Ai Weiwei at the YSP


Last Sunday we drove over to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We wanted to have another look at the Ursula von Rydingsvard exhibition we visited earlier this year and see the exhibition of works by the well known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei which was installed in the old Georgian chapel since our last visit to the park. It was a beautiful late summer’s day too so we thought it would be nice to have a walk around the grounds and revisit some favourite works of art.

The YSP is based in the grounds of the Palladian mansion, Bretton Hall, which at one time was the home of Wentworth and, later, Beaumont families. It became a teacher training college in the late 1840’s and estate became the YSP in 1977.

The Chapel was built in 1744 for use by residents on the Bretton Estate. It has been recently restored  and today is an exhibition space for the YSP. It’s a relatively simple Palladian building built of local sandstone and with minimal ornamentation. It’s most distinctive features are the “pepperpot” tower and the triangular pediment above the front entrance and four pilasters on the front facade.. Today entry is via the side door. The interior is relatively plain and has been painted white creating a light, airy space.


The exhibition is the first in the UK with new works by Ai Weiwei since his Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2010, and only comprises five works. As his passport has been confiscated and he can’t travel, he communicate with the curators by e-mail when the exhibition was being organised.


Iron Tree, 2013, a six-metre high sculpture is located Immediately outside the chapel, in the front courtyard. At first glance it looks like a coherent whole – a tree in it’s winter state without it’s coat of green leaves. Closer inspection reveals that the branches are bolted together and don’t quite look right. This is because the individual parts are cast from branches from 97 different trees from a Chinese market.


Made from cast iron, the surface has rusted which, particularly in the bright sunshine, has given it something of a red-brown and lifelike appearance.

The other works are displayed inside the chapel.

Fairytale-1001 Chairs, 2007-14, is an installation of 45 wooden chairs based on his work created in 2007 in Germany where he set out 1001 chairs, each representing a Chinese citizen who could not travel. The YSP work is a “cut down” version to suit the space inside the chapel.

Ai has selected 45 Fairytale-1001 Chairs and has conceived an installation of nine rows of five chairs in the nave. Spaced so that each chair is solitary, they give heightened awareness of the collective and the individual.

Visitors are allowed, encouraged in fact, to sit on the chairs and contemplate in the peaceful space. Copies of poems by Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996), are available to read. Ai Qing was a Communist, and his work reflects that point of view, but he later fell out of favour with Mao and the Chinese leadership and sent into internal exile in 1958, although he was “reinstated” in the 1970’s.  A reading of the poems by a member of the YSPs takes place on the first Sunday of each month at 2 o’clock for twenty minutes. We arrived at the chapel ten minutes before this was due to start so decided to sit down and listen.

Although the member of staff was clearly not used to giving poetry reading,with a respectful audience sitting and listening quietly, and other visitors respecting the request not to make noise, it was a strangely moving experience.

No photos are allowed inside the chapel, so I’ve taken this one, which shows he work without any visitors, from the YSP’s website


Lantern, (2014) is a sculpture of a Chinese lantern carved in marble from the same quarries used  to build both the Forbidden City and Mao’s tomb. . Map of China, (2009) is made of timbers reclaimed from demolished Qing dynasty temples and is meant to show how China is isolated from the rest of the world.

Ruyi, (2012); an abstract porcelain work, is displayed on the balcony. The YSP’s website tells us

Sitting somewhere between fungal organic form and human internal organs, this lividly-coloured porcelain sculpture is one of a number of Ruyi made by Ai Weiwei that take the traditional Chinese sceptre of the same name, used by nobles, monks and scholars for around 2,000 years.

An interesting and stimulating exhibition worth the trip alone. But there was more to see during a very pleasant afternoon in the Park

Whistler in Liverpool

The Bluecoat Gallery’s contribution to the Liverpool Biennial is an exhibition about James McNeill Whistler. He’s probably most well known for his painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1,(better known as Whistler’s Mother) and his court action for libel against John Ruskin after the latter criticised his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.

“I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

The exhibition didn’t have many of Whistler’s paintings but there were a large number of prints, a recording of an actor reading Whistler’s “10 O’clock Lecture” and a reconstruction of the Peacock Room he designed for the London house of his patron, Frederick Leyland, a Liverpool shipowner.

“Whistler was in many ways the first contemporary artist,’ says Biennial co-curator, Mai Abu ElDahab. “His work exists on the cusp of what we call today Modern Art. He was a forefather of abstraction, who fought for the position of the artist, developing the idea of the artist as public intellectual. He was the first to display his work in complete environments rather than just as collections of paintings.”

One of the prints was an etching of Speke Hall Leyland,owned by Leyland, which Whistler visited.

