The Worker’s Maypole


I spotted this work by the Radical (as in politically radical) American artist Andrea Bowers during my recent visit to Tate Modern. The image is drawn on sheets of cardboard that have been joined together with a maker pen.

The full title of the work is The Worker’s Maypole. An Offering for Mayday 1894. It’s a very detailed drawing which reproduces an image by the British Socialist artist Walter Crane. For several years at the end of the 19th Century, he produced annual cartoons to commemorate May Day for the socialist magazine The Clarion.

In Andrea Bower’s version, she has used materials that are typically used to create banners and plaquards for political demonstrations by the Occupy Movement. Walter Crane produced illustrations for political purposes – for political propaganda and banners for the Labour Movement. As a modern radical activist artist Andrea Bowers is very much following in his footsteps.

Toxic Art – Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain

As an occupational hygienist, when visiting the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate Modern last week I couldn’t help but stop and take notice of the pictures and description of one of the works created by this American artist well known for his mobiles and other “kinetic sculptures” . A mercury fountain.

While I was looking at the display, I overheard a comment by a young woman to her partner as they too read about this work

“It couldn’t have been real mercury could it. That would be dangerous”

I couldn’t help responding

“It was, and it is ”

Mercury, the magical Quicksilver, has been known since ancient times. A metal that’s a liquid at room temperature that flows like water.  Being a liquid, vapours are given off which can be inhaled and it can also be absorbed through intact skin. It’s highly toxic, affecting the brain, gastrointestinal system and kidneys. It’s particularly noted for causing neurological and behavioural disorders due to brain damage. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. In Victorian times mercury compounds were used in the manufacture of felt for hats and the workers in that industry were particularly affected. This is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Hatter” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This was disputed by the esteemed Professor Hugh Waldron back in 1961, but the myth persists.


The exhibition website tells us the story of the fountain’s creation

In 1937 Calder was one of the contributors to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic designed by Josep Lluís Sert for the International Exposition in Paris, where his Mercury Fountain was installed in proximity to Picasso’s painting Guernica. In the middle of the Spanish Civil War, Calder showed his support for the embattled Republic by creating a fountain that would run with mercury from the mines at Almadén – a valuable economic and strategic resource. (Tate website)

I found it a little ironic that a work of art created in support of a government dedicated to improve the lot of working people celebrated an industry likely to have been responsible for poisoning the workers in the mine where it was extracted.

Although it seems likely that visitors to the exhibition back in the 930’s would have been exposed to mercury vapours, given the relatively short period that they would have been in the vicinity their exposure would have been limited and its highly unlikely there would have been a significant risk to their health. However, I’d be more concerned about the staff working in the Spanish Pavilion.

Today the fountain can be seen at the Fundació Joan Miró museum in Barcelona – carefully displayed under glass. Hopefully appropriate measures are taken to protect the workers who have to maintain it from the toxic liquid and vapours.

Mercury fountain

Picture from the Fundació Joan Miró museum website

Performing Art?


Last Tuesday while I was in London, I had a few hours to spare after my meeting finished and before I could catch the off-peak train back home. The meeting took place just round the corner from Tate Modern so I took the opportunity to visit Performing Sculpture, the exhibition of work by Alexander Calder that’s showing there at the moment. I’ve been keen to see it but as we missed out on visiting London in January, opting to go walking up in Cumbria instead, I was pleased to be able to grab the opportunity.

Calder was a sculptor of “kinetic sculpture” and  is best known as the inventor of the “mobile”(a name coined by Marcel Duchamp when he first saw one of the sculptures). Delicately balanced sculptures constructed of wire and metal.

As is usual with Tate Modern’s exhibitions it was a very comprehensive retrospective covering the evolution of Calder’s work. No photos allowed, so pictures are sourced from the Tate’s exhibition website.

Calder was also a master of wire sculptures. He expertly bent wire to create three dimensional ‘drawings in space’. Animals, circus performers and even portraits of friends, fellow artists such as Miro and Cocteau and other well known people like Josephine Baker.


