There is a light that never goes out

“When it shall be said in any country in the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, there may that country boast its Constitution and its Government” ― Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Last Saturday we went over to Manchester to see a matinee performance of the current play at The Royal Exchange. The theme of There is a light that never goes out : scenes from the Luddite rebellion is given away in the title – it’s about the Luddites, based on events in Westhoughton (only a few miles from where I’m writing this) and Manchester in 1812.

Luddite is used as a derogative term these days – for people seemingly opposed to progress. But in the early 19th century progress and new technology was putting people out of work, driving down living standards and forcing men, women and children into working long hours at backbreaking work in the new factories and mills. Ordinary working people were powerless – they didn’t have the vote – so the only way they had to strike back was with violence directed at the source of their oppression – the factories and the machinery they contained.

The play is based on factual material – newspaper articles, police reports and eyewitness accounts – studied by the authors and cast. So the story is told from the perspective of the participants – the workers themselves and, also, one of the factory owners who agitated for reform – for the employers but certainly not the workers.

It’s a modern production so isn’t a straight story told scene by scene like a historical drama on TV or in the cinema. The cast take several roles, costumes and props are minimal and music and lighting are used to create the atmosphere and the noise of the factory. The actors speak the words of the workers, but there’s improvisation too using modern language and slang.

The Royal Exchange itself (the building, that is) also features in the play – a protest meeting held there on 8 April 1812, turned into a riot.

Ultimately the Luddites were defeated and they were viciously suppressed by a brutal state. Their cause was, essentially hopeless, as it was impossible for them to stop the march of technology. However, in Manchester and the nearby towns, the spark of rebellion wasn’t extinguished. And neither was the brutality of the state. Only 7 years later, on Monday 16 August 1819, a mass meeting of workers demanding Parliamentary reform, held on Peters Field in Manchester was attacked by cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry with sabres drawn. 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. A massacre that became known as Peterloo. Another defeat for the workers, but struggles continued and eventually their demands were realised. But it took a long time and wasn’t achieved without many other struggles. It wasn’t given to us on a plate.

There’s a lot of events taking place in Manchester at the moment commemorating Peterloo – the play is part of that, I guess in that it celebrates Manchester radicalism. Before the play we called into Manchester City Art Gallery and had a look round the exhibition Get Together and Get Things Done which explores

with people the wider theme of the crowd through international historic and contemporary art and group activity, looking at how an art gallery can be shaped by the crowds that use them.

One of the photographs on display was of a Chartist rally on Kennington Common London in 1848 when people were still campaigning for the more or less the same demands being advocated at Peterloo, 29 years later.

I was struck by this print, produced by L’Atelier Populaire during the 1968 events in Paris.

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Today we are faced with a similar problem as in the 19th Century – the rampant charge of new technology. Is history repeating itself? How will people, and governments, respond?

The Industrial Revolution was the original Northern Powerhouse, but not everyone bought into the future it promised. Angry workers smashed the new machines and were written off as enemies of progress. Their 19th-century complaint, that bosses were using technology as an excuse to beat down the workers, resonates now more strongly than ever.

Royal Exchange website

Martin Parr – Return to Manchester

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After a quiet January due to both of us suffering from a bad cold and chest infection, we had a couple of busy days last weekend. On the Friday we had tickets to see the St Petersberg Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall with our son (the tickets were his Christmas present) so we decided to make an afternoon.

First stop was the Manchester City Art Gallery to take a look round the major exhibition of photographs of Manchester and some of the surrounding towns by Martin Parr, the well known documentary photographer, who studied at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) between 1970 and 73. (He was almost kicked out, apparently, for failing a photography theory course!)

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The city made an impression on the young lad from the suburbs. He’s quoted on the exhibition website as saying

“I remember so well arriving into Manchester in 1970, having traveled from the safety of suburban Surrey. It was exciting and felt very real. “

As a keen photographic student should, he explored Manchester, taking photographs of the city and it’s inhabitants. And since leaving the city he’s returned on several occasions . This exhibition includes photographs from his student days and subsequent visits to the city. And the City Art Gallery also commissioned him to create a new body of work on Manchester and its inhabitants in 2018.

The earliest photos were largely black and white, “street photography” featuring mainly working class locals in the streets and pubs of the city, and several series of photos one featuring the homes and residents of a street in Salford,

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another one of residents and staff in Prestwich psychiatric hospital, the interior of Yates’ Wine lodges in Manchester and nearby towns and a photographic game involving matching up couples who were photographed in Piccadilly Gardens.

