and the air was misty.
A brighter note was struck by this colourful peacock by Lisa Johnson in the bus station. The characters forming the tail spell out in many different languages their equivalent of the word “Hello”.
At the bus stop, we saw this daddy-longlegs or crane fly, perched on a side-panel. Usually we see them in autumn when they gather in clouds around light sources or find their way indoors and fly up and down the walls, looking for escape. This one remained still, perhaps hoping for a change in the weather and a chance to mate.
A bus carried us to Gateshead (on the south of the river), where we first visited the establishment that, in the above photo, sits like a bubble on a rise of the ground. I like the way the building’s curve echoes that of the Tyne Bridge further along. There seems to be a divergence of opinion as to whether this centre for music and the performance of music should the called “Sage” or “The Sage”. Both names appear, in some cases with signs that the definite article has been painted out. Make of that what you will.
It is a building in the modern idiom, designed by Foster and Partners, a company who seems to be more interested in building funky shapes than considering what the building is actually for and shaping it to that purpose. I was unable to go to a vantage point where I could photograph the building as a whole, but you will find a picture here and see that it looks rather like a plastic water bottle that has been trodden on and has only partially recovered.
Our next visit was to a building within sight of (The) Sage that is today known as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts (though it too also appears as just “Baltic”, as though the English language is undergoing a process of Russification) but was once a flour mill. It was finished in 1950 and ceased operating as a mill in 1981. I imagine it has been altered to adapt it to its present use though I haven’t stopped to disentangle the original from the new. It now seems to fit its current purpose pretty well.
We had a quick look at the art though there was nothing I found particularly interesting. One thing that did intrigued me, though, was the stairwell. As I have mentioned before, I have a fear of heights and am therefore repelled by, but strangely drawn to, drops such as cliff edges and stairwells. When I looked down the stairwell at the Baltic it gave me a jolt because it s was so deep – impossibly deep, in fact. I took my photo and staggered back from the rail. Later, the mystery revealed itself…
The mystery of the infinite stairwell was solved when we reached the top and saw that there was a mirror on the ceiling! There was another mirror on the floor at the bottom of the stairwell. They were far enough apart for it not to be obvious that there were mirrors and the reflections gave the appearance on an endless stairwell. As a work of art, an installation, it succeeded wonderfully well. The photo above shows how a height-timorous photographer goes about photographing stairwells. (Hint: I use the camera’s hinged pull-out preview screen).
(The) Baltic has two terraces accessible by the public and these offer good views along the river, though the dull weather spoiled these a little. This was a good vantage point from which to photograph the impressive Gateshead Millennium Bridge. As the name suggests, it was put in place in the year 2000 but opened to the public, for pedestrian and cyclist use, the following year. As the Tyne is still a working river with ships making their way up and down it, bridges must either be tall enough to allow passage beneath them or must open in some way to allow ships through. Today’s strong materials allowed the design of the Millennium Bridge which tips up to allow craft to pass under it. Because of this movement, which resembles that of an eyelid, the bridge has come to be known popularly as the Blinking Eye Bridge or the Winking Eye Bridge. The curve of the combined walkway and cycleway is thus explained: this becomes an arch when the bridge lifts.
We walked across the Millennium Bridge to the north side of the river and I took a retrospective photo of the Baltic Floor Mill, aka the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts, from this viewpoint. We were happy that the sky now cleared and the sun came out.
We had a rather unmemorable lunch in a restaurant whose name I forget, and then continued our explorations. Newcastle is a sizeable city and there is a lot to see, too much to do all of it in short visit, so we needed to choose. The above sculpture was in the street near the restaurant. I looked in vain for a plaque or label but could not find one. Perhaps the sculptor did not know what it was supposed to be, either.
The proudly named Northumberland Baths opened in 1928, part of what we would now call a “complex”, consisting of the baths themselves and the City Hall. Sadly, and despite being home to an active swimming club, the baths have fallen victim to the cuts and have been drained and closed. The City hall, presumably because, as a place of popular entertainment and a venue for hire it is a money-spinner, survives. We can only hope that in happier times the baths, or the City Pool, as they had been renamed, will one day reopen and once more fulfil their original purpose.
