Last week we had a short break in London. We travelled down on the Monday so  that we could see the play about the poet, Stevie Smith, starring Zoe Wannamaker at the Hampstead Theatre.

The delightfully eccentric bard of Palmers Green, Stevie Smith, commutes to the West End to her work as a secretary at a publishing company. Her evenings are spent at home with her beloved Aunt – a world of Battenberg cake, gossip, Ginger Nuts and sherry in tiny glasses. But at the same time as leading this seemingly mundane suburban existence, she is writing the piercing poetry and prose that will one day make her famous.

(Photo source: Wikipedia)

Stevie Smith was a writer and poet, best known for her poem Not waving but drowning. She was born in Hull but moved to Palmers Green in North London when she was 3. She led an unconventional life, living with her Aunt and working as a secretary in Covent Garden, writing in quiet moments at work! The play suggests that she was something of a feminist, rejecting marriage and the constraints that would put upon her. Best known for her poetry, she also wrote three novels, the first of which, Novel on Yellow Paper, is due to be re-released by Virago later this month.

On first reading her poems can seem slight,eccentric, even whimsical. But a more careful analysis reveals deeper meanings. According to a Times Literary Supplement critic

“Smith’s most distinctive achievement.” The critic elaborated: “The cliches, the excesses, the crabbed formalities of this speech are given weight by the chillingly amusing or disquieting elements; by the sense of a refined, ironic unhappiness underlying the poems; and by the variety of topics embraced by the poet’s three or four basic and serious themes.”

The play, by Hugh Whitemore, which incorporated extracts from Stevie’s work, was a three hander with Zoe in the lead role, Linda Baron as her aunt with Chris Larkin playing the male roles. All three were very good. The role of Stevie was demanding, dominating the dialogue and with lengthy monologues. A feat of memory for Zoe Wannamaker. 

There was an article by the writer Amy Jenkins in the Guardian Review on Saturday. She writes

Smith is much undervalued, in my opinion. She is one of those writers who is always ripe for rediscovery – is intermittently rediscovered and then never quite catches on because, although she is very funny, she is also tricky, to say the least.

João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva at Camden Arts Centre


The other exhibition I saw at the Camden Arts Centre last week featured video works by the Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva. They had shot a series of films on 16 mm film and they were being projected onto screens from old style film projectors. There were 27 films in all, being displayed simultaneously in three galleries. In additions there were two camera obscura installations with images also projected onto screens. The films are shot in high-speed before being projected in slow motion with the whirring noise from the projectors breaking the normal silence of the galleries.

The Guardian described

Their seemingly inconsequential films stay in the head and won’t go away.

in a review of a previous exhibition in Birmingham a few years ago

The Guardian again

These films are more than clever gags. Something deeper informs them, and they are made with a great deal of care, attention and expense.

A number of the films showed people at work – felling a tree, making a croissant –  or industrial processes – manipulating molten glass from a furnace.  Others included an egg being fried, a sunset seen from a cave,

a vessel of water emptying and a sequence of vessels revealed as each one was removed in turn.

The lighting, camera angles and the slow motion added interest to what could be considered, in some cases, to be a relatively mundane activity or scene.

In one of the galleries, some of the projectors showed several films in sequence.

My favourite work was one of the two camera obscura installations which featured rotating bicycle wheels. Different images appeared and disappeared in different positions on the screen, some larger than others. Looking carefully I noticed there was an array of several lenses in the wall that were projecting the images and that there was a programmed sequence where one or more were active at a given moment. I managed to look through one of the lenses and could see that there were two wheels being illuminated by several lights from different directions. And the lenses appeared to have different magnifications.  So depending on the particular point in the programme there could be one wheel or both or several images of different sizes of one or both projected on to the screen. Sounds complicated – I’m not sure I’ve described it very well. But it was very effective and mesmerising.


The two Portuguese artists have collaborated since 2001 on creating objects, installations, photographs and 16mm short films and they represented Portugal at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

At one time, I’d have said I didn’t like video installations. And although I still find many baffling and not to my taste, I’ve started to become interested in a number that I’ve seen over the years, and this was one of them.

Camden Arts Centre


London has a wealth of large museums and art galleries, mainly concentrated in the city centre. I always feel, when I’m down there, that they should spread out the concentration of works that they have there around the country, but that’s unlikely to happen – Britain is very London centric.

Although I like visiting the two Tates, the National Gallery and the like, a visit can sometimes be a little overwhelming and of late we’ve started exploring some of the smaller galleries, often located a little further out from the hubbub of the city centre, during our trips to the capital. I decided to take a look at another one of these during my visit to London last week. Although I was there on business I like to try to find some time for other things whenever I’m staying – there’s more to life than work and I I like to make the most of the opportunities travel with work presents me.


