Light years away

…—… SOS © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

 

Fittingly, I’ve book-ended the Bruce Munro installations at Waddesdon Manor, visiting only the first and last years of his exhibitions, since a ‘proper job’ meant I was unable to get to the intervening open evenings. And so it was a pleasure to accept this latest invitation to see the paths his dreams in light have taken.
Not for Bruce – not here – the comfort of ‘pretty’. In any case, illuminated alliums now hang in their thousands in municipal Christmas decorations across countless towns and cities and his installations represent so much more than lights in a shopping precinct. This year, 2015, Bruce seeks to capture the zeitgeist by questioning our consciences and the extent of our charity. *

“The effect is stunning… it halts you in haunted tracks”

If that seems an austere approach at Christmas, it isn’t – visually at least. Bruce’s ethereal, elegiac and engaging installation glows through the shrubbery and his sounds echo across the gardens like mythical sirens calling passers-by. But as you make your journey towards the sounds, the giant tree ferns lining the path loom through the darkness, their white winter fleeces looking for all the world like bandages wrapped around dreadful wounds. Once you’re standing alongside the site it is apparent the music is a series of segue-ways from pop to rock to opera, transmitting simultaneously from over 100 single-person tents, paying homage to the charity Shelterbox. The sound and light show lends the tents a disco feel, until without warning, the nylon canvasses shot through with the purple, blue and red are punctured alarmingly by white light accompanied by the ditditdit, dahdahdah, ditditdit of more than 100 SOS messages.

“The …–––… of more than 100 SOS messages”

This voyage of son et lumière, Bruce explains, has been inspired by the desire to couple his work with a specific charity and the teen memory of twiddling the dials on the radio to find a favourite station (he had to replicate some of the sounds with actors, since the BBC wouldn’t grant him a licence to use any original recordings). It’s all manufactured, of course. Anyone hovering around the same age as Bruce will remember not only the distant Morse code messages but the buzz of white noise and the seemingly meaningless repetitions of a five-note tune transmitting mournfully across the airwaves. But for all that the tents don’t house refugees, the effect is stunning nonetheless. It halts you in haunted tracks.
Get away from the crowds for a moment if you can, and take in the installation alone. For it is only when you stop that the sound of your own humanity cuts through life’s hubbub and Bruce’s brightly lit tents encourage your empathy for fellow humans.

SOS © Bruce Munro 2015
…—… SOS images © Bruce Munro 2015, Waddesdon Manor photographer Mark Pickthall

NB: Bruce Munro’s light installation is part of the Winter Light at Waddesdon Manor Christmas season running from Wednesday 11 November to Sunday 3 January (closed 24–26 December).
The seasonal decorations have been created in 20 rooms, including the Bachelors’ Wing, and around the manor’s exterior. Feature table settings, Christmas trees and room tableaux continue the theme of Lights & Legends, all with a backdrop of the matchless Rothschild Collection and the manor itself.

©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear
©National Trust Waddesdon Manor photo Mike Fear

*If anyone cares to delve further into the history of the manor, during the Second World War, the Rothschilds moved into the Bachelors’ Wing, leaving the main house to children evacuated from London.

To find out more visit the Waddesdon Manor website.

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An afternoon at Windmill Hill

SP_A0140James finally found a free Friday afternoon this month to visit the artworks and architecture at Windmill Hill, so I’ve retrieved this blogpost from the archive, written on a windswept and wet opening day.

Sandra Kessell

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a sneaky preview of the latest attraction at Waddesdon Manor. Not, as you might think, a new piece of art bought by the renowned collector Jacob Rothschild, whose family built the manor – but instead a glorious new building. Designed by Stephen Marshall Architects, the cynical might suggest that such a breathtaking location and, presumably, budget, ought to bring out the best in any architect worth his salt, but whatever your viewpoint – inside, outside, aesthetic, architectural, structural – it is a triumph of the kind only a love of the English landscape, combined with skill and vision, can create.