We went into the City Library for a quick visit. We came here back in 2010 on our stay in the city. This is a fine modern library of the sort that gives me hope for the future of the public library service. Clad in glass, but with appropriately positioned sunshades, the building is spacious and airy. Going up in the glass lift is an experience on its own! Being so tall, the library offers views of the city not available at ground level and is altogether a very impressive facility. I was glad to see it being well used by students and general public.
From the vantage point of the library’s upper floors we have a bird’s-eye view of the Laing Gallery, just across the street. The Laing Gallery was built in 1901-4 with funds provided by Alexander Laing, a Scottish businessman residing in Newcastle. Today it is part of the establishment of Tyne & Wear Museums and Archives. Admission is free and photography is allowed.
You can study the paintings by periods and topics or wander freely, as I usually prefer to do, looking at whatever catches your eye.
The building is well designed and pleasant and its decor is muted so as not to distract from the art on display.
There were many interesting and beautiful works on show and I have chosen just three as a sample. My selection does not do the gallery justice (but only a visit can do that!) or give an impression of the variety of styles and periods represented.
I liked this painting for its strong period flavour (it was first exhibited in 1902) and for the other-worldly, mythic feel to it. It is as though the painter, Thomas Cooper Gotch (1854-1931), has entered a mysterious fairytale world where time is suspended. While four of the women confine their attention to the room, the girl in the blue dress looks out of the frame, as out of a window, her book momentarily forgotten, and this somehow draws us into her world.
The above picture was painted by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) and seeks to portray a mother and her three children. The picture is somewhat stylized but is charming in its own way even if, like me, you have no idea who the Leatharts are. (I had to photograph it at this uncomfortable viewing angle to avoid the worst of the reflections off the glass.)
The reason for my interest, however, is not so much the human subjects but rather the pigeons. I think it is quite unusual for these much maligned birds to be treated so sympathetically. If members of the columbidae are shown, it is usually doves, and preferably white ones. Here we have common pigeons, beautifully drawn and shown in lifelike poses, unlike the human figures who are a tad stiff and formal.
There is also sculpture in the Laing Gallery, of course, and a piece that caught my eye was The Spirit of Contemplation by Albert Toft (1862-1949). It struck me as odd in a couple of ways. It was first exhibited in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died or, if you prefer, the year when the Edwardian period began. The subject is “mythical” in that we have an abstract idea – the spirit of contemplation – shown in the figure of a human female, yet the figure is very naturalistically human and the pose very unmythical, to express it in those terms. To my eye, the figure is very “modern” compared with the typical sculpture of preceding era. Toft was a quite prolific artist and many of his works are known.
The Laing Gallery gives its address as New Bridge Road but the entrance is in a fairly recently created open space called Laing Square. The square has, of course, been paved but it might take you a moment to realize that there is something unusual about the paving. It is in fact an art work called The Blue Carpet, made by the Thomas Heatherwich Studio. The name comes from the paving stones or tiles which are made from recycled blue sherry bottles bonded with white resin. Unfortunately, the blue colour is now much less obvious than it perhaps was when the tiles were first laid.
Fitting in with the idea that the paving is really a carpet, one corner of the carpet doesn’t quite fit into the square and has been left leaning against the wall. The two public benches present as strips of carpet formed by being cut along three sides and then folded back.
A couple of bollards stand at the edge of the square and the paving has been designed to look as though the carpet have had holes made to accommodate them by cutting an ‘X’ in the fabric for each. It would have been easy to go over the top with this idea and overdo it but I am glad to say this is not the case. There is enough to give you the idea of the “carpet” without it being tediously overworked.
At one side of the square is a pretty little building known as John Dobson’s Lying-in Hospital. Dobson (1787-1865) was a principal architect of Newcastle and produced the design of the hospital free of charge. The rest of the project was funded by public subscription. The establishment operated as a maternity hospital for nearly a century, 1826 to 1923 but was for married women only. Unmarried mothers and the destitute were turned away. The jewel of a building today serves as office space.
We took a final quick tour around familiar parts of the city before making our way back to the station and taking the train to Durham. It was fun to renew our acquaintance with Newcastle, despite having time to do no more than scratch the surface and visit a few favourite places. All being well, we shall return again in the future.