The Camden Arts Centre is actually in Hampstead, near the Finchley Road tube station, and about 20 minutes walk from where I was staying. The building is a former library, which was renovated 10 years ago. It has a bookshop and cafe on the ground floor with gallery space on the first floor. There was a garden to the rear which is used as an extension of the cafe – but not on the day I visited when it was cold and it was pouring down.

The Centre describes itself as

a space for contemporary visual art with an internationally known programme of exhibitions and education projects, where a strong emphasis is placed on making art as well as showing it.

The Director, Jenni Lomax, was recently interviewed by the Guardian on their website.

It reminded me somewhat of the Bluecoat in Liverpool, both in terms of it’s size and the type of art featured.

During my visit there were two exhibitions showing.

Back to the Fields by Ruth Ewan

brings to life the French Republican Calendar in a new work made for Camden Arts Centre’s Gallery 3.

The room was filled with 365 objects representing the days of the year but based on the French Revolutionary calendar rather than our usual Gregorian version. It is said that “history is written by the victors” and the Revolutionary Calendar was designed to sweep away the past with its religious and royalist influences which were reflected in the calendar. It was also intended to be part of a general attempt at decimalisation in France, so although it retained twelve months (with new names based on the agricultural cycle) they were divided into three ten-day weeks with the additional days required to complete the 365 days inserted at the end of the year. It was used from late 1793 to 1805, and for 18 days by the Paris Commune in 1871. References to the calendar crop up in literature (Germinal by Emile Zola) and politics (the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon by Karl Marx)

On the wall by the side of the entrance to the gallery there was a clock, but there was something different about it


We Could Have Been Anything We Wanted to Be (2011)

It tells the time according to the decimalised Revolutionary clock  in which the day was divided into ten hours of a hundred minutes of a hundred seconds – exactly 100,000 seconds per day.

Inside the gallery itself the exhibits were arranged around the perimeter of the room


The artist had selected an object to represent every day in the calendar – they included plants, animals (fish, crayfish and crickets) minerals and tools and other objects, mainly relating to agriculture. A leaflet was provided that identified all of the individual objects




For Ewan, the Republican Calendar is an inspiring and innovative example of collaboration between artists and the state. Often cited as a ‘failed utopianism’, Ewan reconsiders the calendar as a complete artwork in itself, asking what can now be gleaned from this bold reframing of our daily lives. Presenting strands of subversive histories, her work reflects on how radical ideas have been transferred, absorbed or lost within popular culture, whilst reopening their historic continuity to the present moment. (Source)

I found it interesting trying to identify the different objects before checking the list provided. And as someone interested in French Revolutionary history the exhibits allowed me to relate better to the calendar.

Downstairs, in the corner of the cafe, there was another work by  Ruth Ewan  – A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World (started in 2003). I’d seen this before at an exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool in 2013. It’s a CD jukebox with over 2,200 politically and socially motivated songs collected by the artist. Visitors were able to browse the catalogue and select tracks to play.

The other exhibition, being shown in the other two galleries, was a collection of video works by Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva. But this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll have to write that up separately.

A visit to Kenwood House


Kenwood House stands on the north end of Hampstead Heath. A magnificent sight situated on the top of a hill with views extending over the Heath as far as the centre of London with the modern skyscrapers visible in the distance.


Although we’ve stayed in Hampstead a few times over the last couple of years before our latest visit the house was closed for renovation. But it reopened recently and a visit was a must during our short break early January to see the house and it’s renowned collection of paintings.

There’s been a house on the site since the early 17th Century. It’s changed over the years but the magnificent white neo-Classical style building created by by the Scottish architect Robert Adam, who, with his brother James, remodelled and extended the building for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, between 1764 and 1779. Today it’s owned by the English Heritage after it was bequeathed to the nation, together with a collection of Old Master and British paintings, in 1925 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927).

When we arrived we were amazed to find that entry was free. The first time ever for a visit to an English Heritage property! But I later discovered that free entry was a condition of the Iveagh bequest.

Entrance was on the north of the house via this neo-Classical portico with it’s fluted Ionic order columns and triangular pediment, which was part of the remodelling by Robert and James Adam.


Inside, the main architectural interest was Adam’s rather magnificent library, or ‘Great Room’.