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I particularly liked the 1972 series June Street, a project with his friend and fellow photography student Daniel Meadows.  They had hoped to photograph the real Coronation Street, but it didn’t exist. So instead they selected a typical street of terraced houses in Salford – June Street.

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They got the residents to pose in their living rooms. The resulting photos brought back the memories of my youth as the interiors of the houses and the clothes the residents wore were very typical of the 70’s.

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The people appeared to have dressed up in their best outfits and were quite formally posed – quite different from Parr’s later work which are mainly (but not exclusively) informal “street photos”.

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I was never a drinker in Yates’ Wine Lodges which were but did venture inside very occasionally. But the photos, including one from the town where I grew up, really got across the atmosphere of the bare, “spit and sawdust” establishments.

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These days Parr is best known for his photographs emphasising bright vibrant colours, particularly yellows and reds, with his subjects caught unawares or in informal poses. A major part of the exhibition were photographs taken during recent visits to Manchester


……………… meeting people shopping, in hairdressers, in Mosques, in cafes, at markets, in factories, at parties, playing sport and in the gay village. He has captured scientists doing ground-breaking research at Manchester University, fans of the city’s world famous football teams and the state of the art facilities at the BBC in Media City. (Exhibition website)

and was interesting to see the city from his viewpoint.

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He must have took far too many photos to display full size so there was a large selection of smaller photos covering two sections of the wall.

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Here’s a few of my favourites

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At one time I spent hours doing this!

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And these photos taken in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford bring back memories of when I was more active politically

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The exhibition also included a short film with Martin Parr talking about Manchester and the exhibition and showing the printing of some of the photographs on display in the gallery.

Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men

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I’ve finally got around to writing up my impressions of the exhibition of photographs by Salford born photographer, Shirley Baker at Manchester City Art Gallery. The Gallery website tells us:

Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career.

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“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.”

The exhibition which was originally shown The Photographer’s Gallery, London.

specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford.

with photographs mainly taken during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the years when I was growing up – not in Manchester or Salford, but in a Lancashire mill town less than 20 miles away. The urban landscape was similar to that of the big city – with terraced streets and post war development. Other than the first year of my life (which I can’t, of course, remember) we lived in modern housing, initially on a Council Estate and then, in my teens, on a new build estate. But my grandparents lived in a terraced house on a typical street.

Shirley Baker was very much a “street photographer”, and took photographs of ordinary people – the women, children and “loitering men” who lived in the poorer parts of the “twin cities” of Manchester and Salford, in and around the terraced streets, bomb sites and slum clearances.

These photographs really resonated with me – as well as most of the visitors to the exhibition who I overheard talking as I walked around the galleries. The streets, the clothing and the activities depicted in the photographs, all brought back memories.

The young boy in the cowboy hat could have been me – I had one too and would have dressed just like that when I was a similar age.

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and when I was a little older I could easily have been one of these boys fishing down the grid for “treasure” or one of the children playing on the makeshift swing made from a rope tied to the lamp-post in the picture at the top of this post.

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The clothing the children and adults in the photos are wearing are very much the same as I remember. So very different from today’s “designer” outfits that even relatively young children wear today.

And the lady in this photograph is wearing very typical clothing for the time with her overcoat and headscarf – she could have been walking down any of the streets in my home town when I was growing up.

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Here we can see an older woman cleaning the pavement, and possibly whitening the step with a “donkey stone” . People were poor but took pride in their homes. With her patterned housecoat covering her dress, her atire is typical of that worn by a working class woman of her age in the 60’s and 70’s in the north of England.

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Inner city Salford and Manchester were poorer areas than the town in which I lived. So I don’t recall things as being quite as grim as in many of the photographs when I was a child. Nevertheless the photographs are representative of the world in which I lived.

I’d not heard of Shirley Baker before. It was difficult for women to establish a career as a photographer in the 1960’s.