Add to its already charmed pedigree items from Lord Rothschild’s modern art collection and the fact it will be open to the public and available for hire and you can see why the art world, architectural…

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The Mummies Return

Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up the existing galleries, ousted the shop from the former Ruskin Gallery, repositioned cabinets (rather counter-inuitively) into the walls – and gives visitors more floor space and circulation room, making the whole welcoming and airy and – as architect Rick Mather puts it – an exhibition without dead ends.

As someone who visits the Ashmolean regularly I confess, I used to skip past these galleries and so had no idea they were home to the Shrine of Taharqa – the only pharaonic building in Britain. A gift to the University of Oxford from the rulers of Sudan as thanks for the work done preserving the country’s decaying sites and treasures, it arrived in 1936 like something from an Indiana Jones film, in 150 packing cases. Since it had to be assembled on metres-deep foundations it couldn’t be moved during the renovations and the exhibition is centred around it. But I’d never noticed this sandstone edifice before. Stripping black paint off glass bricks in the vaulted ceiling above it has allowed what looks like natural daylight to flood through to highlight its shape and throw its carvings into relief. In fact, it’s a trick of the eye – fluorescent lights have been installed over the glass because the courtyard beyond will be the subject of revamp Phase Three.

Shrine (detail) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Patrick Berning of Rick Mather Architects explained that choosing the lighting had been another key element of ensuring the galleries evoke the exhibits’ homelands in the Nile Valley – bathed in sunlight and dappled by moonlight.

Coffin lid of Djeddjehutyiuefankh ‘Jed’ © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Think Ancient Egypt and you can’t help but think mummies – and, possibly dry, dusty sarcophagi with ghoulish contents. I used to be scared by the exposed mummy in my home city’s museum at Norwich Castle and I was unimpressed as a small child when my school entered the Ancient Egypt frenzy and friends queued around the British Museum to see the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition (though I’ve never forgotten how to spell the name).
These are things that become etched into the memory, but as the Ashmolean’s Assistant Keeper Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Liam McNamara, emphasises with schoolboy-like zeal, far from being obsessed with death the ancient Egyptians wanted to celebrate life and much of what is on show does just that. Liam has the kind of earnest enthusiasm for his subject that causes journalists to throng around him as he explains each display case’s contents and he’s touchingly concerned that another of the key exhibits, the mummy of ‘Jed’ has been found to be missing his heart – vital for weighing in the balance on reckoning day.

Bringing these mummies back into the museum’s centre and treating them with the reverence they would have been afforded at death has been a labour of love by the museum’s world-renowned conservators. Using innovative and inventive methods, they have prepared both the familiar pieces and some that have never before been seen by the public. New cases featuring micro-climates within allow coffins, portraits and artefacts to be displayed in fascinating detail, while modern scans have helped unravel the stories of the people beneath the wraps.

Life After Death gallery © Richard Bryant & arcaid.co.uk

Head of Conservation Mark Norman – who still can’t believe he and his staff were granted such a wonderful space to work in – the top-floor overlooking-the-city state-of-the-art north-facing studios housed in the newly built part of the Ashmolean – later explains the museum’s policy of respect and honour for any human remains in its possession. Taking us on a tour of those conservation studios (an oasis of calm now all the exhibits are back in position) he considers that the museum would never put an exposed body – for example a crouched burial – on show – and would be highly sensitive even to acquiring such a item for the museum’s collection.

The new galleries are an opportunity to exhibit world-renowned artefacts in a world-class place – but what’s on show still represents only 4 per cent of what the Ashmolean has, although Mark Norman is at pains to explain that much of what is behind the scenes would only be of interest to scholars and experts – shards and fragments – a bead, a tile, a shred of fabric, for example. Nevertheless, it’s such vast reserves that make the Ashmolean’s collections of early Egyptian material one of the most significant in the world outside Cairo.