Speke Hall, No. 1 (Speke Hall: The Avenue)

Prior to visiting the exhibition I didn’t know much about Whistler other than his dispute with Ruskin and familiarity with his paintings. Unlike Ruskin, I rather like Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, and some of his other paintings. He was somewhat ahead of his time with his Impressionistic style. However I was disappointed with the paintings I saw when I visited the Hunterian Gallery in Glasgow a few years ago, where they have a large collection of his works. His technique meant that his subjects were very indistinct and it was like looking through a thick fog. But the Bluecoat exhibition brought out Whistler’s character. He was vain, conceited, difficult and a real prima donna who didn’t take account of the wishes of the people from who he made his living – his clients. The culmination of the exhibition was the reconstruction of his Peacock Room

Frederick Leyland engaged Whistler to finish off the decoration of a room at his house at 49 Prince’s Gate in  Kensington, London. The job had been started by an architect, Thomas Jeckyll whose design included covering the walls with expensive antique Spanish leather. When Jeckyll fell ill Whistler was brought in to finish the job and he went rather wild and well beyond his brief.

Leyland, to  put it mildly, was not pleased. He refused to pay Whistler half the agreed fee and also paid in pounds, the currency of “trade”, rather than guineas in which artists and professionals expected payment – a deliberate attempt to insult the artist. As a consequence, Whistler had to file for bankruptcy.

Whistler managed to gain access to the room and painted the two fighting peacocks, the centrepiece of the design, which are meant to represent the artist and his patron and painted over the expensive leather. He also painted a rather unflattering painting of his patron .




There’s more detail about the Peacock Room here.

Vintage Cars in Naas

These cars were parked outside my hotel in Naas last Sunday

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I subsequently discovered there had been an Irish Vetran and Vintage Car Club rally in the area and some of the participants must have been staying in the hotel

Russborough House, Ireland


Summer’s over and I’m back working in Ireland again.  I came over on Sunday and decided to take the earlier boat so I could have an afternoon free time. During previous visits I’d noticed signs in Naas for Russborough House, a former Stately Home near Blessington and only 10 miles or so from where I usually stay. So I decided to go and have a look.

When checking up about the house I realised I had heard of it before. A number of the major paintings displayed in the Irish National Gallery, including their paintings by Vermeer, Metsu and Goya had previously were part of the collection of the last private owners of the house, Sir Alfred & Lady Beit, who’d originally bought the house so they could display their art collection. Initially 12 paintings were stolen during a raid by the IRA in 1974. They were all recovered. However in 1986 there was another burglary organised by the infamous Dublin criminal, Martin Cahill, who is better known as  ‘The General’. All but 2 paintings were recovered. Following this some of the most valuable of the works were donated to the National Gallery.

The Beits were of German and South African heritage and part of the De Beer diamond dynasty. Sir Alfred Beit bought the house in 1952. The original owners were  the Earls of Milltown, the Leeson family, who made their money through their Dublin breweries before they were ennobled.

The grounds can be accessed free of charge and there are a couple of pleasant walks around the “Desmesne”. The grounds near the house where there is a playground and maze (3 Euros entrance fee) was busy with families with young children. the cafe was also very good with some nice looking savoury dishes and cakes.


The first Earl of Milltown, Joseph Leeson had it built between 1741 and 1755 and it was designed by the Irish architect Richard Cassells, who was also responsible for a number of major buildings in Dublin including the Rotunda Hospital and Leinster House and he also designed another well known Stately Home near Dublin, Powerscourt House.

It’s an example of Palladian architecture, symmetrical, well proportioned with Classical features. There’s a central block linked to two pavilions by curved collonades. The central block is relatively simple, it’s main feature being a “suggested portico” , with Corinthean pillasters “supporting” a triangular pediment, surrounding the front entrance.


here was a great view of the Wicklow “Mountains” from the front of the house (the photo doesn’t do it justice)


The rear of the house has a similar look, but with a simpler portico


The tour of the house took just short of an hour and took us into all of the rooms on the ground floor of the main house and the main lobby and a couple of bedrooms on the first floor. The East wing houses the cafe and the west wing has been converted into holiday apartments.

The interior of the house itself can be accessed via hourly guided tours. So I bought a ticket. One thing was very apparent from the tour – the Milltowns loved their stucco. It was everywhere – the ceilings and the walls. There were some exceptional fireplaces too. And despite the most notable paintings from the Beit collection being passed on to the National Gallery there were still a number of works by significant artists on the walls – not all to my taste, though.

The Dining Room:




The Entrance Hall:




The Drawing Room



The Music Room



The Saloon


The Library


The main staircase




One of the bedrooms – 1930’s style



After looking round the house I had a walk around the grounds







Townend is a National Trust property in Troutbeck, between Ambleside and Bowness.  that was occupied by the same family, the Brownes, for over 400 years. It’s a very typical Lakeland farmhouse built of rendered stone with a slate roof. It has the very distinctive, large, round chimney stacks that we saw all around the south Lakes and which were a way of showing off wealth (a bit like having a BMW parked on the drive these days – swanking off to the neighbours)


It has a very pleasant, small, cottage style garden



with an interesting wooden gate


Across the road there’s a traditional Lakeland Bank Barn.