Saturday, October 26th 2013
One of our reasons for making the trip to Durham was to see an exhibition of paintings by one of our favourite artists and that is where we are going today. The artist, still alive and still flourishing, is Scottish painter Jack Vettriano; the venue is the beautiful Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow; and the exhibition is Jack Vettriano: A Retrospective. You will find more information and pictures on Jack Vettriano’s Web page.
The trip is going to be a dash because in order to get the cheapest train fares between Durham and Glasgow, we had to accept specific train times and these allow a fairly short stay in Glasgow. We will have time to travel to Glasgow, take the bus to the Kelvingrove, see the exhibition and then make our way back to Durham, but little else besides. As the above picture shows, we started out bright and early!
We reached the station with time to spare, as is our wont. This has the advantage that you are not in a rush and not anxious that you are going to miss your train. The disadvantage is that you have a while to wait and in the chill autumn weather that may be uncomfortable. The present Durham station is the second on the site and was built in 1871, at a time when rail travel was less prosaic than it is today. The wide gap between the up and down lines shows that there were once tracks for fast trains that did not stop here, but those days of excitement at the fast travel afforded by steam are long gone. In the space once occupied by the fast tracks stand the posts that hold the overhead power cables.
We arrived at Glasgow’s Central Station (rebuilt 1901-5), which is huge and impressive. It is a busy station with ground-level platforms and lower-level platforms that were once part of a separate station.
Central Station concourse
Picture from a previous visit
The main station concourse is pleasantly “retro” in appearance, much nicer than today’s anodyne glass, steel and plastic boxes.
We remembered that there weren’t many eateries in the area around the Kelvingrove so we stopped for a quick lunch in a bar-restraurant near the station, though I have forgotten its name.
After lunch, we took a bus to the Kelvingrove. It was good to see this beautiful and impressive building once more. First opened in 1901 and more recently (2003-6) refurbished, it is one of Scotland’s (and Britain’s) finest galleries. I am inclined to say that everyone should visit it at least once. (Though, having visited it once, you will want to do so again!)
When you enter the Kelvingrove, you are immediately struck by the beauty of the building itself and it is worth visiting just to see it. You could spend hours gazing at the structure and the decor, continually discoveries new details. (You will find more views of it in Glasgow 2012 – Day 3.)
When the Kelvingrove reopened after refurbishment, the new modern era was signalled by the presence of an installation of hanging heads. This was an immediate success and is one of the gallery’s most famous and best loved exhibits. Unfortunately, I have not been able to discover its title (if it has one), or the name of the artist. Perhaps it was an in-house production, inspired by the various busts on show.
Update: The installation is entitled Floating Heads and is by Sophie Cave.
Admission to the permanent collection in the Kelvingrove is free and photography is allowed. In the visiting exhibitions, where copyright belongs to someone else, there may be an admission fee and photography may not be permitted. That was the case today with the Vettriano exhibition. I am quite happy with that but it obviously means that I cannot show you any of the pictures we saw. There are plenty of copies online, however, so a quick trawl should bring up examples. You could do worse than start on the artist’s Web site (e.g. explore via PAINTINGS and EXHIBITIONS).
Vettriano’s paintings are naturalistic but have a strange mythic air about them that draws the viewer in. You find yourself trying to work out the “story” that lies behind the picture. Sometimes a magical moment is caught, held forever in suspense, and at other times it is a gesture or a violent movement arrested as though time itself has stopped. Even when the figures seem most relaxed, there is tension and drama; in the brightest scenes one feels there is a dark edge to the light.
Despite the obvious quality of his works, Vettriano has received the attention of detractors. Some see him as too “popular” and too “easy”. This, I think, says far more about the snobbery of the critic than about the art of Jack Vettriano. There is a class of critic that “knows all about” art but has no real feeling for art and for whom it is the fad or fashion that matters. Vettriano does not fit into the mould of contemporary art; he is not “conceptual” or “abstract” or “avant garde”. He is his own kind of artist, an honest practitioner, and one, I am tempted to say, who gives value for money. The number of exhibitions of which his art has been the subject and the ready availability of prints (a “popularity” that no doubt upsets his snobby critics) tells us that he has found a place in the hearts of art lovers.