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Although lined with books the room was mainly used for entertaining. (I wonder if anyone actually read the books – they were probably mainly for show, to impress visitors that the owner was well read and educated.) The room is beautifully proportioned and has a stunning ceiling featuring paintings by Antonio Zucchi, and It has a decorative frieze. I snapped the above photo on my phone and it really wasn’t possible to get a decent shot that does justice to this room that is considered (according to the guidebook!) to be is one of Adam’s greatest interiors. There’s a better photo here (no visitors to get in the way!) together with some information on the restoration work.

During the recent renovation English Heritage had extensive paint analysis undertaken and have restored Adam’s original rather restrained powder blue and white decorative scheme, which has almost a Modernist look. Looking at pictures in the guidebook it was much more heavily decorated with lots of gilding and bright colours. I reckon it’s probably an improvement, but then I don’t like over fussy decoration. I don’t know whether regular visitors would agree. It would be interesting to read any comments on this (What do you think Milady?)

There are three other main surviving Adam interiors – the entrance hall, Great Stairs and antechamber. They have clearly been changed over time, but the English Heritage website tells us that

they retain considerable fabric and character from Adam’s time


Another attraction for us was the art collection, that had been

There were numerous portraits from the major portrait painters from the second half of the 18th century. Works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and George Romney, who we have got to know very well due to the collection of his works held by Abbot Hall in his home town of Kendal.  We are now able to recognise his works at first glance! The Romney paintings included several featuring his muse Emma Hart – better known as Lady Hamilton.

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Emma Hart at Prayer by George Romney

There were also a significant collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings including  a self-portrait Rembrandt’s  (c 1665)

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But, for me, this little beauty was the best of the lot.

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The Guitar Player (c 1672), Johannes Vermeer

There were also sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the grounds.

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Monolith-Empyrean (1953) Barbara Hepworth

We didn’t explore the grounds and gardens, it was far too muddy underfoot. We’ll save that for another time.

The Isokon flats

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I mentioned the Isokon building in my recent post on Modernist houses in Hampstead. But I thought that the building deserved its own, more detailed post.

Designed by the Canadian architect, Welles Coates, they’re located on Lawn Road, a leafy residential street close to the Hampstead Free Hospital, they’re also known as the “Lawn Road Flats”.

Picture source: Museum of London website

It’s an outstanding Modernist building.


Coates was commissioned in 1931 to build the flats by Jack and Molly Pritchard who were the owners of “Isokon” a design company they’d established the previous year.  His brief was to design a block of service flats, built to a standard plan, which would be fitted out with Isokon designed furniture.  The block was completed in July 1934. The design was heavily influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier – it was meant to be “a machine for living”

Aimed at young professionals the flats were made of reinforced concrete with dramatically cantilevered sculptured stairways and access galleries. Coates felt that furniture should be an integral part of architecture and all essential furniture and equipment was built-in. Each flat included a sliding table, a divan with a spring mattress and cover, a radiator, linoleum floor finish, light fittings, a wash basin with a mirror and a glass shelf, a hanging cupboard with a long mirror, a dressing table with drawers and cupboards beneath, an electric cooker, refrigerator, sink and draining board, refuse container and cupboard space.

The original services included hot water and central heating, cleaning and bed making with meals provided in a central kitchen.

(Design Museum website)

The communal kitchen on the ground floor was converted to restaurant and bar, the Isobar,  which was designed by the Bauhaus émigré Marcel Breuer, in 1936. Although the Isobar was popular for a while, before WW2, with the “Hampstead Set”, the communal facilities weren’t popular and were eventually converted into more flats.

The flats were originally intended to be occupied by “young professionals”  – according to Coates they were designed

“with special reference to the circumstances of the bachelor or young married professional or businessperson.” (source here)

However, in practice, the building attracted a number of Hampstead intellectuals and former residents include the author Agatha Christie, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus.


It’s distinctive features are the cantilevered balconies which run along the full length of the building on all the floors, and the tower and entrance hall at one end.

Agatha Christie described the building as “a giant liner without any funnels” and I think she had a point., To me,  the design is very typically “streamline moderne” i.e. an architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements” (Wikipedia). I felt there were similarities with the design of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, built during the same period.



There’s a floor plan of the building here which shows how compact the individual flats are.

After WW2 the building went into a period of decline. For a short period the building was owned by the New Statesman magazine but were transferred to Camden Council in 1972. They allowed the flats to continue to deteriorate but they have been recently was refurbished by Notting Hill Home Ownership (NHHO), Avanti Architects with Alan Conisbee Associates as structural engineers and the Isokon Trust. The building now houses 25 shared ownership flats for key workers and 11 for private homes. So they are finally fulfilling their original purpose.