It’s still a working farm building so isn’t open to visitors.

Access to Twnend is by guided tour in the morning – you collect a coloured clothes peg from the front door to book your place on the tour, if they’re all gone the tour is full. Visitors can self tour during the afternoons. It’s not a big property. Although it was the home of a relatively prosperous family of yeoman farmers it’s not exactly a manor house.

The original house was extended in the 1620’s. The extension, called the “Down House” because it’s lower down than the main building, is on the right when facing the front of the house. The older, main, part being known as the “Fire House”.


It was quite dark inside. These houses had thick walls and small windows and relied on expensive candles for lighting. And the furniture was dark oak. One of the later Brownes was, to say the least, a rather enthusiastic carver and has made his mark (literally!) throughout the house.







The Brownes were very well read and self educated and collected an impressive library which is being preserved by the National Trust



Matisse Cut-outs at Tate Britain

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs final weekend web banner

This has been the big blockbuster for the summer at Tate Modern. I managed to get to see it during my latest trip down to London after I’d finished work for the day. It was quite busy but there was no problem seeing the pictures. There were plenty of families with young children and with the bright colours and simple shapes this was an exhibition which was going to appeal to that audience.

Matisse was one of the greats able to create great works in all of the different styles and media he adopted throughout his long career. He turned to making his cut-outs towards the end of his life. Originally he used them as a tool to try out ideas or paintings, but they soon became works in themselves.


I was familiar with Jazz, the artist’s book that is quite well known and a copy of which which I’d seen at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool a couple of years ago, and posters of the “Blue Nudes” adorns the wall of many a bedsit and student’s bedroom. but in this exhibition I was able to see the originals. The three dimensional nature of the cut-outs became evident as some of the individual pieces of paper were layered upon each other.

Icarus, plate VIII from the illustrated book, "Jazz"

As he developed his mastery of the technique he created some large scale pieces which were displayed in the exhibition including The Parakeet and the Mermaid, Large Decoration with Masks, The Sheaf, The Snail and Memory of Oceania.

Henri Matisse The Sheaf 1953

A video playing in one of the rooms showed how he worked on these larger scale works, cutting out shapes with scissors and then getting his assistant to pin them onto the all in accordance with his instructions, moving them around as he felt necessary to obtain the desired result.

Many of the works are certainly very beautiful with their bright colours and simple forms. And it was a fantastic opportunity to see so many of the works which would otherwise be scattered in collections across the globe. As an exhibition I felt it appealed more to the emotions rather than to the intellect. The exhibition was much less challenging that the Malevich retrospective two floors up which I’d seen the previous day.

The cut-outs have a lot of similarities with stained glass which also uses relatively coloured shapes to produce more complex images and patterns. Matisse used cutouts when planning his stained glass for the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. and one of the rooms in the exhibition were devoted to this. But cutouts are no substitute for the stained glass themselves and to me this was demonstrated in the culmination of the exhibition. The final room had his cut-out prototype on a Christmas theme for a stained glass window commissioned for the Time-Life Building in New York together with the glass itself, illuminated from behind. The cutout looked dull compared to the realisation of his design.

matisse stained glass

A walk to Tarn Hows

I really wanted to walk up the “Old Man”. I’d spent a good part of the week staring at it and it was challenging me to make the ascent. But a combination of factors, the weather, lack of practice and uncertainty about how I’d manage my sugar levels, (especially the weather), put me off. So towards the end of our weeks holiday, desperate to get out for a walk, and despite the weather, I decided to put on my boots and take the easier option of walking up from our cottage on the northern shores of Coniston Water to the “beauty spot” of Tarn Hows.


The walk took me through pleasant wodland


up to  the large tarn. It was actually created by James Garth Marshall, the wealthy owner of the Monk Coniston Estate in the mid-19th century. There were originally three small tarns which were dammed to create one larger one. Today the estate is owned by the National Trust and there are car parks close by making access to the easy walk around the lake (almost 2 miles).

The tarn itself is very pleasant but the views of the surrounding mountains are what makes it such an attractive spot for visitors.






When I arrived, while stopping to admire the view and refuel (I was surprised at how much my blood sugar had dropped) I could see the rain passing over the Coniston fells. Afterwards when I was part way round the tarn the heavens opened. I was very glad of the bargain waterproof over trousers I’d bought  in Ambleside a few days earlier!



Yet, even as I was standing in the pouring rain having circumnavigated the tarn I could see the Langdale Pikes, only a few miles away, lit up in bright sunshine.


My route took me through the Monk Coniston Estate. On the way back I chose a route that took me through the the grounds of the Monk Coniston Hall which itself is not accessible through to the public but the public path went through the old wakked garden that has been restored by the National Trust



and this old “gazebo”


and then down through fields of Herdwick sheep back to the lake