Alexander Calder with “Edgar Varese” and “Untitled”, Saché, France, Gelatin silver print, 1963

I wasn’t aware of this aspect of his work and was fascinated by the works on display in two of the rooms at the beginning of the exhibition. Despite being constructed of wire which defined an empty volume, they almost seemed solid.


Hi! c 1928

Early in his career he visited the Paris studio of Piet Mondrian (we’d seen a reproduction of the studio at the Mondrian exhibition in Liverpool 18 months ago) and this experience inspired him to the extent that he  was “converted” to abstract art. Seeing the coloured rectangles pinned to the wall he suggested that it would be interesting to make them move about. Mondrian clearly thought this was a stupid idea but Calder went away and started experimenting with creating abstract works that moved, driven with motors. There were examples of these “stabiles” – pieces that were anchored to the floor or other horizontal pieces in several of the following rooms.


Red and Yellow Vane 1934

I particularly liked those works inspired by the planets and constellations, such as A Universe  a motorised work, in which a complex pattern is traced by two spheres, moving at different speeds along the looping wire paths.

When the sculpture was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Calder was told that Albert Einstein stood watching it for forty minutes, waiting for the mechanism to work through the ninety cycles of movement before it began to repeat itself. (exhibition website)

The culmination of the exhibition were the final three rooms which featured his mobiles, delicate structures hanging from the ceiling. I was fascinated by how he had been able to balance them. A process which would require a good understanding of mechanics, carefully balancing the metal elements by calculating “moments of force”, a combination of the mass of the elements and the length of the wires. So it wasn’t a surprise to learn that Calder trained as a mechanical engineer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in his early twenties, only becoming an artist a few years after he’d graduated.


Vertical Foliage 1941

There was only one work in the final room, but what a work it was. Black Widow, a 3.5 metre mobile suspended from the ceiling. The sculpture belongs to  the Institute of Architects of Brazil in São Paulo. Usually hanging in a central space in the Institute’s headquarters, this is the first time it has been allowed out on loan.

Calder’s mobiles and stabiles were designed as kinetic works. They are meant to move. So it was disappointing that there was very little movement in the exhibition, despite the video on the Tate website showing one of the mobiles slowly pirouetting in the breeze as Calder intended.  The works are delicate and many of those meant to be driven by motors are too old and delicate to allow them to be operated. That’s understandable. But there was also very little movement with the mobiles suspended from the ceiling. They swayed gently, but there were strict instructions not to touch them or blow at them.  Given that the whole point of these works is that they are meant to move, this was disappointing. The “Performing Art” didn’t perform. The mobiles were largely immobile. However, despite this I have to say that this was an excellent exhibition. Some beautiful works – particularly the wire sculptures, astronomical works and, best of all, the mobiles.

International Brigade Monument

This monument to the British Battalion of the International Brigade that fought for the Republican Government against Franco’s Fascist uprising, stands in Jubilee Gardens on the Southbank in London, near the old City Hall and the London Eye. 4.5 metres high, it portrays four figures supporting a fifth wounded and kneeling figure. It was sculpted by Ian Walters, a Socialist who also created other memorial sculptures, including the statue of Nelson Mandela, not far away across the Thames in Parliament Square.

The International Brigades were a group of idealistic young adults who left their homes and families and risk death to fight for a cause they believed in. Some may see parallels with those travelling to Syria to join the so called “Islamic State”. But the International Brigade volunteers were going to fight to defend a legitimate government threatened by fascists, while those travelling to Syria today are supporting an organisation commiting atrocities, which has much in common with the most viscious Fascist regimes.

I have a personal connection with the International Brigade as a relative, Will Paynter, my Granmother’s cousin, an activist in the National Union of Mineworkers and the Communist Party, was involved in the recruitment of men to fight for the Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. In March 1937 he was sent to Spain to look after the interests of the British Battalion.