(She studied) Pure Photography at Manchester College of Technology, being one of very few women in post-war Britain to receive formal photographic training. Upon graduating, she took up a position at Courtaulds the fabric manufacturers, as an in-house factory photographer. Working in industry did not meet her photographic ambitions in wanting to emulate a ‘slice of life’ style similar to that of Cartier-Bresson. She soon left to take up freelance work in the North West. Further study in medical photography over one year in a London hospital did little to settle her ambition to work as a press photographer. Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian. Though she took up teaching positions in the 1960s, ultimately it was in pursuing her own projects where she came to feel most fulfilled. (Source)

More of her work can be seen on the Shirley Baker website.

When this exhibition was shown in London, many of the visitors (probably mainly middle class southerners) must have thought they were staring at a different world. But for me, and other visitors to the Manchester gallery, it brought back memories of our childhood and youth. (I’ve nothing against middle class southerners, by the way. I may have grown up in a working class family, but have to admit to being a middle class northerner these days)

In summary, this is an excellent exhibition which I will, no doubt, revisit, probably more than once, when I’m in Manchester over the next few months.

Addendum. I was in Manchester today to meet up with an Australian friend (like me a middle class professional, who grew up in a working class mining community) who was in the city for a short while. I introduced her to Lowry (she’d never heard of him) by showing her some of the pictures in the Gallery’s collection – and then took her to the exhibition to show her the world I grew up in.

Strange and Familiar in Manchester

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While I was in Manchester last Saturday I called into the City Art Gallery to take a look at Strange and Familiar, an exhibition curated by Martin Parr featuring photographs of British society and culture by leading international photographers from the 1930’s onwards. It had previously been shown at the Barbican in London. It’s a large scale exhibition with over 250 photographs by 23 photographers and shown in a chronological order. There was a lot to take in and it is difficult to do justice to it in a relatively short post.

Publicity for the exhibition quotes Martin Parr as saying

“The exhibition will reveal a very different take on British life than that produced by British photographers. It is both familiar and strange at the same time.”

Having visited the exhibition a couple of times (I’d been previously not long after it first opened) I’m not certain I fully agree with him. The picture of Britain shown in the photographs from the 30’s up to the “swinging sixties” were familiar rather than strange, although taken from the perspective of International photographers from a number of countries, the photographs probably represented a realistic view of British culture and society.

The exhibition starts in the 1930’s with works by  Edith Tudor-Hart. A lifelong Socialist, her work reflected her political commitment and the exhibition includes photographs by her of ordinary people in London’s East End and living in the slum housing areas of Tyneside.

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Child Staring into Bakery Window, London ca. 1935 by Edith Tudor Hart

Other highlights for me included

  • the Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys photographs of Cambridge, London and Oxford – commuters queuing at bus stops, bowler-hatted city workers and London markets.
  • The Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank’s photographs of a Welsh mining community
  • The Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain’s expressive, Modernist photographs of London shot from unusual angles, with ground-level viewpoints, double exposures, blurring and innovative focusing.
  • Photographs of London during the “Swinging Sixties” by American photographers Evelyn Hofer and Garry Winogrand, the German Frank Habicht  and the Italian Gian Butturini
  • The photographs of Bruce Davidson from the 60’s, especially his wonderful Girl Holding Kitten and his photographs from the Welsh mining community
  • German photographer Candida Höfer’s photogrpahs of people and places in Liverpool in the late 60’s , many of them reminiscent of when I lived in Liverpool in the mid 70’s.
  • The massive, closely cropped, stark colour portraits of ordinary people, (not exactly pretty) from Essex and West Brom

So much to see. So many excellent photographs. Much to learn from them.

Hondartza Fraga: The Sea Full Stop

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We were in Manchester on Saturday and called into the City Art Gallery. While looking around this small exhibition of works by Hondartza Fraga, a Spanish artist based in Leeds, caught our eye.

This display of drawings, animation and photography by artist Hondartza Fraga is a contemporary response to the seascapes in The Dutch at Sea exhibition. These imaginary sea views explore our understanding of the sea, and give the focus of a seascape back to the sea.

The artist grew up in northern Spain, near to the sea and moved to Britain to study

I moved from a large peninsula to a smaller island and yet I was further from the sea than ever before.

Unconsciously my work started to search for the sea again, as a way of coping with the distance. I was making work about the sea as view from webcams, from movies, from old postcards… I was collecting representations of the sea. Experiencing it through technology, literature and imagination. (Artist’s blog)

The works in the exhibition included drawings, photographs and video animations. I particularly liked her photograph from a series she has taken of old books about the sea angled and lit so they looked just like seascapes (see the photo at the top of this post taken from here). The photograph, like a number of the other works in the exhibition, were from a project she undertook as a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence,exploring the maritime archives of the Maritime Historical Studies Centre at the University of Hull.