That said, the museum as a whole is now Britain’s most visited outside London and Dr Brown (speaking candidly at lunch) said that if you think education should be free – and he does – ensuring that entry remains free is paramount to encouraging people’s knowledge. Wooed from the National Gallery, where he was Chief Curator, he is backed by a team of like-minded experts and visionaries – people like Project Director Henry Kim and Keeper of Antiquities Dr Susan Walker. Dr Brown thinks big and thinks the museum and the University, of which it is part, were lucky that the remodelling process started when financial confidence was high and funds could be secured. The current economic gloom may account for museum’s ongoing appeal – somewhere to visit on a wet Saturday rather than a trawl around the shops, perhaps.

Dr Brown always liked the way people popped into the National between train journeys or to see one or two things on their way to somewhere else and that’s something he’s been successful in translating into the cosmopolitan, but small, city of Oxford.

The Ashmolean’s newest galleries won’t appeal to everyone – there will always be naysayers who will dislike the smart-phone-like information guides and headsets and will gripe about the price of a coffee in the basement café (the top-floor dining room is invariably packed at lunchtime, so clearly no-one minds the prices there). But as my son – then aged 12 – remarked when the Ashmolean re-opened in 2009, entry is free and they do have to make their money somewhere. The profit from these ventures last year was £3 million and a large amount of that was creamed off and put back into running the museum, Dr Brown revealed while eating a sandwich. You can always take your own sarnies with you and sit on a bench somewhere quiet to save cash. Visiting the Ashmolean needn’t cost more than the price of a bus ticket – and that can’t be bad in these times of austerity.

Favourite things:

Min statue (3300BC)
Carved silkstone figure 3600-3500BC
Clay lion (2686-2175BC)
Protective amulets (on loan from Queen’s College)
Painted wood portraits
Artist Angela Palmer’s re-creation of a young child on 111 glass slides

Ashmolean Mummy Boy by Angela Palmer © Richard Holttum

Don’t miss

The Master Drawings exhibition 25th May-18th August 2013

For more information about the Ashmolean Museum and all its exhibits visit www.ashmolean.org or tel: 01865 278000.
Admission is free, donations are welcome.

*Please note images here have been used with the permission of The Ashmolean Museum Press Office & The University of Oxford.

The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

I love the new Ashmolean, that’s to say – the same familiar old Ashmolean, but with a multi-million pound new interior following last year’s 10-month redevelopment. It’s been money well spent, since visitor numbers have soared and even the most recalcitrant 12-year-old was wowed by the exhibits there this summer. And he has opinions he could fill a weekly newspaper column with and turn of phrase to melt off your eyebrows, to boot. Left to his own devices, he was particularly taken by the displays of artefacts from India and made a point of showing off his finds to us before we had lunch in the chic downstairs café. The prices there are not cheap, but as my son commented, entry is free and they have to make some money somewhere.

Oxford as a whole is a city of amazing culture and creativity, but the trouble with being surrounded by the many intellectuals living and working within its boundaries is their way, deliberate or inadvertent, of making you feel you’ve wasted your life if you’ve pursued the less than cerebral. As a journalist I tend to glean a little about a lot of things from those who have made their mark on the world. My job has been to specialise in nothing and to record other people’s stories.

Yesterday James and I attended the preview of  The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy the first major art exhibition at The Ashmolean’s temporary exhibition gallery, one of the nation’s newest and most important.

Monna Vanna, (Belcolore) 1866. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Oil on canvas. ©Tate, Britain

Pondering what I knew about the Pre-Raphaelites as we travelled into Oxford, I came up with the following:

  • They had strong Oxford connections.
  • They painted florid pictures of women in pouty poses.
  • They had over-long and elaborate names.
  • A former volunteer at The Ashmolean left some important paintings (see below) to the museum on her death, though you’d be unwise to believe reports she was ignorant of the significance of her bequest.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Music, 1877. Oil on canvas © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fearing my own ignorance would be glaring in the face of experts, I was relieved by my husband’s assurance at the door (later confirmed by the curator Colin Harrison), that the Pre-Raphaelites had chosen a misleading title for their movement and that perhaps the best-known of their number, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the son of an Italian exile, never visited his fatherland. He also swapped his names around to make himself appear more interesting.

What surprised and pleased me most, however, was the inclusion of so many simple pen and ink drawings in the exhibition.

