Coffe Cup Caustic

One of the works by Grace Weir in her exhibition at the IMMA in Dublin demonstrates an optical effect produced by the reflection of light inside a cylinder. In this case a copper cylinder but also frequently noticed inside a cup of cofee – hence the common name of the effect and the title of the work.

Museum Van Loon


(Picture source: When in Amsterdam)

The Museum Van Loon is a rather grand canal house standing on the Golden Bend section of the Keizersgracht. Designed by the architect Adriaen Dortsman, it was built in 1672. With 5 bays, it’s double the width of the standard sized canal house, reflecting the wealth and stats of the owner. The first resident was a successful painter, Ferdinand Bol, who was a pupil of Rembrandt, and who lived there until 1680. In 1884 the house  was purchased by Hendrik van Loon as a wedding present for his son Willem. It’s still in private hands and the top two floors, the former servants’ quarters, are still used by the owners. Visitors can explore two floors plus the kitchen (in the basement), the garden and the coach house.

It’s furnished in 18th century style and gives a good impression of how a wealthy family would have lived in a canal house during that period.

The Blue Drawing Room is on the ground floor to the right of the entrance lobby. It was noticeable that the ceilings on the ground floor rooms are very high compared to their horizontal dimensions, in this case almost five and a half metres high. No doubt another way of showing off.


The dining room is  also on the ground floor at the front of the house and is sometimes used by the family as well as being hired out for functions.


The Garden Room, as the name implies, overlooks the garden.


The grand Rococo staircase has exceptionally fine ironwork.


The rooms on the first floor were originally used as bedrooms. This is the Sheep Room, named after the wallpaper design.


The Bird Room is also named after the motifs on the wallpaper




The Red Bedroom


The kitchen is in the basement, the usual location in a canal house.

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The garden is accessed via the basement and replicates the style popular in the seventeenth century. We were surprised to see the substantial garden at the back of the house. I’d commented that I thought that the canal district and old town lacked green spaces. But here was one. We later discovered (when visiting the canal house museum) that there are many gardens hidden away between the houses, but in most cases they were private spaces inaccessible to ordinary residents.




The building at the back of the garden is the coach house.


Rather like Chatsworth, the Museum holds art exhibitions with art works positioned in the rooms amongst the furniture. During our visit there was a display of Contemporary Art works – an exhibition entitled Something thrown in the way of the observer – in the Bird Room and Red bedroom.


Something Thrown in the Way of the Observer aims to take the objects themselves as a starting point, in order to question their impact on our lives. How do perspectives on ourselves and the world change when we imagine the relation between people and things as a more equal partnership? Each in their own way, the artists move things from the background to the foreground – also bringing the still lives at the Museum Van Loon irrevocably into motion.


I particularly liked the crumpled papers on the table in the Bird Room (Biz by ingRichtje Reinsma) and This is where the magic happens by Uta Eisenreich where a black tent with a spy hole was installed on the four poster bed and by peering through this hole visitors were able to observe dust particles illuminated by a light (this is the Tyndall scattering effect I’m very familiar with in my work) – a case of a scientific principle being used to create a work of art. The orange polyester blocks, which looked rather like bars of soap, scattered in several locations in the rooms (Zouden zijn zullen (volumes 1) by Rosa Sijben) were also interest

I suspect that the exhibition was not to the taste of all the Museum’s visitors but we found it stimulating and it is good to see modern art works taken out of the gallery into different surroundings  and for artists to respond to the  spaces where their works are to be displayed. I think it is both brave and enterprising for Museum’s to be prepared to do something different and bring an aspect of the 21st Century into what could otherwise become a fossilised display. It’s something that Chatsworth do well and the Museum Van Loon are attempting something similar, albeit on a smaller scale.

Newton by William Blake

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William Blakes’s iconic monotype print of Isaac Newton is one of the works selected by Marianne Faithfull  for the DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience, exhibition  being shown at Tate Liverpool until 2 September.

I really like this work – the composition, the draughtsmanship and the use of colour. At first glance Newton appears as a heroic figure – like a Greek God. He is sitting on a rock, apparently under the sea, concentrating intently on his work, leaning over a scroll, using a set of compasses, producing geometric drawings. But  he is ignoring his surroundings, turning his back upon the beauty of the natural world.

According to the Tate’s website:

Blake …….. was critical of reductive scientific thought. In this picture, the straight lines and sharp angles of Newton’s profile suggest that he cannot see beyond the rules of his compass. Behind him, the colourful, textured rock may be seen to represent the creative world, to which he is blind.

For Blake, Newton personified a materialist world view where everything can be investigated, measured and categorised in opposition to his own belief in the importance of imagination, emotion, and mysticism.

I could describe myself as a “scientist” (although I always think that sounds pretentious), but although I don’t subscribe to his belief in mysticism I have some sympathy with Blake’s view. I think that many people who work in pure or applied science do tend to concentrate on their data without putting it into a broader context.  But science can’t be divorced from society. It isn’t “neutral”. It’s expensive and requires funding. And governments, private enterprise and other organisations will only provide money and employ people if it’s in their interests to do so. Too often people conducting scientific research and development don’t think about the consequences of their work or question the motivation of the organisations providing the funding.

Blake’s picture remains popular today but I think that many people don’t appreciate the point that he was trying to make. They only see the heroic figure and miss the message. It is perhaps ironic then, that a statue by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi based on Blake’s image stands proudly outside the British Library in Kings Cross London.