Another couple of works I particularly liked  included Okeanos a drawing of the world ocean

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The artist explains on her website

Oceanus is a figure from Greek mythology (Okeanos in greek), personifying the great river encircling the world. Originally thought to represent just the bodies of salt water known to the ancient Greeks, but as geography became more accurate, Oceanus came to signify the stranger, more unknown waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

The drawings present a map of the world’s oceans I have constructed based on maps of constant-scale and Myriahedral projection. I have omitted the land completely and drawn the coast as a continuous line. (Hondartza Fraga website)

and Lines to Sea (2012), a drawing based on a Portolan Chart.

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Portolan Charts often follow the ‘Rule of Marteloio”, the grid is drawn here removed from any references to land or sea, drawn as rope to evoke fishing nets or lace work.

The exhibitionalso included a couple of video animations. One based on original etchings found in a book about the voyages to explore the North-West Passage from the Hull Maritime Museum collection, found during her Leverhulme residency

Passages for the World from Hondartza Fraga on Vimeo.

The second animation was based on some of the Dutch seascapes in the adjacent gallery.

An interesting exhibition which made me want to find out more about her work.

Modern Japanese Design in Manchester

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While we were in Manchester on Monday we called into the City Art Gallery. The main exhibition showing at the moment – Matthew Darbyshire: An Exhibition for Modern Living – didn’t particularly inspire, but I enjoyed the display in the Design Gallery featuring modern works by Japanese artists and designers, and other works inspired by Japanese design.

Drawn from Manchester’s own collections, the show provides an overview of the past fifty years of Japanese design. It highlights the breadth of Manchester’s collections, bringing together fashion, furniture, lighting, ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewellery.

The exhibits illustrated the Zen like approach to design; simplicity and minimalism – there was no excessive ornamentation on display – care and extremely skilful craftsmanship.

These are some of the works I particularly liked, snapped on my mobile phone.

Hibiki (Echoes), 2015 A metal bowl by Takahiro Yede. with strips of metal woven like basketwork

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A number of metal vessels created by Alistair McCallum using a traditional Japanese metalworking technique – Makume Gane

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Mokume Gane is a traditional Japanese metalworking technique and has been practiced for over 300 years. The name Mokume Gane, when translated into English, means wood grain metal, this refers to the patterns traditionally produced in Japan. Mokume Gane is a time consuming technique and involves building a sandwich of different metals, normally silver, copper and copper alloys. These are joined together by fusion or silver solder. The number of layers varies, dependant on the desired pattern; Alistair uses between 5 and 128 layers dependant on the individual piece. The pattern can be achieved in two ways, either by twisting or by cutting through the layers to reveal their different colours. The resulting sheet can then be made into the finished piece. Finally, the piece is patinated to enhance and enrich the contracting colours of the different metals. Alistair believes that the technique is best used on simple shapes where the relationship of pattern and for balance and are in harmony.

Atmospheric Re-entry 2011. A couple of head-dresses by Maiko Takeda. The one on the right was worn by Bjork during her Biblophilia tour a couple of years ago (which included a performance at the Manchester International Festival that year).

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The following two pieces are by Ayako Tani who creates fragile vessels from glass rods. We’d seen some of her work before at the Wordsworth and Basho:Walking Poets exhibition at Dove Cottage in Grasmere last year.

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An interesting ceramic piece by Yasuko Sakurai who creates coral-like ceramic forms by hand, using a technique that she invented after studying slip casting in Limoges, France.

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A selection of pots by Edmund de Waal, very typical of his work

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The Rose Chair (1990) by Masanori Umeda

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The exhibition closes on 15 January.

Canary Girls

A couple of weeks ago I visited the latest exhibition showing at Manchester City Art Gallery – The Sensory War 1914-2014

This major group exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explores how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014.

Included in the exhibition were a number of pictures illustrating the role of women on the “Home Front”. Due to sending many hundreds of thousands of young men to the trenches in Europe there was a shortage of workers to man the production lines in the munitions factories. The solution was to recruit women.

This lithograph by Archibald Standish Hartrick, who worked as a war artist, shows a young woman filling shells with TNT explosive.