View of the Palazzo Grimani to the Palazzo Bembo, Venice, 1870. John Ruskin (1819-1900) Pencil and watercolour on paper. ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

There are sketches of Italian architectural details, since some of the brotherhood did travel, studies in pencil and half-finished compositions.

Il Ponte Vecchio, Florence, 1867. William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Watercolour on paper, laid on panel. ©V&A Images
Florence from Bellosguardo, 1863. John Brett (1831-1902). Oil on canvas. © Tate, London.

There are landscapes in watercolour and portraits in coloured chalks, precise reproductions of mosaics and images to delight the eye and lift the heart. I found my pre-conceptions about The Pre-Raphaelites turned upside-down. There’s so much more on display than the popular portraits that had danced in my head on hearing the title of the exhibition, though for fans, these are on show too.

Viewing Jacob and Rachel, by William Dyce, made me appreciate the skill and dedication of the artists, each brush stroke is visible in minute detail, each hair carefully placed.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, 1857. William Dyce (1806-1864). Oil on canvas. © Private collection

The painstaking accuracy of Frank Randal’s faithful reproductions of Byzantine mosaics is nothing less than extraordinary.

Some of the exhibition works have been lent to the museum by the likes of composer and collector Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, others, not seen by the public for more than 150 years, have been lent by anonymous private collectors, yet more are on loan from museums and galleries in the UK and around the world. The exhibition opened to critical acclaim at the Ravenna Museum of Art earlier in the year, so, as the Ashmolean’s Director, Dr Christopher Brown, pointed out, by being generous to the public, some people have been looking at a bare patch on their wall since February.

Tree of Life, 1888. Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Watercolour and bodycolour on paper. © V&A Images

If you have an hour or so to spare between now and December 5th, I can thoroughly recommend a visit. Entry to the museum itself is free, an exhibition gallery ticket costs £8 (£6 to concessions).

James and I were sorry not to be able to go on the tour of Oxford Colleges, but we had to do the school run. If you get a chance to visit them, there are other Pre-Raphaelite treasures in Oxford, notably the stained glass windows in St Edmund Hall, Christ Church Cathedral and Manchester College Chapel, the tapestries at various other locations and Keble College Chapel’s famous painting by Holman Hunt – The Light on the World. The murals and ceiling in Oxford Union’s Debating Hall are legendary. Watch out too for related events in Oxford, including lectures, talks and tours, music, drawing masterclasses and Italian films.

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, Beaumont Street, Oxford. OX1 2PH. www.ashmolean.org.

Please note: The use of images is strictly with prior permission from the Ashmolean Museum Press Office, University of Oxford.

An interview with Roma Tearne

Oxford-based artist, film-maker and writer Roma Tearne lives and works in the centre of the city. She tells Sandra Kessell about painting, writing and the literary festival on her doorstep.

Roma Tearne

Beyond Oxford’s towers, spires, quads and high-ceilinged Dons’ houses lie the less grand cottages and terraces of the artisans, craftsmen and artists who, over centuries, made or provided the everyday things needed to keep the world of academia ticking over, allowing academics to study and philosophise, teach and theorise without having to get too involved in day-to-day living.

Meeting the multi-talented Roma Tearne in one of these quirky little houses, close to the canal, seems very fitting in the 21st century. She could epitomise the modern Oxford resident – cultured, intelligent, artistic and, for good measure in a city that has one of the  highest proportions of residents born outside the UK, Sri Lankan by birth.

The first thing you notice about Roma is her tiny stature. She’s diminutive – and I find myself looking for her when she answers the door to her family home in Jericho, my gaze travelling swiftly downwards to meet her huge eyes.

It’s at this house that she writes her novels, having initially made her name as an artist and film-maker. In fact, she’s been so bound up with her writing over the last few years, that she stopped renting a studio because she simply didn’t have time to use it. Not that she’s stopped drawing or collecting the materials for her installations. She customises Moleskine notebooks, stuffing them with observations, sketches, photographs and tiny, neat handwriting that curls around corners creating a visual feast of its own. After hitting the mark with her first three books, Mosquito, Bone China and Brixton Beach, and with a fourth, The Swimmer, due to be published in May, Roma is getting the urge to paint once more and looking at ways of incorporating a studio into her study.