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According to this source,

“Paolozzi was inspired by the union between two British geniuses, both representing nature, poetry, art, and architecture.”

I wonder whether the average passer by appreciates that?

Jeremiah Horrocks and the transit of Venus

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Anyone getting up early at the crack of dawn this morning in Lancashire to observe the transit of Venus would have been disappointed. The sky was covered by a blanket of white cloud that obscured the sun. Luckily this wasn’t the case at 3:00 pm on 4 December 1639 (24 November  according to the Julian calendar that was then in use) as it was on this date that Jeremiah Horrocks observed this rare astronomical event from the garden of a house in Much Hoole, a village just south of Preston.

Jeremiah Horrocks, was probably born in Toxteth, then a hamlet just outside Liverpool, but today part of the inner city, in 1619. He was obviously a bright lad as at only thirteen he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a “sizar” ( a poor scholar). In those days Universities were establishments for training men for the clergy, but while he was there Horrocks studied astronomy. Apparently he was the only person at Cambridge at that time to accept Copernicus’  heliocentric theory – i.e. that the the planets, including the Earth, orbit the sun.

In 1635 he returned to Toxteth and using Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, worked out that the Moon had an eliptical orbit.

The transit of Venus is where the planet passes between the Earth and the sun, and (if you’re lucky!) can be seen as a dark dot passing across the face of the sun. Pairs of transits occur eight years apart separated by long gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. It was Horrocks who worked out that they occurred in pairs.

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Animation of simulated transit in equatorial coordinates. Picture source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately, Horrocks died on January 3rd 1641 at the early age of 22. I wonder what he would have achieved if he’d lived longer.

There’s a memorial plaque to Horrocks in Westminster Abbey and two stained glass windows in St.Michael’s Church, Much Hoole. And recently a memorial was erected at the Pier Head in Liverpool. This monument, by Andy Plant, is in the form of a telescope pointing to the Sun and Venus. I snapped it during a recent visit to Liverpool. The photo isn’t that great – I took it with the camera on my mobile phone and it was a grey, overcast day. There’s a better picture on the artist’s website

According to Andy Plant’s website:

The sculpture has a working hand powered mechanical orrery, the position of Venus has been replaced by a copper angel version of Jeremiah and as his wings flap he orbits the other planets. Inside the large telescope there is a video animation of the life of Jeremiah by Tim Hunkin.

Horrocks was also a poet and there’s an extract from one of his poems, describing the long wait until people would be able to see the next transit of Venus, inscribed on the base of the sculpture.

Thy return posterity shall witness;

Years must roll away,

But then at length the splendid sight

Again shall greet our distant children’s eyes

Unfortunately the cloud shielded this splendid sight from our eyes this morning!

The art and science of getting wet in the garden at Alnwick

Last week we were on holiday up in Northumbria, somewhere I hadn’t visited before. One of the many places we visited while we were there was Alnwick Castle and Gardens. Entry isn’t cheap, but it took up a whole day and so was good value.

Having had a look around the Castle (perhaps best known these days as one of the locations for the first Harry Potter film, we went into the gardens. Like most grand houses, Alnwick has large grounds but until relatively recently the main gardens had fallen into a state of disrepair. They were completely redesigned only 10 years ago by Jacques and Peter Wirtz and now provide a contemporary take on the traditional stately home estate.

The gardens are divided into different areas with some traditional features such as the Rose garden and the Ornamental garden, but the designers have incorporated some more unusual features.

The Grand Cascade

Quite a lot of use has been made of water. When you enter through the gates the first thing you see is the Grand Cascade where water tumbles down the hillside along a flight of steps. Every half an hour this comes to life as fountains are activated in sequence to produce a water display. Anyone too close to the cascade when it starts has a good chance of getting wet and quite a few children know this and make sure they are in the right place for this to happen.  In fact, getting wet is one of the main attractions of the garden for children (many who come wearing swimming costumes or wet suits or with a change of clothing). One of the areas – the Serpent Garden – is specially designed to let them. Here there are eight water sculptures positioned at intervals along a snaking path. The sculpture, constructed of bright, shiny stainless steel, were designed by William Pye , each of them illustrates a different property of water, including reflections, surface tension, the coanda effect and hydrostatic pressure. They are very simple in form and the real interest is watching the behaviour of the water. There are panels explaining the underlying scientific principles so there is an opportunity for the viewer to learn a little science.  It’s not often that something combines both art and science, but the water sculptures are a good example of where this has been achieved.

I found the piece entitled Vortex particularly interesting. This was a round bowl, initially empty, which is gradually introduced tangentially through two jets so that it swirls around the bowl as it begins to fill it. Consequently a vortex is created – a whirlpool – in the centre of the bowl.


Waterglass - which produces a curtain of water

Coanda - this demonstrates the Coanda effect where water clings to the underside of a smooth overhanging surface

For the children though, the main attraction is getting wet and there is a particularly good opportunity for this with the Torricelli. Here three vertical tubes gradually fill up with water, which is then released at the bottom of the tubes, being forced up through a series of holes in the ground by hydrostatic pressure producing ninety vertical jets of water that gradually reduce in size as the water level in the main tubes falls.  Children deliberately stand above the holes in the ground where the jets will appear while the tubes are filling up, waiting to get soaked once the water is released. Some children, apparently unaware of what will happen, but keen to join in with whatever the other children are doing, join them and are then surprised when the jets shoot out of the ground!