Hitherto, we had seen pictures of his only in the form of prints so it was good to see the actual paintings. The exhibition was packed and moving around was slow progress but that was fine because it gave us time to take in all the details. Does Vettriano’s appearance at the world-famous Kelvingrove mean that he has made it into the mainstream at last? Let’s hope so and let us also hope that there are many paintings still to emerge from under his capable hands.
After visiting the Vettriano exhibition, we had enough time for a quick tour of the rest of the gallery, and I include a few samples. Two groups with special relevance to Scottish art are well represented here, as you might expect. The portrait above and the sculpture below come from artists associated with a group or movement called the Scottish Colourists. Peploe ably captures the posture and attitude of “Old Duff” and the muted colours echo the theme of old age and resignation.
In complete contrast with the foregoing, this head, with its strongly moulded features, represents a mythical personage, Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, remembered in our day as the name of a Christian festival, Easter. The large eyes have an almost hypnotic gaze but the head is modern in style and there is simplification of form reminiscent of Art Deco, yet the lips are full, rounded and very sensual.
The other group is that association of artists known as the Glasgow Boys (see paragraph within this article), who operated in the last decades of the 19th century. All of them had ties to Glasgow and fovoured the naturalistic style, the above fine portrait being a good example.
Their love of naturalism did not prevent them for tackling more symbolist types of work, with exotic themes and rich colours and patterns. The above work depicting druids bringing in the mistletoe was a collaborative venture by two artists, George Henry and E.A. Hornel who also produced works on their own.
This landscape by George Henry is naturalistic and yet leaves a haunting impression – to me, at least. One can almost think oneself into the landscape where the stillness is enlivened by the movement of a flock of birds.
We left the Kelvingrove by the rear entrance which is sufficiently elaborate to have given rise to the urban myth that the gallery was accidentally built the wrong way round and that “the architect” (there were in fact two, Sir J.W. Simpson and E.J. Milner Allen – both English) committed suicide by jumping from one of the towers. This is a complete fabrication, needless to say.
Atop the steps, St Mungo, flanked by female figures representing Art and Music, sits enthroned. Known also as Kentigern (and Cyndeym in Welsh), Mungo is the patron saint and putative founder of Glasgow, whose name is said to come from his description of the site as his “dear green place”.
We might have liked to take a stroll in Kelvingrove Park but we thought we had better take the bus to the station so as to be sure of catching our assigned train. It was perhaps a little frustrating to renew our acquaintance with Glasgow and the Kelvingrove Gallery so aware of the time limit but it was an enjoyable visit nonetheless, enhanced by seeing the Vettriano exhibition. I am sure we shall return and spend more time here, exploring this fine city and all it has to offer.
Sunday, October 27th 2013
Today was our last day in Durham and we stayed there only long enough to take an early train back to London.
We ordered a cab from the hotel to take us to the station and arrived there with enough time to spare to have coffee and snacks by way of breakfast.
The journey to London seemed very long, though I imagine it took the usual amount of time. It was a relief when the train finally pulled into King’s Cross and we could make our way out to the bus stop.
As you see, I was not inspired at any point to take photos.
This was our first stay in Durham and I think it will be our last. Durham is no doubt a pretty city and interesting in it own way but I think we exhausted its main delights in our brief stroll around town shortly after we arrived. You might criticize us for not visiting its famous Cathedral but we simply did not have time to fit this in.
Perhaps we did not visit it in the best way. What we really wanted to do was to spend a day in Newcastle and see the Vettriano Retrospective exhibition in Glasgow. We needed a centre for this and staying in Durham at least allowed us the relatively rare treat of meeting up with my son and his wife. I think the best moment for me in Durham itself was watching the fish jump over the weir and the heron standing statue-still among the rushing waters.
If I say that we are unlikely to go to Durham again, except for the odd flying visit on our way somewhere else, that might sound a little harsh but it is likely to be the case. Those of you who live in Durham and know it intimately will have a different view of it and I would not wish to detract from that.
That was our last stay away from home this year. We will have a little rest and plan further forays in the spring.