Dressed in black, with a black and single red bead strung around her neck, Roma leads me into her house, which is packed with books, paintings, installations, porcelain, colour, mirrors and splashes of light. There’s a penchant for Venetian red and in a cabinet lined with postcards, letters, old photographs – Roma’s junk-shop objets trouvés. She’s a compulsive rummager, she confesses. Her desk is surrounded by bookshelves, photos of her children, printers’ letters, tiny blue glass bottles and other collectibles. It’s like a magpie’s nest, lined and cosy – but there’s a reason for this, I find. Roma lost all her family photos, baby albums and notebooks in a house move and has been seeking solace in documenting other people’s history ever since.

Not that Roma can find a word to summarise her professional occupations. She’s neither pure writer nor pure artist, novelist nor narrator, though that hasn’t stopped her being recognised and acclaimed as all of the above. She admits she’s seriously self-critical, which in part dates back to her early university experiences. Reading English she submitted an essay about Charles Dickens and was accused of plagiarism by a discouraging and unenlightened tutor, who doubted her ability to produce such quality work and told her he would send her down if she transgressed again.

“I was an 18-year-old immigrant girl who came from London and who had struggled to integrate. Instead of fighting him, I just left. I was writing a novel at the time, I stopped,” says Roma.

It had been English that had brought her parents, who had lived with disapproval for their mixed Singhalese-Tamil marriage in Sri Lanka, to England. Her mother had been a journalist, her father a poet. On learning that English was to be banned in Sri Lanka they packed a few belongings, boarded a boat and headed to the UK, bringing 10-year-old Roma to what they thought of as a promised land. The family’s hopes were invested in English in a way few English people’s ever are.

“My parents were passionate about the language. It was assumed I would read English and I’d always said I would be a writer,” says Roma.

After her university experience she dropped out of her studies but her future was still bound up with the language. She married an English professor and had three children. She trained as a painter, later completing her MA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where she was encouraged to explore other sides of her creativity. Her work was chosen for the Royal Academy summer exhibition and she became a Leverhulme artist-in-residence for the Ashmolean Museum. It was here that her writing came to the fore once more. She started writing short stories about the staff for the staff newsletter.

“The staff found it amusing. I had a little romance going and the staff concerned were very chuffed about it,” she remembers. The staff started asking when the next episode would be published and encouraged her to write write a book. Until then no-one had ever read her work.

“I’d written short stories that I’d just chucked. I didn’t know if I was any good,” she says. “I had a lot of artistic friends, I didn’t know any writers, coming into it late.”

In 2006 she was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council fellowship to work at Oxford Brookes University and the following year her first novel, Mosquito, was published and shortlisted for the Costa award for debut novel. Since then she has a produced a book a year and has been a regular fixture at the Oxford Literary Festival, suddenly finding herself on the platform, rather than in the audience. Now a Creative Writing Fellow at Brookes, this year she will be talking about her forthcoming novel at this year’s festival.

“There’s an awful lot going on in Oxford,” she says, adding that the festival is good for students as well as visitors. At the end of April, Roma is taking up a week’s residency at Blackwell’s book and poster shops, where she will be investigating the life of a bookshop, its staff, customers and other visitors. Drawing inspiration from paragraphs in books chosen from different departments around the Blackwell’s shops in Broad Street, Roma will produce written and visual work. It’s hard to pigeon-hole or pin down her work, let alone give her a title that sums up her occupations, despite the extensive number of words at her fingertips. What there can be no doubt about is her next creations will be welcomed by her growing army of fans and her talk attended by an eager following.

Roma Tearne will be talking at Christ Church on Tuesday, March 23, at 12noon. Her residency at Blackwell’s runs from Monday, April 26 to Saturday, May 1. Her novel The Swimmer is published by Harper Collins on May 3.

*This article appears in the March 2010 edition of Cotswold Life magazine.