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Women’s Work: On Munitions – Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) c.1917

The “munitionettes” were referred to as the “Canary Girls” as many of them developed yellow skin due to their exposure to the chemicals they were handling.

TNT (2,4,6-Trinitrotoluene) as well as being highly explosive presents a number of serious health effects such as anemia (reduced number of red blood cells and reduced hemoglobin and hematocrit), liver function abnormalities, respiratory complications, and possibly aplastic anaemia (ASTDR).

TNT can interact with haemoglobin to form methaemoglobin, reducing the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen and causing cyanosis – so it’s a chemical asphyxiant. It can also damage the liver, leading to jaundice and the yellow colour of the skin.

Exposure can occur by inhalation of dust and also by skin absorption – both potentially significant for the worker portrayed in the picture. The control measures leave a lot to be desired with what appears to be direct hand contact and only the use of a primitive mask to control inhalation exposure with no evidence of any engineering controls.

Conditions in munitions factories have improved considerably since the First World War and stringent control measures are implemented when TNT is handled to minimise exposure by both inhalation and skin contact.

For King and Country (1916) by Edward F Skinner Source: Imperial War Museum – used under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Another aspect of the work of the munitionettes was that the women were paid considerably lower wages than the men they had replaced. But they didn’t take it sitting down!

The trade union leader, Mary Macarthur, led the campaign to protect the women forced to work in the munitions industry. She pointed out that women in the industry received on average less that half of what the men were paid. After much discussion it was agreed to increase women’s wage-rates in the munitions industry. However, by 1918, whereas the average male wage in the munitions industry was £4 6s. 6d. for women it was only £2 2s. 4d. (Spartacus Educational website)

Heaven in a Hell of War

On Thursdays Manchester City Art Gallery is open until 9 o’clock in the evening. So last Thursday I finished work a little early and we caught a train into Manchester (making sure we were on board before 4 o’clock when cheap day returns aren’t valid on the wonderful comfortable modern trains (sic) run by Northern Rail). We had a look round the shops for a short while and then stopped for a brew in the “Proper Tea” tea shop across from Manchester Cathedral.

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Afterwards we made our way over to the Art Gallery via the Arndale and Piccadilly.

The main exhibition showing at the Gallery, covering most of two floors in the modern extension is titled The Sensory War 1914-2014

This major group exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explores how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014. (Gallery website)

There were some interesting and very moving works in this exhibition, and I’ll have to return to it in a later post, I guess, but the highlight of the visit was a smaller room in the older part of the gallery which was showing a series of paintings by the British artist Stanley Spencer on loan from the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel.

The Chapel was commissioned in 1923 by Mr and Mrs J.L Behrend of Burghclere, to commemorate the life of her brother, Lieutenant Harry Willoughby Sandham, who died in 1920 as a result of an illness he had contracted during the Macedonian campaign in the First World War.

Spencer was commissioned to decorate the chapel and took his inspiration from Giotto’s frescos in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Like Giotto’s cycle, Spencer’s paintings cover the walls of the chapel and show people in contemporary clothing carrying out ordinary everyday tasks (well as ordinary as they get during a savage world war) rather than scenes of combat and destruction.

At the start of the war Spencer enlisted in the Army Medical Corps and was sent to the Beaufort Hospital in Bristol, where he served as an orderly. In 1916 he was sent out to Macedonia, with the 68th Field Ambulance unit. In 1917, while there, he volunteered to be transferred to an infantry regiment, the 7th Battalion, the Berkshire Regiment. His series of paintings are based directly on his experiences in Bristol and Macedonia.

The works had a particular resonance for me. One of my Great Grandfathers was a career soldier in the Field Artillery and when the war broke out he was sent to France. Somehow he managed to survive the slaughter and returned to Britain in March 1916. He wasn’t there long before he was sent out to Macedonia  in June that year as a member of the Army Service Corps – the same month as Spencer. I wonder whether they ever met?