This is an extract from a speech he made to the TUC in 1938 seconding a resolution of support for the Republicans

It must be clear to every delegate in this Congress that the issue in Spain is one of which the outcome will not only determine the destinies of the people of Spain; it must be clear to everyone that the outcome of the conflict in Spain will involve the destinies of the people of all countries…. The conquest of Spain can well mean the commencement of further attacks upon other European democracies, and therefore I am pleading with this Congress that we should regard this matter not merely as one of solidarity, but as an issue of self-preservation for our trade unions in this country.

London after dark

I had a meeting in central London on Tuesday morning so to avoid an exhorbitant peak fare on The lovely Virgin West Coast service, and an early start, I travelled down after work on Monday evening. It was quite late when I arrived but I needed some fresh air, so, after I checked into my Premier Inn at Waterloo, I decided to stretch my legs and take a walk along the Southbank. It was a pleasant evening and I managed to take a few snaps on my phone that came out reasonably well.


Along the Bay


Tuesday, the second day of my short early break we decided to take the train to Silverdale for a walk along Morecambe Bay. A favourite walk I’ve done several times but never in winter before. The day started out cold,overcast and a little misty, but during the walk the cloud broke and we ended up being a very pleasant day.

We left the station and set off down the road turning down the path leading to the salt marsh.


It was rather muddy and sticky underfoot in places, but we were suitably attired.We followed the coast past the old copper smelting furnace that looks like a lighthouse and along to Jenny Brown Point.


We carried along the coastal path on land owned by the National Trist to the recreated  lime kiln at “Jack Scout”.



Coming back off the coastal path onto the road I headed towards Silverdale village, passing Lindeth Tower which, was used by the author, Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote one of her novels, Ruth, there.


Unfortunately the nearby Wolf House gallery and Cafe is closed on Monday and Tuesday during the winter so we missed out on the opportunity for a brew so we carried on passing through Silverdale village back to the coast, walking along the rocky shore as far as “the Cove” where we stopped to eat our sandwiches. The sun was breaking through the cloud by now.



We carried on cutting inland and made our way towards Arnside Knott.


From the top of this modest hill there are great views across Morecambe Bay and the Kent Estuary, but the Lake District fells which provide a stunning panorama on a good day, were shrouded with cloud.



We retraced our path back to the coast and then followed it around to Arnside,




By now the sun was beginning to set and we were treated to a stunning sunset over the estuary from the pier while drinking a quick take away coffee. Then on to Arnside station to catch the train back home.


Another good day’s walk. Now it’s back to work

A winter’s walk in the Lake District


For the last few years we’ve taken the opportunity in January to take a shot city break, in London for the last 3 years and in Cambridge in 2012. During last year I made quite a lot of trips to London and so didn’t feel like spending more time there, so we decided to try and take a short break in the Lake District. By the end of last week the whether didn’t look too promising and we had snow on Saturday, so we decided against booking in somewhere but to “play it by ear”, and on Monday set off up the M6, not quite sure what we’d do, but with our boots in the boot of the car in case we had the opportunity to go for a walk.

As we drove north the weather looked reasonably promising. Cloudy and a little misty but it didn’t look like there’d be rain or snow so we decided to chance a familiar low level walk and so headed over to Rydal Water. We parked up and set off on the route we’d walked last February along the two small lakes of Rydal Water and Grasmere.

The fells were blanked with snow and the paths were covered with snow and “slush”, so were slippery, although walkable with care.


Like last year, we crossed the river over to the west side of Rydal Water. There are two paths, one slightly higher up the side of the hill and the other lower down, that follow the length of the lake. We too the higher one first and then descending to take the lower one back along the shore of the lake.




We then carried on along Loughrigg Terrace, descending down towards the road to Grasmere.




We passed Allen Bank, one of the houses in the vicinity where Wordsworth used to live. Now owned by the National Trust, it was shut for the winter.


We stopped off in the village for a brew and a cake and then headed back along the west shore of the lake and then along the river back to the car. It was starting to get dark for the last half hour and the photos I took using my phone camera took on a rather atmospheric blue tint – probably due to a combination of the bright snow covered landscape and low light levels. But we’d timed it well and got back to the car before darkness descended.






A good 9 mile stroll.