A number of other bloggers have written about the flats, including

London Bytes


Studio 325

and there is further information here, here and here

I didn’t know Gracie Fields was a builder

We saw this house at the top of the rather exclusive Frognal Way in Hampstead.


This is a close up of the plaque on the front wall


So the famous Lancastrian singer, entertainer and film star from Rochdale  was a builder as well. I wonder whether she mixed her own mortar and carried her own hod full of bricks?

Brings to mind Bertold Brecht’s poem Questions from a worker who reads

Modernist houses in Hampstead

Hampstead has, for a long time, been one of the more affluent areas of inner London. It’s always attracted residents from  intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary backgrounds, more receptive to new ideas. As a consequence in amongst the more traditional Georgian and Victorian buildings, there’s a significant number of modernist style houses built between the wars.

One notable example is 2 Willow Road, the former home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger, which is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. We’d visited previously a couple of years ago (report here) but had another look round during our recent break in Hampstead.


There are plenty of other examples of Modernist architecture within a short distance of Willow Road, most of which are still used for their original purpose as places to live.

One particularly notable building is the Isokon flats on Lawn Road. Designed by Wells Coates, they were completed in 1936

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Famous residents include the author Agatha Christie and Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school and an architect himself.

The building was allowed to deteriorate but was refurbished and now house 25 shared ownership flats for key workers and 11 for private homes.


This house is tucked away in Downshire Road, just round the corner from 2 Willow Road and Keats’ House, on a street of more traditional buildings, just opposite St John’s church.


It was designed by Michael and Charlotte Bunney as their own home in 1936. It’s attached to a Georgian house and could almost be taken for an extension.


There are many similarities between the simple design of Modernist houses and some of the typically Georgian buildings, of which there are many in Hampstead. The simple geometric shape, the proportions, the minimalist ornamentation and the white rendering.

Number 13 blended in so well, and was almost hidden by the high hedge and trees, that we almost missed it as we walked past. But the distinctive Modernist style gate gate it away.


Frognal is a particularly prosperous area of Hampstead and there are number of Modernist houses there.

This is “Sun House” halfway down Frognal Way, one of Hampsteads more desirable streets to live in (it’s a private cul-de-sac with a barrier at the end of the road).


It was built in 1936 to a design by E Maxwell Fry.

This house, 66 Frognal, is on the corner of Frognal Way. Built in 1936 it was designed by Connell, Ward and Lucas, a pair of Kiwis and a Brit who were leading Modernist architects.



Frognal Close is a small cul-de-sac of five houses designed by Sigmund Freud’s architecht son, Ernst. They’re just around the corner from Freud senior’s London home in Maresfield Gardens.


This house at 13b Arkwright Road, was designed by Godfrey Samuel of Samuel and Harding.


It’s one of a pair of houses that probably replaced an older, larger, (and probably not particularly attractive) Victorian period building similar to the others in the road.

There are many other . Those pictured above are some of the more notable Modernist houses in the district, but there are plenty of others. We spotted this one, at the top of Willoughby Street, as we were walking along the main street leading up to the Tube station.


We also spotted this interesting looking building just down the road from Belsize tube station. It’s the entrance to a deep air raid shelter from World War Two.


A visit to Freud’s House in London

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I guess everyone has heard of Sigmund Freud, even most of us really don’t have much idea of what psychoanalysis is about. He spent most of his life in Vienna, but in 1938 he left and fled to England to escape from the Nazis. Some of the other members of his family weren’t so lucky – four of his five sisters died in Nazi concentration camps.

Soon after his arrival in England he moved to 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead. He didn’t live there for long, as he died from mouth cancer on 23 September 1939. His daughter Anna, who followed in her father’s footsteps and became a noted psychoanalyst and was founder of psychoanalytic child psychology, who never married, continued to live in the house until her death in 1982.  Here he welcomed many notable visitors, including Salvador Dali, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and H.G. Wells. Today the house is a museum devoted to his memory and we paid a visit while we were staying in Hampstead a couple of weeks ago

Walking down from our hotel near Belsize tube station we passed this statue of Freud outside the Tavistock Centre, an NHS facility devoted to mental health.

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Maresfield Gardens is typical “leafy Hampstead”. A mainly residential street of large houses (many seemed to be converted into flats) lined with trees. As I’d expect for Hampstead, the residents must be pretty well off as I’ve never seen so many BMWs, Audis and ugly 4 x 4’s parked up on the street.

Freud’s former home is a large pre-WW2 Queen Anne style, red brick, double fronted, detached house with the front door in a large protruding central bay. There was a pleasant garden at the back where we were able to sit down for a little while with a brew before we explored the house.