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British troops halted on the roadside outside Salonika, 1916. (Source: Imperial War Museum)

Macedonia was ‘the forgotten front of the forgotten war”. A joint Anglo French force was sent out to Salonika in Greek Macedonia in 1915 in an attempt to provide support to Serbia who were fighting German, Austrian and Bulgarian troops (remember that the war started as a result of the Austrian Crown Prince being assassinated by Serbian nationalists)

The expedition came too late and in insufficient force to prevent the fall of Serbia, and was complicated by the internal political crisis in Greece (the “National Schism“). Eventually, a stable front was established, running from the Albanian Adriatic coast to the Struma River, pitting a multinational Allied force against the Bulgarian Army, which was at various times bolstered with smaller units from the remaining Central Powers. The Macedonian Front remained quite stable, despite local actions, until the great Allied offensive in September 1918, which resulted in the capitulation of Bulgaria and the liberation of Serbia (Wikipedia)

For most of the war there was relatively little fighting in Macedonia and the troops were perceived as doing little more than digging and manning trenches. “Let them be known as the Gardeners of Salonika,” mocked the French Premier, Georges Clemenceau.

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Picture source: Wikipedia

But life was far from easy. There were a vast number of casualties, and malaria was the biggest killer.

In total the British forces suffered 162,517 cases of the disease and in total 505,024 non-battle casualties. (Source)

Spencer himself contracted Malaria, but fortunately survived. My Great Grandfather didn’t return, he died in August 1918 and is buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery in Salonika. His army record gives his cause of death as “died”. I suspect that he was one of the victims of the disease.

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Troops in Macedonia taking their daily dose of quinine, July 1916 (Source: Imperial War Museum)

So, what of the paintings? The Gallery are showing 16 of the 19 paintings from the chapel. Two long scenes, set on the Greek front line, which run right across the long walls on either side of the chapel nave and the altarpiece are directly attached to the chapel walls. But the paintings, together with with a large scale photograph of the altarpiece, have been hung in the same arrangement as in the chapel, to give a sense of how they look in situ.

The 16 panels don’t show any blood or gore, or the horrors of war, but depict everyday activities in the hospital and in Macedonia. He concentrates on the dedication of the medical staff in the hospital and the comradeship of the troops. And my personal connection made viewing them something of an emotional experience. One of the men depicted could have been my Great Grandfather (probably not, but who knows?).

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Convoy arriving with Wounded (Source; National Trust)

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Kit Inspection (Source National Trust)

The altarpiece picture is entitled The Resurrection of the Soldiers – and depicts dead soldiers rise from their graves. It’s similar to another well known work of Spencer The Resurrection, Cookham 1924–7

This is Spencer’s vision of the end of war, in which heaven has emerged from hell. Each cross amongst the astonishing and brave tumble across the canvas serves as an object of devotion (some of which are handed to Christ, who has been unconventionally placed in the mid-background); or marks a grave from which a soldier emerges; or serves to frame a bewildered face. The central motif is a pair of fallen mules, still harnessed to their timber wagon. (Source: National Trust)

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Prior to the visit I would have said that I wasn’t particularly fond of Spencer’s work. I guess that I’ve been put off by the religious themes of many of them. But the chapel paintings certainly made an impression on me and looking again at some of his works on t’Internet I’m starting to reappraise and reconsider my view.

The National Trust tell us that

(the) murals are considered one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of English painting

Having seen them, I think I have to agree. But to really appreciate Spencer’s work a visit to the chapel is definitely on my list of “must dos”.

“Sculptural Forms” in Manchester

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One of the exhibitions currently showing at the Manchester City Art Gallery focuses on sculpture created during a the period from just before the First World War to the present day. Covering three rooms on the first floor of the modern extension, it features works from the Gallery’s own collection  together with others from the Whitworth Gallery, currently closed for refurbishment, and the Arts Council.

The exhibition

explores some of the imaginative ways in which the sculptural form has been re-invented from just before World War One to the present day. It does so by combining sculpture with two-dimensional works of art and designed objects to create some unexpected but visually stunning juxtapositions.

The first room – The Human Condition – concentrates on the human form. Some of the works on show are figurative, some abstract and some a bit of both.

This relief by Eric Gill is very typical of his work. A clear depiction of a human form, a religious subject, finely carved.

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The development of the abstract representation of the human figure can be seen in a piece by by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and early works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This ceramic head by Stephen Dixon (Liu Xiaobo 2012), created in honour of the Chinese human rights campaigner and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize

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and this crystal skull replete with flashing interior lights by Tony Oursler

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were both very popular, attracting a lot of attention from visitors.

As well as sculpture the exhibition includes some “two dimensional works” some inspired by sculpture, some ideas for sculpture and some by sculptors including Henry Moore.