The conservatory overlooking the garden was built as a logia for Freud to sit in so he could look over the garden and was designed by his son, Ernst, who was an architect (more about him in a forthcoming post)

We weren’t allowed to take photos in the house, but there are pictures of the interior on the museum’s website.

The most interesting room in the house was the study. Freud was able to bring over many of his possessions from Vienna and in this room he recreated his study from his apartment at Berggasse 19, which, today, is also a museum devoted to him. The centrepiece is his psychoanalytic couch which was covered with oriental rugs and chenille cushion. We discovered that while his patients lied on the couch he would sit behind them where they could not see him – he is reported as saying "I cannot let myself be stared at for eight hours daily". As he listened he didn’t make notes as he believed that this prevented him from concentrating on what they were saying. He must have had a remarkable memory!

The study is full of books and a large number of archaeological specimens. He had a keen interest in archaeology and visited many archaeological sites. The pieces in the collection were mainly acquired from dealers in Vienna.

Today the curtains on the study’s windows are kept firmly closed to protect the contents that could be damaged by sunlight. When Freud lived here they would have been open during the day and he could look out over the garden while he worked at his desk.

One of the upstairs rooms was mainly devoted to his daughter Anna who lived in the house for many years.The exhibits included her “enemy alien” registration certificate and the certificate given to her when she was awarded her OBE. I thought that this was quite ironic.

I was pleased to see that a blue plaque dedicated to Anna was given equal prominence to that commemorating her father on the front of the house.

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One of the upstairs rooms is a gallery used for temporary exhibitions. During our visit an exhibition (Saying It) of videos and installations by Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker and Renate Ferro was about to open. There were video screens showing tableaux based on Freud’s most famous cases scattered throughout the house. I watched a number of them but I’m not a big fan of this type of art and they weren’t particularly to my taste.

Beside the temporary exhibitions, there are a number of works of art on display in the house. These include several portraits and sculptures of Freud himself. I particularly liked the sketch by Dali hung at the top of the stairs.

One of the things I found particularly interesting during the visit was the information about his family. There was a display of his family tree and also some “home movies” were showing in one of the rooms upstairs. As well as learning about the fate of his sisters and his children and grand children, many of whom have made their own mark on British culture, (they’re a particularly remarkable family), we discovered that he had two older half brothers from his father’s first marriage who had emigrated to Manchester. One of them died falling from a train at Parbold, which is only 10 miles from my patch, on a journey from Manchester to Southport.

Although I’m not really a fan of Freud’s ideas, I enjoyed visiting the museum. It was interesting to learn about his life and family and to see a recreation of a Vienna apartment in his typical English suburban house.

George Orwell in Hampstead

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The author Eric Blair (no relation to Tony), better known as George Orwell, lived in Hampstead for a number of years before the Second World War. During this period he wrote his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” which tells the story of Gordon Comstock, who works in a bookshop. It was a semi-autobiographical piece, based on Orwell’s own experiences when he was living in digs and working in, surprise surprise, a bookshop on the corner of South End Street and Pond Street, in Hampstead, close to the Heath.

Today the building houses a branch of the French style bakery and café chain, Le Pain Quotidien. There’s a plaque on the wall commemorating Orwell’s time there. It used to include a relief of his face, but it’s no longer there – either damaged by wear and tear or, possibly, vandalised.

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We had breakfast in the café on both days while we were staying in Hampstead, and very good it was too – not exactly Down and Out in Paris and London! I liked the way they served the coffee in bowls – very Française.

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On the morning of our last day, we decided to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath and headed up Parliament Hill. As we neared the heath we noticed a house on the left with a plaque (there are plenty in Hampstead given the number of well known people who have lived there in the past).

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Here’s a close up

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So Orwell had lived here too. It’s a long while since I read the Aspidistra  but one of the things I particularly remember is how Gordon Comstock lived in digs  where the landlady had the plant of the title in the entrance hall.

Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the
aspidistra.  Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it–
starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem,
even mixing salt with its earth.  But the beastly things are
practically immortal.  In almost any circumstances they can
preserve a wilting, diseased existence.

I wonder whether Orwell based his character’s digs, in the fictional Willowbed Road, on this house? In the book he writes

Willowbed Road, NW, was not definitely slummy, only dingy anddepressing.

Well, I wouldn’t describe the modern day Parliament Hill, or any part of Hampstead, like that. Today it’s far from “dingy and depressing” – it’s a very desirable, and expensive, place to live.

And a short distance from Orwell’s former home we came to the Heath. Not far from there, after climbing to the top of Parliament Hill, this is view we had.

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