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The second room – Abstraction – did what it said on the tin featuring abstract works by artists including Anthony Caro, Alison Wearing  and Barbara Hepworth – this is her Sphere with Inner Form (1963)

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I particularly liked a couple of aluminium reliefs

Relief (1965) by Jean Spencer, which could almost have been a fabricated industrial component

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and, especially, the sensuous, curved forms of Icarus (1967) by John Milne.

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I’m a sucker for simple abstract sculptures like this (Rotterdam Relief, 2005, by Toby Patterson) made from a transparent perspex panel and which uses light and shadows to great effect.

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The final section – Transformation – concentrated on works made from everyday objects. They included this abstract beast by Lyn Chadwick,

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and this work Ridged Vessel, (2014) by Claire Malet. which was commissioned by the Gallery.

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It’s not immediately obvious but this remarkable piece started out as a commercially produced olive oil tin.

She explains her method:

I collect used steel cans and scrap copper with which to work. Each vessel is worked entirely with hand tools. The interiors are gilded with genuine gold leaf and copper leaf, bringing a distinctive richness and volcanic appearance to my work. I take an experimental approach to working with metal, allowing the medium to suggest a direction and often pushing it to the limits of workability, accelerating decay. This has led me to discover techniques that produce qualities similar to those found in nature. Through this process I aim to transform a mundane man-made object into a form to be treasured. The result is a fusion of intentional form and the natural characteristics of the medium.

The Vanity of Small Differences

Grayson Perry The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, 2012

Our main reason for our trip over to Manchester the other Saturday was to visit the Manchester City Art gallery to take another look at Grayson Perry’s series of six tapestries made during the filming of his Channel 4 documentary All in the Best Possible Taste. I never watched the programmes at the time but I think they’re available on the Channel 4 equivalent of the BBC iplayer and having seen the tapestries am inspired to watch them.

The six tapestries chart the ‘class journey’ made by a fictional character Tim Rakewell and include many of the characters, incidents and objects encountered by the artist during his journeys through Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and The Cotswolds for the series. He has selected his elements and symbols carefully, to be representative of the various social classes and their “tastes”.

We really liked the tapestries.  We’d had a quick look at them during a brief visit to the Gallery before the Kate Rushton concert we went to at the Bridgewater Hall before Christmas. But wanted to have a closer, more detailed look and study them in more detail.

Although when I first encountered Grayson Perry I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his work I have grown to like it. He is quite an astute observer and I like his cartoon-like style. The tapestries are a series inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and need to be viewed as a complete work.

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The individual pieces reference a number of renaissance religious paintings and other works of art are featured on the tapestries too (such as a Lowry painting on the first)

The series illustrates the rise, and fall, of a working class kid from a single parent family in Sunderland via University, becoming liberal middle class and then by selling his business to Richard Branson, becoming nouveau riche. Eventually dying by crashing his Porsche. The first two tapestries are actually set in Sunderland, which, having family who live in the city and thereabouts, I know quite well, as we them visit fairly regularly. I recognised that Sunderland was portrayed in the second tapestry in the series  before I discovered that was were it was supposed to be, during our first visit in December.

Grayson Perry The Agony in the Car Park, 2012

One blogger I read criticised his stereotypical portrayal of the working class, But as an astute observer I think he has really picked up on key elements of the “taste” of all the classes. I can “see” my own family in the tapestries. The first one is very representative of my youngest brother’s family. (And one of the characters in a group of young women is the sitting image of one of our relatives in the North East) I could see my sister in one of the two families portrayed in the third tapestry. But the spookiest thing is that the first four tapestries (but not the last two!) pretty much represent my own life story – from working class via university to liberal middle class. Many of the objects portrayed in the fourth tapestry, which are meant to be representative of the latter can be found in our house – the espresso pot on the hob, the Penguin books themed cups, the pebbles on the table, the recycling boxes, the organic veg, the Guardian, an ipad, a medium sized European-made car on the drive. All a bit too close for comfort!

Grayson Perry The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal, 2012

The exhibition catalogue is reasonably priced and there is also an ipad / iphone app available from the Apple Store which includes commentary from the artist, art historical references and a guide to the ‘making of’ the works. Quite a bargain at £1-99

The exhibition leaves Manchester for Birmingham in February and then t’s off to the Walker in Liverpool and I think we will be going to have another look at it when it’s there.